Robert Cooper

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Aclogged up motorway can provide the ideal conditions to play the balloon game; re-routed angst and venom will guarantee the ultimate cathartic experience. Raise your eyes to the heavens. The dot in the azure sky is a hot-air balloon heading earthwards at a disturbing rate. The basket dangling beneath the shrinking sac is crammed with every cad and rotter your imagination can concoct. There is panic on board. To maintain altitude human ballast is the only solution. Three passengers must be thrust overboard — quite possibly more.

There are stacks of candidates in Julian Fellowes’ Snobs (Orion Audio Books. Abridged. 5 hours 20 minutes. CD £19.99. Tape £12.99). Fellowes is also the reader and narrator, but being hands-on doesn’t grant him automatic immunity from the ‘big push’. In his role of raconteur he plays a ‘journeyman actor’ and is entirely responsible for introducing Edith Lavery, an upwardly mobile minx, to the solid but wearisome Lord Broughton. Polyester meets eligible corduroy. And sparks really fly when Edith, bored rigid by flower shows, shooting parties and the woebegone Lord B, claps eyes on gorgeous Simon Russell, an actor pal of our misguided Cupid. She finds his thespian allure irresistible. Hardly surprising as we learn that Russell is being touted as ‘the next Simon McCorkingdale.’

Fellowes’ credentials are first-rate. He won an Oscar for his screenplay for Gosford Park and played the loveable buffoon Lord Kilwilly in the BBC television series Monarch of the Glen. Whereas in Gosford Park he ventured downstairs, here his domain is strictly the other side of the green baize door. His stentorian delivery never allows the plot to veer towards farce — far from it, as at times he sounds a bit too much like a Pathé News reporter commenting on a county show. If one attempts to encroach on Wodehouse, Waugh or Mitford territory, humour must be the driving force. Although persistently amusing, the laughs are in short supply.

There is a ‘health’ warning on the packet promising ‘strong or sexually explicit language’. Sorry to be a killjoy but there’s nothing here to make even the vicar blush — although the wedding night doesn’t quite go to plan, but they quite often don’t. On the audio book fun-ometer the needle wavers between posh tosh and waspish satire. Rather like the car journey on which I listened to the tapes, Snobs is predictable but picturesque.

You don’t have to be a soothsayer to prophesy the molten doom facing the inhabitants of Pompeii on 24 August AD 79. Whether he’s Selling Hitler or unravelling Enigma, Robert Harris is a brilliant storyteller for all occasions. His Pompeii (BBC Audio Books. Unabridged. 10 hours 25 mins. CD £19.99) is perfect material for a gripping audio book. It’s not all fire and brimstone although we’re left with little doubt of the drama about to unfold. The story begins at sunrise, two days before Vesuvius blows its top. Early signs of there being trouble afoot are a strong smell of sulphur and of rivers running backwards into the earth. Our hero is Marcus Attilius, an engineer who has arrived in Pompeii to find out why the Aqua Augusta (‘the greatest aqueduct in the world’) has been reduced to a trickle. Even in AD 79 good plumbers were in short supply. His enquiries are hindered by a corrupt millionaire bully-boy whose ravishing daughter has the hots for Attilius. Regardless of the imminent eruption Harris has moulded a compelling plot.

The reader, Steven Pacey, delivers a splendidly muscular performance, deftly balancing the sensitive with the bold. Pacey is an experienced West End actor and is currently performing in Simon Gray’s play The Old Masters. Listeners here face an agonising build-up of almost four hours before the expected happens. As our imagination takes command it seems that a powerful voice is essential as ‘the blizzard of rock’ starts to bombard Pompeii. Rock and stones were roof-high before the magma and then lava started to flow. Almost as petrifying are the descriptions of ships in the Bay of Naples trying a futile escape. The most powerful navy in the world was now as capable as a boat in a bath.

As with Snobs there is an ‘explicit scene and language’ sticker on the package. Togas off at the drop of a helmet. Even pre-magma Pompeii was a hotspot with abundant brothels and steamy massage parlours. And descriptions of their eating habits are not for the squeamish either. Fancy a honey-glazed mouse (bones and all) as a pre- banquet nibble — and was the rigor mortis tail the harbinger of the cocktail stick?

It is a major achievement by Harris to bring to life an event that has been confined to the history books for 2,000 years. He succeeds admirably. Just a pity that more were unable to escape the carnage — alas, no balloons here.

Henning Mankell appears to be getting bored with his policeman hero, the middle-aged, pessimistic Kurt Wallander. His previous novel, The Return of the Dancing Master, tried out a different, younger detective, and now, in Before the Frost (Harvill, £14.99), Wallander’s slightly tiresome daughter Linda takes a starring role.

