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.

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.