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.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Time for a Tiger - Anthony Burgess

Time for a Tiger was Burgess's first novel, the first in his Malayan Trilogy aka The Long Day Wanes. It was published in 1956 while he was still teaching in Malaya. The novel is a thinly disguised version of Burgess's actual experience. Victor Crabbe teaches in Kuala Hantor; Anthony Burgess taught in Kuala Kangsar; both are/were house masters; both have/had deeply unhappy wives and fractious relationships with their respective headmasters, who they loathe.

Crabbe's counterpoint, the six-foot-eight policeman and fledgling alcoholic is Nabby Adams, a man wholly devoted to expatriate life in the failing empire. He it is who always has time for a Tiger, the bottled beer which is his only sustenance. Nabby owes money to everyone. Where Crabbe might seek to enlighten the multi-national, multi-cultural natives, Nabby takes them absolutely as he finds them. He loves them like he loves his scabby dog Cough. Crabbe cares too, but his way is patronising, accidentally elitist. And this, of course, is the time of the Chinese Communist-inspired Malayan insurgency.

It is, however, an English comic novel in a colonial setting, falling somewhere between Kipling and Paul Scott. It is a long way from the experimental Burgess of the Seventies, or even A Clockwork Orange, which was only six years on from Time for a Tiger. It is, nevertheless, a comic novel that is actually funny, with complex characters and the occasional hint of the linguistic fireworks that were to come.

Everyone who reads later Burgess should also read early Burgess. I was lucky, I suppose, in that I first read the Malayan Trilogy just after I read A Clockwork Orange, which was around the time the Kubrick film came out. Me and a couple of mates went to see the movie, in a rare single showing outside London at the height of the controversy. It's appropriately Burgessian, I think, that what may have been the only time the film was shown in a mainstream provincial picture palace was at the Odeon Rugby. I know it happened 'cos I was there.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Midnight in Peking - Paul French

I can't fathom why I hadn't heard of this book before stumbling upon it in my local library. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was a big hit for John Berendt twenty years ago - they even went on to make a crappy movie - and this book has obvious similarities (real-life murder, cultural bubble, kinky sex and the word midnight in the title). I won't say French's book is better but it is definitely just as good.

It will come as no surprise that the setting here is Peking. The year is (just) 1937. Russian Christmas, January 7. The bubble is the expat community in what was, temporarily, China's second city. Chiang Kai Shek is losing his grip on power and the Japanese are about to invade. A young woman is found butchered in the shadow of the historic Fox Tower. She is Pamela Werner, adopted daughter of E T C Werner, former British consul and leading Sinologist, a man who has devoted his life to understanding Chinese culture.

Unfortunately for Werner, he has fallen from favour with the British Legation, which refuses to permit the Chinese police to investigate in their jurisdiction. A British inspector, Richard Dennis, ex-Scotland Yard, is seconded from another district to assist Inspector Han, but is expressly forbidden to have contact with Werner.

The British, it turns out, have secrets to hide. Pamela, a girl with problems, was still a pupil at Tientsin Grammar School, boarding with headmaster Sydney Yeates who has very recently been sent home because parents, including Werner, complained about his enthusiasm for thrashing. In Peking Pamela likes to be seen as the sophisticated young woman she ought to be - she is twenty years old, after all. She has admirers. On January 7 she goes ice skating with her girlfriends, and disappears on her way home.

The assumption is that it is a very un-Chinese murder. The killer must either be living in one of the many foreign legations or in the Badlands, a red-light district frequented by overseas riff-raff, decandent playboys and hordes of White Russian emigres fallen on hard times.

It is the Badlands, inevitably, which grab our attention. The most useful contact made by any investigator is Shura, a White Russian of indeterminate gender, who alternates as call girl and raffish pimp. One of his sidelines is providing naked girl dance groups for parties in the apartment of a seedy American dentist who also runs a nudist colony in the hills above Peking.

The hero of the book is definitely E T C Warner himself, a dry as dust scholar in his early seventies, who nobody likes. It is French's great achievement that we come to love the old man who doggedly refuses to let the authorities close the file on his dead daughter. When the official investigation runs out of steam, Werner hires his own investigators. When the Japanese come, he presses on alone. Later he is interned in a horrific prison camp. Still he persists. He survives the war - and still he goes on, not resting until he finally expires at the grand age of eighty-nine.

It is Werner's account that forms the basis of French's book but it is the demented cultural hotchpotch of prewar Peking that brings the story alive, and that is all down to French, his massive research and his storytelling flair.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Dolly Dolly Spy - Adam Diment

Ah, the Sixties. Sex, pot and spies - all of which feature strongly in Adam Diment's debut novel, published in 1967 when he was only twenty-three and looked - judging by the photo on the back of this paperback - like a handsome, thinner version of Boris Johnson.

To be honest, I had always assumed Diment was a pseudonym and that whoever he was really had simply taken to writing under another nom de plume when the Sixties went sour. But no - I spotted an article in the Guardian about someone trying to crowdfund a reprint of the Diment canon and, lo and behold, we find that Diment is still apparently alive, possibly living in Switzerland, and actually walked away when the film of The Dolly Dolly Spy fell through and his fourth spy novel Think Inc didn't exactly set the book-buying world alight. He does not comment and never has.

The book itself, despite its cheesy title, is actually very good. Diment writes extraordinarily well and takes quite startling liberties with form. For example his hero Philip McAlpine, reluctantly compromised into going undercover with a dodgy air transport company, is listening to his boss drone on about the war and uses this as an excuse to reflect upon his training. This works because McAlpine obviously was there. Later flashbacks, concerning the villain of the piece during the war, do not have that advantage but are nevertheless acceptable because a) it tells us that his war crimes were so appalling that even a young hipster in 1967 is aware of them, and b) that our hero is not so dumb or self-centred as he sometimes makes out.

The joy is period detail - it seems £2000 would buy you a Maserati in '67. The downside is the sexism and casual racism. They are of their time and the saving grace is that Diment, via McAlpine, does not disparage women and black people beyond the use of demeaning terms like 'dolly' and 'spade'. His only interaction with a black person is in the remarkably thrilling prologue, in which his passenger is a black African politician who is sympathetically drawn and whom McAlpine respects. Likewise, although there is lots of talk of promiscuity, and quite a bit of it in practice, McAlpine remains sentimentally attached to girlfriend Veronica Lom.

The spymaster Quine is horrendously camp - but turns out to be happily married to a plain woman who is both intelligent and sexually empowered.

