The File on Lester by Andrew Garve

FileonLesterWhile The File on Lester is the first novel by Andrew Garve you will find reviewed on this blog it is not the first novel by this author I have read. Garve was one of three pseudonyms used by journalist Paul Winterton for his fiction and I have previously read several inverted crime stories he wrote as Roger Bax.

The File on Lester is a different type of mystery fiction that I have not encountered on this blog before – dossier crime fiction (credit to Martin Edwards’ post about this book for acquainting me with the term). The book is structured as a series of (fictional) memos, diary entries and documents that have been assembled from different sources tracking developments in a political scandal. Some of those sources have biases either for or against the accused politician and the reader has to use that information to work out exactly what is going on.

A charismatic and young politician has quickly risen to prominence to become the leader of the Progressive Party on the eve of a General Election. His party is widely expected to win in a landslide but his campaign is rocked when a woman turns up at one of his events and asks a press photographer to pass a message to Lester to let him know that she is back in the country and hinting that they had shared a previous sexual encounter. The photographer speaks with Lester who he denies knowing the woman leading the press to return to the woman who tells a lurid and detailed story of nude sunbathing and subsequent night of passion aboard Lester’s boat.

A newspaper owner sends several of his top political journalists and his daughter to investigate the case and most of the documents in the second half of the book document the outcomes of their interviews and research, culminating with an entry that explains what had happened and why. The problem the reader has to wrestle with is to determine who is lying. As Lester’s supporters note, it is hard to understand why he would lie about not knowing the woman given that both he and she were single, consenting adults in her account but the evidence against him seems detailed and accurate.

While I was reading this I assumed that the novel must have been written in the late 70s as some elements of its premise mirror that of a famous British political scandal from later in that decade. Lester, like Thorpe, is a young widower whose wife died in a car accident and who is widely expected to find electoral success in an election in 1974. Lester, like Thorpe, is not depicted as a radical but as a centrist figure and both are considered dandies, dressing fashionably.

In fact it was written several years before the story became widely reported, being published in 1974, so while it may have drawn on some elements of that situation (Scott had shopped his story around newspapers at the start of that decade), it would not have drawn those comparisons with contemporary readers. Whether it was inspired by Thorpe or not, the work is a complete work in its own right with strong characters and an interesting plot that contains several intriguing developments.

One such development is the discovery of a piece of evidence that either was genuinely dropped in a space that was subsequently locked and under observation or placed into it after the fact to support one of the parties’ accounts. Yes, in the middle of this narrative we get the possibility of an impossibility! While this question only hangs over the narrative for a couple of pages (and I wouldn’t suggest that you read it purely for this element), it is very cleverly handled and I appreciated the manner in which it is resolved.

There are also elements of the procedural at play as the various journalists attempt to track down sources to corroborate their stories. “Garve” gives each of these journalists distinctive personalities and approaches to getting their stories. A nameless editor provides very brief commentaries on their personalities and backgrounds in the chapter headings when they first appear, further giving the sense that we are reading a real document rather than a novel. While I know I have read other crime stories that present fiction as fact, I cannot think of any that have done so as effectively.

The puzzle “Garve” constructs is balanced beautifully and the reader may find their beliefs about what happened shift at times in the narrative. If you are interested in reading this story I do caution you to avoid its Goodreads page as the solution to the case is spoiled in the plot description at the top.

That solution is rather clever and I found it to be a pretty convincing explanation for what had taken place. While a contemporary review suggested that it was far too short, I feel that it is about the perfect length for the story it is trying to tell and cannot imagine how it could have been stretched out without weakening the narrative.

I was a little less keen on a romantic subplot. This is not a late addition or an afterthought but rather the author weaves hints at an attraction as a motivation for a character looking into the case throughout the whole novel. This struck me as quite well done but later in the novel it is more directly addressed in a scene that I felt was quite rushed. I did appreciate the way that both characters had been written up until that point however and it is really only a small element of the novel.

On the whole I found The File on Lester to be a quick and satisfying read and it is easily my best experience with Paul Winterton’s work so far. The situation struck me as interesting and credible portrait of a political scandal, building to a very tidy conclusion. If you haven’t read anything by the author this would be a great one to start with, particularly thanks to a recent Bello reprint it is not too expensive an acquisition.

This book was published in the United States as The Lester Affair.

