Thursday, April 25, 2019

After Christchurch, March 15, 2019

One of the comforts of mystery and detective fiction is that there is an effort to discover motive and make it knowable. Greed, jealousy, fear, revenge, desire are all intelligible to the detective's eye. But we are sometimes confronted by events in which the motive is not merely lacking, but vacant, horrific.

I write this in reference to the mass murder in Christchurch on March 15, and because I was born and lived a large part of my adult life in Christchurch, and so it is the city I still regard as home, familiar ground, before all others. The Christchurch where I grew up, the city on the plain in the shadow of the sun-browned Port Hills, with its green, fragrant parks and quiet, windblown streets and patches of Neo-gothic stonework, has been altered and scarred by inevitable change and two severe earthquakes, but these are natural events as opposed to willful slaughter.

Shaun Yeo Crying Kiwi
Shaun Yeo

Faced with a crime, we seek the motive in the first instance of shock and dismay. However, I no more mean to read or reference the shooter's "manifesto" than I mean to grant him the presence of mentioning his name. It's enough to read the summaries by those familiar with acts of terrorism and hate-crimes to realize that the same tired lies and malformed justifications repeat themselves again. In any case, the slaughter of innocent persons utterly vacates even the pretence of a reason. The shooter has no just cause to defend.

So, what remains? Jordan Peterson, for one, in the context of school shootings holds that: "“They make a display of their hatred for Being by massacring the innocent. That’s what’s happening — and they write that,” but this is generalizing to the point of uselessness. Mass murderers of this sort may indeed express a hatred for Being, but the beings they murder are, by their own choice, highly specific. Indeed, as Sri Lanka shows, the hatred is always targeted, rooted in bigotry and paranoia, from whichever side. Conrad, as usual, had the better sense of it, as in the end of The Secret Agent:
And the incorruptible Professor walked too, averting his eyes from the odious multitude of mankind.  He had no future.  He disdained it.  He was a force.  His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction.  He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world.  Nobody looked at him.  He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.
The terrorist is not lost, nor does he lack purpose, but he measures his own worth by the ruin and destruction his fixed and futile ideas entail. He does not lack self-worth, but revels in his contempt for others. It is only that his self-aggrandizement is fixated on the power to negate other lives.

Conrad's concluding simile is apt. Terrorism is an infection. It is possible to identify the toxic ideologies that drive and support white nationalism. It's possible, as New Zealand shows, to restrict access to weapons that have no purpose in civil society, It's possible to call out the Internet trolls and the politicians, the pseudo-thinkers and the networks that lend tacit support to hate and bigotry. We can police the crime. And, in the long-term, we can plan to overcome the inequality and injustice in which hatred festers. But what we cannot do is lend a moment's credence to the supposed grievances and agendas of fanatics. Faced with this crime, the motive is void; only the pathology matters.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Blog tour - Interview on Bookish Rantings

As of March, there's a blog tour underway for A Hangman for Ghost, and an interview with myself has landed on the Bookish Rantings blog.

See the Author Interview for A Hangman for Ghosts here.

Bookish rantings says that: "If you love a good mystery and historical fiction is your jam, this might be the next book you want to add to your TBR." [That's your To Be Read list.]

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

A new review and the executioner's call for Google+

First the good news, as they say.

I'm grateful to Peppermint Ph.D. for a glowing review of A Hangman for Ghosts. What's intriguing to a writer about this review is the list of "Historical 'stuff' I've Been Googling." It's a pleasure to see the nuggets of historical detail one scatters, large and small, being picked up by a reader.

Now, my normal response to a review such as this, among other things, would be to click the G+ button, which adds a "like" to your stream on the Google+ social network. Google+, however, as many of us will know, is condemned, and the executioner is little moved by the small and active communities among writers and others that found a home there.

I should assure readers that Blogger, and Displaced Pieces, are going nowhere, but the option to share and +1 posts on Google+, as well as any Google+ comments coming back to the blog, will be deleted as of February 4.

If you are a follower of my work through Google+, please keep coming back to Displaced Pieces, and the excellent network of blogs around historical and mystery fiction.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Saruman trap — or Tolkien on politics

The Lord of the Rings is not overtly a political work, being more concerned, broadly, with the problem of power, but where we can say that questions of politics are also questions of power, then this recent piece on the "Saruman Trap" has particular resonance.

Saruman is, of course, the greatest of all the wizards of Middle Earth, who chooses, nevertheless, to side with Sauron, his justification being that Sauron's victory is inevitable, but with the even more insidious rationale that his wisdom, his persuasion and knowledge, can direct and control the brute strength of Mordor, guiding evil to high ends while deploring its methods.

This, as Gandalf knows, is nonsense, but it is persuasive nonsense, just as the "voice of Saruman", subtle, insinuating, lying, is a metaphor for the worst forms of political persuasion, the reasoned tones that cloak abhorrent policy.

