Saturday, May 17, 2014

Scotland Yard's Newest Manhunter

In the realm of mystery fiction, Scotland Yard (AKA the Metropolitan Police or The Met) is a legendary crime-fighting organization based in London, England, tasked with combating criminality and all sorts of evil in Greater Metropolitan London, often sending their ace detectives to the various English counties when needed or even to foreign lands in the pursuit of justice. In the real world, New Scotland Yard very nearly lives up to its fictional reputation, being one of the most recognized and respected police "brands" of all time, perhaps even eclipsing the vaunted FBI for top spot. Founded in 1829 by an Act of Parliament, it was not long before the actions of its detectives captured the public imagination, first in fiction, then in memoirs written by retired CID (Criminal Investigation Division) detectives. As society changed, so did the portrayal of Scotland Yard manhunters in fiction, from near-superhuman sleuths to foils for private detectives like Holmes and Poirot to doggedly competent and world-weary civil servants in grimly realistic procedurals, like John Creasy's Commander George Gideon and Martha Grimes' Richard Jury. In you're interested in an in-depth book at the transition of the Scotland Yard detective in fiction, I refer you to an essay by crime novelist Andrew Taylor in BBC magazine.

Although I enjoy all forms of the English detective novel, I am always on the lookout for good police procedurals set in London. They are not as easy to find as you might expect, and are actually better represented in the medium of television than in print. PD James' Adam Dalgliesh is the choice of many looking for a more cerebral sort of investigator, known for solving crimes and writing poetry. Richard Jury is favored by those looking for a more approachable sort of detective, melancholy and moody, a modern incarnation of Austen's Mr Darcy, who is, nevertheless, as spectacularly unsuccessful in the romance department as he is successful in solving crimes. My favorite, however, is Commander George Gideon ("Gideon of Scotland Yard"), a down-to-earth copper with a prodigious memory, an ability to handle multiple cases, and a decidedly "hands on" approach to dealing with all sorts of miscreants. He began his career in 1955 and cut a swath through the underworld of London in 26 novels, five of which were written after Creasy's death in 1973. For me, Gideon was most successful in putting aside the dubious mantle of Inspector Lestrade, a detective who could rise to the reputation of the fictional Scotland Yard, near-superhuman feats of crime fighting while remaining a bloke with a badge. Recently, I came across a series of books featuring another ace of Scotland Yard who gave me the same sort of thrill as did Commander Gideon--Detective Chief Inspector Michael Gregory, the creation of writer John Rigbey.

So far, there are four books in the series. The first, The Strange Michael Folmer Affair (2007), sets DCI Gregory against a foe who is commemorating the Jack the Ripper murders by committing new murders on the exact dates and in the same places as Jack did back in 1888. In the sequel, From the Beatles to Blair (2011), a professional hit on a retired "bent" Scotland Yard detective takes DCI Gregory on an intense journey through the gangland of London from the decades of the 60s, 70s and 80s, involving colorful real-life gangsters such as the Kray Brothers and corruption in the corridors of power. In The Luciano Legacy (2012), the torture/murder of a mysterious old woman in the heart of London, followed quickly by the similar murder of a disbarred solicitor nicknamed "the Gabardine Swine," involves DCI Gregory in a mystery that began in America shortly after the end of World War II and the deportation of notorious real-life mobster Charles "Lucky" Luciano. In Mr Rigbey's latest book, Professional Standards (2014), the DCI tackles robbers, corruption, Masons, and malefactors in Scotland Yard itself.

