The Four Symbols – Giacometti & Ravenne (Hodder & Stoughton 2020) – A Running Man Review

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The Adventure genre has calmed down somewhat since its mid noughties peak when Dan Brown and a host of similarly slanted authors dominated best-seller lists.  I read quite a few of these at the time but found they became too samey,  I wearied of reading about symbols of great powers but hidden meanings, Nazis, a myriad of locations and often confusing plot lines.

I was, however, tempted by this title I selected from a list of upcoming publications, the first of a trilogy entitled “The Black Sun”.  I thought its French slant (this is a translation)  might just breathe new life into a genre which was in danger of becoming stale.  Eric Giacometti worked as a journalist and was involved in the uncovering of French medical scandals before teaming up with Jacques Ravenne and writing according to the blurb “over 15 books together” (I really don’t know why this is such a vague statement!).  This was originally published as “La Triomphe Des Tenebres” and has been translated by Mauren Bauchet-Lackner.

Have the authors breathed new life into this genre?  Well, here we have Nazis chasing symbolic artefacts which will give them ultimate power in a novel which switches from location to location just as each section starts to get good.  So, the answer to that is sadly no.

A discovery in a Tibetan cave encourages the outbreak of World War II and leads to a belief by some in power that if similar treasures are tracked down the Third Reich will become unstoppable.  In the way of the Nazis is a French mercenary, Tristan, fresh from his involvement in the Spanish Civil War, a British SOE team and French resistance fighters.  The action feels distinctly stop-start to begin with and there are some examples of Nazi sadism that the authors certainly do not shy away from.

The success of books in this genre lies for me in whether the author makes me care about multiple plot strands and shifting location settings and the secret behind getting me to care is often in characterisation.  To begin with I found everybody cardboardy but by the end I was beginning to be drawn in enough by them to make me interested in the next part of the trilogy, but the characters, good and bad did take a while to establish themselves which may cause readers to fall by the wayside.

This was a very flooded market ten years ago so whether a title which isn’t fundamentally different from what we were reading then will resonate much in the UK today is another matter.  I think it being the first part of a trilogy might help as readers may come to feel invested in the authors’ perceptions of the War Years.

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The Four Symbols will be published by Hodder & Stoughton as an e-book on 14th May 2020 and as a paperback on 3rd September.  Many thanks to the publishers and Secret Readers for the advance review copy.

Again The Three – Edgar Wallace (1928) – A Running Man Review

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I’m celebrating!  On completing Edgar Wallace’s collection of 13 short stories that make up “Again The Three” I have finished the mammoth 900+ pages of the Wordsworth paperback edition of “The Complete Four Just Men” which I seem to have been reading for ages.

Written 23 years after the characters were first introduced in their successful debut I get the feeling that the demand was there for revisiting them in a short story format.  Wallace had a commercial mind (which sometimes backfired) and an enthusiasm for journalism throughout his life so may have produced these originally for some of the many publications he was associated with before putting them together as a published collection.  He certainly hasn’t trodden any new ground here, the story outlines seem similar and one “Mr Levingrou’s Daughter” is merely a tighter rewrite of earlier work collected in his 1921 “Law Of The Four Just Men“.  This is one of the sharper works on display, a couple of the stories I didn’t really get the resolution at all or did not find them  especially suspenseful.  Still, it was enjoyable to meet up with Manfred, Gonsalez and Poiccart for one further outing.  They have certainly evolved towards  respectability and now have a detective agency in Curzon Street, London, yet still trade on their disreputable past where their methods of dispatching offenders were more brutal (and permanent!).  Wallace rarely lets a story go by without a reference back to this.  It does seem a little odd to read crime/adventure fiction where past achievements are being saluted more than the present plotlines but readers would not have been sympathetic to these characters for a quarter of a century without them changing their ways.

I’ve probably read enough Edgar Wallace for a time.  David Stuart Davies who penned the introduction to the volume I read feels that Wallace would have gone on to produce more for these characters had he not died in 1932.  He does also acknowledge that, in this collection “The tales are entertaining and even amusing at times rather than thrilling.”

It was Christopher Fowler who reminded me of Wallace in his “Book Of Forgotten Authors” and he mentions the oft-repeated tale of this prolific writer that if anyone phoned him and was told he was busy writing a book they’d reply “I’ll wait.”  I have enjoyed, to varying degrees, these six of apparently 175+ novels he produced in his lifetime.

