Down into Darkness, by David Lawrence

I have now read three books in Lawrence's series featuring Detective Sergeant Stella Mooney. The jacket of this one compared the series to Ian Rankin and Prime Suspect but aside from being a gritty police procedural, the comparison didn't seem particularly apt. True, Stella occasionally makes reference to the kind of mysogynism that Jane Tennison faced in Prime Suspect, but seems to enjoy unusual loyalty and deference from her boss and from the men who work for her. At one point in this book, her boss takes leave due to illness and his replacement starts off patronising Stella, though it is not clear (at least to me) that he does so because she is a woman; rather, he seems overeager to assert his authority.

In this book, DS Mooney is after a gruesome serial killer who seems to see himself as an avenger. At the same time, she is fending off ghosts from her past, both her professional life and her childhood in Harefield, one of the worst projects in the area for crime and drugs. Complicating Stella's personal life further is her friend John Delaney, a journalist burnt out from covering combat zones yet missing the adrenaline rush of action.

A person on one of my maillists recently commented that reading too many of any author's books one after the other can show up the author's weaknesses, so it was better to space them out and intersperse them with other books. John Banville said in an interview with Ben Ehrenreich that each of his books grows out of the one before it, that in a sense all of his books are voumes in a single book. I feel that way too, and prefer to read everything by an author at once, warts and all.

However, this method turned out to be not such a good idea with Lawrence. A steady diet of the hard-core violence in these books eventually turned even my stomach. I felt overwhelmed by the quick violence of project life, the odor of a body left too long, the way blood beads on a cut. A matter of personal taste, for sure, and it's true that recently I've stopped watching some of the tv dramas I used to enjoy: all those gruesome murders and eviscerated bodies don't make for a restful night.

I have always liked grittier end of the mystery genre, some of my favorites being Ian Rankin and Dennis Lehane. But it's not the violence I like about them. It's the masterful writing: complex characters who grow and change, vivid local color, themes whose unexpected crannies are explored with a light touch.

With this series, the short, choppy sentences and scenes prevent the author from delving into the levels of complexity found in, say, Rankin's books. Despite my revulsion at the gruesome details, I found much to like in this book. The pacing is good, and there are some wonderful descriptions of London, terse but evocative. The story sheds an interesting light on the nexus of tv news, war movies, and video games. I also liked the way the author plays with some of the noir conventions. But I think it will be a while before I read another of his books.

The Cambridge Theorem, by Tony Cape

After The Untouchable I couldn't resist this thriller based on the activities of the Cambridge spies. DS Derek Smailes is assigned to investigate the death of a graduate student at Cambridge, found hanged in his rooms. Simon Bowles was a brilliant but somewhat unstable mathematics student who spent his spare time using math, logic, and extensive research to find solutions to popular conundrums such as who actually killed President Kennedy. At the time of his death, Simon was looking into the Cambridge spy ring.

The consensus seems to be that Simon commited suicide and Smailes is pressured from all sides to wrap up the case. However, there are some things that don't add up. Smailes continues talking to the tutors and porters at the college, reading Simon's files, and trying to reconstruct what actually happened.

Smailes is an interesting character. Amicably separated from his wife, he has settled into a furnished flat, its recliner and ugly sofa a relief after his wife's demands that he weigh in on home decorating decisions. He has a thing about the U.S. and likes to listen to Willy Nelson and wear cowboy boots when off-duty. In the course of the investigation we learn a lot about what makes him tick and how his past informs his present life.

I found it hard to believe this is a first novel. It is so assured. Cape handles the suspense well, doling out clues and red herrings at the right intervals, leting us discover the inner lives of characters who could so easily have become stereotypes. He factors in class distinctions and town-versus-gown tensions with deceptive ease.

Surely the most difficult problem with a novel like this is figuring out how to incorporate the background information about the Cambridge ring. As a writer, you don't want to bore the many people who already know a great deal about Philby et al. Nor do you want to toss in large undigested chunks of research. At the same time, you don't want to lose the readers for whom it's all new, so you have to say something about it.

I'm happy to report that Cape handles this challenge masterfully. Even coming off of Banville's book with it all fresh in my mind, I didn't find the exposition boring. We learn about the spy ring's history in pieces, at the same time as Smailes and filtered through his consciousness and understanding.

The shifting alliances and uncertain allegiances kept me on my toes. I caught some clues and missed some others. Altogether, a most enjoyable read.

