Sunday, 30 December 2012

Band of Brothers - Alexander Kent

Another late, relatively minor, addition to the Bolitho canon, this one from 2006 and harking back to 1774 with Midshipman Richard Bolitho facing his first promotion board.  Other than that, nothing much happens.  There is a trivial, somewhat muddled, skirmish with Channel Island smugglers in which our hero demonstrates the leadership skills we always knew he possessed, otherwise ... he sits his board, with results we can also see coming.

It's a novella, really, only 128 pages in big print paperback.  Pleasurable reading, but I surprise myself when I conclude that I preferred the Adam Bolitho tale I read a few weeks ago (In the King's Name, reviewed below).

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Juan in America - Eric Linklater


Eric Linklater is not a name on literary lips these days, but in his prime he was enormously popular and critically highly regarded. His wartime radio plays for the BBC were seen as so important to the war effort that they were discussed in broadsheet editorials. His third novel, Juan in America, was a bestseller and whilst it may seem entirely fanciful, Linklater's own travels as a young man were even more incredible - India, China, and indeed America. This is a novelist who knows whereof he writes.

I don't know, but I suspect his work and amatory experiences were not quite so varied as Juan's, who goes from college football hero to bum to slinger of hash, bootlegger, ice cream dispenser, upside-down opera singer and movie extra, and whose conquests include an Amazonian acrobat and a gangster's daughter.

Juan is a direct descendant of Byron's Don Juan. He shares the Don's taste for adventure and the ladies without being either predatory or amoral. He is a likeable companion as we follow his picaresque travels. There are occasional affronts to modern taste - Linklater's handling of black people is not what we would wish, though it has to be remembered that he was writing in America in 1931 and in many ways reflects the attitudes of East Coast Ivy Leaguers of that era. Read closely enough and you realise that, whilst he doesn't seem to rate his impoverished black characters as individuals, he does empathise with their historical plight, "the result of forcibly transporting a people from one continent to another, using them in slavery for several generations, and then bestowing on them a nominal freedom and a position beyond the pale of society."

All in all, Juan in America is a splendid example of English picaresque from the first half of the 20th century. As such, Linklater's rivals in the field were not Huxley or Forster but Priestley and Mackenzie, neither of them particularly popular these days either. But Juan in America has never been out of print in the eighty years since it was written, and that has to be the best kind of recommendation.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Birthdays for the Dead - Stuart MacBride

Strewth, Stuart MacBride writes the blackest of Tartan Noir.  This is his latest, a stand alone outside the Logan MacRae series.  Our protagonist is a cop, like Logan, but a very different kettle of fish.  Ash Henderson is violent, in debt to gangsters and addicted to serious painkiller medication.  But none of those are the secrets that matter - oh no, Ash is keeping something much more relevant hidden from his superiors in order to stay on the Birthday Boy case.

BB is a serial killer.  He snatches young girls coming up to 13, tortures them for a while, and then kills them on their birthday.  Every year thereafter he sends a birthday card to the family - homemade, with a photo of their daughter in progressive stages of dying.  But is his target the kid or her parents?  This is the question posed by Dr Alice Macdonald, the young OCD forensic psychologist brought in to refresh the investigation.

The reason the investigation needs refreshing is that the next victim will be BB's thirteenth thirteen year-old, which has to be significant, right?

To say more would be to risk giving the game away.  Suffice it to say, Ash finds himself on a mission, a race against time.  The pace is unrelenting, the characters richly drawn with deep back-stories, and the plot twists just keep on coming.  The final twist is simply stunning.

A superb example of the genre.  MacBride is surely the next big thing in British crime writing.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

AD 500 - Simon Young


Simon Young is an amazing young historian of the early dark ages.  The conceit here is that a Byzantine civil servant is ordered to write a description of the Dark Isles for his emperor, who fantasises about restoring the lost empire in the west.  This officious bureaucrat has only archives and tall tales to base his account on until he lays hands on a primary document - the log of the last embassy from Constantinople to Britain, which, to say the least, didn't end well.  Young himself purports to be the translator of the later account, thus adding another layer of irony and comment via his copious translator's notes.  The Byzantine scribe, like civil servants everywhere throughout the ages, is scornful and dismissive of anything and anyone outside bureaucratic circles, so his asides on the barbarian Brits can be laugh-out-loud hilarious.  I particularly enjoyed Young/the scribe/the imperial ambassadors' account of the making of an Irish High King at Tara.

"The ritual lasted most of the night and was thoroughly unpleasant.  The king first mounted a stool that had been specially placed and 'mated' with the white horse.  We were encouraged to see that not only our party but also many of the visiting kings politely looked in the other direction and talked of the weather during these awkward minutes or played at board games..."

The wonderful thing is that all these outrageous accounts - even the one above - are based on genuine historical documents from the period.  Young describes his sources in an appendix at the end, so it should be fairly easy to follow up for those who want to go further.

The best book I have read this year - so good, I have already bought Young's subsequent book, Farewell, Britannia.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Unknown - Mari Jungstedt


Mari Jungstedt is a Swedish writer who sets her murders on the island of Gotland.  This is, I believe, the third novel featuring dull copper Detective Superintendent Anders Knutas and unambitious TV reporter Johan Berg.  The others are called Unseen and Unspoken, but this appears to be a silly affectation on the part of her English-language publishers - as near as I can tell, the Swedish title of Unknown is something like Inner Circle, which at least has the merit of relevance.

Anyway, this is a tale of ritual murder and archaeology, which on the face of it sounds promising.  Unfortunately it isn't.  Two protagonists means Jungstedt covers all bases with no real effort in terms of plotting or deductive reasoning - if she needs to tell us something Knutas can't know, she simply switches to Berg.  The other problem is that both need to be rounded characters and thus have private lives which are not interesting enough to warrant the space devoted to them.  That said, the stuff with Johan and his new baby is decently done - but the mother of the child is just annoying.

The characters I would have liked to know more about are both spikey women - Knutas's deputy, DI Karin Jacobsson and Berg's punkish camerawoman Pia.  But they remained cyphers, Pia a tool for improbable plot elements.

The book is not without merits.  The local colour of Gotland is well done and there is quite a lot of skill in the way Jungstedt builds the tension in the final showdown.  Overall, though, not for me.  Nordic, certainly, but nowhere near noir enough. 

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Scotland Yard - Sir Harold Scott

 
 True crime classic Penguin greenback.  Scott (1887-1969) was a career civil servant appointed Commissioner of Scotland Yard in 1945.  He continued in office through the coronation of Elizabeth II and then retired in 1953.  A year later the hardback version of this memoir appeared, followed by this Penguin in 1957.

There are accounts of classic murders here - Christie, Heath and Haigh were all brought to justice on Scott's watch, but perhaps more important is the reminder of just how damaged British society was in the immediate aftermath of the war.  Crime boomed as never before and there was a desperate shortage of police officers to try and contain it.  It was not until Scott that such radical innovations as women police constables and police dogs became standard.  Even so, Scott makes it clear that policing in those days was about crime reduction rather than counting arrests.  It was also on his watch that traffic cops came into their own but, amazing as it seems to us now, advice and warnings were prioritised over collecting convictions.  There was more crime and more civil liberty - if only such a concept troubled our modern legislators.

I personally enjoyed the chapters about the river police and horse patrols, both of which predate the Met and were subsequently absorbed into it.  But as a pure period piece, how about this sentence from the Flying Squad chapter?  "The next piece of information the police received was that a certain bookmaker, known as Poofy Len, might be worth their attention."  Poofy Len - ah, those were the days...

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Chimney Sweeper's Boy - Barbara Vine


Ruth Rendell is the greatest of contemporary female crime writers and is never better than when she writes as Barbara Vine.  This, however, is by no means Vine at her best.  The writing is beautiful, the characterisation and back story deep and immersive.  There is clever play with the levels of storytelling, which I particularly liked.  But the mystery upon which all this is hung is no mystery at all.  I'm afraid I figured it out from the get-go and I am usually hopeless.  So it was an enjoyable read but ultimately failed to satisfy on the key trope of its genre.

