Dan Sandman

Archive for the ‘Crime’ Category

#32 The Full Cupboard of Life

In Adventure, Books, Comedy, Crime, Fiction on 04/08/2017 at 12:00 pm

#32 The Full Cupboard of LifeBotswana is a moral playground in this novel from the No. Ladies’ Detective Agency series. With his infectiously sunny outlook, Alexander McCall Smith cries in favour of the traditional Botswana values that stand for honesty and hard work. In this fifth installment, such principles are under threat from cowboy mechanics and gold-digger boyfriends. As ever, with her perfect blend of feminine intuition and common-sense, private detective Mma Ramotswe sets out to fight for the old Botswana ways her father believed in. As with the other books within the series, McCall Smith promotes an optimistic view of Botswana and Southern Africa in general; highlighting the generosity, compassion and courage of its people with his deceptively simple prose. On the surface, he provides his many fans with hours of comic fun; but underneath lies a moral philosophy which reveals his academic background and life experience. These popular books can be enjoyed entertainment or read as guides on how to live a moral and happy life in an ever-changing world. I think we would all benefit from a cup of bush tea with Mma Ramotswe, Mma Makutsi and Mr J.L.B Matekoni.


#10 Tsotsi by Athol Fugard

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 03/03/2017 at 12:00 pm

10-tsotsiIn the fifties, the black township Sophiatown was destroyed by the authorities to make way for homes for whites. This is the setting for South African dramatist Athol Fugard’s only novel; an affecting piece about a young gangster who has forgotten his name and his past. Written using the stream of consciousness, a style which gives eloquence to the thoughts and actions of the protagonist, Tsotsi can be sporadic and long winded; often a disadvantage when writing sprawling prose. Long before its publication in 1980, and the subsequent Oscar winning film in 2005, Tsotsi was hidden in a suitcase for almost twenty years. Certain passages exist almost as first drafts, drifting in-concisely from scene to scene. Its success as a novel lies in its subject material, which must be seen in terms of South African history and politics, rather than the quality of the prose itself.

13: Age of Iron by J. M. Coetzee

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 25/03/2016 at 12:00 pm

Age of Iron by J. M. CoetzeeJ. M. Coetzee’s novels do not offer the reader an escape from the problems of society. In beautifully crafted prose, his fiction forces us to confront contemporary issues head on. With virtuous narrative technique, his books shine a light on the inner workings of the human soul. Without coming across as preachy or over discursive, Coetzee teaches us to search within ourselves. What we find might upset us, but by questioning our conscience we come closer to an understanding of life.

The narrator of this epistolary novel is an old classics teacher who is well versed in Latin and Greek. Because she is writing using the letter form, she engages the reader directly at several points of the story. This narrative technique brings extra gravity to the novel, giving the writing a sense of urgency that could otherwise be missing. Critical readers will notice how this form is employed in order to highlight the physical act of writing. It is as though we the reader are privy to confidential material, speculating upon the literary evidence presented to us.

As in other works by Coetzee, old photographs are symbolic metaphors: frozen evidence of times gone by. When we peer at them, we do not necessarily see ourselves. What we observe is a faded image of ourselves, one that is not the face we see today in the mirror. Our childhood memories become tainted by the knowledge of our adult selves; magnified by the inevitable approach of death.

Like I said, this is not escapism.


03: Dreadful Summit by Stanley Ellin

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 15/01/2016 at 12:00 pm

Primrose Hill BooksMy mother and I live near a shop called Primrose Hill Books. When I was a child, customers could brave a white spiral staircase at the back of the shop, leading downstairs to the second-hand books. I remember seeing shelf upon shelf of used thrillers, romances, adventures, classics, autobiographies, and almost any kind of book imaginable. As one decade has past into another, that wonderful place, the room that whetted our curiosity, has been sealed up from public view. What now lies at the back of the shop has become a mystery. Most likely it is used to store the stock, as the ever-changing shelves at the front of the shop are filled with new publications. It is also possible that the family who own Primrose Hill Books have been using it as a bedroom, as their children have been growing up into  young people. These two speculations are each likely — or at least as likely as any fiction is likely — but the truth is usually far more complicated than we imagine.

