Friday, 22 October 2021

Berlin Game - Len Deighton


I didn't read Deighton's spy novels when they came out.  I'd been put off spy fiction by reading James Bond, which, when I reached the age of eleven or twelve, struck me as being childishly poor.  I also didn't like the movie of The Ipcress File when I was around the same age - not because it was childish but because I couldn't make head nor tail of it.  I did read Deighton's other work over the years SS-GB and XPD, for example, and I really enjoyed them.

Anyway, Berlin Game is the first in the first trilogy of the Bernard Samson series.  Samson is a mid-ranking member of the Department who is unlikely to rise higher, being neither Oxbridge educated nor ex-military.  He has, however, a skill set indispensable in the current crisis.  He was born and brought up in Berlin, where his father was stationed after the war.  He speaks Berlin German like the native he is.  The perfect candidate, then, to venture into East Berlin and extract Brahms Four, the agent who has been supplying the Department with vital economic data for years.  Also, Bernie owes the man - it was Brahms Four who saved him in Wiemar, back in the day.

It's dangerous.  Bernie's wife Fiona, who also works in the Department, doesn't want him to take the risk, especially when it becomes apparent that someone high up on the UK side is leaking to the KGB.  Finding the mole is one of the things that spurs Bernie to accept the task.  So it's back to Berlin, to his old friends, former colleagues and new enemies.

Deighton pulls the story off magnificently.  Lots of interesting characters, double-crossing and general intrigue.  The masterful laying out of detail is to my mind one of the secrets of Deighton's sixty-year success.  He portions it out just right - not laying it on with a trowel when it interests him (like Fleming) and skipping where it doesn't, but always judiciously, building our mind map brick by brick.  I read this and believed I could smell Berlin in the early Eighties.  Brilliant.

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead


It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2017, it won the National Book Award.  It is a substantial and important novel.  Problem is, it's not that great.  It is interesting and very well-written, but apart from the one big idea (that the underground railroad was exactly that) there's nothing new or unexpected here.  The railroad conceit soon wears thin because Whitehead doesn't push himself to give it any credibility.  I, for example, would have liked other passengers.  The supposedly conflicted bad guy - the slave capturer Ridgeway, is a Clint Eastwood character in one of his lesser films.  I read it.  I won't be queuing up for any of Whitehead's other work.

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Hellfire - Karin Fossum


It's been a while since my last Fossum.  This instalment in her Sejer series dates from 2014 but is set ten years earlier.  Two one-parent families prepare for Christmas.  Bonnie and Simon, a care worker and her young son; and Mass and Eddie, a middleaged woman and her twenty-one year-old with mild learning difficulties.  The following summer, an horrific double murder is discovered in an abandoned caravan.  Sejer and Skarre investigate.

Fossum is very much the Ruth Rendell of Nordic Noir.  Her characters' psyches are explored in detail while the Confucian cop goes quietly about his business.  Like Rendell, Fossum never fails to draw me in, whatever her subject matter.  Hellfire is one of her best.

Thursday, 7 October 2021

The Belly of Paris - Emile Zola


This is the Modern Library translation of Zola's shortish novel of Les Halles, the third in the Rougon-Macquart sequence.  Florent Quenu has finally returned to Paris, having escaped from Devil's Island.  He was unfairly imprisoned for a minor role in an abortive uprising.  He finds sanctuary with his brother who runs a successful charcuterie on the fringes of the newly-built market complex with his wife, the Beautiful Lisa.  Florent is ultimately found a job as inspector of the fish market where he is targeted by the Beautiful Norman, who initially only wants to spite her rival Lisa.

Meanwhile Florent has slipped back into his anti-establishment ways.  He gets subsumed (he rarely takes action) into a gaggle of local hotheads who gather at a local bar.  This draws the attention of the market busybodies and ultimately leads to disaster.

The Belly of Paris hinges on the fat and the thin.  Florent is constitutionally thin whereas Lisa is fat and complacent and conservative.  All of life is contained within the huge market, a world of its own with officials like Florent, merchants like the Norman, and an underclass which subsists on the leftover produce.  As always with Zola the world is mapped and documented.  What makes this novel different is the focus on food.  Several times key revelations are set against the preparation of food.  This is where this translation comes into its own.  Mark Kurlansky is a food writer who came into translation through his researches into international cuisine.  He knows exactly what Zola is talking about and the food sequences really glisten with fat and scent and colour.

A wonderful translation of an interesting book.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

The Hunger - Whitley Strieber


I enjoyed The Hunger much more than expected.  I expected a typical horror story of the era - sub-Stephen King with lots of sex and gore.  Actually, Strieber never uses the word 'vampire' at all but argues for a separate yet twinned species descended from the Lamia (see Keats and Apollonius of Tyre).  Miriam Blaylock may just be that Lamia, a child during the fall of Troy, now resident in New York City in a specially reinforced townhouse.