Reprint of the Year: The Gravedigger’s Bread

If everything has gone according to plan the chances are you have seen several of these Reprint of the Year posts appearing on your blog feeds today so by now you are probably aware of what it’s all about. For those who stumble on my post first however I should say that Kate at CrossExaminingCrime came up with the idea of creating a Reprint of the Year award. This is a chance to highlight some of the classic and less well-known titles making their way back into print.

I was one of several bloggers asked to contribute two nominations for your consideration. The only requirements were that the books must have been republished in 2018 and that they must not be released for the first time. Later this month you will have the opportunity to make your own nominations and on the 22nd of December voting will open with the winner being announced a week later.

While I am happy to report that I have read and enjoyed a number of vintage reprints this year I was a little daunted by the task of narrowing my options down to just two titles. The books would have to be great reads of course but I felt that my nominations needed to have something extra that set them apart and makes them feel a little special.

I am an enormous fan of the design of the Pushkin Vertigo range. Sometimes when a publisher develops a house style for their covers the titles lose some of their individuality but that cannot be said for these reprints. Each title features a piece of black and white photography and a striking, vivid background color that make these books stand out on the shelves while the matte covers look attractive and modern.

GravediggersThe title I am selecting from this range to be my first nomination is Frédéric Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread (my original review can be found here). Originally published in 1956, this is an inverted mystery story about a young man who arrives in a provincial town to find work and is offered a position as a salesman at a funeral parlor. While he doesn’t care for the work, he is attracted to his employer’s wife and stays to get close to her.

The story soon takes a murderous turn as the young man murders the funeral director and tries to cover up his crime. The remainder of the book is incredibly tense as we try to work out how he might be caught. Though it is quite economically plotted, Dard provides several surprises along the way and the book builds to a powerful and satisfying conclusion.

So, why does The Gravedigger’s Bread deserve your vote? If you haven’t tried the Pushkin Vertigo range, this is a great place to start. It is a fast, engaging read that stayed with me long after I put it down. This book is a striking French thriller that challenges the reader to predict how the situation will be resolved. It features bold and sometimes quite provocative characterizations and I think noir fans will appreciate its tone and sense of style.

Next Saturday I will be making my second nomination so be sure to check back then to see what I suggest. In the meantime, why not check out some of my reviews of other Pushkin Vertigo reprints and be sure to check out what Bev, Brad, Curtis, Daniel, JJ, John, Kate, Moira and the Puzzle Doctor select for their first nominations!

A Baker Street Wedding by Michael Robertson

BSWSince starting this blog I have tended to look forward and tried new books rather than revisiting old favorites. For this reason you haven’t seen my thoughts on the earlier titles in the Baker Street Letters series and so I feel I ought to offer a little context before sharing my thoughts on this latest entry.

The concept of the series is that a solicitor acquires an inexpensive lease on a building that comes with a catch. Because his office is 221B Baker Street he is required by the building’s owners to process and issue a form response to all of the letters that members of the public send in addressed to Sherlock Holmes. It is an entertaining concept that has spawned five previous stories, many of which are charming and well plotted.

The appeal of these stories for me lies chiefly in the characterization of the two solicitor brothers, stodgy Reggie and his rather free-spirited brother Nigel. They have distinctly different outlooks on life and complement each other well when they do work on solving a case together. The pair share our attention in each of the first four titles in the series but things changed with the previous story, the excellent The Baker Street Jurors, which focused solely on Nigel. While I missed the interactions between the brothers, I felt Nigel worked pretty well solo because he is an inquisitive person who feels a sense of duty to the truth. He had, after all, been responsible for the pair’s involvement in solving cases in several of the previous stories. He is a natural lead sleuth.

Reggie Heath is not.

I think the problem stems from Reggie’s personality. He lacks Nigel’s inquisitive nature and is a safe, conservative sort of person and so never goes looking for trouble. Instead his motivation lies in protecting Laura who he has just married at the start of this novel. This is certainly a credible piece of characterization but it also means that trouble has to come find him.

This happens after the paparazzi discover where Reggie and Laura’s wedding will be taking place and the pair have to rapidly escape and find somewhere to enjoy their honeymoon. They end up in the Cornish village of Bodfyn where Laura had grown up staying in the home of her former drama teacher. She asks Laura if she will take a small role in a regional theatre production benefitting her old school building which risks being sold.

Reggie soon discovers that one of the reasons Laura decided to return to Bodfyn was that a letter had been received in his chambers requesting he bring her there. I did think it was enormously coincidental that Laura should happen to see the one letter sent to Sherlock Holmes that directly concerned her right before the wedding but I think I could have accepted it had the reason for that letter been better.