What really dropped my jaw is the amount of reflection and self-scrutiny that is on display. This is something which eludes pretty well all first-time novelists and the vast majority of 23 year-olds. But look at this, from towards the end:

This country [Britain] is, for the time being, a whore. Our Empire has gone and our people remain lazy. We are clever, original, class-ridden and small. The sooner we can get back to being another small country and forget our now useless role of world arbiter the better. Nobody has listened to our advice for years; it is just accepting this fact that is painful. Meanwhile we export fashion and trend to the rest of them, like a good little whore should.

That's how Diment saw it back in '67. Fifty years later you could and paste it into any broadsheet editorial and no one would argue. So who was a very clever boy then? No wonder he was the publishing sensation of '67. They say The Dolly Dolly Spy sold a million. I'm not at all surprised.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Oblivion - Arnaldur Indridason

Of recent times Indridason has taken his detective hero Erlendur Sveinsson back to his youth. In Oblivion he is in his twenties, newly divorced and recently promoted to CID. The time is the 1970s for the main plot - a murder on the US airbase - whilst the secondary plot, which Erlendur pursues in his spare time, concerns the disappearance of a young girl more than twenty years earlier. This, for regular readers, is a reminder of the incident that dogs his entire career, the loss of his brother when he was a child.

A flashback within a story that is itself something of a flashback is clever. The linkage between the periods - the American occupation of Iceland after World War II and the continuing presence of the Americans during the Cold War - is even cleverer, deepening the narrative with acute social and political insight.

I cannot for the life of me see why Indridason agreed to allow the change of title for the translation. The original title was Kamp Knox, which is what the story is about - the original wartime occupation airbase which still dominated the area in the Fifties when it had been turned into emergency housing little better than a ghetto. This is the shadow that hung over the place the missing schoolgirl lived. There were rumours she had a boyfriend who lived on the camp, which made him lower-class, undesirable, inevitably drawing the attention of investigating police at the time.

The replacement for Camp Knox is the Defense Force base at Keflavik. Officially there should be no nuclear weapons stored there, but Keflavik has the biggest hangar anywhere and there are rumours about what might be cached inside. Hangar 885 is also the only spot on the peninsula high enough to have caused the injuries Kristvin sustained when he fell, albeit he was dead before the fall, hence the police interest. Keflavik is officially US territory and the brass won't cooperate with the Icelandic police, even though Kristvin was one of the many Icelanders who worked there, enjoying the fringe benefits of easy access to American consumables. Are the military hiding something or is it simply contempt for the natives?

Indridason gets better with every book. One of the attractions for me is always the horrific foodstuffs regarded as delicacies in Iceland. I was not disappointed in Oblivion - fermented skate in melted lard. Eeek! He seems to me to be well served by translator Victoria Cribb. But why on earth do they saddle his books with meaningless titles like Oblivion that makes them sound like  ghastly action thrillers from the Eighties?

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

The Prague Cemetery - Umberto Eco

The Prague Cemetery is the sixth and penultimate novel by Umberto Eco, who died last year. It came out in 2010, thirty years after his first, The Name of the Rose. Eco the academic was fascinated by conspiracy, ritual and the interlocking or layered nature of hermetic texts. His gift was the ability to turn his obscure themes into potent literature without preaching or treating his readers as idiots. Here he uses the same materials that Dan Brown bowlderised in The Da Vinci Code. The end product is very different and for me much superior.

Eco takes a document like the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He traces its development from earlier similar texts. Everyone has always known that the Protocols are fake, yet they remain the foundation stone of twentieth century anti-Semitism. This is where the great international Jewish conspiracy sprang from. Eco asks the unasked questions: Who wrote it and why?

He gives us our fictional forger, 'Captain' Simone Simonini, an Italian living in France, who began his career forging wills in a lawyer's office. He lives in Paris because France in the 1890s is virulently anti-Semitic. He sells endless versions of the stories told by his half-crazed (real) Italian grandfather and these ultimately become the Protocols.

Simonini brings his talents to bear on many other forgeries and conspiracies, working for the French and Russian secret services. Indeed he becomes involved in every conspiracy in the Age of Conspiracies, not just Jews but Freemasons and Dreyfus and even. as a youth, Garibaldi.

This being Eco, there is a further twist. When Simonini walks the streets of Paris he is always in disguise - he wears a false beard and a wig. Is he really Simononi, we wonder? And who is the mysterious priest who seems to occupy another part of his dwelling? He obviously can't be the real priest of that name, because Simonini killed him in Sicily. He too wears a disguise. They never meet but they correspond by note - an extra textual layer. They both suffer from short term memory loss. Both wonder, are they different aspects of the same person?

The Prague Cemetery - a cemetery, it should be noted, that Simonini has never seen in a country he has never visited - is a magnificent achievement. I am interested in many of the things that fascinated Eco. I already knew some of the things revealed here. I wonder how accessible or enjoyable the book would be to someone less familiar with the topic. I also wonder, I must say, if Robert Harris came across The Prague Cemetery before writing his take on the Dreyfus affair, An Officer and a Spy. There is a passage in the Eco which could almost be a synopsis of Harris. Then again, they are working from the same, well-documented story. So - conspiracy or coincidence? How very Eco.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Inside the Whale - George Orwell

What we have here is a collection of Orwell's essays, mostly prewar and mostly concerning literature. The title essay, for example, dates from 1940 and starts with Henry's Miller's Tropic of Cancer which in those days was still a scandalous, banned book. Orwell concludes it is a good book but that its subject matter is largely irrelevant because it is 'inside the whale' - sealed off, in a sort of time bubble of its own. It is not great literature, Orwell argues, because it is utterly devoid of politics. Indeed, politics in that special era should be the hallmark of literature, according to Orwell. That essentially is what the essays in this collection have in common, save for 'Down the Mine', which is extracted from The Road to Wigan Pier and 'Shooting an Elephant' which is part of his Burmese writing. Both are simply padding and stick out like sore thumbs. 'Politics and the English Language' is nowadays printed in more or less everything to do with Orwell and I have already given it a standalone review on this blog.