One of the blurbs on the back of the paperback describes it as frightening.  A conclusion I find inexplicable.

Monday, 19 November 2012

In the King's Name - Alexander Kent

The twenty-sixth and latest Bolitho novel, published last year.  Kent is really Douglas Reeman, also a best-selling author under his real name, and was born in 1924.  To be still writing at 87 is a remarkable achievement, but to have maintained the standard over so many novels in a sequence written over forty years is truly extraordinary.

The Bolitho here is Adam, formerly Pascoe, nephew and heir of Admiral Sir Richard, whose career we followed since To Glory We Steer back in 1968.  Richard is dead, killed in action, and it has to be said Adam is not quite the man his uncle was.  Then again, a different kind of captain is needed for the post-Napoleonic peace.  The enemy here are the blackbirders, outlawed slave-traders and the shadowy figures who finance them.

Always a tricky move for a series writer to switchto the next generation.  It's rarely entirely successful - Galsworthy couldn't manage it with The Forsyte Saga, and he won the Nobel Prize.  Kent certainly does better than the similarly aged Winston Graham with the later Poldarks.



Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Random - Craig Robertson



Craig Robertson, formerly of Scotland's Sunday Post cleverly puts the press at the heart of this, his first novel.  Just how cleverly, we don't realise until the very end.

Plotting is exceptional here.  It's a serial killer first-person narrative, never easy to do, and we are never told our protagonist's name (we get his surname, indirectly, again towards the end).  By incorporating the press reports, which the killer studies assiduously, we gain the indispensable counter-view.  Motivation is also a problem - most serial killers kill for kicks of one sort or another and Robertson has, after all, called his novel Random.  Again, superior plotting saves the day.  It's not the purpose of this blog to give the game away but, suffice to say, when we realise what our killer's motivation is, we start to empathise.

The writing itself is brisk, propulsive, and spiced with Glasgow dialect.  The book is consciously Tartan Noir - our killer is not the worst or most violent character involved - with the extra twist of some truly innovative means of murder.

My only criticism is that it goes on maybe thirty pages too long.  Some wrapping up of loose ends is essential but not the final denouement, which trips over the obstacle intrinsic in first-person narrative and which, in this instance, really isn't worth the risk.  In detective novels it is customary to restore the world to balance.  This, however, is a psycho killer novel and the world of our protagonist can never return to balance.

All the same, a brilliant debut - exceptional - and a writer to watch.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Blood from a Stone - Donna Leon


Another Venetian mystery for Commissario Brunetti and Signorina Elettra to solve, this one from 2005.  Vu cumpra have become an accepted part of the scene - immigrants from Senegal, mainly, mostly illegal, flogging counterfeit Prada to the foreign tourists.  But one evening two men seem to take marked exception to one of the illicit traders.  In fact, they shoot him dead in front of a group of elderly American doctors.  It's a professional hit, silencers and all.  An awful lot of effort and expense, surely, for an illegal?

The clue is in the title, a bit too obvious for my liking.  But I love Leon's characters and style, and I especially like the way she is not so mechanical as to wrap up every loose end.  Indeed, in this one nothing is really wrapped up.  We discover the motive - in Leon's expert hands, a revelation every bit as shocking as the deus ex machina of an Agatha Christie - but are left no wiser as to who the man with the hairy hands was or even the victim.

Monday, 5 November 2012

The Woman from Bratislava - Leif Davidsen


Albeit published by Eurocrime (a division of Arcadia Books) this is actually a post Cold War spy thriller - a multiviewpoint thriller, moreover, stretching to 450+ pages.

As so often with the genre, I was veered between tedium and delight.  The prologue is awful and unnecessary whereas the third strand (Irma's secret life) is necessary but deliberately unreliable.  It might have been better to use the Irma material as a prologue and ditch the self-conscious training lecture altogether.  The book really motors along when seedy lecturer Teddy (who encounters the titular woman in Bratislava) and secret policeman Per are driving the narrative.

Davidsen is a well-known Danish journalist specialising in Eastern Europe.  Boy does he know his stuff!  The book is worth reading for the info on Serbia and Bosnia alone.  His style here is more Deighton than le Carre - he really wants us to know he has seen these emerging nations first hand.  It is a clever ploy that the book isn't really about what happened after the fall of Communism.  Instead it's rooted in the shame that all occupied countries, including Denmark, have to deal with when they regain control of their destiny - what do you do with those citizens who joined the wrong side?

Apparently another of Davidsen's novels is available in English - The Serbian Dance.  I shall look out for it.  The translation here, by Barbara J Haveland, is very readable.  It could have done with better proof-reading, though.

Famous Trials 6 - James H Hodge (ed)


Another in the endlessly fascinating series, this time comprising four cases, the Regency lowlifes Thurtell and Hunt, the appalling Nodder (the one with the Hitler 'tash on the cover), IRA bomber Peter Barnes, and the so-called vampire John George Haigh.

The Thurtell case is only really of interested to those of us interested in the Regency underworld, a sordid falling out among thieves, notably chiefly for the peripheral involvement of Pierce Egan.  I've been reading the book piecemeal over the last few weeks and, to be honest, can't remember how Hunt was involved.  The case of Frederick Nodder (1937) is an early example of a murdering paedophile, revolting as all such cases inevitably are.

The collection starts to come alive with the case of Barnes, who was  one of those behind the Coventry outrage of August 1939.  Coming just a week before the declaration of World War II the incident is forgotten now but was particularly nasty.  Someone, who was never discovered, left a bomb on a bike by Broadgate, smack in the city centre, round where Primark now stands.  Five people were killed and score injured, twelve grievously. Letitia Fairfield provides a useful background to the IRA campaign on the mainland between the establishment of the Free State and independence.

Haigh, though, is the star of the show, a smalltime crook straight out of the works of Patrick Hamilton.  Haigh, of course, is the acid bath murderer, who dissolved his victims in a Croydon lock-up.  He tried to save himself from the noose by claiming to be a vampire when in reality his motive was purely monetary.  Not much of a schemer, he rather gave the game away by asking one of the interviewing detectives whether anyone was ever released from Broadmoor.

As always, great fun for fans of the true-crime genre.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Elegy for April - Benjamin Black

It's no secret - it says it on the cover - 'Benjamin Black' is feted Irish novelist John Banville.  His series character Quirke (no first name, naturally) is an alcoholic Dublin pathologist.  The twist or signature of the Quirke novels is the timeframe - Ireland in the 1950s, depressed, priest-haunted, drink-sodden.  What makes the novels very special indeed is the depth of characterisation so effortlessly rolled out by the author; even walk-ons who exist solely to plant the clues are enlivened and distinguished with little tics and traits.  Take for example decrepit old catwoman Miss Leetch:  "Gradually it became clear, if that was the word, that in the chaotic lumber-room that was Miss StJohn Leetch's understanding, the fellow that April might have gone off with was not one but many."  Classy stuff.

Essentially this a story about disfunctional families - Quirke's own (surprisingly complex for a foundling) and the Latimer family whose daughter is the missing April and whose father was the poster boy for the General Post Office siege of 1916.  The writing is deft but deeply layered, the plotting clever without ever being mechanical.  Not all loose ends are tied up, which increases our involvement.  Who was it spying on Phoebe in her flat?  Maybe we find out in a subsequent book.  I shall certainly be laying hands on another Quirke a.s.a.p.

