Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Crippen - John Boyne


You wonder what's left to say about Crippen.  John Boyne has a twist.  It's a long time coming but when it finally arrives, it's a corker.  Then Boyne twists it again.  What's really clever is that, when you look back from the end, you realise everything has been kept in character and within the logic of the narrative.  In the meantime Boyne keeps you pleasantly entertained with a cast of interesting and amusing characters, cross-dressing capers, and a disjointed timeframe.  I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of Inspector Walter Dew, the man who pursued Crippen across the Atlantic, thus creating that modern affront to all decency, the media feeding frenzy.  Poor old Hawley was condemned to Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors during ten days or so at sea.  I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.  John Boyne has gained himself a committed reader.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Double Game - Dan Fesperman


A real oddity this.  Bill Cage is in his fifties, an unhappy PR man, when he gets dragged into the world of espionage.  Fortunately he had always been a big fan of spy novels - his father, a former diplomat, has a fine collection - and he recognises the literary clues that are being left for him.  The question is, was former spook turned best selling author Ed Lemester a double agent?  And if so, who wants to know?  Bill finds himself led all over Europe, in and out of the former Soviet bloc, a reunited with his first proper girlfriend Litzi, now an archivist in Vienna.

The book is very, very clever.  Many of the literary references are genuine, though the ones from Lemester clearly aren't - and Fesperman reinforces the trick with a scholarly appendix listing the key spy fiction and identifying which authors were former spies.  The danger, of course, is that the game might become tiresome, but it never does.  True, there is no real jeopardy to keep the reader hooked, but Fesperman makes the mystery itself so compelling that it alone is sufficient interest.

Fesperman has written eight novels.  On the basis of this one, I shall certainly look out for more.  The Arms Maker of Berlin looks like my kind of story, and there are two novels featuring Vlado Petric, a homicide investigator in Sarajevo.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

In the Cold Cold Ground - Adrian McKinty



I don't know why it's called In the Cold Cold Ground, because nobody is except, at the very end, a character so peripheral to the plot that we don't even meet her.  That small quibble notwithstanding, this is a superb crime novel set in Northern Ireland in 1981 and thus blending murder, spies, and sectarian terrorism.

It is the first in a series featuring Sean Duffy, a Catholic CID man in the RUC.  It is hardboiled but, refreshingly, Duffy doesn't drink to abnormal levels and he doesn't beat up women on an impromptu basis.  He doesn't even try to get himself killed on a daily basis.  He gets taken off the case, sure, but gets back in not by being a maverick but by solving the secondary case which his superiors don't even consider a murder.  The authorial sleight of hand is masterly.

In the blurb on the back someone describes McKinty as "the finest of the new generation of Irish crime writers."  I wouldn't know, I'm afraid.  The only other Northern Irish crime writer I'm familiar with is Eoin McNamee, and I like him a lot.  (Interestingly, here is McNamee reviewing The Cold Cold Ground for the Guardian.)  Now I like McKinty too - for the Troubles stuff I like him even better than McNamee, because McNamee is best at the vintage, real-life stuff.  I am certainly on the lookout for more.

Adrian McKinty's blog, highlighting the second Duffy novel I Hear Sirens in the Street, is here.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Debt and Danger - Harold Lever and Christopher Huhne


This a Penguin Special from 1985.  Lever, Labour MP and peer, had spent the previous year chairing the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Commission into the Developing World Debt Crisis, which recommended 'forgiving' or writing off much of the debt to help raise these nations out of abject poverty, a policy finally enacted in 2005, and which didn't work because the so-called Developed World had meanwhile gone bananas, rebranding debt as profit and shovelling all the real money out of the economy as dividends and bonuses.  Lever's collaborator is that Chris Huhne, erstwhile LibDem MeP, MP, minister and, at the time of writing this, jailbird.  In 1985, however, he was a respectable financial journalist, before that became a contradiction in terms.

Lever and Huhne describe a nightmare scenario of failing banks, state bailouts and the overnight evaporation of national wealth and wellbeing.  We, of course, live that nightmare for all the reasons Lever and Huhne foresaw thirty years ago.  What would happen, they ask, if the ludicrously over-indebted suddenly decided to tell their creditors to forget it?  Can't pay, won't pay, what are you going to do about it?  Which is what Mexico did in 1982, apparently, though that is incredibly small beer compared to what happened in 2008.  Our authors saw the future:

"The influence of a serious default would extend to all other financial markets and into the real economy of output and jobs through other channels as well as the influence of a credit crunch. We have no faith in our, or anyone else's, ability to quantify the effects of a major default. It would be a leap into the unknowable in which uncertainty and doubt could have devastating effects.  ... The dislocation of the banking system would create a situation in which businesses would not know whose credit was good and whose bad.  If the banks themselves were insolvent, whose credit could be trusted?  Orders would go unfilled.  Businesses would cut output and meet demand from stocks.  Jobs could be lost by the hundreds of thousands."  [p. 122]

Note the use of that phrase, "the real economy" - tacit acknowledgement that financial markets are an unreal economy.  But in post-crash Britain 2013 they're the only economy we aspire to.  Madness.  Will we never learn?

