Thursday, 14 December 2017

Tyger - Adrian Mitchell

Tyger is a celebration of William Blake written for the National Theatre in 1971. Note that word 'celebration'. In no sense is this a play but it is theatrical and it certainly is celebratory. Mitchell is still mired in that period of reverential obscurity that follows death. He is not thought good or bad because he is not thought about at all. Mitchell was such a poet of his time - the Sixties - that one wonders what the next generation will make of him. Those of us who remember the era (OK, the Seventies was more my era but I knew who Mitchell was long before I read the original reviews of Tyger) will recognise it here, with the added bonus of hefty slices of Blake's lesser known poetry.

The problem with the text is that this was very much a musical, with tunes by Mitchell's regular collaborator, the jazz musician Mike Westbrook. Much of the dialogue and the vast majority of the poetry was intended to be sung. Without the tunes, what can we make of the words? In truth, not a lot.

The style is Ubuesque. Blake starts attacking the establishment and ends up being exiled to the moon where he starts to build his New Jerusalem. Inbetween there are some very funny spy interludes and a hilarious turn by Mad King George the Fifty. There is also a toe-curlingly awful sketch in which great poets of the past and present salute Blake's achievement in comic verse. It's a rag-bag but one which is constantly inventive, persistently off-beam and thoroughly subversive, much like its hero. A monument to its day, which I don't see being revived anytime soon.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Istanbul Passage - Joseph Kanon

Joseph Kanon is like Alan Furst, one of the US writers of grown-up wartime espionage novels. I like them greatly but they don't seem to do so well in the UK market. They definitely deserve to be better known. Perhaps the problem is that they are so similar in style in subject. Perhaps together they achieve bestseller status on this side of the Atlantic.

It will surprise no one to learn that this, Kanon's sixth novel (the immediate precursor to Leaving Berlin, which I reviewed here) is set in Istanbul. It is 1945 and loyalties are in a state of flux. Russia, so recently a US ally, is now the enemy, more so than Germany at any rate. Turkey is seeking a relationship with both superpowers, the surviving Jews are trying to get to Palestine, and the Balkans are by and large up for grabs. Some Balkan states sided with the Nazis, others opposed. Romania tried to out-Nazi the Nazis, the only occupied country to set up its own concentration camps. It is a Romanian Nazi, Alexei, who is passing through Istanbul on his way to the US.

Leon Bauer, a US tobacco executive who dabbles in espionage, is given the job of picking Alexei up and passing him up the line. The pick up is by the Bosporus, late at night. Someone attacks. Leon shoots back - and kills the guy who told him to collect Alexei. This is a great start to a novel. What happens now? Well for starters Leon is put in charge of the investigation. At the reception after the funeral he meets an embassy wife (the embassy being in the capital, Ankara, not Istanbul which only has a consulate) and the begin a guilty affair.

Leon's wife, Anna, is in a nursing home. She has not communicated or reacted since a boatload of her fellow Jews which she had arranged was sunk. Leon's friend Mihai, who was with him at the pick up, is a Romanian Jew, the last person on earth willing to help him get Alexei out of the country.
This is how spy novels should be - deal and counter-deal, shifting priorities, nuanced compromises. There is action but not too much. Yet Kanon can keep our attention for four hundred pages by just piling the pressure onto Leon. The final twist is excellent, the setting - Galata Bridge, joining Europe and Asia - just brilliant. Nothing is as it seems. Everybody is betraying somebody.

Kanon's style takes some getting used to - short, ungrammatical sentences - and it works best in the high-tension passages. One section, a party in the residence of the former harem girl Lily, goes on far too long. It's an important passage, even crucial, but Kanon really needed to divide it up. How long does he think the reader is going to read in one go? I tend to read in half-hour bursts. Three sessions to read one episode (he doesn't do chapters) is frankly two too many. These are minor quibbles though. The characterisation is very good, the plot brilliant, and the research - as ever - faultless.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Even Dogs in the Wild - Ian Rankin

This is the third Rebus and Fox story. I reviewed the first, Standing in Another Man's Grave, a year or so ago and have evidently missed the second, Saints of the Shadow Bible. No matter: Rankin is always able to make his novels sufficient in themselves as well as part of a series.

