Thursday, 20 July 2017

Justice for all – cutting out (not on) the bias?

I’ve been in prison for 15 years for something I didn’t do, for something which I knew nothing about.”  Those were the words of Gerry Conlon on his release from prison in 1989.  He and his family and friends were wrongfully convicted of the 1974 Guildford pub bombing, the trial judge, Mr Justice Donaldson, having told them during sentencing “if hanging were still an option you would have been executed.”

Many of us will have seen the 1993 film “In the Name of the Father” in which Daniel Day-Lewis (who happens to be my favourite actor) portrayed Gerry Conlon, to universal acclaim.  And it is generally accepted now that the Guildford Four’s convictions were obtained as a result of a combination of police brutality fuelled by prejudice, hidden alibi evidence, forensic mistakes by experts and the pervading public sentiment of the time. 

In The Pinocchio Brief, a 15-year-old gifted student, Raymond Maynard, is accused of the vicious killing of his teacher and the press is quick to quote other pupils who describe him as “a loner and a bit weird”.  Judith Burton, an experienced criminal barrister, and Constance Lamb, a young and highly principled solicitor are appointed to defend him.  At Raymond’s trial new computer software, called Pinocchio, is to be piloted, which will analyse every movement of Raymond’s face to determine if his testimony is true or not.  As Dr Winter, Pinocchio’s promoter, explains “every word [will be] assessed for truthfulness, every lie exposed.”

Whilst Judith should (perhaps) be pleased that the media’s pre-judging of her client will consequently have little influence at his trial, she is vehemently opposed to Pinocchio judging Raymond and protests to Constance that “machines make mistakes, especially if they’ve not been tested thoroughly.”  But, as Constance is keen to remind her “people make mistakes” too. 

A 2014 study by Samuel Gross, a professor at the University of Michigan law school, concluded that 4.1% of people sentenced to death in the USA may have been wrongly convicted.  The study did not assess any of the cases individually but analysed the numbers of convicts who had been exonerated either whilst on Death Row or later.  If these figures are accurate then as many as 340 people have been put to death in the USA since 1973, for crimes they did not commit.

When these cases are exposed (think Colin Stagg, Barry George or Sally Clark to name but a few other high-profile UK cases) communities naturally soul search and examine whether there is (or should be) a safer system for judging crime, one in which mistakes are eliminated and every case is judged objectively and fairly; using a sophisticated machine appears, at first blush, to be the answer.

Machines are understandably lauded as cold, logical and neutral.  But surprisingly, even machines can exhibit bias.   This is usually the result of the way the computer algorithms, which underpin the product, have been written in the first place.  LinkedIn apparently offers a larger proportion of higher paid jobs to men than women.  And, with potentially more serious consequences, sentencing tools in the USA have been censured because of the bias they exhibit in assessing the likelihood of people reoffending.  In both cases, a lack of diversity in those writing the algorithms probably contributed to their limitations. 

Transparency in how the software reaches its “decision” goes some of the way to addressing this issue; something which Judith, despite her limited knowledge of the technicalities of Pinocchio, understands instinctively.   But Judith herself may not have entirely altruistic motives behind her opposition to Pinocchio.   And she’s certainly not telling the whole truth when she pleads with the Judge to reject Pinocchio at Raymond’s trial.

Abi Silver’s novel The Pinocchio Brief is published by Lightning Books, price ~£8.99 paperback original.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Top 5 Books Set In Brilliant Brighton

EXQUISITE by Sarah Stovell
Exquisite is one of those rare books where you 'think' you have a handle on what's going on, but it rips the carpet from under you! Always one step ahead, this intriguing tale of obsession, stalking and violence never lets up from the get-go; there's dark characters, sublime plotting, with a brutal sting in the tale. Set primarily in the Lake District, Alice’s character nevertheless starts her journey to the dark side in Brighton, where Stovell paints a realistic picture of an aimless millennial lifestyle, where drugs and drink are more readily available than work or adequate housing. A terrifyingly plausible tale, this is well worth the read.

