The Twelve Tasks of the Festive Season — Grand Finale and BLACKOUT!

Snow Globes: Reads

Bells: Activities

I intend to also read a book for the Kwanzaa square and try to get as many of my as-yet missing activities done (Holiday Down Under, Movie Ticket, and Holiday Party), but since completing either activities or reads qualifies for completing a square, as far as the game itself is concerned here’s hooray for blacking out my card!

Thanks to Moonlight Reader and Obsidian Blue for hosting yet another great game – I had great fun with this one, never mind the hosting site’s performance issues. (I only wish those woes were over once and for all.) As with the bingo, I enjoyed following everybody else’ updates and comparing notes at least as much as completing my own card.

So, here’s for the grand finale:

Task the Second: The Silent Nights:

– Read a book set in one of the Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and/or Denmark), where winter nights are long!

Inspired by Lillelara’s advice to Olga Godim, I changed plans on this one and revisited Babette’s Feast, Tania (Karen) Blixen‘s love letter to the culinary arts, set against the bleak background of (mostly) midwinter in a Pietist religious community in a remote Norwegian fjord. It’s an apt read not only for this square but also for the season, as the feast is Babette’s selfless gift to the two women who, suspicion against “papists” notwithstanding, have taken her into their home after she had lost her own. I’d read it for the first time after having seen the movie, with the sumptuous visuals of the feast (as contrasted by the dour setting of the protagonists’ lives) still freshly in my mind, and I loved it even better then; but I’m still happy I decided to reread it … and few can hold a candle to Blixen’s gift of setting the atmosphere of a story.


Task the Fourth: The Gift Card:

– Read a book that you either received as a gift or have given as a gift.

This task truly came in handy, as my birthday fell smack into the Halloween Bingo and I therefore haven’t made particularly great inroads with the many treasures I’d accumulated back in October.

So, always eager to find out what’s going on in the life of one DI (has-been) John Rebus of Police Scotland, I picked Ian Rankin’s Even Dogs in the Wild, which I absolutely loved … until it dawned on me that the back story of (and solution to) this entry in the series is VERY similar to that of Dead Souls, which happens to be one of my favorite Rebus books and which I therefore know inside and out. (And Rankin has also used the method of disposing of a dead body referenced at the beginning of this book before … not to mention bent cops, who more often than not seem to hail from Glasgow instead of Edinburgh.)

Bit of a bummer, that, and it knocked the book straight down from a five- to a four star read. Still, I loved the fact that part of the book was told from the perspective of “Big Ger” Cafferty, Rebus is as crotchety and unyielding a lonely wolf as ever, and I’m glad to see that Siobhan finally seems to be coming into her own well and truly, without finding it necessary to cling to anybody’s coat tails (particularly not those of her boss, DCI James Page). What with Darryll Christie resurfacing in a prominent role and the Glasgow underworld in play big time as well, I wonder if we’re headed for another gangland showdown along the likes of The Hanging Garden in one of the next books …? Now wouldn’t that be a treat. Also, is Rankin unsure where next to take Malcolm Fox — or why is Fox virtually surplus to requirements at the beginning of the book and wondering whether he should throw in his towel?


– Give a book to a friend and post a picture of the wrapped present.

My best friend’s birthday is on December 16, as a result of which I only get to go gift shopping for her in a major way once every year, and I typically only decide later, when I’m back home, which items she’s getting for Christmas and which ones for her birthday. This year, I decided it would be the books and a few assorted other items for her birthday … it’ll be a bath tub caddy and a set of goodies from one of our favorite local food (or more specifically spice, condiments and sauces) stores for Christmas. – The books are Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk and a cookbook based on the Harry Potter novels, which I hope she’ll love (and doesn’t own yet), being both an HP fan and a stellar and enthusiastic cook.


Task the Fifth: The Kwanzaa:

– Make a small donation to a charitable organization that operates in Africa.

I made a donation to a charity that my mom and I have been supporting for a long time – in fact, I remember my mom donating to them even when I was a small child: SOS Kinderdörfer (literally, “SOS Children’s Villages”), an organization that takes in and provides housing, schooling and, most importantly, a loving and supportive community, to orphans and children whose parents are too poor or otherwise unable to properly care for them, in different parts of the world. If you make your donation online you can specify the project you want your money to go to, and I picked their project in South Sudan, which has been particularly beleagured of late: as a result of the war, they were forced to abandon their facilities, casting the future of the project, and the children and their carers themselves, into great peril. They’ve only recently begun to slowly build towards a new home for their village and community.

(I’ve included links to their website, which however doesn’t seem to have an English version, unfortunately, so if you want to learn more you’ll have to copy and paste the contents into Google translator, I’m afraid.)


Task the Eighth: The Movie Ticket

– Read a book that has been adapted to a holiday movie.

It took me about three seconds to make up my mind about this one, and I never stopped to think twice – this just had to be one of my all-time favorite stories, which also happens to have been adapted into one of my all-time favorite holiday movies, never mind that the final scene actually isn’t even set at Christmas in the book: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy, whose screen adaptation starring Ricky Schroder and Alec Guinness has been an annual Christmas ritual on German TV for over 35 years now. So call me a sop – and I admit I’ve never actually tried revisiting this story at length outside the Christmas season (I might well find it a bit too tug-at-your-heartstrings-sentimental then – but as a feel good story about love, redemption, and the meaning (and effect) of unselfish generosity, this one is hard to beat … golden-haired cherub, saintly mother and friends to steal horses with all included.