The Untouchable, by John Banville

Like Dave Anderton in Be Near Me the main character of this book must find the path that is uniquely his own through a bewildering number of dualities. As a recently unmasked Soviet spy, Victor Maskell knows about loyalties and betrayals, his life doubled not just between countries, but between wife and lovers, between the friends who have supported and duped him. A bewilderingly complex character, Maskell has worked in British intelligence and served as an art expert to the queen, whom he clearly admires. He is an expert on Poussin and treasures the objets d'art in his museum and his flat.

Maskell, of course, is loosely based on Anthony Blunt, one of the Cambridge spies. Characters based on Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, and Donald Maclean also fill this fictionalised recounting of their recruitment as Russian spies in the 1930s, their long careers as double agents, and their eventual discovery. But it is Maskell whose consciousness we inhabit.

In the wake of his public disgrace, Maskell agrees to a series of interviews with a young journalist, Miss Vandaleur, and he is quickly lost in memories of the past, regardless of whether she is present or not. This absobing narrative takes us from his childhood in Ireland through his university years when he meets the men who become his friends (and, in some cases, co-conspirators), through the war years, and on up to the present.

Banville has said that this book, like so many of his other books, is about the quest for authenticity. For a double agent, there can be no more difficult task. If you lie all the time to everyone, how do you know when you are telling the truth? Every relationship in Maskell's life is fraught with the possibility of betrayal, be it on his part or on the other person's. His confusion and self-deceptions are wrenching, as are his devotions. As he followed his path to the best of his understanding, he leaves behind him the wreckage of the lives of people he has had to hurt: his family, his wife, his lovers.

I don't feel that I can do this book justice in a brief review. It's only recently that I've discovered Banville's work. Perhaps I'm still too close to this story to analyse why it grabbed me right away and wouldn't let up, why I became so addicted to Maskell's voice and to the story of those times. It was different, then, in the 1930s. Communism, fascism . . . I don't think I ever understood before how such a choice could be made, how young men so privileged with the best that England had to offer could choose to spy for Russia, could choose Stalin over the West, despite its flaws. Now, though, with these men who seem so real to me however fictionalised, it begins to make sense.

Be Near Me, by Andrew O'Hagan

I wasn't at all sure I wanted to read this book, despite having enjoyed O'Hagan's contributions to the London Review of Books for years. Looking at my towering TBR pile with its many intriguing alternatives, I couldn't summon up much interest in the troubles of a Catholic priest in a small Scottish town. However, as we are told in writing classes, it is the job of the author to make us want to read his or her book and to teach us how to read it, so clutching my faith in this author's talents I plunged in.

The prologue and first chapter didn't grab me. Dialogue-heavy, they left me grasping after dramatic action, some physical movement or manifestation to rock my imagination awake. What is happening here? I thought. And yet, almost without realising it, I was captivated by the witty repartee, the unexected turns of character, the questions subtly raised and left hanging. Understanding finally that this book required a different kind of attention, I read on and ended up enjoying the book tremendously. More, I was left thinking about the contradictions in those around us, and the necessary conflict between the way they see us and how we see ourselves.

Father David Anderton, although born in Scotland, has been brought up in England. After many mildly successful years in a Blackpool parish, he has asked for a transfer to Scotland in order to be near his mother in her old age. In addition to his church duties, he conducts services at St. Andrew's school along with occasional classes in World Religions. At the school he jousts with the Head of Music and becomes friendly with some of the students, particularly Mark and Lisa.

O'Hagan does an excellent job of capturing the voices of the young people; David's middle-aged and overeducated syntax; and the individual tones of townspeople, teachers and other priests. He also does an excellent job of contrasting the various cultures, particularly in capturing the amoral, self-centered world of the teens. Some passages left me shaking with laughter and recognition.

What I found so fascinating here is that the story doesn't go where I thought it would, and the characters don't behave as I thought they would. I was totally bemused by the complexity and surprise of the unfolding story.

It is the surprise that I want to revisit. There is something in the way that the author handles time in this book that makes the flow of the story seamless. Much of the narrative has to do with David's past: his Lancashire father, the years in a Yorkshire prep school, Oxford in the tumultuous 1960s, going to Rome and the decisions he made there. Yet O'Hagan builds up to each of these transitions so carefully, sprinkling just enough oblique references to make the memory, when it finally comes, seem the most natural thing in the world.

Finally, one of the questions that interested me in this novel was how you hang on to your sense of yourself in the face of other people's opinions. David seems to incur distrust and dislike from people around him on so many points: his English background, his Catholicism, his taste for French wine, his erudition. Questions about authenticity seem to lie behind many of the exchanges. Ultimately, this story seems less about religious life in the modern age than about faith in a larger sense, faith in the past and your choices and other people.