Tag Archives: England

A wrenching portrait of the human cost of terrorism

A review of Incendiary, by Chris Cleave

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

This entirely original and deeply troubling first novel is written in the voice of an unnamed working class Englishwoman, bright but poorly educated. For starters, she doesn’t have a clue about commas, or just about any other punctuation, for that matter. At first, what seem to be her run-on sentences are jarring, even off-putting. But the story is powerful, and the language shortly becomes easier to take. Before you know it, you’re hooked.

Incendiary is structured as an open letter to Osama bin Laden from a devastated young mother whose husband and young son have died in a massive terrorist attack on a soccer game in London. The book’s four sections cover events in the spring, when the attack occurs, and in the succeeding summer, fall, and winter of one terrible year, perhaps the worst in London’s history. But here’s how the narrator puts it all in context:

“You’ve hurt London Osama but you haven’t finished it you never will. London’s like me it’s too piss poor and ignorant to know when it’s finished. That morning when I looked down at the sun rising through the docklands I knew it for sure. I am London Osama I am the whole world. Murder me with bombs you poor lonely sod I will only build myself again and stronger. I am too stupid to know better I am a woman built on the wreckage of myself.”

However, this statement comes early in the novel. D0n’t get the impression Incendiary is uplifting. It’s profoundly unsettling, both in its devastating impact on the narrator herself and on English society.

Incendiary appeared in bookstores the day of the terrorist attack on the London Underground. The book won numerous awards and was published in 20 countries.

After reading Incendiary, I was surprised to learn that Chris Cleave is a man. His protagonist is so quintessentially female that it’s difficult to understand anyone who pees standing up could have created her. It’s also notable that Cleave is a columnist for the Guardian (Manchester Guardian to us oldtimers), since journalism, and journalistic ethics, figure so crucially in this first novel.


Filed under Contemporary Themes, Trade Fiction

Rennie Airth’s John Madden Trilogy


@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In three suspenseful crime novels set in England between the two wars, South African writer Rennie Airth tells the story of Scotland Yard detective John Madden and his wife, nee Dr. Helen Blackwell. John is a veteran of the Great War, unhinged by his experiences in the bloodbath in France and by the deaths of his wife and daughter. Helen comes into his life just in time to help nurse him back to health.

They meet in the first book, River of Darkness, set in the years following World War I, when John is assigned to an exceptionally brutal murder case in the countryside that taxes his skills and his already questionable emotional stability to the limit.  Through an introduction from Helen, John enlists the help of a noted Viennese psychiatrist who assists him with an early version of what we now know as psychological profiling. The psychiatric insight eventually puts an end to a gruesome series of serial murders, leading John to the killer.

A decade later Germany is in the throes of a Nazi takeover, and England trembles. As we learn at the outset of The Blood-Dimmed Tide, the second book in Airth’s trilogy, John Madden is peacefully retired with Helen on a farm far from Scotland Yard. When he chances upon a brutally murdered corpse on a walk through the countryside, his yearning for action comes to life once again. The officer in charge of the investigation, an old friend in a senior post on the force, takes advantage of John’s eagerness to become involved again and seeks him out for advice. John circumvents his anxious wife’s efforts to keep him out of the investigation and eventually plays a key role in solving the perplexing case.

Set in 1944, a dozen years later, John is drawn into another murder case when a young Polish girl who helps out at his farm is mysteriously murdered as The Dead of Winter commences. The police assigned to the case are reluctant to see more than a chance act of violence, but John uncovers a complex back-story involving an aged German-Jewish neighbor, a French art dealer, Nazi atrocities, and a fortune in stolen diamonds.

Rennie Airth writes with consummate skill, unfolding his complex plots with ease and painting fully three-dimensional portraits of the characters in these three engaging novels. If you’re attracted to ably-written crime stories that bear no resemblance to the formulaic drawing-room who-dunits of years past, you’ll enjoy these three books. Read them in chronological order, though. The reading experience deepens as you observe the aging protagonists live out their lives.

ISBN-10: 0143035703

ISBN-13: 978-0143035701

ISBN-10: 0143171038

ISBN-13: 978-0143171034

ISBN-10: 0670020931

ASIN: B003A02R6C

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Filed under Detective Stories, Mysteries & Thrillers