And here’s my tally of completed reads and activities:

Task the First: The Winter Wonderland:

Read: A book that is set in a snowy place.

=> Dylan Thomas – A Child’s Christmas in Wales (audio version, read by the author himself)

Activity: Take a walk outside and post a picture of something pretty you encountered on your way.

=> A Visit to Cologne Cathedral Christmas Market


Task the Second: The Silent Nights:

Read: A book set in one of the Nordic countries.

=> Tania (Karen) Blixen: Babette’s Feast (see above)

Activity: Hygge: Put on your fuzziest socks, light a candle, and spend some time (reading) in front of the fireplace or your coziest nook.

=> Hygge!


Task the Third: The Holiday Party:

Read: A book where a celebration is a big part of the action.

=> Rex Stout: And Four to Go

Activity: Make something that is considered party food where you are from, and post a picture of it on Booklikes.



Task the Fourth: The Gift Card:

Read: A book that you either received as a gift or have given as a gift.

=> Ian Rankin: Even Dogs in the Wild (see above).

Activity: Give a book to a friend and post a picture of the wrapped present.

=> Book gift, see above.


Task the Fifth: The Kwanzaa:

Read: A book written by an African-American author or set in an African country.

Activity: Make a donation to a charitable organization that operates in Africa.

=> SOS Kinderdörfer, South Sudan project (see above).



Task the Sixth: The Hanukkah:

Read: Let the dreidel choose a book for you

=> Arthur Conan Doyle: The Valley of Fear (audio version read by Simon Vance)

Activity: Make a traditional Hanukkah food like doughnuts or potato latkes.

=> Latkes (Kartoffelpuffer / Reibekuchen), courtesy of Cologne Cathedral Christmas Market


Task the Seventh: The Christmas:

Read: A book set during the Christmas holiday season.

=> Donna Andrews: The Nightingale Before Christmas

Activity: Set up a

=> Christmas bookstagram-style scene with favorite holiday reads, objects or decorations.


Task the Eighth: The Movie Ticket:

Reading: A book that has been adapted to a holiday movie:

=> Frances Hodgson Burnett – Little Lord Fauntleroy (see above)

Activity: Go see a new theater release this holiday season (this does not have to be a holiday movie).



Task the Ninth: The Happy New Year:

Read: (A coming of age novel or) any old favorite comfort read:

=> Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol (audio version performed by Patrick Stewart)

Activity: Post a holiday picture of yourself from your childhood or youth.
=> Task the Ninth, Part 2



Task the Tenth: The Holiday Down Under:

Read: A book set in Australia or by an Australian author.

=> Kerry Greenwood: Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates

Activity: Buy some Christmas crackers (or make your own) to add to your festivities and share some pictures.



Task the Eleventh: The Polar Express:

Read: A book that involves train travel.
=> Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express

Activity: Read a classic holiday book from your childhood, or tell a story about a childhood Christmas you’d like to share.
=> Hans Christian Andersen: The Snow Queen



Task the Twelfth: The Wassail Bowl:

Reading: A book set in the UK, preferably during the medieval or Victorian periods.

=> Mary Stewart: The Crystal Cave

Activity: Drink a festive, holiday beverage; take a picture of your drink, and post it to share – make it as festive as possible.
=> Mulled wine (Glühwein), courtesy of Cologne Cathedral Christmas Market









The Twelve Tasks of the Festive Season — Task the Sixth: The Hanukkah

Eldest (Inheritance, #2) - Christopher Paolini The Valley of Fear - Arthur Conan Doyle The Complete Sherlock Holmes (The Heirloom Collection) - Bill & Martin Greenberg (eds.), Ian Fleming, Leslie Charteris, John D. MacDonald, W. Somerset Maugham, Peter O'Donnell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Erle Stanley Gardner, John Jakes, Edward D. Hoch, Cornell Woolrich, William E. Barrett, Bruce Cassiday, Mic Even Dogs in the Wild - Ian Rankin Letters from Father Christmas - J.R.R. Tolkien,Baillie Tolkien Letters From Father Christmas - J.R.R. Tolkien


Reading: Let the dreidel choose a book for you:

נ  Nun (miracle): Christopher Paolini – Eldest (audio version read by Kerry Shale)
ג Gimel (great): Arthur Conan Doyle – The Valley of Fear (audio version read by Simon Vance)
ה He (happened): Ian Rankin – Even Dogs in the Wild
ש Shin (there, i.e. Israel): J.R.R. Tolkien – Letters From Father Christmas

So, it’ll be Arthur Conan Doyle’s Valley of Fear!


Original post:

Halloween: Incidental Opera

The Bride of Lammermoor - Walter Scott, J.H. Alexander, Kathryn Sutherland … well, sort of.  I’m not sure whether Bonn Opera actually had Halloween in mind when they scheduled the opening night of their production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (based on Walter Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor) – it’s not overly likely, though I wouldn’t put it past them – but it of course fits the topic admirably, and thus made for a very nice post-blackout final accord to the Halloween book bingo for me …


… even more so as starring in the title role was Julia Novikova, who debuted in Bonn a few years ago and has since enjoyed a rather impressively successful career, which at a very young age has already taken her, inter alia, to Vienna and Salzburg – and who, of course, gave a phantastic performance as Lucia.

