Peter May – “The Runner”

Reginald Hill and Colin Dexter are dead. The flow of Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Jo Nesbo novels has slows to annual events. Maybe I’m unduly harsh upon my favourite crime authors but I thought it worthwhile to explore the merits of Peter May – would it be worth visiting his back catalogue. Based on this, hmmm, maybe, if I manage to get through the current unread section of my bookshelf before the end of the year.

The book is well written and crafted. It flowed easily and kept me interested. But I never felt truly challenged to think and analyse or to realise we had been shown previous clues without realising there proper significance.

Plots twists, drama – none that weren’t easily predicted – well maybe one at the end as we discover the inside source of leaks. But the main case itself didn’t challenge.

I won’t be avoiding Peter May’s books if I need a read, but I won’t be seeking them out or following the latest publication with anticipation.

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“Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts”

The synopsis of this film certainly help explain the almost empty cinema. A recently widowed women in a remote farm suffers a home invasion where the robbers steal all the live stock, then intend each to rape her in turn and have clearly all done this before in other places – not an easy story-line.

Though we were in our favourite seats I was tempted to move a row just so I could truthfully claim I had a whole row to myself in what is usually a regularly packed venue. In fact we tried to book several films for the week ahead only to find them all sold out.

The fact that this was also a sub-titled Indonesian film may have also reduced the audience appeal further. But reverse psychology should be applied – for a film with so many things seemingly against it to have made it to the bill should have hinted at merit and so it turned out.

Marlina is shockingly pragmatic about her initial dilemma. When opportunity presents itself, she poisons her attackers. Though is is one of the unexplored aspect of the film as to why she has  small stock of poisonous berries in her clothes drawer.

Though their leader escapes being poisoned, he ends up beheaded and the practical Marlina sets of to the police station with his head as evidence. Whilst those she meets are mildly surprised they aren’t outright shocked. At the other end of the spectrum, the police seem totally blasé to her statement, they don’t have any transport at the moment, maybe in a few days they can come to the farm, they should take evidence but they don’t have the equipment for that yet.

There is much more. Not as shocking as the initial synopsis made out. Well filmed though with a strange overlay of spaghetti western music. But I suspect a lot of subtext about the differing regard of respect for the dead and tolerance of adversity for the living may have been missed and would have helped explain more of the participants attitudes and behaviours – maybe a film that should have come with an Indonesian primer.

 

 

Brenda Maddox – “The Dark Lady of DNA”

Firstly I must say that this is very well written. The polar opposite of James Watson’s “Double Helix”. So we lose the all out like it or not frank honesty but gain a well written and considered story.

Shakespeare’s “dark lady” was a muse and object of adoration. However, when Maurice Wilkins referring to Rosalind Franklin as “the dark lady of DNA”, it was to convey his pleasure that she would soon be leaving his lab and so cease being a thorn in his life.

At its simplest, Wilkins thought he had recruited a crystallographer to aid his work studying the structure of DNA. However, Franklin thought she had been given the task of cryptographic examination of DNA as her own personal project – and somehow John Randall, head of the department in which they worked failed to resolve the crucial conflict that then ran for years.

And this is all against a background of academia that would shock us now even though its recent history. Whilst women could attend as undergraduates and gain degrees, going on to higher levels of academic recognition such as doctorates and professorships were still very much closed doors in most fields. So even one of the acknowledged best crystallographers in the world could only hold makeshift titles such as “Senior Experimenter”.

Fortunately she could still publish papers, and so gain a reputation as a very skilled and knowledgeable scientist. It may also explain how, even if her nature wasn’t argumentative (it was), she would always lean towards vigorously defending any gains – especially her project.

Should she have had a Noble Prize along with Crick and Watson – very probably but for her untimely death at 37. Would she have been named on their Nobel Prize if still alive – probably not given the still misogynist process of nomination. That Maurice Wilkins was the third name on their Nobel Prize is highly unfortunate, given that in practical terms his only contribution was that the work occurred in his lab. Whilst she didn’t deduce the actual structure of DNA, it was her work before and after that helped lead Watson and Crick’s to publishing their model and then validated that model afterwards and so lead to their prize.

In the story of DNA with its pairing of A-T, C-G as its functional keys – reading how Watson and Crick worked together is a clear example of a natural complementary pairing of opposites that encouraged results. But Wilkins and Franklin were an opposite destructive pairing; the impossible A-C or G-T combination.

However, once the ‘dark lady’ left the domain of Wilkins, working in her own department with Aaron Klug, she found a positive paring that heralded a rapid flow of papers on a range of viruses and an increasing global reputation.

Its also interested to see her relationship afterwards with the other players in the DNA story. She meet Watson a few times and whilst we don’t see whether the relationship is close, its was on good enough terms for him (having returned to his native US) to meet her and help with her US trips. With Crick the evidence is that the relationship was very close in both professional and social terms. Follow her first serious operations, it was the Cricks who hosted her recovery.

 

 

James Watson – “The Double Helix”

The direct memory of one person’s involvement in understanding the inner structure of DNA – straight from the horses mouth.

Partially its interesting for the total lack of pretension, sophistry and editing by any PR gurus or editors that would probably occur these days. Yes, that does mean we also get to hear opinions and views that raise eyebrows. Probably it wouldn’t get published now.

Partially we can excuse that the writer is recalling his thoughts and views as a precocious 23-year old. Partially we have to accept that they were the unfortunate social norms of the time. But as has recently be demonstrated again, James Watson was never going to be a diplomat or feminist.

But it does give a largely unglossed view of the sometimes strange paradoxes of academic research – competing strains of competition, co-operation, chance and personal grudges and friendships.

