Saturday, 22 January 2022

Full Dark, No Stars - Stephen King

A collection of short fiction, one of which I'd already read.  But Stephen King is to my mind the Number One living writer in English.  No one else has come anywhere near his output of hits across a surprising number of lengths, forms and genres.

Full Dark, No Stars is essentially a book about marriage. '1922', which I read as a standalone novella last year and which is therefore reviewed earlier on this blog, is about a poisoned relationship.  'A Good Marriage' is what it says on the tin, with a killer twist.  'Big Driver' is a revenge tale in which the ill-starred union which resulted in the 'Big Driver' is the nexus - and again it's the twists that make it.  'Fair Exchange' is perhaps the weakest of the four feature stories - a Faustian deal to make a marriage better by sabotaging the marriage of another.  A bonus short story, 'Under the Weather', is in keeping with the marital theme.  All would be hunky dory with the Franklins on the fifth floor, if only the other tenants hadn't started to complain...

OK, not the master's finest work, although I would argue that '1922' comes close.  Nevertheless, thoroughly engrossing and far better than anyone else is offering.

Monday, 17 January 2022

The Power of the Dog - Thomas Savage

The original 1967 book of the hit Netflix movie that's currently making all the running in the early stages of awards season.

It is 1924 and the end of the cowboy era in Montana.  The Burbank brothers, Phil and George, had taken over running the ranch since their parents retired to a hotel in Utah.  Phil is the traditional cowpoke, skilled in all the traditional western handcrafts, a man who pointedly disdains to wear gloves.  And yet he is a millionaire and something of an autodidact genius.  Younger brother George is plump and quiet and handles the business side of things.  The brothers live together, even sleep in the same bed, but George is a modern man who loves automobiles and who hankers after a normal life.

In what passes for a town is the widow Rose Gordon, whose husband came west to be a doctor but ended up a drunk who did the unforgivable and hanged himself.  Rose keeps a boarding house and devotes herself to her son Pete, a strange youth who wants to be a famous surgeon.  George Burbank, in his gentle, quiet way, courts Rose and marries her - which comes as a blow to Phil, confronted with an aspect of life that is alien and repugnant to him.

Phil sneakily undermines Rose, makes her life hell.  He is automatically antagonistic to sissy Pete when he comes to stay on the ranch during the school holidays.  But something about the boy - his solitary self-reliance, his way of learning, and yes, his courage - strikes a chord and wins Phil over.  He passes on his lore to the boy.  In his way, he loves him.  But years ago - the year before Johnny Gordon killed himself - Phil Burbank shamed him, broke him.  That's a grudge Johnny's son has kept and nurtured.  There is a price to be paid.

It really is a stunning feat of storytelling.  Yes, there are notes of True Grit and the novels of Larry McMurtry, but that was the era in which Savage wrote.  The way he handles the storylines, the dignity he gives his characters, even the minor ones, is very different.  His prose is magnificent, his sense of history shines in every line of description.  I loved it.

Wednesday, 12 January 2022

The Devil in the Flesh - Raymond Radiguet

The ultimate, the original enfant terrible and muse to Jean Cocteau, Raymond Radiguet published this roman a clef when he was still a teenager.  His hero in the book (unnamed) is fifteen years old when he seduces nineteen-year-old Marthe.  Marthe is engaged to a soldier on the Front (this is the last year or so of World War I), and the protagonist lets the marriage go ahead.  But as soon as Jacques is back on the front line our 'hero' is spending his nights and much of his days at the marital home.  Marthe loves him dearly.  He is too young for such considerations.  For him, it is all about the coup, the exercise of control over a lesser being.  The book came out in 1923, around the time Radiguet turned twenty.  It was a scandal and a sensation.  Of course everyone assumed it was autobiographical, which it may well have been; of course Radiguet did nothing to clear up the matter.  The outcry was not so much the seduction as the implication that the wives of France's heroes might not have been entirely faithful during their long absence.

