The cop who went into the cold

Sunday Times, 25 August 2013

Arnaldur Indridason is one of the greats of modern crime ­fiction. Strange Shores, translated by Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker £14.99/ebook £8.99), is the final novel in his Reykjavik series of detective novels. Indridason’s cop, ­Erlendur, has been indelibly marked by a childhood tragedy in which his brother disappeared during a blizzard. Now he returns to the ruins of the family home in rural Iceland and two stories entwine: Erlendur’s search for his brother’s remains and the unsolved disappearance years earlier of a woman who vanished in similar circumstances. Erlendur has never had any illusions about human nature, and he seeks something beyond conventional justice in this tragic and compelling novel.

Somewhere in a remote area of the Pyrenees, a hydroelectric power plant and an asylum for the criminally insane make unusual neighbours. When a headless horse is discovered suspended from a frozen cliff near the power plant, suspicion falls on the inmates of the ­asylum. Bernard Minier’s The Frozen Dead, translated by Alison Anderson (Mulholland £13.99/ebook £7.99), has been a bestseller in France where its gothic horrors — insane killers and ­sinister nursing staff — are ­­reminiscent of an old black-and-white film.

Minier’s detective, Servaz, is based in Toulouse and can’t understand why he has been ordered to investigate the death of an animal. But forensic evidence links the corpse to an inmate in a locked ward; Servaz is still puzzling over this conundrum when a series of macabre murders begins. Revenge is at the heart of this clever mystery, which involves a plot as cold-blooded as the slaying of the horse.

Few women worked in the police force in the 1960s. When WPC Helen Tozer gets involved in the inquiry into the death of a teenage girl in William Shaw’s deft first novel, A Song from Dead Lips (Quercus £14.99/ebook £10.99), she has to put up with scepticism from ­colleagues. But Tozer strikes up a rapport with the dead girl’s friends, a bunch of teenage Beatles fans who hang around the recording ­studios in Abbey Road.

London in 1968 is an evocative setting and Shaw skilfully re-creates an era of social turmoil and class conflict. Tozer’s reluctant partner in the investigation, DS Cathal Breen, is unpopular in ­Marylebone CID after deserting a colleague who was being held at knife-point. Their blundering but determined investigation is played out against a vivid background of pop culture, casual racism and Britain’s involvement in the bitter civil war in Nigeria.

Laura Wilson’s latest novel, The Riot (Quercus £20/ebook £13), is set 10 years earlier in west London. Where Shaw’s characters reflect the optimism of the 1960s, this is a version of the city still struggling to recover from the ­Second World War. Her detective, DI Stratton, has moved from central London to Notting Hill, where once-grand houses have been divided up by slum landlords.

Danny Perlmann, a Polish refugee who lets rooms to prostitutes and young West Indian men, is clearly based on the ­notorious landlord Peter Rachman. When one of Perlmann’s rent collectors is killed, Stratton is put in charge of the investigation and it offers startling insights into an unfamiliar world. A party goes disastrously wrong, ending in a riot, and the novel is a sombre reminder of just how poor and divided London remained in the 1950s.

Ruth Rendell’s detective Reg Wexford is well into his retirement, but that doesn’t stop him getting involved in the latest mysterious death in Kingsmarkham. The victim is the vicar, Sarah Hussain, whose background — she is mixed race and female — has upset conservative members of the ­congregation. No Man’s Nightingale (Hutchinson £18.99/ebook £9.99) is Rendell at her most traditional, but it is a novel for devoted fans rather than new readers.


Children pay for our failure over Syria

Independent on Sunday, 25 August 2013

For too long we have sent mixed messages to the dictator in Damascus

It is a grim milestone: two days ago, the UN announced that the number of Syrian children forced to flee their homeland has reached one million. They make up just over half of the two million people driven from the country, while another 4.25 million are displaced inside its borders. This means that the dictator Bashar al-Assad has forced more than a quarter of the population into internal exile or foreign camps, creating the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Whatever the outcome of the civil war, the repercussions will be felt for decades.

Also on Friday, the Foreign Secretary William Hague said he believed that last week’s chemical attack on a suburb of Damascus was the work of Assad’s forces. It is not the  first time the regime has been accused of war crimes, and it is clear that the Assad family will stop at nothing to stay in power. They have ruled Syria with the utmost ruthlessness for 43 years, ever since Bashar’s father Hafez staged a coup, and the response of the international community has been culpably weak and inconsistent.

When I first went to Damascus in 1994, Bashar had just been recalled from London after the death of his elder brother Bassel in a car crash. Bashar was an ophthalmologist but he soon began his training in the family business of torture and murder. Twelve years earlier, Hafez had committed a massacre in the north-western city of Hama after an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood. Estimates of the number of casualties vary (20,000 is the commonly-used figure), but it bought the Assad family decades of “peace”. Dissent was crushed by filling every corner of the country with government spies, and bundling the dynasty’s most determined opponents into vile political prisons. A friend of mine spent 14 years in Assad’s jails, where he saw many people die from the effects of torture.

All of this was documented by international human rights organisations. But Tony Blair welcomed Bashar Assad to London in December 2002 and even staged a joint press conference with him. I was so cross when I saw this weak-chinned killer being feted in Downing Street that I complained to a Labour minister, who told me the British government believed Bashar was an improvement on his father.

