Friday, 6 October 2017

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths - Harry Bingham

This is the third in Bingham's superb series (I know I'm reading them in reverse order, but what can you do?). It is slightly better than The Dead House, which I thought was brilliant, and just as good as The Deepest Grave.

The premise - that Fiona is given the chance to enhance her skills with an intensive course in undercover policing, then gets to do it for real in a multinational computer scam - allows Bingham to explore his character's tangled psyche. We already know that Fiona is 'different' psychologically, but the assumed personalities she has to take on for the sake of the story throw into sharp relief just how shallowly-grounded her actual personality is. Fiona Grey, for example, is a muted version of Fiona Griffiths, Jessica Taylor is Fiona Griffiths turned up to eleven. And of course all this is described in first person, present tense, by the Fiona Griffiths we are used to.  Her underlying disorder, Cotard's Syndrome, which put her in the psychiatric hospital as a teenager, bubbles up throughout. No wonder boyfriend, wannabe fiance Buzz stands no chance of a permanent relationship. No wonder hitman Vic very nearly wins the girl.

Again, I cannot recommend the Fiona Griffiths series highly enough. If you like dark crime fiction, you really must check it out asap.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Even the Dead - Benjamin Black

I was so appalled by The Lemur that I have avoided anything by Black over the last couple of years. I was in two minds when I saw this on the library shelf. Had he cheapened or otherwise banjaxed Quirke, one of the best crime series of recent years? Mercifully not. If anything, I am heartily relieved to say, Quirke continues to get better.

Quirke's drinking has finally caught up with him. He is cloistered at Mal and Rose's house, wondering if he will ever go back to the pathology lab, when his assistant and prospective son-in-law David Sinclair pops in for a second opinion. Leon Corless, son of a notorious Irish communist, has been found dead in a burning car. David thinks young Corless was dead before the car hit the tree. So does Quirke. So does Inspector Hackett.

So the story gets under way. It is full of all the usual tropes - conspiracy, the Church, baby-farming, dark deeds of the recent past, and Joe Costigan, Quirke's equivalent of Professor Moriarty. But as ever with the best of Benjamin Black, it is the storytelling rather than the story that keeps us hooked. The gentle friction between long-established characters, the Byzantine interconnections of the tiny upper middleclass of 1950s Dublin, the steady plod of life's wheel. Malachy is ailing, David is restless, Quirke has a new woman in his life. Evelyn Blake is the perfect match for Quirke because she exemplifies everything familiar about his tight little world: she might be an Austrian psychiatrist but Quirke knew her late husband, a drunken doctor who worked at Quirke's hospital, and Quirke used that connection to get his daughter Phoebe a job as Evelyn's receptionist.

As ever, there is great pleasure to be had in characters who are only passing through: Leon's father Sam, whose politics have cost him everything including perhaps his only child, and the loathsome rent-collector/enforcer Abercrombie. Both men, one of them a widower, the other surely never married, live in ghastly rooms above shabby shops. Black takes obvious glee in forensically detailing the grot.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Moriarty - Anthony Horowitz

I am no great fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories which even as a child struck me as more legerdemain than logic. I am, however, a big fan of John Gardner's Moriarty series from the middle Seventies and, posthumously, 2008. To tell the truth I grabbed this off the library shelf because I thought it was the 2008 instalment.

But no, it is Horowitz, he of Midsomer Murders and Foyle's War and the Alex Rider series of thrillers for Young Adults. I liked Foyle's War, Midsomer Murders was meretricious trash, and I am far too old to have encountered young Master Rider. Still, I'm game. I gave it a good go. I finished it. I enjoyed it .. to an extent.

There can be no doubt that Horowitz is a proficient writer and a master storyteller. His characterisation, here at least, and for a reason I will not go into, is thin and two-dimensional. Briefly, and hopefully without giving too much away, the intricacies of the story rather limit what he can do in terms of character development. There is none; it's all about revelation.

Broadly, the premise is this: Moriarty and Holmes have vanished into the Reichenbach Falls; American gangsters seek to take over Moriarty's British crime empire; Frederick Chase of Pinkerton's and Inspector Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard team up to thwart them.

There are touches which border on genius. For example, Jones has made himself into a Holmes superfan, dedicated to the continuity of his methods. There is a superbly psychopathic teenager. The Holmes/Watson trope is worked for all its worth in the Jones/Chase relationship. But in the end it all depends on the big twist and how you react to it. It is a huge, massive, stupendous twist and I hated it. I considered myself cheated. I'm still offended by it 24 hours after I read it.

Horowitz includes his own Sherlock Holmes short story, "The Three Monarchs", as an extra, which cleverly reflects the main narrative with Inspector Jones. It struck me as very much in the Conan Doyle tradition, so obviously I didn't like it much. On the other hand, at least it didn't rest on a make-or-break twist.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

Well, what can I say? Where do I start? Lincoln in the Bardo is, quite simply, the most extraordinary book I have read in years. It is experimental, existential and yet profoundly moving. It is, on the face of it, bat-shit-crazy, and yet it never once loses its humanity.

I am kicking myself for not realising up front what the Bardo is. I thought it was perhaps a district in Washington. Obviously, it is Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan version of the Elysian Fields, where the dead go initially, before moving on to an even higher plane. As a writer on the Elysian conversations of Eric Linklater and a researcher into the early work of Ted Hughes, who was deeply immersed in Bardo-based projects which never saw the light of day, I consider myself duly abashed.

We enter the Bardo through many pages of quotations, which as far as I know are genuine, from accounts of the death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, son of the President and possibly the first presidential child to die in the White House. These then segue into snatches of speech from people who seem to have nothing whatever to do with Willy or Abe - Roger Bevins III, Hans Vollman and the Reverend Everly Thomas, who we come to realise are our guides to this entry level of the afterlife. They are spirits and make no physical concessions to their former corporeality. Mr Bevins has hundreds of hands and eyes, Mr Vollman a prodigious member. They have come across the new arrival and don't know how to help. Children normally pass through this stage quickly but something is keeping Willie back.

That something is his father, the President the psychopomps have never heard of, already weighed down by the horrors of a civil war they cannot imagine. He comes to Willie's tomb, takes out the body and cuddles it, unaware that everything he loved about his son is looking on. It is young Willie who in the end comforts his father and persuades the spirits of the Bardo (of whom we encounter dozens) to accept what they have thus far been unable to accept - their death. It's a beautiful touch - Saunders creates euphemisms for the Bardo like sick-box instead of coffin. The book ends in a blaze of multiple matterlightblooming phenomena as the Bardo depopulates.

It sounds ridiculous - it looks impossible on the page, with chapters as short as a single line and all the conversation laid out like quotations and no non-speech at all. And yet it works beautifully. Saunders is a well-respected essayist and short story writer but, amazingly, Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel. Turns out it was well worth waiting for. It's an instant classic of modern American fiction, comfortably up there with Pynchon and Salinger and Jonathan Safran Foer.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Hand-Reared Boy - Brian Aldiss

The Hand-Reared Boy, part one of Aldiss's Horatio Stubbs trilogy, purports to be the autobiographical coming-of-age memoir of a sexually-precocious teenager on the eve of World War II. Horatio, we assume, is Aldiss thinly coated. But is it? Aldiss, who died last month at the grand age of 92, is clearly not called Horatio and I doubt very much he had a brother called Nelson. Horatio, it is very clear, was born in 1922; he is seventeen when war breaks out in 1939. Aldiss, however, was born in 1925. So what is going on? What is real personal experience, and what is novelistic construct?

That is essentially what kept me going with this ebook - that, and Aldiss's plain-speaking prose style. What is basically a pubescent marathon of masturbation is rendered extremely readable. I remember reading it when it first came out, when I was Horatio's age, in 1970. It didn't interest me because I had all the usual teenage emotions, hopes and guilt about sex but I didn't have siblings and I didn't attend a public school. In fact, it put me off Aldiss for a considerable period. My feeling at the time was, this is an impossibly middleaged man (who was 45, the same age Horatio declares himself to be as he writes) with a moustache like my dad's, who was trying to cash in on the somewhat sordid British take on the sexual revolution of the Sixties. Reading it now, much older and with much more impressive facial foliage of my own, knee-deep in an age of Neo-Puritanism, I read with more experience, technical knowledge, and compassion.

