Book reviews: The Fragile Empire| Sweet tooth| The Faithful Executioner

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A roundup of the latest book releases

The Fragile Empire by Ben Judah

(Yale, £20) * * * *

We’re right to fear Vladimir Putin, argues Ben Judah – though not for the reasons we imagine. He’s a “strongman” precisely because he’s weak.

Authoritarianism is what holds up that towering edifice of inefficiency and corruption which is what passes under Putin for a Russian state. Judah has travelled far and wide. He’s talked to men and women in all walks of life – and, what’s more, he’s listened. There’s a real freshness and vividness to his reportage, a real conviction in his analysis of a society in which daily life is an endless round of disappointment and frustration.

The Anatomy of Violence by Adrian Raine

(Allen Lane, £25) * * * *

The search for a biological explanation of criminal behaviour is dismissed by the strictest moralists as a way of excusing evil. Cultural commentators have also been wary, given the doors an “anatomy of violence” might open on to everything from pre-emptive imprisonment to race-theory and eugenics. Gradually, though, we’ve come to appreciate that an interest in genetics doesn’t make us Josef Mengele, while the MRI scan and other techniques have helped us map the mind.

To Adrian Raine it’s a no-brainer: the scientist simply has to follow where the evidence leads – and a new science of “neurocriminology” has a part to play. It’s come a long way already, yet it’s still produced more questions than it has answers.

The Faithful Executioner by Joel F. Harrington

(Bodley Head, £20) * * *

“All five thieves executed with the rope” – and, for Frantz Schmidt of Nuremberg another day’s work done. Schmidt was to fulfil his duties (and keep his journal) for more than 40 years. Hanging, strangling, beheading, burning, tearing at the flesh with pincers and breaking the body with an iron bar: the “faithful executioner” did them all. As he did, he kept a record of criminal life and judicial death in a German city between 1578 and 1618. In Harrington’s hands it becomes a vivid window on a fascinating age.

MICHAEL KERRIGAN

Sila’s Fortune by Fabrice Humbert

(Serpent’s Tail, £8.99) * * * *

A restaurant in the middle of Paris. The diners: an American couple with their son, a Russian couple and two young French guys. The American boy wanders away from the table. The waiter takes him back. The American is full of fury. He smashes the waiter in the face. The waiter disappears, and everything goes back to normal. Or, rather, not normal. Humbert tells us about the lives of all these people: how the waiter, an African, stowed away on a cargo ship, how the Russian became an oligarch and how the American guy got a youthful injury.

Heft by Liz Moore

(Windmill, £7.99) * * *

Arthur Opp weighs 550lb and lives alone in a Brooklyn townhouse. He can’t even get up the stairs. Ever since his academic career ended, after he fell in love with one of his students, he’s locked himself away, eating for comfort. He’s pretty much killing himself, you think. Then he gets a call from the woman he fell in love with all that time ago. The author, Liz Moore, takes us into Arthur’s world brilliantly – she exposes his shame and self-hatred. And now he wants to get going again. But he’s too fat to clean his house.

Merckx by William Fotheringham

(Yellow Jersey, £8.99) * * *

Before Bradley Wiggins there was Lance Armstrong. Before Armstrong there was Eddy Merckx – possibly the greatest ever competitive cyclist – competitive being the key word. Merckx, a Belgian, raced in a new way – he relentlessly attacked the opposition and knew exactly what to do to tire the other cyclists. He was a true obsessive. He was at his peak in the late Sixties and early Seventies. His body began to lose its power when he was about 30. There was a famous doping scandal, but he might have been set up.

Sweet tooth by Ian McEwan

(Vintage, £7.99) * * * *

Our heroine is Serena Frome; she’s a bishop’s daughter from East Anglia. She likes books and wants to study literature, but she’s mathematically minded and her mum pretty much forces her to go to Cambridge to study maths. At Cambridge she reads Solzhenitsyn, has an affair with a don, is groomed by MI5…and now we’re into a Cold War thriller: supremely tense, intellectually sharp, and honed as hell.

WILLIAM LEITH