Monday, 24 September 2012

Rounding the Mark - Andrea Camilleri

Camilleri is the inspiration for aspiring writers of a certain age.  He didn't start writing seriously until he was 67 and didn't create the bestselling Inspector Montalbano until he was 69.  Now 87 he has 19 Montalbano novels and a shedload of other publications to his name.

The advantage of starting late is that your attitudes and opinions are fully developed.  Camilleri is Sicilian, left wing, a little curmudgeonly (he has a secondary career as a TV political pundit) and fond of his grub.  All those characteristics apply to his novels though not necessarily his protagonist.  Salvo Montalbano seems to have no political views, other than all politicians are crooks, and whilst he can be grouchy, he is more altruistic than misanthropic.  We know him from the TV adaptations but we should not confuse Salvo with the actor who plays him (which is odd, because Camilleri's working life was as a TV director for RAI, who now make the TV movies).  Salvo, for example, isn't bald.

The novels, of which Rounding the Mark is the seventh, originally published in Italy in 2003, are formulaic, but it is a formula of Camilleri's devising.  Like Simenon, Camilleri has created his own paradigm.  Salvo's eating regime is therefore slightly more important than his love life, albeit his love life is adventurous for a man of his age;  we know more about what he eats than about his police career; we have comic Catarella, crown prince of the malapropism; Mimi, Fazio, the commissioner who is always somewhere else and his machiavellian bag-carrier Doctor Lattes.  Montalbano stumbles through the case, solving it almost by accident.  And throughout we have a running commentary on Italian politics - wholly disparaging - as it happened while Camilleri was writing.

In Rounding the Mark Montalbano literally bumps up against the murder victim whilst swimming in the sea outside his house.  He plans to resign just as soon as the commissioner can see him but forgets all about it when a six-year-old African boy runs away from yet another boatload of illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile longterm girlfriend Livia is only a phone presence from Genoa, whilst the racy Ingrid Sjostrom is on Montalbano's doorstep looking for adventure.

The Montalbano novels are unique.  You either love them or hate them.  I enjoy wolfing them down in the same way Salvo scarfs down a strascinasali.   Rounding the Mark was as good as any.  You cannot underestimate the translation skills of American poet Stephen Sartarelli in bringing Camilerri to the wider world.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Billion Dollar Brain - Len Deighton

I've never really considered Deighton's spy novels because they are eternally linked with Michael Caine and I've not been much of a Caine fan (Get Carter excepted) since the movie of Funeral in Berlin bored me rigid as a film-fanatical ten year-old.  But I discovered Deighton's WW2 novels two years ago and couldn't resist this vintage edition when I found it outside my favourite book shop.

Deighton's work has certainly worn better than that of Ian Fleming.  Fleming was never much of a writer (I have revisited his work in the last couple of years); nor was Deighton in the early years - but Deighton has a much better sense of story, pace and tension, and a slightly better grasp of characterisation.  If nothing else, his fictions are more democratic.  Not everybody is public school or rich.  Not all the women are sex-crazed.

The 'brain' itself - a computer so big, it has to be stored inside a mountain - is so absurdly outdated that it simply doesn't matter.  Deighton gets away with it because he has taken the trouble to research his concept.  The Cold War has also gone; again, it doesn't matter because we trust Deighton when he tells us how important it seemed at the time.

I love the settings - from seedy Soho to Finland - all described in detail with the stamp of personal knowledge.  Even if it turns out Deighton just made the whole thing up, his writing style convinces us it's true.  It's not a mystery story but the twist at the end about the femme fatale was a cracker.

Period piece, yes - but none the worse for that.  Actually, I suspect Billion Dollar Brain is more enjoyable as a period piece than it was as a slightly futuristic thriller.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Shatter the Bones - Stuart MacBride

I was inspired to seek out something by MacBride after I blogged about his nomination for the Crime Writers' Association Bestseller Dagger over on my Media and Culture blog.

