Out of Africa

The Sunday Times, 24 February 2013
   A Maasai warrior turned policeman is a fine new arrival in the ranks of fictional detectives in Joan Smith’s round-up
   The best crime novels say a great deal about the time and place in which they’re set. Street names in Oslo and Stockholm have become familiar through the Nordic novelists nd now a British journalist, Richard Crompton, has produced the first in a projected seies of books set in Kenya. The Honey Guide (Weidenfeld £12.99/ebook £6.99) introduces Mollel, a former Maasai warrior who now has a humdrum job in the police frce in Nairobi. Mollel is an intriguing figure, famous as the man who pulled dozens of srvivors from the wreckage of the US embassy after it was bombed in 1998. The novel pens in the run-up to the 2007 elections, when tension in the city is high amid alegations that the governing party intends to use fraud to stay in power. Mollel is ivestigating the murder and mutilation of a young Maasai woman, but it isn’t long before politics intrudes. ­Mollel’s vulnerabilities gradually unfold, revealing a damaged but determined character who promises to be a fine addition to the ranks of fictional detectives.
   Parker Bilal also writes about Africa and Dogstar Rising (Bloomsbury £11.99/ebook £11.99), his second novel set in Egypt, is as gripping as the first. Bilal’s books take place a decade before the Arab spring, in a Cairo where corruption and police brutality are the norm. Tension between the majority Muslim population and the Christian Copts forms the background to the new novel, in which sightings of a mysterious “angel” near a Coptic church seem to be linked to the murders of young boys. Bilal’s detective, Makana, is an outsider, a former ­Sudanese police officer scraping a living as a private detective in Cairo. Bilal is the pseudonym of a literary novelist, Jamal Mahjoub, and his skills are evident in the pace, confidence and emotional truth of this brilliant novel.
   Belinda Bauer has had a dream career as a writer of crime fiction, becoming one of its biggest names in the space of only three years. Her first book, Blacklands, won the 2010 CWA Gold Dagger, startling readers with a plot about a boy corresponding with a convicted paedophile in the hope of finding his uncle’s killer. Her fourth, Rubbernecker (Bantam £14.99/ebook £8.99), confirms her taste for the macabre, dividing its action between a neurological ward and a university dissection class. Bauer’s main character, Patrick Fort, is a young man whose take on the world is literal and obsessive. She never actually says he’s on the autistic spectrum but ­Patrick has been bullied at school and overprotected by his mother. Now he is heading off to university to study anatomy and hopes one day to work in a mortuary. His group of students is dissecting the cadaver of a middle-aged man when Patrick notices something that shouldn’t be there. This is not a novel for the squeamish but it contains one of the most startling plots in contemporary crime fiction.
   Elly Griffiths also writes about examining corpses, but in her novels they tend to be centuries old. Her main character, Dr Ruth Galloway, a forensic archeologist living in an isolated cottage in Norfolk, is a single mother who has an awkward relationship with her daughter’s father, DCI Nelson. In Dying Fall (Quercus £14.99/ebook £16.99), Galloway and Nelson find themselves in Blackpool, after the death of an archeologist in a fire. The dead man asked Galloway for advice just before the fire and she believes he was about to discover the tomb of the Raven King, a figure traditionally associated with King Arthur. Like the French writer Fred Vargas, Griffiths weaves superstition and myth into her crime novels, skilfully treading a line between credulity and modern methods of detection.
   Peter May’s The Chessmen (Quercus £14.99/ebook £14.99) completes the author’s trilogy set on the Isle of Lewis. Fin Macleod, a detective who has come home after the death of his child and the end of his marriage, is head of security on a private estate. He is looking for poachers when he finds the wreckage of a private plane. Inside is a decomposed body and Fin is convinced it is that of his childhood friend Roddy, whose plane disappeared many years ago. Fin can’t understand why another old friend, poacher Whistler Macaskill, is so uninterested in the discovery. Macaskill is a talented sculptor who has filled his isolated croft with giant replicas of the Lewis chessman, but he’s prickly and difficult. May’s novels are strong on place and the wounds left by old  relationships, but his taste for theatrical devices emerges once again towards the end of the novel.
   Robert Ryan’s Dead Man’s Land (Simon & Schuster £12.99/ebook £6.99) is set in the First World War, where a serial killer is using the trenches to conceal his crimes. The most notable feature of the novel is its use of an elderly Dr Watson (estranged from Sherlock Holmes) as an amateur detective. Watson has volunteered to go to the front in spite of his age and against Holmes’s wishes, and he’s constantly aware of the youth of the soldiers dying around him. He has brought equipment to carry out blood transfusions, a treatment still in its infancy, but he’s diverted into investigating a series of unexplained deaths. Men who were expected to survive are dying after displaying alarming symptoms, including a hideous spasm of the lips. Watson keenly feels the absence of Holmes, who is in frail health, and their estrangement plays a key role in this bleak but tender novel.