Robertson’s plots are typically quite fanciful, featuring some unlikely coincidences and motivations but I think they have previously all possessed a solid internal logic. The villains have been mad, believing themselves to be linked in some way to the Holmes mythos or that Reggie was actually Sherlock Holmes, but their schemes made sense to them. The villain’s reasoning in this story is unconvincing and their plan relies enormously on factors beyond their control. Even if you accept their motivation and goal, it is hard to imagine they would ever conceive of the plan they develop in this story because it leaves so much to chance.

A Baker Street Wedding feels messy, keeping the reader in the dark about Laura’s motivations for wanting to get involved. This seems an odd choice because it gives the reader little sense of what the story will be about or what they are trying to solve until well into the novel.

The other significant problem is that having effectively written Nigel out of the narrative, Reggie is also sidelined for much of the second half of the novel. Instead Robertson focuses on several supporting characters who have appeared in previous installments of the series, one of whom is a rather direct Holmes pastiche. While I appreciate that character in short doses, he lacks the charm or personality of either of the brothers while his identity is kept too well hidden to ever feel like we get to know him.

It’s all a bit of a shame because there are parts of this book that are very enjoyable and will satisfy long-term fans of the series. For one thing it is nice to get some more details about Laura and a sense of where she came from and several other supporting characters get similar treatment. Reggie and Laura both get some fun character moments and I appreciated that their story continues to move forward rather than being kept static between each book.

Though A Baker Street Wedding has its moments, few of them relate to the core mystery plot which I feel falls short of the standard set by previous installments. I still think that this is a very enjoyable series though and I will look forward to another volume. I just hope that when it does we will see a little more Nigel alongside his brother.

Copy provided by the publisher for early review. A Baker Street Wedding is set to be released on December 11.

Mad Hatter’s Holiday by Peter Lovesey

MadHattersPeter Lovesey’s Sergeant Cribb stories hold a special place in this blogger’s affections as a book from that series was the subject of the very first post on this blog. Since then I have reviewed several other titles in the series but given it has been eight months since I last revisited the character I thought it was time to read another in the series.

Mad Hatter’s Holiday begins by introducing us to Albert Moscrop, a young man who has travelled to the seaside to people watch with his telescope and binoculars. During one of his observations he notices a young woman he had encountered briefly and follows her with his lens. He eventually contrives a meeting and introduces himself to her, learning about her husband and children as well as an issue that has been worrying her.

The first third of the novel builds up our understanding of these characters and suggests some points of conflict between them. We may well be wondering what crime is likely to be committed but when this section of the novel ends and Cribb is introduced we have little knowledge of what crime he is investigating, let alone how it relates back to these opening chapters of the novel.

It turns out that a severed arm has been discovered in a reptile display yet there is no sign that this might have been an accident or of the remainder of the body. While it is clear that someone has been killed, the Police have little idea who the body might belong to, let alone who is responsible. Fortunately for him, Mr. Moscrop is keen to share some evidence with him…

One of the joys of Lovesey’s historical mystery writing is his ability to depict and explore some of the more eccentric aspects of life in the period. Previous titles in this series have explored sporting events and the music halls but what this novel does particularly well is to convey the novelty of a spyglass or binoculars would have had at this time. For instance, the other characters are shown as being intrigued to take a look through a lens for themselves and Moscrop is still experimenting with different degrees of magnification.

While the idea of a man using a spyglass to watch people on a beach has uncomfortable and sinister connotations, Lovesey pitches Moscrop as a social introvert whose usual interest is to simply crowdwatch both to test his lenses and to feel that he is among the people. We are told that the intense interest he shows in Mrs Prothero is a new sensation for him and readers may be disturbed by some of his actions in observing and interacting with her. For instance there is a moment early in the novel where he decides to kidnap her unattended infant son to enable him to return the child and gain an introduction.

Moscrop is not intended to be the story’s hero however and once Cribb arrives he serves a different role within the novel, providing some of the information he has gathered to the police to help with their inquiries. They, understandably, are uncertain how to interpret his actions and behavior and consider him a suspect in that investigation.

The Protheros prove an interesting bunch. Dr. Prothero, for instance, is a vocal proponent of many of the medical ideas of his day and has an obsession with the idea that swimming in the sea is dangerous to one’s health. His son is fifteen but speaks like an adult and has little time for his stepmother who, we learn, is Dr. Prothero’s third wife. As for their nursemaid, Dr. Prothero insisted on her appointment and will not consider dismissing her, even though she is often inattentive in her care for their infant son.

