Monday, 30 December 2013

Sawbones - Stuart MacBride

A very short book which today would be an ebook but which back in 2008 was that rarest of publishing birds, the stand-alone novella.  Just 114 pages - and that only by virtue of many chapters and only 40 characters a line - Sawbones is off the beaten track for MacBride, a serial killer story set in Iowa with a couple of extra-violent hoodlums as our heroes.  It romps merrily along - MacBride can do pitch-black crime on either side of the Atlantic - and comes to a suitably grisly end.

Well done for publishing novellas in the first place.  Extra congratulations for being a publishing house dedicated to books designed for children and adults who have difficulty reading.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Scent of Death - Andrew Taylor

Andrew Taylor has to be one of the best writers of historical crime.  His strengths lie in the unusual choice of setting - in this case New York City in the limbo period when it was briefly the last British outpost in post revolutionary America - brilliant characterisation, intricate plotting and, above all perhaps, scrupulous research.  When a writer includes a period map, you can be confident he knows what he's talking about.

Edward Savill is a middling English civil servant who has landed himself a prestigious post in the American Department by marrying his patron's unlovely niece.  The only downside of the post is that involves being in America.  Thus we arrive in New York with our hero.  He has barely stepped ashore when he discovers his first murder victim in the Canvas Town shanty that has sprung up to provide some sort of shelter for loyalist refugees without friends or funds, tumbled in with the usual human flotsam and jetsam of shanties worldwide since the beginning of civilisation.

During his stay Savill is billeted with the Wintour family, loyalist gentry who are sliding gently towards hard times.  In Warren Street live Judge Wintour, his gently senile wife, the beautiful Mrs Arabella Wintour (wife or perhaps widow of the missing Captain Wintour) and their various slaves.  Savill's associates in official business include Major Marryot, who has a fondness for Mrs Arabella, and Mr Townley, a genteel local fixer and social gadfly with a stay-at-home wife and a growing fortune founded on the vicissitudes of a city under effective siege.

More murders ensue, Savill's fortunes rise and fall (there is a marvellous twist concerning his wife), he travels through the Disputed Lands (now upstate New York) and resolves crime and his own fate out on the frozen River Hudson.

A marvellous book, a worthy winner of the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger 2013, and as good an introduction as any to Taylor's extensive oeuvre.  Personally I began with the captivating Anatomy of Ghosts (another winner of the Peters Dagger) and followed that with Bleeding Heart Square.  I gather The American Boy is one to look out for.  So I shall.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Kipling Sahib - Charles Allen

Anglo-Indian like his subject, Allen's subtitle says it all.  Kipling was born in India, returned there as a cub reporter and became a sensational prodigy there.  Having survived a life-threatening illness and the death of his firstborn, Kipling worked with his father on his sole significant novel Kim, and then to all intents and purposes ceased to develop at the age of 34, slightly less than halfway through his life.  He never wrote nothing important or new thereafter because, Allen maintains, Kim said all he had to say about India and his own dual sensibilities.

Kipling Sahib is, in short, a brilliant book.  Allen wears his knowledge lightly, which he can do because it's real personal knowledge, not academic learning focused through a westernized, post-modern filter.  Kipling is hopelessly old-fashioned - his attitudes to imperialism can sometimes offend contemporary ears - but they are the attitudes of his time, attitudes he in many ways created and it is important to differentiate between his early, pre-1900 writing and that of the long decline that followed.  He began as a critic and ended as a bombastic bore.

Allen tackles the man, his mind and his work in a seamless narrative.  The works are discussed with an assuredness that comes of long familiarity.  His examination of Kim itself, as an envoi to the closed narrative, is masterly and insightful.

If anyone had suggested, a year ago, that I would even open a work by or about Rudyard Kipling (known as 'Ruddy' in the family) I would have laughed in their face.  Yet Kim was one of the first books I read in 2013, and Kipling Sahib almost the last.  Kim is my book of the year, with Kipling Sahib a close second.  There is no bronze medallist.  Nothing else I have read comes close.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Templar's Acre - Michael Jecks

The thirty-first, latest, and - for the time being at least - last of Jecks' novels featuring Sir Baldwin, the crusader-turned-coroner.  Actually, Templar's Acre is not a medieval mystery but a prequel in which the teenage Baldwin travels to Outremer to purge his guilt by preserving the city of Acre, the last Christian city in the Holy Land.