I would like to keep the sense of mystery behind what now lies at the back of Primrose Hill Books. After all, it is such childhood memories that stir up the emotions that books evoke in our subconscious wanderings. As L.P  Hartley wrote in his classic novel The Go Between (1953), ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’

Now, in winter 2016, following the mildest December in Britain since 1926, an icy weather front has finally decided to make its present felt this morning. The man in the post office works his Friday shift, a couple of bicycles ride in for the morning paper, and Primrose Hill Books opens for another day’s book-selling. Silently, I think about the book I finished last night, Dreadful Summit (1948) by Stanley Ellin. It was similar to Catcher in the Rye (1951) because its narrator is an American teenager, expressing himself in the uncomplicated language of disaffected youth.

It was the first time I saw her face real good, the way the kitchen light was shining on it, and it was all like dough, and a smeared mouth, and stupid’ (pp.92).

Composed in short chapters, this book was originally marketed as a novel of suspense. Written with the confessional honesty of the diary form and set on one day in New York, it tells of a sixteen year old teenage boy who seeks revenge for his father. Carrying a gun inside his overcoat, this is the story of his violent passage into manhood.

I picked up this time-worn paperback for the first time last Saturday, from the books table that daily stands outside Primrose Hill Books for seven days of the week. I had just come from a day of overwhelming lectures and tuition for my masters in English, in which I had spoken too much during class. My rather topsy-turvy vocal analysis of the two texts for Block 2 — by which I mean overly digressive — had led to an unsurprising craving for an easygoing crime thriller; a short novel of which I knew nothing about. Most assuredly, on Sunday I still craved the green Penguin I had skimmed on the previous day. Gratefully, it was still there the next day in all its antic glory. I went inside to purchase.

‘I like that you keep the books outside.’ I said, shyly handing over two circular pound coins and a hexagonal fifty. Gold and silver. ‘You can…’

‘See if you fancy something.’ Said the bookseller.

‘That’s right.’ I replied.

22: The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 29/05/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall SmithAh, time for another visit to the wonderful world of Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana. It’s a magical place where Africa’s problems can all be wiped away by a nice cup of red bush tea and a friendly consultation with the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency; where readers are encouraged to feel that a little human kindness can go a very long way; and where life’s moral problems can be handled with ladies intuition and common sense. Of course, the real world is not quite so simple, but who said that fiction should be a facsimile of reality anyway?

So, in this perfectly paced book (210 pp), the forth in the series, Mma Ramotswe and her trusty sidekick Mma Makutsi are back: turning a patriarchal society on its head whilst still fighting for the old Botswana ways. Just as things were getting comfortable, and Mr. J. L. B. Maketoni was getting over his depression illness, Mma Ramotswe’s business is threatened, when she discovers that she has a competitor. The Satisfaction Guaranteed Detective Agency is run by a man with a Zulu sounding name (Zulu people are always too loud), who promotes his experience in Johannesburg and New York. Will Mma Ramotswe loose business, as clients are attracted by such exotic sounding city names, in such exciting sounding countries as South Africa and America? And will people go to the new face in town because he’s a man, and you can trust a man, especially a man who has worked in the CID? All will be revealed.

Meanwhile, Mma Makutsi sets up her own typing school business, and, seeing a gap in the market, she decides the classes will be run solely for male students. This clever idea is a great success, meaning that Mma Makutsi now has three jobs. And when she meets an older man with unusually shiny shoes, everything seems to be on the up. But is the diamond company man all that he’s cracked up to be? Only Mma Ramotswe can find the answer.

This series always makes me smile with pleasure.

17: Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 24/04/2015 at 12:00 pm

Moll Flanders by Daniel DefoeAs the novels of Jane Austen have shown, their was greater inequality between the sexes in the eighteenth century. Laws were put in place to restrict what woman could and couldn’t do, and so it was only possible for a woman to gain social status through marriage to a man. A twenty-first century liberal might see this as sexist, but the view that woman were inferior to men was backed up by church and state. It was men who could become priests or politicians, and it was men who ran the world to their own advantage. It was therefore no wonder that a woman might become an adulteress and a cut-purse, society was designed to stifle female emancipation through more honest means.

So in many ways Moll Flanders (1922) is an eighteenth century feminist novel, about a woman who makes her own way in a chauvinistic world. But Daniel Defoe (1660 – 1731) would have seen it as a puritan attack on the sins of man. In fact, Defoe’s religious stance is so pressed forward in the preface, that the novel comes across as unintentionally ironical. But is Defoe really passing judgement on man’s sins, or is he reveling in sin by telling this bawdy and unholy story? Whichever way, contemporary novels are far less judgmental of their characters, just as contemporary society is far less guided by religious morals. These days, novels tend to focus on the inner worlds of characters, with novelists often opting for confessional first-person narratives.