The Vicky Pryce jury proves the system works

Independent on Sunday, 24 February 2013

Hang on a minute: I know we’re all guffawing over the behaviour of the jury in the trial of Vicky Pryce, but are there really grounds for assuming that something went badly wrong? Hilarious as some of their questions to the judge appeared to be, it’s possible to come to a very different conclusion, namely that the system actually worked rather well.

In this scenario, which seemed to get the support of the former lord chief justice of England and Wales, Lord Woolf, on Radio 4′s Today programme, the jury’s questions were not the product of startling naivety. They look more like a successful attempt by one or more of the jurors to alert the judge to the fact that the discussion in the jury room was going in alarming directions.

In Latin grammar, the word “num” at the beginning of a sentence indicates that it requires a negative answer. Several of the jury’s questions appeared to fall into this category, inviting a robust response. The wording of one – “Can a juror come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it?” – almost demands that Mr Justice Sweeney answer “No”, if not dismiss the jury on the spot.

Another of the questions offered the biggest clue to what may have happened during the jury’s secret discussions. When jurors are selected, there’s a tacit assumption that they’re acting on behalf of the state. English law is secular and Ms Pryce, whose trial starts again tomorrow, isn’t accused of an offence laid down in the Bible or the Koran. She’s accused of the common law offence of perverting the course of justice, which she denies on the unusual ground of marital coercion.

So why did the jury ask whether “religious conviction” was a reason for a wife to feel that she had no other choice but to obey her husband? The judge’s response was brusque and unequivocal: “This is not, with respect, a question about this case at all.” He’s right, and a reasonable inference is that one or more of the jurors had strong religious convictions which they intended to use when reaching a verdict.

This is supported by a report in the Daily Mail, which revealed that the jury rose 30 minutes early on two occasions because a juror had to keep a “religious observance”. And while it doesn’t matter a jot if most of the jury were of Afro-Caribbean or Asian origin, as the paper also claimed, it does matter if some jurors were judging the case not on the facts and the law, but through the prism of personal religious conviction.

If I do something wrong, I want – and, indeed, I have a right – to be judged according to secular law. If jurors are regularly bringing religion into the jury room, I’d be very worried indeed, and there’s clearly a case for further research in this area. But in this instance, at least, it looks as if someone blew the whistle – and that strikes me as a vindication of the system.

George Galloway’s latest stunt is an attempt to boost his reputation within his religious constituency

The Independent, Saturday 23 February 2013

Galloway has ended up representing the nearest thing Britain has to a religious party

Good news for investors in George Galloway plc: after an anxious few months, the CEO has moved to protect the embattled brand. Attempting to draw a line under last summer’s unwise foray into gender politics - clearly, one has to say, not the company’s area of expertise – the brand is returning to familiar territory with an all-out attack on Israel.

The CEO may not know much about rape but he’s learned, it seems, a trick or two from Iran’s crowd-pleasing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The lesson couldn’t be simpler: when things are going badly, deny Israel’s right to exist. The opportunity presented itself at an Oxford University debate this week when the Respect MP was scheduled to speak in favour of a motion calling on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank. His opponent, a third-year student called Eylon Aslan-Levy, had just begun to speak when Galloway interrupted him.

