‘The Best Travelling Companion is a Good Book’

Right, amongst a few New Year’s resolutions (join a choir, stop smoking, read more, exercise more, eat less crisps…) is to actually update this blog from time to time. So here’s a post I’ve felt like doing for a while.

I’ve been lucky enough to do a fair bit of travelling over the last couple of years, and much to my girlfriend’s chagrin the spare room in my suitcase is usually taken up by a good few paperbacks, and my travel reading is carefully chosen. In a well-set crime novel, the story grows out of the setting, and the location isn’t just background, it’s a character in its own right. I love to read books set in the location I’m travelling to – it not only adds to the experiences of both reading and travelling, it’s also a great way to discover new authors and series.

So here’s a selection of books I’ve picked up on location, so to speak, but what’s more they’re all fantastic reads which I encourage you to check out if you haven’t yet.

1. Irene – Pierre Lemaitre – Paris, France

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We had just three days in Paris and a long list of everything we wanted to see – the Latin Quarter, the Pompidou Centre, the Musee d’Orsay. But Irene, the first in the Commandant Verhoeven series and the prequel to the better-known Alex, was so gripping that I spent much of this precious time reading it in cafes or wishing we could get back on the Metro so I could get it out again. Verhoeven, four-foot-nine and brilliant, is on the trail of a serial killer who stages murders from classic crime novels. That sounds a little clichéd, perhaps, but Lemaitre’s psychological and physical brutality destroys any semblance of self-indulgence from the premise. Verhoeven’s cast of supporting detectives are particularly well-characterised and memorable, as is his relationship with his wife, the titular Irene, who becomes appropriately imperilled as the net closes on the killer. Both the seedy underbelly and the cultural magnificence of Paris shine in the novel, but what makes Irene particularly memorable is the twist ending, which had me open-mouthed for a good minute when it hit.

2. Purple Cane Road – James Lee Burke – New Iberia, Louisiana, USA

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Like many, I was first introduced to Louisiana as a crime location by the masterful first series of  True Detective, and last year I fulfilled a long-held dream of a road trip across the Deep South. I quickly asked my editor if she knew any Louisiana-set crime series, and was happily introduced to Dave Robicheaux, the sherriff’s detective/private eye created by James Lee Burke. New Iberia, a small town in the bayou, oozes death and mystery, and the organised crime and vice of New Orleans is never far away, nor is the political corruption of Baton Rouge. Both play their part in this tale, as a small-time pimp tells Robicheaux his long-lost mother was in fact a prositute drowned in a puddle by two corrupt cops thirty years earlier. What follows is an odyssey through Robicheaux’s past, in which James Lee Burke expertly pulls apart the human and physical geography of one of America’s most fascinating state. I’ve learnt a lot from Burke, and reading Purple Cane Road as we took a cruise on the bayou, spotting alligators in their nests, was one of the best experiences of my trip.

3. Hypothermia – Arnaldur Indridason – Reykjavík, Iceland

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Indridason’s surly and depressed Detective Erlendur is one of the greatest imports of the Scandinavian crime wave, and I had already bought two of his series to read during our winter trip to Iceland. I devoured them and picked up this in a bookshop, which I was pleased to see was the busiest in the street in Reykjavík. Icelanders read seriously, it would seem, and with Indridason’s books, it’s easy to see why. Reading it in a snow-covered city with three hours of daylight only adds to the mood. A woman is found hanged in her holiday cottage by Lake Thingvellir, a national park outside Reykjavík that is as breathtakingly beautiful in the book as it is in reality. Erlendur is not assigned the case, being called upon merely to inform the woman’s husband of her death, but he cannot help investigate when he learns of the victim’s obsession with contacting her late mother, Leonora, and receives a tape of a seance she recently attended. The case has difficult assocations for Erlendur, still haunted by the death of his brother in a blizzard when he was a child. No-one writes character and motivation better than Indridason, full stop. The bleakness is beautiful, like a minimalist sonata, and we suffer with Erlendur too. I followed this with the most recent entry, Strange Shores, which had me in tears.

4. Devil’s Peak – Deon Meyer – Cape Town, South Africaimage

I spent the summer on my medical elective in a hospital in South Africa, and picked this up in a bookshop there. Suffice to say on finishing, I immediately downloaded the rest of the series to my Kindle. The complex miasma that is modern-day South Africa is expertly presented by Meyer through the eyes of three characters: Benny Griessel, an Afrikaner Cape Town murder detective and the most realistic depiction of the stock alocholic cop I’ve seen in many a read; Thobela Mpayipheli, a former freedom fighter on a revenge mission after the meaningless murder of his son; and Christine van Rooyen, a prostitute whose role in events does not become clear until much later. Meyer weaves the stories of these three tortured souls together into a beautiful canvas, pulling no punches [Griessel in particularly gives the impression of a man left behind by the times, insisting that less-competent black officers have been promoted ahead of him due to affirmative action] and addressing the brutal reality of crime and inequality in South Africa whilst still allowing the light to shine through of this country and its people. Probably the best book I read in 2016.