Sarah Roberts, meanwhile, is a specialist sleep researcher at the Riverside Centre.  She is currently seeking a cure for ageing, in non-scientific terms, the elixir of life.  Her experiments with Rhesus monkeys has spectacularly failed, and her programme may be shut down - until Miriam Blaylock walks in complaining of night terrors.

Miriam and Sarah both have problematic male partners.  John is an 18th century gentleman converted by Miriam who is facing up to the uncomfortable reality that whilst Miriam might be to all intents and purposes immortal, her converts are not.  They age visibly by the minute, consumed by the Hunger but suddenly denied the restorative Sleep. Sarah's partner Tom Havers is a business-oriented medic whose ambition is to rise to the top of the medical world.  Like John, he genuinely loves his woman but also like John he cannot understand the passion that drives her.

The upshot is truly compelling, genuinely thrilling at all the right times.

Strieber's contribution to the vampire studies is the concept of vampiric blood (it is the blood itself which makes the change), which must have been genuinely terrifying during the decade of HIV.  Secondly, he confronts the question of what happens to an immortal being denied of nourishment.  They don't die because they can't and yet they are beyond the point of recovery either through being deprived of sustenance or dismemberment and dispersal.  Fascinating.

Friday, 24 September 2021

Hell is a City - Maurice Proctor


I knew there had to be one somewhere!  A fellow Nelsonian who wrote classic British noir crime fiction.  And here he is, Maurice Proctor, one of the founders of the form, with this very novel in 1954.  Ok, Nelson might have its hellish side but it's not a city.  The city here is Granchester, not to be confused with the Old Vicarage at Grantchester, but very much to be confused with Manchester in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

The armed robber Don Starling has escaped from prison and is believed to be headed home to Granchester.  There, his lifelong nemesis Inspector Harry Martineau awaits.  The two men went to school together and hated one another even as children.  Meanwhile a local bookie's female assistant is snatched while taking the St Leger proceeds to the bank.  Martineau finds her body out on the moors.  Is Starling involved?

What gives this fairly ordinary crime caper its noirish flavour is the linkage between police and criminals.  Not only do they live and work alongside one another, but both draw the line and killing a young woman for money.  Martineau and the robbed bookie both have unhappy marriages.  Martineau is not the pillar of rectitude he appears to be.  He drinks too much and is inevitably drifting towards an affair with a local barmaid.  Any hint of impropriety will extinguish his hopes of promotion.  Recapturing Don Starling, on the other hand, will guarantee advancement.

The Starling and Martineau narratives run alongside one another - another noirish trope.  They come together in a spectacularly set up rooftop showdown in the city centre.  By this point Starling has nothing left to lose and Martineau no longer cares about promotion.  Both men are armed - perfectly credibly - despite the fact that in 1954 no British coppers routinely carried weapons.  And glowering over their deadly encounter is the shadow of the hangman, the legendary Albert Pierrepoint, whose equally legendary pub is namechecked in the book.

I'd never heard of Maurice Proctor.  Thank goodness for Murder Room and other reprint publishers. Hell is a City - great title for a fantastic story. I've already bought another Martineau in ebook.  Can't wait.

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Getting Carter - Nick Triplow


I've written before about Ted Lewis - see me reviews of GBH and Plender, below - but this is the book that led to those books being republished as No Exit titles.  That alone warrants bonus points to Nick Triplow, who also introduced the aforementioned.  To save time scrolling, I was staggered by the brilliance of GBH, less so by Plender.

This critical biography of the forgotten author falls somewhere between the two.  It is absolutely thorough on the life, but is shackled by the fact that Lewis was a pretty appalling person who had talent in abundance but drank it all away.  Far more interesting for me is Triplow's recreation of Hull and Humberside during Lewis's two periods of residence.  I was resident there between times and Triplow's account rings pitch perfect to me.

I also thoroughly enjoyed his assessments of the books and the field of pre-Lewis British noir crime fiction.  In summary then, a significant book which adds additional depth to the novels.  It's just a shame about Lewis himself. 

Monday, 13 September 2021

The Napoleon of Crime - Ben Macintyre


"Thrilling," cries the Telegraph.  "A highly charged thriller!" squeaks the Independent on Sunday.  No it's not.  Anyone who works in the media and writes a book is always going to get quotes for his blurb.  In this case only Macintyre's employer seems to have bothered to read it.  "A well-researched and lively account," says the good old Times, and The Napoleon of Crime is certainly that.  In fact Macintyre's liveliness is adversely effected by the depth of his research.  He thinks Adam Worth, the said Napoleon, is compelling.  He isn't.  A Napoleon of crime is only interesting when he's caught, until which time he is just another inexplicably rich person.  He may or may not have contributed to Conan Doyle's creation of Professor Moriarty, but anyone who has read the stories will tell you he's not very interesting either.