In many ways, DCI Michael Gregory is a return to the almost infallible manhunters of Scotland Yard's earliest accounts. He thirsts for justice, pursues his cases with the legendary tenacity of the British Bulldog, and does not let anything deter him from his role as an avenging angel for law and order, no matter the cost to his personal or professional life. No matter who or what gets in his way, he will see his criminal in the dock of the Old Bailey. It is his indefatigable sense of justice which endears him most to the reader who is looking for a champion who does not give up or give in, but it is this trait of his character which causes the most turmoil in his life. Over the course of the four books, his marriage goes from rocky to destroyed, as his wife decides she can no longer abide "The Job" that has come to define Gregory as a person. Likewise, his single-minded pursuit of crime and empathy for victims, as well as his complete disregard for workplace politics, has earned him many enemies among those who see crime fighting and public safety subordinate to their roles as social and political activists, primary among these being Inspector Marsh of Professional Standards Department, Scotland Yard's equivalent of Internal Affairs; fortunately for Gregory, his abilities as a detective and his unequaled record of successes has earned him friends in high places, but even the staunchest friends can become fair-weather in nature if the wind changes.

One of things that impressed me about all the books was the sense of verisimilitude, the feeling that I was encountering real Scotland Yard detectives. This is perhaps explained by the fact that John Rigbey was himself a detective in Scotland yard's CID until his retirement in 1972. In that role, he became an expert in London's gangland by direct experience, which explains the sense of authority you get when reading the second book. His acquired knowledge in organized crime and the Mafia of the 30s and 40s is very much in evidence in the third book. After a career in Scotland Yard, Rigbey stayed in the realm of criminal justice when he founded the West of England Detective Agency (later The John Rigbey Consultancy) in 1989. I think it is this mix of public and private detection experience that allows Rigbey to write authoritatively and with empathy about life on both sides of the fence.

Although there are only four novels in the series, so far, I am hopeful more will be forthcoming. As a fan of the British police procedural, I find DCI Michael Gregory a breath of fresh air. If you're interested, you can follow John Rigbey on Twitter and on Facebook. And I also encourage a visit to his website. Happy reading, and good hunting.

Update: 12 Feb 2015

I'm happy to update this particular blog entry because it means Scotland Yard's Michael Gregory is back on a case. Actually, he's on two (or three) cases, the deaths of former Detective Sergeant Sid Barton and former Detective Inspector Charlie "Artful" Barrett, killed separately and mysteriously on the same day, and yet as inextricably tied to each other as they are to the execution of a child murderer fifty years earlier. The book is Who Killed Charlie Artful and was published a few weeks ago, as I write this.

As impressed as I was by the first four books in the series, I was even more affected by this book, by the advances made by author John Rigbey in terms of plotting, characterization, dialogue, and storytelling. I was not, however, surprised by his maturation as an author, for between his last Gregory book and the present volume, he published a non-series book entitled A Week on the Island, an exercise in storytelling, character, locale and pathos, a very engaging tale of a man who, while trying to solve a mystery from his past solves the mystery of who his father was and who he himself is. If you have not already read it, I recommend it highly.

But back to the mystery at hand. One of the first things we discover in Rigbey's new novel is that Detective Chief Inspector Gregory is now Detective Superintendent Gregory. He has apparently triumphed over all the activist and bureaucratic forces within Scotland Yard that were not only trying to tear him down, but toss him out. That, of course, does not mean he is any less blunt and straightforward that he was, nor does it mean that the bureaucracy of the Metropolitan Police is any less fraught with danger than it has always been. If anything, DS Gregory is a much bigger target, a much larger giant to topple, but, as with the biggest trees in the forest they are much more dangerous to cut down. Also, Gregory is three weeks married, this time, hopefully, to a much better woman. As in the previous books, Gregory's investigative and deductive skills are brought to the fore, handling a case which would have baffled a lesser copper. In addition to the two subtle murders in the present, he must also contend with investigating (and validating) the execution of a man who murdered two children more than fifty years earlier. In doing so, Gregory finds himself at the center of a whirlwind of controversy, holding off officialdom who wants it all to go away, a venomous press corps more concerned with a criminal fifty years dead than two murdered men in the hear and now, and a company of shady solicitors who will not hesitate to pervert the course of justice to keep their secrets hidden. All make for a great story that fans of the genre should not miss.

Here are links to my reviews of all the books on GoodReads:

Update: 4 July 2015

I admit I am a bit late in updating this entry about John Rigbey's writing, but I had given thought to starting a new blog entry about his latest book (since it is not in the same series), then got distracted by other projects. In the end, I decided to keep all his books together, as Rigbey is a wonderfully talented writer and a taste of one book will lead you to want to read them all.