Black has a great website.  The big news, apparently, is that Quirke is the BBC's next big literary detective.  Gabriel Byrne plays our hero.  Could be great - Byrne in Usual Suspects or Miller's Crossing form - or it could be eyewateringly dull like that psychiatrist thing he did for subscription TV.  I'll have read the books by the time it airs, anyway.  I strongly suspect I shall also be trying one of Banville's 'straight' novels.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Dylan Thomas in America - John Malcolm Brinnin


The classic account of the poet's last days, written by the American poet who organised his US reading tours and produced the first live performances of Under Milk Wood a year before British audiences heard it.  It adds adds several layers to the standard impression of the roistering Welsh bard.  For a start it is in no sense hagiographic; even though it was published in the US in 1955, barely a year after Thomas succumbed to alcohol poisoning in New York in November 1953, Brinnin offers a study of a man at war with himself, conflicted between art and self-indulgence, who often behaved appallingly but who was also appallingly treated by those closest to him.  What brings the book startling to life is the realisation that Brinnin has fallen in love with Thomas, hence the enmity of Dylan's legendary wife Caitlin, who is not gently depicted but who nevertheless endorses the book with a foreword.  The final, unflinching account of Dylan's last days, comatose in St Vincent's hopsital whilst Caitlin trashes the waiting room and brawls with nuns in the throes of a drunken mental collapse which soon sees her banned from the hospital and voluntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital, is truly eye-watering.

The book's greatest strength is that Brinnin confines himself solely to what he witnessed or uncovered.  There is no mention of anything before February 1950 when, as the newly-appointed Director of the New York Poetry Centre, Brinnin invited his idol to visit the Big Apple.  What particularly interested me was the alternative account of the creation of Under Milk Wood.  Brinnin encounters the work already part-written but still has to pressure Thomas into making it ready to be read publicly and subsequently acted.  At the same time, of course, though Brinnin knows nothing of it, the BBC was having exactly the same problem.  In a sense Brinnin and America win because they get to see Thomas read his own work and perform it with actors.  Brinnin also tells us that Thomas was still making changes and writing new material until his health finally collapsed.  Thus what Brinnin saw in New York in October 1953 was almost certainly different to what the BBC broadcast in January 1954, neither version was a finished work and neither was entirely what the poet had envisaged.

This classic Aldine paperback from 1956 is a companion piece to the February 1954 Aldine edition of Under Milk Wood on which I have based all my scholarly writing about the work.

I do this because we can pretty sure this is text that Douglas Cleverdon put together for the BBC production.  (My research has demonstrated that other published texts, even those published after the broadcast, differ significantly from the performed texts.) Others - including Cleverdon - have since re-edited and generally tinkered, usually making it less impactful in my view.  Surely the only text better than this - or, more precisely, closer to Dylan's last view of what it should be - would be the text performed in New York at the end of October 1953.  I wonder if that exists anywhere?

Odd, isn't it, that the publishers only seemed to have the one photo of Dylan?

Monday, 15 October 2012

Hour of the Wolf - Hakan Nesser


Another of Nesser's police procedurals set somewhere reminiscent of Holland.  This time things get as personal as they possibly can be for retired Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, so it is not such a credulity stretch when he gets involved in the investigation(s).

Nesser is always readable, always smart and often quietly amusing.  This time, however, he hauls us straight into the emotional consequences of derailed lives colliding.  It would be too easy to give too much away - and plotting is all in Hour of the Wolf.  Nesser himself provides a useful summary on the penultimatum page: "I was a normal human being two months ago."

Several critics have likened Nesser, in this novel, to Ruth Rendell.  There's some merit in the comparison but it doesn't really hold water.  Rendell specialises in the monster hiding among us.  Nesser's villain isn't a monster to start with.  He makes a mistake - a mundane error of judgement that thousands of people make every day - and boy does it go wrong from there.

I don't know if Hour of the Wolf is the best Van Veeteren.  I haven't read them all yet.  It's certainly the best of the post-retirement Van Veeterens.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Halfhead - Stuart B MacBride


Stuart MacBride writes the Logan McRae 'Granite City' police procedurals.  Stuart B MacBride, which I guess is some sort of homage to Iain M Banks, wrote Halfhead, a near-future crime thriller set in Glasgow.  How near in the future?  Well, perhaps only one more Tory government away.  Violent criminals are half-headed and happily doing all the filthy jobs.  The poor are kept high on virtual reality and stuffed into enormous towerblock complexes like Monstrosity Square.  Order is maintained by Bluecoats, the agents de police, and the hi-tech gendarmerie-cum-CIA of the Network.

The halfheads are more or less lobotomised - all bar one, anyway.  She used to be Dr Fiona Westfield, esteemed clinician and serial killer.  She killed the wife of Assistant Network Director Will Hunter.  Hunter caught her and halfheading resulted.  But now she's remembering.  She's starting to wake up.  She wants the other half of her head back.  She wants to feel the glorious ecstasy of slaughter again.  And she wants to find out what became of her special project, her 'children'.

I'm no sci-fi buff but I'm so glad I picked this one up.  The level of sci-fictionality is just about right - sufficient to justify the technology required but in no sense fanciful.  Basically it's a fairly straightforward killer chase enlivened with three-dimensional characters with real emotions and, of course, the compulsive Dr Westfield.  Filmicly I thought Blade Runner.  Fictionally I was put in mind of Stephen King's Bachman books.

MacBride-without-the-B's latest book is out.  Birthdays for the Dead is another stand-alone novel, contemporary this time and set, at least partially, in Aberdeen, but without McRae and the other regulars.  It's a must-read for me.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

A Question of Belief - Donna Leon


A Question of Belief is the 19th Commissario Brunetti novel but the first to swim into my ken.  It is very different to much contemporary Eurocrime - there is nothing noir about it, nor is it particularly a police procedural.  It certainly isn't a thriller - we're virtually a third of the way through before anybody dies.  Yet it is compelling, the compulsion to continue arising from the recognition that you are in the presence of extremely developed characters created by a writer utterly immersed in her world.

In some senses it is old fashioned, certainly more Wallander than Harry Hole.  Venice is baking in the summer heat.  Everybody at the Questura is either on holiday already or imminently about to go on holiday.  Ispettore Vianello is worried about his aunt who has fallen under the thrall of a dodgy fortune-teller.  Toni Brusca from the Commune has uncovered worrying procedural errors at the Tribunale de Vezetia.  Cases are being ludicrously and unnecessarily delayed.  One name keeps appearing on the court documents, the usher Araldo Fortuna, a career civil servant well on his way to retirement who leaves quietly at home with his mother.  Then Fortuna is found dead, his head bashed in and semen in his rectum.  Holidays abandoned, Brunetti, Vianello and the indispensable Signorina Elettra investigate.

The plotting is so defly done it pretty much constitutes slieght of hand.  There is never a hint of the manipulation you so often get with traditional detective fiction.

I shall certainly be investigating others in the series.

Monday, 1 October 2012

If the Dead Rise Not - Philip Kerr


Philip Kerr is on great form with this 2009 Bernie Gunther thriller, the sixth of eight thus far.  Kerr hops back and forth in the Gunther sequence but in this case he encompasses Berlin 1936 and Havana 1954 in one protracted case.  I've never seen anyone attempt it quite as Kerr does.  For quite a while you feel a bit cheated, simply abandoning the 1936 story at a live-or-die moment, but it really pays off when Kerr delivers the knockout twist at the very end.  I certainly didn't see it coming.

Anyway, Bernie is in his hotel detective phase, haunting the corridors of the Adlon Hotel having been purged from KRIPO for not being a Nazi.  It's the year of the Berlin Olympiad and Avery Bundage is in town to approve the Nazi games on behalf of the International Olympic Committee.  There's a fat dead guy in one of the rooms.  Looks like his heart gave out while entertaining a joy girl.  A routine chore for the staff, except that this particular fat guy was a prime bidder for the Olympic stadium contract.  Then there's a circumcized ex-boxer in the canal.  The two can't possibly be linked.  Can they?

Drop-dead gorgeous American writer Noreen Eisner Charalambides visits the Adlon and soon Bernie is ferrying her round town in her quest to unearth the unpalatable truth about the Hitler Olympiad.  A lot of the unpleasantness seems to hover around Chicago entrepreneur Max Reles.  Too much, in fact...

Then we're in Havana, eighteen years later.  Bernie is hiding behind his 'Carlos Hausner' persona (first encountered, by me at least, in A Quiet Flame), Reles is running a hotel and Noreen is staying at Ernest Hemingway's place.