Is Sister Traven, the school nurse, who relieves the pressure for so many of the boys in her care, based in any way on a real person? Did Aldiss, like Horatio, really interfere with his younger sister? As a senior Youth Magistrate I have sent boys into youth custody for doing exactly that. As a non-family person, now with no relatives whatsoever, what the hell goes on in ostensibly 'normal' families?

I bought the other two volumes in an Amazon Kindle deal on the day Aldiss died, so we shall see what develops.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Conclave - Robert Harris

Robert Harris seems to have set himself a challenge - how to turn the well known or unthrilling into compulsive reading. For An Officer and a Spy he took the Dreyfuss case, which surely at least half his readership must have known, and made it fresh and compelling. In Conclave he has taken a subject which I for one could not care less about, limited it purely to the arcane election process of the new pope - no murders, no espionage, precious little scandal - and made it absolutely thrilling.

I have witnessed many vote counts, even as it happens presided over one just as arcane as the papal system, yet I was 100% enthralled. How does Harris do it? It's not clever literary tricks. It's certainly not wordplay. The plot in Conclave is more or less prescribed by ecclesiastical law and fairly predictable. I guessed who was going to win the moment he showed up and spotted the twist, although I admit I didn't quite get it right, and Harris revealed it really well. I can only conclude it's the honesty of his approach. He actually cares about these elderly men and their ancient task. He has done his research in impressive depth and is not ashamed to tackle the prickly question of faith. It is not, of course, the present pope he is writing about or indeed the last, but the cloistered election takes place against a distant backdrop of an absolutely contemporary Europe.

As an exercise in the craft of storytelling Conclave is a masterclass. I am not religious, couldn't care less about the papacy although I do rather admire the current incumbent, but Harris played with my emotions like a virtuoso. He keeps getting better and better and if he keeps on at this standard I might yet forgive him The Ghost.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Everything Flows - Vasily Grossman

I tried reading Grossman's Life and Fate when Radio 4 did an epic dramatisation a couple of years ago. I failed. I saw this much shorter work and thought it might be a way in to Grossman's work. I finished it, which was good, but I'm not sure I want to commit myself to another go at Life and Fate which is ten times longer.

Don't get me wrong, Everything Flows is a major work, impressive in many ways. It took Grossman eight years to write, his last eight years, and it is obviously unfinished. But there are several problem. It is a story of the Gulag - specifically the challenge facing Ivan Grigoryevich on his release after thirty years - and the atrocity of the Soviet penal system is always interesting. But it is not Grossman's story. Despite being Jewish, intellectual, a writer and opinionated, he was in no way suppressed by the Stalin regime. Indeed, his fame as a war reporter - his account of the extermination camps was used as evidence at the Nuremberg war trials - cushioned him from criticism. Some of his novels and short stories were successful. It was Krushchov rather than Stalin who took against him and the late novels were held up indefinitely as the censors demanded more and more rewrites.

The unfinished nature of the book, no doubt exacerbated by Grossman's stomach cancer, is all too evident. He has no vision for what the novel should be. He has an overarching theme about the Russian people's fetish for totalitarianism but cannot find a way to incorporate it as story. Instead the last quarter of what is only a 220 page book is given over to a historical essay purportedly written by Ivan Grigoryevich after the death of his landlady-lover. The essay is far too long and full of rather convenient aphorisms which strike my inner ear as glib and facile rather than insightful. It suffers especially because it follows a first-person narration of the Ukranian famine by the landlady-lover which is truly heart-rending.

There are other promising strands never followed up on - a widow who is sent to an all-female camp in Siberia and Ivan's cousin Nikolay, who has done rather well out of playing the system and thus feels an appalling burden of guilt. What we are left with, then, is the skeleton of a potentially great novel in progress.

There are, in my view, far too many notes and explanations. There was one thing that struck me, though, in the afterword by Grossman's daughter. When the novel came to light in the Perestroika era no Russian paper would publish it because it wasn't sufficiently Gulag. Are we any different today? An unfinished collection of linked fragments like Everything Flows gets translated and published because it supports our preconceptions about Soviet Russia whilst complete novels of Russian heroism, like Grossman's Stalingrad (For A Just Cause), based on his actual experience, are passed over.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Wheels of Terror - Sven Hassel

Well now. I remember Sven Hassel being very popular in the UK in the mid-Sixties and early Seventies. War books not really being my thing, I never read any, although my dad read them all, and pretty much forgot all about Hassel until I stumbled upon this 2014 Phoenix reprint of his second novel, from 1959, in my local library. I thought, why not? I looked further into the author...

Right, so Sven Hassel was not German, although he certainly fought for the Germans in World War II. Sven Hassel was not his real name but the name he gives to his first-person narrator in his books. Hassel was not even the name he published under in his native Denmark, nor even the name he legally adopted in 1965. Suffice to say, he remains highly controversial in Denmark to this day. Was he hero or traitor or victim of circumstances? That's probably never going to be established to the satisfaction of all. What we can say, more or less for sure, is that he spent the second half of his long life in Barcelona where he died in 2012, and he left a series of fourteen books about a band of misfits (Brigade of Misfits is the alternative title of the only movie version of a Hassel book, which as it happens is an adaptation of this one, Wheels of Terror), the 27th (Penal) Regiment, serving in all the worst battles in all theatres of World War II.

These men are absolutely expendable - all have been convicted of serious crimes and military service is their punishment. They are absolutely brutal but Hassel keeps them human by alternating scenes of appalling violence with the rough humour and downright silliness of men forced to keep unnaturally close company.

The literary style is remarkably original. Each chapter starts with a kind of precis; for example: "They were wounded. You need imagination to get the meaning of that. To go through hospital to understand it." Oddly, none of the core characters are actually wounded or hospitalised in the chapter that follows. You also get an idea of the phraseology in that quotation. It seems somehow oblique, skewed. The sentences are curt, choppy, the paragraphs kept to two or three lines. The dialogue, on the other hand, is florid and grandiloquent. Take this interchange:

"Is that an order, dear Old Un?" asked Porta. "Since you're a sergeant why can't you say in a nice and military fashion: 'I order Obergefreiter Joseph Porta to shut his mouth!'"
 "By God then, it's an order! Shut up, will you!"
 "Now, don't get fresh, you Unteroffizier-crap. When you speak to me you're kindly asked to do so in the regulation army manner addressing me in third person. Full stop."
 "Allright. I, Unteroffizier Willy Beier, 27th (Penal) Panzer Regiment order Obrgefreiter Joseph Porta to shut up!"
"And I, Obergefreiter by God's grace in the Nazi army, Joseph Porta, who's beaten the world record in obstacle-racing, am completely indifferent to Herr Unteroffizier's orders. Amen."
There is no story as such, just a series of adventures or escapades as the Germans advance into and retreat from the USSR. The book ends with an event, not a resolution. It is all highly unusual. I stuck with it but am unclear where I stand on it. Did I like it? Well, I certainly enjoyed some parts and other bits stimulated my imagination. I shall probably have to sample more to try and make up my mind. Perhaps the first in the series, Legion of the Damned, which seems to me to be the best known.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

White Maa's Saga - Eric Linklater

White-Maa's Saga is Linklater's first published novel. It came out in 1929 but describes events of eight or so years earlier. It reflects Linklater's own experience after the war when he went to Aberdeen University (Inverdoon here) to study medicine. Linklater was slightly younger than his alter-ego Peter Flett - he had lied about his age to enlist in 1916 whereas Peter was of full age in 1914 and served for the duration.

This student generation is not like any other. The university acknowledges the common debt to those who served and makes allowances for men like Peter when they fail their examinations. Peter fails three times but seems set to go back for more until the very end of the novel.

Between spells at Inverdoon Peter returns to Orkney where his sister Martin (yes, Martin) runs the farm Peter inherited from their parents. In both Inverdoon and Orkney Peter's main sphere of activity, when not drinking or boxing, is the pursuit of young women. There are three in the novel, nowhere near as many as the hero encounters in Juan in America, Linklater's breakthrough hit.

