As you will know I review books and share the reviews here every so often. I have recently reviewed the third book in John Dolan‘s series ‘Time, Blood and Karma‘, that I loved, and I thought I’d take a chance to remind you of the two other books in the series (as I mention them in the review too).
A Poison Tree (Time, Blood and Karma Series) by John Dolan. You can’t escape you past even if you move to Thailand
I have had the pleasure of reading all of John Dolan’s books in his series ‘Time, Blood, and Karma’ (up to now) about a very singular detective/therapist David Braddock, who lives in Thailand, is witty, deadpan, a pocket philosopher, fascinated by Buddhism, and with an intriguing back story.
When I read the first novel ‘Everyone Burns’ I wanted to know more about the main character, who is the conscience and narrator of the book, and through whose eyes we see the action. The more the story advanced, the more I wondered how reliable a narrator he was, and how many things he wasn’t telling us about himself.
I loved ‘Hungry Ghosts’ where the story further develops, the incidents get much closer home, and the interconnectedness of everything and everybody becomes clearer and clearer. The author leaves a big hook hanging at the end of the book but then…
He publishes ‘A Poison Tree’. The title is taken from a quote by William Blake and it is very appropriate. Because instead of following the story, Mr Dolan goes back to give us the background to his character David Braddock. We meet him in 1999 —when everybody was concerned about the possibility that the New Year might bring the end of the world —in England, Leicester of all places. His novel is hardly a recommendation to visit Leicester. See this description of the location of David’s office (he’s managing his father’s car dealership):
‘Behold ye the land of cheap exhausts, tyre-changing ramps, blackened welding shops, and undercapitalised garages mutating slowly into car washes.’
Unfortunately he could be describing a large number of places.
David is the witty character we get to know and love later, but he appears more vulnerable and very troubled. Although his troubles are not quite in the same league as those he encounters as a detective, he is not a lucky man. He meets a very shady character, Jim Fosse, who starts talking about the perfect murder and quotes Hitchcock’s ‘Strangers in a Train’ scenario. He wants rid of his wife and thinks that swapping crimes might be the way forward. David dismisses it as he is happy with his wife Claire…or is he? His sister-in-law and old friend, Anna has a disastrous marriage, her husband is having an affair, and at some point it seems as if everybody is having an affair, even Claire. We later discover that things are not as they seem, but unfortunately it is too late by then.
Although the major voice in this novel is again David’s, and by his own confession, he is trying to write everything that happened, as an exercise in exorcism (although not quite), there are other characters we hear too, Jim Fosse (although a nasty man and a psychopath, I must confess he is very entertaining and devious. Hear him: ‘I don’t have any friends. I don’t need them. Friends are an unnecessary burden. I only have accomplices.’), Adele, a Scottish woman, now living in Leicester, who makes her living working in a shop and prostituting herself, who is an observer but somehow involved with many of the main players, Claire (David’s wife), Anna…They all have secrets, they all live a lie, but nearly all of them survive to tell the tale. And to carry on with other stories.
‘A Poison Tree’ (reflecting on the nature of desire David concludes that it is ‘a poison tree’) closes the circle taking us to the point when David decides to leave the UK (‘I will be glad to be off this shabby little island. It’s so fucking pleased with itself. I’ve been here too long.’) and is going first to Bali but then moving to Thailand, making use of the money his wonderful Aunt Jean (I’d love to hear more of her story) leaves him in her will, encouraging him to live. He mentions becoming a detective and going back to using what he’s learned about therapies.
And so there we are. Now I see many things and I understand a bit better. ‘A Poison Tree’ can be read independently without any knowledge of the other two, as it sets up the scene. Having read the other two novels I could not help but keep having ‘ahhhh!’ moments and sharing in the anxiety, worries and sadness of the characters. I enjoyed getting to know David’s family better and getting to grips with the relationship with his wife and his guilt. This novel is far less exotic and not as fast paced as the rest of the series, but it is much more reflective and insidious, built like a complicated puzzle where pieces eventually fit in but not as you thought, and it is suffused by a sense of dread, melancholy and regret. Not all prequels are good but this is one of the excellent ones. I think it was a good choice to publish the novels in this order. It feels as if the author is giving us some space to breathe and feeding us information that might help us fully understand and enjoy what’s yet to come. And I very much suspect it will be a very bumpy ride.