If the Dead Rise Not won the 2009 CWA Ellis Peters Award for historical crime fiction.  And I'm not a bit surprised.  Essential reading for fans of the genre.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Rounding the Mark - Andrea Camilleri


Camilleri is the inspiration for aspiring writers of a certain age.  He didn't start writing seriously until he was 67 and didn't create the bestselling Inspector Montalbano until he was 69.  Now 87 he has 19 Montalbano novels and a shedload of other publications to his name.

The advantage of starting late is that your attitudes and opinions are fully developed.  Camilleri is Sicilian, left wing, a little curmudgeonly (he has a secondary career as a TV political pundit) and fond of his grub.  All those characteristics apply to his novels though not necessarily his protagonist.  Salvo Montalbano seems to have no political views, other than all politicians are crooks, and whilst he can be grouchy, he is more altruistic than misanthropic.  We know him from the TV adaptations but we should not confuse Salvo with the actor who plays him (which is odd, because Camilleri's working life was as a TV director for RAI, who now make the TV movies).  Salvo, for example, isn't bald.

The novels, of which Rounding the Mark is the seventh, originally published in Italy in 2003, are formulaic, but it is a formula of Camilleri's devising.  Like Simenon, Camilleri has created his own paradigm.  Salvo's eating regime is therefore slightly more important than his love life, albeit his love life is adventurous for a man of his age;  we know more about what he eats than about his police career; we have comic Catarella, crown prince of the malapropism; Mimi, Fazio, the commissioner who is always somewhere else and his machiavellian bag-carrier Doctor Lattes.  Montalbano stumbles through the case, solving it almost by accident.  And throughout we have a running commentary on Italian politics - wholly disparaging - as it happened while Camilleri was writing.

In Rounding the Mark Montalbano literally bumps up against the murder victim whilst swimming in the sea outside his house.  He plans to resign just as soon as the commissioner can see him but forgets all about it when a six-year-old African boy runs away from yet another boatload of illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile longterm girlfriend Livia is only a phone presence from Genoa, whilst the racy Ingrid Sjostrom is on Montalbano's doorstep looking for adventure.

The Montalbano novels are unique.  You either love them or hate them.  I enjoy wolfing them down in the same way Salvo scarfs down a strascinasali.   Rounding the Mark was as good as any.  You cannot underestimate the translation skills of American poet Stephen Sartarelli in bringing Camilerri to the wider world.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Billion Dollar Brain - Len Deighton


I've never really considered Deighton's spy novels because they are eternally linked with Michael Caine and I've not been much of a Caine fan (Get Carter excepted) since the movie of Funeral in Berlin bored me rigid as a film-fanatical ten year-old.  But I discovered Deighton's WW2 novels two years ago and couldn't resist this vintage edition when I found it outside my favourite book shop.

Deighton's work has certainly worn better than that of Ian Fleming.  Fleming was never much of a writer (I have revisited his work in the last couple of years); nor was Deighton in the early years - but Deighton has a much better sense of story, pace and tension, and a slightly better grasp of characterisation.  If nothing else, his fictions are more democratic.  Not everybody is public school or rich.  Not all the women are sex-crazed.

The 'brain' itself - a computer so big, it has to be stored inside a mountain - is so absurdly outdated that it simply doesn't matter.  Deighton gets away with it because he has taken the trouble to research his concept.  The Cold War has also gone; again, it doesn't matter because we trust Deighton when he tells us how important it seemed at the time.

I love the settings - from seedy Soho to Finland - all described in detail with the stamp of personal knowledge.  Even if it turns out Deighton just made the whole thing up, his writing style convinces us it's true.  It's not a mystery story but the twist at the end about the femme fatale was a cracker.

Period piece, yes - but none the worse for that.  Actually, I suspect Billion Dollar Brain is more enjoyable as a period piece than it was as a slightly futuristic thriller.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Shatter the Bones - Stuart MacBride

 
I was inspired to seek out something by MacBride after I blogged about his nomination for the Crime Writers' Association Bestseller Dagger over on my Media and Culture blog.

This is the seventh in the Logan McRae series, featuring an Aberdonian detective sergeant.  Joining the series so late I find all the continuing characters fully rounded and full of interesting idiosyncracies - Logan's relationship to his DI's baby daughter, for instance.  At heart, though, it's a police procedural and as fine an example of Tartan Noir as you're ever likely to meet.

Reality show infant prodigy Jenny and her fame-seeking mother have been kidnapped.  The Grampian Police have no clues to go on and no suspects.  They have to do it the hard way.  Then there's drug-dealing Shuggie and his girlfriend, skanky Tanya.  Shuggie is being pursued by debt collectors with unusual enforcement techniques, and Tanya gets herself kidnapped but nobody cares.  The papers are all full of guff about pretty Jen and pretty Alison, except for one newshound who scents a stitch-up.

Great plot, very 2012 in its themes, with just enough Aberdonian wisecracks to flavour the prose.  A crime writer to follow.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Half Blood Blues - Esi Edugyan


Another of the shortlisted novels for last year's Booker - also winner of the Scotiabank Prize 2011 and contender for the Orange Prize 2012 - this is a scorching idea.  Black American jazz musicians Sid and Chips find themselves marooned in Berlin when war breaks out and then, foolishly, stranded in Paris when the Nazis invade.  It's not necessarily so bad - black people are so rare in Germany that the Nazis haven't got them on their proscribed list.  But jazz is degenerate and half-bloods like boy wonder trumpeter Hiero Falk are degenerate in every sense.  In Paris there are lots of black jazz musicians, including Louis Satchmo Armstrong and his presumed mistress Delilah Brown, who is Canadian like our author.  But when the Germans invade and the locals flee Paris Hiero is mistaken for a Senegalese deserter.  And when the Germans arrive, well...  Hiero is captured.  Sid sees it all, and lives with the memory for 51 years, until someone makes a documentary about the legendary Hiero Falk.  Chips is in the film because he's aged into something of a legend himself.  Sid is the man who created the legend by stealing the wax recording of Hiero's Half Blood Blues, which went on to become a jazz classic.  He is also the guy who betrayed the young genius.

Back in Berlin for the premiere, Sid discovers that Chip has actually heard from Hiero.  He's amazingly still alive and living in Poland...

Sid narrates the tale and flashbacks in hip jazzy argot, which is great and, as far as I could tell, pitch perfect, though you'd think some new terms might be coined over a fifty year period.  The main characters are fully-rounded creations.  Chips is sly, Sid more than a little self-serving, Delilah suitably bewitching, the young Hiero hopelessly lost, unable to find his place in the world.  Personally I wouldn't have bothered with Armstrong, whose reality muddies the waters unnecessarily.  Whilst I am absolutely clear why Sid steals the recording I am utterly unclear as to why he commits the act of betrayal.  And ultimately the successful quest of the two octogenarians is let down by its object.  It's a bit like finding the truth behind the Wizard of Oz, only it's not funny, not dramatic and just very, very sad.

A book that could have been better, then.  But nonetheless a book every bit as good as its 2011 peers and one which everybody who cares about the contemporary novel should read.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The Crust on its Uppers - Derek Raymond


Patrick Hamilton meets Anthony Burgess and goes on a John Buchan-esque escapade across Europe - this 1962 one-off has to figure on any worthwhile list of 20th Century British classics.  There really is nothing like it, narrated in u first-person underworld cant by an unnamed toff-gone-bad.  How much is autobiographical?  Quite a bit - Raymond was himself privately educated, descended from wealth, and utterly debased, so much so that The Crust on its Uppers was originally published under his real name, Robin Cook.  Only his later books, notably the 'Factory' series, were pseudonymous because the world had become full of Robin Cooks (formulaic thriller writer, Labour politician etc).  The Factory novels are definitely on my must-acquire list.

If you like crime, if you like Augustan literature (I'm thinking Defoe and Fielding), if you are fascinated by social and cultural change in the era of the Angry Young Men, then I urge you to READ THIS BOOK!