I'm sure the descriptions of Aberdeen's student quarter are accurate. They are amusing, too, in a studentish way. But it is Orkney, as ever, where Linklater's language takes flight. The various social strands are laid out: spinster Martin, the rambunctious Sabistons of Redland, the tinkers whose travelling seems to have been confined to the islands for several centuries, and those who work for absentee landlords, among them the villainous Isaac Skea.

The simple pleasures of the Annual Fair and an island wedding contrast with the equally ancient traditions of the university. There is no question which Linklater prefers. The climax, set in the neolithic Ring of Brodgar, is exciting and effective. Linklater, who was thirty when the book came out, came into literature with a highly effective bang. Well worth checking out - and don't let the ugly title put you off: it is actually Peter's Orcadian nickname, the dialect term for a herring-gull.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Deepest Grave - Harry Bingham

After reading The Dead House last month, and encountering DS Fiona Griffiths for the first time, I had to have more. Luckily, I found the latest in the series straightaway.

The Deepest Grave starts with the ritual slaying of a Welsh archaeologist. Fiona soon finds herself enmeshed in the weird and not-so-wonderful world of faked antiquities and Arthurian nutjobs. There is a conspiracy afoot; like all conspiracies it is fundamentally silly to everyone on the outside but that doesn't prevent it from doing serious damage to those who stumble where they shouldn't.

There is even more action than there was in The Dead House, with serious jeopardy for Fiona and those she cares about. The climax is downright bloody brilliant, with Fiona's shady but passionate father stepping up to the plate.

In fact the only downside to The Deepest Grave is a totally unnecessary what-happened-next final chapter. Who cares what happens next? Tell us anything we need to know in the next book. If it doesn't add anything to the next instalment it doesn't matter.

But let's be clear, Harry Bingham is as good as it gets in contemporary British crime fiction and I am a confirmed fan.

Friday, 25 August 2017

The Butchers of Berlin - Chris Petit

Having read Petit's 'Troubles' novel, The Psalm Killer, and rating it highly on this blog, I looked forward to reading his latest, especially given it was set in Nazi Germany, which I always find fascinating and repulsive. I am a big fan of Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series, particularly the ones set during the war.

I finished the book, which says something, but I did not love it. The level of research is impressive. The characterisation is hugely disappointing. I think Petit realised it during the writing, because in a sense we have two protagonists, the mummy's boy cop August and lesbian Jewish seamstress Sybil. The former is a nobody whose only distinguishing characteristic is prematurely white hair, only peremptorily explained, and the latter is a doormat, pushed hither and yon by all and sundry. The most interesting character by far is Morgen, seconded from the SS to investigate a series of murders. Morgen is enigmatic, eccentric and, plotwise, a deus ex machina, dropping in from nowhere to save the day when the boy August finds himself in trouble. Morgen is so thinly sketched that I only found out his first name when I Googled the book. The book's most memorable scene is when Morgen gets together, all too briefly, with his equally eccentric brother. They should have been the odd couple through whose eyes we explore the book. Sadly, they aren't.

The plot itself is a conspiracy of which the murders are only the surface. I should have guessed this when I saw David Peace's gushing blurb on the cover. As with Peace, the conspiracy is so abstruse that I have no idea what it is, save that it involves far too many walk-on characters. Telling us that the Third Reich was dark and depraved is not news. Making us feel the effect of this on ordinary people (as Hans Fallada does) would have been impressive. Petit doesn't, therefore The Butchers of Berlin isn't. Sorry.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

He Who Fears the Wolf - Karin Fossum

I have blogged before about how poorly promoted Karin Fossum is in this country. Since Steig Larsson, anyone with so much as a vaguely Scandinavian name has been snapped up by a publisher and launched with a barrage of ads in the Press, heralding the debut of the new Nesbo. Few have made it to a second contract. But here is Fossum, already a successful series writer before the Girl even thought about getting her Dragon Tattoo and - more importantly - all the signature tropes of the best Scandi Noir: deep, dark secrets; focus on the excluded; and gruesome deaths. Yet where, other than Goodreads and here, do you see her mentioned?

This is the second Inspector Konrad Sejer novel, first published in 1997. The cover is as uninspired as ever; I can only assume she somehow upset the art department at Vintage. Inside, however, is the best of her novels that I have so far read, and I am was already a big admirer. All the action takes place on a single day. An old lady is murdered, a bank is robbed, a hostage taken, and a chubby kid from the boy's home reports seeing the local lunatic who has escaped again. Over the course of twelve hours or so, Sejer investigates and indeed solves all. But Fossum gives equal space to the offenders and the relationship that develops between them. I won't say more for fear of giving the final twist away. It is a very good twist, worthy of Nesbo himself.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Good & A Nightingale Sang... - C P Taylor

C P Taylor was a Glaswegian Jewish Marxist autodidact playwright who lived and worked in Newcastle and who died ridiculously young in 1981. He was only in his early fifties yet had written some 80 plays for stage, TV and radio, in just 20 years.

Good is his masterpiece, a last-minute breakthrough onto the national stage when the RSC staged it  in London just three months before Taylor's death. It is an examination of the axiom generally attributed to Edmund Burke: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Halder is a good man, a university professor who supports his scatterbrained wife and dutifully visits his senile mother in the nursing home. But this is Germany 1933 and the Nazis are on the rise. Halder is dismissive, even mildly subversive. He has a Jewish friend, the psychiatrist Maurice, and a taste for 'degenerate' American-style jazz.

No doubt influenced by his mother's distressing condition, Halder has written a book which can be read as advocating euthanasia. This attracts the attention of Nazi racial purists. They make overtures to Halder, gradually drawing him into their circle. He initially resists, but as time goes on his qualms are overridden by the need to earn a living. His mother is now back living with him, his wife is even more hopeless about the house, and Haldane has started an affair with one of his female students. The Nazis understand these things. They are supportive, even seductive. Slowly, Halder starts to distance himself from his friend Maurice...

Taylor had made himself a master of open staging through his association with studio theatres like the Traverse in Glasgow and the Live Theatre Company in Newcastle. He also worked in community drama, and thus was able to handle large casts and overlapping scenes. Good is a fine example of both disciplines. Halder is onstage almost all the time, accompanied by a live jazz band (a very Taylorean device). The other characters effectively come to him. Very unusually, several scenes overlap, with Haldane switching in and out of conversations with different people in different locations and even at significantly different times. Only a writer at the height of his game could pull this off and it takes a very special actor to accomplish it onstage. The late great Alan Howard, a consummate stage actor and the best Hamlet I have ever seen, created the role in London and New York.

If Good is Taylor's take on Brechtian Epic Theatre, the other play in this Methuen edition deploys many of the same techniques on a more domestic scale. And a Nightingale Sang... (1977) is the story of the working class Stott family of Newcastle, from the day World War II broke out (September 3 1939) to VE Day (May 8 1945). Although the action primarily takes place in the family home, it instantly moves elsewhere (chiefly the bench in Eldon Square where lame spinster Helen meets her married lover Norman for illicit purposes). There are times when two things are happening simultaneously, as when Eric is waiting nervously in the parlour while the women are upstairs with Joyce, trying to persuade her to come down and be proposed to. George Stott, the father, bangs away on the upright piano - all the popular songs - while Mam Peggy consoles herself with Catholicism and Peggy's father Andie wanders from one daughter's house to the other, starting with his dead whippet in a bag and ending up hiding from the amorous widow who wants to marry him.

It's a dialect play - a dialect I have always known and liked, though I daresay it limited the play's chances in the South back in Taylor's lifetime. We are now used to the device of setting a scene (and, better, underscoring the action) with period popular music, but it should be noted that A Nightingale Sang... preceded Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven by a full year. There is much more breaking down of the fourth wall in Nightingale than in Good, and appropriately so, given that so much of what we hear is Helen's personal inner life. The final scene, in which she dances, not with faithless Norman who has scurried home to mother and wife in the Midlands, but with Joyce's rapscallion hubbie Eric, features both soliloquy and music - the Nightingale finally does dance - and it is heartbreaking.