(Ms. Novikova in the “mad scene”)

No video of her as Lucia yet, but here she is with the “Moon Song” from one of my all-time favorite operas, Dvorak’s Rusalka

… and for the German speakers, here’s a brief portrait from her debut season at Bonn Opera.

And this, finally, is the famous “mad scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor with Natalie Dessay starring as Lucia (I much preferred Ms. Novikova’s version, though):


Original post:


Pat McIntosh: The Harper’s Quine

Enjoyable storytelling marred by major irritants

I had been contemplating a long rant setting forth in detail how and why this book trespasses into several of my pet peeve areas at once, but as I won’t be rushing to read the next books from the series even though I enjoyed it from a mere storytelling point of view, here’s the expedited version:


  • The main character, Gil Cunningham; sort of a nice-guy-from-next-door, not-superhuman guy who comes across as by and large very believable, albeit at times a bit too goodie-two-shoes for someone who has just spent several years at a foreign university and has traveled a considerable distance to get there and back home, and therefore would have to be expected to have seen his fair share of the world and gained his fair share of experience.
  •  Ditto Gil’s new best friend and (as is not hard to guess virtually from the get-go) father-in-law-to-be, Pierre, who joins Gil in investigating the murder. Ditto also some of the secondary characters, such as Gil’s uncle (and professional tutor/benefactor), Canon Cunningham – in fact, I’m not sure that Maistre Pierre and Canon Cuningham aren’t the characters I like best overall here – as well as the titular harper (the victim’s lover) and his sister.
  • The setting, medieval Glasgow, with plenty of period detail, most of which sounds well-researched and believable (for the period detail aspects that I found less convincing, see below).
  • The storytelling, which was engaging enough to keep me going even though I’d run into my first pet peeve before I’d even read the book’s very first sentence, which in turn swiftly proceeded to run afoul of the next one, and I ran into several others within a very short time thereafter.
  • The first sentence: “At the May Day dancing at Glasgow Cross, Gilbert Cunningham saw not only the woman who was going to be murdered, but her murderer as well” … Oh, did he now? Granted, in real life (and especially in a major modern city), this might be rather a stunning coincidence. But, let’s face it, in a mystery this sort of situation is not an unusual premise at all, and even less so in a mystery that more or less falls into the “cozy” mold, at least insofar as it is clear from the start that we will only be dealing with a narrowly circumscribed cast of characters – and in a setting that, although “urban” by medieval standards, is a far cry from modern-day Glasgow, or indeed from any modern city. So, big yawn right then and there, and if it hadn’t been for the setting, I wouldn’t even have bothered to read on at all.
  • Manifold pointless displays of the author’s own erudition, which don’t do anything to further the story; including in the book’s dedication, which sets forth in Latin (!) that the author dedicates the book to her loved ones with much love, and in joyful memory of her parents. Even the dedication aside, though, there were several instances that had me wondering “… and I need to know this because …??”
  • In addition to substantial pointless infodump, also major “technical” (in this instance, legalese) infodump, which considerably bogs down the narrative flow; unless you choose to ignore it entirely, at the risk of then not being able to understand the solution to the murder. This was supposed to be a leisure read, for crying out loud, not a treatise on medieval Scottish marriage and property law. I realize of course that if such issues have a bearing on the outcome of your story, you must explain them somehow, but (a) for one thing I’m not sure they really were all that indispensable here, and (b) even if they were, having them come out of a conversation between two lawyers (who might as well be speaking Chinese, or Martian, or Klingon, to anyone not likewise of their profession) is hardly the most appropriate way, even if the conversation in question is still a bit less technical than it might have been in real life. (Being of said profession myself, I did manage to make sense of the issues, but I couldn’t help thinking “thank God they’re talking about the law and not about medicine or engineering.”) Personally, I vastly prefer the way this is handled by C.J. Sansom, whose main character (Matthew Shardlake) is a lawyer as well, and who typically introduces the legal concepts relevant to his books either by way of Shardlake’s explanations to clients and other non-lawyers in laymen’s terms, or by eschewing “show, don’t tell” entirely and giving a straightforward explanation in the narrative, albeit in Shardlake’s voice – and who typically also appends an explanatory note to his books, setting forth their real-life period background, including any relevant legal concepts. I can’t help but feel that such a note would have been highly beneficial to this present book as well.
  • An imbalance of infodump on the one hand and insufficient background information on the other hand. E.g., Gil’s big conflict is having to (and not wanting to) join the clergy in order to be able to practice as a lawyer at all, because he doesn’t have sufficient means to set up shop on his own. – Now, I happen to be at least marginally familiar with the interplay of the clerical and the legal world in the Middle Ages, because legal history happens to be an area I am interested in, so I could just about make sense of what was supposed to be going on there. But anyone wholly unfamiliar with Gil’s professional background certainly wouldn’t be able to glean as much from the pages of this book alone, or understand how having studied law in Paris would make you fit to become a clergyman in Scotland to begin with.
  • Sloppiness either in writing or in research (can’t tell and frankly don’t care which it is), e.g. in mentioning a book title that would be commensurate with today’s legal literature, but entirely untypical of the titles of medieval law books (indeed, not even in keeping with the medieval concept of legal compendiums to begin with). This, moreover, for a book which in and of itself is wholly irrelevant to the story and whose title is merely one of a myriad “show, don’t tell” details that could easily be dropped or replaced by something more convincing.
  • Cardboard characters, especially in the description of the rich and powerful, as well as the one representative of bourgh (city) law enforcement.
  • Being able to guess the murderer way too early in the story. I had a suspicion early on (just hoped for it to be a red herring), was almost certain less than halfway through, and my last doubts were removed two thirds of the way into the book; by an incident, moreover, whose central clue (an exclamation in Italian) the author only partially even bothers to unravel in the final wind-up: and the part that she doesn’t unravel is not only precisely the part that clinched the solution for me once and for all – much more importantly, it is also an exclamation that Pierre, who is present on the occasion and speaks Italian (he even translates for Gil) would have had to be blind, deaf and dumb not to put into context immediately himself.
  • A cop-out on the main character’s central conflict, which isn’t actually resolved by his struggles with his own conscience (even though he does even have a somewhat pedestrianly-executed epiphany-esque moment), but by the beneficient interference of third parties.
  • And lastly, biggest and most important pet peeve, and my main deterrent from reading any further books from this series: A completely unbelievable female main character; namely, Gil’s love interest and (as is likewise clear virtually from the get-go) bride-to-be, Pierre’s daughter Alys. That kid, at age 16 mind you and never mind that upwards of 75% of all women in the Middle Ages couldn’t read to begin with, has an erudition not only matching but arguably greater than Gil’s (although he comes from a more scholarly background), is – without any formal schooling whatsoever – able to argue, off hand and in three different languages (including Latin), fine points of law and theology that Gil just spent several years at Paris University studying, advances views that not even forward-thinking and powerful real-life medieval women such as Christine de Pizan, Hildegard of Bingen or Eleanor of Aquitaine dared to express this openly (moreover, at the beginning of the book, to a young man whom she has only just met and knows to be destined for the clergy, at a time in history when anything making a woman “troublesome” in male (or female competitive) eyes – certainly excessive learning and self-assurance – could have ended up branding her a witch and landing her on a pyre, based on a trial conducted by exactly the sort of Canon lawyer Gil Cunningham is destined to become, and guided by the infamous “Hammer Against Witches” published a mere ten years before this book’s action takes place) … while at the same time also merrily and competently running her widowed father’s household and besting even women twice or three times her age, and multiple mothers at that, in various tricky situations involving babies and small children. She is, in other words, Superwoman (or rather, Supergirl) writ large. In fact, with all of her manifold accomplishments, I would have had trouble buying her as a character even in a book set in more modern times, but for the Middle Ages, she is totally unbelievable and off the mark. And as she is destined to feature largely in the series’s subsequent books as well, she is the main reason why I won’t be rushing to read any of them. (Just as an aside and for related reasons, the attitudes that the book’s “good guys”, not only Gil, Alys and Pierre, but also Canon Cunningham take towards the victim and her back story, are neither commensurate with medieval clerical and legal doctrine nor certainly with medieval popular opinion, either. That, too, I found rather an irritant.)