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Gathering the Water - Robert Edric


I was reminded strongly of William Golding - one man, isolated in extreme nature, utterly focused on a daunting task, in this case supervising the flooding of a Yorkshire valley to create a new reservoir to feed the demands of Victorian industry.  We really only have Weightman himself; the only other character of note, the slightly older widow Mary Latimer, with whom he is obsessed but not sexually, is and remains a bundle of secrets, and her sister Martha is genuinely insane.  The other locals resent Weightman, naturally, because he is drowning their world and driving them away.  At the end, only Weightman remains.

I continue to be impressed with Edric.  He is one of the few contemporary literary writers who has a distinct voice and subject matter.  I still don't understand why he isn't better known.  Apparently, Gathering the Water was longlisted for the 2006 Booker.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Jamrach's Menagerie - Carol Birch


One of the sensational shortlist for the 2011 Booker Prize, which rather predictably went to Julian Barnes, this is historical fiction derived from two real events - the rescue of a little Wapping boy from the jaws of an escaped Bengal tiger by wild animal trader Charles Jamrach and the sinking of the whaler Essex.  To begin with, we are lulled into thinking it is a children's story in the manner of Leon Garfield, but it goes much, much darker as we read on.

The early chapters in and around mid-Victorian London's notorious Ratcliffe Highway are pure Garfield and entirely captivating.  Our hero, eight-year-old Jaffy Brown, is rescued from the tiger and given a job at Jamrach's.  There he meets Tim, and through Tim, Ishbel.  Soon Jaffy and Tim and Jamrach's supplier Dan Rymer are sent round the world on a rich client's whim in search of a living dragon.  They travel aboard the whaler Lysander.  Here, I have to admit, I got bored and was in danger of abandoning the read.  So much time is spent establishing the multitudinous crew members that for me it was a struggle to keep going - but Birch has to risk this because we need to feel for these people later.  I am so glad I kept going.

The scenes of whaling are gross but diverting.  They sail to the ends of the earth.  They find their dragon - a Komodo, I assume, though Birch is not explicit - and then everything goes horribly wrong.

The writing has a richness that's almost tactile.  The whole story is told by Jaffy who starts out an undeducated sewer rat of eight and during the course of the novel grows up in the hardest way imaginable.  How you 'voice' that radical a character development is critical - and Birch succeeds brilliantly.  Tremendous stuff, highly recommended.  I checked out Birch's other novels and have added her Scapegallows (2008) to my must-have list.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

A Rabbit Omnibus - John Updike (2)


Rabbit Redux...  Ten years on from Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Angstrom's life falls apart again.  This time it's Janice who leaves him, seduced by the slick charms of Greek car salesman Charlie Stavros.  Rabbit finds himself footloose and fancy-free in the 1969 summer of sex, moon landings and Black Power.  Before long he and thirteen year-old Nelson are sharing their suburban home with wealthy dropout Jill and her dealer Skeeter, the Black Christ.  Rabbit's mother has Parkinson's and wall-eyed Peggy has also been abandoned by her spouse.  Enter Mim, Rabbit's sister, the wannabe movie star turned escort, doing what she does best to restore balance to the world of Brewer.

Brilliantly plotted, exquisitely written.  Updike perfectly captures the era when America began to lose faith with itself.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Chemistry of Tears - Peter Carey


What a brilliant artist Peter Carey is.  Not only can he do different voices and literary styles (compare Parrot and Olivier, Jack Maggs and History of the Kelly Gang) but his structure, the framework on which his story hangs, can be dazzling.  Here, the structure is as cunningly wrought as the automaton which brings together Henry in the 1850s and Catherine in 2010.

Henry has convinced himself that the only way he can save his consumptive young son is to commission him a clockwork duck of the utmost ingenuity.  To do so, he has to travel to Germany, home of the cuckoo clock.  He describes his experiences there in a series of journals.  The journals are read 160 years later by Catherine, a horological conservator, who has been given the task of restoring Henry's automaton to take her mind of the sudden death of her longterm lover.

The writing styles of our two narrators are distinct but they are linked early on by shared personal tragedy and loss of love.  Embroidered through the narrative is the unfolding ecological tragedy of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (hence the choice of 2010) and the mid-Victorian parallel of the onset of the industrial revolution and its effect on both landscape and craftsmanship.  And to round it all off, a highly amusing twist (which Carey has been dropping hints about all along) concerning the wunderkind Carl.

Not one word wasted - and again, as with le Carre's A Most Wanted Man, a perfectly crafted ending, sufficient unto the purpose and no flummery.

For my reviews of other Carey novels, which predate this blog, see my media and culture blog.

Monday, 13 August 2012

La Manivelle/Lettre Morte - Robert Pinget


La Manivelle is only real known because Pinget's friend Samuel Beckett translated it (The Old Tune, available in all his collected works and the British Library complete radio plays recording). Well ... actually he did a lot more than translate it. Even the characters' names are changed and the action is relocated from Paris to Dublin. That makes a difference and, like it or loathe it, there is no way of judging what is Pinget and what is Beckett without comparing the two - which is why as a serious student of modern drama or just Beckett alone you need to have this bi-lingual edition. The other play included here, Lettre Morte, is a one-act stage play and no translation is provided. There is a translation available by the BBC radio producer Barbara Bray, who also translated the 'suite radiophonique' About Mortin. If you really want to know why it's unfair that Pinget has been eclipsed by Beckett, you should check out About Mortin.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

A Most Wanted Man - John le Carre


I liked this 2008 thriller much more than le Carre's latest, Our Kind of Traitor.  This is absolutely le Carre's home turf and these are quintessential characters about their customary murky business.

All the characters here are empathetic, even the mysterious and deeply troubled Issa who foists himself on a Turkish family in Hamburg, wrecks the life of human rights lawyer Annabel and rattles unwanted skeletons out of the ancestral closet of ex-pat British private investment banker Tommy Brue.  (How do you make a millionaire private investment banker sympathetic?  Give him to John le Carre.)

Issa is the eponymous wanted man - wanted by authorities and quasi-legal organisations all over Europe and beyond.  Is he an evil man?  Is Dr Abdullah, the 95% moral media Muslim who gets sucked into his ambit, a duplicitous crook?  Are the secret services justified in setting them up?  This is the beauty of le Carre at his very best - we never know.  And the ending, which obviously I won't reveal here, is simply perfect.  None of this what happened next or what became of our heroes flummery.  It happens, it's over, the book stops dead.

Written at the height of the war on terror and immediately before the intercontinental criminality of the banking world fell apart, A Most Wanted Man couldn't be relevant.  A movie version is apparently in the works.  Let's hope for great things.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

In the Midst of Life - Ambrose Bierce


A vintage Penguin from March 1939.  We know this because it handily advertises its own publication date on the back.

Bierce is one of those fascinating characters like Carravaggio and Villon who simply walked out of history.  Bierce is especially impressive because he was much more famous in his lifetime and vanished in 1913, the height of the US newspaper boom and some years into the development of mass communication technology.  Better still, vanishing without trace is a regular trope in his macabre fiction.

Macabre is the word for Bierce, not horror or the supernatural or even weird.  He delights in haunted houses, odd coincidences, the unpredictable twist of fate.  Essentially he knocked out hundreds of these stories for the popular press and they are collected in innumerable editions.  This means that once you have read one collection of Bierce you are never going to find another in which all the stories are unknown to you.  "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge", "Chickamauga" and "The Middle Toe of the Right Foot" appear in most.  Then again, every time you dip in to another collection you find a new golden nugget.  In this case, for me, it was "Parker Adderson, Philosopher."


The London Satyr - Robert Edric

On the face of it, a novel about Victorian pornographers; in reality a carefully crafted, utterly non-salacious novel about the compromises we have to make in life and how, so often, the battle to get ahead and perhaps even escape ends up sucking us deeper into the mire, achoring us ever more firmly to our rung on society's descending scale.

Webster is a middling professional photographer, not good enough to survive as an independent but just about good enough to take photos of the costumes in Henry Irving's productions at the Lyceum so that Irving's manager, Bram 'Mother' Stoker, can add them to his obsessive lists and inventories.