'England Your England' (1941) chimed with me because one of my interests is the Appeasement Period which dragged us into World War II. It has a great opening line ("As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.") and Orwell is surprisingly generous in dealing with Prime Minister Chamberlain, architect of the disaster:
Like the mass of the people, he did not want to pay the price either of peace or of war. And public opinion was behind him all the while, in policies that were completely incompatible with one another. It was behind him when he went to Munich, when he tried to come to an understanding with Russia, when he gave the guarantee to Poland, when he honoured it, and when he prosecuted the war half-heartedly. Only when the results of his policy became apparent did it turn against him; which is to say that it turned against its own lethargy of the past seven years.
I did not like 'Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool'. I disagree with Orwell's premise, feel he is ungenerous to the aged Tolstoy, makes no provision for the potential awfulness of the translations Tolstoy had, and - in common with his era  does not understand the mechanics of Elizabethan play-making. 'Politics a Literature' relies on Gulliver's Travels and I no longer have any interest in Gulliver's Travels. I was amazed when I read the real thing when I was nineteen or twenty but, like much satire, suspect it is a one-only revelation. My favourite, oddly enough, is the final essay 'Boy's Weeklies' (1939) which argues that the Victorian hangover comics Gem and Magnet present a hermetically sealed world from the previous century (Orwell makes the same point that recently dawned on me - that the forebear of all 'school' stories is Stalky & Co rather than Tom Brown's Schooldays) whereas more modern, Americanized boys' comics like Hotspur and Rover purposefully embody the far-Right views of their owners. No change there, then.

Just a final note: how great is that portrait by Patrick Procktor on the cover?

Monday, 27 March 2017

The Turn of the Screw - Henry James

The original, the classic, freaky children horror story. Yes, not one but two malicious brats conjuring up the ghosts of their dead governess and factotum, who may also (it is heavily implied) have been their abusers. Strong stuff for 1898; extremely strong stuff for the sexless aesthete Henry James. Atypical, definitely, but perhaps that's why The Turn of the Screw is his best known work.

Being a Penguin Classic, this edition comes with a pompous introduction by a Yale professor (David Bromwich) and James's own, even more pretentious introduction to the New York edition of 1908. I didn't bother pursuing either. James was a writer - everything he needed to say should be there on the page. I also did not require two pages of asinine notes from Philip Horne of UCL. I hope Phil didn't get paid for his labours.

Enough sounding off - time for the good news. The Turn of the Screw is a mini masterpiece. More than that, it can be seen as a turning point in English language ghost fiction. Before James, the stock phantom tended to be an unquiet soul needing its wrongs to be righted, or a personality-free memento mori in the manner of Dickens. These ghosts are very much personalities. Peter Quint and his disgraced lover, the former governess Miss Jessell, are completely aware of what is going on at Bly House. Whatever they got up to in life - and it was bad enough to corrupt their appearance post mortem - young Miles and sickly sweet Flora were fully involved with it. The implication is that Miles has been expelled from school for telling his friends the lurid details. When the new governess - our unnamed narrator - tries to drive them off, Quint and Jessell fight back. The final confrontation is horrific, and the last line, which I won't give away here, has to be one of the most chilling last lines in occult fiction ever.

The problem with James, to the modern reader, is his verbosity. He writes in a rhetorical style. Famous orators like Churchill, Kennedy and Obama, spoke emotively and effectively about absolutely nothing. Most of what they said, transcribed onto the page without the speaker's personality and performance, is utter nonsense. James does the opposite. He desperately piles up the words in search of every last nuance. In later life, as the notes on the 1908 edition demonstrate, he made matters worse, adding more verbiage long after the fire of creation had gone out. Unfortunately what Penguin gives us is the 1908 edition.

Nonetheless, The Turn of the Screw is the key text in the development of modern literary occult fiction. A must-read for every aspirant practitioner.

Friday, 24 March 2017

His Bloody Project - Graeme Macrae Burnet

His Bloody Project didn't win the 2016 Man Booker Prize (I can't recall what did) but it outsold all the other novels on the shortlist. It purports to be a dossier of documents found by Burnet when researching his Macrae ancestors. The documents relate to the murder of Lachlan Mackenzie of Culduie in Ross-shire in August 1869, for which seventeen year-old Roderick Macrae was hanged in Inverness in September.

The documents consist of a handful of witness statements gathered by local police, the account which Roddy wrote at his solicitor's request whilst awaiting trial, a report (wonderfully entitled Travels in the Border-Lands of Lunacy) by J Bruce Thomson, resident surgeon at Perth prison and leading criminal anthropologist, an account of the trial compiled from contemporary newspapers, and a short epilogue describing Roddy's wretched end.

It's all a fake - or is it? We can't fail to notice that Burnet is himself a Macrae. It is the actuality question which hooks us to begin with. After all, there can't be much of a whodunit here. There are only nine houses in the crofting hamlet and Roddy was seen heading to Mackenzie's with the murder weapons and again, coming back half-an-hour later smothered in fresh blood. More to the point, Roddy has insisted, from that moment forward, that he alone did it. Is he mad? This is the only hope of his solicitor, who commissions the report from Thomson. But there is no sign of madness in Roddy's writing. True, some of his neighbours consider him to be an imbecile, but his schoolmaster wanted to put him forward for a scholarship.

Burnet ingeniously plants a couple of clues that suggest all might not be as it seems. They come together at the end but - another masterstroke - we don't get Roddy's reaction to them because defendants were not at that time allowed to give evidence in court.

Alongside all this we get a fascinating insight into the life of a mid-Victorian Highland crofter, a life that seems unchanged for thousands of years and which, to those trapped in it, must have seemed like it would never changed - renting their land at the whim of the laird and his factor, their only refuge their grim church. One of the great elements here is Burnet's portrait of utter, hopeless despair in Roddy's father John, a man in his forties looking twice his age, armoured in misery.

A tremendous book by an author of prodigious promise. There is an earlier novel, The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, which won the Scottish Book Trust New Writer's Award in 2013, so I must get hold of that. And Burnet's next can't come soon enough for me.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Young & Damned & Fair - Gareth Russell

You wait years for a serious biography of Henry VIII's fifth queen, Katherine Howard, then two comes along almost simultaneously. I have already reviewed Josephine Wilkinson's (below). This, by one of the emerging Tudor historians, is the deeper, more thoroughly researched, and therefore the better. It is by no means the better written. 390 pages on a girl who was only about twenty when she died and who only figured on the public stage for perhaps two years, tends to speak for itself.

Russell's problem, in some ways, is that he knows too much. He has done his research and he means you to know that. What he lacks, in my view, is understanding of human nature. He sets up a persona for his principals, and sticks with it. Henry is a querulous ogre, Norfolk a lickspittle, and Katherine herself a bit of a gormless tart. They are the puppets of history rather than its drivers. Russell does not understand that people respond to events; they make choices and they change their opinions.