Not being active in the business these days, I have no real way of assessing where Taylor's reputation stands today. Wherever, it should be higher. I have other plays of his about the house, collected while he was still alive and writing. I must look them out.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Caine Mutiny - Herman Wouk

When I saw that Herman Wouk was celebrating his 102nd birthday earlier this year I felt obliged to seek out his best-known work - his bestseller The Caine Mutiny (1951).

Wouk goes to great lengths to assure us that this is not a fictional account of his service during the war, which just happened to be on a minesweeper-destroyer, much like the Caine. Indeed, he certainly isn't Willie Keith, the main character through whose eyes we view the story. Wouk was ten years older, for one thing, and not born wealthy. Wouk tries to show us that the character closest to him is aspiring novelist Tom Keefer, who encourages the mutiny then gives evidence against the mutineers at their court-martial. Wouk, like Keefer, got his publisher's contract whilst serving at sea.

The truth is, Caine is not a true story - there was no ship of that name, and no mutiny - yet the power of the novel comes from its undoubted veracity.

Wouk's service informs every page. He knew exactly what it was like to serve your time aboard a floating hulk like the Caine. He knows full well it is not going to be commanded by premier quality seamen. However, he makes the point repeatedly, they are all of them willing to do their duty. For the ordinary crew it is just another job. For the handful of officers it is a berth in which to learn their craft and hopefully advance up the ranks. The new captain, Philip Francis Queeg, is just such an officer. He joined before the war and is therefore a regular navy man (unlike the wartime 'reserves' like Keith and Keefer); he has nine years' service but this is his first command.

Queeg is unpleasant. Because he knows he can never be friends with his officers, he goes overboard as a disciplinarian. He carries the rulebook to ludicrous extremes, alienating one and all. But he never crosses the line. He never goes beyond the rules. The problem which leads to the 'mutiny' (which is held by those who carry it out to be justifiably relieving the captain of command) is because he seems to be a coward in action and quite possibly deranged.

The trial takes up a huge chunk of the book - so much so that Wouk turned it into a hugely successful play in 1953. The slight downside is that, whilst Willie Keith has been charged with encouraging the mutiny, he was not even on the command deck when it happened. The trial focused on is that of Lieutenant Stephen Maryk, Queeg's executive officer, who actually seized command.

The trial and the mutiny are both truly spellbinding. The novel is long but never drags. Willie Keith is amusing enough - especially in his self-indulgent affair with the nightclub singer May Wynn - and Queeg more than crazy enough to hold our interest. Willie's coming of age and Queeg's psychological collapse are built up through incidental, wholly convincing details.

The Caine Mutiny is a war novel without equal. It does something that most others fail to do in that it spells out the price that every man pays for military service. Never mind the risk - there is little to no risk in minesweeper destroyers; the damage is psychological. Free, intelligent men are prepared to submit themselves to a rule book that is petty and oppressive because they come to realise that those in charge couldn't get them to do such mind-numbing, pointless activities any other way.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Gilgamesh - Derrek Hines

Hines is a Canadian poet who lives in Cornwall. He studied the ancient Near East at university and thus is comfortable in the world of Gilgamesh, hero of the world's oldest epic. It is worth dwelling on the age of this text and the events and people concerned. The historical Gilgamesh lived about 2800 BCE. To use a crude measure, that's half a millennium further away from the birth of Jesus than we are. The text was first written down, in the world's oldest known form of writing, about 500 years after his death. The stories in it, however, were probably circulating in oral form within living memory of his death. In short, it is incredibly - bordering on unimaginably - old. It is so old that is probably not possible to transport the modern reader into the world described. Hines's approach is not to try to. Instead, he uses modern terminology to startle us into accepting the difference of the most ancient of ancient worlds. Again, back to crude measures: we find the world of Tutankhamen alien - Gilgamesh goes back a further millennium and a half.

For an epic, Gilgamesh is surprisingly short, only 61 pages in Hines's version. Yet there is a satisfactory amount of incident. As usual the gods fall out over the humanity project. Gilgamesh is semi-divine and so full of himself. So the gods create another powerful being to set against him. This is Enkidu, the beast-man who lives and communes with the animals. Given the age of this work you have to wonder if this is some sort of race-memory of a time when there were other versions of us wandering about. Enkidu is certainly the earliest surviving instance of a wild man or, as the medieval English called them, wodwoes or green men.

Enkidu annoys the locals by freeing animals from their traps. They opt for one sure way of taming him. They hire the temple prostitute Shamhat to shag some civilisation into Enkidu. This works. Enkidu forgets the language of the animals. The scent of the harlot on him drives the animals away. So, inevitably, he turns up in Gilgamesh's city of Uruk. The two supermen wrestle. Neither can best the other so they end up blood brothers, the closest of friends, inseparable.

Together they defeat the wizard Humbaba and the bull Taurus. It dawns on the gods that they now have two overmighty humans on their hands. They debate which one to kill off. Enkidu sees this in a dream and saves them the bother. He sickens and dies; the suggestion is that he chooses to die rather than risk the gods choosing Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh is naturally distraught. He roams the land seeking a means to be reunited with Enkidu in the netherworld. The gate-keeper goddess Shiduri suggests he approaches the ferryman Ur-shanabi, the only one allowed to cross the river of death both ways. In most versions Gilgamesh meets the Sumerian Noah - Uta-napishti - in the Underworld, who has been made immortal for surviving the Flood. The text of this meeting is a possibly a later addition - it is certainly a later discovery - and Hines does not give us Uta-napishti's account, which I find a problem. Uta-napishti is the only one who can give Gilgamesh the true price of immortality - not a blessing but a penalty paid by those who defy the gods, living death.

Overall, though, this a great version to introduce Gilgamesh to the modern reader. Overall, the use of modern language and contemporary terms works well. I loved the characterisation of Shamhat as a bar-room tart. I especially enjoyed the squaddie's account of the Humbaba campaign. Wisely, Hines keeps the most poetic, quasi-mystical passages simple and unforced. For example, when Gilgamesh laments for his dead friend:
We stood with the glow of Eden's river
still warm on our backs;
and before us the river of clay
into which men pressed our story... 

Monday, 31 July 2017

Cannery Row - John Steinbeck

Cannery Row (1945) is the distillation of Steinbeck. It contains everything he does best, in his best style and in the perfect format. Only 168 pages long in this Penguin paperback, it nevertheless manages to come across as epic in its panoramic view of the lives and aspirations of the denizens of the rundown Californian shanty town that faces onto the sardine canning factories where, from time to time, some of them might work.

This is not the Depression of The Grapes of Wrath - there is plenty of honest work for those who want it, but the residents of Cannery Row would rather not, most of the time. Doc has his own business in among the canning factories, Western Biological, where he pickles and prepares exotic sea creatures for scientific study. Doc is our hero inasmuch as Cannery Row has one. He is involved in everything and the others are ultimately realised in their relationship to him. There's the general merchant Lee Chong, who sells Doc his beer. There's Mack and the boys who live in Lee Chong's former fish meal store, which they have refurbished as the Palace Flophouse; they just want to throw a party for Doc, to celebrate all he has done for the community. The first attempt backfires, but in the end they throw a proper party, fights and all. The girls from Dora's Bear Flag Restaurant, the local cathouse, work shifts in order to attend.

The focus slides from group to group, There is a sense of Steinbeck studying the community the same way Doc studies the life in rockpools. The wondrous descriptions of the latter - especially the baby octopus hunt - are what moved me most. Then there's the opening section which truly sets the tone, when Horace Abbeville, unable to pay his bill at Lee Chong's, settles up by making over the fish meal store to the Chinaman, then goes straight up there and shoots himself. Lee Chong has got himself a storeroom he doesn't really need; in return he makes sure Abbeville's dependents never go hungry.

That is how things work out in Cannery Row.