BRIGHTON ROCK by Graham Greene
Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to kill him” has to be one of the most famous starting lines EVER – and rightly so. This classic crime tome marked a change in direction for the genre: the notion the detective did not have to be front and centre, but the villain himself! In this case, it’s Pinky, a 17-year-old killer … In 1937, this must have been REALLY shocking, and not least the fact there is no happy ending. To this day, it’s cemented itself in popular culture and more than deserves its spot in this top 5.

THE LIAR’S CHAIR by Rebecca Whitney
Domestic noir at its finest, The Liar’s Chair grabs us via Rachel who mows down a homeless tramp in the country back roads near Brighton. Female leads are frequently under greater sympathy than male ones, or even – God forbid – supposed to be ‘likeable’, but Whitney sidesteps this expectation effortlessly. Rachel’s mix of selfishness, guilt, self-destruction and grief are painted in a myriad of colours, taking us into a troubled mind who’s caught in the midst of a terrible dilemma.

CUCKOO by Julia Crouch
OMG, don’t female characters know by now never let attractive women stay in their home? Well, no one told protagonist Rose anyway and despite the fact she ‘has it all’ – the gorgeous children, the husband, the beautiful home – she lets best friend Polly come to stay. UH OH! Cue Rose’s cosy world starting to fall apart at the seams – her baby falls dangerously ill, her husband is ‘distracted’ … I was reminded of various movies like The Hand That Rocks The Cradle or even that episode of The Simpsons when Marge yells ‘USURPER!’ at Otto’s girlfriend Becky who tries to oust her. A melting pot of middle class woe set in the affluent side of Brighton, this book is great fun.

DEAD SIMPLE by Peter James
Obviously no ‘Best of Brighton’ list is complete without a Roy Grace novel! I think of Grace as a modern day Sherlock Holmes and Dead Simple is a total classic: time is running out for our hapless stag, buried underground in a coffin, when all his mates die in a car crash! But of course it’s not quite as SIMPLE (arf) as that for Roy Grace, who must track down not only the stag, but the secrets and lies surrounding him too!

 The Other Twin by Lucy V Hay (Published by Orenda Books)
When India falls to her death from a bridge over a railway, her sister Poppy returns home to Brighton for the first time in years. Unconvinced by official explanations, Poppy begins her own investigation into India's death. But the deeper she digs, the closer she comes to uncovering deeply buried secrets. Could Matthew Temple, the boyfriend she abandoned, be involved? And what of his powerful and wealthy parents, and his twin sister, Ana? Enter the mysterious and ethereal Jenny: the girl Poppy discovers after hacking into India's laptop. What is exactly is she hiding, and what did India find out about her? Taking the reader on a breathless ride through the winding lanes of Brighton, into its vibrant party scene and inside the homes of its well-heeled families, The Other Twin is startling and up-to-the-minute thriller about the social-media world, where resentments and accusations are played out online, where identities are made and remade, and where there is no such thing as truth...

Buy it from SHOTS A-Store here.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Books to Look Forward to from Pan Macmillan

July 2017

Bill ten Boom has walked out on everything he thought was important to him: his career, his wife, even his country. Invited to become a prosecutor at The Hague's International Criminal Court, it was a chance to start afresh.  But when his first case is to examine the disappearance of four hundred Roma refugees - an apparent war crime left unsolved for ten years - it's clear this new life won't be an easy one ...  Whispered rumours have the perpetrators ranging from Serb paramilitaries to the U.S. Army, but there's no hard evidence to hold either accountable, and only a single witness to say it happened at all. To get to the truth, Boom must question the integrity of every person linked to the case - from Layton Merriwell, a disgraced US Major General, to flirtatious barrister, Esma Czarni - as it soon becomes apparent that every party has a vested interest and no qualms in steering the investigation their way.  Testimony is by Scott Turow.