That DNA was the likely language and mechanism of genetic inheritance was widely accepted. Even the components were well known. But the inner details of its structure were a mystery and the race was very much on to be the ones who discovered that. So much so that it seemed that every biochemist who was working on any subject was actually thinking on DNA whenever they could.

The problem for Watson and Crick were, that the team at Kings College London were the officially working on it in the UK, they were the team with the grant to do that work, with the best DNA samples and the best equipment for crystallography (the state of the art at the time for looking at atomic structures). And in the small British community it just wasn’t done to ‘tread on someone else’s lawn’, especially in the very cash-strapped world of post war Britain. But the King College team are embroiled in massive internal conflict.

Several times Watson and Crick are told to stop working on DNA. At one stage their material for building  models are taken away and sent for use by Kings. They are returned a year later, unused. And modelling proves to be the key. Several times Watson proposes models that Crick and others quickly disprove – but each time the models are refined. Until a final hectic few weeks where, thanks to the intervention of chemist Jerry Donohue to correct an error everyone had been making about the forms of some of the components, the model starts to become more solid and unfailing under examination.

Did they get experimental results from Kings that they shouldn’t have – maybe but only by a matter of weeks and with no fault on their part. They asked, quite openly, for the draft reports – if it shouldn’t have been given to them the fault wasn’t with Watson and Crick. And most importantly, at that stage whilst those reports provided valuable details for verifying the proposed model – they didn’t actually come to a conclusion more firm that it being likely a double-helix with the backbones of the helices on the outside. The crucial pairings of A-T, G-C were not there.

Worth reading for a quick dive into the events and players.

 

 

 

Ian Rankin & Rona Munro – “Long Shadows”

Firstly, if you like Rebus, don’t read this, read the book. It’s brilliant and the below contains spoilers.

Despite the different format, a play, and the length, short – if you like Rebus then this is a must. Even in its short length it manages several brilliant twists.

A serial killer is on trial. Advances in evidence analysis now mean he may finally be convicted. Rebus’s former assistant, DI Siobhan Clarke, is in charge and the case will almost certainly see her finally promoted to DCI.

Siobhan is incorruptible, but Rebus comes from an older “results by any means” school of policing, and now his past actions may threaten her case.

We find Cafferty, the seemingly untouchable villain of the series, attempting to compromise Siobhan into becoming his police insider. He can collapse her case, and in the process probably also get Rebus put on trial. Can she accept losing the case, her promotion and her mentor.

Of course not. SPOILER. After all their years of sparing, Rebus also finally has Cafferty bang to rights for a murder. It’s “mutually assured destruction”. And so Cafferty won’t get his police insider, but Rebus won’t finally get to set Cafferty jailed.

And in the final twist, we also get to meet a very unexpected potential new ‘Cafferty’ – just starting out on their murderous criminal career.

Ian Rankin – “In a House of Lies”

It is almost becoming a Christmas staple, the new Rankin, the next episode of Inspector Rebus – except it’s now increasingly breathless pensioner Rebus. But still hugely enjoyable as we now have the ‘how can he insert himself into the police’s business’ aspect.

I won’t go too much into plot. If you already like Rebus you won’t be disappointed. If you don’t know Rebus it will all be over your head. Lets just say that history is now a long tangle of mistakes and actions coming home to roost, including from Rebus himself. Can he effect an escape whilst still resolving the case.

John Rebus’s increasing wheezing as he suffers for years of smoking and drinking are a cruel touch of reality. Especially as I’m starting to suffer the same too but without having had the pleasure of the latter vices. Maybe I should start as the same fate comes to us all.

Role of next year and Christmas again. I see the collection of Ian Rankin books as preparation retirement, when I will start back at the beginning again.

 

Antony Beevor – “Arnhem”

This is a dense and detailed read, possible only completed due to the Christmas break from work. Whilst in any war; losses, setback and defeats are inevitable, right from the initial planning stage onward, operations “Market” and “Garden” standout as spectacular acts of stupidity.

Many of the airborne units involved had largely sat out D-day and kicked their heels in the months since as operation after operation was postponed and then cancelled. Some feared that they would eventually be dissolved into ordinary infantry divisions. Meanwhile, the allies have rapidly advanced on a huge front, pushing the Nazis back to the edge of Germany, but with supply lines now ridiculously stretched. And so for those and many other reasons, a ridiculous plan is accepted like the set of Emperor’s new clothes. No dissent or argument is heard.

Operation Garden was the ground operation. Planning such an advance on Nijmegen has been a standard exercise is Dutch military college  for year – and anyone who came up with the answer of a direct attack up the main road automatically failed the exam. But no one asks the Dutch. So we end up with an armoured advanced up narrow roads with flat marshy ground on either side.

Operation  Market is the air assault. Here in the planning too many compromises are made without anyone ever raising the red flag to say that the operation had gone from feasible to unlikely. At Arnhem, the landing has to be made over several days as there aren’t enough planes. The planes will all fly from England, where weather on any given day can be entirely different from that on the continent. The landing zone is several hours rapid march from the target. So even on the first day, only half the force will arrive. That half then has to split in order to both guard the landing zone they need for the next days reinforcements whilst the other half has several hours march to reach the target – if unopposed. So right in the planning, any and every advantage of an airborne assault is lost.

And so it all goes wrong. The bravery of the individual soldiers cannot be faulted, but it is the classic “lions led by sheep”. At every level, the officers make mistakes that compound the mistakes already built into the plans.

The story of “The Bridge Too Far” is often held up as a gallant failure. Rather than that, like the Charge of the Light Brigade, it’s hopefully used in military colleges now as a prime example of pure failure.