Book reviews: new fiction from Piers Paul Read, Vaseem Khan and Carl-Johan Forssén Ehrlin
Read probes a murky corner of recent Roman history, Khan launches an engaging new detective and Ehrlin says don’t listen to his book while driving
by Piers Paul Read (read by Leighton Pugh)
Historical Rome is, to use a phrase, very now. Mary Beard’s excellent new history SPQR is a lively account of its ancient history. Piers Paul Read alights on one dark corner of its more recent past – Vitellio Scarpia, or Baron Scarpia as Read has him, chief of police to Pope Pius VII at the start of the 19th century. Famed for his cunning and brutality, Scarpia is no stranger to artistic representation – most famously, in Puccini’s opera Tosca, where he comes across like Shakespeare’s Iago and Dracula, only really mean. For Read, Scarpia has clearly been misunderstood. Born in Sicily, he is something of a swashbuckler a la Errol Flynn. Good-looking and skillful with a sword, he rescues one damsel from pirates, before seducing most of Italy. Tosca he beds under nothing but a starlit Sicilian sky. Read seems most interested in the contents of Scarpia’s trousers, but contextualises his fascination with some fraught European politics: Napoleon, war, religious schism. Leighton Pugh seems an aptly laid-back chap, which suits the endless of talk of Scarpia’s pistol. Whether the one he shoots or the one he enchants the ladies with sounds a matter of supreme indifference to his louche, attractive tones. Hot.
The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra
by Vaseem Khan (read by Sartaj Garewal)
Hodder and Stoughton (audiobook)
December is the month when publishing winds down, offering a chance to catch up with the many fine, interesting audiobooks that all the year’s other fine, interesting audiobooks stopped you hearing a. Vaseem Khan’s The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra is a debut novel that kicks off an intriguing new crime series. We begin, ironically, at Inspector Chopra’s ending – he is due to retire when he learns he has inherited an elephant. If this provides some touching comedy, Khan’s central mystery provides more serious themes. The night before Chopra’s final day, a young boy has been killed. His hysterical mother crashes the farewell bash to plead his case. “If I came in a big white Mercedes they would be jumping round me like pye-dogs!” Chopra nobly takes on a last investigation, one that cuts across Mumbai’s class and economic divides. It is easy to see him as India’s answer to Alexander McCall Smith’s Mme Ramotswe, at once sincere, likeable and nicely comic. Sartaj Garewal reads with just the right light touch, able to slow things when matters take a turn for the serious. He knows too when to raise a smile, not least when Chopra’s elephant lends her expertise to proceedings.
The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep
by Carl-Johan Forssén Ehrlin (read by Rachel Bavidge, Roy McMillan)
Traditionally, falling asleep is a sign of literary failure. Books tend to be better when eyes or ears are open. One of 2015’s unexpected hits (this self-published title beat Go Tell a Watchman to top Amazon’s charts,), The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep may be an honourable exception. Desperate parents everywhere have praised its apparently soporific qualities, which obey psychologist Carl-Johan Forssén Ehrlin’s theories. The narrator starts by warning that the audiobook should not be heard by anyone driving a car. I took it is a joke, but changed my mind when the publisher disavowed any responsibility if “your little one” doesn’t slumber. The voices of Roy McMillan and Rachel Bavidge are vital to its power. Both read the same words in low, slow tones, like a hypnotist telling a slow child what to do at three-quarter speed. This is less a story than a series of low commands dramatised by a mother rabbit whispering sweet somethings to her son, Roger. Yawns are vital, both as suggestive punctuation and as character: the self-explanatory Uncle Yawn. The idea seems to be your baby will empathise so closely with Roger the Rabbit (“he is exactly as old as you are”) that they will nod happily off faster than you can say “Who Framed”. It’s weird, a little unsettling, but (I admit) so, so soothing.