A Poison Tree USA
A Poison Tree UK
Here, the first book in the series:
Everyone Burns (Time, Blood and Karma Book One) by John Dolan Counselling, politics and detection in Thailand
Everyone Burns is a detective novel. And although it lives up to many of the detective novels expectations (David Braddock, the detective protagonist is a somewhat cynical man who has seen everything, is a bit of a womaniser, smokes, has a bad opinion of the local cops, and keeps us entertained with a sometimes insightful, sometimes clueless, but always entertaining internal dialogue) it is by no means your usual run-of-the-mill detective novel.
What makes it different? For one, its setting. This is not New York or a big city. This is Samui, an island part of Thailand, where sexual tourism is rife, politics and the local police are corrupt, and foreigners (Sarangs) have to live in the outskirts of society following unspoken but very strict rules. The author managers to paint a vivid image of Samui, a place of contrasts, with very wealthy patrons, gangsters who control everything and everybody, and extremely poor individuals who can’t pay for a cataract operation. But what I found personally fascinating was the deep understanding of the functioning of such society, where gross corruption can be offset by an appearance of outward morality and normality.
David Braddock, despite the many recognisable traits he shares with your favourite detective, is anything but a common guy. He has no known qualifications for the job he does. He is a triumph of vocational approach to training. He does the job because he can. In the same manner that he offers (mostly to foreigners like him) his skills as detective, he also offers counselling (that he seems to have mastered via some courses, ample reading and a generous dose of common sense) to natives. To handle these two strands of his business he has two rooms in his office and will show (or his pregnant secretary will) his clients to the East or West office. His fees also vary according to the clientele. He is married, but his relationship with his wife is mysterious from the start and although he is deeply in love with her, she seems to be a very rare presence in his life. He has a housekeeper who is a character and steady influence, he visits a Buddhist monastery and the novel is peppered with Buddhist wisdom and Braddock’s attempts at applying it to his investigations. He has a number of female friends, some married, and he is receiving what appear to be blackmail letters that seem to come from somebody in the know about his relationship with the wife of the chief of police.
He is British but has lived in Thailand for a number of years, although his standing appears to be still uncertain. We don’t know much about his background but this is a man who can quote the classics, speaks Thai, is well informed on local, international and current affairs and is a deep thinker with a peculiar but internally consistent sense of morality. This being a first person narration I was left wanting to know who he really is. If the many cases he gets involved in get solved in some fashion (foreign men get killed and burned in a spot where years back a young man killed himself by setting himself alight), I felt there were more questions left unanswered than fully satisfying answers.
I loved this novel. Although I’ve read a few detective novels and seedy settings are not uncommon, the degree of local knowledge, understanding of customs and familiarity with procedures (and I understand from reading about the author that Mr Dolan spends a fair amount of time in Thailand) goes well beyond what I expected and rather than a filler to justify some elements of the story, I felt it was integral to it and fascinating to read for the insights it provided. The cases were interesting and the first person narrative, like in many of the most loved classic detective novels, allowed you to test yourself, look for clues, and try to find the elusive connections that you knew existed but couldn’t quite work out.
The characterisation not only of Braddock but of most of the important secondary characters was vivid and rang true. How reliable a narrator Braddock is, is something that you’ll have to decide. I can say I was surprised at a particular point in the novel, because although something had not made much sense to me (and I won’t spoil the plot) when I realised why I still wasn’t sure if it was the way the scenes were set or my own lack of acumen at points.
My feeling and opinion is that this series will be a five star series, but I wanted more background, more story and more development in some of the characters. I believe that all will come together as a whole and can’t wait to read the rest of the novels. If you like detective novels and want to try something new, don’t waste any more time and read Everyone Burns.