Set in LA against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crash, this is the story of Rudy Reyes (a.k.a. Glasses), a gangster-turned-double-agent who wants out of the high-stakes high-risk criminal life, and Ricky Mendoza, Junior (a.k.a. Ghost), a DEA safe-cracker with terminal cancer who's got nothing to lose. When Ghost goes rogue and steals thousands of dollars from a safe that belongs to Rooster, an LA crime lord who happens to be Glasses' boss, he endangers a deal Glasses had with a DEA official. As Ghost sets out to steal as much money as he can get his hands on - all with the plan to give it to those hit hardest by the crash - and Rooster gets ever closer to catching him, Glasses tries desperately to keep his plans on track.  Safe is by Ryan Gattis

August 2017

On holiday in the Scottish Highlands, forensic scientist Dr Rhona MacLeod joins a mountain rescue team on Cairngorm summit, where a mysterious plane has crash-landed on the frozen Loch A'an. Added to that, a nearby climbing expedition has left three young people dead, with a fourth still missing. Meanwhile in Glasgow, DS McNab's raid on the Delta Club produces far more than just a massive haul of cocaine. Questioning one of the underage girls found partying with the city's elite reveals she was smuggled into Scotland via Norway, and it seems the crashed plane in the Cairngorms may be linked to the club. But before McNab can discover more, the girl is abducted. Joined by Norwegian detective Alvis Olsen, who harbours disturbing theories about how the two cases are connected with his homeland, Rhona searches for the missing link. What she uncovers is a dark underworld populated by ruthless people willing to do anything to ensure the investigation dies in the frozen wasteland of the Cairngorms ...  Follow the Dead is by Lin Anderson.

Are you sleeping is by Kathleen Barber. The only thing more dangerous than a lie . . . is the truth Josie Buhrman has spent the last ten years trying to escape the tragic events of her dark past: after her father's murder, her mother ran away to join a cult, and her twin sister Lanie, once Josie's closest confidant, betrayed her. Now, Josie has a new life in new York with her boyfriend Caleb. The only problem is that she has lied to Caleb about every detail of her past - starting with her last name. Then investigative reporter Poppy Parnell sets off a media firestorm with a hit podcast that reopens the case of her father's murder and Josie's carefully constructed world begins to unravel. Forced to return to her hometown she must confront the lies from her past - as well as those on which she has staked her future.

The Night Stalker is by Clare Donoghue. Dead Woman's Ditch. The site of a grisly two-hundred-year-old murder - and a recent hit and run. When a young woman's body is found at the macabre landmark in Somerset's Quantock Hills, DI Mike Lockyer and Sergeant Jane Bennett are called in to investigate. They find a community gripped by fear and superstition. The locals won't venture out at night, believing there's a man stalking the hills; a phantom cloaked in folklore and legend, keeping the sinister legacy of Dead Woman's Ditch alive. Confronted by a hostile CID team and a murder victim with close ties to their own squad, Lockyer and Bennett will have to accept what they can't see before they can find what's really there . . .

The Death of Her is by Debbie Howells.  A woman's body is discovered on a Cornish farm, battered and left for dead in a maize field. Airlifted to hospital, her life hanging in the balance, no one's sure who she is. Three days later she comes round, but her memory is damaged. She knows her name - Evie - but no more, until she remembers another name. Angel - her three-year-old daughter. As the police circulate Evie's photo, someone recognizes her. Charlotte knew her years ago, at school, when another child went missing. Leah Danning, who vanished whilst in Evie's care. When the police search Evie's home, there's no sign of Angel. More disturbingly, there's no evidence that she ever lived there, forcing the police to question whether Evie's having some kind of breakdown. But even from the darkest place she's ever known, Evie believes her daughter is alive. The police remain unconvinced - unaware that on the fringes of Evie's life, there's someone else. Someone hidden, watching her every move, with their own agenda and their own twisted version of reality.

Escape from Sunset Grove is by Minna Lindgren.  It's not easy sharing a flat. Especially when you're 95 years old. Change is afoot at Sunset Grove retirement home, and its residents aren't impressed. Under threat from falling masonry, best friends Irma and Siiri are forced out of their home to negotiate twenty-first-century living in the centre of Helsinki. Their new surroundings throw up an endless number of daily challenges, from caring for the ailing Anna-Lisa to the mystery of which of the many remotes controls the TV. The pair are joined by growing numbers of friends in their flat-share, and their new close-quarters living raises some unexpected questions. As the Lavender Ladies begin to dig a little deeper, they find themselves following a trail of corruption, deceit and intimidation that might just lead them to their own front door . . . The Lavender Ladies must steel themselves for what is set to be their most dangerous case yet.