5. Child of God – Cormac McCarthy – Sevier County, Tennessee, USA

imageThis 1973 work, one of McCarthy’s earliest, was one of two I brought with me on the aforementioned Deep South road trip. The other, of course, was the timeless No Country for Old Men, set in the barren wastelands of West Texas, but this lesser-known novel takes us to the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Today, Sevierville is a tourist hub, but in the 50s world of Child of God, it is a much harder world. A number of nameless narrative points of view introduce us to Lester Ballard, a ‘child of god much like yourself perhaps’, and charts his descent from forest-dwelling hermit to necrophiliac serial killer. This is McCarthy at his best, disturbing and poetic, with the second-person invective making you examine everything you hold true about existence. One paragraph near the end, describing Ballard crossing a surging stream whilst fleeing the authorities, is perhaps one of the best-written pieces of prose of the 20th century. And it made me never want to leave our log cabin in the Smoky Mountains.

 

One week, two tragedies.

This is not a happy post, nor a pleasant topic. Earlier this week it was confirmed that a body found in Dorset was that of Rose Polge, a junior doctor missing since February. This news is unimaginably tragic for Rose’s friends and family, but was also received with sadness by many of us in the medical fraternity.

The subject of suicide amongst healthcare workers is one which disquiets anyone who works in the NHS, as it is not a question of if a colleague takes their life, but rather when and who. I count myself lucky that no close friend has yet died by suicide, though I know many who have lost friends, loved ones and esteemed colleagues to this scourge of our era. Healthcare professionals are known to have one of the highest suicide rates of any occupational group, and I am reasonably sure that suicide is among the top causes of death of NHS staff.

The sad news this week reminded me of feeling similarly deflated in February, when Rose first went missing. This was just two days after I read of the suicide of another member of NHS staff, Amin Abdullah. Whilst suicide is a complex issue, and there is never a single cause of such a desperate act, I feel strongly that both these people were let down by a system that totally fails to take care of the welfare of its staff.

Dr Rose Polge was a 25-year-old F1 doctor, working at Torbay Hospital in Torquay, Devon. One Friday evening, she walked out of her twelve-hour daytime shift and disappeared. Her car was found shortly afterwards in a coastside car park, along with a note to her family which, according to the BBC ‘mainly related to personal issues’, but also referenced Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Again, I cannot imagine what her family, friends and NHS colleagues are going through, and I will not speculate on what motivated her to take her own life. Suffice to say, however, that I pray Mr Hunt reflects accordingly on being included by name in the apparent suicide notes of young doctors.

Amin Abdullah was an award-winning nurse at Charing Cross Hospital in London. He wrote a letter – signed by 17 co-workers – in support of a colleague who had been the subject of a complaint, in which he criticised the patient who had complained. He also wrote an email in which he referred to the patient as a ‘professional complainer’. The NHS Trust sacked him for gross misconduct, though to my knowledge they did not discipline any of the 17 co-signatories. Losing his job sent Amin into a spiral of depression, for which he was treated at St Charles’ Hospital. He left St Charles’ in the early hours of the morning of Tuesday, 9th February, before proceeding to set himself on fire outside Kensington Palace.

This case angers me in a few ways. Again, I am not privy to the details, so my prejudices will come through, and I apologise for that. But it smacks to me of yet another case of justice having to be seen to be done, rather than actually being done. Of sacrificing a member of staff – who acknowledged his own behaviour as a ‘foolish mistake’ – in order to placate a member of the public, or the tabloids, or to save the face of the organisation. I’m not defending Amin’s conduct, but do people have no common sense? If a staff member with an exemplary disciplinary record begins to behave rashly, is that not far more likely to be due to burnout, life stresses or a mental health condition than an overnight change into a difficult personality incompatible with the role of nursing? Surely there were more constructive options available to the trust than dismissal? This of course comes in the context where doctors and nurses now regularly face police investigations and even prison for isolated errors of judgement, more often than not as just one part of an unsafe system which failed in its entirety.

