Words Flying High

One of the few advantages to contemporary long distance air travel is that you can catch up on reading. It helps pass the time during the inevitable delays, hanging about at departure gates and long hours actually aloft. I have been reminded of this during two recent international journeys.

The first was to Kuala Lumpur as part of a Universities UK Leadership Foundation for Higher Education team delivering leadership and management training to Malaysian university executives. http://www.lfhe.ac.uk/   On the way up and back I got to read David Finkel’s new book, Thank You For Your Service, the sequel to his brilliant and award-winning The Good Soldiers about which I have written previously.   http://www.amazon.com/David-Finkel/e/B002ATYTYM   That first book was about the experiences of the American soldiers with whom Finkel was embedded on the outskirts of Baghdad.  This new one might just be even more powerful, because it is about the experiences of those soldiers who returned home, about their post-combat lives and those of their families and friends. As with the first book, there are passages that are among the most moving you will read anywhere, some that will shock and outrage and others that just make you shake your head. How does the world’s alleged superpower manage to do these things?

It is fairly certain that the title, Thank You For Your Service, is used as much in an ironic as an honourable sense. For far too many veterans the term has been uttered, then followed by implied or even direct suggestions that said veterans should now get out of the way. That is, the term may or may not be meant sincerely in all cases and certainly not followed up by strong service to those veterans themselves.

At the heart of the book is an investigation about what happens to those soldiers who came home suffering from combat stress in all its forms, including PTSD. The exemplar and recurrent figure is Adam Schumann, the ultimate warrior who at the end of three tours reported himself as mentally stressed, to the astonishment of friends and colleagues. He was the one who, in The Good Soldiers, carried down several flights of stairs a comrade suffering from severe head wounds and whose blood flowed constantly into Schumann’s mouth during the descent. The comrade survived, and makes an appearance in this book as well. Schumann was the man on whom the rest depended yet, like so many other returnees, has done it tough coming to terms with who he is now and with his life.

They are all here, those like Schumann, the widow who cannot come to terms with her husband’s death, the wives and girlfriends bewildered by the changes in their men, and all of them trying to come to terms with the system. There is, for example, the American Samoan soldier who suffered severe concussions and other injuries when his Humvee was blown thirty metres in the air and who now suffers from memory loss. Finkel tracks him as he goes about the base trying to gather the thirty plus signatures he needs to be admitted to a particular course of treatment.

Finkel is too much the craftsman journalist to intrude personally into all this, and as with the first book the word “I” never appears unless it is in dialogue from a person, but his views are clear. He has obvious sympathy for the general trying to make genuine inroads into the suicide rates among returnees, but little time for the system in which this effort becomes enmeshed. As Finkel describes it, the process is earnest but a process, and not really dealing with the central issues.

He describes large communities near Fort Riley, Kansas, where the whole populations are of these returnees and their families, in itself a questionable way of handling these cases that now reach into the several tens and twenties of thousands.

It is some of the most powerful reading you will encounter, and certainly causes you to think at thirty thousand plus feet. David Finkel says he will be in Australia, perhaps around March 2014 so watch out for him and go listen, if only to then wonder what is happening to those Australian soldiers whom we know to be in similar shape if in lower numbers.

I finished Thank You For Your Service on the way back from KL, spent a week helping with the final packing up of our house which has been sold, the main work being on clearing my office/library. As any historian would say, a big task given our devotion to books and records in the traditional physical sense. Now, of course, when I travel I have the Kindle that carries massive numbers of books in a much easier form. And as one colleague says, it is great being able to change the font as they seem to print books smaller these days! So a week later it was back on the plane, this time to Nice/Monaco to moderate some sessions at the Peace and Sport Forum 2013 to which I had been invited. http://www.peace-sport.org/en/   The Kindle was loaded, especially with crime fiction, and got a lot of use.

the-golden-eggFirst up was Donna Leon’s The Golden Egg, which I confess beginning to read because I thought I had to, having read everything else in what is now a long series. http://www.donnaleon.net/     The more recent ones I had not really enjoyed much because I thought she had trouble making the cases convincing, and Inspector Guido Brunetti himself now seemed static and directionless.

It was great, then, that I really enjoyed this one which is closer in kind to earlier novels and the better for it. An apparently deaf and dumb man that Brunetti and his wife, Paola, see from time to time in their locality is found dead, an apparent suicide. Paola laments they have interacted with him too little and taken him too much for granted, ignoring his life. She bullies Brunetti into following it up, even though he has a political problem in the office because his boss is concerned that Venice’s mayor faces a possible scandal because of his son’s fiancee’s activities. On that front, Brunetti discovers the usual corruption and solves several problems at once, but the suicide turns into an ugly story of family betrayal, greed and envy and not really a suicide.

It is Leon at her best, the characters interesting, the twists believable, and the Venetian locale adding to the atmosphere. Most crime writers will say that writing a series is difficult to sustain, and many eschew the form for that reason. This time, though, Leon has justified the long running Brunetti saga.

