Saturday, 31 August 2013

Moriarty - John Gardner


Three decades after the first two volumes (The Return of Moriarty and The Revenge of Moriarty), Gardner's third and final volume of the 'memoirs' of the Victorian super-criminal were published posthumously.  The immensely prolific Gardner died in 2007 and Moriarty appeared a year later.

Back in the day, Gardner was very famous - I remember the amount of publicity given the first two volumes, a stark contrast with the zero publicity afforded the third.  He was the first English writer to spoof the Bond genre (with his Sixties series of Boysie Oakes novels) only to be hired to by Fleming's executors to write to continuation Bonds in the Eighties.  He ended up writing fourteen original Bonds and the novelisations of two films, License to Kill and Goldeneye.  I remember reading the first, Licence Renewed but don't remember any more.  Certainly, they can't be any worse than Fleming's because Gardner is a much better writer, so it might be worth having a look.

The good news is that loads of Gardner's works are coming out in ebooks.  The Bonds are available now in America but not here yet.  The five Kruger novels are available here published by Bello, Pan's digital arm.  (I did not know that.)  The other great news is that Gardner has such a spiffy website, so his executors are clearly making an effort to keep his work alive.  Good on them.

Anyway, back to this book...  I loved Return and Revenge back in the Seventies and, only the other week, was musing on how good they were.  Then I went to the library and found this.  Did it excite me as much?  No, but I'm older and more miserable.  Did I enjoy it?  Yes, absolutely - great fun.  Did I admire it?  Again, yes - the thing about Gardner is the way he shows he has done his research without clouting you round the head with it in the manner of Len Deighton. 

I think digital Gardners will be joining my digital bookshelf ere long.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Blackest Streets - Sarah Wise


This is a deeply-researched, unflinching account of the Old Nichol slum in late Victorian Shoreditch.  It has been put together with academic precision but what makes it such a captivating read is that Wise is not shy about saying what she thinks of the slumlords and their elected representatives.  In the case of the Old Nichol they are largely one and the same.  Local government in London at that time was in the hands of the vestry, forerunner of today's parish councils.  Like the parish councils they were expensive, ineffective, self-serving and hypocritical.  The Nichol Vestrymen owned the very slums they pontificated about and when they were forcibly stood down after three years' service, joined the Board of Guardians in order to deny relief to their tenants until they were free to resume their vestry seats.

The ownership of the Nichol properties is Wise's best work here.  Other notable blots on the social landscape included the pointless third duke of Chandos, and Sir "Tommy" Colebrooke, so-called lord of the manor of Stepney, gawd 'elp us.  Vermin both.  She also offers an illuminating insight into Arthur Morrison's classic, A Child of the Jago, which is set in a thinly-disguised Nichol.

Sarah Wise is building an important career writing about the social injustices of the capital of the empire on which the sun never set.  Her first book, The Italian Boy, was about the horrors of the workhouse and her latest, Inconvenient People, concerns the Lunacy trade in Victorian London, a subject I have researched to a certain extent myself.  I can't wait to read her findings.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

City of Fiends - Michael Jecks


City of Fiends is the 31st instalment of the Knights Templar mysteries, which Jecks has been writing since 1995.  Jecks is prolific to the extreme - he writes other series and is a key member of the Medieval Murderers.  Normally, such an output would impact on quality, but City of Fiends is by far the best of the series that I have read.  Recently Jecks has been tempted by the common trap of delaying the entrance of your hero.  Not this time; this time he reminds us of Baldwin before he actually returns to the city (Exeter) and starts sorting out fiends.  By doing so Jecks gets the necessary exposition out of the way and explains one of the key storylines - that this novel takes place during the period when the deposed Edward II was supposedly sprung from Berkeley Castle.  Historically, it is a conspiracy theory, advanced beyond its merits via the internet but it suits Jecks' thirty-one volume narrative perfectly.

There are several murders within the city and some extremely perverse peccadillos.  There is a large cast of supporting characters, richly drawn and clearly distinguished from one another.  Jecks is clever in manipulating our suspicions and he expertly switches our attention from suspect to suspect.  I didn't guess who had really done the crimes, and the unmasking, when it came, was perfectly credible.

I see from Jecks' website that his next novel is a prequel, set before Baldwin's return from the crusades.  I can't wait.  In case I have to, the other good news is that his publishers, Simon & Schuster, are reissuing the entire series from the beginning, three titles a month.

This may be the year Jecks breaks through to the really big time.  On this form, he certainly deserves to.  Hotly recommended.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Vengeance - Benjamin Black


Vengeance (2012) is the fifth of the Quirke Dublin novels, now rebranded Quirke Mysteries, presumably to tie in with the forthcoming TV series.  Banville-Black writes as beautifully as ever and his distillation of period is flawless - but he does tend to forget that these are supposed to be a) mysteries and b) thrillers.  There is no mystery here - I still have no idea why a suicide needs a witness - and zero thrills.  It's a sort of Agatha Christie, dirty-deeds amid the middleclass, without the plotting but with greatly enhanced literary ability.