Webster has accidentally hit upon a way of earning a few bob on the side.  He lends the costumes to the pornographer Marlow, who has a lucrative line in photos of women getting out of said clothing.  Webster takes a shine to Marlow's partner Pearl and, one lucky night, finds himself invited to an evening of tableaux vivantes at Marlow's place.

Webster is a man of modest ambitions: he doesn't want to leave his frigid wife and appalling (but highly entertaining) daughter, he just wants to build himself up in their regard.  He wouldn't in theory mind getting up close and personal with the enigmatic Pearl but in practice can't even bring himself to have it away with the young skivvy who offers him anything he fancies on the proverbial plate.

Then a debased artisto murders a child prostitute.  The London Vigilance Committee launches a crusade (this is after all 1891, only three years on from the Ripper's Autumn of Terror), and Webster realises just how deeply he has been drawn in to the sex business.  Worse, Stoker announces a complete stock-take and Marlow, who has several of the items Stoker wants to find, has fled abroad.

Incredibly entertaining, finely judged in terms of its moral standpoint, and beautifully written.  Why isn't Edric better known?  He has won and been shortlisted for most of the major prizes but I'd never come across him before.  My tip: get to know his considerable ouevre forthwith.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Abominable Man - Sjowall and Wahloo


Maj Sjowall (b. 1935) and Per Wahloo (1926-1975) are the Adam and Eve of Scandanavian crime fiction.  Without them, and their breakthrough in the Anglophone world, The Laughing Policeman (1971), there may not have been any Larssen or Nesbo, both of whom share some of S&W's tropes and preoccupations.

Sjowall and Wahloo are Marxists, unabashed about commenting on the society that forms the backdrop of their fiction.  Cops can be, and often are, corrupt.  None of this was evident in British and American crime fiction of the early Sixties when S&W began.

The Abominable Man, the seventh of the ten Martin Beck novels, is all about corruption - or rather, one corrupt Chief Inspector and the superiors, peers and subordinates who are all complicit in covering up his brutality.  There is a particularly memorable sequence in which Beck's team goes through a sample of the complaints brushed under the carpet by the Justice Ombudsman.  Only one honest patrolman persists in reporting Stig Nyman - and where does that get him?

The action is compressed into a single extended night, which alone generates enough tension to keep the reader hooked.  50 of 185 pages concern the final showdown, at the end of which we don't know if Martin Beck lives or dies.  Just 13 lines after the bad guy is downed the novel simply stops.  Such confidence from the writers - and that is not the only technique of theirs which remains cutting edge to this day.

In summary, short, sharp and downright brilliant.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

The Return - Hakan Nesser


This, the second Inspector Van Veeteren novel, dates from 1995 and struck me as slightly showing its age.  The story is good - a two-time murderer is released from his second term only to turn up dead and dismembered in a ditch some months later.  I know what Nordic Noir fans are thinking - so did I, but it wasn't.  As usual, Van Veeteren slips out of the action as soon as possible and cogitates obliquely elsewhere.  This time the trick was a hospital operation.  Some critics have seen this as an homage to Daughter of Time or whatever the last Morse was called.  Personally, I think Nesser has stuck himself with an outsider as a hero who has so few teamwork skills that he could never in real life attain such high rank.

I didn't much like the flashbacks, either.  Too easy a device, and too corny.

Of the three Van Veeterens I have read over the last couple of months, The Return comes a distant third.  The mystery wasn't that complicated, the victim is someone you never empathise with, and no one we care about ever comes under any threat.  To be fair, though, it does have the best title of the three.

Laurie Thompson supplies his usual high-grade translation.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Kavalier and Clay - Michael Chabon


I had not read Chabon before picking up The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000 - winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2001).  I had seen the film of his Wonder Boys and hated it mightily.  Then I saw that this was about American superhero comics, which I loved as a kid and still retain a fondness for, so I had to have it.

A marvellous book, combining the Golem of Prague and gay Hollywood actors circa 1940, amongst many other themes.  It's something of a monster itself - 636 pages of tightly-wrought, pitch-perfect prose - but I didn't find a single bum note or a passage I speed-read through.  I wallowed in it.  I luxuriated.  The characters were so well crafted that they could do anything and I would still root for them.  Chabon does not do goodies and baddies.  Here, everybody is basically good and a little bit bad.  Even walk-ons like Sammy's feckless midget strongman of a father take root in your imagination.

One of those books I can't recommend highly enough.  Gimme more!

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Five Modern No Plays - Yukio Mishima


Having been inspired by The Lady Aoi in the Traverse Plays collection, I quickly got hold of this, which includes Aoi and four other reworkings by Mishima, translated and introduced by his friend Donald Keene.

Two of the plays, it has to be said, don't work very well.  Kantan (Life and Death) and The Damask Drum (Aya no Tsuzumi) are from No's earliest period where dance was much more important than story.  Mishima therefore struggles to timeshift them to a theatre in which text is all and dance more or less irrelevant. 

That said, the use of dance in Sotoba Komachi is beautiful and touching.  This is the story of a ninety-nine year-old female vagrant who meets a young poet in the park and is encouraged by him to recall her long-gone youth.  Eighty years ago Komachi was the girl in the life of Captain Fukakusa.  They mingled in the highest society.  They went to glittering balls.  They danced.  As she remembers, she and the poet dance - and on waltz other guests from that long ago soiree, gossiping about Komachi, complimenting her on her beauty, her grace, her taste in fashion.  And all the time we are watching a centenarian tramp swaying in the arms of a penniless poet.  Exquisite - a coup de theatre every bit as stunning as the boat in Aoi (Aoi no Ue).

The final play in the collection Hanjo (Lady Han) is, like Aoi, based on an original by the fifteenth century master Zeami.  There is no sweeping theatrical gesture: instead, we have a curiously moving study of a mad girl who waits every day at the station for her long-lost lover, but when he finally shows up she refuses to believe it's him.  One of the plays that stays with you long after you finish it.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

A Rabbit Omnibus - John Updike (1)

Okay, I should have read the American master years ago, but what can I say?  Better late than never.  This Penguin collection isn't, of course, the complete Rabbit, but the first three instalments, Run, Redux, and Rich.  I'm reading them separately amid my other reading, and will review them here in the same way.

Rabbit Run then, from 1960.  The story of a twenty-something who can't quite come to terms with adult responsibility.  He runs away, literally, three times.  Such a simple story with a handful of characters yet executed with such minute detail that it's like a compressed War and Peace.  There are no stereotypes here, no good guys or villains.  Everyone, down to Nelson the toddler, is three-dimensional, drawn with empathy and compassion.  Thus the tragedy, when it comes, is shattering.  I don't do plot spoilers in this blog, so let's just say I have never, in half a century of reading, come across that particular tragedy in any other novel.  It is one of those everyday catastrophes that we simply don't talk about - and here too, once it has happened, nobody really talks about it.

A stunning read.  A genius at work.

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Devil's Star - Jo Nesbo


The downside of reading a Nesbo is that it means there's one less to look forward to reading.  The Devils Star is Harry Hole at his daunting best.  What I admire about Nesbo is that he manages to maintain the flavour of the series whilst always striving to expand his technique.  There is a scene here, where Harry pushes himself beyond mental and physical limits to try and figure out the killer's code which is superb - a man tripping out, alone in his flat, saying and doing nothing, yet you are completely spellbound.

The mystery is expertly handled, with a convincing red herring and a couple of clever chronology tricks that work especially well.  I certainly didn't guess who'd really done it until Nesbo told me.  And, as for where the killer hid the body of the missing victim ... noir at its blackest.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Best Radio Plays of 1983


Another in the invaluable but sadly defunct Methuen series.  We begin with Wally K Daly's clone caprice Time Slip.  Very much in Ayckbourn mode and very funny. Wally K must be one of the more prolific and long-serving radio writers and is also a very amusing guy.

The cream of the collection for me is Never in My Lifetime by Shirley Gee.  A compassionate study of the Northern Ireland Troubles written at the height of the violence, the play is notable for being non-judgemental: bomber and victim are treated with equal depth and compassion.  I loved it.  Shirley Gee had previously won a Giles Cooper Award for Typhoid Mary (1979) and Never in My Lifetime, in a stage incarnation, won the Samuel Beckett Award in 1985.