The thing about Worth is that he did two interesting things - he stole and returned Gainsborough's painting of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, at that time the most expensive painting ever sold at auction.  He stole the painting boldly and personally.  He returned it clandestinely and may even have been paid to do so.  He was never charged with the theft.  Yes, that's really unusual and interesting - but unfortunately the two events are twenty-five years apart.  Twenty-five years in which Worth slowly sank lower and lower.

What Macintyre should have written was the story of the painting, overlaying the rapid rise and painfully slow descent of Worth.  But he has discovered too much detail about Worth in the files of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and just cannot bring himself to sublimate any of it.  Thus the first part of the book, leading up to the theft, is rip-roaring.  Everything after that point is just plain boring. My quote, if anybody wants it for a future edition, would be 'Disappointing.'

Sunday, 5 September 2021

Tales of Hoffmann - E T A Hoffmann


We've all heard of Tales of Hoffman, obviously.  But how many have read the tales?  Well I now have - and my breath has been taken away.  Unfortunately this Penguin Classics version isn't all the tales, so I'm guessing you have to hunt down other editions to complete the set.  Still, the eight tales here make for a marvellous read.

First off, these are not short stories, as the 'tales' element might have inferred.  Seven of these are novellas, the other - 'The Mines at Falun' - either a long short story or a short novella.  Hoffman (1776-1822) seems to have written his entire literary output in the last six or seven years of his short life.  Before that he tried painting and succeeded to an extent as a composer.  And all the time he was a middle-ranking local bureaucrat.

R J Hollingdale, in his introduction, makes much of Hoffman's 'double life'.  It is Hollingdale's thesis that many of his characters have double lives.  That's certainly true, but many of them are also mad, as are the worlds in which they find themselves.  A better argument - which Hollingdale also makes - is that Hoffmann is the direct precursor of Poe.  This is especially true of the first novella here Mademoiselle de Scudery, an aged aristocrat at the court of Louis XIV, turns amateur sleuth in order to unmask a serial killer.  But then we have the very creepy 'The Sandman', in which the story itself has two lives.  And my favourite, 'The Choosing of the Bride', in which a sad local bureaucrat in his forties gets embroiled with what may be a two hundred year old goldsmith and his associate, the Wandering Jew.  This, by the way, is a knockabout comedy.

The truth is, I can think of no one remotely similar to Hoffmann.  The closest I can think of is Neil Gaiman. (Is 'The Sandman' some sort of arcane clue?)  I am a Gaiman enthusiast and now I absolutely crave more Hoffmann.  Unique, brilliant - otherwise indescribable.

Monday, 30 August 2021

Abraham Lincoln - John Drinkwater


Abraham Lincoln is the play that made John Drinkwater famous on both sides of the Atlantic.  He produced it at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, which he ran, in October 1918.  It then transferred to London and became an enormous hit, even though - as everyone said at the time - it had none of the usual attributes of commercial theatrical success.  There is no love interest, no jokes.  Any real conflict is either offstage or internal until the very last moment.  There are no surprises.  Barely any continuity.  Instead we jump from Lincoln at home, accepting nomination, to the White House a year later,  then two years later, then Appomattox, April 1865, and finally Ford's Theatre, a few evenings later.

What the play had, however, and what the English public desperately wanted to see as the world's worst war finally ended, was a moral hero who justified the bloodshed and pledged reconciliation.  This, of course, is not what Allied politicians ultimately delivered, but it was absolutely what the public wanted.  And it is beautifully done.  Drinkwater was a minor Georgian poet who dabbled in verse drama before he wrote Lincoln.  He was also a man of the theatre.  His father had walked out on a secure teaching job to go on the stage.  Drinkwater himself had been with Barry Jackson, who had founded and built the Birmingham Rep in 1913, for more than a decade.  He knew what the public wanted and he provided it.

The history is accurate enough, but it is revealed subtly and only when absolutely needed.  Nobody's character develops much except for Lincoln, who undergoes every bit of suffering during the bloody Civil War but keeps on going because do so is the right thing.  He frees the slaves.  He lets the defeated Confederate cavalry keep their horses to till the land.  And as we all know, for this he was shown no mercy.  The assassination, which we all know is coming, is handled in the only way it can still be shocking - in a true coup de theatre, which must have been a nightmare to stage (Barry Jackson himself designed the sets).

Traces of the conventions of the English Arts Theatre movement survive in the poetic chorus of two 'chroniclers'.  These are easily ignored for the modern reader.  We will simply say, this is why Drinkwater was the least successful of the core Georgian poets.  He made up for it by being a much better playwright than any other (and, for those who don't know, all the others wrote plays).