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Again The Three was published in 1928.  I read the version published in “The Complete Four Just Men” paperback from Wordsworth.

 

The Three Just Men – Edgar Wallace (1924) – A Running Man Review

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Those Four Just Men from the original 1905 publication have been up and down in their membership throughout the series, there were just two of them in “The Law Of The Four Just Men” story collection.  They now seem to have settled down to three with the most underwritten of the trio, Poiccart, coming out of retirement for this and, I assume, the last of the titles that make up the Wordsworth “Complete Four Just Men”, seeing as the title of this is “Again The Three.”

In this 1924 work we get plenty of dead bodies, some through mysterious snake bites which provides the show-piece puzzle of the novel.  There’s abductions, disguise, a shady Swedish doctor and his even more amoral German henchman, doping and a finale of a siege.  Wallace once again ups the pace as the novel progresses, as far as I am concerned it started well then really began to drop to a point where I didn’t know (nor really care) exactly what was going  on, but as in the previous novels he drew me back in for the last third and all the mysteries were eventually explained.

I’d felt his female characters were not terribly successful in this book’s predecessors but here we have two quite vibrant women, one trustworthy, one less so.  I’m getting to the point with just one novel in the series to go that I’m looking forward to getting through it and moving on with my reading but looking back when I finished this one I had enjoyed it more than I thought I would when I was ploughing through the mid-section.

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The Three Just Men was originally published in 1924.  I read the edition in the Wordsworth paperback “Complete Four Just Men Collection”

The Law Of The Four Just Men -Edgar Wallace (1921) – A Running Man Review

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British crime writer Edgar Wallace’s fourth publication in his “Four Just Men” series appeared three years after “The Just Men Of Cordova” and shows a marked change in structure as instead of being a novel this consists of 10 short stories. I was very  interested in finding out  how the author was able to use this form and hoping that it might be used to provide a bit of back story. Within the three novels I have read there are a number of references to previous cases which seem to represent a so far uncatalogued glory days for the foursome and this seemed like a perfect opportunity for Wallace to explore some of these cases in a short story format.

He hasn’t done this. Instead these unlinked stories fit chronologically into the pattern the Wordsworth “Complete Four Just Men” uses being probably set after the events of the previous novel where, confusingly, considering the title, there are only two Just Men operating. This does allow a little more insight into character, perhaps the most significant is Leon Gonsalez, who has remained fairly under the radar in the previous novels who here has an interest in linking physical attributes and crime, which was probably a bit of an issue around the time this was published. So, large and long front teeth = probable murderer in “The Man With The Canine Teeth”. In a number of the stories it is the quirks of an individual which stands them out as a suspect, thus we get “The Man Who Hated Earthworms”, “The Man Who Loved Music” (well, the 1812 Overture) and “The Man Who Hated Amelia Jones” as titles.

Luckily, Wallace did not offer the same incentive to purchase as he did with his “Four Just Men” debut where readers were offered £500 to solve the case in a move which almost brought about financial ruin as people did and he was obliged to pay the sizeable amount to all those who did for this is very predictable fare with the odd twist but nothing like we have come to expect in short crime fiction in the intervening years.

This collection passed the time but probably wouldn’t be one that I would return to. I enjoyed the trickery involved in obtaining justice, my favourite being in the downfall of a drugs pusher in the elaborate “The Man Who Died Twice”.

The formula of these stories is pretty much the same as in the novels, a criminal has evaded justice and this has come to the main protagonists’ attention, somebody usually says something like “isn’t is a shame the Four Just Men aren’t around anymore” and the plan for retribution swings into action. Starting with this collection wouldn’t necessary put you off reading the novels but Wallace might be better at the more extended form.

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The Law Of The Four Just Men was first published in 1921. I read the version printed in the Wordsworth paperback “The Complete Four Just Men”.

The Just Men Of Cordova – Edgar Wallace (1918) – A Running Man Review

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First published in the last year of World War I this was Edgar Wallace’s third novel in his “Four Just Men” series. There had been a ten year gap between “The Council Of Justice” and this reflected a time when he was writing prolifically as well as getting very involved in horse racing, starting up his own newspapers on the subject. Horse racing does feature as a major set piece which for its duration reads like a predecessor of a Dick Francis work.

The Just Men take more of a back seat with their identity still foxing and fooling those they come up against. The identity of one of the four is not even known by two of the others and that also builds up in the plot until this particular mystery is revealed.