The other full-length script here is Martyn Read's Scouting for Boys, an odd but engrossing confection in which an elderly scoutmaster accidentally returns to the stately home where he was once a notably cussed butler.  Alison Steadman and Jeremy Child played the barmy and quite possibly incestuous aristocratic twins.  Great fun.

Gerry Jones's The Angels They Grow Lonely is a short, particularly radiogenic fable about a man who can fly.  In Kafkaesque progression he visits a series of doctors all of whom know about the condition.  There's a lot of it about, apparently, we just don't mention it.

Normally I hate monologues, especially on radio, but I went for Steve May's No Exceptions in a big way.  It's the recollection of an unnamed primary school PE teacher of a kid from a troubled background who could run like the wind but simply couldn't do his reading and his maths.  So he was excluded from sport because those are the rules, no exceptions.  And now, some years later, he's got into car trouble with the police.  A beautiful piece of writing.

The Unlucky Lottery - Hakan Nesser

What is it with Nesser and the clunky titles?  The Unlucky Lottery sounds like a kiddies' book along the lines of The Big Red Bike.  To be fair, the blame surely lies with those who publish the English translations - Nesser's Swedish original was called Munsters Fall which at least has the virtue of relevance.

The lottery here is merely the mcguffin to get things going.  And it justifies one of the great opening lines: "The last day of Waldemar Leverkuhn's life could hardly have begun better."  Then we are back in the familiar/unfamiliar locale of Nesser's not-exactly-Netherlands.

The story is neatly unravelled - with one glorious red herring - but suffers, in my view, from being officially one of the Van Veeteren series, when the semi-retired Inspector isn't dislodged from among his antiquarian books until page 205 and contributes precisely zilch to solving the case.  In truth, he just slows things down unnecessarily.

Nesser really writes top quality Eurocrime.  I recommend him to friends.  Next time, though, I hope to sample one with a sensible English title.

I also recommend Conor Carton's critique of The Unlucky Lottery, which you can find here.

Monday, 2 July 2012

World War II Film and History - Chambers and Culbert


This is a collection of American scholarly articles from 1996.  It has the preoccupations of its time which, whilst always relevant to discussion of the media, are not always relevant to the history thereof.  I'm talking feminism and race.  It is a deplorable fact that the role of black people in WW2 has been neglected in mainstream film and that the role of servicewomen - as opposed to spies, agents and underground activists - was mainly administrative in WW2.

The are two contrasting pieces about a documentary called Liberators (US 1992) which may have bigged-up the role of black GIs in liberating concentration camps.  Sorry, but the colour of the liberators is not the issue in the concentration camp narrative.  There are also two articles about a very late Nazi film called Kolberg (1945) which I have never heard of but which I will now look out for.  The idea was to big up a rather peripheral Napoleonic seige in order to stiffen civilian resolve as Germany was blown to smithereens around them.  Other contributions that resonated with me were Freda Freiberg's paper on China Nights (Japan 1940), which apparently extols the moral virtues of Japan's invasion of China from 1937, and Stephen E Ambrose on The Longest Day (US 1962).

Ambrose is the historian whose books lie behind Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers.  It would be interesting to add papers discussing how those portrayals of war have changed the nature of the debate, particularly given that the issue here is one of accuracy.

The editors, John Whiteclay Chambers and David Culbert, use The Longest Day to illustrate the point in their conclusions:

"In The Longest Day (US 1962), an account of the Allied invasion across the English Channel in World War II, there is not one word about causation.  The Germans apparently lack understanding as to why they should resist.  Allied victory is inevitable, one is tempted to say, because the Anglo-Americans have so many more Hollywood celebrities in leading roles." [p. 151]

Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Song of Names - Norman Lebrecht


Norman Lebrecht is a journalist and broadcaster who has written prolifically on classical music.  This, his first novel, published in 2002, is set firmly within the world of highbrow music.  His narrator, Martin Simmonds, is the middleaged chairman of a company that trades in cheap musical scores, counting off the days to desultory retirement.  His father, who set up the company before the war, was a musical zealot who not only published scores but promoted major concerts and managed emerging talent.

For father and son everything fell apart in 1950 when the old man's ward and most-gifted protege - Martin's adopted brother and hero - David Eli Rapaport (Dovidl) inexplicably vanishes on the eve of his heavily-rpomoted Albert Hall debut.

The structure is smart: the 'present', rolled out in present tense narrative, is actually 1990, allowing Martin to be in his very early sixties and therefore still just about active; the middle of the book, one huge chapter in past tense, is the boyhood and young adulthood of Dovidl, 1939-1950.  This is clever and appropriate without ever straying into the flashy.  Lebrecht has no need to show off his literary craft because the book relies on his encyclopedic knowledge of the classical field and his personal experience of being Jewish.  Yes, some of the Jewishness here is just as esoteric as the music.

Here, as just as taste of this heady confection, is a sentence that particularly struck me from page 241:  "In the intro-extrospective schism that afflicts every belief system, Dovidl won the battle of the navel-gazers."

The Song of Names, as you can see from the paperback cover above, won the 2002 Whitbread First Novel Award.  This is no surprise.  In the entire 311 pages only one false note distrurbed my reading delight, one clever flourish too many, and that - sadly - on page 310.  I wish Lebrecht's editor had persuaded him to think again.  Nonetheless, his second novel is The Game of Opposites (2007) and I'm on the lookout.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Morality Play - Barry Unsworth


Shameful though it is, it took Unsworth's recent death to remind me to check out his work.  I scanned through the list and this one leapt out at me.  It's medieval, which I like, and it's about drama, just like my PhD.  I acquired a copy, jumped in - and was immediately blown away with how well Unsworth writes.  He doesn't lay on the history research with the proverbial trowel, yet there are things here even I didn't know about.  Did medieval players really have a lexicon of hand gestures with which to express emotion?  I genuinely don't know but if they didn't they should have and it sounds absolutely convincing in this text.  It is also a murder mystery with a paedophile serial killer on the loose in County Durham.  But that's not what Morality Play is about.  Unsurprisingly, it's about morality and the moral code of the age, which is obviously different to ours.

Most of all, though, this is high literature, plainly but beautifully written with the editorial control of a true master.  It might only be 188 pages long but there is no way this novel is slight.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Traverse Plays - Jim Haynes (ed)


Classic selection of 8 one-act plays from the Sixties.  Not all are original - both Bellow plays are dramatised short stories, but no less effective for the transition, and the Pinget is the famously free 'translation' by Beckett of the original French radio play La Manivelle (known in English as The Old Tune).  Marguerite Duras's La Musica reads like a radio play, with voices 'off' and 'overheard' telephone conversations, but - as far as I can discover - isn't.  I can find almost nothing about George Mully, whose "analytical farce" The Master of Two Servants left me cold and unamused.  C P Taylor's Allergy is amusing enough but for me the two standouts in this collection are the Yukio Mishima (The Lady Aoi) and the Heathcote Williams (The Local Stigmatic).

Mishima's play is startling - when he mentions a 'living phantasm', he really means it, and I can't think of a coup de theatre to match the boat sailing into the hospital room and the way its sail is then used for the denouement.  It is actually a Noh-style play, which explains much but also adds to the wonderment.  Oriental magic realism, perhaps.

Williams likewise regards the stage as a fluid space.  His two principals, Graham and Ray, move seamlessly through several locations.  Their dialogue has a surface gloss of hyper-realism, but it is only realistic in the sense that Edward Bond's dialogue is realistic - what they say is rarely important, what matters is the violence of the ritualised arguments that arise from such trivia.  As so often in Bond, the verbal violence becomes physical as the apparent antagonists collaborate, without any discussion or qualm, in a monstrous assault on a film actor they encounter in a pub.

Both these plays are object lessons in how much can be achieved in one act.  They continue to resonate long after reading and one can only imagine the effect they have on theatre audiences.

None of the plays here seem especially dated but it is sobering to think that only Williams and the Traverse Theatre founder Jim Haynes, who edits and introduces the collection, are still alive.