Where Russell succeeds however, is in those areas where his deep research pays off, for example in the detail he provides for the comings and goings of Francis Dereham, Katherine's fatal fascination. He is very good indeed in describing the way the apparatus of state turned on Katherine and basically crushed her. It really is astonishing how much persecution the Tudor statesmen could cram into their day.

Ironically then, the reader who wants a broad insight into Katherine Howard and her very limited world needs to read both Russell and Wilkinson. Which would be my tip.

Friday, 17 March 2017

The Power of the Dog - Don Winslow

Don Winslow is a bit like James Ellroy. He writes dark crime in short, pared-down sentences. He depicts the underbelly of the American Dream in which corruption is the only currency. Unlike Ellroy, he keeps his conspiracy theories just this side of psychosis.

The Power of the Dog (2005) is perhaps his most ambitious novel. It took him six years to write and Winslow prides himself on productivity. It spans thirty years in the war on drugs seen through the eyes of three main characters, Art Keller, DEA agent, Adan Barrera, drug trafficker, and Sean Callan, Irish mobster turned mafia hitman. Over the years they find themselves in alliances and opposition. Linking them is high-class prostitute Nora Hayden and a broad cast of second-string characters including Tio Barrera, founder of the Mexican drug cartel, Jimmy Peaches Picone, would-be mafia boss, and Sal Scachi, colonel, hitman, the ultimate fixer. And many, many more.

Too many characters? Too much plot? On balance, no. Sometimes, as you work through the 500+ pages, you wonder, is this getting us anywhere? Does this character contribute anything to the whole? But you keep going and find out that, yes, everything contributes, every character serves a purpose. Plotting is Winslow's dominant skill. He writes well - very well - but holds back from launching into the sort of obscene purple prose that curdles Ellroy's later work. The dialogue is spot on - each character has a distinct voice, and the principals also have individual inner voices.

Did I love this book? No - you can't love a book this dark. Is it brilliant? Does it achieve what it sets out to do? Does it make me want to seek out more of Winslow's extensive catalogue, like for example Savages (2010) which Winslow turned into the script for Oliver Stone's best film in years? Yes, yes, and yes. Apparently there are half-a-dozen Neal Carey mysteries, plus standalone novels including The Death and Life of Bobby Z, The Winter of Frankie Machine, and The Kings of Cool. I mean, the titles alone are enough to spark my interest.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Growth of Milk Wood - Douglas Cleverdon

There are several things we all need to know about Under Milk Wood. Let's be clear, I am of the opinion that everybody needs to know Under Milk Wood as a towering slice of mid Twentieth Century verse. That said, there are a couple of factors we should always bear in mind when enjoying it.

First off, it is not a play. It has none of the hallmarks of a play, even experimental plays, which in English-speaking drama it predated. It is, specifically, a dramatic feature for radio, a form invented by the BBC in the 1930s and exported all around the world as the standard audio drama form during and shortly after World War II. American radio drama is in fact drama features. Radio drama in every Commonwealth country is likewise drama features. In every country they took as their model - often, indeed, as the first proper radio drama broadcast - The March of the '45 by D G (Geoffrey) Bridson. Bridson was a features man. He wrote and produced features. The March of the '45 is a feature. Confusingly, he also wrote plays, but that's another story.

Douglas Cleverdon was also a features man. He produced and put together features. He is the man who put together the first script for Under Milk Wood, broadcast in January 1954, two months after the death of its creator Dylan Thomas. Cleverdon also put together other versions for various stage productions. Thomas himself had written other material for Under Milk Wood, which Cleverdon chose not to use but which others have used since, notably the so-called 'Guide Book' section, which featured in the most recent radio revival I know of, directed by Alison Hindell in 2003.

Cleverdon was very much the champion of Under Milk Wood, the standard-bearer, but he was never the final arbiter. Thomas made Dr Daniel Jones his literary executor. Jones wrote the music for the songs but also ruled out some of the bawdier elements that Cleverdon wanted to include and which Thomas himself had included in the readings he gave in America, immediately prior to drinking himself to death. Recordings of the American sessions exist. A version of the BBC broadcast was released by Argos in 1954. A complete recording of that broadcast is available from the BBC itself. Other recordings exist. Dent put out a script which differed from the broadcast, also in 1954. Thomas himself had published extracts before he died.

The point is, Under Milk Wood was never finished. It is my firm conviction that Thomas would never have finished it. It was his drink-ticket (rather than his meal ticket) and even if he had lived to be a well-pickled centenarian he would have continued churning out variants so long as anyone was willing to pay for them. As it is, there are dozens of alternatives in existence - and that is what Cleverdon sets out to describe here.

It is a book for the specialist, granted, but given the status Under Milk Wood enjoys across various aspects of contemporary culture, I believe it is a book every specialist should have in their collection. And most don't - thus we get the ill-informed pontificating about the purity of Thomas's vision which diminishes the sheer generosity of what he actually wrote.

Thomas is the only modern writer for whom, like Shakespeare, we have variants, all of them (unlike Shakespeare) written by Thomas himself and intended to form part of the emerging whole. There is no canonical version - and if anything gets anywhere near a canonical version, I contend it should be the US recordings made after he gave Cleverdon the script upon which the first broadcast was based. Thereafter it is simply a question of personal taste.

Cleverdon also addresses the key question of what differentiates a radio feature from a radio play. It is a question I have to expound on every time I write about classic radio plays and now I can add the producer of the best-known feature to my repertoire.
Nobody outside the BBC (and, indeed, comparatively few inside) can be expected to distinguish between a radio play and a radio feature. A radio play is a dramatic work deriving from the tradition of the theatre, but conceived in terms of radio. A radio feature is, roughly, any constructed programme (that is, other than news bulletins, racing commentaries, and so forth) that derives from the technical apparatus of radio (microphone, control-panel, recording gear, loud-speaker). It can combine any sound elements - words, music, sound effects - in any form or mixture of forms - documentary, actuality, dramatized, poetic, musico-dramatic. It has no rules governing what can or cannot be done. And though it may be in dramatic form, it has no need of a dramatic plot.
In short, Cleverdon maintains that Under Milk Wood began as a radio play called The Village of the Mad but became a feature because Thomas couldn't devise a satisfactory plot.

