Saturday, 31 March 2012

Murder at Crome House - GDH & Margaret Cole

Another classic Penguin greenback from the Golden Age of detective fiction, this one from 1927.  GDH Cole (1889-1959) is the slightly better remembered half of the husband-and-wife literary team.  He was a libertarian socialist, Fabian and co-operator who also wrote political non-fiction.  His wife Margaret (1893-1980) was a pacifist and also a Fabian, who was later knighted for her services to local government.

The Murder at Crome House is only the third of about thirty novels they wrote together.  It does not feature one of their regular sleuths but is a stand-alone mystery featuring James Flint, an academic of enquiring mind who inevitably puts us in mind of GDH himself.

The set-up of the mystery - the murder of Sir Harry Wye - is so convoluted that I initially thought I was reading a spoof.  The murder has been photographed, not once but twice, by the victim and featuring two different killers.  It's not a spoof but what I suspect we have here is two clever people dreaming up the wildest possible premise and unravelling it as they go rather than plotting it out in advance.

That said, the writing is witty and smart throughout.  The Coles avoid the usual pitfall of contemporary writing and soak their scenes with layers of circumstantial detail which brings the world of 85 years ago vividly back to life for the modern reader.

I enjoyed it thoroughly without ever once believing it.  I didn't guess the murderer - I never do - but I for once I don't see that as a shortcoming on my part.

Like Mr and Mrs Cole, I overthought it.

Monday, 26 March 2012

The Stone Cutter - Camilla Lackberg

Looks like I'm reading this series in reverse order - The Stone Cutter is the Patrik Hedstrom novel immediately before The Gallows Bird (see previous post).  I enjoyed it slightly more.  I liked the interwoven backstory, which I didn't fathom out quite so soon.  And the dialogue is much, much better translated - there was only one short speech on one page that made me gag - so I assume the translator (being the same) had more time for his work.  But certain problems remain: too much domesticity, too many fragmentary side stories.

Despite what it says in the publisher's blurb, Lackberg is no Nesbo.  She is, nevertheless, just as good as early Mankell.  She will get better, as Mankell did.  Certainly a leading light of Nordic Noir and one well worth following.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Augustus - Allan Massie

I'd previously read Massie's take on Caligula, which was OK, but this is much better - a character, I feel, that Massie is naturally more comfortable with.  The novel presents as two separate tranches of autobiography, one covering Octavian's triumph over Antony and Cleopatra, the other a more sweeping account of everything else.  The free-form style of the second half compensates for the awkward structure and, being essentially about what comes after a forty-year benign dictatorship (a question more relevant today than when the book was written in 1985/6), is more about Tiberius than Augustus.  Certainly, I am keen to read Tiberius, the next in the sequence.  Another that caught my eye is Nero's Heirs.

Massie is a novelist in the classic tradition.  In Augustus and Caligula he ventures into territory comprehensively staked out by Robert Graves a generation earlier.  But, without in any way shaking the reader's faith in the historicity of his narrative, Massie manages to bring a fresh and distinct take to a relatively familiar story.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Headhunters - Jo Nesbo

How annoying for those of us who write - the best contemporary Nordic author of series crime fiction, quite possibly the best full-stop, turns out to be just as good at stand-alone first-person psychological thrillers.  No wonder this has been snapped up for the first Nesbo movie, which opens in the UK and Ireland on April 6.

Thank goodness it's a Norwegian movie, not some hopeless Hollywood mess.  Unfortunately, I suspect that means it won't get shown much outside major cities.

However, back to the book...

I have simply never read such a masterful riff on the twists and turns essential for the genre, nor the untrustworthy narrator device which, when done right, raises the typical to the exceptional.  For example, most thriller writers return to their prologue at the end.  Not Nesbo; he picks it up in the middle and makes it his key turning-point.  As for the final twist ... it was so unexpected, so stunning, that I had to flip back to the relevant passage to make sure Nesbo hadn't cheated.  And he hadn't.  Wonderful - more than worthy of Hitchcock or Patrick Hamilton.

But the world of books would be a dreary old place if we all agreed...

I found a slightly different opinion on Beattie's Book Blog (unofficial homepage of the New Zealand book community), which is an excellent, highly-informed site:

I have to say I didn't rate the stand-alone Headhunters, (although I reckon it will make a great movie); no give me the Harry Hole titles any day and on that note the good news is that the next one is due soon.
Phantom – the thrilling follow-up to The Leopard……….


Summer. A boy is lying on the floor of an Oslo apartment. He is bleeding and will soon die. In order to place his life and death in some kind of context he begins to tell his story. Outside, the church bells toll.

Autumn. Former police inspector Harry Hole returns to Oslo after three years abroad. He seeks out his old boss at Police Headquarters to request permission to investigate a homicide. But the case is already closed: the young junkie was in all likelihood shot dead by a fellow addict. Yet, Harry is granted permission to visit the boy's alleged killer in jail. There, he meets himself and his own history. What follows is the solitary investigation of what appears to be the first impossible case in Harry Hole's career. And while Harry is searching, the murdered boy continues his story.

A man walks the dark streets of Oslo. The streets are his and he has always been there. He is a phantom.

Yay, bring it on, can't wait to read it................

Me neither.  Actually, I don't have to.  It is published in the UK today and Harvill Secker have done a vid.

What I want to know, though, is what has happened to the first two Hole books, The Bats (1997) and The Cockroaches (1998), neither of which are available here?  I can't think of another series, which has established a reputation and sales in another country, that hasn't started from the beginning here.  Decidedly odd.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Can Ladies Kill? - Peter Cheyney

A real treat, this - vintage hard-boiled detective fiction from a notorious Whitechapel-born English purveyor of pulp.  This is, according to the official Cheyney site, the fourth of the Lemmy Caution books.  Cheyney only started writing books in 1936 (this is from 1938 ) when he was over 40.  He knocked out fifty full-length stories before he dropped dead in his mid-50s, alongside hundreds of short stories, short plays and a mountain of tabloid journalism.