What I find quite refreshing about Moll Flanders, and why I would recommend it to anyone looking to hear a good yarn, is that it is focused almost entirely on what happens next. Although today’s readers might be critical because the book lacks naturalism, Defoe’s insistence on plot makes for a compelling reading experience and a real page-turner. Don’t be put off by the size of the book, this really is an easy to read classic.

Thank you for reading and see you next week.

03: The Outsider by Albert Camus

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 16/01/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Outsider by Albert CamusAlbert Camus (1913 – 1960) was a French writer and philosopher of the ‘absurd’ nature of the human condition. He is best known for ‘Le Estrange’ (The Outsider), a short novel about a white Algerian who kills an Arab. In a clear style reminiscent of Raymond Carver, Camus carefully builds an argument against corporal punishment, and questions a legal system that can pass judgement based on personal opinion and religious belief. The reader is encouraged to see the killing from the perspective of the killer, and even to question the term ‘criminal’.

The narrator (‘the outsider’ whom the novel is named after) is called Meursault. He is sentenced to execution because he is judged as a bad character. At his mother’s funeral, Meursault does not cry; when he is asked to seek help from God, Meursault refuses to comply because he is an atheist. Before the Arab is killed, Meursault foolishly writes a letter for his friend Raymond that will later be used as evidence in court. As it turns out, Raymond is probably a pimp, and should not have been trusted so openly. And it is Meursault’s openness towards potentially violent characters, and his passive reaction when a volatile or emotional situation arises, that leads him into danger.

But is it wrong that he should be condemned to death because he did not grieve correctly? Because he does not show remorse after he has killed a man? Or turn to God? Camus argued that our lives are absurd, and I think his philosophy is valid. Very quickly, a small incident can escalate, turning normality into comedy or – in the case of ‘the outsider’ – tragedy. Camus placed his protagonist in an intense situation, applied the pressure, and, as a result, philosophical questions were raised.

A memorable and prescient character, whose individualism predicts a shift in twentieth century European culture.

38: Morality for Beautiful Girls

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 19/09/2014 at 12:00 pm

Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall SmithIn this, the third book of the series, Mma Ramotswe investigates a case of poisoning, whilst Mma Makutsi is asked to solve a case involving morality for beautiful girls. Meanwhile, an orphan has been found smelling of lion and Mr. J.L.B Matekoni has caught an illness called depression. Once again, as with the previous two novels, this book is a generous homage to Botswana that brings to light the moral questions facing Africa today.

This series of books, with their attractive and colourful covers, are skillfully crafted and easy to read. Alexander McCall Smith is an expert storyteller, his stories strike the correct balance between plot and character development. The plots are carefully constructed to give the reader a sense of satisfaction, as crimes are solved by examining moral questions. In these crime stories, the detective’s job is to think about why characters are acting strangely or hiding the truth. Once the reasons for the strange behaivour or dishonesty are uprooted, the problem can be solved.

When I pick up these books, I can’t put them down because the stories flow so easily. I start to get involved with the characters and I begin to imagine an exciting world where Mma Ramotswe and co. can warm the hearts of cold government men and rescue children from orphanages. These books teach that people are on the whole good, and all that bad people need is help from a kind person. It is a world where morals are clearly defined, where people who know about cattle are good, and where those who pick up members of the opposite sex in bars are bad. This unreal world, a beautiful place, somewhere in a sunny part of an author’s imagination, is where these books take me. It looks like this world, it might even share a common history with it – perhaps crimes can be remedied with kindness and understanding – but I am not entirely convinced that this is the real world.

And what more could I ask for from a crime fiction novel – brilliant.

12: The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 21/03/2014 at 12:00 pm

The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan DoyleThanks for finding this book review, this week I have been reading about the world’s very first consulting detective Mr. Sherlock Holmes, discovering why The Sign of Four is a brilliant book, and thinking about how it might be read by a modern reader.

