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Sunday Herald Life - - BOOKS REVIEWS - By Alas­tair Mab­bott

The Red Dancer by Richard Skin­ner (Faber, £8.99)

In The Mir­ror, Richard Skin­ner imag­ined the ad­ven­tures of the de­ceased Erik Satie in the af­ter­life. This fic­tion­alised bi­og­ra­phy of the no­to­ri­ous First World War spy Mata Hari is more con­ven­tional but no less ac­com­plished, ex­am­in­ing its sub­ject from a num­ber of an­gles but still leav­ing the woman her­self a tan­ta­lis­ing enigma. Through the eyes of sev­eral nar­ra­tors, he tells of how, in The Hague in 1895, Mar­garetha Zelle mar­ries Ru­dolph MacLeod, a cap­tain in the Dutch army twice her age, and goes with him to In­done­sia. Aban­doned by MacLeod af­ter bear­ing him two chil­dren, she makes her way to Paris and rein­vents her­self as a star from the ex­otic East be­fore be­ing re­cruited by the Ger­man se­cret ser­vice and meet­ing a tragic end. Skin­ner has im­mersed him­self in the era, al­low­ing him to di­gress into Cu­bism, game­lan mu­sic and even dows­ing, giv­ing depth and weight to the world Mata Hari moved through while al­low­ing his spy to re­tain her es­sen­tial mys­tery.

The Last Best Friend by Ge­orge Sims (Bri­tish Li­brary, £7.99)

An an­ti­quar­ian book­seller by day, Ge­orge Sims counted Gra­ham Greene and Eve­lyn Waugh among his ad­mir­ers, and this book was con­sid­ered by HRF Keat­ing to be one of the 100 best crime nov­els ever. Art dealer and Dachau sur­vivor Sam Weiss falls 10 storeys to his death, but his friend Ned Bal­four, a dealer in rare manuscripts, can’t be­lieve it was sui­cide. Why would some­one with ver­tigo choose such a hor­ri­fy­ing way to die? Bal­four’s at­tempts to un­cover the truth about Weiss’s death lead him into the un­der­belly of the art world, where aris­to­crats cross paths with gang­sters. Sims writes a good, if old-fash­ioned, crime story, an at­mo­spheric thriller evok­ing the era when swing­ing Lon­don was ris­ing out of the post-war malaise. But he wasn’t will­ing to be bound by the con­stric­tions of the genre and plays it very much his own way in a slow-burn­ing tale which high­lights the char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment of his sur­pris­ingly tough and re­source­ful book­seller Bal­four.

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