Everyone Burns USA
Everyone Burns UK
And this is the second:
Hungry Ghosts (Time, Karma and Blood Series Book 2) by John Dolan. Family secrets, family feuds, betrayals and ghosts.
‘The spirits of the dead are all around us, but it is we, the living, that are the true hungry ghosts.’I could not agree more with the reflections of David Braddock, the detective-cum-philosopher and therapist who is the protagonist of Hungry Ghosts, the second book in the ‘Time, Karma and Blood Series’ by John Dolan. I read the first book in the series Everyone Burns and when I reviewed it I mentioned that I thought this would be a five star series but the first book left me wanting more and with too many questions pending. Be reassured, Hungry Ghosts delivers on all the promises of the first and more, and although, of course this being a series everything could not be resolved, it answers many of the questions, whilst opening new avenues for inquiry and intriguing plots.
‘Sometimes I come across as superficial. Of this I am aware. However, you may be confident that inside my head I am forever plumbing new shallows, finding novel ways to express the obvious, reheating old jokes.’
David Braddock, one of the most peculiar detectives I’ve met in fiction (and I am aware all famous detectives have quirks and characteristics that make them memorable) is back with a vengeance. Or rather, he is the intended victim of a revenge attempt. Vending the rules, although it appears to be the standard MO in Thailand, does not come without consequences, even there. People die, lives are destroyed, and strange alliances are made and broken. Not your standard day at the office.
If Braddock still retains many of the characteristics we’ve come to expect of most males detectives (he has an array of love interests, two of them married, one related to him by first marriage…), we get to see more of his soft/emotional side. His strange relationships with his first wife (now dead), his daughter (away in England), his housekeeper (not his maid, as he insists throughout the whole book. She is clearly much more than a housekeeper, as signaled by the fact that they have never had sex), his mother-in-law, and crucially, his father. Family secrets abound, not only those of the Braddock family, but also of other families. Fathers and sons with troubled relationships are mirrored on both sides of the law (although the lines are very fine and there is no black and white here, rather different shades of grey, but no, not fifty), and even Braddock’s Zen master, the Old Monk, has sons who are on opposite sides of the law.
The author shows his talent by using a variety of points of view throughout the novel that allow us to understand better the events and the motivations behind the actions of the characters. We share in the murderer’s frame of mind, the Chief of Police of Samui and his wife (and Braddock’s lover), the detective’s sister in law, the gangsters… We might side with Braddock but we are privy to the thoughts and feelings of others and are a step ahead. That is why the twist at the end is even more effective. We should have seen it coming but we were too taken by the action and the story, and rooting for the flawed hero to realise that…
John Dolan treads carefully and manages to recap enough information to allow somebody who has not read the first novel to enjoy and make sense of this one, whilst at the same time not boring somebody who has recently read ‘Everyone Burns’, and just nudging their memory (especially with the unfamiliar names) along.
David Braddock is fast becoming one of my favourite detectives. Although an amateur at both detective work and psychology (or therapeutic interventions), he has a natural flair for both. I couldn’t help but think that he might make an interesting team with Mary, the psychiatrist who gets involved in all sorts of crimes in my stories. It’s a thought.
Hungry Ghosts has gang-warfare, police corruption, revenge, murders and violence, secrets and revelations, honey traps and meddling employees, witty repartees and reflections (‘I need to simplify my life so far as women are concerned. Maybe I should get castrated and have done with it.’), ghosts and padrinos (Thai style). I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next and what will come of the sudden epiphany Braddock experiences in this book. As he observes: ‘We are the artisans of avoidance, the fabricators of falsehoods. We sell ourselves snake-oil and we call it medicine.’ I’m sure there will be more revelations to come and I suspect the author might take us in unsuspected directions. I am getting a ticket for the next trip. Are you?
Hungry Ghosts USA
Hungry Ghosts UK
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