Linda has decided to become a policewoman and joins the force in Ystad where her father works. Given to tantrums, she slaps his face in his office and boasts of it to his subordinates. It is difficult to like her, but we are told that she will gradually take the place of Wallander so we had better get used to her. Perhaps she will become wiser as she gets older.

The case concerns a number of attacks on animals and then the discovery of the severed head of a woman with her hands locked in prayer. Wallander fears that some crazy fundamentalist group is at work. Meanwhile an old school friend of Linda’s disappears after claiming she caught sight of her father whom she has not seen since she was a small child. Wallander is slow to take his daughter’s fears seriously, which provokes her. Though gradually the two cases are tied together, the story unravels all too predictably.

This is Mankell’s second conspiracy novel in a row with a political undertow, and once you realise where the novel is heading it loses tension and interest. In the 1950s the standard of work of most detective novelists was consistent. An early Margery Allingham is not noticeably better or worse than one from her middle period, but few writers then needed, for economic reasons, to produce a book every year. Possibly Mankell’s problem is that he cannot always come up with a corker of an idea so he plays around with a social issue and constructs some sort of a puzzle to put it in.

The same, unfortunately, applies to Ian Rankin’s new thriller, Fleshmarket Close (Orion, £17.99). He has, no doubt, done an excellent research job on the horrors of immigration detention centres and the plight and abuse of illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers in our society, but personally I prefer reading about such things in newspapers rather than spread out over hundreds of pages with shock-horror reaction from Rebus and Siobhan, Rankin’s Edinburgh police team.

The murder of a Kurdish asylum-seeker, whose wife and children are confined to Whitemire, an immigration Removal Centre, provides the basis of the plot. As the investigation slowly progresses Rebus is made aware of nasty racism and heavy-handed employment practices amounting to slave labour. Meanwhile, Siobhan investigates the disappearance of a teenager. And then there is the case of a couple of fake skeletons that turn up buried in a cellar. It all comes together in a figure-of-eight at the end with Siobhan’s cases being more entertaining than Rebus’s one.

Self’s Punishment by Thomas Richter, (Weidenfeld, £12.99) introduces Gerhard Self, a German private detective, who, now aged 68, was once a prosecutor during the Nazi period. H is brother-in-law, Korten, who is also an old school friend, asks him to investigate a nuisance hacker at the chemical factory that he heads. The case is not in the least straightforward; Self understands nothing about computers but between his lunch and dinners (always meticulously described; German food sounds utterly delicious coming from the Richter pen), Aviator cocktails and copious wine he does finger someone. When the suspect dies under ambiguous circumstances, Self cannot leave the case alone and finds himself led back into his own dubious past as a wartime prosecutor in Nazi Germany.

Gerhard Self is a find. He is likeable, eccentric and on the lookout for women, although romantically he cuts his coat according to his cloth. He is tough without any macho attitude and feels guilt when it is appropriate. He also, without any seeming angst, takes the law into his own hands. I look forward to his next appearance.

Patricia Cornwell’s Trace (Little Brown, £17.99) starts out well. Dr Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell’s heroine who cuts dead people up, is called to her old stamping-ground, Richmond, Virginia, to give a second opinion about a teenage girl who apparently died of influenza. She turns out to have been smothered and sexually assaulted in her bedroom while her mother was out buying cough mixture. Scarpetta is given a hard time as she investigates because Dr Joel Marcus, the chief medical examiner appointed after she was sacked, is uncertifiably insane. He has her brought on to the case in order to humiliate her because he is jealous of her reputation. All this is rather fun. Unfortunately, the novel falls apart when a link is discovered with a case of sexual assault against Scarpetta’s niece in another town. From then on it is one great yawn: neither a who-done-it nor a why-done-it but a case of how-absurdly-done. A pity.

Sue Grafton’s R is for Ricochet (Macmillan, £16.99) is more interesting than her previous novel but it does not really hang together. Kinsey Millhorne, her engaging private detective heroine, suddenly becomes a wimp, pulled along by an out-of-control woman on parole whom she is being paid by her rich father to chaperone. The woman, Reba Lafferty, a gambler, drinker and druggy, took the rap for her lover and employer and went to prison to protect his hide when money went missing from his business. She comes out of prison full of love and expectation, but this turns to revenge when she realises that she was merely a patsy. Kinsey follows in her wake flapping her arms and about three beats behind Reba’s thinking. It would not surprise me if Reba reappears in future books. Perhaps Grafton is tiring of Kinsey.