“Are you an Israeli?” he demanded. When the student confirmed that he was, Galloway responded that he didn’t debate with Israelis. “I’ve been misled, sorry,” he declared and walked out. It was a typical Galloway performance, characterising himself as the victim of what was actually very bad manners on his part. Didn’t he ask in advance who else was taking part? Galloway’s behaviour has caused outrage in some quarters and I have no quarrel with that, even though I’m not a fan of the current Israeli government or its policies. But the important thing to understand about Galloway is that it’s years since he spoke for a broad range of people on the left.

Journalists tend to have a soft spot for him – he provides good copy, if nothing else – but he was thrown out of the Labour Party a long time ago, and he’s alienated those of us who opposed the Iraq war but still believe the last Labour government did some good things. Even so, Galloway’s brand of populism found admirers who managed to stomach his long-ago interview with Saddam Hussein and his more recent defence of the Holocaust- denying Ahmadinejad: “The truth is Ahmadinejad is not an extremist. There are people in Iran who think he is far too moderate, far too centrist.” Galloway has denied that Iran executes gay men just for being gay, causing fury among gay activists, but until recently his rows tended to be one-offs and with specific interest  groups.

The difference in the past few months is that Galloway has now taken on half the human race. It may be that his stunning by-election victory in March last year blunted
his political antennae, but it wasn’t the smartest move, in the midst of a lively revival of feminism, to express downright idiotic and offensive views on rape. The MP’s recent pronouncements have led significant numbers of people to regard him as a preening buffoon with rebarbative attitudes towards gender. Much-married George has a problem with women, in other words, and that’s where we need to look when thinking about the origins of this latest brouhaha.

Connoisseurs of bad theatre might wish to re-run the video podcast from last August in which the MP, shirtsleeves rolled up and thumping the table like a revivalist preacher, denounces the women who’ve accused Julian Assange of sexual assault and rape. With a curious oval disc moving behind his head (it looks like a poorly attached halo but is more likely part of a chair), Galloway lays down the law: “Even taken at its worst, if  the allegations made by these two women were true, 100 per cent true, and even if a camera in the room captured them, they don’t constitute rape, at least not rape as anyone with any sense can possibly recognise it. And somebody has to say this.”

It’s vintage Galloway, positioning himself as the iconoclast who’s prepared to say aloud what everyone else is only thinking. But on this occasion, many of us were actually thinking that the MP had himself failed to understand the law – or, to put it succinctly “what a prat”. His claim in the same podcast that “not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion” was guaranteed to offend half the population, many of whom said so on Twitter, and it didn’t endear him to female members of his own party. Respect’s leader, Salma Yaqoob, condemned his views on rape and resigned her post a month later. Bradford’s first Muslim lord mayor, the Labour councillor Naveeda Ikram, said that women were “outraged” and pointed out that “Muslim women, in particular, played a large role in electing Mr Galloway for Bradford West”.

It was a pretty spectacular miscalculation, but not one that came as a surprise to those of us who have followed his career. Galloway has pretty standard Catholic views on abortion, talking about women who “kill their children unborn”, even if they sit rather oddly with his boast about having “carnal knowledge” with more than one woman on a trip to Greece in the 1980s. Nor is it surprising that he’s ended up representing the nearest thing Britain has to a religious party, asking voters during the by-election campaign to think about how they would justify their choice of candidate on Judgement Day.

Such tactics don’t play well in largely secular Britain, but Galloway has an even bigger problem. When she resigned as the party’s leader, Yaqoob said she had always admired Galloway’s “anti-imperialist stances”. But she also said that having to choose between that and standing up for the rights of women was “a false choice”. Many Muslim women don’t like patriarchy, any more than women on the secular left. Rewind to this week: ditch patriarchal attitudes or stage a diversion over Israel? No contest, son, as Galloway himself might say.


Oscar Pistorius: the tabloids have a repellent new invention – murder trial porn

Independent on Sunday, 17 February 2013

Earlier this month, a 17-year-old girl died in hospital after being brutally gang-raped in South Africa. The details are too horrible to repeat and the murder sparked public protests, even if it received less attention outside the country than the recent gang rape of a student in India. South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape in the world, with almost 150 cases reported to the police every day and many more unreported. It also had the highest rate of intimate femicide – murders of women by their partners – according to a 1999 study.