This year, in the mid-term elections, many of us may consider the Saruman trap, particularly those conservatives whose Republican Party has been captured by extremism and naked bigotry under the cloak of populism, but also, perhaps, those progressives who are berated for their lack of civility in debates with figures who have no concern themselves for civil liberties or reasoned positions.

Tolkien had first-hand experience of totalitarianism in its most dreadful forms, and Donald Trump is neither Sauron nor Hitler, which is not to diminish the grave danger his posturing, lying, self-aggrandizing incompetence and cruelty pose to American democracy. But Tolkien understood the  risks of opposing totalitarianism on its own terms, of confronting brutality with brutality, and lies with lies, or tacit acceptance that ends up as complicity. Gandalf chooses the path that is neither, knowing the dangers, but knowing also that it is better to answer a lie with a simple truth, no matter how dangerous to the truth-teller.

When Saruman makes his last, most formidable appeal from the balcony of his ruined tower, Gandalf can only laugh, and the spell is broken.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The System – and two more reviews

One of the questions that emerge in the course of A Hangman for Ghosts, and a question that also preoccupied Dickens, most notably in Bleak House, is whether social systems represent and embody human intentions, or inevitably come to supersede them.

The legal system and its demands gives rise to the system of transportation. Transportation necessitates the penal system, and yet piece by piece the penal colony generates its own systems: magistrates, constables, free-convicts, settlement, commerce, trade, and land transfer, until the colony becomes its own state. Human beings in the story are subject to the system, and yet from the top and the bottom they also seek to subvert it, and bend it to their ends, both moral and immoral.

This is one of Carver's greatest tests: even as hangman, does he rely on the system to evade his past and give his life structure, however cruel? And later, as he takes up the magistrate's cause, is he twisting the system to his own ends even as he advances in it? Is he able to maintain his integrity, even as he discovers how the system can be both abused and perpetrate abuses?

Perhaps this question, along with the others, was part of the interest for these two generous reviews for A Hangman for Ghosts.

Yvonne, from A Darn Good Read:

Stephanie, from 100 Pages A Day:

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Barnes & Noble Presents - A Hangman for Ghosts

A Hangman for Ghosts has been selected (handpicked, in faith) for the B&N Press Presents list for June and July!

Cover of Hangman for Ghosts, with noose
Cover, A Hangman for Ghosts

Here's the full link:

Great exposure for A Hangman for Ghosts, and great news for Nook readers.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A Hangman for Ghosts - early reviews

The blog has been a little quiet of late, although I'm shocked to see how long ago the last post was. To stir things up, here are two early reviews for A Hangman for Ghosts.

Without editorializing too much on these independent reviews, phrases that include "vivid", "compelling" and "page turner", or comparisons with the 19-century masters, are exactly what the author looks for.

Foreword Reviews

A Hangman for Ghosts
Andrei Baltakmens

Top Five Books (Jul 1, 2018) Softcover $15.99 (288pp) 978-1-938938-28-3


Set in the roiling, corrupt world of an 1829 prison colony, Andrei Baltakmens’s A Hangman for Ghosts is a historical mystery that brings regency-era Australia to life.

Gabriel Carver, the hangman of Sydney, is dark, lonely figure. Soaked in rum and regret, Carver becomes an unlikely detective when a woman from his past is accused of murder. As Carver follows the clues through Sydney’s underbelly, he encounters a cast of bleakly Dickensian characters, from whistling streetwalkers to baby-faced policemen. As he works to solve the murder, the mystery of Carver’s own origins unravels as well. With rich historical details that evoke Australia’s early colonial days, this is a wonderful, traditional novel.

A Hangman For Ghosts is Baltakmens’s second novel. With a PhD in English literature with a focus on Dickens, he’s well versed in his subject, but the Sydney that Carver stalks through is neither dry nor academic. Baltakmens depicts a filthy, unpredictable, densely populated society where transported convicts mix with sailors and “fallen women.” Descriptions have a dreamlike quality, as though seen through antique glass: a woman is “too bright, fatally bright, for her skirts were on fire, a river of flame in the dark.”

The novel does lean a bit on the Dickensian tradition, and some chapters feel repetitive, as though serialized; however, the mystery’s thread keeps spinning at a satisfying pace. Folding in vivid details, bright characters, and compelling dialogue, the story is a page-turner, a savory treat to be devoured.

This delightfully grim historical mystery is true to Dickens’s style, and holds on to its secrets with tight, clammy fists. CLAIRE FOSTER (July/August 2018)

Disclosure: This article is not an endorsement, but a review. The author of this book provided free copies of the book to have their book reviewed by a professional reviewer. No fee was paid by the author for this review. Foreword Reviews only recommends books that we love. Foreword Magazine, Inc. is disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

A link to the review is coming soon. Already online, is an equally positive review from Kirkus reviews.

Kirkus Reviews

My favourite line in this review:
Baltakmens (The Raven’s Seal, 2012), echoing the voices of 19th-century masters like Conrad and Melville, combines adventure and mystery in a high-stakes tale of class, morality, and justice.