As I enjoyed the book from a mere storytelling point of view, as well as the “period details” relating to medieval Scotland as a setting, my rating is overall higher than the room given to the above “dislikes” would suggest. Also, undoubtedly these are personal dislikes, so to a certain extent it’s a question of “this is just me.” (Although since I said at the beginning of this review that the above is the expedited version, you can probably imagine what the full rant would have been like …) Be that as it may:

Someone said in a “pro” review somewhere that where Brother Cadfael left off, this series picks up: I would beg to differ; and not only because Ellis Peters unfailingly had her facts right down to every single detail, and created characters whose attitudes, prejudices and other makeup were actually in synch with the times about which she wrote. Indeed, Brother Cadfael’s often different attitudes and opinions (which he has reached after a lifetime of, literally, having seen the world as it was then known) frequently are a challenge to his contemporaries precisely because they are highly unorthodox from those contemporaries’ point of view, and for the very same reason, Cadfael often gets in trouble. Perhaps most importantly, none of Ellis Peters‘s characters, certainly neither Cadfael himself nor any of the women he encounters, are anywhere near infallible, nor do any of the women transcend (at all, let alone as egregiously as Alys does here) the historically verifiable boundaries of women’s life in the Middle Ages. – In short, Mrs. McIntosh knows how to spin a story, and she also seems to know a fair bit about medieval Glasgow, but she has a long way to go yet if she even wants to get anywhere near the league of Ellis Peters (or, for that matter, C.J. Sansom).


A Playlist for Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus Series

 Beggar's Banquet - Ian Rankin Let it Bleed - Ian Rankin  


This moved from Tumblr to BookLikes, as part of the blogging challenge I’ve decided to call “Bookish Q&A 3: The Maxi Version” (you can find the complete Q&A in the “About” section of the sidebar to the right).

One of my all-time favorite book series, Ian Rankin‘s Inspector Rebus series, seems tailor-made for this particular challenge, as music is absolutely key to it, not only in terms of plot and characters, but also in terms of book and chapter titles, which Rankin frequently takes from song lyrics or album titles.  And seeing as music in the Rebus books is very much about Rebus’s overall tastes, as well as Ian Rankin‘s own (the latter, smuggled in through Rebus’s sidekick, Siobhan Clarke), there really isn’t any point in singling out any individual book to begin with … so let’s go the whole hog and have a list for the entire series, shall we?