I should also point out, in closing, that Cleverdon discusses the variants up to 1969, the date of publication. Other variants have arisen since.

Friday, 3 March 2017

One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

It has to be one of the greatest opening lines in literature: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." Superb - and the quality does not diminish over the next 400 pages.

Ostensibly One Hundred Years of Solitude is the saga of seven generations of the Buendias, first family of Macondo. In many ways it is the same story, lived over again by succeeding generations.

The men are always (Jose) Arcadio or Aureliano. The Arcadios tend to be seekers after truth who end up going mad. The Aurelianos are more adventurous but equally monomaniacal.  Several of the women, notably the first matriarch, Ursula Iguaran, live more than a hundred years. Ultimately it all ends in near incest when Amaranta Ursula gives birth to Aureliano, son of her nephew Aureliano. The role of the matriarchs is to keep the house going. The women are either earth goddesses or professional virgins. The first Amaranta is a professional virgin; Renata Remedios, known as Meme, mother of the semi feral Aureliano who sleeps with his aunt, becomes a nun after the father of her child is crippled. Remedios the Beauty is so beautiful that one day she is simply carried off to Heaven. Her brother Aureliano Segunda searches the whole of Colombia for a woman very nearly as beautiful as Remedios. The high-born Fernanda bears him three children, eventually, but nevertheless likes to think of herself as virginal. Fernanda is the matriarch, especially since her husband a is living with his mistress, but in fact the house is maintained by her mother-in-law the long-suffering Santa Sofia de la Piedad. Aureliano Segunda's whore, Petra Cotes, is not the first immoral woman to become involved with the family. The third generation brothers, Aureliano Jose and Arcadio, both have sons by the local wisewoman Pilar Ternera, who outlives every generation, attaining the incredible age of 140. Colonel Aureliano Buendia - he of the opening line - has seventeen sons, all by different women, all called Aureliano, during his pointless military adventures.

Time, in Macondo, is more of a pool than a line. We are never told exactly when the hundred years begins or when it ends. We know that trains and movies ultimately arrive. There is a period of prosperity when the banana company builds a new town opposite the old, but that ends with four-and-a-half years of ceaseless rain, which is followed by a drought. Then the winds come and blow Macondo away into the swirl of history.

Let us return to Remedios the Beauty, the one who was carried off to Heaven. That is not a euphemism - she really is carried off by supernatural powers. One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the masterpieces of magic realism. Other miracles happen. The gypsies and the carnivals bring real magic to town. The gypsy leader Melquiades dies in the time of the first Jose Arcadio Buendia but keeps visiting the house until the sixth Aureliano finally manages to decipher the sanskrit manuscript Melquiades left behind - the prophecy which foretells the fate of Macondo once its hundred years are up.

Magnificent - indisputably a work of genius. Already I want to read it again.

Monday, 27 February 2017

The Emperor - Ryszaed Kapuscinski

This Penguin Classic is a classic of reportage rather than fiction or indeed non-fiction. Kapuscinski was a Polish reporter who had spent time in Ethiopia but who was not a witness to the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. He knew, however, that the abolition of the Ethiopian Empire was probably the last there would ever be. Slipshod commentators often talk about 21st century empires in connection with Russia but there is a fundamental difference: Vladimir Putin might have absolute autocratic authority but not even the most servile Kremlin bureaucrat thinks that authority will pass to his son and heir, if he even has one. In Imperial Ethiopia all authority was vested in the emperor, whose main claim to power was that he had managed to beat all the other princely and ducal contenders. In his youth Ras Tafari had probably been the best of a bad lot. During his exile during the Italian invasion he had even managed to establish himself on the world stage, perhaps the first black ruler of the modern era to do so. But after forty-four years on the throne, four-and-a-half decades of sitting cocooned in his palatial nest of sycophants, what had he become? One of his retainers, referred to as F, provides the answer as early as page 5:
It was a small dog, a Japanese breed. His name was Lulu. He was allowed to sleep in the Emperor's great bed. During various ceremonies, he would run away from the Emperor's lap and pee on dignitaries' shoes. The august gentlemen were not allowed to flinch or make the slightest gesture when they felt their feet getting wet. I had to walk among the dignitaries and wipe the urine from their shoes with a satin cloth. This was my job for ten years.
Yes, the institution of monarchy had become so debased that significant people had to put up with being peed on, and a man was employed to wipe their shoes. This, however, was not the most ludicrous example of royal protocol. There was the Hour of Assignments during which the emperor doled out rewards to his courtiers; there was no penalty for those who had failed for some reason, they were simply not rewarded and that was the kiss of death for their career. Haile Selassie, it was maintained, had risen above the hurly-burly of actually conferring with his courtiers face to face. His face was immobile, his voice inaudible. Thus all power was invested in the Minister of Pen who alone stood close enough to hear the imperial whispers. But he too was dispensable. If His Venerable Highness should let it be known that the Minister of the Pen had misinterpreted his wishes...

The court has officers such as Keeper of the Third Door and Imperial Pillow Bearer, but no elected politicians and no serious ministers. Yet the palace was a hive of activity from early morning to late at night. Hundreds of people busied themselves with absolute nonsense and useless flummery whilst outside the compound the people starved to death in their thousands. This is the regime that Kapuscinski recreates through interviews with the former officials whose world fell apart when Haile Selassie turned out to be mortal after all.

A lesser hand might leave us feeling sorry for the senile old man in his palace. Certainly Kapuscinski has sympathy for the redundant servants who, in the post-imperial Ethiopia cannot walk safely in public and who have to hide behind their initials in his book. But he has no sympathy at all for Hailie Selassie and his corrupt ministers, the former under house arrest, most of the latter executed. At the end of the book he writes:
With state money the dignitaries built themselves palaces, bought estates, travelled abroad. The Emperor himself amassed the greatest riches. The older he grew, the greater became his greed, his pitiable cupidity. One could talk about it with sadness and indulgence, were it not for the fact that HS - he and his people - took millions from the state treasury amid cemeteries full of people who had died of hunger, cemeteries visible from the windows of the royal Palace.
 I wish I could think of a journalist that insightful writing today.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

In a Glass Darkly - Sheridan Le Fanu

I got hold of this, Le Fanu's last book, because it is presented as highlights from the casebook of Dr Martin Hesselius, the prototype Van Helsing who oversees the vampire hunt in the magnificent Carmilla, which  I read over Christmas and which is currently one of the most viewed posts on this blog. Carmilla is indeed the fifth of the five stories in this collection. As I have already reviewed it in depth, I shan't repeat myself, especially since I didn't re-read it so soon.