The striking thing about his Caution novels is that Cheyney instantly adopts the tricky first person present.  As he predates Raymond Chandler, I wonder if his key influence was Damon Runyon?  Cheyney keeps his punctuation extremely simple and seems to have no problem with US gumshoe slang.  The morals of his characters are very loose indeed - startlingly so for the period.  No wonder they were such enormous best sellers - even during the war, when paper was rationed and money was tight, Cheyney was selling two million a year.

I don't know who publishes Cheyney today, if anyone, and I don't care.  A bibliomaniac has to have it in a genuine vintage edition, like my 1949 Penguin greenback (above).

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The War in the Air - H G Wells

This 1908 classic is one of Wells's lesser-known 'scientific romances'.  To my mind, it benefits from having a Mr Polly/Kipps-style everyman - Bert Smallways - as its hero.  Bert is hapless, his involvement in the titular war is accidental - but it also determines the outcome and Bert is equipped at the outset with the skills necessary for him to turn the tide.

To a far greater extent than Wars of the Worlds, Invisible Man or Time Machine, enjoyable though they are, War in the Air accurately predicts much of what was to come, not only murderous air raids but social and political trends.

Even in 1908 (probably earlier, because War in the Air was serialised in the Pall Mall Magazine before being published in book form) Wells accurately foresaw....
  1. "The great powers were first the United States, a nation addicted to commerce... Next came the great alliance of Eastern Asia ... advancing with rapid strides year by year to predominance in the world's affairs.  Then the German alliance still struggled to achieve its design of imperial expansion, and its imposition of the German language upon a feebly united Europe..."
  2. "Even more pacific than the British Empire were France and its allies, the Latin powers, heavily armed states indeed but reluctant warriors, and in many socially and politcally leading western civilisation.  Russia was a pacific power perforce, divided within itself, torn between revolutionaries who were equally incapable of social reconstruction, and so sinking towards a tragic disorder of chronic political vendetta.  Wedged in among these portentous larger bulks, swayed and threatened by them, the smaller states of the world maintained a precarious independence, each keeping itself armed as dangerously as its utmost ability could contrive." [pp 72-73]
Fascinating.  With historical hindsight the diagnosis seems so right, yet so little of it came to pass, but still these are the very same threats to supposed world order that a malign press and untrammelled political cadre use to bludgeon us into cowed obedience a clear century later.  What did come to pass, which Wells predicts with worrying accuracy, were the said press, ineffective government, even the Credit Crunch.
  1. "...and they permitted the growth in their midst of an evil-spirited press, mercenary and unscrupulous, incapable of good and powerful for evil.  Their State had practically no control over the press at all."
  2. Already the whole financial fabric of the world was staggering... Credit went down in a wild whirl of selling.  Everywhere appeared a phenomenon that had already in a mild degree manifested itself in preceding periods of panic; a desire to secure and hoard gold before prices reached bottom.  But now it spread like wildfire, it became universal."  [pp. 230-232]
On the other hand, he did also postulate a worldwide monorail system and gyroscopically-controlled two-wheeled cars.  Nevertheless, even when Wells sets outside to be frivolous, or offers us a simple adventure story, he cannot resist the considered critique on the world as it was and is.  The hallmark of a true literary great.

Book of the blog thus far.

Friday, 2 March 2012

The Gropes - Tom Sharpe

Not a masterpiece but pretty impressive for an 80 year-old.  Certainly the most amusing Sharpe I've read since 1978's The Throwback (which may well be the funniest book I've ever read).

Sharpe's comedy is unique with its horrendous predatory women and unappealing heroes.  The comic novel is a British specialism with Sharpe at the extreme edge of the farcical range.  He should be celebrated alongside Waugh and Wodehouse, but inexplicably isn't.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Gallows Bird - Camilla Lackberg

Another crime novel that took a while to get going, albeit the first death is where it should be, on page one.  I suspect the problem is that The Gallows Bird (title utterly inexplicable) is the fourth is a series about Swedish cop Patrik Hedstrom and Lackberg assumes we are familiar with, and already care about, her continuing characters.  It is not a mistake that Mankell and Nesbo ever make.

The plotting is superb - let's be clear about that from the outset.  I would even go so far as to say masterful.  Linking so many crimes together and unravelling the tangled web so slowly is a hallmark of the very best crime writers.  Setting one murder in a reality TV show is a brainwave that has been waiting to find a home ever since Big Brother first polluted the airwaves but Lackberg is the first to my knowledge to seize the opportunity.  She clearly knows her subject.

There are nevertheless real problems with this book.  The dialogue - in this translation, anyway - is truly appalling, not that it matters when the plot gathers pace.  There is no sense of place - we always know where Wallander's Ystaad is and have a pretty good idea what it looks like, but I'm not even sure if Hedstrom's Tanumshede is on the coast or inland.  The reality TV show is called Sodding Tanum, which is an unnecessary distraction for British readers; I'm guessing that's not the original Swedish meaning. 

The ending, the cliffhanger for the continuing characters, is however very nearly as jaw-dropping as Wallander's fate in The Troubled Man.  It alone is sufficient for me to await the arrival of the 5th Hedstrom novel.  It's called Tyskungen.  An English version is given on Lackberg's website but it gives too much away and will hopefully be changed for the translation proper.

The website also contains helpful guidance (Crime School) for aspirant crime writers.  The section on the importance of dialogue suggests I am right about the poor quality, probably hurried translation of this book.

Note, according to the publisher's website, The Gallows Bird is now published under the title The Stranger, which strikes me as equally irrelevant.