Trudi’s #CBR5 review #5: “Truth” by Peter Temple

Publisher: Quercus
Page count: 406 pages

Truth is the latest novel by the acclaimed Australian crime writer Peter Temple. It follows Inspector Stephen Villani, head of the Victoria homicide squad, a minor character introduced in The broken shore through a spate of murders in the gruelling heat of the Australian summer. A prostitute is found in a brand new luxury condominium with her neck broken; yet rather than cooperate with the investigations, the building’s owners use their connections with the high and mighty to close the case early lest the sale of the new appartments be affected. Elsewhere in Victoria, the bodies of three drug dealers are found mutilated in an apparent gang-related attack turned ugly. Again Villani finds himself under pressure to close the case to preserve the image of a secure city ahead of the autumn’s elections.

Villani himself is the sheer definition of an anti-hero: his marriage is a shambles following his multiple indiscretions; his youngest daughter is drugging herself, living on the street and accusing Villani of incest; and his domineering father leaves Villani feeling a continuously inadequate and weak son. Consequently, work is the only arena left for Villani to excel in; yet, here too, he is portrayed as deeply flawed as Villani some years back helped a colleague disguise the shooting of an unarmed suspect as an act of self-defence.

Truth is a great book: fast paced, compulsively readable, written with a lot of style and flair, I breezed through it in less than a day, which is unusually fast for me. Having read The broken shore a few months ago, I really enjoyed how Temple expanded the universe of characters of that book in this latest volume, adding even more nuances and enhancing the reader’s insight into the background of the cast of both books. Combined with Temple’s superb language and dark storyline, the result is a novel of far higher literary quality than is common for crime writers. Well worth the read!

Trudi’s #CBR5 review #4: “Den urolige mannen” (The troubled man) by Henning Mankell

Publisher: Gyldendal, 2009 (translated from Swedish to Norwegian)
Page count: 494 pages

“The troubled man” is the ninth and final crime novel about the Swedish policeman and antihero Kurt Wallander. While Wallander himself is troubled for several reasons (health problems, growing old, thoughts of retirement and death, and so forth), the troubled man referred to in the title of the book is actually not Wallander but Håkan von Enke, the father-in-law of Wallander’s daughter, Linda.

After getting suspended from work due to an unrelated incident, Wallander agrees to join Linda at von Enke’s 75th birthday party in Stockholm. von Enke served as a high-ranking Navy officer on various Swedish submarines during the Cold War. During the party, von Enke pulls Wallander aside and tells him a stunning story about an enemy submarine supposedly trapped in Swedish territorial waters in the mid-eighties. The submarine was never forced to reveal itself, but was instead let go after orders from High Command against von Enke’s better judgement. He considered it an act of treason and has dedicated the rest of his career to finding out why and how this came to pass, and who made the orders. Now, over twenty years later, von Enke’s digging may have made him a target – he appears troubled and is carrying his old service gun, but does not tell Wallander why. Wallander does not think more of it, however, until von Enke disappears without a trace a few days later. von Enke’s wife, Louise, is distraught over her husband’s disappearance and asks Wallander to investigate it alongside the Stockholm police’s official investigation for the family’s sake. When Louise subsequently also disappears, only to be found dead several weeks later, what initially looked like an easy case turns into Wallander’s most complex investigation to date, with numerous links back to the Cold War, espionage, the Soviet Union and more – even the CIAmakes an appearance.

I devoured the first eight Wallander books in my terns, and remember them as superb storytelling with completely unpredictable plots. For a long time, Henning Mankell was my favourite crime writer until I eventually ran out of new books and had to move on to other authors. Therefore I got extremely excited when I discovered this (for me) new volume in a bookshop by coincidence. However, after having read it, I’m left with somewhat mixed feelings. The story is well thought through and the plot has the many twists and turns I’d expect, but somehow it all feels a little artificial and contrived. While I didn’t mind the Cold War spy angle per se, I couldn’t help but feel that Mankell throws in one too many minor characters and events (US War veterans, retired Stasi and CIA agents, old East Bloc poisons being used to kill someone in Sweden in 2009 (!), a severely handicapped unknown daughter, and so on) for this story to be even remotely believable. Consequently, I never worked up the enthusiasm for this book that I did for the previous installments. That said, the book is at its finest when it describes Wallander’s personal life, his experience of moving to the countryside, and his fears about old age and death. As Mankell himself is in his sixties, Wallander as a 60-year old man turning more and more into his own father felt real and heartfelt. Mankell also does a wonderful job of tying all loose threads from previous mysteries, e.g. we find out what happens with Linda, Wallander’s ex-wife, and Latvian lover Baiba. For this reason, if not for the crime story itself, Wallander fans should take the time to plow through “The troubled man”.