That is why they gave Steinbeck the Nobel Prize.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Jack of Spades - Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is a phenomenon. I remember reading one of her stories in 1973 and she's still turning out top-quality fiction today. Jack of Spades is from 2015 and is one of her clever, exciting modern horror stories. Stephen King and Dean Koontz would get 500 pages out of the same material but Oates opts for cool, compact precision below which lurk many dark and nuanced layers.

Andrew J Rush is a fifty-four year-old author. He is very successful but not quite in the league of King or Koontz or Peter Straub. Indeed he is known as 'the gentleman's Stephen King', a title he is happy to claim. Recently, though, he has developed a second literary string, publishing gory cult horror as 'Jack of Spades'. Rush fully gets the parallel with King - he even sends King copies of the Spade paperbacks. The King motif is one Oates plays with, like a cat with a spider. Much is made of the link with King's The Dark Half, which I haven't read, especially when 'Jack' starts a commentary in Andrew's head. But the real ploy is a brilliant inversion of Misery.

Andrew suddenly finds himself sued for plagiarism by a local madwoman, C W Haider. It turns out she has sued King and others on the same basis. She is old money, the last of her line, and lives in a crumbling Gothic mansion in the same New Jersey township as Rush. Part of her claim is that Rush has broken into her house and stolen her outlines and plots.

The case is thrown out, naturally. Haider collapses in some sort of fit and is temporarily hospitalised. So Rush, egged on by Jack, does what Haider claimed he had already done. He inveigles his way into her house, leaves as a present a book signed by 'Steven King' (not Stephen), and steals some of her valuable first edition books. He also finds her stash of manuscripts and sees that there really are very obvious similarities, and that Haider's work precedes his. The discovery sends him progressively off the rails. Jack of Spades is his secret alter ego, but smalltown celebrity Andrew also has other, deeper secrets that Oates cunningly holds back until the very end.

Jack of Spades is a short book - 224 pages, small format, big print - but it is completely realised. Not a word is wasted, not a line is superfluous. It's a gem.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

The Dead House - Harry Bingham

Harry Bingham is one of those relatively new crime writers I've seen reviewed and wondered about reading. I have to admit that what put me off was the female lead. Not that I have anything against women detectives - but few male authors can really do great things with them; even as a male reader I get the feeling there is always something missing.

Good news - Harry Bingham is an exception to that rule of thumb. DS Fiona Griffiths is a fabulous series character. Yes, there remains something missing but that is expressly the point. The entirety of her life before adoption is missing. The people who adopted her, who love her and whom she loves in return, have dubious connections. There is a massive backstory hanging over this, the fifth in the series, which - brilliantly - Bingham refers to but does not expound upon. He is playing the long game and we, as readers, are happy to trust him to reveal it when the time comes.

The setting is Wales - big city Wales (Cardiff) where Fiona is based, and the remote village of Ystradfflur, the valley of flowers, where she finds her crime scene. As Bingham puts it---
Deep Wales. Real Wales,
This is the Wales that pre-existed the Romans, that will outlast our foolish time on earth, our crawl across the face of this dark planet.
 In Ystradfflur is a Dead House, the place by the chapel where poor Victorian villagers could lay out their loved one for visits prior to burial. There lies a young blonde woman in a white dress ringed by candles. She has had high quality plastic surgery but hasn't shaved her legs recently. Fiona notices this because she spends the night with the corpse, who she decides to call Carlotta. She communes. She holds hands. And we start to realise just how strange and damaged Fiona really is.

The supporting characters are equally well drawn - vivid where they need to be, prosaic when their main purpose is the highlight the flaws in Fiona. The plotting is multi-layered and complex. The denouement is hinted at throughout but I certainly did not see it coming. I have read a lot of books in my life, averaging at least two a week over half a century and I have never ever seen that ploy used. Yet it works brilliantly. There is real danger for Fiona, real tension for us, both there and in the caving sequence and in her interaction with Len Roberts, the failed smallholding hill farmer who has gone primitive and who is suspected of dark deeds.

The best British crime novel I've read this year. Highly recommended.


Sunday, 23 July 2017

Love Like Blood - Mark Billingham

Love Like Blood is by my calculation the fourteenth in Billingham's Tom Thorne series. What Billingham brought to the crime fiction table back in the early Noughties was contemporaneity.  His cops were good examples of the fictive type - conflicted, maverick, a little raucous - but the subject matter came straight from the headlines. That remains the case here, where Billingham takes on the culturally sensitive issue of honour killing. He adds a further twist which is horribly credible: few people in any community have the capacity to kill, extremely few could bring themselves to murder their own child - so what if someone offers to do it for them, for a price?


The problem, though, is that after thirteen novels Billingham's characters have developed far too much back story which has to be acknowledged. It's a tricky balance for any series writer and Billingham doesn't quite pull it off. To be fair, he has given himself an extra problem in that Thorne is shacked up with Helen Weeks, his other series character, who is, I'm sorry to say, excruciatingly dull. Admittedly I am slightly biased in that I hate the dull-as-dishwater TV adaptation of In the Dark currently going out on BBC1, which even the great MyAnna Buring cannot save. To be fair to myself, I started Love Like Blood before the series started and it was only later that I realised the uninteresting woman in the novel was also the boring woman on TV. We also have the storyline of DI Nicola Tanner, whose partner has been murdered in their own home. It is Tanner who has the contract honour killing theory and she gets in contact with Thorne who is already investigating a possibly linked murder. This plot device works very well and is entirely credible, but again it provokes yet more back story and, ultimately, that proves to be the final straw - though I must say there is a staggering plot twist which brings all the storylines together at the end in a stroke of sheer brilliance.

Overall, then, Love Like Blood is good - very good in parts - but not great. There is an imbalance between exposition and action, and it tilts the wrong way, which is really unfortunate because Billingham is so good at action.

I expected brilliance from Billingham after something like twenty books in total, an assumption based, not unreasonably, on the promise of his first three, Sleepyhead, Scaredy Cat and Lazybones, all of which I really admired.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Vulcan's Hammer - Philip K Dick

The last of the three early, short novels in this collection is Vulcan's Hammer. Is it the best? Hard to say: they are all different, all effective in their way. Is it the one I enjoyed most? To an extent. Is it the one that gave me the frisson? Easy answer. Yes it is.

Vulcan's Hammer was published in 1960, when computers filled warehouses and could barely count up to ten. Dick posits a post-apocalyptic world of about now when the world has come together in the utopian concord that everything will be fine so long as we agree to have policy determined by machines instead of men. That machine is Vulcan 3 which, spookily, occupies a facility in Switzerland not unlike CERN. In order to generate the best policy Vulcan has to be fed with every scrap of information available. Hands up who's thinking Google right now? Google's motto, Do No Evil, seemed cool to begin with, now it's morphed to ironic. Vulcan is also served by a multinational corporation. They call it Unity.

Dick accurately foresees the problem with super-super computers. There comes a time when they will replicate themselves, repair themselves, and if we stop feeding them information they will take measures to gather it for themselves. Should we be foolish enough to try and attack them, they will defend themselves. They may even fight back - which is where the hammers come in, in case you were wondering; I'm afraid they end up in their ultimate version as a prime example of an author who is halfway through his story when he realises he hasn't justified the title.

The writing is very measured for Dick, who notoriously wrote at a furious rate. The characters are very well drawn - as rounded as the protagonists in longer works such as The Man in the High Castle, written two years later and very much my kind of Dick novel. Essentially what makes the story zing is that the characters have doubts and consciences, a trait often missed in lesser SF where, of course, such things are personified as the enemy.

I have really enjoyed the three novels in this Millennium collection. I've learned quite a lot about SF signatures and tropes. I therefore recommend.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Spook Street - Mick Herron

I hadn't come across Mick Herron before. Had I noticed the blurb from the Mail on Sunday I would never have picked Spook Street up, which would have been a shame because, though the Mail on Sunday has no sense or taste whatsoever, this really is an excellent, fresh take on contemporary British spy fiction.

For a start, it's sardonically comic. Jackson Lamb, our team leader, is an appalling slob. The team he leads at Slough House are known elsewhere in MI5 as 'slow horses'. They are, in short, the unmanageable ones.  They have initiated disaster at some point in their career but MI5 dare not sack them in case they go to the Press, in which case some officers who still have prospects might end up in the adjoining prison cell.