In my review of Lovesey’s previous Cribb novel, Abracadaver, I felt that the characters of Cribb and Thackeray benefited from being introduced at the start. This novel keeps them back with the consequence that Lovesey has to reestablish them at the moment at which we are learning about the crime, slowing down that section of the story. One pleasant aspect of this choice however is that the reader is able to draw upon what they have already learned from following Moscrop to make some assumptions about what the crime will be.

We soon learn that Cribb and Thackeray have been called in to investigate a severed arm found in the alligator enclosure at the aquarium. As Thackeray notes this is even less to go on than in a previous case where they had to work with a headless body. In spite of this, even before Moscrop shares his account with them they have already deduced quite a few things from this section of a body, if not its identity, demonstrating their abilities as detectives.

Those who have not read a Cribb story before may be surprised at the rather leisurely pacing of the investigation but I consider that part of these stories’ charm. Cribb has a rather relaxed, some might say lazy, approach to policing and tends to allow things to play out, only swooping into action when he perceives someone to be in danger or that the criminal might get away.

That is not to say however that Cribb is inactive in this investigation. One of my favorite sequences in the novel takes place in a bathhouse where Cribb is attempting to speak with one of the suspects and even when he doesn’t care to act himself he is more than willing to volunteer Constable Thackeray’s help. Several of those moments are very funny and help establish these characters for those who are not already familiar with them.

The solution Lovesey creates is quite clever and aspects of it are well-clued though I would argue that one part of the puzzle is rather too technical to be considered fair play. It is debatable however and some might argue that Lovesey does give a hint about the nature of the specialist knowledge one might need to work it out. It is, ultimately, only one element of a much bigger and rather satisfying mystery puzzle.

Perhaps the most baffling thing about the book is its rather odd title which conjures up images of Alice in Wonderland, reinforced by a Tenniel illustration appearing on the cover of my recent edition of the book. There are not only no Carroll references, there is also a striking absence of hats. The title appears to come from a line of dialogue in the second half of the book but even that is questionable because that line feels jammed in as if to justify the title. It is a minor thing but the title set the wrong expectations for me and I will admit to being a little disappointed that it really has no relationship to the content.

So, where does that leave me on Mad Hatter’s Holiday? I found aspects of the story and particularly of the historical setting to be very interesting and I appreciated Lovesey’s ability to play off and subvert some of the reader’s expectations about what had happened. It is not the best Cribb story I have read but it is certainly not the worst and while I will always begrudge a late introduction for Cribb and Thackeray they are at least used effectively once they do appear.

November 2018 in Review

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It is hard to believe that we are already several days into December. I am afraid I have fallen behind the schedule I set for myself this past week, missing out on the final review I promised (it should be up tomorrow, all being well) and being several days late on making my Book of the Month selection.

Hopefully I will make up for it this month which, if I stick to my plans, ought to be pretty packed. There are several newly published mysteries that I am hoping to get to this month as well as a big stack of festive mysteries I hope to read this year. And then I will also be writing a couple of posts nominating titles for Reprint of the Year awards being organized by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime. I am excited to share my thoughts with you all about that.

Anyway, enough looking forward – it’s time to look back at November. The titles I reviewed last month were:

A Moment in Crime by Amanda Allen
Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers
The Case of Sir Adam Braid by Molly Thynne
A Javelin for Jonah by Gladys Mitchell
The Inverted Crime by Leonard Gribble
The So Blue Marble by Dorothy B. Hughes
A Decline in Prophets by Sulari Gentill
The Religious Body by Catherine Aird
A Demon in My View by Ruth Rendell
Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson
The Bungalow Mystery by Annie Haynes

Looking at that list I feel pretty satisfied with my month’s reading in terms of quality, if not quantity. Several authors in that group who were completely new to me – Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy B. Hughes, Catherine Aird, Jim Thompson and Annie Haynes – and several more were writers I hadn’t read recently. Given one of my goals for this year is to read a little more widely I think I am already off to a solid start.

The other reason that the list above pleases me is that I really enjoyed reading a lot of those titles. Take the pair of charming historical mysteries, Sulari Gentill’s A Decline in Prophets and Amanda Allen’s A Moment in Crime. Each of those titles deliver interesting settings and memorable murders and I would happily recommend both.

I can only select one title as the recipient of November’s Book of the Month award. While there was some stiff competition from several titles, it ended up coming down to the two inverted crime stories I read back-to-back toward the end of the month. Each of those books featured memorable criminals and moments of dark humor. To be honest, both are excellent reads and I would gladly recommend either.