With A Week on the Island, Rigbey ventures into the field of literature while still providing a legal-based mystery steeped in history and full of local color. The island of the title is the Isle of Wight, which during the course of the story almost becomes a character in itself. Years ago, during the Second World War, Jerry Ramsey was a lad on the island, his father a solicitor. The Isle of Wight was his home till his class-conscious mother sent him away to boarding school. Years later, he is a retired school teacher, living a solitary but satisfactory life in a village near England's New Forest. His seemingly idyllic life is upset when he receives a letter from the law firm on Wight at which his father worked till his retirement in the late Forties. The advent of a legacy from a man he never heard of might not have been enough to pull Ramsey back to the Isle of Wight, back to the world of a father he never understood, but then he starts to wonder if his present life is as satisfying and fulfilling as he has convinced himself. In the end, he decides that a week on the island might be a pleasant diversion from what is actually a rather boring and uneventful life. His stated goal is to solve the mystery of the unexpected legacy, but since it came to him, as it turns out, because he is his father's son, he might have no choice but to find out more about the emotionally distant father who was always an enigma to him, a man whom he never drew close to. He has convinced himself he is there only for the legacy, but he realizes in the back of his mind that it will also be a long delayed homecoming. As with any homecoming, there is the familiar and the strange, not to mention the strangely familiar. Though the book is tightly plotted, the real attraction for the discerning reader is the deep characterization, the rediscovery of forgotten (or denied) relationships, and the pleasure of vicariously spending a week on an island that you will want to visit before ever you close the book.

Here is a link to my review on GoodReads, from which you can also go to Amazon and other retailers:  A Week on the Island

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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A Journey Into the Realm of Steam...and Goggles...and Stuff

Gaslight Gathering 4 Poster
Last weekend (May 2-4, 2014) I attended Gaslight Gathering 4, a steampunk convention. I was invited to give a 2-hour presentation on the continuing adventures of Sherlock Holmes and how he fitted into the steampunk universe on Friday, to participate in a panel on the genre of steampunk literature on Saturday, and to autograph copies of my books for an hour in the Vendor Hall. Wait, oh, you have a question, do you? Okay, well, what is it? Quickly now, out with it. After all, we have a blog to get into, so if you have any questions let's get them out of the way. Speak up, I can barely hear you. All right, that's better. What is what? What is steampunk? What do you mean, 'What is steampunk?'" Oh, very well, but you had better take notes since there will be a quiz later.

A simple answer is that steampunk is a form of science fiction based on alternate history (think Star Trek's Mirror Universe or Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle), heavily influenced by the literature on the Victorian and Edwardian eras and the technology of those periods. The real answer is a bit more elusive in that it depends on what aspect of steampunk you're talking about. As Diana Vick, longtime veteran of the Seattle steampunk scene, explained, there are three basic aspects of steampunk: 1) Literature 2) Sub-culture and 3) Aesthetic. The literature aspect is pretty much as I explained it above, and includes films like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Wild Wild West, and  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The sub-culture is a bit harder to explain, but includes costuming, music, art, imagineering, crafting, role playing, gaming and tea dueling. For many people costuming is both their gateway into the sub-culture and the avenue of their expression. Here are a few photos taken by Ed Cavanaugh during the convention...

As you can see, the Victorian Era echoes through all these creations, and yet there is something more. For, as Diana pointed out, if everyone were just going to wear Victorian clothing, it would be nothing more than a historical reenactment group and we would all just sit down to a nice cuppa. But if you have additions like goggles and weapons, as well as accouterments from other cultures such as Japan and China, Native American tribes and France, the Wild West and Germany, not to mention vampires, zombies, super heroes and ghosts, as well as incursions from other literary genres, such as mystery, spy thriller, pulp fiction and romance, you have something more than just an afternoon stroll through Victorian London. As to the "aesthetics" of steampunk, that's more a matter of form than function, a sense of style and design. Cars, coffee makers, jewelry, washing machines, slide projectors, and houses can all be designed with a steampunk aesthetic, and really have nothing (or not much) to do with the literature or sub-culture of steampunk. And, actually, steampunk literature need not have anymore to do with steampunk sub-culture than a modern day Goth would with a Gothic novel. For more insights on the sub-culture of steampunk, please see Diana Vick's essay on the Seven Fallacies of Steampunk.