Once again there is the odd turgid moment in the build-up. Central to this novel is Colonel Black a dodgy businessman whose opponents seem to be dying suddenly. There’s undetectable poison administered with a feather which keeps the plot ticking over until, and this seems to be typical of a Wallace novel the tension is cranked up for a more tautly written last third. This is where we get the aforementioned horse race where whole fortunes are staked and its aftermath which makes for some gripping reading and which excuses the business machinations in the earlier part of the novel which are not always easy to fathom for the modern reader and which may get the attention wandering slightly.

Typical of many adventure novels where the audience demands action some of the characters are underwritten but Wallace has here created one of his strongest characters I’ve read to date in Police Constable Frank Fellowe who has his own reasons for attempting to resolve the foul play.

Once again, by the end of the novel Edgar Wallace has whetted my appetite for more of the same which would go some way to explaining his contemporary popularity and longevity as a writer. There are three more novels to go in this Wordsworth “Complete Four Just Men” collection.

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The Just Men Of Cordova was first published in 1918. I read the version printed in the Wordsworth paperback “The Complete Four Just Men”.

The Four Just Men – Edgar Wallace (1905) – A Running Man Review

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Edgar Wallace was one of the authors featured in Christopher Fowler’s “Book Of Forgotten Authors” who I fancied discovering. I’d heard of this prolific and popular English writer (1875-1932) and also of his most famous work “The Four Just Men” but had never read anything by him.

To put this right I purchased a Wordsworth edition of “The Complete Four Just Men” at a bargain price, a weighty tome which features not only his 1905 publication but the other five works about his creations which he continued to revisit sporadically until 1928’s “Again The Three”.

Looking at this sizeable volume I have decided probably the only way I would get through it at this time is to fit in a Wallace novel between other books I want to read, so I’m starting here with the title work, which is actually more of a novella coming in at just over 100 (although in quite dense print) pages.

I fully expected an action tale full of valiant deeds and derring-dos but the Four Just Men of the title can best be described nowadays as terrorists, a quartet of men who take the law into their own hands and operate their system of justice internationally dispatching those they consider to have done wrong. When I started this novel it did remind me in terms of style of G K Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday”, a novel I really didn’t get on with at all. I think that this was because it also dates from the first decade of the twentieth century (1907) and that was how popular fiction was written in those days. This is a much more entertaining work.

There’s far less going on in terms of sub-plot than I would have imagined. The British Foreign Secretay is on the verge of bringing in a law (the details of which I’m rather vague on and which probably don’t matter) which The Four Just Men, originally in their hideout in Spain do not agree with and the politician’s life is threatened if he does not drop the issue. The location shifts to London and becomes a how-will-they-do it type novel.

Edgar Wallace got much publicity for this by offering a £500 reward for readers who could work out what was going on when it was serialised in The Daily Mail for whom Wallace worked at the time. A slip up in the small print meant that everyone who guessed correctly would get the money and people began to guess correctly in larger numbers than anticipated. This meant Wallace had to borrow money to save face with his employers and had to sell a lot of copies to break even. I’ve read the whole book and I’m not really sure if I got the “how will they do it?” part at all.

I did, however, very much enjoy the tension of the police pitted against the inscrutable Four and the sense of time running out for the Foreign Secretary. You get the feeling that The Four Just Men would soon sort out Brexit! As they made their escape at the end of the novel (not a plot spoiler as I’ve already told you there are five more in the series) I found myself looking forward to what they will get up to next. In the style of the best Edwardian serialisations this is….To Be Continued…

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The Four Just Men was originally published in 1905. I read the 2012 Wordsworth paperback compendium “The Complete Four Just Men”

The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness (2008) – A Running Man Review

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The first book in British author Patrick Ness’ “Chaos Walking” trilogy really does span boundaries.  Aimed at a teen audience it works well for adult readers.  Its Sci-Fi/Fantasy elements are well thought out and do not get in the way of first class storytelling and there’s so much running in it that I’ve classed it amongst my adventure novel/running man thread.

I’ve never read Patrick Ness before but I know he has many fans mainly through this trilogy and “A Monster Calls” which was recently made into a film.  Main character Todd Hewitt is approaching manhood as a settler in a New World.  A battle with aliens living on the planet has wiped out the human female population, made animals talk and all men’s thoughts expressed out loud as “The Noise”.  Todd makes a discovery which challenges all he has been told and the only option open to him is to run.