It’s difficult not to see these two tragedies in the context of the changing face of the NHS. Of course, the NHS must look after its patients as its first priorities. But it also must look after its staff, even when they err. In fact, especially when they err. Truly valuing staff means seeing them as human beings who are fallible, and supporting them even during a disciplinary process. And seeing them as human beings who may crack under stress. Mental health support to hospital staff is woefully inadequate – if you’re struggling to cope, you’re seen as merely a burden to the rota. And I cannot help but fear that such tragedies will become more likely if Hunt’s new contract comes through, and junior doctors are forced to work more unsocial hours, be more isolated from their family and friends, and have increased workloads as services are expanded without the funding for extra staff to man them.

We need to be better as a culture, of course, at speaking out when we’re struggling, and detecting the signs when our colleagues and friends are. But when you work in a system where the consequences of saying that you’re struggling is investigation, punishment and penalty – one which cares more about newspaper headlines and evading government targets than the welfare of its staff – there’s only so much you can do.

Rest in peace, Amin and Rose. You will not be forgotten.

Confidential, free mental and emotional health advice is available 24/7 from the Samaritans at 116 123. 

Updates – February

Hello minor readership… Just thought I’d share with you a few updates.

1. The Hollow Men is publishing imminently. This is incredibly exciting, and is finally beginning to feel real. I’m doing strange things, like going into antique bookshops and signing hardback copies, and more and more my paranoia that this is some kind of delusion is beginning to fade!

2. Some people have read it, and like it. In particular, I was the Sunday Times crime book of the month for February!

3. Some other real people have read it, and will tell you what they think about it on Goodreads… 

4. Our inhuman sack of shit of a Health Secretary, who’s never spent a day in his life working for the NHS, will further endanger the patients of the future, as well as the mental and emotional wellbeing of junior doctors. I wrote my slightly more polite thoughts on this matter in the Guardian.

With that out of the way, I’ll shortly be reflecting on two very sad news stories that occured this week.

Be well,

 

Rob

 

 

Small steps on a long road

NB: Post archived from my last blog before moving to this one… Written September 2015.

To anyone who reads this, welcome. My first blog has been alive for a few hours, and I thought I would set the scene for the journey so far. I don’t yet know what it’ll be about yet. Writing, first. London, second. Who knows where it’ll go, but I thought I might start with where it’s come from.

Writing’s something I’ve always done. I first penned an (awful) novel at the angsty age of thirteen. It was about an adopted kid inheriting a mafia dynasty, Alex Rider crossed with Grand Theft Auto, with an explosive death on every one of its forty-three pages. As adolescence raged on, there followed a similar tale set in the Florida Keys (where I’ve never been); a love story/spy story set in 1960s Berlin (where I have); and a Jack Bauer-style conspiracy thriller about square-jawed All-American heroes shooting bad guys and cutting the right wire as the clock counted down.

All of those, without exception, were utter shite. But I never wrote them for anything but enjoyment. A few friends read them, as did one teacher (she later made some comments along the lines of “concerning levels of detail when it came to firearms and martial arts”). Paradoxically, I didn’t much like English at school, and never considered going into anything wordy as a career. I’d decided on medical school by the time I picked my A-levels, in hindsight mostly because my family watched Casualty every Saturday evening.

Almost four years ago, I left home, and moved to London. Some of the shops we’d driven past on the way there were still boarded up from the August riots, which I’d watched with fascination from airport news screens on my way home from Europe. The third or fourth night in halls, I started writing a story about an illegal immigrant taking hostages in a chicken shop and the police doctor called to help him, the story that would eventually become The Hollow Men. Two years later I had an agent. The Hollow Men will be published in February, and I still struggle with accepting this reality as the one I inhabit.

Despite the fact that writing’s always been a part of my life, I didn’t for one moment think of it as a potential career, or even a side-career. That said, there must have been a part of me that believed in it enough to keep sending the first chapters of The Hollow Men to agencies until one of them showed interest…(Gregory & Company, who I will thank and praise at every opportunity). I must confess that this felt a bit of a confidence trick, and sometimes it still does. I am still at medical school (I thank whatever Gods may be) and whatever happens I can’t ever see myself giving up a career I haven’t even started yet. There’s nothing noble about it, but medicine’s too damn interesting to bail out on.

This blog won’t be about that, though – there’s plenty of medics out there. Instead I will share with you my stories and the stories I love, and probably a few of my obsessions too. Apologies in advance for semi-drunk, insomniac ramblings about books, love letters to the authors I admire, rants about the things I hate, and plenty of chat about food, London, and whisky*.

Let’s see where this road goes next.

Rob

*If I extrapolate from the writing, then the vast majority of posts will be done in the early morning, with a glass of something smoky. Talisker Dark Storm tonight, if you’re wondering. Matured in charred oak casks, peaty and maritime. Delightful.