I didn’t hear this context mentioned on Thursday when it was reported that a woman had been shot dead at the home of the South African Paralympian, Oscar Pistorius. Radio 4′s Today programme suggested that Pistorius had killed his girlfriend after mistaking her for an intruder, a theme that was taken up elsewhere. I listened with astonishment as broadcasters advanced what is almost certain to be Pistorius’s defence, citing the fear of crime which leads the wealthy in South Africa to live on estates with armed guards. The initial coverage was so sympathetic that it seemed to come as a shock when Pistorius was charged with murder later in the morning, prompting a screeching U-turn and the discovery of a “darker” side to his character.

Pistorius is entitled to a fair trial. But Reeva Steenkamp has not been served well by the initial rush to assume that her death was the result of a dreadful accident. It speaks volumes about the reluctance of the media to acknowledge the existence of widespread domestic violence in South Africa, a point certainly not lost on the police. Brigadier Denise Beukes said officers were “very surprised” by the accidental-shooting theory, and revealed that there had been previous incidents of a “domestic nature” at the property. On Friday, Pistorius was remanded in custody, charged with the more serious offence of premeditated murder.

A few days earlier, it was revealed that a British violinist, Frances Andrade, had killed herself during the trial of her former music teacher. Michael Brewer was found guilty of five counts of indecently assaulting Ms Andrade when she was a pupil at a music school in Manchester. Her family said she was traumatised by her experience in the witness box, where Brewer’s barrister accused her of being a liar and a fantasist. Such tactics are used to discredit complainants in trials, encouraging the myth that malicious accusations of rape are common. They aren’t, and the disbelief of alleged victims sits uncomfortably with lenient attitudes to men who may have perpetrated sexual or domestic violence.

There are other ways of demeaning victims. Within 24 hours of Ms Steenkamp’s death, she was on the front page of The Sun in a tiny bikini. All it lacked was a page 3 caption: “Stunning Reeva will have less time for modelling in future, being dead”. Well done to the British popular press for its shiny new invention, murder trial porn.


It’s 12p for a burger, but you do get some change

Independent on Sunday, 10 February 20

Thirteen years ago, a trial in Yorkshire revealed that hundreds of tons of poultry declared unfit for human consumption had entered the food chain. For several years, five men had operated a nationwide scam, selling chicken and turkey destined for pet food to butchers’ shops, restaurants and supermarkets. Stomach-churning details emerged of how they’d washed the meat to get rid of mould and faeces, and soaked it in brine to remove the stench. The judge criticised the gang for targeting discount supermarkets serving poorer consumers who couldn’t afford more expensive cuts of meat.

This scam posed a much greater risk to human health than anything that’s emerged so far in the horse DNA scandal which has caused embarrassment to one household name – Tesco, Lidl, Iceland, Aldi – after another. Food scandals sound like something from the Victorian era, when so much rubbish was added to bread, beer and coffee that the first Food Adulteration Act had to be passed in 1860; these days, there’s a mass of regulations to make sure shoppers can trust what it says on the packet – or that’s what most people seem to have imagined until Ireland’s Food Standards Agency triggered a stream of revelations about traces of horse in popular foodstuffs.

Two days ago, Findus was the latest company to be dragged into the scandal, saying it was withdrawing its beef lasagne after some products were found to be 100 per cent horse. The thought of eating horse may make some queasy but so far no one’s fallen ill from it, although Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, Mary Creagh, has asked if animal painkillers could have entered the human food chain. Even so, there’s no escaping a simple conclusion: class is at the heart of what’s gone wrong (again) with the food industry.

For years, supermarkets have taken out huge ads targeting poorer customers, and creating wildly unrealistic expectations about the price of food. Who really believes it’s reasonable to pay £1 for eight burgers, one of the lines withdrawn by Tesco after being found to contain up to 29 per cent horse meat? Two things have come together here: the relentless pressure supermarkets place on suppliers, who have to produce food that can be sold at ridiculously low prices, and the willing credulity of consumers who don’t have much money. Naturally they want to believe the cheap-food illusion they’re offered every day, without giving much thought to how it’s achieved.