Trudi’s #CBR5 review #3: “The Bogleheads’ guide to investing” by Taylor Larimore, Mel Lindauer and Michael LeBoeuf

Publisher: John Wiley & Sons (2006)
Page count: 256 pages

As you have no doubt guessed from the title, this is a book on investments and personal finance. It is named after the founder of The Vanguard Group, John Bogle, one of the pioneers behind the creation of low-cost index funds. The Bogleheads, as they call themselves, are avid fans of this particular style of investments, essentially the idea that you should save a given amount every month into an index fund (or set of index funds) and then simply forget about those funds until it is time to rebalance your portfolio again. The rationale being that if you follow the stock market news and watch your portfolio obsessively, you are far more likely to let yourself be influenced by market fluctuations, hype, “experts” predicting the next big winner/loser, and so forth, so that you in many instances end up buying high and selling low. Instead, if you only look at your portfolio at pre-determined intervals in order to rebalance it (i.e. changing how much you allocate towards equity funds vs. bond funds, etc. according to a weighting regime), you will instead automatically redirect your funds towards the underperforming asset class (since you will be relatively overweighted in the other asset classes) and thus end up buying more of the underperforming asset class when it is cheaper, relatively speaking.

Next, the Bogleheads discuss whether you should invest in active or passive funds. Active funds are funds in which a portfolio manager, for a (sometimes exorbitant) fee, will try to outperform the market by picking what he or she thinks are the future winners on the stock exchange. Passive funds, also known as index funds, are far cheaper as they simply copy a given index such as the S&P500 by buying the stocks of the index proportionally to the weightings of the constituents in that index. The Bogleheads do not deny that successful active funds exist – by definition if someone loses a lot, someone else won as the markets are a zero-sum game. What they do question, though, is whether it is realistic to think that you can pick the future winning funds when empirical studies have shown time and again that past performance is no indication of future success. Consequently, the Bogleheads suggest that you focus on the one thing you can influence, and that is cost: index funds are typically sold at rock-bottom prices of 0.2% or less. In comparison, active funds often cost 2% or more once you add up all the fees. The difference may not sound like much, but given the amazing power of compounded interest it can make a world of difference. Thus, while investing in index funds means you won’t beat the market – ever – you won’t lose more than the market did, either, and more of your money will be invested in your portfolio as opposed to going towards the portfolio manager’s salary or bonus.

Somewhat simplified, these two concepts summarise the main ideas of the book. The Bogleheads then go on to apply these concepts to different scenarios such as saving for college, saving for retirement, and so on.

So what did I think of it? Well, mostly I liked it. Working in the financial sector myself (though not on Wall Street I hasten to add!) and having been through the curriculum for level I and II of the CFA program, there were no major revelations for me in this book. I also found the book a little outdated in that some of the examples use interest rates that are wholly unrealistic in today’s financial crisis environment. Moreover, a newer book would no doubt also reflect the lessons of those who lost their life’s savings in the stock market crashes we have seen in the past five years as a timely warning of the many risks of the stock markets. The book could therefore do with some updating.

That said, I would still recommend this book wholeheartedly because I think the concepts of it are timeless and valid even in today’s turbulent markets. It is moreover a good introduction to investments aimed at Average Joe written in an entertaining and irreverent style that makes it surprisingly easy to read even if you have no background in economics or finance. Lastly, in my opinion it is unfair to say that this book paints an overly rosy picture of low-cost equity index funds as the panacea of personal finance investments, particularly when you are rapidly approaching your retirement. The few reviewers who claim this neglect the Bogleheads’ message on the importance of rebalancing your portfolio: when you are young, you can afford the greater risk associated with investing in the stock market because the expected returns in the long run more than compensate you for this added risk. This is particularly true in today’s low interest rate environment – if you just leave your money in the bank at close to 0% interest rates, inflation will over time reduce your purchasing power so that you are in fact steadily losing money over time without the up-side potential of the equity market. However, as you grow older, the Bogleheads recommend directing an increasing part of your monthly savings towards safer asset classes such as fixed income where returns are lower but less risky, and coupons provide a predictable income stream. In my view, therefore, this book provides sound investment principles regardless of whether you are 25 or 65.