The Seagull is by Anne Cleeves.  A visit to her local prison brings DI Vera Stanhope face to face with an old enemy: former detective superintendent, and now inmate, John Brace.  Brace was convicted of corruption and involvement in the death of a gamekeeper - and Vera played a part in his downfall. Brace promises Vera information about the disappearance of Robbie Marshall, a notorious wheeler-dealer, if she will look out for his daughter and grandchildren.  He tells her that Marshall is dead, his body buried close to St Mary's Island in Whitley Bay. However, when a search team investigates, officers find not one skeleton, but two. This cold case takes Vera back in time, and very close to home, as Brace and Marshall, along with a mysterious stranger known only as 'the Prof', were close friends of Hector, her father. Together, they were 'the Gang of Four', and Hector had been one of the last people to see Marshall alive.  Vera must confront her prejudices and unwanted memories to dig out the truth, as the past begins to collide dangerously with the present...

A Nest of Vipers is by Andrea Camilleri's.  Quite a family, you had to admit! A nest of vipers might be a better description ...On what should be a quiet Sunday morning, Inspector Montalbano is called to a murder scene on the Sicilian coast. A man has discovered his father dead in his Vigatan beach house: his body slumped on the dining room floor, his morning coffee spilt across the table, and a single gunshot wound at the base of his skull. First appearances point to the son having the most to gain from his father's untimely death, a notion his sister can't help but reinforce. But when Montalbano delves deeper into the case, and learns of the dishonourable life the victim led, it soon becomes clear half of Vigata has a motive for his murder and this won't be as simple as the Inspector had once hoped...

The darkest and most disturbing case report from the files of Kinsey Millhone, Y begins in
1979, when four teenage boys from an elite private school sexually assault a fourteen-year-old classmate - and film the attack. Not long after, the tape goes missing and the suspected thief, a fellow classmate, is murdered. In the investigation that follows, one boy turns in evidence for the state and two of his peers are convicted. But the ringleader escapes without a trace. Now, it's 1989 and one of the perpetrators, Fritz McCabe, has been released from prison. Moody, unrepentant, and angry, he is a virtual prisoner of his ever-watchful parents - until a copy of the missing tape arrives with a ransom demand. That's when the McCabes call Kinsey Millhone for help. As she is drawn into their family drama, she keeps a watchful eye on Fritz. But he's not the only one being haunted by the past. A vicious sociopath with a grudge against Millhone may be leaving traces of himself for her to find…. Y is for Yesterday is by Sue Grafton.

September 2017

A deadly weapon. An impregnable fortress. A mission to save Europe ...Kurt Nordstrum leaves behind the safety of his life in Oslo to join the Allied troops. Having spent the last few months mourning the tragic death of his fiancee, he's been searching everywhere for distraction. When he learns of a top-secret operation to interfere with the Nazis' plans, it's everything he's been looking for, and he immediately steps up to the challenge. What he doesn't know is that the mission he has signed up to is about to become more dangerous than he could ever have imagined ...Kurt must infiltrate then destroy the most heavily guarded Nazi shipment. It's seemingly impossible, but worth everything: the fate of Europe hangs in the balance. The Saboteur is by Andrew Gross.

The Anthill Murders is by Hans Olav Lahlum. 1972. Across Oslo, a serial killer is hunting down young women. Each victim found strangled and with a peculiar calling-card placed upon their bodies: a cut-out picture of an ant. The first victim is a timid theology student, the next a jazz singer, followed by the heir to one of the largest fortunes in Oslo. But despite Inspector K2's best efforts to find a link, the only thing connecting them seems to be their murder. With his assistant Patricia's intellect put to the test, and increasing pressure from his boss as the clock ticks down to the next possible killing, K2 is in danger of losing his position as Oslo's leading homicide detective . . .

October 2017

Investigative reporter Ross Hunter nearly didn't answer the phone call that would change his life - and possibly the world - for ever. The elderly man at the other end sounded cranky, but sincere. 'Mr Hunter, I'm not a lunatic, please hear me out. I've been told you are the man who could help me to get taken seriously. I have absolute proof of God's existence and I need to come and see you, I need your help.' What would it take to prove the existence of God? And what would be the consequences?, The false faith of a billionaire evangelist, the life's work of a famous atheist, and the credibility of each of the world's major religions are all under threat. If Ross Hunter can survive long enough to present the evidence. Absolute Proof is by Peter James.

