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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2020 . . . Best Book

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Blurb

If you want to read the full review of the books below,
just click the link and it will open in another window

THE FOUNDLING by STACEY HALLS

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ORANGES AND LEMONS by CHRISTOPHER FOWLER

Best3

WHEN I COME HOME AGAIN by CAROLINE SCOTT

Best2

BOOK OF THE YEAR 2020
A PRIVATE CATHEDRAL by JAMES LEE BURKE

James Lee Burke has reached a grand old age, but every new novel shows us that the light shines ever brighter, and his indignation at injustice, cruelty and corruption – expressed through the deeds of Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell – is still white hot. A Private Cathedral is a mesmerising showcase for the author’s poetic style, his awareness of the all-encompassing power of the Louisiana landscape, and his sense that history – the dead and their deeds – hasn’t gone anywhere, but is right there, hiding in the shadows. There is music – always music – to  spark our senses and remind us that a three minute pop song can be just as potent a memory trigger as Proust’s Madeleines.

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CRIME FICTION ADVENT CALENDAR . . . Week Four

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Each decorative bar is a clickable link to
a video of the book of the day and a piece of seasonal music

Dec22

Dec23

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2020 . . . Best Thriller

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If you want to read the full review of each novel, just click the title. The review should then open in a different window

THE SECOND WIFE by REBECCA FLEET

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POSSESSED by PETER LAWS

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BORROWED TIME by DAVID MARK

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BEST THRILLER 2020
OFF SCRIPT by GRAHAM HURLEY

Screen Shot 2020-12-11 at 19.20.17If you were to ask the man or woman browsing in the books aisle at ASDA or TESCO to name a distinguished living British crime fiction writer, I would wager that few would come up with name Graham Hurley. , Rankin, James, McDermid and Child might get a mention – and all credit to them – but Graham Hurley is something of a connoisseur’s choice. I’ll be quite up front – I love his writing. The Joe Faraday novels were just wonderful, but then Mr H killed him off. He kept us entertained with the Jimmy Suttle stories which were, in a way, Faraday novels without Faraday, but then Jimmy disappeared. Hurley’s latest creation is not a copper. She is a 39 year-old actress with a brain tumour, and a back story that involves a very ‘dodgy geezer’, a former criminal ganglord called Hayden Prentice. Yes, there is plenty of crime, and an abundance of thrills but, above all, there is Hurley’s superb ability to create memorable characters and tell a mesmerising story. Click the author’s picture (above right) to learn more.

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2020 . . . Best Historical Crime

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All historical crime writers have two main tasks; first, to pose a plausible mystery, whether that is a murder to be solved or a conspiracy to be unraveled; second, they have to do their period research, and get it spot on, otherwise there will be an endless queue of sharp-eyed nit-pickers who will be ready to pounce on the slightest inaccuracy or anachronism. The very best of these writers have a third skill- and that is to weave the first two tasks together into a seamless cloth so that the reader is back in time, be it fifty, one hundred, or three hundred years ago, and completely at one with the protagonists of the story. Here are four historical crime novels that I have loved during 2020. To read the full review, just click the title.

THE MOLTEN CITY by CHRIS NICKSON

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THE MUSIC BOX ENIGMA by RN MORRIS

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THE TAINTED by CAUVERY MADHAVAN

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BEST HISTORICAL CRIME 2020
THE NIGHT RAIDERS by JIM KELLY

Screen Shot 2020-12-11 at 18.32.03I have long been a fan of Jim Kelly’s other two series, the Philip Dryden books and the Peter Shaw stories which, although firmly set in the present day, always feature plot lines where history has an unpleasant habit of intruding on the present. With this third set of books – set in 1940s Cambridge – we are ‘in’ history, albeit one which is in living memory for many people. Detective Inspector Eden Brooke is a fascinating character. Physically damaged and mentally scarred by his horrific treatment as a WW1 prisoner of war, he does his job thoughtfully and with great sensitivity as he watches civilian Cambridge struggle to come to terms with what it really means to be at war. In the earlier books in the series, we are in the so called  ‘phony war’, but as the title suggests, Night Raids sees the full horror of total war come to the streets of the city. For anyone new to Jim Kelly’s books, you can learn more by clicking on his photograph (above right).

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2020 . . . Best Police Procedural

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For many of us, the Police Procedural remains the staple of our crime fiction reading diet. That the genre remains so lively after so many decades is a tribute to the ingenuity and assiduous research of the authors. Here are the four books that I enjoyed the most in 2020. To read the full review, just click the titles.