Trudi’s #CBR5 review #2: The Last Dragonslayer

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton, 2011
Page count: 190 pages

Jennifer Strange is wise beyond her years. A foundling left in an old Wolksvagen Beetle as a baby, Jennifer was raised by the sisterhood of The Blessed Ladies of the Lobster before being sent to Kazam, a magical agency, at age 10. Now she is six years into her indentured service, which entails being the receptionist, driver, accountant, mailman, and administrative do-it-all for all the sorcerers, carpeteers, soothsayers and weathermongers affiliated with Kazam. Unfortunately, running an old-fashioned magical agency is an uphill battle in the face of modern inventions and a population sceptical of magic. So Jennifer and the wizards have to take what little work they can find, whether it involves retrieving lost objects, teleporting double-parked cars, or rebuilding collapsed bridges.

One day, one of Kazam’s precogs (sorcerers who have visions of the future) foresees the death of the last dragon. The Ununited Kingdoms immediately go into a frenzy because huge tracts of land currently tied up in the Dragonlands will be up for grabs the moment the dragon is killed by the last dragonslayer. Jennifer, however, worries about the dragon dying, as this might kill off the last remnants of magic power in the world, effectively putting Kazam out of business. Spoiler alert! She therefore tracks down the single remaining dragonslayer in the world to convince him to spare the dragon, only to find herself being tricked into becoming the last dragonslayer herself! All of a sudden, the world’s eyes turn to her, with all the prophesies, political intrigues, merchandising offers, and sleazy game shows that entails. But how can Jennifer kill the dragon when his death is the last thing she wants… Spoiler ends.

True to form, Jasper Fforde has once again created a unique mix of fantasy and magic commingled with a topsy-turvy version of modern Britain. While different from the Thursday Next seris (of which I’m a huge fan), The last dragonslayer is nonetheless a very light read that works impeccably, and I found both the story per se as well as the skewed take on modern-day life hugely entertaining. A great way to pass an evening!

Trudi’s #CBR5 review #1: The Broken Shore by Peter Temple

The broken shore is a standalone crime novel by Peter Temple. It is set in Port Monroe, a small village somewhere in Australia. Joe Cashin is a homicide cop who has transferred from Melbourne to Port Monroe to recover both physically and mentally after a case in which his partner was murdered and Cashin himself was brutally attacked and nearly killed, too. After the many ugly cases Cashin investigated in the city, Port Monroe is a walk in the park where the worst that can happen is a few traffic incidents and having to chase the odd vagrant when the neighbours start complaining.
This peace is interrupted, however, when the town’s great benefactor, Mr Bourgoyne, is found tortured in his own home and later dies of the injuries in the hospital. Despite Bourgoyne’s wealth, nothing has been taken from the crime scene except an exclusive Breitling watch. The watch is later traced to a pawnshop in Sydney where it was submitted by three Aboriginal teenagers from Port Monroe. The police’s attempt to apprehend the three youths goes badly wrong, ending in a car chase that leaves two of them dead and the third in hospital. Racial tensions in Port Monroe surge as a result, and a political fight in the media ensues. When the third teenager later commits suicide, the Bourgoyne murder is assumed solved and Cashin is told to close the case. Cashin thinks the youths may have been framed, however, and decides to dig deeper on his own…
The broken shore was a Christmas present, and is the first novel I have read by Peter Temple. I therefore had no expectations whatsoever, but I can honestly say that it has been years since I read a crime novel this good. Despite taking a few chapters to get used to the Aussie slang, I was instantly hooked and tore through the book in less than two days. I therefore agree wholeheartedly with the reviewer from The Independent on Sunday quoted in the blurb at the back of the book: read one page of this book and I challenge you not to finish it! Congratulations Peter Temple, you just made it to the top of my most wanted crime novel list!