As for the rest, the framing device is very thin. Dr Hesselius only features in the first story, the highly-regarded Green Tea. The story deserves its reputation. It is a truly creepy tale in which the Reverend Mr Jennings overstimulates himself with the titular brew and is consequently haunted by an evidently furious little monkey. The story's power stems largely from the fact that there is no logical reason for the manifestation nor its impotent rage against the vicar. Its main aim seems to be to prevent him taking up his comfortable country living. It operates with demonic malice. In London it will suddenly disappear for weeks on end. Jennings, hoping against hope that his torment has ended, finally risks a visit to his parish, at which point the monkey reappears. Dr Hesselius features in person. In London for some academic reason, he is approached by Mr Jennings who seeks his expert help. The help proves to be less than useless and the poor priest finally ends his suffering in the only sure way.

Next up is The Familiar, very similar to Green Tea. This time a sea captain is dogged by a malevolent midget who calls himself The Watcher, whom everyone can see but no one can catch. This time there is a reason: Captain Barton gave an order that cost a seaman his life. The Watcher is not that seaman but seems to operate on his behalf. Again, the outcome is inevitable... it is in the third story, Mr Justice Harbottle. The judge is haunted by a man he wrongly sent to the gallows and ends up doing away with himself. Evidently the theme of being stalked by guilt was a preoccupation of Le Fanu in the last years of his life. Mr Justice Harbottle is the only story here that comes anywhere near the brilliance of Carmilla. That is because it shares the same undercurrent of decadence and perversion. Harbottle is a vicious hanging judge but he is also a debauchee. It is suggested he hosts orgies in his house and he is certainly shacked up with the hanged man's wife.

The fourth story, The Room in the Dragon Volant, isn't really a ghost story at all. There is a mention, at some point, that previous occupants of the said room have vanished into thin air - and have been seen doing so. That's a promising idea but goes undeveloped. Instead we have a high Gothic romance in post-Napoleonic France. It is essentially a premature burial story. Sadly, the trope only works if the victim is actually buried. Being saved in the nick of time, as our hero is here, is just plain cheating. The writing, however, is exceptionally good, probably the best-written story in the collection.

Overall, three out of five great examples of Victorian Gothic and two perfectly acceptable lesser tales is by no means a bad thing.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Devotion of Suspect X - Keigo Higashino

The blurb proclaims Higashino as "The Japanese Steig Larsson". No he isn't. Nor, in fairness, does he claim to be. There is no resemblance whatsoever. Larsson was a journalist who wrote his Millennium Trilogy and died mysteriously young. Higashino has been a professional writer for many years, has written loads of books for both adults and children, and is now approaching the age of sixty.

Importantly, this is in no sense a thriller. It is utterly devoid of thrills. It is instead a traditional murder mystery with an old-fashioned amateur detective helping the plodding police. The amateur sleuth - "Detective Galileo" - is a university professor of physics. He is, in other words, Sherlock Holmes, who can solve any mystery under the guise of advanced pseudo-scientific flummery.

For a writer of such experience, the style is remarkably dull. It's not poorly written - all the words are where they should be and do what they have to do - yet it seems completely shorn of ambition, artistry, or even interest. There is nothing about any of these characters to grab the reader's empathy. They seem to have no emotional hinterland. Their sole function, as Professor Yukawa says, is to be cogs in the machine of the plot.

And as for the plot...  We know who did it from the first chapter. The only mystery is how will the killer and the killer's accomplice be caught. The plot, as so often in sub-Holmesian fiction, is ludicrously convoluted, or at least is meant to appear so. In fact the disposal is exactly as I observed in my recent review of Bird in a Cage - they cut it up and chuck it in the river. The twist, described on the back as "utterly surprising", was for me at least bleeding obvious from the moment it was set up. Regular visitors to this blog will know that I do not claim to be one of those crime fiction fans who always works out the ending. In fact I hardly ever do. And that perhaps shows how easy this one was to spot. I was so disappointed - 440 pages for what barely deserved a short story.

I suppose The Devotion of Suspect X would cover a medium-haul flight agreeably enough. But if you're fully awake, your critical faculty in reasonable order, it is really not worth the effort. There is a series, apparently, of Detective Galileo novels. I shall steer well clear.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Secret Sharer - Joseph Conrad

"The Secret Sharer" (1910) is by modern standards a short novella. In its day it was a long short story originally published in Harper's Magazine.

Needless to say, we find ourselves aboard ship in exotic waters, in this case the Gulf of Siam. Our 'hero' is the new captain, two weeks into his first command and struggling to exert his authority over the junior officers. He finds relief by spending the night on deck - until he looks down and sees what seems to be a naked, headless body floating in the water. In fact it's a living man who, once aboard and seen in the ship's night lights, is extremely like the captain himself.

The newcomer, Leggatt, was first mate of a ship becalmed nearby. He too was an outsider, who had to demonstrate his authority. Unfortunately this led to the death of a seaman. Leggatt was locked in his cabin until he could be delivered to civilian authority. Her escaped and swam through the islands until he found the ship he is now aboard.

The captain has a decision to make. Should he return the fugitive? Should he hold him prisoner until the next decent-sized town? Or should he aid and abet? Can he bring himself to condemn someone so like himself in face and situation? That's the moral dilemma and Conrad doesn't shirk the challenge. Of course the captain makes the wrong choice - Conrad's protagonists almost always do, hence the drama - and we are soon heading into shore in the teeth of a furious typhoon that has the blood pounding in our imaginative veins.

Bird in a Cage - Frederic Dard

Another forgotten period gem from Pushkin Vertigo. Frederic Dard (1921-2000) was the native French equivalent of Simenon. Like Simenon, Dard churned out several hundred novels (his equivalent of Maigret was San-Antonio) and, like Simenon, he wrote so many bestsellers that he became a tax exile in Switzerland.

Like Simenon, his best novels are the standalone noir thrillers of which this is one, dating from 1961. It's very short - only 120 pages. Everything is pared down to the bone. Everything takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Albert returns home after six years in prison. He killed his girlfriend in a fit of jealousy. His mother has died while he was away. Her flat is full of memories. He pops out for a Christmas drink. He meets a beautiful young woman and her daughter. The child is up way beyond her bedtime, so Albert carries her to the woman's apartment. He makes overtures. His overtures are not repulsed. Then things get really weird.