STILL LIFE by VAL McDERMID

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CRY BABY by MARK BILLINGHAM

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AFTER THE FIRE by JO SPAIN

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BEST POLICE PROCEDURAL 2020
BURY THEM DEEP by JAMES OSWALD

Screen Shot 2020-12-11 at 18.53.09The most crowded room in the mansion of Crime Fiction is the one containing all the Detective Inspectors. Why so many? Probably because in real life a DI’s seniority allows them to become involved in serious criminal cases, but they are not so elevated that they spend most of their time behind a desk juggling budgets and ticking boxes on diversity surveys. So, for a fictional DI to standout from the throng, they must have something a little bit different. With due apologies for execuspeak, Tony McLean’s USP is that he has an awareness of another world beyond the one inhabited with fellow – living – human beings. This is both a blessing and a curse, but James Oswald handles it with a great deal of nuance and restraint. There are no Woman In Black type shocks, and McLean certainly doesn’t “see dead people”. What we do have is a growing sense of unease, with something just at the corner of our peripheral vision maybe, and that something is certainly not benevolent. For more about James Oswald, click his picture (above left).

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CRIME FICTION ADVENT CALENDAR 2020 . . .Week Three

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Each decorative bar is a clickable link to
a video of the book of the day and a piece of seasonal music

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CRIME FICTION ADVENT CALENDAR 2020 . . . Week Two

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Each decorative bar is a clickable link to
a video of the book of the day and a piece of seasonal music

Dec8

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Dec11

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BASED ON THE BOOK BY . . . Paths of Glory (part two)

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HCHumphrey Cobb (left)  was born on 5th September 1899, in Siena, Italy. His mother was a doctor, and his father was an artist. He was sent to England for his early schooling, but then received his secondary education in America. After being expelled from high school in 1916, he decided to join the Canadian Army and was sent to Europe to fight. Remember that America did not join the war until 1917. He kept a war diary, and October 1917 has him at Shoreham Camp, in Sussex, as part of the 23rd Canadian Reserve battalion. January of 1918 has him near Hill 70, in front of Loos. He describes the death of a friend from his platoon.
“What happened to Young, no-one ever knew for sure. Some thought a Fritz potato masher had landed on his respirator and that it had exploded just as he was brushing it off. Evidence: face blown in and right hand blown off. “
He saw the war out, and after being stationed in post-war Cologne for a spell, he finally arrived back in Montreal on 31st May 1919.

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164644The years after The Great War saw Cobb involved in a variety of enterprises. He wrote Paths of Glory while working for Gallup, the advertising and polling company, and it was published in 1935 by The Viking Press. It is believed that Cobb took the core of his story from real events on the Marne front, where for Corporals from the 136th Regiment were executed after a failed attack on a German strong-point near Souain.

So how does the book stand when set alongside the film? Firstly, it has to be said that Cobb died in 1944, so any input from him was clearly impossible. Anecdote has it that Kubrick had read the book as a teenager, and had been deeply affected by it, but a chain of events led to the film screenplay differing in one essential element from the book. In the mid 1950s Kubrick was still an emerging talent as a director, and did not have the clout to persuade big studios to put up the money for an anti-war film, made in black and white. The crucial intervention came with the interest (and influence) of Kirk Douglas. The star clearly had to have a main part in the film, but who?

In the novel, Colonel Dax is a relatively peripheral figure who, reluctantly, goes along with the doomed plan to storm the German bastion which is, incidentally, called ‘The Pimple” in the novel. So, it was a bold stroke in one way for Kubrick to re-imagine Dax as the forthright and confrontational character whose personal bravery is never in doubt, and a man who just happens to have been a lawyer in civilian life. And who better to play Dax than the dimple-chinned Hollywood heart-throb Kirk Douglas?

Cobb focuses almost all of his attention in the novel on the three men who were executed, and on the various reasons why they came to be shot by their own comrades. The book has no pantomime villains, and certainly no one person who has the blood of the victims on his hands. The men die as a result of the inexorable grinding of the military machine and the numbing effect of battlefield casualty statistics. Men are reduced to numbers, compassion is subverted by casualty statistics, and procedure trumps initiative every time. As William Tecumseh Sherman may (or may not) have said, I tell you, war is Hell!

Screen Shot 2020-12-01 at 20.21.47There are places where Kubrick and his screenwriters – Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson – did stick close to the book. The first is with the three man patrol into No Man’s Land where the cowardly and drunken Lieutenant causes the death of one of the men, thus setting up the selection of the other to be one of the judicial victims. The film plays it pretty straight, too with the events immediately prior to the execution. The character of Private Ferol is played with characteristic bravura by Timothy Carey, (right) There is one crucial difference; in the book, Ferol is chosen because he he is anti-social and widely disliked for his unpleasant behaviour, and he continues to be sarcastic and foul-mouthed right up to the point where he is strapped to the execution post. In the film, however, the enormity of his fate finally overwhelms him, and he in the unforgettable procession from the chateau to the place of execution – a chilling via dolorosa – he is reduced to a weeping, stumbling figure, clutching the arm of the Padre.