As Rankin is fairly explicit about Rebus’s major favorites – Rolling Stones, Rolling Stones, and then some – to a certain extent this list almost writes itself; all the more since in his nonfiction companion book, Rebus’s Scotland, Rankin himself actually reels off a pretty extensive list of artists that either Rebus or he himself (or Siobhan Clarke) would consider favorites.  But there’s still plenty of room to be creative, as Rankin‘s focus is more on the artists themselves, not on individual songs or albums.  And anyway, what’s to stop me from adding a few choices of my own? So, here we go:

Obviously the list needs to be built around those albums and songs (chiefly, but not exclusively, by the Stones) that even provided book titles for the series:

  • The Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, and Black and Blue
  • Radiohead: Exit Music (for a film) (album: OK Computer)
  • Jackie Leven: Another Man’s Rain, One Man One Guitar (both from the album Oh What a Blow That Phantom Dealt Me!)



And since Rankin himself, like Rebus, also has a particular and lasting fondness for Jackie Leven and in 2004 even appeared live together with him at Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, which later yielded their joint release, Jackie Leven Said, obviously that whole recording needs to go onto the playlist as well.

Moreover, as Rankin specifies that Rebus is generally a fan of “mid-period Stones” (by which he means the albums from the late 1960s and the early 1970s), let’s also throw in their two other major blockbuster albums from that period; as well as, for my own gratification, the very first Stones song I ever heard, and which is still one of my absolute favorites (even though it’s early and not “mid-period” Stones):

  • Sticky Fingers
  • Exile on Main Street
  • (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (album: Out of Our Heads [U.S. version])

Moving on to other artists, as bands and artists that Rebus does, or would probably like, Rankin mentions the following – for whom I’ve taken the liberty to add one or several fairly iconic song titles or, in individual cases, entire albums:

  • Leonard Cohen: Songs of Leonard Cohen (entire album)
  • The Who: My Generation (album: My Generation), Pinball Wizard (album: Tommy), Who’s Next (entire album)
  • The Surfaris: Wipe Out (album: Wipe Out)
  • Frank Zappa: Bobby Brown (Goes Down) (album: Sheik Yerbouti)
  • Maggie Bell: Midnight Flyer (album: Midnight Flyer)
  • Frankie Miller: Darlin’ (album: Falling in Love)
  • Status Quo: Whatever You Want (album: Whatever You Want), Rockin’ All Over the World (album: Rockin’ All Over the World)
  • Jethro Tull: Locomotive Breath (album: Aqualung)
  • David Bowie: Heroes (album: Heroes), Space Oddity (album: Space Oddity)
  • Van Morrison: Moondance (album: Moondance)
  • Barclay James Harvest: Child of the Universe, The Great 1974 Mining Disaster (both from the album Everyone Is Everybody Else), Hymn (album: Gone to Earth)
  • Tom Waits: Ol’ 55 (album: Closing Time), Tom Traubert’s Blues (album: Small Change)
  • Nazareth: Love Hurts (album: Hair of the Dog), Dream On (album: 2XS), This Flight Tonight (album: Loud’n Proud), Shanghai’d in Shanghai (album: Rampant)
  • Alex Harvey / SAHB: Next, and The Faith Healer (both from the album Next), Delilah (album: Live)
  • The Incredible String Band: A Very Cellular Song (album: The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter)
  • Donovan: Universal Soldier (album: Universal Soldier), Hurdy Gurdy Man (album: The Hurdy Gurdy Man)
  • John Martyn: May You Never (album: Solid Air)
  • Carol Kidd: The Night We Called It a Day (album: The Night We Called It a Day)

The next group of artists are those that Rankin either mentions explicitly as among the ones that have played a pivotal role in his own life (especially the first five; for the first three, he even specifies the songs listed here), or suggests they’d be artists that Siobhan Clarke would like – some of the series’s books indeed have her listening to some of them – which by extension, as per his general explanations, also means there’s a certain likelihood that Rankin himself likes and listens to them:

  • The Clash: London Calling (album: London Calling)
  • Big Country: In a Big Country (album: The Crossing)
  • Simon & Garfunkel: The Boxer (album: Bridge Over Troubled Water – and for my own gratification, let’s add the title track as well, shall we?)
  • Peter Gabriel: Solsbury Hill (album: Car), Games Without Frontiers (album: Melt), Sledgehammer (album: So)
  • Rory Gallagher: Tattoo (entire album)
  • The Beatles: A Day in the Life, She’s Leaving Home (both from the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)
  • Cream: Sunshine of Your Love (album: Disraeli Gears), I Feel Free (album: Fresh Cream), White Room (album: Wheels on Fire)
  • Deacon Blue: Real Gone Kid (album: When the World Knows Your Name)
  • Edwyn Collins: A Girl Like You (album: Gorgeous George)
  • Mogwai: Mr. Beast (entire album)
  • The Blue Nile: Easter Parade, duet version with Rickie Lee Jones (originally from the album A Walk Across the Rooftops)
  • Josef K: It’s Kinda Funny, Sorry For Laughing, The Missionary (all from the album The Only Fun in Town)
  • Cocteau Twins: Iceblink Luck (album: Heaven or Las Vegas)
  • Belle and Sebastian: Seymour Stein, The Boy with the Arab Strap (both from the album The Boy with the Arab Strap)
  • Tommy Smith: Seal (album: Beasts of Scotland)
  • Rod Stewart: Downtown Train (album: Storyteller – The Complete Anthology: 1964–1990)

