CRY WOLF review by Mike Ripley (Getting Away With Murder)
Another treat over the Yuletide period was the new novel, and something of a new departure, by the Anglo-Italian husband-and-wife team who write as Michael Gregorio. After a series of rich historical mysteries set in Napoleonic Europe featuring philosopher detective Hanno Stiffeniis, Michael Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio have come up to date with a vengeance, with a contemporary thriller, Cry Wolf, just published by Severn House.
Set in the beautiful and (until now) Mafia-free region of Umbria where the authors live, Cry Wolf is a hard-boiled thriller written at break-neck pace of political corruption and organised, very violent crime. Umbria’s misfortune was to be hit by earthquakes, but fortunately the European Commission was there to supply millions of Euros to aid reconstruction. Unfortunately, the Mafia thinks it deserves the lion’s share of the aid money and begins to corrupt local political and financial institutions to make sure the Commission funds are syphoned off.
Caught in the middle of this and an ongoing ‘anti-terrorist’ initiative headed by a charismatic commander of the Carabinieri, is young park ranger Sebastiano Cangio, who has already fled his native Calabria after innocently witnessing a Mafia execution. After that experience, it is not surprising that Cangio prefers life in the wild Umbrian hills studying the local population of wolves. But it is not long before gun-carrying wolves walking on two legs move into the territory and prove far more dangerous than the native inhabitants.
Cry Wolf is a fast-moving, tense and exciting slice of contemporary Italian crime fiction and I suspect, and certainly hope, that we will hear more of Sebastiano Cangio – if the wolves, of one sort or another, don’t get him first.
I go to bed, stopping only to grab a novel from my bookshelf without switching on the light.
If I kept the book, it must have impressed me somehow. Now, it’s time to see whether it still cuts the mustard...
(Digression 1) I’ve always loved that phrase and have often wondered where it comes from. Does it derive from the fact that mustard is sharp and spicy (cutting), or from the necessity to cut back the mustard plant after it has rendered up its seeds?
So, I have to see whether the novel cuts the mustard, or sends me straight to the Land of Nod...
(Digression 2) I have long loved this expression, too.
When I was just a kid, my mother spoke of it as the dreamy land of innocent sleep. It was only later on that I discovered where the Land of Nod really was, and why it was so (in)famous. According to Genesis 4:16: Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. The Land of Nod was the place to which history’s first murderer was banished. (I read Steinbeck’s ‘East of Eden’ maybe 45 years ago - another tale of rival brothers - and I really liked the novel. Now, I suppose I'll have to re-read that one, too).
And so it is that I tread the stairs towards my bed with a metaphorical mustard-cutting knife in one hand, and a tale of one of Cain’s successors in my head.
The book that serendipitously placed itself in my way was Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, which was first published in 1981. I had just moved to Italy, and there was a news kiosk near my mother-in-law’s beach house which sold a small selection of English novels. I was studying Italian, but also desperate for a good read. I loved the book – it contained all my favourite themes: a serial killer, an intelligent investigator, a mysterious painting by William Blake, and a plot that kept unfolding and unfolding. I re-read Red Dragon every summer after that for at least ten years. The big question now was whether it would stand the test of time. The films had put me off.
Excipit – the final chapter. It’s got everything. The plot is brought fall circle, we learn all the facts. Our hero, Will Graham, is badly wounded, lying in a hospital bed, unable to speak, but his mind is in one piece. We discover that Hannibal Lector is the evil genius behind the killings, manipulating the weakness of others from his escape-proof prison cell. A dutiful nurse keeps on interrupting the final exposition, drawing out the suspense again and again: it’s a simple trick, but it really functions marvellously. This story is finally told, but we realise that there are other stories waiting to unfold which will bring Will Graham face to face with his nemesis, Hannibal Lector, again and again. After thirty-four years in print, the story is still as powerful as the blurb that Stephen King posted on the cover of my worn and battered, yellow-paged Bantam paperback. “The best popular novel to be published in America since (Mario Puzo’s) The Godfather.” It will still be readable a hundred or two hundred years in the future, if the human race survives that long and the Islamic fanatics still allow us to read. I was glued to the tv yesterday watching the kidnapping events come to a climax in Paris. Who is the Tooth Fairy now, I ask myself?
Oh yeah, the films with Anthony Hopkins in the role of the big baddie? Personally, I can’t stand them. They make evil a sly, sardonic stereotype and reduce the psychological richness of the Harris novels to little more than pulp tales destined to churn out bodies.
I doubt that anyone will be watching those ten years from now.
Well, the old year went out with a whimper, the New Year came in with a blast!