Rebus is retired and Fox has left Complaints. Somebody is going around murdering people with no apparent connection - Senior Scottish lawyer and peer Lord Minton, a lottery winner up north and Big Ger Cafferty, Edinburgh's gangster emeritus. Actually, the killer takes a pot shot at Cafferty and misses. The cases are linked because each has been given warning, a note shoved their letterbox declaring I'M GOING TO KILL YOU FOR WHAT YOU DID.

Meanwhile a gang of Glasgow thugs are in town looking for a purloined shipment of drugs. A squad of Glasgow cops follows, to which Fox is attached for want of anything better for him to do. Rebus, meanwhile, is the only person Cafferty is willing to talk to. Things develop. The link is obvious from quite early on, sadly predictable and the subject of more or less every contemporary British crime novel nowadays. But what matters here is how the story is unravelled and the strength of the characters.

Which is where the problem lies. Malcolm Fox, no matter how fond of him Rankin has become, no matter how much story he tries to load onto his shoulders, is far too dull to keep pace with Rebus. Any section with him in is instantly forgettable. Rankin is aware of this and relegates him to the gangster subplot. It is Fox who is placed in jeopardy. Unfortunately I was rather hoping it would prove fatal.

Rankin is a great crime novelist. The noir-tinged Scottish procedural is his baby and nobody does it better. But it has become slightly old fashioned. The taste now is for full noir. And he has let his characters grow old, which means their continued involvement in crime is always going to stretch credulity. By incorporating Fox he has diluted the mix. There are so many senior coppers involved here that I lost track. I enjoyed it, but was not blown away. Still, it won't stop me reading the next instalment or seeking out Saints of the Shadow Bible, which, if nothing else, has a much better title.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Angelica Lost and Found - Russell Hoban

Published in 2010, Angelica Lost and Found was Hoban's last book. He died the following year. His powers clearly were undiminished to the end. Angelica bristles with ideas, invention, and joie de vivre.

For those who have not encountered Hoban before, the concept takes some swallowing. Here goes---
Volatore the hippogriff (offspring of a griffin and a mare) has escaped from Girolami da Carpi's painting of a scene from Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, specifically the scene from Canto IV in which Ruggiero, aboard the hippogriff, rescues the naked Angelica from the sea monster Orca. So far, so straightforward, yes? Hoban's Volatore has been enthused by the idea of a naked Angelica, so he sets out to find his own, in post-Millennium San Fransisco. As you do. The Angelica he finds is the gallerist daughter of two painters. She likes the idea of an amorous hippogriff and they have sex. They then become separated. And it is Angelica who embarks on a quest to find Volatore.

She finds a number of men who smell like Volatore, some of whom even call themselves Volatore, but none of them actually are Volatore the hippogriff. There is the painter who can't remember painting the painting of tiny elephants and the Hollywood hairstylist who buys it and then chucks it into the bay where Angelica and her psychiatrist lover fish it out. Meanwhile Angelica adopts a cat and Volatore enters a Russian man's penis.

All this in 71 chapters over 237 big print pages.

I think this is one for specialist tastes. I loved it.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Ancient Images - Ramsey Campbell

Given my long fascination with horror fiction it seems remarkable that Ancient Images (1989) is the first Ramsey Campbell novel I have read.

Campbell has been writing since childhood and thus is very unlikely to make mistakes with construction or deployment of plot. In this book, at least, story is absolutely everything. Ostensibly it is about a suppressed British quota quickie movie from 1938 starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Sandy's friend Graham, a researcher in forgotten films, has managed to track down a copy but before he can show it he 'jumps' off the top of a block of flats. The film itself has been stolen. Sandy, a TV film editor, sets off in pursuit.

Her quest takes her into Wicker Man territory where she tracks down some truly ancient images which seem to be mirrored in the film, and some very ancient versions of those who had repressed it. To say more would be to give the game away.