Still, even slow horses have their day. Sometimes a case arises which is inescapably their province. Here, the proper domestic spies are fully engaged with a suicide bombing in a shopping mall. River Cartwright, one of Lamb's team, goes to visit his grandfather who is suffering dementia. Only someone claiming to be River has already shown up. The old man, who is not so senile that he can't vaguely remember his own grandson, shoots him dead - because David Cartwright was once also an habitue of Spook Street, by no means a slow horse but a candidate for First Chair. Who has sent an assassin to kill him? Is the old man as gaga as he seems? And how come the assassin and the suicide bomber travelled on papers of British citizens who never existed but who were created by MI5 back in David Cartwright's day?

That is a plot that would suffice for any straightfaced spy novel. Herron is able to deliver more because his spooks are comic and to be able to laugh at or with them we have to know something of who they are. Thus Herron's misfits end up being more rounded than many leading characters in mainstream series (Spook Street is itself the fourth in a series). Drink and domestic problems are not enough to give the slow horses their edge. Thus we have Roddy Ho, deluding himself that he has a proper girlfriend; the homicidal Shirley, and J K Coe who, his colleagues conclude, is "either PTSD or a psychopath."
The bad guys are equally conflicted, equally well-drawn. The prose style is exactly right throughout and there is a twist about 80% of the way through that is as devastating as anything by the master of such things, Jo Nesbo (see, for example, the mighty Headhunters.

I hugely enjoyed Spook Street in every way - intellectually, artistically, and sheer laugh-out-loud. I'm off down the library tomorrow to hunt out more.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The Third Reich - Roberto Bolano

Like virtually everyone else, I first heard of Bolano when he died ridiculously young in 2003. Like lots of my fellow literati I bought his final novel 2666 when it came out. And like a large proportion of my peers I struggled to love it.

However it turns out 2666 was not the last of Bolano. He left archives, drafts and outlines. He left The Third Reich, which seems to have been written towards the start of his career and, for whatever reason, discarded. It finally appeared in 2010 (2011 in English). This I absolutely loved.

Bolano was Chilean but he lived most of his adult life, such as it was, in Spain. In fact the lived in a minor resort on the Costa Brava, just like the one where The Third Reich is set.

The title naturally suggests the Nazis, and our anti-hero Udo Berger is indeed German, as is his girlfriend Ingeborg, her holiday friends Charly and Hanna, and the owner of the hotel, Frau Else. But The Third Reich is actually a war game. This is the 1980s when war games came in boxes rather than downloads and Udo is the German champion, lined up for a big match in Paris, who is developing a new strategy for publication.

The Germany Bolano actually plays with is that of Kafka. When Charly goes missing Udo's exceptionally ordered life starts to crumble. Even though he doesn't like the louche and feckless Charly he becomes overwhelmed by the need to stay on, long after Charly's body has been found and repatriated, long after the season has ended and the hotel around him is steadily heading for hibernation.

Udo fills his days by playing The Third Reich in his room with El Quemado, a disfigured beach bum of unknown origin who lives inside a pile of his own pedalos. El Quemado knows nothing about gaming but is "a quick study" - very quick. Soon Udo finds himself in retreat...

Like Kafka, nothing is really resolved. Mysterious linkages appear and fade. All that really matters is the carefully documented narrative of Udo's disintegration. Found among the papers is not usually a great indicator of quality, but in this instance it really is.

I am usually snitty about blurbs. Fair's fair, though. The cover blurb here - from the now defunct Independent on Sunday - couldn't be more right:
Overflowing with Bolano's exuberance, dark humour, and sarcasm, The Third Reich is a good introduction to this great and disquieting novelist.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Cartel - Don Winslow

The Cartel takes up where The Power of the Dog leaves off - it is the second, conclusive round of the lifetime, life-and-death duel to the death between the DEA's Art Keller and Adan Berrera, patron of the combined cartels of Mexico.

I loved The Power of the Dog when I read it earlier this year. The Cartel is just as good, perhaps slightly better. Happily, Winslow still resists the temptation of going the full Ellroy. His world is very dark, very treacherous, and astonishingly violent, but it remains none of the main participants is actually stark staring mad. That's the point - Adan is all about business; where would the Mexican economy be without him? There's a great passage on page 514 where he says:
After the crash [of 2008] the only source of liquidity was drug money. If they shut us down it would have taken the economy on the final plunge. They had to bail out General Motors, not us. And now? Think of the billions of dollars into real estate, stocks, start-up companies. Not to mention the millions of dollars generated fighting the 'war' [on drugs] - weapons manufacture, aircraft, surveillance. Prison construction. You think business is going to let that stop?
That's the beauty and the power of Winslow. He is so on-the-razor's edge current. I gather his latest novel, The Force, is going to propel him into the major league. Even before the book comes out, the TV version is in production. Don Winslow is already pretty big. Within a year he is going to be huge. I just hope he can stay current.

Writing this post, I think I have hit upon what makes The Cartel ever so slightly better than The Power of the Dog. It's the subplot about Pablo Mora, crime reporter on the local newspaer in Juarez, the frontline of the cartel war. Pablo is lazy, submissive, but he comes through in the end. Boy, does he come through. I can't offhand think of anything recent that has moved me so deeply as his last post. For many writers that would have been the whole story. Here it is just part of the mix. Other readers will be more stirred by other storylines. The point is, every reader will find something to treasure here.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Crisis - Frank Gardner

Frank Gardner is the BBC's Security Correspondent who was shot and disabled by terrorists whilst filming in Saudi Arabia in 2004. I became interested in him after watching a documentary series in which he set off, wheelchair and all, to see the birds of paradise in Borneo. So when I saw his first novel. I had to give it a try.

It's not his first book but it is a first novel and has some inevitable faults. His characterisation isn't great and there are scenes that don't need to be there. But it is the depth of knowledge behind the story that draws you in. The idea is a cracker: Colombian drug smugglers decide to take revenge on the Brits who disrupt their trade with a North Korean dirty bomb. Once the clock starts ticking, the device beloved of all the best thrillers, the book becomes thoroughly compelling, as good as any in the genre.

Before that things take their time. It's the inevitable compromise - you have to develop your characters and setting in sufficient detail to make your reader care about the outcome. Gardner's hero, who seems to be continuing in a second novel, is Luke Carlton, an identikit hero with an identikit name, a former Special Forces officer turned spy - which I guess must be a regular thing in real life.

Luke is a newbie at MI6 but he is the obvious man for the job because he was born and raised in Colombia (a prologue in which he loses his parents is one of the scenes I could happily dispense with). His girlfriend Elise and her subplot is a bore, but Luke suffers enough and makes sufficient gung-ho mistakes that we do come to care about his fate. The villains are pretty much the usual black hats - there is no need for them to be anything more. The most interesting characters are the officials at MI6 HQ in Vauxhall Cross (VX), especially Sayed 'Sid' Khan, the conflicted Head of Terrorism, and Luke's line manager Angela Scott.

Crisis is 550 pages. All bar about 50 of them are excellent. A very good debut but Gardner really needs to spend more time on characterisation and giving them more original names.

PS It has just dawned on me that the front cover gives away one of the plot twists. Duh!

Friday, 23 June 2017

The Spanish Game - Charles Cumming

Cumming is 21st century British spy fiction at its best. The Spanish Game (2006) is an early novel (his third) but is fully accomplished. Alec Milius is living in Madrid, not really on the run, but hiding out from the espionage world which he flirted with in an earlier novel with disastrous results all round.

Gradually he gets drawn back. He becomes involved with ETA, the Basque Separatists, and the secretive but real rightwing GAL. This is the tricky part of any spy story - why does the hero bother? This is where Cumming shows his mastery. Milius gets involved because he is working for an ex-pat banker who needs a report for a client on the likelihood of Basque autonomy. The boss, Julian Church, sets up a meeting with colourful Basque politician Mikel Arenaza. Alec and Mikel bond during a night on the town in San Sebastian. Mikel arranges to meet up with Alec in Madrid. He calls from the airport to say he is on his way, but never arrives. Naturally Alec is curious. Inevitably he has the skillset to investigate...

