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issue 46: Jan - Feb 2005

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Note: TBR encourages readers to buy books at their local independent booksellers, but not all UK books are available in the US and vice-versa. For on-line book ordering of UK books Amazon UK  carries all titles reviewed in TBR; all US releases carried by unless otherwise noted.

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Heredity by Jenny Davidson, Serpent’s Tail 2005

Elizabeth Mann is a character who takes no prisoners. In a whirlwind fourteen or so paragraphs she goes from sitting in New York contemplating killing herself or her father— the main bone of contention in her life— to taking up a shitty job offer working for a budget travel guide in London. Finds a grotty bedsit, settles in, cheats a little on the job, and while covering museums is drawn in by the medical curiosities at the Hunterian Museum. Here the pace lets up a bit, and it is here, in more leisurely fashion, that she meets the skeleton of Jonathan Wild, a notorious eighteenth-century criminal, and Gideon Streetcar, a married infertility specialist who studied under her father. Both will greatly affect her life.

Although she doesn’t particularly like the obnoxious Gideon, she embarks on an affair, and it is while she is attending an auction with him that she ends up with a manuscript written by Mary, the second wife of Jonathan Wild, who writes about the first wife, also called Elizabeth Mann, dying in childbirth. Becoming obsessed with Wild, Elizabeth decides to give birth to Wild’s clone. The childless Gideon is easily roped in, but he has his own agenda. This could end in tears, for someone.

Divided between Elizabeth’s odd quest and her methods of getting things done— usually by bedding a poor hapless person into doing her bidding or at least stringing them along— and the manuscript, which tells of the everyday life and comings and goings back in the Wild household and his ‘Office for the Recovery of Lost and Stolen Property’, the book takes on many guises. Mary’s tale, full of historical interest, would be a romance if the syphilitic Wild were anything near cute, and Elizabeth’s tale would be a modern-day ‘food and fucking’ novel if it weren’t for her preference for McDonald’s and the Jurassic Park overtones of meddling with Wild’s DNA or the sex taking on a whole new perspective when she opens her legs… to receive artificial insemination. The whole evolves into one very good, well-paced novel, with Elizabeth’s brutal machine-gun delivery tempered by Mary’s more refined, gentler approach, giving a balanced tone and texture where one wouldn’t really expect it.

What gives Heredity that little something else though, is the awful Elizabeth. Moody, selfish cows who hate almost everything (see the lovely lunch scene with Gideon) except an English jam doughnut and a good bonk just about anywhere are not the typical American heroines of today. Long may her type rattle the conventions. Jenny Davidson has come up with a winning protaganist and a worthy debut novel. MGS

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Hidden River by Adrian McKinty, Serpent’s Tail 2005

As a heroin addict convinced he is in control of his habit, and, apart from the dole, winning pub quizzes about his only source of income, 24-year-old Alexander Lawson is washed up. Yet not so long before he had been a rising star: of all things a brilliant detective in Belfast’s RUC. Debts and possible past knowledge conspire to leave him a marked man, so he seizes the chance of escape when the parents of his first love, Victoria Patawasti, ask him to go to the States to investigate her murder.

Accompanied by John, a copper friend, Alex must first sort out his supply — he takes a shine to the cleaner American smack— then he must get into the business of question-asking, and almost instantly everything goes pear-shaped with the accidental but witnessed death of an interviewee. Now on the run— and learning that he is ‘wanted’ back in Ireland too— he goes underground. He meets the beautiful Amber, wife of Victoria’s boss, who controls CAW (Campaign for the American Wilderness), a sort of Republican answer to Greenpeace, and who sees himself as the next president of the United States. With Amber, murder, and a hero with a monkey on his back, all the parts of a classic noir are in place and it is a simple matter of lighting the blue touch-paper and standing well back.

I greatly enjoyed McKinty’s debut novel Dead I Well Be and at first sight some basic plot similarities between it and Hidden River worried me. Both heroes have some military or police training and both are forced out of Ireland, the Troubles being the catalyst, to the States. But these were mere niggles as the two books are totally separate items and therefore create the nice dilemma of ‘which is the best?’ Both contain some great, punchy writing, a nicely aggressive style when needed and some fine descriptive prose. Dead wins on humor, River on character. River is also closer to the traditions of classic noir. From an impressive debut to a rock-solid second, neither will disappoint and I am seriously looking forward to number three. MGS.

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Shadow Family by Miyuki Miyabe, Kodansha International 2005
Translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter

This is a neat little book that might be a breath of fresh air for jaded mystery readers fed up with guns, car chases and hasty, outlandish,  impossible endings.

The sudden illness of a lead investigator means desk sergeant Takegami is now in charge of a murder inquiry, and to add to his new responsibilities he is aided by an old friend, Detective Chikako Ishizu. He hasn’t seen her for fifteen years and it is into the confusion of this— his new role and following in someone else’s footsteps— that the reader is dropped. The action is more or less all in the police station, and the writing that cements the story is bleak and bureaucratic, like a police report. Only the dialogue of the interviews allows for breadth of range.

A middle-aged, married man and his college-girl lover have been murdered. The police have discovered a collection of e-mails and it seems he had created a virtual fantasy family. He was ‘Dad’ and slowly he gained a ‘son’, a ‘daughter,’ then finally a ‘wife’. Behind the two-way mirror, watching the three ‘family’ members being interviewed, is ‘Dad’s’ real teenaged daughter, Kazumi Tokoroda.

As a fresh plot twist we don’t have the usual murder, the police making headway, tracking clues, screwing up, back-tracking and so on. That has already been done; what we have is the police playing a hunch, gathering the main players and letting them unravel the final threads. Sharp readers will detect what they are up to and divine who is responsible quite early on— it seems the author is playing this straight and doesn’t care to give us the pleasure of a red herring, let alone sashimi. As everything gently unfolds it is a tale obviously linked to the mystery of, and need for, ‘family’.

…parents and children are not always compatible, and where differences are irreconcilable, ties of blood can end up turning into heavy chains.
      Given time, perhaps those shackles could be eased and a proper distance maintained, enabling parents and children to live together without mutual hurt and distress. But for the Tokoroda family, time had run out.

It is an engaging book despite the fact it sometimes reads more like a play as it is so dialogue heavy and takes place in such a confined setting. The cultural differences are surprisingly minimal: the Japanese police seem as equally underfunded and undermanned as western forces; the two-way mirror and the interrogation room could be anywhere, but not the serving of green tea. The simplicity, openness and lack of being led up garden paths or forced to take a ‘roller coaster ride’ are in fact pluses and for those who do like a surprise at the end, there is one of those too. In Japan the author has published something like thirty-five books in twelve years. This is her second in English. MGS

© 2005 The Barcelona Review
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issue 46: January - February 2005

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