Campbell wisely sets all the events of the past within a very contemporary picture of England at the time he wrote it. The Right Wing Press and TV is full of stories about Enoch's Army, a tribe of New Age travellers, who Sandy comes into contact with several times. They, of course, hark back to a way of life in the deep past from which the 'ancient images' stem.

Campbell manages to keep the action moving, the tension building. Until the climax everything supernatural is half-glimpsed, and when the climax comes it is allowed to unfold at exactly the right pace for me. The characters are well-drawn. It is a masterstroke to have a female protagonist who can be intimidated in very different ways to the men who preceded her on the quest. Sandy is exceptionally well-drawn. The places she visits are all made distinct and - those I know - realistic. The idea of the film, Tower of Fear, is wickedly reminiscent of all those horrible clunkers Karloff and Lugosi churned out in their declining years - right down to ghastly music hall comic relief.

I was entertained and impressed. Ancient Images certainly won't be my last foray into the world of Ramsey Campbell.

Friday, 17 November 2017

The Girl From Venice - Martin Cruz Smith

The Girl From Venice is Cruz Smith's latest, the successor to Tatiana, which I recently reviewed here. It is a very different kettle of fish (excuse pun - it's about a fisherman). Set during the strange period between the Allied invasion of Italy and the Nazi departure. Venice, scrupulously unbombd by either side, delineates the boundary between.

Cenzo is the middle of three brothers, a fisherman from one of the poorer islands in the lagoon where fishermen live. His older brother Giorgio is a movie star, a Mussolini favourite, the so-called Lion of Tripoli. Younger brother Hugo was drowned during what may have been the only airborne attack on Venice. One might Cenzo fishes a young girl out of the water. He thinks she is dead but she's not. She is Guilia, daughter of Jewish academics. The Nazis are searching everywhere because she holds a secret.

Cenzo eventually arranges for her to be smuggled to safety. This is where the book loses momentum. Cenzo is too determinedly ordinary to be our hero. He only comes alive when Guilia is around. Fortunately he finds her again for what is to all intents and purposes Act Three, but it has to be said Act Two is a bit of a slog, albeit the flamboyant Giorgio livens it up from time to time. The ending is good and I enjoyed reading about Mussolino's bolt hole in the wonderfully named Salo. I'm assuming this is historic fact because Cruz Smith is so damned good at research. He writes pretty well too. He has decided to soak this story in fisherman lore and tweaks his prose accordingly, successfully. Events rapidly become myths - superstitions are made into plot points.

Overall then, an enjoyable read, sufficiently off-beat to hold our attention when poor old Cenzo doesn't quite manage to.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Savages - Don Winslow

Savages (2010) comes between The Power of the Dog and The Cartel. It is connected in so far as it is set against the cartel wars in Mexico which are the subject matter of the two linked novels. Some of the key characters in those get a mention in this. Otherwise Savages is very different. The Power of the Dog and The Cartel are like James Ellroy on good cocaine rather than bad speed. Savages has flavours of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen and the texture of George V Higgins stripped down.
What? you wonder. Can you get more stripped down than George V? Winslow can. As The Donald might say, Bigly.

As an indication, we have 290 chapters in 302 pages. Some lines are so fragmentary they don't have full stops. Sometimes Winslow takes the time to explain the etymology of some of his acronyms. Ophelia's mom, for example, is Pacu - Passive Aggressive Queen of the Universe. Others you are left to work out for yourself. Some passages are presented as movie script - a fun inside joke once you realise that Oliver Stone had bought the movie rights before Savages was even published. I have mentioned the Stone movie before. It's his best in twenty years and well worth a watch. But it's not as good as the novel.

Ben and Chon grow dope in South Orange County, the best dope on the market. Ben is a third world activist, Chon an ex-SEAL who has served in all the nastiest theatres of post-millennium war. Ben and Chon are best buds from childhood. They are both in love with Ophelia, who calls herself simply O. O loves them both equally.