To be fair, the story takes a while to get going. There seems to be too much backstory in the early chapters but believe me, it has to be there to justify the ending - which is downright brilliant. Cumming already had his character from previous novels and again he deals with it innovatively, by building our understanding of Alec's state of mind, the paranoia which means he simply cannot go straight to authorities with his theories about Mikel. Cumming is very, very clever - by some distance the best spy novelist of his generation.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

The Great Spy Race - Adam Diment

The Great Spy Race is the second and penultimate Philip McAlpine novel and thus the second and penultimate Adam Diment novel. It is the successor to The Dolly Dolly Spy but it is simply not in the same league. What was a fresh take on the super spy - Carnaby Street instead of Savile Row - has already tipped over into parody. On an island fortress (Scaramanga, Doctor No) McAlpine finds the legendary spy Peters and his amusing ethnic henchman-butler Petite. Peters has set up the titular race for great spies and McAlpine is the reluctant UK entrant. Thereafter it all degenerates into a sort of literate Wacky Races.

There is a certain amount of fun, nowhere near enough Sixites sex, no meaningful jeopardy. That said, Diment's narrative gift is never in doubt. The text rolls along briskly, Sadly, it never gets anywhere I care about. I have no idea what the prize in the race turned out to be.

Three novels in barely a year - then absolutely nothing between 1968 and now. Fifty years of silence. You have to wonder if Diment flogged his idea as far as it could go, then never had another. Truly an enigma. But I don't think I'll be bothering with the remaining third, Think Inc., despite the cracking title.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

It Can't Happen Here - Sinclair Lewis

The other book about Donald Trump was written 80 years ago by Nobel Prize Winner (the first American winner) Sinclair Lewis. And it is both funny and scary.

It's scary because his outsider president, Buzz Windrip, spouts the same meaningless word-association babble that Trump does. Buzz too is known by his first name, which he has made into a brand. He has even sort of written a sort of book, which Lewis gleefully quotes at length (having obviously made it up in the first place). It's scary in that Lewis wrote it in 1934-5, when Hitler and Mussolini seemed poised to take over Europe, if not the world. It is no surprise, then, that Buzz turns out to be an American fascist dictator, who institutes work camps for the poor, local commandants to keep them poor, and uniformed Minute Men to enforce the will of the commandants. And the people love it - because Buzz Windrip has made America Great Again.

It can't happen here? Well it just did. How long, we wonder, before somebody on Fox News mentions Buzz Windrip and The Donald naturally assumes he was a real president, wiped from history by Fake News? His stormtoopers won't be called Minute Men, though, because Trump can't tell the difference between minute (time) and minute (tiny) and he has tny hands and therefore, in his mind, a tiny penis.
Anyway, back to the book. The story concerns Doremus Jessop, the sixty-year-old editor-owner of a local newspaper in Fort Beulah Vermont. He fancies himself a free-thinker, an armchair radical, but the unexpected triumph of President Buzz challenges all his preconceptions. Doremus (magnificent name) is sorely tested, he pays a high price for his beliefs and almost childish acts of sedition. Does he face up to the challenge? Does he answer the call? That's what the book is about and it would be unfair to reveal the answer. Incidentally, the way Lewis ultimately rolls out the answer demonstrates the skills needed to win the Nobel Prize.

There is a certain Augustan tone to the writing, echoes of Swift and Pope which are pitch-perfect for what is, after all, satire. It Can't Happen Here is a triumphant book. Given that Lewis knocked it off in a frenzied burst of activity, it begs the question, how good are his other books? And why the hell have I left it so late to discover him?

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

How the Hell Did This Happen? - P J O'Rourke

It is as if P J O'Rourke had been waiting all his life for Donald Trump to waddle along. Sure, he cut his pointy teeth on Richard "Tricky Dicky" Nixon, and kept his satirical eye in with the line of presidential duds that followed Reagan (it really is bad news when you realise George H W Bush was the last truly competent president). But Trump is the prize for O'Rourke, the fact that he was up against the hopelessly flawed and eminently corruptible Hillary Clinton an unlooked-for bonus. Yes, they can set up inquiries into Russian hacking but they can't get round the fact that the leaks were genuine and true.

So, the moment he had stopped rubbing his hands in glee, O'Rourke sat down and started a journal. However the election panned out, he knew he had a bestseller in the pipeline. He starts by disposing of the small fry, the Ted Cruzes and Jeb Bushes of this world who nevertheless turned out to be the best of a very shabby stream of also-rans who came and went over the course of the primaries.
O'Rourke knows this election was not about either Trump or Clinton. He knows it is really about the abused electorate getting their own back on the elite who bailed out the banks and hawked American jobs off to the most disreputable overseas charlatan they could find. The men in shiny suits who have spent more on their teeth than the average voter earns in a year. Men like, well, Messers Cruz and Bush 3. He explains at length how it is really about delivering one below the belt to the self-appointed elite.

The ultimate triumph of Trump is not thanks to him or her. It is down to the failure of America's ludicrous electoral system. If these two are the best the Democrats and Republicans can come up with then the system is rotten to the core. O'Rourke has always espoused this thesis. Now he has the proof positive, glowing uranium orange behind the big desk in the Oval Office.

So read his book. Laugh. Laugh out loud because it is very very funny. Then weep.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

The Enemy in the Blanket - Anthony Burgess

Part two of The Malayan Trilogy sees Victor Crabbe and his long-suffering wife Fenella dispatched to one of the furthest outposts of the tottering colony. Crabbe is technically head of the local school but, typically, soon finds himself carousing with a new mistress and an old college friend. This friend, Rupert Hardman, fills the place of Nabby Adams in The Enemy in the Blanket. Like Nabby, Hardman likes Malaya and desperately wants to make a career there. Where Nabby was notable for his size, with Hardman it is his colouring - he is whiter than white, even whiter in the damaged tissue where his face was burnt during his wartime service with the RAF. He is a lawyer and not an especially bad one, but he just cannot find a way of breaking through into success. Again, like Adams, he has debts everywhere, though not for booze; in Hardman's case it is the necessities of life that throw him into debt - food, accommodation, a halfway decent suit for court. Hardman is so determined to be a success that he makes the ultimate sacrifice and converts to Islam and marries Normah, a rich and voluptuous widow. Like Burgess, Hardman is a Catholic, so his mercenary switch of faith costs him the only real friend he had in Dahaga, the saintly priest Laforgue. Meanwhile Normah turns out to be a demanding wife. She has needs. She drops sinister hints about what happened to her previous spouses when they failed to meet those needs.

Crabbe, of course, floats happily down the stream of failure. He has the chance to slake his sexual needs with the feisty Anne Talbot. He tolerates the machinations of his Machiavellian deputy head Jaganathan. He tolerates the idea that Fenella is compensating for his shortcomings by having an affair with the Abang, the real ruler of Dahaga.

The plot resolves beautifully, with real moments of tenderness between Crabbe and his disappointed women. Hardman makes a desperate bolt for freedom. Jaganathan gets his comeuppance and life rolls on in Malaya like a runaway bulldozer - all to the benign amusement of a chorus of lackadaisical Sihks. Burgess's second novel is a significant step forward in his literary development. It is comic, clever, a splendid depiction of the last sputterings of Empire.

Monday, 29 May 2017

The Detour - Gerbrand Bakker

Gerbrand Bakker is a Dutch gardener. You need to know more? OK, he's a sometime skating instructor. He is in his fifties. He was forty when he wrote his first book, The Twin. Oh - and he's an absolutely phenomenal writer. Thanks, Gerbrand, for this info.

The Detour is his second novel. It is set in Wales. A Dutch woman in early middle age, whose name might or might not be Emelie, has run away from her academic job and her waste of space husband after a possible fling with what might have been one of her students. But that's not the only reason...

Anyway, she pitches up in rural Wales, the detour in question, and rents a cottage which a local farmer is looking after while the estate of the previous owner, recently deceased, is settled.