It's dark in the Dales this winter . . . When Mrs Shepherd arrives at the Dales Detective Agency on a December morning, quite convinced that someone is trying to kill her, Samson O'Brien dismisses her fears as the ramblings of a confused elderly lady. But after a series of disturbing incidents at Fellside Court retirement home, he begins to wonder if there is something to her claims after all . . . With Christmas around the corner, Samson is thrown into a complex investigation. One that will require him to regain the trust of the Dales community he turned his back on so long ago. Faced with no choice, he enlists the help of a local - the tempestuous Delilah Metcalfe. Against the backdrop of a Yorkshire winter, Samson and Delilah must work together once again if they are to uncover the malevolence threatening the elderly residents of Bruncliffe. Could the danger be perilously close to home?  Date with Malice is by Julia Chapman.

November 2017

Track a stalker. Catch a killer. When a mysterious DVD is delivered to Northumbria Police Headquarters, DS Matthew Ryan and Detective Superintendent Eloise O'Neil are among the few to view its disturbing content. With little to go on the only lead comes from the anonymous and chilling woman's voice narrating the blood-soaked lock-up depicted on screen. But with no victim visible, nor any indication of where the unidentifiable crime scene is located, Ryan and O'Neil get the distinct feeling someone is playing with them. What is certain is that the newly formed special unit has just taken on its first challenging case. As further shocking videos start arriving at police stations around the country, the body count rises. But what connects all the victims? And why are they being targeted? As the investigation deepens, the team is brought to breaking point as secrets from the past threaten to derail their pursuit of a merciless killer ...  The Death Messenger is by Mari Hannah

End Game is by David Baldacci. London is on red alert. Will Robie, as the US government's most lethal assassin, is called in to foil a terrorist attack on the London Underground. An attack serving as a test run for a much larger plot to take place on US soil. Trained to neutralize threats without leaving a trace, he's an indispensable asset to his country. But then reports come in that his mentor, Blue Man, real name Roger Walton, has gone missing while visiting his home town in Colorado. Fearing he's been kidnapped, Robie, and fellow agent Jessica Reel, are sent to investigate. The high-ranking CIA official holds secrets that could threaten national security if released and so only the best will do in tracking him down. This tight-knit community close to the Rocky Mountains holds many secrets and people there are more than willing to take the law into their own hands at the first sign of trouble. To them, two government agents are just that. As their investigation deepens, Robie and Reel come into contact with white supremacists and a cult that call themselves the King's Apostles. But are either group implicated in the disappearance of Walton? When the truth emerges it will test them both to their very limits . . .

The Darkest Day is the first novel in the five part Inspector Barbarotti series by Swedish crime author Hakan Nesser. It's December in the quiet Swedish town of Kymlinge, and the Hermansson family are gathering to celebrate father Karl-Erik and eldest daughter Ebba's joint landmark birthdays. But beneath the guise of happy festivities, tensions are running high, and it's not long before the night takes a dark and unexpected turn . . . Before the weekend is over, two members of the Hermansson family are missing, and it's up to Inspector Barbarotti - a detective who spends as much of his time debating the existence of God as he does solving cases - to determine exactly what has happened. And he soon discovers he'll have to unravel a whole tangle of sinister family secrets in the process.

December 2017

A covert mission A royal demand And a race against time. The Lost Plot by Genevieve Cogman is an action-packed literary adventure. In a 1920s-esque America, Prohibition is in force, fedoras, flapper dresses and tommy guns are in fashion, and intrigue is afoot. Intrepid Librarians Irene and Kai find themselves caught in the middle of a dragon vs dragon contest. It seems a young librarian has become
tangled in this conflict, and if they can't extricate him there could be serious political repercussions for the mysterious Library. And, as the balance of power across mighty factions hangs in the balance, this could even trigger war. Irene and Kai find themselves trapped in a race against time (and dragons) to procure a rare book. They'll face gangsters, blackmail and fiendish security systems. And if this doesn't end well, it could have dire consequences for Irene's job. And, incidentally, for her life.