Finally, just for my own pleasure I’d add to the above:

  • Guns’n Roses: Sympathy for the Devil (from the soundtrack for the movie Interview With the Vampire)
  • Dire Straits: Sultans of Swing (album: Dire Straits), Brothers in Arms (album: Brothers in Arms), Telegraph Road,  Private Investigations (both from the album Love Over Gold)
  • Mark Knopfler: What It Is, The Last Laugh (duet with Van Morrison), Silvertown Blues (all from the album Sailing to Philadelphia), 5.15 AM (album: Shangri-La), Going Home (from the soundtrack for the movie Local Hero)
  • The Police: Don’t Stand So Close to Me (album: Zenyatta Mondatta)
  • Sting: Moon Over Bourbon Street (album: Dream of the Blue Turtles), Fields of Gold (album: Ten Summoner’s Tales)
  • Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here, Shine on You Crazy Diamond (both from the album Wish You Were Here), Money (album: Dark Side of the Moon)
  • The Talking Heads: Once in a Lifetime (album: Remain in Light), Burning Down the House (album: Speaking in Tongues), And She Was, Road to Nowhere (album: Little Creatures)
  • U2: Sunday Bloody Sunday (album: War), The Fly, Mysterious Ways (both from the album Achtung Baby), Elevation (album: All That You Can’t Leave Behind)
  • Muse: Invincible (album: Black Holes and Revelations), Uprising, Resistance, Undisclosed Desires (all from the album The Resistance), Survival (album: The 2nd Law)
  • Hurts: Wonderful Life, Stay (both from the album Happiness)
  • The Cranberries: Zombie (album: No Need to Argue)
  • Annie Lenox: Medusa (entire album)
  • Amy Macdonald: This Is the Life (album: This Is the Life), Slow It Down (album: Life in a Beautiful Light)

Ian Rankin: The Jack Harvey Novels – Witch Hunt / Bleeding Hearts / Blood Hunt

The Jack Harvey Novels: Witch Hunt; Bleeding Hearts; Blood Hunt - Ian Rankin, Jack HarveyThree Early Mainstream Thrillers.

Oh, the blessings of being an author with too much time on his hands. I can just picture Ian Rankin sitting in the house (farm? cottage?) he and his wife bought in rural Dordogne, having whizzed through the manuscript for yet another increasingly well-written John Rebus novel and – having left behind all other employment across the British Channel and neither inclined to carpentry nor gardening – feeling his mind growing restless, in need of occupation. Now, wouldn’t you have started looking for another outlet for your creative energy had you been in his spot?

The result of the aforementioned process, which Rankin describes in this compilation’s foreword, were three thrillers written under the pseudonym Jack Harvey (Jack for his newborn son, Harvey for his wife’s maiden name); now finally back in print and reunited in a single volume.

Witch Hunt - Ian Rankin, Jack HarveyWitch Hunt

Jack Harvey’s career began with the story of a female assassin – the book’s title character – pursued by various agents of the British and French governments, as well as retired secret service man Dominic Elder, who has both a private and a professional bone to pick with her. The plot moves at Rankin’s trademark fast pace, from Witch’s arrival on Britain’s South Coast (leaving her calling card by blowing up both boats she’d used to cross the Channel from France … with their crews inside) to her first order of “real” business in Scotland, then to London, where Witch implements her plan’s second phase and where her hunters have meanwhile formed a reluctant coalition, to France and Germany, for two rookie agents’ unlicensed investigation of the assassin’s past, and ultimately back to London, for Witch’s final coup, amidst a major international conference no less.

As in the Rebus novels, Rankin particularly excels in the creation of his male characters; they are three-dimensional and, all in their own ways, flawed and profoundly human(e). The book’s few female protagonists strike me a bit too much as variations on the same theme (superwoman with varying degrees of femininity, or what passes for such in male eyes): while justifiable in the title character – especially if, as Rankin says, she was inspired by the “Elektra: Assassin” series – overall this made it a tad difficult for me to identify with either of them. For proof that Rankin, even then, could do much better, consider DC Clarke in the Rebus novels … or Belinda, the (anti-)hero’s companion in the second Jack Harvey novel, “Bleeding Hearts.” Plot-wise, I don’t necessarily think the final denouement of “Witch Hunt” is a let-down per se; although I would’ve wished it had been developed more fully, as had the private motivations of Dominic Elder and one of the rookies, French agent Dominique (!) Herault. Still, Rankin’s first Jack Harvey thriller is a major cut above average and a great introduction to the two following books.

Bleeding Hearts - Ian RankinBleeding Hearts

Things really shift into high gear with the second Jack Harvey novel. Unusual is, already, its protagonist: another assassin, but this time a large part of the story is told from his perspective, and the presumed “bad guy’s” first person narrative magnetically draws you in, until you end up rooting for him – the cool, slick, smart, presumably rather goodlooking operator – and not for the ex-cop-turned-P.I. who’s been on his heels for years, and compared to whom even a classic noir gumshoe would almost look like an epitome of innocence (besides being a good deal slimmer). What is more, the story’s enigmatic anti-hero suffers from a birth defect both supremely ironic and potentially fatal in his line of work: hemophilia …

Mike Weston’s nickname in professional circles on both sides of the law is “Demolition Man,” for the small set of explosives he plants near the site of each job in lieu of a calling card. After a few jobs have gone anything but smoothly (or so rumor has it), he needs a good, clean hit to restore his reputation. Just that seems to be handed to him with the assassination of a reporter about to embark on a story involving a religious cult with the peaceful-sounding name “Disciples of Love.” And initially everything goes as planned: the target is where she is supposed to be exactly at the time she is supposed to be there, and he nails her with a shot into the heart; another calling card of his.