The stranger keeps herself to herself. She tells the locals, when she can't avoid them, as little as possible. Still, the locals know as much as we do until the action switches back to Holland where the husband is managing just fine without her, although her parents are starting to worry. They persuade the husband to report her missing. He eventually pals up with a copper who has nothing better to do than pursue the one lead they have - that 'Emilie' might be in Wales.

Meanwhile a free-spirited young lad called Bradwen has turned up with his dog Sam. The woman takes them in. Inevitably, sooner or later, they drift into a relationship which Bakker develops into a wonderful mish-mash of mutual support and interdependence but absolutely no revelation. Revelation comes gradually, by accident, and - the touch of a master - never completely. We learn some scraps of what might be the truth but are left wondering long after finishing the book.

It's a slim volume - only 230 large print pages - but it makes for a slow, luxuriant read. Bakker evokes the landscape of Snowdonia whilst getting immersive with the woman's plans for the garden. The characters might be unreliable witnesses yet they are wonders of layered complexity. Emilie tries, periodically, to think about her academic work on the poetry of the reclusive American nature-poet Emily Dickinson; she never latches onto the parallels with her own life but Bakker brilliantly makes sure that we always do. The translation by David Colmer is a work of art in itself.

Watch out for Gerbrand Bakker. He may well turn out to be something very special.

The Catcher in the Rye - J D Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye is one of those books everybody should read at least once in their life. After all it is the book that J D Salinger wrote just once in his long life. OK, I have left it late - ironically about the same length of time that Salinger lived after starting to publish (serialized) his only novel, all 192 pages of it.

It is a roman a clef, a coming-of-age story, and quite possibly the ultimate of its kind. It's set over a few winter days between Holden Caulfield being expelled from his fancy private school and facing up to his parents back in New York. We don't witness the climactic moment, of course, but Salinger takes us to the verge, when Holden seems to admit to himself that he can't strike out on his own, that he hasn't got what it takes to stand on his own two feet. We have gathered, by that point, that he is writing his confessional from some sort of sanatorium in California.

Inbetween we have a frantic hothouse week in New York. Holden spends the last of his generous allowance on hotels, bars, night clubs. He is trying to break through into adulthood - he believes he looks much older than his eighteen years because he has a patch of grey hair, but his elders inevitably see his true childishness.

Reading The Catcher is like spending time in the company of the world's sulkiest, most self-centered teenager, which is what set the literary world on fire when the novel came out in 1951. You resent the guy, deplore his blather, even hate him - but if you are male and were ever a teenager, you know you dislike him because he is you.

Salinger's single masterpiece probably defines the term tour de force. I'm glad I finally read it. I'm equally glad I won't feel the need to do so again.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Blood of Victory - Alan Furst

The more Furst I read, the more I'm impressed. The cover blurb from the Sunday Times likens him to Robert Harris and Sebastian Faulks. I like Harris, I have so far steered clear of Faulks, but for me the closest comparison is with John le Carre. High praise, I know, but they both immerse us in their world of espionage; they write obliquely, almost furtively; and they both have an aura of insider knowledge. Le Carre's relatively brief involvement with the SIS is well known and covered in various reviews on this blog (if anyone is wondering, I'm still trying to force myself to finish reading The Perfect Spy). Furst identifies himself as a journalist; presumably he has cultivated links and sources in the spy world. What he can't have, of course, is any first hand knowledge of clandestine activities in the Balkans during the first half of World War II. Yet that is his world in all the novels of his that I have read. How would you even start to research such a topic?

There is no apparent overlap between the novels (again, subject to the proviso that I haven't read them all) and Furst makes things even more difficult for himself by having non-English or non-American protagonists - in this case I A Serebin, onetime Soviet hero, writer of delicate fictions set in Odessa, and now a leading figure of the International Russian Union (that is to say, non-Soviet emigres) in Paris. Serebin finds himself seduced (literally) into a multinational plot to disrupt German oil supplies from Romania. The scheme is incredibly complex and I lost track completely. It didn't matter a jot - for me, the convolutions are the point. What mattered to me was Serebin, a splendidly-drawn character, sentimental in his care for a former lover, now dying, and utterly indifferent to the dangers he faces. Unlike so many lesser writers in the genre Furst does not lose focus on his hero. Serebin is there on page one and he is front and centre in the action sequence at the end. I was more than captivated by his current lover Marie-Galante, a femme anyone would risk fatality for.

For me then, Alan Furst is in the top two or three exponents of spy fiction. The big excitement is that he is still getting better with each new novel.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Kraken - China Mieville

Mieville is probably the high priest of British New Weird. Kraken (2010) is not especially new but it is certainly weird. A preserved giant squid vanishes from the Natural History Museum. Its conservator, Billy Harrow, finds himself drawn into a web of cult police and kraken cults. Beneath this lies a secondary world of Londonmancers and occult gangs. On one, and one thing only, the feuding factions agree: the taking of the kraken betokens the Apocalypse.

I was instantly reminded of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, still my favourite of his. From Neverwhere springs a subset of alt-London Weird, that includes the likes of Ben Aaronovitch (Rivers of London). Mieville takes things much further but I feel he tries to cram too much into one novel. Kraken is far too long. The opening - the revelation of the mystery world - is extremely good; the apocalyptic battle at the end is masterly done; but there is a hell of a lot of middle, much of it stodge, much of it dispensable. That seems to the pitfall lurking for all such fictional constructs. Where do you draw the line? It's not for me to suggest plotlines to the likes of Mieville, however there is another spellbinding yarn waiting for the Tattoo and his unwilling host Paul.

The male characters are better drawn than the female. Mieville clearly has high hopes for his wisecracking witch-cop Collingwood. The best I can say is that she is amusing in small doses.

I seem to be listing a lot of negatives. That's not the intention. I really enjoyed Kraken and only criticise because I care. There's a lot more Mieville and New Weird waiting for me. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Stoner - John Williams

Stoner is the Great American Novel that had to bide its time. Published in 1965, it had to wait more or less fifty years for its classic status to be recognised.

It explores familiar territory - the campus, secluded scholarship, the lost grandeur of the South - and it takes the two World Wars as its chronological frame.

William Stoner exceeds expectations when he gains admittance as a student to the University of Missouri in 1910. He comes from dirt-poor farming stock and initially studies agriculture. Then his eyes are opened to the wonders of English Literature - in his case the late Latin lyricists. Thereafter, he never leaves the university and never really revisits his youth, save to bury his parents and sell the farm. The University is his life, teaching his passion.

Classmates leave to serve in France in 1917. Stoner thinks long and hard and decides to stay. Twenty-four years later, of course, he is too old to serve, a married man with a daughter. And here we really comes to the central issue of the novel. Stoner is a good man, but he is not a good husband and lets himself get sidelined as a father. His life is study but he is a poor student of life. Williams' great gift is the creation of character. Stoner's wife Edith is a fragile Southern beauty and slightly deranged. Stoner loves her and she wants to love him, but they can't manage it, so they eke out an uneasy compromise and over the years they make it work. The daughter, Grace, on whom Stoner dotes, finds teenage pregnancy her only way out. The father of her child, a student at the University, does the right thing by Grace only to be killed in the war. Thereafter Grace takes to drink.

Stoner's great love turns out to be another student, Katherine Driscoll, a free spirit and thoroughly grounded young woman. The only way to keep her is for him to leave Edith and leave the University. As a good man and a dedicated teacher, Stoner can do neither. He becomes embroiled in a feud with his head of department that lasts to the end of his career. And, ultimately, Stoner does what the protagonist in every Great American Novel has to do: he makes his peace and dies. And what a death! Gradually fading away with his long-forgotten text book in his hand. Magnificent. Profoundly moving.

How much of this is autobiographical we do not know. We know that Williams, too, was an academic and, like Stoner, he wrote far too little. Other than that, he is a mystery. His name is about as plain as it gets, and so is his prose style. But what his achieves with simple words is far more than the likes of Henry James achieved with all his frills and flamboyant vocabulary. Williams achieves deep truths and phenomenal beauty.

I'm having luck, recently, finding masterpieces. Stoner is definitely another.