Much of how those involved with steampunk see it depends on the gateway through which they entered. I came first through literature, then by film and finally music. Long before the term steampunk was coined, I read everything written by Jules Verne, HG Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, three authors who constantly inspire modern steampunk authors. Additionally there were Arthur Conan Doyle (whose Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger fit solidly into, respectively, the Victorian and Edwardian eras) and American writer HP Lovecraft, who wrote with a Victorian sensibility even though his stories were often set in the 1920s. And then there is Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote one of the very first works claimed by the steampunk community, "The Balloon Hoax," published in 1844. Books that also pulled me in were Michael Moorcock's Warlord of the Air (1971), Phil Farmer's The Other Log of Phileas Fogg (1973) and Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates (1983). I was attracted to those books, not because they were steampunk (there was no such term at that point) but because they dealt with alternate history themes, the idea there were worlds where history had followed different paths, a genre that has always fascinated me. Like merging roads, my interests in alternate worlds, Sherlock Holmes, Barsoom and the technological terrors of HG Wells came together in the world of steampunk.

Like many other people, I was a fan of The Wild Wild West, the CBS television show that ran 1965 - 1969, with made-for-television films in 1979 and 1980. In a sense, that show was steampunk before steampunk was steampunk. Creator Michael Garrison pitched it as "James Bond on horseback," which could easily be a description of a modern spy-themed steampunk novel, though these days the horse might be steam-powered. The steampunk sensibilities of the series were fully developed in the 1999 film version, where we have a steam-powered bicycle, a steam-powered tank, and a giant steam-powered spider striding across the landscape. Before that, though, there was 1958's The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, and 1961's Master of the World. Also on television, we had Q.E.D. (1982), the much-missed Adventures of Brisco County Jr (1993), and the even-more-missed Legend (1995) where Richard Dean Anderson played a writer of Victorian western adventures and John de Lancie an avatar of inventor Nikola Tesla.

All those books and films softened me up, so to speak, for the sub-culture of steampunk. Actually, I was quite surprised by the existence of the sub-culture. It never really occurred to me that people might dress up and live out the lives depicted in my reading material. I probably should not have been surprised, for I had known a long time about science fiction and fantasy conventions where costumes were worn, not to mention Comic-Con, where costuming was even more important. But surprised I was, and enchanted. And then I discovered steampunk-influenced music, first through the works of my friend Paul Roland, then by others like Professor Elemental, Abney Park, Steam-Powered Giraffe and Vernian Process. As you know, I've also written a steampunk novel and a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories with steampunk overtones, and am working on another of each, so it does not look as if I will escape the clutches of steampunk anytime soon. I don't know if I'll be invited to Gaslight Gathering 5 in the fall of 2015, and I don't know if I'll attend other steampunk conventions (I'm not the lone wolf type) before then, but I do know that I had a lot of fun, enjoyed meeting like-minded people, was astounded by the costumes and gadgets, and loved autographing books and participating in panels. I end with just a few of the many photos I took at the convention.

An elegant mode of travel

Boston Metaphysical Society

The Brass Wardrobe

Where are that steam-dog's goggles?

Handsome couple with handsome fezzes
celebrating Fez Friday

An airship captain, but his parrot
seems to have...tentacles?

Adam Green: "Put up your dukes, mate!"

Parasol decorating

Steam-powered skateboard

Weapons from 1873 Expedition to Mars

Rapper Poplock Holmes

Tea dueling gents

Tea dueling at its unruffled best...

Tea dueling intimidation

I don't know what it does, but it looks cool.

Old Bill

Poplock Holmes on a Pennyfarthing

Time Machine

Professor Elemental