This is the seventh in the Logan McRae series, featuring an Aberdonian detective sergeant.  Joining the series so late I find all the continuing characters fully rounded and full of interesting idiosyncracies - Logan's relationship to his DI's baby daughter, for instance.  At heart, though, it's a police procedural and as fine an example of Tartan Noir as you're ever likely to meet.

Reality show infant prodigy Jenny and her fame-seeking mother have been kidnapped.  The Grampian Police have no clues to go on and no suspects.  They have to do it the hard way.  Then there's drug-dealing Shuggie and his girlfriend, skanky Tanya.  Shuggie is being pursued by debt collectors with unusual enforcement techniques, and Tanya gets herself kidnapped but nobody cares.  The papers are all full of guff about pretty Jen and pretty Alison, except for one newshound who scents a stitch-up.

Great plot, very 2012 in its themes, with just enough Aberdonian wisecracks to flavour the prose.  A crime writer to follow.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Half Blood Blues - Esi Edugyan

Another of the shortlisted novels for last year's Booker - also winner of the Scotiabank Prize 2011 and contender for the Orange Prize 2012 - this is a scorching idea.  Black American jazz musicians Sid and Chips find themselves marooned in Berlin when war breaks out and then, foolishly, stranded in Paris when the Nazis invade.  It's not necessarily so bad - black people are so rare in Germany that the Nazis haven't got them on their proscribed list.  But jazz is degenerate and half-bloods like boy wonder trumpeter Hiero Falk are degenerate in every sense.  In Paris there are lots of black jazz musicians, including Louis Satchmo Armstrong and his presumed mistress Delilah Brown, who is Canadian like our author.  But when the Germans invade and the locals flee Paris Hiero is mistaken for a Senegalese deserter.  And when the Germans arrive, well...  Hiero is captured.  Sid sees it all, and lives with the memory for 51 years, until someone makes a documentary about the legendary Hiero Falk.  Chips is in the film because he's aged into something of a legend himself.  Sid is the man who created the legend by stealing the wax recording of Hiero's Half Blood Blues, which went on to become a jazz classic.  He is also the guy who betrayed the young genius.

Back in Berlin for the premiere, Sid discovers that Chip has actually heard from Hiero.  He's amazingly still alive and living in Poland...

Sid narrates the tale and flashbacks in hip jazzy argot, which is great and, as far as I could tell, pitch perfect, though you'd think some new terms might be coined over a fifty year period.  The main characters are fully-rounded creations.  Chips is sly, Sid more than a little self-serving, Delilah suitably bewitching, the young Hiero hopelessly lost, unable to find his place in the world.  Personally I wouldn't have bothered with Armstrong, whose reality muddies the waters unnecessarily.  Whilst I am absolutely clear why Sid steals the recording I am utterly unclear as to why he commits the act of betrayal.  And ultimately the successful quest of the two octogenarians is let down by its object.  It's a bit like finding the truth behind the Wizard of Oz, only it's not funny, not dramatic and just very, very sad.

A book that could have been better, then.  But nonetheless a book every bit as good as its 2011 peers and one which everybody who cares about the contemporary novel should read.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The Crust on its Uppers - Derek Raymond

Patrick Hamilton meets Anthony Burgess and goes on a John Buchan-esque escapade across Europe - this 1962 one-off has to figure on any worthwhile list of 20th Century British classics.  There really is nothing like it, narrated in u first-person underworld cant by an unnamed toff-gone-bad.  How much is autobiographical?  Quite a bit - Raymond was himself privately educated, descended from wealth, and utterly debased, so much so that The Crust on its Uppers was originally published under his real name, Robin Cook.  Only his later books, notably the 'Factory' series, were pseudonymous because the world had become full of Robin Cooks (formulaic thriller writer, Labour politician etc).  The Factory novels are definitely on my must-acquire list.

If you like crime, if you like Augustan literature (I'm thinking Defoe and Fielding), if you are fascinated by social and cultural change in the era of the Angry Young Men, then I urge you to READ THIS BOOK!