But then things start to happen that he hasn’t been planning for, and in his view there’s only one explanation – he’s been set up. So while normally he would leave the place of his hit as quickly and silently as possible, now he has to retrace the job to its origins, find out who was behind it and who wants him out of the way. Assisted by Belinda, the daughter of his trusted, reclusive Yorkshire gun supplier, he soon finds himself on the trace of a group of ruthless people who actually do make our Mike look well-neigh moral in comparison, as well as an international conspiracy not only involving the “Disciples of Love” but also, in the novel’s conclusion, drawing on a lesser-known factual tidbit from the Iran-Contra affair.

We learn little about Mike’s motivation and moral code over the course of the novel. He does reveal that, not having found much pleasure in more ordinary occupations, he gradually slid into his current profession through the fascination with guns and his prowess as a shooter that his father had first awakened in him; and he presents us with all professional killers’ age-old adage: “I knew I wouldn’t be working for the Salvation Army. But then I wasn’t killing any nuns and priests, either. It was only after a few hits that I decided anyone was fair game. It isn’t up to the executioner to pronounce guilt or innocence. He just makes sure the instruments are humane.” Outside a few insights into his psyche like this, however, Mike’s focus is more on the “who,” “what,” “where” and “how” of a job, not the “why” – the latter only becomes a question when his own life is at stake. But this is all just as well. Rankin walks a tight rope in keeping Mike’s inner workings largely concealed from the reader, and he walks it convincingly; much more so than if he had tried to overtly humanize Mike Weston.

Along their chase, Mike and Belinda encounter a number of unique and likewise deliciously drawn characters; to name but one, Mike’s friend Spike Jackson, as gun-crazy redneck as you’ll ever encounter them but at the same time, their only true ally. Add to that Rankin’s superb instinct for locales, language and dialogue, and you have one heck of a ride; a high-powered chase from London to Yorkshire, Scotland and all across the United States, ending with a shootout near Olympic National Park in Washington State that could have been choreographed by the likes of Sam Peckinpah and Brian De Palma.

Of all three Jack Harvey novels, “Bleeding Hearts” is by far my favorite. In the foreword to the above-mentioned compilation, Rankin concedes that in creating Mike Weston he may inadvertently have either “been paying homage” to one of his own favorite novels, Martin Amis’s “Money,” or “trying to write that seductive narrative voice of [the other novel’s protagonist’s] John Self’s out of [his] system.” Whatever it was, it certainly had me hooked; and not just a little.

Blood Hunt - Ian Rankin: Blood Hunt

In the last book, fans of Inspector Rebus meet an old acquaintance; George Reeve from the first Rebus novel, “Knots and Crosses.” Only here he’s the good guy – well, mostly; because there isn’t such a thing as a clean-cut “good guy” in any Ian Rankin novel. In any event, “Blood Hunt” introduces us to Reeve’s back story; his life as an outdoors survival teacher, and his own memories and nightmares of his service with the SAS – after we’ve already gotten a fair share of Rebus’s in “Knots and Crosses” – particularly the Falklands campaign, during which he met the man who would soon turn out to be his biggest nemesis; as much as Reeve will later become a nemesis to Rebus.

Further, we learn that Reeve had a brother; a journalist on the trail of a story centering around a chemical company headquartered in San Diego. When that brother is murdered, Reeve’s instincts as a hunter are awakened – and like a bull terrier he pits himself to the heels of those responsible for the murder and doesn’t let go until he has brought them to justice: his kind of justice, that is, which isn’t necessarily that of the police, but one they understand only too well. The SAS call themselves Nietzsche’s gentlemen – believing in the self-proclaimed amoralist’s teachings that the will to power is all that matters and all that controls life; and the novel’s conclusion is very much in keeping with that adage.

As a back story to the first Rebus book, “Blood Hunt” works only just so – while the essential facts are in synch with Reeve’s and Rebus’s SAS past, to truly click with “Knots and Crosses,” this book would have had to be written about a decade earlier, or vice versa, which in turn wouldn’t square with the later Rebus books’ historical and political references … you get the picture. Read as a stand-alone, however, this is a tightly-plotted thriller, every bit as violent as the second Jack Harvey novel, “Bleeding Hearts” (there’s a reason why blood figures in both books’ titles) and, while based on a conspiracy theory that easily dates it as a mid-1990s release, as strong as both “Bleeding Hearts” and the best of the Rebus books on characters and settings (Scotland to San Diego, London, France and back, with – literally – a cliffhanger finale on the Outer Hebrides’ rough mountainous territory). And then there’s that children’s rhyme that I don’t think I’ll ever hear quite the same way I used to …

While I’m happy enough for Rankin’s success with Inspector Rebus and wouldn’t want any story featuring Edinburgh’s finest (and most hard-drinking) D.I. missing from my bookcases, in a way I regret that Rankin had to shelve Jack Harvey after only three books. So just in case, Mr. Rankin, in the unlikely event that you should ever resurrect that alter ego (or write a non-Rebus novel under your own name): I promise I’ll read that one, too, and probably with just as much pleasure as any of your other books. And yes, I think I also spotted the occasional Rebus in-joke – well, some of them at least.