The twist, as so often in noir, is both breath-taking and, on reflection, really silly. Why people in noir can't simply bash their loved one's brains out and chuck them in the river is beyond me. Nevertheless, Dard has a grip like a vice on the reader's attention. The details are worked out with forensic detail. Every word and every piece of action is made to count. The metaphor of the title is beautifully played. And, best of all, Dard leaves us in suspense. Downright brilliant.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Clinch - Martin Holmen

This is real winner, which I happened upon by signing up to the Pushkin Press newsletter.
Holmen brings something radically new to Nordic Noir - a period piece set in the early days of classic American Noir. Genius!

Harry Kvist is a down-at-heel former boxer in Stockholm 1932. His main source of income is repossessing bicycles from renters out of funds. The Great Depression in Stockholm is excruciatingly hard. The streets are full of tramps and madmen. Envious eyes are cast at the rise of Hitler's Nazis, who seem to herald a resurgence of the common man.

One December night Harry accepts an out-of-town commission to go and collect a debt from one Zetterburg. Harry strong-arms the guy and arranges to return the next day for the money. But Zetterburg is found dead in his flat and Harry, who is not entirely unknown to the city constabulary, is brought in for questioning. He was seen by a nosy neighbour leaving Zetterburg's building.

Fortunately, he has a potential alibi - a prostitute he passed the time with while waiting for Zetterburg to come home. He was also seen elsewhere in the city at key times, cruising the gay bars. Because Harry's not-so-secret secret is that he prefers rough sex with young men. Very rough.

Anyway, Harry is released and sets out to track down Sonja the bowlegged prostitute. Along the way he comes across a one-eyed Austrian who seems intent on killing him. Then he happens upon a former movie siren who also likes it a little rough.

The book is first-person, present tense, the only way to take your Noir. Holmen has a style all his own, which works brilliantly. He conjures up Stockholm with a glamorous veneer that is only paper-thin. His cast of supporting characters is set with jewels like Harry's landlord Lundin and the prissy proto-Nazi detective Olsson. And the femme fatale, the blowsy drug-addled Doris, is heartbreakingly fatal,

Clinch is the first in a trilogy of Kvist novels, apparently. Next up is Down for the Count. You can count me in!

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Four-Dimensional Nightmare - J G Ballard

Short stories were never going to be the driving force of Ballard's fiction. They were just something he wrote to get into print and build a readership. This 1977 Penguin collection is an oddity even for Ballard. Two of the stories in the version originally published by Gollancz in 1963 have been replaced. To be fair, one of the replacements, "Thirteen to Centaurus", is one of the standout stories here. The other, "The Overloaded Man", is however completely forgettable.

As for the rest, time is a recurring theme. "The Voices of Time" and "The Garden of Time" rather speak for themselves, and "Chronopolis" isn't exactly oblique in its subject matter. I actually enjoyed all three. The length of the first allows for complexity and ambiguity, which I find Ballard always does rather well, whereas the shortness and simplicity of the second tilted it more towards fantasy, which Ballard does hardly at all. "Chronopolis" would be a classic short story in any collection with its brutal, sardonic twist.

Both "Chronopolis" and "Thirteen to Centaurus" feature clever and lonely young boys as protagonists. Empire of the Sun, which I consider Ballard's masterpiece, of course tells the tale of young Jim. I really wish he had used the young boy character more often. You can forgive a teenager his or her obsessions, whereas the grown men of High Rise and Kingdom Come can be downright unpleasant.

Two of the three remaining stories, "Cage of Sand" and "The Watch-Towers", share the abandoned city setting of "Chronopolis". I preferred the former, which is set on Mars, where a handful of hangers-on gather to watch the regular orbit of the capsule with a dead astronaut in it.

My favourite in the collection, though, has to "The Sound-Sweep". The over-developed world has become so noisy that people are employed to sweep away extraneous noise. The mute Mangon has a particular gift for tracking down and erasing the slightest lurking murmur. In his spare time he pays court to the forgotten operatic diva Madame Gioconda. No one listens to live music now. The fashion is for
Ultrasonic music, employing a vastly greater range of octaves, chords and chromatic scales than are audible by the human ear [which] provided a direct neural link between the sound stream and the auditory lobes, generating an apparently sourceless sensation of harmony, rhythm, cadence and melody uncontaminated by the noise and vibration of audible music.
Now that is exactly the sort of fiendish construct that gets the very best out of Ballard!

Monday, 30 January 2017

Katherine Howard - Josephine Wilkinson

Katherine Howard has been the subject of a couple of biographies recently. It is certainly true that she is probably the queen of whom least is known. Anne of Cleves, of course, lived longer, and Jane Seymour has been covered as context to the careers and tangled affairs of her two attention-seeking brothers. Otherwise it's Ann Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon and Kate Parr, very much in that order.

Wilkinson falls into the trap of treating Katherine Howard as one would a contemporary teenaged girl. By the standards of her time, she wasn't. She was fourteen or fifteen when she started having sex (history is vague about her actual age). Many women of her rank were married by that age. Henry VIII's grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, perhaps the most influential of all Tudor women, was married, widowed and a mother at the age of thirteen. If Edmund Tudor wasn't seen as a paedophile, nor should his grandson be.

The fact remains, Henry was old enough to be her father - indeed, he had a daughter older than Katherine. Again, this is nothing new. Henry's problem, I have always maintained, is that he was always in the shadow of his childhood friend Charles Brandon, who was bigger, better looking, a more skillful jouster, who had even more wives than Henry and no problem begetting children, especially sons. Brandon, the duke of Suffolk, has recently married his ward Catherine Willoughby and fathered two strapping sons. This is doubtless what Henry wanted from Katherine Howard.

History has tended to portray Katherine as a brainless tart, so a corrective approach is long overdue. The trouble is, Wilkinson takes it too far. Katherine was demonstrably not stupid; everyone who wrote about her (usually for the advisement of foreign kings) approved of the way she handled her new role as queen. Therefore ignorance cannot excuse her pre-marital promiscuity, having sexual encounters with two of her step-grandmother's servants and setting her cap at a third. Katherine knew what was expected of an eligible bride.  The whole point of being cloistered with the dowager Duchess of Norfolk (who had herself married a man almost fifty years her senior) was to prepare her for married life to some landed gent or other. At best, Katherine was the victim of an overheated puberty.