Didn’t it just. So far, it has been a catalogue of disasters. First off, the house of two friends burnt down on New Year’s Eve. Poor Barbara and Enrique Breccia! Enrique, world famous illustrator of graphic novels and comics was working to complete a commission. It was the very last thing that he needed. The house had been declared ‘uninhabitable’ and they were homeless. Daniela and I went to see the damage next morning and console them, and what happened? I trod on a rusty nail which went straight through the sole of my foot. Agony, and hours spent in a hospital full of folks who had suffered similar accidents, or worse.
Still, I thought, our new book, CRY WOLF, has just been published. Reviews are coming in, and they are positive. Things can’t all be bad, I concluded. Indeed, I woke up this morning full of good intentions. One of the cars needs cleaning, so I began by clearing out the rubbish before heading off to the car-wash. While binning an accumulation of odds and ends from the boot, the weak spring gave way and the boot lid came down on my head!
(See the self-pitying selfie if you really feel bloodthirsty and delight in other people’s woes).
It has been a long holiday, and I haven’t done much reading. I was planning to do another EXCIPIT this morning to start the New Year off with a bang. Well, the boot came down like an executioner’s axe, and now I have a splitting headache, so I won’t be doing much today.
What will tomorrow bring?
I hate to think!
Oh yeah, sincerely, a happy New Year to all of you...
The positive reviews I mentioned above can be seen here:
Today’s good news is that the first printed copies of Cry Wolf arrived by post.
We were just sitting down to lunch when the doorbell rang. Not pleased in the least to be dragged away from my steaming plate of spaghettini, I ran down stairs and returned with a box.
By the time we opened the box and examined the contents, our spaghettini were cold.
Still, they were the best spaghettini we have eaten in a long time!
In case you don’t know, this is what happens.
Occasionally before I go to bed, I dive into my study without switching on the light, grab a book from the shelves where I keep my tried and trusted favourite crime novels, take the book to bed, read a bit to get my memory working (that’s the Incipit), then I check out the final chapter (the Excipit) to see whether the writer has managed to live up to his promises.
If he has, the book goes back into my collection.
If he hasn’t, the book gets passed on to someone else.
This week I pulled out an old paperback by a writer named John Burns.
Nobody seems to know very much about JB these days (Amazon.co.uk, having nothing to sell, generously offers a used 1998 paperback of Hack, the first of his four Max Chard novels, for only £0.01), and there seems to be very little biographical information about him anywhere else. Not even Wikipedia has got its collective finger out! In the ‘disambiguation’ note they list a whole host of them – the ‘controversial’ US novelist, John Horne Burns (1916-1953), a now forgotten Scottish priest (1744–1839), an unknown Scottish surgeon (1775–1850), and a lot more clever Scots besides with birth and death dates in evidence, but they don’t have a single word to say about my John Burns.
Who is he, I wonder.
More to the point, where is he?
As far as my memory of his books go – I have all four – I would HATE to think of John Burns as just another forgotten novelist. Hence, today, I am launching a one-man campaign to have the Max Chard novels reprinted, insisting that John Burns’ crime-writing career should be resuscitated for the good of Mankind, and that he be given the Nobel Prize for Readable Literature!
As the reader realises from page one, our hero, Max Chard, like his inventor, John Burns, is a red-top journalist. We don’t know if he works for The Sun or The Mirror (John Burns wrote for the Daily Express as a matter of fact), but either paper would love to have a creative lead article writer like Max Chard on board. If he can’t root out the facts, he makes them up. Comedy crime has never been the easiest ship to sail after Evelyn Waugh, but John Burns does it brilliantly. His prose is full of throwaway put-downs and on-the-ball one-liners. One of his characters, Dave Stretch, “had served more porridge than Quaker Oats.”
This is not so much a crime novel as a crime romp – a cynical scam retold by a cynical journalist, who slides down hills on the seat of his pants. Maureen Frew has turned Queen’s Evidence. She has a story to tell, and Max Chard will go to any lengths to get it. The story opens up at the Old Bailey: “First off I got frisked. Head to toe. That was just in case I had a Scud missile tucked down my socks.”
Line 1, Chapter 1 takes you straight into the irreverent world of Mister Chard.
The problem with romps is that they need to romp from beginning to end. If the pace slows down, you start losing readers. The ending, or EXCIPIT, is thus especially tough. If you’ve been romping and raving irreverently for over three hundred pages, then you’re going to have to top it all if you want to go out with a bang! Those are the rules of the game.
So, how does John Burns make out?
In excellent fashion, I would say. He creates characters who are believable, tells a story which is credible, uses prose in a cavalier fashion which not only moves the story along, but is also funny. The secret, I think, is that he really likes the lovable rogues in the gallery he has created. They come alive on the page. One character in particular, who plays the least memorable guy in the book, steps into the limelight in the final three pages...
Now, isn’t that saying something?
His characters come alive on the page.
I insist! Give this man the Nobel Prize, and please, please publish him again!