Radiguet wrote a play and one more novel - Count Orgel's Ball, which is much harder to get hold of. He was still only twenty when he died in December 1923.  Cocteau was inconsolable - for a while.  Nina Hamnett (see below), who knew them both from Bohemian nights at the Boeuf sur le toit, attended the funeral.

The book remains extraordinarily powerful.  The translation in the Penguin Classic version, by A M Sheridan Smith, is extremely readable.

Monday, 10 January 2022

The Painted Veil - Somerset Maugham


In this novel from 1925 Maugham's theme is coming to terms with adulthood and the development of empathy.  Kitty Garstin is a pretty, middleclass girl, favoured by her parents because she's prettier than her younger sister Dorothy.  But plain Dorothy gets engaged first, which Kitty takes as something of a slur on her, so she accepts the first proposal that comes along - from a talented, decent-looking young bacteriologist called Walter Fane.  She barely knows him, doesn't really like him let alone love him, but he does have the advantage of a posting in Hong Kong.

Once in the colony Kitty soon gets bored and plunges into an affair with Charlie Townsend, the Colonial Secretary.  He's an older man, horribly vain and self-centred, but Kitty is infatuated and, at the same time, relishes betraying her dull husband.  Walter finds out and, icy-cold, issues an ultimatum.  Either she comes with him to a cholera-ridden city up-country or he'll divorce her, ruin her reputation and, more importantly, Townsend's prospects of ever becoming governor.  Kitty assumes Townsend will throw up his career and run away with her.  Of course he won't.  He loves his life and is deeply attached to his plain, undemanding wife.

So Kitty goes with Walter, not caring if she lives or dies.  The city really is hell - the dead lie in the streets, the military is trying to organise things, and the only functioning healthcare centre is a French nunnery.  Kitty meets a strange, prematurely bald little man called Waddington, the deputy commissioner in the area.  He is deeply immersed in the community and knows everything about everyone.  He introduces Kitty to the nuns who absolutely revere Walter for his work and effort.  Kitty has no education and no real talent, but she can help out by looking after the abandoned Chinese girls.  Initially they are ugly little monsters to her, but then she recognises their humanity.  She visits Waddington at home and finds out he lives, unmarried, with a Mandarin noblewoman - a double outsider in Southern China - who is utterly devoted to him.  As Kitty discovers the humanity in others, so she finds it within herself.  She realises she is pregnant.  Is it Townsend's or is it Walter's?  Townsend doesn't matter to her any more.  Having seen Walter with babies dying of cholera she knows he will accept the child (she's convinced it will be a girl) and love it.  She aches to tell him - but Walter catches the cholera (he may have been experimenting on himself) and dies.

Kitty has to return to Hong Kong, where she is met by Dorothy Townsend, who is every bit as caring and charitable as everyone says she is.  For a time, at Dorothy's insistence, Kitty lives in the Townsend home.  Charlie tries it on, of course, but gets his come-uppance.  Kitty finally takes control of her life and goes home to London.  Her father, whom she has never really appreciated, has accepted a post in the West Indies.  His wife has died while Kitty was en route home.  Kitty, now properly adult, pledges to go with him.

A delightful book, written in eighty very short chapters yet deeply incisive, with wonderfully rounded, compulsive characters.  I enjoyed The Magician more, because it's my kind of story, but The Painted Veil is a much better book - on a par with The Moon and Sixpence.


Wednesday, 5 January 2022

Mexico Set - Len Deighton

 The second novel of the first Bernard Samson trilogy, Mexico Set is a straight follow-on from Berlin Game.  The dust from the shock ending of the first novel is still settling.  Bernie has been cleared of suspicion - officially, at least - but he still feels he's on probation.  He's in Mexico City with Dicky Cruyer, who has got the Berlin Desk at London Central which should, by rights, have been Bernie's.  They are there because there's a disgruntled KGB operative called Erich Stinnes, who might just be ready to defect.  He approached Werner Volkmann and his young wife Zena in a German club.  Stinnes said he'd mistaken her for a famous beauty (whose brother Bernie and Werner just happened to know, growing up in Berlin).  A genuine mistake or a coded message?