I don't mind the lack of plot; Black could write a shopping list and I'd still read it.  The continuing characters are developed further, the one-off characters, by and large, are distinct and well-drawn, if a little devoid of purpose.  I do wish Black had avoided the twins trap.  The same cheap trick ruined Colin Dexter for me and Monsignor Knox was making a rule forbidding it.  It's just lazy.

None of these quibbles will prevent me reading more.  The sixth Quirke Mystery, out now in hardback, is Holy Orders.  Can't wait.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Red Flowers for Lady Blue - Donald Thomas


I had so been looking forward to reading this book.  Over the last year I have rediscovered Thomas's Inspector Swain series, realised he also writes as Frances Selwyn and in that guise, discovered his Sergeant Verity series.  Red Flowers for Lady Blue is one of Thomas's Sonny Tarrant series and I shall not waste my time with another.

Tarrant is supposed to be a sort of latter-day Moriarty or Fu Manchu, the spider at the hub of the underworld web.  He lives at the seaside with his doting mum, which is a nice touch, but other than that is about as frightening as a Chelsea bun.  We are told he is behind all crime and held in awe by lesser crooks, but we see none of it.  The idea, I suspect, is that behind the suits and hail-fellow-well-met attitude Sonny is murderous and amoral.  In this novel, however, the idea is not made flesh.

There are far too many characters and the plot is too convoluted.  Things happen - we are supposed to accept that Sonny is pulling the strings - but we don't see him do it and there is no explanation of how it is done.  For me, the most interesting character was Sonny's lawyer, Stan Bowlett, night-school educated and sharp as a switchblade.  The biggest disappointment was the title character, who starts off a sex-mad vamp but rapidly fades into the background.  She is of zero relevance to the plot.

The setting is 1936 - Abdication year.  As it happens I know a lot more about that era than I do the Victorian world of Swain and Verity.  I am not happy with Thomas's period touches - was David Niven a big enough star at that point to have the moustache named after him?  Surely it would have been a Roland Colman at that date.  The fleeting theatrical background, on which I am an expert just as Thomas is an expert on the Victorian underworld, also fails to convince.  I'm sure the Ivor Novello and Jack Buchanan shows mentioned are right because they're easily Googled, but I don't feel he's explored these mercurial characters at all.  Dicky Dash, Thomas's version of Max Miller, is much more entertaining and should have been given a proper role in events.

As I say, a disappointment.  Another further works by Thomas aka Selwyn will have to be pre-Millennium for me.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Couples - John Updike


Written in 1968 but set in 1963-4, Couples is Updike's take on the sexual revolution as it was happening.  Ten couples in Tarbox, Massachusetts, mix, recreate, swing and fornicate.  It's the spirit of the times - after all, even the President is doing it.  But first Kennedy's baby dies, then Kennedy himself.  Piet Hanema and the pregnant Foxy Whitman outrage their social clique by becoming serious about one another.

Piet is the nearest thing we are given to a protagonist.  The bald dentist Freddy Thorne is, if anyone is, the antagonist.  But ten couples means twenty individuals; not all of them are equally active in the narrative and, unfortunately, none of them are especially likeable.  I would go further: some are more obnoxious than others.  I found it really hard to care.

That said, there is some wonderful writing here.  Updike is writing a modern novel, so he does it in a modern style.  Sometimes, with contemporary jokes and 'hip' talk, it doesn't retain its power forty-five years on.  Other passages, though, are simply magical.  There is a seascape towards the end which more than compensates for the tawdriness of some of the preceding material.

I was impressed.  I was not moved.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Whisper Town - Judson Phillips


I was sorting out my bookshelves (more a cull than a rearrangement) and found several books I didn't know I had, of which this was one.  I have no idea when I acquired it and, having now read it, I'm pretty sure I didn't read it at the time of acquisition.

What a treasure!  Phillips 1903-1985 wrote mystery thrillers for sixty years.  Under his real name, and the pseudonym Hugh Pentecost, he is said to have turned out a hundred novels.  If they're all as good as Whisper Town, he is ripe for rediscovery.

This is classic American noir - a small town where everyone knows everyone else but each only knows a little of the other's secrets.  It starts with an accident, a drunk-drive hit-and-run, but becomes a witch-hunt into the teacher behind the high school's sex education programme, then it becomes a murder.  It all takes place over a single week.  Every element is fully resolved, but the device by which Philips delivers the final denouement is breathtaking - every bit as good as the twist in Nesbo's Headhunters.  I really should have spotted it, especially as the character has my mother's maiden name, which is also my stage name, but I didn't and I like to think that is because of Phillip's mastery of his craft rather than me not paying proper attention.

The writing itself is an object lesson of how these things should be done.  No frills, no affectations, yet every sentence and every phrase refined to deliver the ultimate impact.  As an example, check out the last half-page of Part One, page 70 in this edition.

I'm happy to say I also have another Phillips novel I didn't know I had, which I shall be reading imminently.  But then what shall I do?  I'm afraid - lightened bookshelves notwithstanding - I shall have to acquire more.  I owe it to myself.