Love Me Tenderloin, anyone?

Ian Rankin: Rebus – The Early Years: Knots & Crosses / Hide & Seek / Tooth & Nail

Rebus: The Early Years - Ian RankinTwisted minds and the dark secrets of Edinburgh’s other side.

He had wanted to update Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” for modern times, Ian Rankin writes about his first Inspector Rebus novel, “Knots and Crosses” in the introduction to the compilation “Rebus: The Early Years”, which contains the first three installments of the series. Oblivious to the mere existence of such a thing as the mystery genre – or so Rankin says – he was stunned to soon hear his book described first and foremost as a crime novel. But eventually this characterization prompted him to have a closer look at the work of other mystery writers, and he found that the form suited his purposes just fine; that in fact he “could say everything [he] wanted to say about the world, and still give readers a pacy, gripping narrative.”

Bearing in mind the original duality of Jekyll and Hyde, however, Rankin’s tales are not dominated by a contrast painted in black and white. While the villains Inspector Rebus faces are certainly every bit as evil as Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde, Rebus himself is far from a clean-slated “good guy:” Divorced, cynical, hard-drinking and a former member of the SAS, he is a brother in spirit to every noir detective from Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe to Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, James Ellroy’s squad of crooked cops and Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks. Nor is Rebus’s Edinburgh the touristy town of Calton Hill, Castle and Edinburgh Fringe (although the series has meanwhile sparked real-life guided tours to its most famous locations, too) – as befitting a true detective of his ilk, Rankin’s antihero moves primarily in the city’s dark and dirty underbelly, which is populated by society’s losers and where those who have “made it,” those with money in their pockets, only show up if they have shady deals to conduct as well.

Knots and Crosses - Ian RankinKnots and Crosses

In a similar fashion to Michael Connelly’s first Harry Bosch novel “The Black Echo,” where Bosch is forced to revisit the experiences he made as a Vietnam “tunnel rat,” in his own first case Rebus must uncover long-buried memories of his SAS past. For hunting a serial killer whom the tabloids quickly dub “The Edinburgh Strangler,” and whose headline-gathering murders at first seem totally unrelated, Rebus eventually makes the connection between those crimes and a series of anonymous letters he receives, and realizes that it is he himself who is the killer’s true target, and that the murderer’s crimes are based on such a cruel scheme – and executed with such inhuman skill and precision – that only one particular man’s thoroughly disturbed mind can have come up with them. And at the same time, Rebus is trying to work out his difficult relationship with his brother Michael, whose life is so different from his own – financially successful and ostensibly happily married and squeaky clean throughout, Michael seems to be on the sunny side of life in every respect labeled a failure in Rebus’s own life story – but he soon discovers that even Michael has secrets he is trying hard to keep from coming to light.

Hide and Seek - Ian RankinHide and Seek

The title of Rankin’s second Rebus novel is an even more overt play on Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous dual character(s) than the mere juxtaposition of cop and killer. This time, Rebus is on the hunt for the killer of a junkie whose half-naked body is found in a run-down, deserted building in the Pilmuir housing estates – the worst part of town, notwithstanding a nearby construction project involving high-priced luxury condominiums – positioned crucifixion-style and near a drawing possibly hinting at Satanic rituals. And Rebus’s only witness seems to be the young woman who had been living with the dead man for the last three months and heard him yell “Hide!” before pushing her out of the door, telling her: “They’ve murdered me;” but who is now more than just a little reluctant to cooperate, taking refuge, instead, behind an almost unbreakable rebel-against-society-façade, complete with peroxide hair, stud earrings and Attitude with a capital “A.” Tooth and Nail

Rebus’s third case, finally (originally titled “Wolfman,” for the alias that police have given the subject of their hunt) takes the detective to London, where he is to assist metro CID with the case of another serial killer, this one named for the bite marks he leaves on his victims’ bodies. Not overly enthusiastic about his mission to the capital (and thus mirroring once more the feelings of Rankin himself, who did not much like living there, either, and “brought Rebus to London so he could suffer, too”), Rebus soon alienates his metro counterpart by his constant unwillingness to follow protocol, although the two men get along reasonably well on a personal level. Eventually, Rebus so seriously jeopardizes his and – by extension – Edinburgh CID’s reputation with the Met that he is about to be recalled home, when he finally makes the crucial connection that unmasks the killer, just in time to save the young psychologist who has offered her help with the case and who is his latest love interest. (As befits a good noir detective, Rebus has a new flame in every book, not without incurring fresh scars from each separation, however.)

While this series had a terrific start already in its first three novels, published between 1987 and 1992, Rebus’s character – and Rankin’s writing – has evolved significantly over time. Thus, it is probably wise to read it in the order of publication. Contrary to the novels he wrote under the pseudonym Jack Harvey, however, and which he views much more critically in hindsight, Ian Rankin overall still seems to be happy with his early Rebus books, commenting almost nostalgically: “I can’t read them without thinking back to my own early years, my apprenticeship as a crime writer. Read and enjoy.” I have nothing to add to that …

See Also:

A Playlist for Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus Series