Ultimately, Bernie gets the job of enrolling Stinnes.  He knows this is his only chance to recover his career.  But what if it's all a con?  What if Stinnes is actually out to enrol Bernie?  And why is everyone, friend or foe, apparently dead set on banjaxing Bernie's operation?

It all ends in a genuine Mexican stand-off, which is truly thrilling - and also multilayered.  Deighton's mastery shows in the way he ends the novel.  No what-happened-next, no analysis and absolutely no unravelling or regathering of loose ends.  He always knew he had a third novel for that.  And a second trilogy... maybe a third.

A second instalment, then, that is every bit as good as the first.

Tuesday, 28 December 2021

Uncommon Danger - Eric Ambler

Uncommon Danger (1937) was Ambler's second novel.  The setting is contemporary.  Fascist governments are rising all over Europe and challenging the dreadful divisions imposed by the Versailles conference after World War I.  Russia and Romania are the main claimants for oil-rich Bessarabia, but plutocrats worldwide are desperate to get their hands on the black gloop worth almost as much as gold.  Key Russian documents are stolen.

Our hero is a freelance journalist called Kenton who has lost all his ready money on poker dice.  Then, out of the blue, the only other passenger in his railway compartment, who claims to be a commercial traveller called Sachs, offers him a tidy sum to smuggle a package through customs for him.  Kenton is in no position to refuse.  He is an honest fellow and goes to the hotel Sachs nominated, to return the package and collect the other half of his fee.  Only to find Sachs murdered and Kenton himself the only suspect.

The rest of the book is a series of adventures which reminded me of The Thirty-Nine Steps - Ambler is in many ways the bridge between Buchan and Bond.  The Russian agents, Andreas Zaleshoff and his sister Tamara, are by and large the good guys, Colonel Robinson and Captain Maitland, operating on behalf of the London capitalists, are very much the baddies.  Smedoff, the ageing femme fatale, who appears right at the end, is a magnificent character.

Excellent fun.

Friday, 24 December 2021

Laughing Torso - Nina Hamnett


Nina Hamnett was a wild child of the nineteens and twenties.  Posh but not rich, she escaped from rural Wales to London where she studied, on and off, to be a painter - and from London to Paris before and after the War, where she slept with a variety of painters, did a lot of drawing, and sold the odd painting to keep the wolf from the door.

They are all here - Modigliani looms large, Brancusi, Cocteau and Radiguet,  Hamnett drops the big names like small bombs.  She introduces Valentino to James Joyce.  Some names are evidently so big that she has to refer to them as A or Countess B.  It's a whirlwind of parties and balls and cabarets, liberally sprinkled with nude dancing.  Hamnett does not judge and doesn't care how you might judge her.

There is no real structure to the narrative.  She tries to be chronological but frequently fails.  It doesn't matter.  This is gossip and tittletattle in a breathless rush.  And she's really good at it.  She brings exotic scenes alive and makes highly-strung artists instantly human.  Laughing Torso provoked outrage and glee when it was published in 1932.  Aleister Crowley tried to sue; he failed but he needed publicity more than he needed cash.

There is a sequel, Is She a Lady?, which came out in 1955, the year before she fell (or threw herself) out of the window of her flat in Paddington.  I will have to track it down.

There is no better account than Hamnett's of Bohemianism of the period on both sides of the Channel.  As a painter, there is no better portrait of W H Davies, the 'Supertramp', than hers.

Robert B Parker's The Devil Wins - Reed Farrel Coleman

Robert B Parker was a massively successful writer of moderately hardboiled crime fiction series, notably the Spenser series.  His second string, with nine novels, was Jesse Stone.  Doubtless somebody was hired to continue the Spenser series when Parker died in 2010.  Reed Farrel Coleman was the second writer hired to continue the casefiles of Jesse Stone.  This is the second of six continuations thus far.