Patrick Ness has got me eating my words as here he does something I normally gripe about yet here it works.  Much of the novel is written in present tense.  I moaned about this in Andrew Pyper’s “Demonologist” a horror novel made significantly less scary as a lot of the action becomes reported rather than letting us readers experience it.  Ness avoids this largely because of his “The Noise” device.  With all thoughts coming out as a stream Todd’s narrative can be filled with interactions from other characters which enables it to remain in the present.

It makes for action all the way and works here as a narrative style just about as well as it can.  It also makes it quick to read but it can feel a little like it is all on one level.  He maintains a fairly high octane pace throughout which may frustrate readers looking for a little more light and shade.  Being much older than the intended audience I wasn’t sure about the talking animals but I was soon won over by Todd’s dog Manchee who becomes a great character in his own right.  Animals in novels always cause me anxiety in case bad things happen to them.  (I’ve discussed this before on here.  I can read all kinds of things happening to humans without flinching but put an animal in the mix and I become squeamish.  I used to think that odd, but a number of you have agreed with me).  The relationship between Todd and his dog adds much to the novel.

This kind of dystopian future feels right on trend and if this appeals then I’d urge you to seek this book out as it is so well done.  The world in which they live is revealed to us very much as it’s revealed to Todd and that provides a great opening for the trilogy.  We’re left with a cliffhanger and the edition I read had a bonus short story “The New World” (published 2013), which, because I knew by then how it fits into the general narrative proved to be chilling reading.  The whole thing would seem to be of lasting appeal to young adult readers and possesses the qualities to win over a much wider audience.

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The Knife Of Never Letting Go was first published by Walker Books in 2008

Next- Michael Crichton (2006)- A Running Man Review

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Prior to this I have read two Michael Crichton novels and they are not the ones you might expect.  He is most famous for creating “ER” for which I will be eternally grateful; but also for “Jurassic Park” (1990) and its sequel (1995); his debut in his own name “The Andromeda Strain” (1969) and “Westworld” (1974).  I haven’t read any of these, the two books I have read are “State Of Fear” (2004) a startlingly complex merge of environmental issues and science combined with a gripping, readable thriller which I thoroughly enjoyed and “Timeline” (1999) which grappled with quantum physics and time travel and which unfortunately did not work nearly as well and came across as tosh masquerading as science.  It’s the application of science which Crichton specialises in and with “Next” it’s the complex (for my little brain anyway) field of biogenetics.

If like me, your sole knowledge of biogenetics is limited to an awareness of the existence of GM crops, cloned animals (Dolly the sheep) and that nightmarish picture of a mouse with a human ear growing on it then you might think that all this might be a tad too complex for you.  Well it is, but that actually doesn’t matter as Crichton guides us along the issues in another very readable novel.

Interestingly, there’s no discernible main character in “Next” which is a little off-putting for those of us who like a central character for relationship dynamics to bounce off and this does mean that there isn’t really the depth of characterisation that a main protagonist and their relationships with others would provide.  What is there are a lot of interweaving plot strands, which Crichton keeps good control of.  I did find myself having to leaf back a number of times to recall what was happening to certain characters  as and when their story was resumed although that often proved to be needless as the author is good at prompting our memories.  You can see from this how he could manage long-running television drama with its ongoing story lines.  I know some readers balk at this style of writing but here it has been done well.

Basically, it is a novel of ideas with the plot developed to illustrate these.  The practice of patenting genes has impeded medical research and has potentially ludicrous legal ramifications when “ownership” of genes, cells and tissues gets called into question.  This is an area Crichton is keen to highlight, using real news stories along the way, demonstrating that he is not dealing with fictional flights of fancy here as his ideas are embedded in fact.  There’s a couple of genetically-modified animal hybrids including ape/human combinations who can talk and an African-grey parrot who can not only talk like a human but think like one too.  At times these plot threads come across as a little “cutesy”, but it’s the way they fit into a tale of medical research so rooted in fact that becomes alarming.

This sits in the middle of the three Crichton novels I have read.  It’s not as good as “State Of Fear” which had a stronger element of gripping thriller writing and was the novel which immediately preceded “Next” but it is considerably better than “Timeline”.  Michael Crichton died in 2008 yet his 18th novel under this name, the recently discovered “Dragon’s Teeth” was published earlier this year.

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Next was published by Harper in the UK in 2006

The Bookman’s Tale – Charlie Lovett (2013)- A Running Man Review

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Here is a debut novel that I missed out on when it was first published in 2013 and I’m delighted to put that right as it is a thoroughly entertaining read.  Combining the adventure and puzzle-solving of a superior example of the “Da Vinci Code” genre with old books certainly gives it an original slant.  I’ve never read a novel with so much information on book binding and preservation and which has got across so well the appeal of old books.

