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]