Now the UK Food Standards Agency has told the industry to carry out tests for the presence of horse meat in all processed beef products. It believes two of the cases are linked to suppliers in Ireland and France, and says the evidence points to “either gross negligence or deliberate contamination in the food chain”, which is why the police are now involved. That’s bad news for the food industry, which faces a loss of public trust. But it’s good news in terms of human and animal health, as the true cost of low prices is exposed.

Material on this site (c) Joan Smith 2010-2013

For the victim, trials can be a second ordeal

The Independent, Saturday February 2013

Frances Andrade is believed to have killed herself during the trial of Michael Brewer

No woman makes an allegation of rape or sexual assault lightly. Despite changes in the law to protect complainants, every woman knows that a trial is likely to be a gruelling experience. Victims who give evidence often feel they’ve undergone a second ordeal without sufficient support from the criminal justice system.

One of the reasons for this is that defence lawyers try to destroy the complainant’s credibility in a way that rarely happens in other types of trials. Frances Andrade, who is believed to have killed herself during the trial of Michael Brewer, described her treatment by his barrister as “hugely insulting”.

No one is suggesting that men accused of rape are not entitled to a defence, but it is too often based on outdated sexist assumptions. One of these is the myth, unsupported by research, that there’s a high level of false accusations.

This myth is evident in cases like that of the footballer Ched Evans, whose victim was abused on Twitter after he was convicted and sent to prison for five years.

Sadly, it sometimes feels as though disbelief of victims is reflexive. And the courts still don’t give enough thought to the devastating impact on women who find themselves victimised twice over.


Hillary Clinton’s transformation is down to getting a job

Independent on Sunday, 3 February 2013

Hillary Clinton’s memoirs end in 2001, just after she was elected to the Senate and eight years before she became Barack Obama’s Secretary of State. They’re called Living History, but her own political career was still in the future when the Clintons left the White House for the last time. The woman who stepped down as the US’s chief diplomat two days ago is living proof that Scott Fitzgerald was wrong when he said there are no second acts in American lives.

It’s hard to believe there won’t be a second volume of Clinton’s memoirs. The original book finishes on a sentimental note as she recalls the outgoing president “taking me in his arms as we waltzed together down the long hall” of the White House, but she’s older and savvier these days. She’s completed this phase of her career looking weary – she’s travelled almost a million miles and visited 112 countries – but also much more comfortable with herself; the time when she seemed to change her hairstyle by the week is long gone. So is the ambitious lawyer who put her husband’s political career before her own and entered the White House as First Lady, a role which mostly frustrated her attempts to modernise it.

The change in Hillary Clinton’s fortunes since those days is nothing short of astonishing. During Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, she ended up fielding lurid allegations about his infidelities. During his second term as President, she dismissed claims about his affair with Monica Lewinsky as part of a “vast right-ring conspiracy” until it became clear that they had more to do with his habitual sexual incontinence. It seemed little short of tragic to hear this smart woman resorting to clichés, averring that she always knew Bill Clinton would be “a hard dog to keep on the porch”.

These days, it’s her husband who needs the qualifying first name when we say “Clinton”. Hillary is going strong at 65, while the former president, just a year older, works the international conference circuit and plays golf. Obama’s verdict that she “will go down as one of the finest secretaries of state we’ve had” may be generous, given her reluctance to break ties with old allies such as Hosni Mubarak, as the Arab Spring unfolded. But she’s been outspoken, urging China to respect human rights, and she’s put equality for gay people at the heart of US diplomacy.

Clinton leaves office with sky-high approval ratings. One of her lesser-known achievements is the creation of an Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, to ensure gender is considered in foreign policy decisions. While a recent health scare may have put another run at the Democratic nomination in doubt, the fact that people are talking about a 69-year-old woman as a possible candidate in 2016 shows how much she has changed public attitudes. Any woman who has lived in the shadow of a powerful man should look at Hillary Clinton and recognise the transformative power of a challenging job.