Author Charlie Lovett is also a playwright, and significantly, for the authenticity of this work, a former antiquarian bookseller and this love for the quest of a miraculous find which is surely present in all those who deal with old and precious books certainly permeates this novel.

American Peter Byerly is drawn into the world of books when he is working at his University’s library and finds his way into Special Collections.  He’s also drawn, for the first time, into connecting with another human being when he meets Amanda, another student, in the library.  Lovett’s tale switches from their courtship to Peter adapting to the early death of his wife some years later and a much older tale of a book which would provide ultimate proof that Shakespeare wrote his plays.  A discovery of a portrait inside a book in a shop on Hay-on-Wye provides the link for these strands.

It works well as an adventure tale but it is more than this as it also works as a love story and an account of obsession, in this case towards book collecting.  It features (and Dan Brown and some others of his ilk need to take note here) well rounded characters.  There’s a clear motive behind every action and we’re not hurtled around the world in wearying globe-trotting fashion.  True, the use of coincidence does begin to pile up, but then the author’s following a time-honoured tradition headed by Hardy and Dickens who were both masters of coincidence to further the plot.  Some of the love scenes are also a little clunky but the two young people have never really related that well to anyone before so perhaps its applicable for the characters if the early days of their relationship seem a little stilted.  I was won over by the obvious devotion for all-things-book-related and by the skill in which this perhaps rather unsexy passion has been incorporated into what is rather a thrilling read.

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The Bookman’s Tale was published by Alma Books in 2013.

SS-GB – Len Deighton (1978) – A Running Man Review

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It struck me whilst reading Deighton’s 1978 thriller how little British fiction I have read from the 1970’s.  Even for the (very small) part of the decade when I had moved on to adult fiction it was thrillers from an earlier era and American blockbusters that were fuelling my reading habit.  For some reason, contemporary British fiction did not appeal to me as a youngster and I haven’t really revisited the era to any great deal since.

I think this is largely due to the style of writing in vogue then.   Deighton’s 12th of the 26 novels he has published to date (the last being “Charity” in 1996) is admittedly a brilliantly realised alternative history.  Victory for the Nazis was an idea which cropped up from time to time in film and fiction since the end of the War.  Philip K Dick’s “Man In The High Castle” appeared in 1962 but the very British feel of Deighton’s novel would certainly have caused a stir on publication.  Small details have been thought out and worked through as if Deighton really inhabited this nightmarish world.  In his introduction he states;

“Using (the) German data I drew a chain of command showing the connections between the civilians and the puppet government, black-marketeers and quislings, and the occupying power with its security forces and bitterly competitive army and Waffen SS elements.”

This level of detail, research and projection as to what might have been is very effective.  I think, however, Deighton’s style of writing, typical for the time, has dated and led to me feeling somewhat let down by the reading experiences.  It’s all strangely clipped, like a lot of the fiction of the day geared towards a male audience I feel it should be read out of the corner of the mouth with a cigarette on.  I feel this way about, amongst others, Ian Fleming and Alastair Maclean so Deighton is in good company.  This style, developed from American “hard-boiled” crime writers and film noir doesn’t allow for the characters to really connect emotionally and that for me is one of the real joys of reading.  Main character Douglas Archer, a Scotland Yard Detective having to solve crimes in the new Nazi regime apparently has had a strong bond with colleague Harry Woods since Archer was a child when Woods was a father figure.  Now his mentor’s senior this relationship just seemed like it should really sizzle, but I didn’t feel any real connection between them.

When Archer decides he has fallen in love it was one of the biggest surprises of the novel as from the scenes with his loved one there didn’t seem to be anywhere near enough of a spark for this to happen.  What jars now is how understated it is all is.  There’s a big action centrepiece which crept up on me and I found myself having to re-read to see what happened.  In fact I did quite a lot of re-reading and what I missed what this real sense of feeling and emotions.  It was no doubt a sign of the times (of the 70’s as well as the 40’s).

I think we’ve just got used to brasher, noisier, more emotional adventure novels.  So I’m interested to see how this relates to the big-budget BBC five part adaptation which would have started by the time you are reading this.  That was the reason I wanted to get this book read first.  I’ll let you know what I think………………

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SS-GB was published in 1978.  It is currently available as a Harper Collins paperback