Coleman is himself the author of successful series.  He has also collaborated with others, including Ulster's own Ken Bruen.  He is, in short, a professional.  He knows what he is doing.

So, Jesse Stone is a former LAPD homicide detective who lost his job because of his drinking.  He moved crosscountry to become local police chief in Paradise, Mass., a commuter town for Boston.  In The Devil Wins an autumn wind reveals three bodies in an abandoned building, two young girls who went missing 25 years earlier, and a fresh John Doe.  A side of Paradise and its history is revealed that Stone knew nothing about.  His righthand woman, Officer Molly Crane, was friends with these girls.  There's a lot of pressure on Stone to solve the case, particularly from the town's elected leaders.  The national media is interested, especially when the mother of one of the girls, a noted sexpot in her day and now married to an elderly millionaire, goes off a cliff minus her panties.

The story really is well done.  The town comes alive with its friendships, alliances, rivalries.  The characters, too, are three-dimensional, expertly layered.  But it's the steady revelation of the mystery that Coleman does so well.  I shall certainly keep my eye out for more of his work.  Who knows, I might even try one of Parker's originals.  

Tuesday, 21 December 2021

The Secret Pilgrim - John le Carre

Billed as the last of the 'Smiley' novels, The Secret Pilgrim (1990) is actually the story of 'Ned', a Circus spy whose mostly second-division career is built under the aegis of Smiley.  As his career winds down Ned is put in charge of the Sarratt nursery for fledgling agents.  It occurs to him to invite the retired Smiley to give an after dinner speech to the students.  He never really believes that the secretive master will actually come, but he does, and he speaks freely.  But it is Ned's experiences which illustrate Smiley's points.  Thus what we have is an episodic sequence from Ned's career interspersed with commentary and context by Smiley - not at all an easy device to pull off, but Carre, being himself a master, does so without apparent effort.  He also succeeds in making it moving.  Ned, like Smiley, runs spies and interrogates traitors.  For Smiley it was Karla and the ultimate traitor, Bill Haydon; for Ned it is lesser fry - conflicted men and women, culminating in the tremendously sad, tremendously lonely Foreign Office underling Cyril Frewin, whom Ned has to win over and destroy just days before handing in his credentials.

Smiley, too, hands in his credentials.  "It's over," he says, "and so am I. ... Please don't ask me back ever again."  The Cold War has ended, but Smiley and his creator set us up for the new enemy, unfettered capitalism, as deadly to the common interest of mankind as any nuclear bomb.  The best le Carre novel I have read in years.  Genuinely superb.

Monday, 13 December 2021

The Drought - J G Ballard

Ballard's classic climate disaster sci fi has never been more relevant.  Dr Charles Ransom lives on a houseboat on a lake by a river, a hundred or so miles from the sea.  But it hasn't rained for years, the river is drying up, fresh water is at a premium and society is starting to break down.  Ransom is one of the last to leave for the coast, taking with him a few fellow strays.  He has left it almost too late.  The beaches are now a militarized zone, cut off by chainlink fences to protect the desalination plants.  But the people are restive.  Every day there is an incursion...

Years pass - this is Ballard's clever move - and the populace by the coast is fragmented.  Some live miserable lives, working together to collect seawater on desalination beds.  Others, like Ransom and his ex-wife, fend for themselves on the periphery.  Ransom develops the belief that there is a secret supply of water inland.  The best way to find it is to follow the dry river bed back the way he came.  He collects another rag-tag band and sets off.

He returns to Mount Royal and Hamilton, to the very street he lives on back in normal times.  The water supply is virtually next door, at the Lomax estate.  Richard and Miranda Lomax were always eccentric.  Now they are stark mad, eating stray people and breeding mystical halfwits with the demented shaman Quilter.  Ballard makes his final section a dark, twisted take on The Tempest, which is pretty dark anyway when you think about it.

It's a magnificent book, the best of Ballard's sci fi that I have read thus far.  With a great last line.