Sunday, 17 June 2012

Too Much of Water - Bruce Hamilton


Bruce Hamilton (1900-1974) was the older brother and biographer of the much better known Patrick (Rope, Gaslight, Hangover Square etc).  Bruce was a prolific writer of crime thrillers and a long-serving educationalist in Barbados (for which he was honoured in 1964).  Frankly, I'd never heard of him and was attracted to this book by its eye-popping cover - but I know of him now and definitely want to get to know more of his work.

Too Much Water is set aboard a small passenger ship bound for the West Indies.  Hamilton is very good at portraying his world - this is 1957-8 and therefore includes passing mention of Suez - so when he depicts a distinguished black teacher and a white planter you can be sure that the way he sees them is the way they were regarded in their world by their contemporaries.

Other facets of Hamilton's writing are more startling - a pivotal character is called Rottentosser (yes, Rottentosser!) and there is a snippet of dialogue to assure doubters that it is indeed pronounced Rottentosser.  The protagonist, Edgar Cantrell, is a middle-ranking conductor of classical music and his friend (but not his Watson) is a woman-chasing counter-tenor.

The multiple murders seem random.  Obviously they aren't, but I didn't figure out who did it or why before Cantrell told me, and there was a cunning twist or two even after the killer stood revealed.  The plotting is masterly, the writing tone light but not inappropriately facetious.  Absolutely a forgotten classic of its genre.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The Whisperer in Darkness - H P Lovecraft


I hadn't read any Lovecraft since I was a boy.  They turned up in collections of horror fiction, but usually the short ones, and reading this collection has shown me that Lovecraft is most successful in novella form, when he has space to develop his cosmic theories, and time in which to layer up his arcane atmosphere.

The early short stories included here - Dagon, The Nameless City, The Hound, The Festival and The Call of Cthulhu - didn't really hit the spot for me.  They only served to set the scene for the four much longer works that follow: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Dunwich Horror, The Whisperer in Darkness and At the Mountains of Madness.  The first two deal with Cthulhu as background only whereas the concluding stories address it head-on.  Indeed, Mountains of Madness, is probably the most detailed exposition of the mythos that Lovecraft wrote.  I particularly enjoyed the clever interplay between the cutting-edge technology of 1930 and the "elder secrets" it uncovers.

Otherwise, Dunwich Horror was my favourite, the story of the alarmingly precocious Wilbur Whateley and his ill-judged, ill-fated trip to Miskatonic University.  Monster he may be, but Lovecraft manages to evoke sympathy for the boy's sad end.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Inspector and Silence - Hakan Nesser


This is marketed as Nordic Noir (see the essential comparison to Mankell and Larsson on the front cover).  Nesser is Swedish but his fictional world certainly isn't.  In fact, it isn't really anywhere other than Northern Europe, albeit the series detective, Inspector Van Veeteren, has a Dutch name as do most of the other characters and places.  But it's not Holland.  It's an imaginary amalgam.  And that makes it ever so slightly odd.

The story is a cracker.  Pubescent girls in a loony religious retreat are raped and murdered.  Obviously the pseudo Messiah in charge is suspect number one, but then---

Nesser is clearly highly intelligent - the pages crackle with it and you know that here is a writer who has long, meaningful conversations with his characters.  He handles story structure brilliantly, but this isn't really Noir, more a police procedural.  Even though this predates the Nordic boom (1997) and is well on in the series, Nesser manages to avoid cliche.   Instead of a drink problem, one of his secondary policemen has an artificial leg.  Far from dreading retirement, Van Veeteren can't wait for it.  Indeed, I understand the series continues with him as a private citizen.

OK, I figured out the killer by two-thirds of the way through, but it doesn't really matter because it isn't that kind of novel.  A discovery - I will definitely read more.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Pompeii - Robert Harris


I'd previously read Harris's two Cicero novels, Imperium and Lustrum (Conspirata in the US) and liked them well enough, although Harris certainly set himself a challenge with a protagonist who is a professional windbag.

Pompeii (2003) is the first of Harris's Roman novels and I enjoyed it much more.  Again Harris set himself a challenge - it's not as if we don't know how it turns out for the town - but this time he invents a protagonist, the young aquarius of the Aqua Augusta, Marius Attilius Primus, who is ideally placed to subvert our expectations.  Equally, where the Cicero novels had Caesar and the fantastical Pompey as antagonists, here Harris has the splendidly corrupt slave-turned-property-developer Ampliatus, plus the eccentric and heroic Pliny the Elder as the protagonist's protector.

I'll certainly be reading the third part of the Cicero trilogy when it comes out later this year, but I wish Harris would treat us to the further adventures of Attilius.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Three Taps - Ronald Knox


Ronald Knox (1888-1957) was an Anglican priest who became a Catholic, justly esteemed for his translation of the Vulgate and briefly notorious for his 1926 radio spoof Broadcasting from the Barricades, which claimed to be describing insurrection in central London and which a lot more listeners believed then ever really believed Orson Welles' remarkable similar War of the Worlds.  He has been remarkably well-served biographically, first by his friend and executor Evelyn Waugh, and later by his neice, the novelist Penelope FitzGerald, whose Human Voices I have written about over on my media and culture blog.

Knox is completely forgotten as a practitioner of English Golden Age detective fiction.  Actually, he formulated the classic rules of the form and was part of "the Detection Club".  He wrote six detective stories of his own, five of which feature the Insurance Company Investigator Miles Bredon, of which this is the first, from 1927.  A Midlands industrialist is found dead in a village pub where he's been on a fishing holiday.  The cause of death is asphyxiation from gas.  Is it murder or suicide?  A walloping great insurance payout hangs on the outcome.

Bredon and his wife Angela are something of an English Nick and Nora Charles (Dashiell Hammett's Thin Man novel and several movie sequels): they wisecrack, they mock one another, they do not seem to have a sex life.  Otherwise the dramatis personae are largely eccentric bachelors of middle age.  The plot is clever (extremely), the writing sparkling throughout.  In short, great fun.  A recommended read.

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Incidentally, Knox's Ten Commandments or Decalogue, compiled in 1929, are as follows:
  1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
  9. The "sidekick" of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
Wonder why no chinaman?

Best Radio Plays of 1978


Eyre Methuen's collections of each year's Giles Cooper Award Winners are an invaluable source of quality British radio scripts, often by major writers of the period.  Fay Weldon, of course, is a major writer of any period.  Her play Polaris for the Afternoon Theatre slot on Radio 4, about the pressures of service on a newly-married couple, is brilliantly done.  The submarine captain, endlessly banging on about his food, is deftly characterised in a few lines.

Richard Harris's Is it Something I Said?  struck me as a fairly cynical twist on John Mortimer's celebrated Lunch Hour.  Don Haworth, born in the same as I was, was a radio drama master.  His plays are always interesting, often slightly off-beam, as this one is, and invariably surprising. 

Tom Mallin was a fascinating character; primarily a visual artist, he scored a major hit with his stage play Curtains (1970).  Halt! Who Goes There?, the Mallin play given here and orginally broadcast in the cutting-edge Drama Now slot, was his sixth and final radio original.  It's about Arnold, marooned in a fascistic convalescent home after his cancer op.  Tom Mallin died of cancer in 1977, before the play was performed.  He was only 50 years old.

Jill Hyem, co-creator of the radio soap Waggoners Walk, is another prolific radio dramatist.  Remember Me is typical of the now defunct Saturday Night Theatre slot, the sort of thing that is now probably a four-hour/two-part TV mini series.  It's enjoyable and slightly daft.

Jennifer Phillips wrote Daughters of Men for the Monday Play, another key slot that has been callously let go.  The Friday Play, which was threatened with abandonment last year but is still clinging on, filled the gap to a certain extent.  Daughters, certainly, could be played there.  To my mind it was the most stimulating play in this collection.  It is about the social worker preparing court reports in a child custody battle.  The denouement is truly shocking, even today.  A stage version followed at the Hampstead Theatre Club in 1979.