Kondor_budapest_noir_american_coverThat was followed by a real find, Budapest Noir by Vilmos Kondor and in English for the first time, the original Hungarian version having appeared in 2008. http://www.amazon.com/Budapest-Noir-Novel-Vilmos-Kondor/dp/0061859397   Now there is a bit of mystery here that leads to a possible conspiracy theory. That inestimable source, Wikipedia, reports that Kondor is a possible pseudonym but that the writer trained as a chemical engineer and now works as a maths teacher in a small town. He gives interviews only by email, and there are now five novels featuring journo Zsigmond Gordon and set in Hungary from the 1930s onwards.

So where’s the mystery? Well, shortly into the book I began to think how much it was like Philip Kerr’s series set in Nazi Germany and elsewhere and starring Bernie Gunther. There is the same detailed description of city life in Budapest, a strong sense of history, the same use of historical figures in this fictional setting, the same great use of the contemporary argot, and the same approach to plotting and storytelling. It is compelling stuff and a fabulous read.

Then Kondor actually invokes Gunther. He has his major female character, Gordon’s girlfriend and an independently minded graphic artist with an invitation to go to London to work for Penguin, report that she ran into Bernie Gunther while in Berlin.

Now, several reviewers have noted the similarities with Kerr, but no-one has gone further than that. But hovering in the background is that other recent piece of notoriety, the outing of J.K. Rowling as Robert Galbraith, author of The Cuckoo’s Calling. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jul/24/jk-rowling-robert-galbraith-harry-potter    Galbraith was given an elaborate identity as a former spook, and all went well until one of Rowling’s lawyers accidentally named her as the real writer. Is there more to this Kondor/Kerr story? Probably not, but this is about mystery and crime so idle minds will get to work.

In any case, the story is a cracker. Gordon is the crime reporter for a Budapest paper, and gets involved in the murder of a young Jewish girl working as a prostitute. It turns out she was estranged from her wealthy family who had taken to Christianity, but she fell in love with the son of a rabbi. She fell into bad company that included a pimp ring dealing with the upper echelons of civil and political society, so Gordon gets the normal warnings and severe beatings, but persists to reveal the story and mete out his own justice.

Whether this is Kondor, or Kerr, or perhaps even J.K. Rowling channelling both of them, the person can write. This one comes highly recommended.

roll with itSo does Nick Place’s Roll With It, for very different reasons. http://nickplace.me/   Set in Melbourne, the story has Detective Senior Sergeant Tony “Rocket” Laver of Major Crimes shoot and kill an armed robber. Because this is the latest in a series of such shootings, the powers that be make an example of him, and not only demote him but post him to the bicycle squad. In that humble life he traverses the wreck of his social life with his girlfriend seemingly impervious to his trauma, is sent to “Siberia” by his superiors, works on his hangover technique, but does not lose his policing skills.

He spots a couple of baddies who are drawn in spectacular style, especially “Wildie” or “Wildman”, a giant with a red Mohawk cut and an attitude to match. He and his partner in crime are attempting to offload a drug haul they pinched off a previous employer in Queensland, with said employer now after them. Along the way Wildie’s offsider looks up an old girlfriend who has also raised the lust levels in the junior manager of a supermarket which just happens to be the distribution point for the Queensland drug baron.

At one level the plot is highly contrived: in a city of several million Laver, the baddies, the supermarket manager, the hippie chick and Uncle Tom Cobley and all just happen to coincide, and the finale is more Tarantino than Christie. But it is a terrific read.

Place was a crime roundsman for the Melbourne papers, and says that his big break was in befriending some ex-cops who helped him get the cadence of their subculture’s language, and the sardonic humour that comes through is perfect. For example, when Laver is assigned to the bikes after the shooting, his Major Crime pals do a running commentary of a bike chase where “speeds of up to thirteen kilometres an hour!” are reached. In another scene, Laver arrests someone, the regular cops arrive to say he must be losing his touch – the prisoner is still alive!

Nick Place also tells another story in his acknowledgements. It took him a long, long time to get the book finished and published because few but himself believed in it. Well, the perseverance was worth it, because this is one of the great Australian crime fiction works and Laver will surely reappear.

The Ihaka TrilogyThat reminded me of something I had read a little earlier, in book form picked up from a shop in Wellington. Paul Thomas’ Ihaka Trilogy  appeared in the 1990s and has been fairly hard to find, but is not only one of the great Kiwi works but also stands up very well internationally.  http://www.hachette.co.nz/afa.asp?idWebPage=30685&ID=661553&SID=595775774  That has been confirmed by my friend Alan Cumming to whom I lent the large volume. He affirms that Thomas gets the Auckland atmosphere exactly right.

Tito Ihaka is a Maori cop, called Tito because his father was a last remaining stalwart in the New Zealand Communist Party. The classic knockabout character but with a nose for crime, he upsets friend and foe alike, with his performance at a high level anti-terrorist meeting in Wellington one of the highlights. He cruises around Auckland both finding and causing trouble. He is not his father’s son politically, but does have a set of chips on both shoulders that helps him aggravate the good citizens of the right suburbs like Remuera and Titirangi.

The novels are not to the normal formula because Ihaka is frequently out of the picture even though he is supposedly the main protagonist. Even so, Thomas draws a wonderful and quirky picture of Auckland and its new money sets, and after a long break there is now a fourth Ihaka which has not long appeared.

With works like this around, long distance travel becomes almost tolerable.

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