RendellRuth Rendell’s A Demon in My View is based on the simple but interesting premise that a neurotic serial killer finds that a man with a very similar name to his own moves into his block of flats. The novel explores his psychology and the ways it is affected by being unsettled by this coincidence. It is an often quite dark and unsettling read, featuring some excellent characterization. What really sticks with me is how well constructed this novel is with the ending feeling like a powerful and logical culmination of everything that has come before.

It is a splendid read and my first really satisfying encounter with Rendell. Given I have a big stack of them now in my TBR pile, I will look forward to getting back to her soon.

Acquisitions

In addition to the Ruth Rendell titles, I also picked up a number festive mystery novels and vintage reprints. The book I am most excited to read though is Ellery Queen’s Japanese Golden Dozen – a vintage collection of short stories from Japanese crime writers including a blog favorite Masako Togawa. I am not sure I will be able to fit it in this month but if not expect to see thoughts on the collection early in the New Year.

The Bungalow Mystery by Annie Haynes

bungalowOne of my goals for my second year of blogging has been to seek out authors whose work I have never tried before. Annie Haynes is one such author. I have stockpiled eBook copies of her work during sales and promotions from Dean Street Press but had never got around to trying any of the novels before now.

The Bungalow Mystery was the first of her novels to be published, coming out in 1923 – the same year as her first Inspector Furnival novel, The Abbey Court Murder.

The story’s protagonist is Doctor Lavington, a recent arrival in the village of Sutton Boldon. He is summoned by his neighbor’s housekeeper who tells him that her master is dying. Upon arriving he discovers that the man, a reclusive and wealthy artist, is already dead and has been shot through the head. There is no sign of any pistol in the room and the position of the entry wound shows that it could not be self-inflicted. He decides it must be murder and sends the distressed housekeeper to summon the Police.

During the period in which he is alone in the room he discovers that a young woman is hiding, crouched against the wall. She tells him that she is desperate not to be found there and begs for his assistance in escaping undetected. Ignoring the suspicious circumstances in which he finds her, he tells her to hurry along to his home where she will pretend to be his actress cousin who has arrived to take part in a theatrical skit. This would be a fairly rash decision even if he believed her to be innocent but we later learn that he thinks she did the deed which I think elevates it to downright reckless.

This is our starting point for a story that I think falls somewhere between the detective and sensation fiction styles of mystery. For most of the novel we follow Lavington and his perception of these events but given he already believes he knows this woman was guilty, he is not actively gathering evidence of the crime. At several points however we see the police at work, getting a sense of their thoughts on the case and this allows us to put the information we gain from Lavington into perspective and to make our own deductions on what happened.

The blending between these two styles is effectively done and I think Haynes balances the elements of each quite well, though some elements were not to my own taste. I did not particularly care for the romance subplot, finding it not particularly romantic as it is based on physical attraction and a sense of chivalry rather than any emotional connection between the characters. Others may feel differently.

On the other hand, I enjoyed learning what had happened at The Bungalow and more about the various suspects involved in the case. While the details of the case are relatively simple, Haynes is able to use misdirection very effectively to make it appear much more complex than it is. As Kate at CrossExaminingCrime points out in her review, questions of identity play a significant role in the story and Haynes is adept at finding different and interesting ways to play with this idea.

Haynes writes in an entertaining and engaging style and while I may not have been swept up in the romance, I found most of the characters interesting and enjoyed learning more about their backstories and relationships to each other. These characters seem pleasingly three-dimensional, particularly Lavington’s friend and employer Sir James Courtenay who is struggling to adjust to life after losing both his legs in a railway accident.

This railway accident serves as a transitional point in the story for a few reasons, most of which are too spoilery to discuss but after it takes place Haynes chooses to advance her story forward two years. Following this we learn that the Police have received some new information that has caused them to reopen the case bringing fresh scrutiny to Lavington’s account of what happened that day.

In some respects this time jump works quite nicely as it emphasizes the problems the police have cracking the case and it also enables Haynes to present several of the characters in different circumstances. Unfortunately I found the reason why it took two years for this new information to be revealed highly suspect and I was even less convinced when Haynes comes up with a similarly unlikely rationale to explain another delay in someone coming forward.

Once you get past this particular piece of contrivance, I think Haynes does a very good job of providing the clues the reader will need to solve the case. I was pleasantly surprised when I worked out who the killer must be and satisfied by the explanation of what had happened and why. It makes for a strong conclusion to the novel and Haynes is able to tie up the various characters’ stories nicely at the end.