She’s won the Costa but Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels are period soap opera

The Independent, Thursday 31 January 2013

Tudor England is a sure-fire winner in fiction terms. It’s just produced an unprecedented triple prize-winner in the shape of Hilary Mantel, who bagged the Costa book Award two days ago after winning the Man Booker twice for her novels about Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. I’m sure Mantel’s publishers have high hopes for the third volume in the trilogy, which will cover Cromwell’s role in the king’s short-lived marriage to Anne of Cleves and his subsequent execution.

Let me be frank about this: I find the success of these books totally perplexing. Mantel is the author of several good novels, including Fludd and Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, but she isn’t obviously the best writer working in the UK today. Is she so much more accomplished than Ian McEwan, who’s won the Booker only once? Or Zadie Smith, who’s been shortlisted but never actually won? It isn’t even as if the Cromwell novels are Mantel’s best work; she’s always had a taste for soap opera, which led her to write an interminable early novel about the French Revolution, and the faults of that book are all too evident in what will soon be her Cromwell trilogy.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are once again soap opera in period costume, piling up events with such speed that the overall effect is emotionally blunting. They’re like plotlines in The Archers, where one drama grips everyone until something just as compelling pops up to take its place, whether it’s Nigel’s fall from the roof or Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon (Katherine in Mantel’s spelling). The disgrace of Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s repudiation of Catherine, his break with Rome, his hasty marriage to Anne Boleyn; all of these canter past like the latest episode in a long-running drama series, beautifully costumed and with as little emotional impact.

Bring Up the Bodies centres on a hugely dramatic event in English history, the judicial murder of Boleyn, whose head is severed by a French executioner after she fails to give Henry a male heir. But it’s seen through the eyes of Cromwell, who views every occasion with a calculus of self-interest: “If she could have brought Katherine to this same place, she would have. If her sway had continued, the child Mary might have stood here; and he himself of course, pulling off his coat and waiting for the coarse English axe.”

This is the oldest trick in the book, so to speak, playing on the reader’s knowledge of Cromwell’s eventual fate; I like to think of it as fiction’s Titanic moment, when a proud mother bursts into her family’s humble home with the news that Our Billy has got himself a job on this famous new ship. Such clunky devices deflect attention from the genuine horrors of Henry’s reign, which has parallels with 20th-century dictatorships, including the use of torture and networks of informers. If it seems unfair to view the early 16th century through this prism, it has to be said that that’s exactly what Mantel does, combining period slang with some snappy and very modern-sounding dialogue.

And while her fascination with Cromwell has been widely remarked, it’s also the novels’ greatest weakness. In C J Sansom’s superior Tudor crime novels, Cromwell is a distant, scary figure, occupying a key role in the apparatus of Henry’s totalitarian state. But then Sansom is a political writer – he’s also written a vivid novel set in Franco’s Spain – and he displays a much more sophisticated grasp of power. Mantel’s Cromwell is wry and self-exculpatory, able to justify anything by recalling his early life in a rough area of south London. He’s a widower, ever conscious of the death of his wife and daughters from fever, and determined, like the founder of any dynasty, to further the career of his surviving son.

He’s also a crashing snob, unable to resist an opportunity to get one over his aristocratic enemies. And while it isn’t unusual in autocratic states to find sentimentality filling the gap vacated by healthy emotions, Mantel creates an enormous problem by placing the amoral – to put it politely – Cromwell at the heart of the novels. Throughout both books, the reader is asked to put judgement aside and like the unlikable, with queasy results as one historical figure after another is ruined or mounts the scaffold.

It’s already been remarked that the success of Mantel’s novels says a great deal about the current state of publishing. The books are safe, unchallenging and flatter the reader, who starts to feel like an instant expert on Tudor history. They feed into the “great men” theory of history, empty of politics or analysis, and the arrival of new plot lines is weirdly comforting (Catherine of Aragon is dead? She’s so history!). But there’s also the wider cultural context: in a climate where every Olympic gold medallist has to have an honour as well, why should novelists be the exception? The public loves prize-winners, and two Man Bookers and a Costa are perfect symbols of a culture of excess.