Visit Baker Street on a sunny day and you are bound to see hundreds of tourists queuing up for the Sherlock Holmes Museum. Perhaps the eager visitors are looking for the real history behind the books, or maybe they are seeking to relive the cases in the actual street where the detective lived. But sadly, despite having his own museum, Sherlock Holmes and and his stories are fictitious; not written by John H. Watson, M.D., but the work of fiction writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. More’s the pity, the world needs more intelligent free-thinkers like Mr. Holmes.

The Sign of Four was first published in 1890 and is the second Sherlock Holmes mystery. It is narrated by Dr. Watson, divided into twelve chapters, and as easy to read now as it was over a hundred years ago. As my mother once said, “that’s because Arthur Conan Doyle could really write well”. And it was my mother who first introduced me to the brilliant detective when I was a nipper. An important part of my growing up was listening to these stories being read out loud.

Because the stories are exciting, because the language is wonderfully descriptive, and because the result is a feast for the imaginative senses: the Sherlock Holmes mysteries remain a steadfast source of pleasure to this day. Watch them on television, discover the old films produced during the war, or best of all, pick up a book from your local bookshop or library. Like the James Bond books, the Holmes books are reliable British classics which have been released and reproduced in a number of different forms. But, as nearly always is the case, the books remain the best way to enjoy the stories.

Now, to briefly talk about how today’s more liberal British readers might perceive the Holmes books. After all, there is a tendency towards racial stereotypes being used as criminal evidence. For example, in chapter 8, Holmes pulls down a bulky gazetteer (geographical dictionary) from the shelf to suggest that the aborigines of the Andaman Islands are all savage murderers: –

[…] They are a fierce, morose, and intractable people, though capable of forming most devoted friendships when their confidence has been gained.

Perhaps such unfounded speculation, presented as dictionary proved truth, should be taken with a pinch of salt. After all, as with the Bond novels – where the central character hates woman – Holmes is pure escapism at its very finest. The average Brit would have been excited by tales of distant lands and thrilled by adventures of buried treasure in foreign countries. Partly because most people would not have traveled further than the seaside. And to some extent, this is still true today, hence the recent popularity of the excellent – much less racist – BBC adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.

Another thing that has often been diluted from Holmes adaptations, but is clearly present in the books, is Holmes’ drug habit. I shall conclude abruptly with this brilliant ending to a most entertaining reading experience. Watson has just asked his detective friend what remains now that the mystery has been solved: –

‘For me,’ said Sherlock Holmes, ‘there still remains the cocaine-bottle’. And he stretched his long white hand up for it.

07: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 14/02/2014 at 12:00 pm

The Brothers Karamazovs by Fyodor DostoevskyI must confess, that as I write this week’s review, I am merely on page 634 of this epic, engrossing novel. This is the second time I have not quite been determined enough to accomplish my aim – “to read a book every week for a year and write about it here” – the first occasion being when I attempted The Portrait of A Lady by Henry James last October. Still, as I did in the previous case, today I will write my thoughts and publish to deadline at 12 o’ clock.

This classic novel is exciting, intelligent, deep and action-packed; brim full of melodrama, mystery, debate and detection. Despite the intimidating size and potentially confusing Russian names,  Dostoevsky is actually well suited to our modern sensibilities. Minus the contemporary trend for concise sentences and precisely focused plots, this massively fleshed out murder story still feels cutting edge.

Composed of four parts and originally released in magazine installments, this 19th century book uses many devices that we would recognize from today’s soap-operas; for example, cliffhangers, reveals and who-done-its. The themes are in some respects comic book too, both in terms of colourful presentation and topic. There are drinking binges, wads of money, dual pistols, family rows, ‘domestics’, maddened lovers and a host of other delightfully entertaining props and occurrences. But Dostoevsky really scores points, raising his story to great literary heights, when he uses his psychologically astute eye – for example, to talk of the mother’s influence on a character – and his intellectual knowledge to discuss the topics of his time.

The result of all the above is a riveting good yawn, with many further depths that would warrant further reading. Like Shakespeare, Dostoevsky portrays human emotions and character motivation in a brilliantly versatile way. He peers at all walks of society, from master to servant; from holy man to government official. Not afraid to veer off from the central plot, he is as canny when talking about schoolyard politics as he is when discussing socialism. From reading this one book, if only up to page 634, I have certainly learnt much about the late 19th century and the human soul. Once again, my pursuit of good fiction has lead to history, psychology, philosophy, and theology lessons.

Only one hundred and forty-two pages – plus a courtroom drama – to go.