Book Reviews

‘Our Friends in Beijing’ By John Simpson

The story opens with action where the hero is being interrogated in his own home and is left bleeding on a good carpet. 

Jon Swift a globetrotting TV journalist, features in an earlier novel by BBCs John Simpson, but this new tale, published in 2021/22, can be enjoyed independently of the first.

Swift is suffering the discomfort of the middle-aged employee when the ‘Tick Box Charlies,’ take over the management of his organisation. It’s made clear, by his young manager, that despite his knowledge and experience he will take a walk to the door before long with a cardboard box under his arm.

He encounters Lin Lifeng, an old buddy from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, in his favourite café in Oxford. Lin has climbed the ladder and holds an important position in China. He realises that the reunion after so long is not by chance when Lin asks him to deliver a coded message.

Swift then reasons that a big story is about to break in China around Lin Lifeng and wangles a trip there. The story might be his swansong but, if it’s as big as he suspects, it could save his job.

He takes along Alyssa, his attractive assistant and tries hard and often to coax her into bed. Her constant rebuffs provide comical exchanges between the couple.

He travels back and forth across China in search of his story. Distracted and diverted by government spies, agents, double agents and politicians. He unearths the huge political story and an illegal business run by Lifeng. Without spoiling the political denouement, it lacked impact.  

Simpsons first-hand knowledge of China and its politicos gives the tale reality, we are told that the ‘wet markets ‘have been around long before the batty COVID excuse. I liked the self-critical, yet determined Swift. However, it was not an easy read, the plot is complex and I felt the story would have benefitted by fewer words.                  

Copyright © 2022 Ken Tracey

‘After the Fire,’ by Henning Mankell

Translated by Marlaine Delargy

If you are young enough to be baffled by a grey-haired man wearing odd wellington boots, or you are reading this while trying to remember why you came into the room in the first place, either way Henning Mankell’s character Fredrik will give you a wonderful insight to the elderly mind.  This is the continuation of his story from the novel, ‘Italian Shoes,’ but stands alone, satisfying without reading the first one.

Mankell, best known to crime readers for his Wallander detective series, in this his final novel, ‘After the Fire,’ takes us to a fictional archipelago off Stockholm, Sweden. Where retired surgeon Fredrik Welin lives alone on a small island inherited from his grandparents and drenched in memories from his own early years.

He regularly visits a larger island in his boat for supplies, and on one occasion to order Swedish wellington boots which are often in his thoughts, but don’t make their debut until near the end of the story.

His choice of the lonely life, in part, is a need to distance himself from a surgical error involving the amputation of a patients arm and leading to his own retirement.

Human contact is restricted to his hypochondriac postman, Jansson, who reads the islander’s mail. He is generous, transporting Fredrik, when necessary, back and forth in his boat, and in return takes advantage of the medic’s skills to check his aches and pains and blood pressure.  His other human contacts are the traders across the water in the town’s stores and café and Rut Oslovski, a lady who is rebuilding a classic car and allows Fredrik to keep his car on her property.

His house has burnt down during the night and Fredrik has escaped. The police inspection points to arson so, soon Fredrik is suspected as the culprit, which is not surprising on an island populated by one.

He moves into the caravan his 40-year-old daughter, Louise uses on her irregular visits. He was unaware of her existence until late in life and they have a distrust of each other. Not helped by her unannounced arrivals and departures and long absences. She is a political activist and has stripped naked in front of politicians to make a point. She returns to the Island on hearing about the fire, but soon disappears without explanation.

Lisa Modin, a journalist on the local paper visits to cover the story of the fire. Fredrik is soon speculating about having a relationship with the younger woman and invites himself to her home at night. She allows him to stay, sleeping on the settee. Intrigued by her, he searches her possessions while she is sleeping and uncovers a family secret.

Lisa is interested in establishing the cause of the fire and pays visits to Fredrik’s Island. Although there are several sleepovers, the complicated pair don’t rush into a relationship.   

Fredrik is troubled by a number of incidents; flashing lights at night, the unexplained absences of Rut Oslovski from her home, evidence found of an unknown camper, his missing watch and the sudden deaths of local people. Has he become insane and burnt his own house down as the police suspect?

Louise calls him from Paris where she is in trouble with the police. Fredrik travels to help her and learns that she lives there with a partner. They warm a little to each other and discuss re-building the house, when the insurers pay up. Lisa Modin joins him in Paris and they learn of another house fire back on the archipelago. Further fires break out, but in the small cast of characters the reader can find few suspects.

Eventually all the strange happenings are resolved. 

With most of his life behind him, the physical appearance of present-day people and places remind Fredrik of people and things that went before. A lady shopping brings on thoughts of an old lover and his regret at the way he treated her. These flashbacks are seamlessly wrought into the story by Mankell and didn’t stall the yarn, but enhanced my empathy for the appealing character.

The harsh climate is portrayed with relentless images; Fredrik taking his daily dip in the freezing seawater, Harriet, Louise’s mother pushing a Zimmer frame to walk across the frozen sea. The weather also marks the passage of time; ‘It was the first night I’d worn socks in bed.’     

Unlike the Wallander novels this is not a crime story, although born from arson. It will appeal to readers who enjoy a more literary work.

Henning Mankell died of cancer at the age of 67, in 2015, the year the book was published. Fredrik’s story must give an insight into Mankell’s own closing thoughts. 

Copyright © 2021 Ken Tracey

‘Earthly Remains’ by Donna Leon

This is the first Commissario Brunetti novel I have read. Donna Leon’s series came highly recommended to me, I see that this one is late in the series and possibly beyond the work that was recommended.

During the interrogation of a lawyer suspected of causing the death of a young woman, a fellow officer’s manner warns Brunetti that his colleague has lost patience and is about to strike the suspect. Brunetti implausibly fakes a heart attack to draw the attention of the other two men.

His ruse works, saving the officer’s career. Brunetti then faces a medical examination and is found to be in good health except for high blood pressure. A doctor puts this down to exhaustion and the tables are turned when she recommends, he take sick leave from his stressful job.

Not what Brunetti expected, but to retain his credibility and to mull over his doubts about his future in the police, he takes the break. Alone he sets off to stay in a family property on the Isle of Sant Erasmo. So, the scene is set for a mystery in a lonely place and sure enough one develops.

To combat his stress, Brunetti accepts the invitation of the resident caretaker of the property, Casati, to join him rowing his ‘paparin’ around the canals and laguna of Venice.

They spend days rowing and bonding, these scenes reveal a problem, crucial to the plot, but slow down the pace. 

Casati keeps bees on the islands and is saddened by the unexplained death of many of them. He collects soil samples for laboratory analysis. By now the clues point quite correctly to an environmental story.

During a swim, scars are revealed on Casati’s body, which he does not explain, they turn out to be significant to the plot.

The gentle days are shattered when Casati goes missing. The recuperating detective is driven to find him. The veteran sailor has drowned, pulled under by the anchor rope of his vessel. Brunetti in grief speculates whether it’s an accident or in light of their recent conversations, suicide.

He taxis back and forth across the laguna to interview Casati’s family and colleagues from his working days. An event from his past answers the questions raised.

The conclusion hints that Casati was murdered, there is no evidence and a helpful clue is destroyed by tidy police officers. There is also the suggestion that some well-connected people are not affected by the law.

The conclusion is abrupt and unclear.  

Copyright © 2021 Ken Tracey