The chances of that seemed remote, and I’m also aware that cruel regimes tend to end  bloodily. I hoped Western intelligence services were quietly making contact with the democratic opposition in Syria, but even that doesn’t seem to have happened. A journalist who was seriously wounded in the current conflict told me he received phone calls from both William Hague and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, asking him who the opposition actually were.

What we’re seeing now is the dire result of sending mixed messages to dictators. For decades, leaders of democratic countries overlooked massacres and held their noses as the Syrian regime tortured opponents and stockpiled chemical weapons. It was a huge failure of principle and intelligence – and now the price is being paid by one million homeless children.


Diary Notes

Edinburgh International Book Festival, Monday 26 August, 1430: I’ll be talking about The Public Woman in the Peppers Theatre

Sunday Morning, BBC Radio Scotland, Sunday 25 August, 0705: I’m talking about my life and work with Ricky Ross

Summer Nights, BBC Radio 4, Thursday 22 August, 2300: I talked about the history and meaning of privacy in a discussion chaired by Marliella Frostrup

I’m suspicious of words like ‘tradition’ – they carry a dead weight of expectation

Independent on Sunday, 11 August 2013

I have always felt peeved on behalf of the Lady of Shalott. In Tennyson’s poem, she is shut in a tower, forbidden to look out of the window and expected to spend her life doing tapestry; she is also under a mysterious curse, which is absolutely the worst sort in my view. So it’s a little disappointing, to say the least, that a painting of the Lady of Shalott floating to her death has come top of a poll to find the country’s most popular paintings. From tomorrow, the picture by John William Waterhouse will appear on office buildings, shops and metro stations, as well as on the sides of buses and black cabs. It’s part of the admirable Art Everywhere project, which will put 57 works of art on show at 22,000 sites up and down the country.

I don’t know what it is about doomed women and water, but number two in the popular vote is another picture I can’t stand, John Everett Millais’s drippy (in all senses) Ophelia. I suppose it’s further evidence of the British public’s enduring love affair with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an enthusiasm which seems to me inexcusable in anyone who isn’t a 14-year-old girl. Tennyson’s poems were a favourite subject of the Pre-Raphaelites, who adored all that Arthurian nonsense about knights, ladies and unrequited love.

I don’t know if the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg is a fan of Tennyson, but in May he was the guest speaker at a dinner organised by something called the Traditional Britain Group, whose members describe themselves as “traditional Conservatives” who go in for “radical thinking”. In fact, judging by the list of things they dislike, they’re humourless right-wingers with an inflated sense of self-importance. Look at their mission statement: “With courage, pride and determination, the Traditional Britain Group says, ‘No more! The ancient traditions, peoples and beliefs of these isles are worth preserving. There is an alternative for Britain. The fight back begins now!’”

Why Rees-Mogg agreed to speak to this bunch of fruitcakes, who boast about their loathing of equality, socialism, political correctness, multiculturalism and “cultural-Marxist legislation”, I cannot imagine. But it’s rebounded on him after the group’s Facebook page made offensive remarks about Doreen Lawrence, mother of the murdered teenager, and called for millions of people to be asked “to return to their natural homelands”. On Friday, Rees-Mogg admitted he had made a mistake by attending the event, saying he was shocked by the views of the group’s vice-president, Gregory Lauder-Frost.

It’s weird that these risibly anti-modern movements pop up time and again in this country, and weirder that more or less mainstream politicians are willing to be associated with them. They have in common a hankering after a past that either never existed or was organised solely for the benefit of upper-middle-class white men. There isn’t a single woman among the right-wing thinkers on the Traditional Britain Group’s website. Indeed most of the thinkers are dead, with the exception of my friend Simon Heffer who was guest speaker at a dinner a few years ago. The impression that they’re a bunch of whining posh blokes is deliciously confirmed by the CV of their president, Merlin Charles Sainthill Hanbury-Tracey, 7th Baron Sudeley, an Old Etonian who used to chair the Monday Club and is vice-chancellor of the International Monarchist League.

Class is still an issue in modern Britain but it’s nothing like as rigid as in the Victorian or the Edwardian periods, when people were stuck in the class they were born in. Social mobility is one of the best things to come out of the 20th century and I’m suspicious of words like “tradition”, precisely because they carry a dead weight of expectation. It was traditional in my father’s family for the men to go down the pit, a job so dreadful that my grandfather swore none of his sons would follow in his footsteps. It was traditional for  the women in my mother’s family to go into domestic service, which is how my mother became a live-in servant when she left school at 14. My ancestors led incredibly hard lives and I’m thrilled that we no longer live in a culture which imposes low expectations on millions.

The joke is that “traditional” Conservatives on the right wing of the party regard David Cameron as dangerously modern, mistaking style for substance. There’s more to  modernity than wearing shorts and holidaying in Ibiza, and the prime minister is shamelessly dismantling fine institutions created after the Second World War. In that sense, he reminds me of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, whose chocolate-box sentimentality concealed a streak of ruthlessness.

When you see Ophelia, think of this: the model, Lizzie Siddal, almost died after posing for hours in a tin bath when the oil lamps that were supposed to keep the water warm went out. Later, her lover, the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was so stricken by grief when she died that he buried the only copy of his poems in her grave. Seven years on, in 1869, he had second thoughts and dug her up. Perhaps traditional Britain wasn’t such a nice place, after all.