The final confrontation between Dax and the general doesn’t happen in the book, neither does the powerful final scene where the soldiers in the estaminet boo and mock the captured German girl who is forced to sing to them, but then they are reduced first to silence, with some in tears, and then they join in with the simple old song she is singing. Outside, Dax has just been told that the regiment has been ordered to return to the Trenches, but he walks away, leaving his men to their brief hour of peace.

It is worth repeating that Cobb’s gaze is focused on the rigid mechanism of army life. It whirrs, ticks and chimes the hours with little regard for the human lives caught up in its cogs. He shapes this in many different ways, but never better than when he describes the efforts made to make sure the execution is done ‘properly’.

“Regimental Sergeant-Major Boulanger was there, busy, competent as regimental sergeant-majors always are, in the same way that head waiters are busy, competent, or seem to be so, if they are good head waiters.”

It is to Boulanger that Cobb gives the very last action, in the last paragraph of the book, where he is given the task of administering the coup de grace to the bodies slumped against their posts.

“It must be said of Boulanger that he had some instinct for the decency of things, for, when he came to Langlois, his first thought and act was to free him from the shocking and abject pose he was in before putting an end to any life that might be clinging to him. His first shot was, therefore, one that deftly cut the rope and let the body fall away from the post to the ground. The next shot went into a brain that was already dead.”

I think that Kubrick (below) takes the gist of the novel, and shaped it to his own ends, and in doing so created a magnificent piece of cinema. His anti-war message is different from Cobb’s, but was clearly something he felt very deeply. A decade or so later he was able to return to his theme in Dr Strangelove, but this time he used satire and the comedy of the absurd to make his point.

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BASED ON THE BOOK BY . . . Paths of Glory (Part One)

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Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film The Paths of Glory was a limited success at the time – it just about broke even at the box office – and was initially highly controversial. It was banned in France for twenty years, and several other European countries refused to show it as a gesture of solidarity with France. It was also banned in all American military establishments. So, why the fuss?

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The film, based on a book by American writer Humphrey Cobb, focuses on a section of The Western Front in 1916 held by the French. Although it is never mentioned in the film, we assume that the action takes place around Verdun, the most costly single engagement in a war that chewed up men’s lives like a meat grinder. The 701st Regiment are ordered to attack an impregnable German position known as ‘The Anthill’. General Miraud, (George Macready, above) after initially protesting to his superior that the attack would be suicidal, changes his mind after being offered promotion.

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Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas, above) is the officer who will lead the attack. He is dubious about the prospects, but obeys the order. The attack is an unmitigated disaster. German shellfire halts progress in No Man’s Land, while one company is unable even to leave the trench, such is the ferocity of the bombardment. In a rage, Miraud orders his artillery to fire on his own lines in order to force the men to attack.

Miraud feels that his own honour has been impugned, and, after removing the regiment out of the line to a chateau some miles away, orders that 100 of the surviving men be arrested and charged with cowardice. The scheming General Broulard ( Adolphe Menjou, below) suggests that just three men will be enough pour encourager les autres, and Dax is forced to ask three of his company commanders to select three sacrificial victims.

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Three men are chosen: Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker) is selected because his superior officer, Lieutenant Roget, needs to silence him in case he exposes Roget’s cowardice. Private Arnaud’s name is simply drawn out of a hat, while Private Ferol (Timothy Carey) is a deeply unpleasant individual who, it seems, ‘has it coming’.

The three men are tried
in a mockery of a judicial process, despite an impassioned defence by Dax, who was a lawyer in civilian life. They are sentenced to death. Dax has one last card to play. He has a written testimony that Miraud has ordered gunfire down on his own men, but it is dismissed by Broulard. The men are duly executed, with one of them, Arnaud, strapped to a stretcher after being seriously injured in a fight with his guards.

Broulard and Miraud are enjoying a leisurely breakfast in luxurious surroundings, when Dax is invited to join them. He shares his information about Miraud’s order to shell his own trenches. Miraud is told that he will face and enquiry, and then storms out voicing a sense of betrayal. Broulard congratulates Dax on a very clever plan to secure his own promotion. Dax finally loses his temper at this interpretation of his motives and rages at his superior officer.

Back at the chateau, the surviving members of the 701st Regiment are in an estaminet, drunk and reckless. The proprietor pushes a young German girl onto the makeshift stage and forces her to sing. She hesitantly sings an old song. “Der treue Husar” (The Faithful Hussar). The men’s mockery turns to empathy and then grief, as they join in with the song. Outside, Dax has just been given the order that the 701st are to return to the front line with immediate effect.

In Part two of this feature, I will explore the differences between the book and the film, and attempt to understand what Cobb and Kubrick were trying to say about this tragic episode in European history.

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