Not every aspect of The Bungalow Mystery was to my taste but I did appreciate that Haynes tells an interesting and engaging story that should have appeal for fans of puzzle and sensation mystery fiction alike. I will look forward to trying another one of the Haynes novels I own at some point soon.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: In the medical field (Who)

Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson

1280Pop. 1280 is my first encounter with Jim Thompson, a prolific author of hardboiled crime fiction best known for writing The Killer Inside Me. I had previously learned about him as part of a lecture about violence and crime fiction in the Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction series and was even more intrigued when I saw JJ had listed him as one of his Kings of Crime.

The novel’s protagonist is Nick Corey, a corrupt and lazy sheriff in a tiny county in rural Texas. His days are spent taking bribes, eating and drinking at the various establishments in the town and sleeping with the town’s single (and some not so single) women.

He has some problems though that threaten his chances of keeping this job and the comfortable living that comes with it. For one thing, he is being publicly disrespected by two pimps at the local brothel. With a tough reelection fight looming he wants to stamp this out before it can do more damage to his public persona. And then there’s his complicated love life…

Pop. 1280 follows Nick as he attempts to straighten out some of these problems, indulge his appetites and ensure his reelection to the only job he feels suited for. While he appears to be quite a simple, corny kind of guy who tries to avoid taking any firm positions, we soon learn that he gives far more thought to what he does than it appears as he commits murder and manipulates another character into claiming responsibility for it. Crucially we are not told what he intends and so his actions often seem irrational or counterproductive, only for the reason for them to become clear after the fact.

Not every aspect of the story falls within Nick’s control however and he spends significant chunks of the novel responding to problems instigated by other characters. This gives the story a meandering, unpredictable quality as we see him find opportunities in situations that seem quite undesirable, showing his quick mind and talent for manipulation.

Thompson’s story drives home a deeply pessimistic view of humanity in which no one wants to obey the law themselves but wants to see others subjected to it. Nick reflects that what this amounts to is that the influential folk want to be left alone and to see him pick on the town’s black and poor white population instead and what we see confirms it. Almost all of the supporting characters are shown to be in some way corrupt, greedy and selfish and several of his victims seem to quite deserve their fates, usually falling into them because of their own moral compromises and instincts.

There are some very strong satirical moments in the story and it should be said that as dark as the subject matter can be, it is often very amusing. Nick’s habit of responding to criticism with a folksy saying works throughout the novel while his amorous misadventures place him in some truly ridiculous situations. These sorts of comedic moments keep the overall feel of the piece quite light and give a good sense of balance to the novel as a whole.

The three central women in Nick’s life are also all quite intriguing and varied figures, each feeling quite fleshed out if far from sympathetically. I do not want to spoil the way each is developed and used in the story but I think they all have an interesting journey with that of Rose, his wife’s best friend whose husband is abusive, being the most striking. That storyline takes several unpredictable turns and incorporates several of the novel’s most shocking moments.

Thompson cultivates a feeling of shock and dismay on the part of the reader right the way through the novel, routinely exposing characters’ vices and cruelties. Readers should expect to find considerable, casual use of a racial epithet by pretty well every character in the book which, while not pleasant, is authentic to the time and setting.

Nick is not a nice man, nor can he really be elevated to the status of anti-hero. He is a villain who does some truly cruel things but because the people he targets are often more loathsome than him readers may well enjoy seeing him pull off his plans. While he seems to obfuscate and lie at points in his narrative, he can also be quite straightforward in admitting to exactly who and what he is. For that reason when he explains himself at the end of the novel it doesn’t come as a shock but rather it is the logical conclusion to what we have observed throughout the story.

It is surprising that although the book touches on some truly dark themes Thompson is pretty restrained in his use of violence. The threat of it and our knowledge that it is happening is always there but there are relatively few moments in which we see it explicitly described. This contrasted with the image I had of Thompson’s style and I will be interested to see whether that is true of his other novels.

It should be said that while this is a crime story that this is not a mystery. There is nothing here for the reader to detect or deduce other than what exactly Nick has planned and his motive, both of which are spelled out early in the book.

Rather Pop. 1280 is both a character study of a killer and an exploration of the human propensity towards selfishness, greed and hatred. Stephen Marche described it as ‘a romp through a world of nearly infinite deceit’ and while I don’t have enough knowledge of the author’s work to be able to agree with his assessment that it is the author’s true masterpiece, I would certainly say it is a compelling, cynical read that manages to shock, appall and amuse in fairly equal measures.