But then the Baja Cartel seeks to muscle in on their action. Ben and Chon say no. They are happy to walk away and leave the Baja Cartel to it, but the Cartel says no. They want to market Ben's genetically modified blow. They want the boys' market, they want their people. And to make their point, they kidnap O and threaten to dismember her with a chainsaw.

Which is when things get really nasty...

The pace is relentless, the action bloody. Yet Winslow's gift is to stay perfectly balanced on the thin line between violence and schlock. Even the worst of the bad guys have backstory, people they love. The characterisation is rich and varied. It is, in short, a masterpiece.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

John Aubrey: My Own Life - Ruth Scurr

What Ruth Scurr has done here is create a biographical collage from the voluminous papers of the Seventeenth Century antiquarian, best known today for his Brief Lives. For those who only know Aubrey through the brilliant one-man play, also called Brief Lives, created by Patrick Garland for Roy Dotrice, the result is very different, not at all funny and in fact indescribably sad.

Aubrey was a Wiltshire gentlemen, educated at Oxford before and during the Civil Wars. He became addicted to collecting information - I'm quite sure it was an obsessive compulsion for him. He lost his home, his moderate fortune, and his chances of matrimony, all for the sake of piling up topographical, biographical, astrological and historical 'facts'. In his personal papers he goes on and on about the need to get his work published, but those of us with similar problems will recognise early on that he will never compromise the compilation process in order to secure a hard-copy legacy. In fact his only publication, printed just before his death at the age of seventy-one, was little more than a scrapbook of trash and leftovers. He had entrusted everything else to fellow antiquarians who ripped him off for their own work without ever giving him credit.

Aubrey did in fact achieve things of lasting significance. He is the first to relate Avebury to Stonehenge (albeit William Stukeley hijacked his research and passed it off as his own). If we want to know about significant figures of the Commonwealth period - written out of his history by the Monarchists - Aubrey is often the only source.

Scurr has achieved a brilliant book. Her rare and subtle interpolations (all flagged up as "On this day" and used to provide a general context for what Aubrey was writing at a particular time) merge seamlessly. She has modernised Aubrey's prose without losing any meaning, simply to allow him to speak to us directly. Hugely impressive but, like I say, very sad.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

In the Cold Dark Ground - Stuart MacBride

I think I must have missed a couple of instalments in the Logan McRae saga. I knew that Logan had given up the big city (Aberdeen) in favour of a rural posting (Banff) back in uniform. I knew he had taken up with the Goth beauty Samantha and that he had been the surrogate father for at least one of DCI Steel's children. But I didn't know that Samantha was in a vegetative coma following an attempt on Logan's life or that the urbane gangland fixer John Urquart had bought his old flat for a ridiculously overblown price - that is to say criminally, comproimisingly inflated.

In the Cold Dark Grave is Logan's tenth outing. His search for a missing person leads to a naked male body in the woods. His head is covered with plastic and his body has been bleached to remove any forensic traces.These are the signature stylings of Malcolm McLennan, "Malk the Knife", gangland supremo of Edinburgh. The dead man turns out to be a partner in a shipping business with apparent links to McLennan. The other partner is missing - but turns up safe and sound back home. Meanwhile the police inquiry, now headed up by Steel's MIT unit, discover the dead man's collection of graphic homemade porn. Turns out his partner was a partner in every sense...

Logan has to cram in a lot of funerals over the coming weekend. First he has to pull the plug on Samantha as the palliative care team at her nursing home have given up hope. At the same time he is called to the deathbed of the Aberdeen kingpin Wee Hamish Mowatt, who has always been oddly fond of Logan and who now wants him to take over his empire. The other contender, the ultra-thug Reuben Kennedy, begs to differ. To top it all off another angry female officer, Superintendent Niamh Harper, takes charge. She seems to have taken against Logan for no reason. But there is a reason - and it's a good one.

MacBride is on top form. Some of the wisecracks are laugh out loud funny, the action dark and bloody, and the plot, despite its complexity, remains somehow credible throughout. The crime is always just an inciting incident in the McRae novels, but here it remains logical and brilliantly deployed. I didn't guess who did it or who the mole on the police team was, but the clues were all there. I say it again, Brilliant.