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.