We had to wait until the last chapter for mention of my financial anti-hero, Milton Friedman, whom I consider to be one of the most damaging crazies of the last century.  His solution to developing world debt was apparently "to force the banks to price the worth of their developing-country debt in the market-place, which would determine its value.  They would then be required to write down losses according to the value placed on the assets by the market.  The theory is that the debt of countries which are heavy borrowers would trade at a larger discount, ensuring high enough rates of interest to discourage them from borrowing any more."  Yeah... if only markets or indeed debtors behaved like that.  Friedman's so-called free market model (so named in the absence of any such thing so long as people live together in communities and have any level of humanity) only ever served to lend a veneer of philosophical justification to the activities of stateless, feral financial freebooters.

Reading this book you have to constantly remind yourself that this is thirty years and at least two financial crashes ago.  Surely one day we will have a common sense consensus.  Capitalism always has to be regulated with an iron fist, otherwise the banks will always eat one another.  A market without public sector, not-for-profit and co-operative players is not a market at all, it's a cartel.  To make millionaires, you have to have paupers.  For every billionaire, townships in the poorest nations starve to death.  How is that acceptable?

What is really scary here is that the so-called emerging economies which we now have to pretend are going to save the world are exactly the same economies which caused the world financial crisis Lever and Huhne are writing about.  Did they ever pay back any of their debt?  No.  Has their debt got any smaller?  Au contraire.  Will they save the world as we know it?  Will they f-----!

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Siege of Krishnapur - J G Farrell


The second of Farrell's Empire Trilogy, and the second Farrell I have read, The Siege of Krishnapur is set during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, after which Britain could no longer contend that the subjugation of the Indian people was beneficent or paternal.  The residents of the fictional compound at Krishnapur have no knowledge of the native people, even those who live in the compound with them.  They do not hate or despise them, they simply do not regard them as human beings on the same plane as themselves.  The sepoys who lay siege are savage and are granted no more motives than the white ants that infest the residence library.

The characters are, on the surface, types, more than often than not referred to as the Collector, the Magistrate, the Padre.  But Farrell is much more subtle than this would suggest.  The Collector ends up using the collection to buttress the mud rampart, the Magistrate, once a radical Chartist, seems to welcome violent change although he still does his duty as de facto deputy commander of the compound.  The Padre, pillar of High Anglicanism, becomes an apocalyptic ranter, and the two medical men who should be working together to help the sick and wounded fight their own mini-war over the causes of cholera.

The problem - the only problem I had with this otherwise magnificent novel - was that the women were not as developed as the men.  I found it hard, in the final chapter, to work out which woman had married the various men.  The women weren't cyphers and it was compelling to watch Farrell dismantle their privileged femininity as the siege progressed; it was perhaps that they all had the same dilemma and thus were treated, like the Indians, as a whole.

Krishnapur, of course, won the 1973 Booker Prize whereas its predecessor, Troubles, which I enjoyed slightly more, was a contender for the Booker that Never Was in 1970 and was awarded the Lost Booker Prize, on the popular vote, in 2010, which was when I read it.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Wilkie Collins - Peter Ackroyd


This is a very short biography of Collins.  Collins himself was very short but extraordinarily productive, thus in 183 pages Ackroyd can only delve deeply into the best sellers - The Woman in White and The Moonstone.  He nevertheless manages to cover the others in a way that sparks my interest in reading them, which I assume was one of the aims.  Ackroyd can do this because he is such a fine writer.  He summarises the plots of these enormous potboilers in a paragraph or less yet always hits the salient point.  Mention of a blind girl who falls in love with a man who's turned himself blue certainly caught my attention.  I only wish the index was good enough to help me establish which book this was.

I've always been interested in Collins.  I bought Catherine Peter's The King of Inventors when it first came out in paperback in the early Nineties.  I no longer have it because it was a clunking great brick of a book, over-detailed and colossally dull, even though that was the first book I came across which discussed Collins' extraordinary love life (never married but maintained a longterm cohabitant and fathered a family with another woman whom he housed separately).  Ackroyd naturally includes this aspect of Collins' life but doesn't provide enough detail about the women involved.

The fact is, this is a poorly published book (to look at it, you'd never guess it came out in 2012) in which Ackroyd canters charmingly through other people's research.  It's an introduction, at best an overview, a taster to encourage the interested to look elsewhere.