Her other great quality was honesty. She seems to have immediately admitted her fault, perhaps in the hope of simply being set aside as Katherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves had both been. After all, she might have been indiscreet and distinctly unwise towards Thomas Culpeper during her marriage to Henry but no one ever claimed she had been unfaithful. Henry, however, went into a sulk and had her head lopped off, a fate she bore with stoicism. Wilkinson provides a nice detail of Katherine practicing with the block the night before her execution.

So, it's a decent account of a sad and ultimately inconsequential life. She didn't put Henry off his marital adventures, she just made him chose better next time. We of course feel sorry for Katherine, but no one made her behave as she did - and even nowadays a young woman with Katherine's sexual antecedents would not be accepted as a potential queen consort by the more ardent royalists. Consider the fate of Sarah, duchess of York.

One thing that really annoyed me, however, was Wilkinson's pretentious habit of fiddling with names. She insists on referring to King Francis of France as Francois I. Yes, he was actually christened Francois, and his subjects would have referred to him as King Francois, but if we're being pedantic then French history calls him Francois premier, and contemporary Frenchmen simply called him le roi Francois, since we only start numbering when there has been more than one. Equally inexcusable is calling Richard Rich Riche; where did that come from? I daresay Wilkinson has found a reference to Riche somewhere, but we all know about Tudor spelling and there are many hundreds of references to plain and simple Richard Rich. He clearly called himself Rich. Blessed with a surname like that, who wouldn't?

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Dr Futurity - Philip K Dick

The sheer weight of ideas Dick manages to cram into these early novels is amazing. Here we have Jim Parsons, a doctor in 1998 America, which as usual is a technologically advanced, freedom-stunted version of America circa 1957. A couple of pages in and Parsons is abducted into the distant future. He sees a vehicle coming towards him, waves for it to stop. Instead the young driver, little more than a boy, deliberately tries to run him down - because that is the expected, courteous thing to do in these times.

Parsons finds himself in a supercity full of very young, good-looking people who all look broadly the same because they share the same blended racial heritage, a sort of dark coppery flesh tone. Parsons tries to save a young woman's life, which is a crime here. In these days they don't have doctors they have euthanors, because everyone agrees to limit the population. Couples don't have children. The men are sterilised at puberty and the women donate their eggs to the central sperm bank to be fertilised as and when required.

For his inadvertent crime Parsons is exiled to Mars. His prison ship is intercepted and he finds himself back on Earth, in the tribal lands outside the city. The tribe that has captured him - the tribe that brought him forward in time - is the Wolf Tribe, and they do things slightly differently. They are clearly more Native American in ancestry and they have old people. Loris, the queen, has her mother and grandmother still secretly living. Moreover, her father Corith is in a cryogenic tank with an arrow in his chest. Corith is dead but Parsons has the skills to bring him back. No one since Parson's time has possessed those skills. The Wolf tribe have been able to track him down because they, alone among the tribes, have perfected time travel.

Parsons removes the arrow, repairs the damage and gets Corith breathing again. He has learnt by now that Corith was killed back in the sixteenth century when he went back to try and stop Sir Francis Drake landing in the New World and wreaking genetic havoc. Overnight he examines the extracted arrow. It looks like an authentic sixteenth century arrow - except the feathers are plastic. Next morning he is called to his patient. H finds another arrow jammed into Corith's chest.

To try and solve the riddle everyone goes back in time to Drake's Californian landfall. They aim to intercept Corith as he runs down the hill to confront the Englishman, thus intervening before the arrow is loosed and he is killed. Then things get really complicated and really ingenious. And the whole tangled web is satisfactorily sorted in a total 150 pages. A mini masterpiece.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

As a Man Grows Older - Italo Svevo

Svevo's story is unique. As a young man in Trieste he wrote two unsuccessful novels, of which this is the second. In middle age he befriended a young Irishman living in the city. He happened to mention his writing. The young man happened to be James Joyce. A decade later, the now famous Joyce found a publisher for Svevo's third novel, The Confessions of Zeno, which was published with great success in 1923, thereby encouraging English language translations of the earlier novels including this, in 1932, by Beryl de Zoete. Svevo had finished a fourth book and started a fifth when he died in a car crash in 1928. I'm guessing the car was the product of his belated success. And his name wasn't Italo Svevo anyway. He was Ettore Schmitz. Nonetheless his widow called herself Livia Svevo when she published a memoir of her husband.

Emilio Brentani, the hero of As a Man Grows Older, is a self-portrait. Like Svevo he aspired to literary success when young and missed. He now has a dreary office job and lives with his spinster sister Amalia, in Trieste, of course; nowhere could be better suited to this nowhere nobody. Emilio still considers himself an artistic man about town. He cultivates artistic friends like the sculptor Balli and - the modernist touch which appealed to Joyce - he overindulges in fashionable self-scrutiny. Every action, every emotion is gone over and over in his head, almost as if he is living an autobiographical novel. When he falls head over heels for the beautiful young Angiolina he builds himself a mountain of reasons why he shouldn't. His friend Balli, who fancies Angiolina himself and, in any case, doesn't want to lose his friend Emilio, encourages his neurotic behaviour. Emilio's sister Amalia, the only other significant character in the novel, likewise frets about losing her protector whilst consoling herself with erotic dreams of the flamboyant alpha male Balli. Angiolini couldn't care less. She is a poor young woman who knows that her beauty is her escape. She has had plenty of suitors before and makes no attempt to hide them. Emilio gets so tangled up in his strategems that he encourages her to become engaged to an unscrupulous tailor. He encourages her to sleep with her fiance so that he, Emilio, doesn't have to shoulder the guilt of deflowering her. Angiolina has no problem with this; her virginity is a distant memory - and, of course, the tailor dumps her the moment he has had his wicked way.

It is plain, spinsterish Amalia who pays the heaviest price for all this neurasthenic nonsense. Emilio comes home one day to find her literally deranged with frustrated passion. Emilio at least has the human decency to look after his sister, though not without asking Balli's advice first and accepting the medical guidance of Balli's friend, who cheerfully admits he has no idea what he is doing. It doesn't end well. Angiolina, meanwhile, has eloped with a cashier who has prudently robbed his own bank. Even then Emilio has to go through an elaborately staged charade of him abandoning her.

The novel is light but very modern in its time and still entertaining today. It is nothing like a Joyce novel but you can easily see what appealed to him here. Svevo is a writer who deservedly stands on his own, a unique voice unfairly forgotten.