I've commented before on this blog that Jecks' attachment to his hero seems to have been weakening.  One recent novel didn't have him appear at all until well into the action.  But here Baldwin is well-served and central.  Jecks knows his stuff and is not afraid to show his knowledge.  The siege is expertly handled, making us feel the tedium of days and nights on the city walls without ever subjecting us to similar tedium.

I enjoyed it hugely and hope Jecks is soon back on home turf.  It will nevertheless be interesting to see what he comes up with next.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Blind Eye - Stuart MacBride

By my calculation the fifth in the Logan McRae series, Blind Eye is MacBride on top form.  There is always a temptation for writers of series to take their protagonist out of his usual setting, and MacBride gives into that temptation here, sending Logan to Poland to follow up leads.  More often that not, relocating our hero is unmitigated disaster.  Not so here: whilst the story could certainly survive without the excursion, it is probably the better for it.
Someone is going round gouging the eyes out of Polish migrants in Aberdeen.  Grampian Police find a stash of weaponry.  They find Simon McLeod, brother of Creepy and son of the appalling Ma McLeod, another victim of the Oedipus killer.  And DI Steel wants Logan to impregnate her wife.
MacBride is the darkest of Tartan Noir, saved from unremitting gloom by equally dark humour and an obvious love for the Granite City.  The very last line expresses it perfectly: "That's what happens when you fuck with Aberdeen."

Monday, 2 December 2013

Waiting for Wednesday - Nicci French

This is the third Frieda Klein novel and my first Nicci French.  My responses are mixed.  It is well enough written, with occasional passages of insight and exploration, to keep my attention to the very end, but there are far too many characters and far too much exposition from the previous two in the series.  I have absolutely no idea who Sasha is and absolutely no need to read Blue Monday or Tuesday's Gone.  From the technical point of view, the culprit in the A story is discovered by ludicrous coincidence, though the denouement of the B story is properly thought through.  The main problem is that our psychoanalyst protagonist has no business getting involved and seems to lack the sense she was born with.  Maybe a little exposition on her credentials would help - as it is, I wouldn't want an analyst this bloody gormless.

I'm not sure I will bother with the next Klein but I'll certainly take a look at some of their earlier work (I'm assuming everyone knows they are a writing duo).  Interesting - but not captivating.

Monday, 25 November 2013

The Lost Get-Back Boogie - James Lee Burke

Another non-Robicheaux, non-genre novel from Burke, this from 1986 and nominated for a Pulitzer.  No wonder.  This is a genuine, deeply-considered novel of rural America.  Iry Paret is released from Angola Prison in Louisiana after killing a man.  He gets permission to serve out his parole in Montana, with a friend from prison, Buddy Riordan.  Iry plays hillbilly music on guitar, Buddy grooves on jazz and LSD.  Having just buried his own father (his mother died in a fire strongly reminiscent of the real-life drama of the young Woody Guthrie) Iry comes under the sway of Buddy's old man, Frank, an oldstyle ranching man bent on closing down the paper mills that provide most of the employment in that neck of the woods.

If anybody doubts Burke's gifts as a writer, they should read The Lost Get-Back Boogie.  Just as Iry makes his guitar sing, Burke has crafted every sentence of his story.  There are no wrong notes here.  It is a novel of history and character with the plot entirely and equally derived from both.  I can't recommend it too highly.

I see from Burke's website that he wrote a Civil War about ten years ago.  That's a must for me, then.

An Uncertain Place - Fred Vargas

I've been keeping an eye out for Vargas's work for a while.  She is said to be one of non-Scandinavian Europe's foremost crime writers.  An Uncertain Place is one of her Commissaire Adamsberg series.  I was looking forward to reading it.

It started well - severed feet ostensibly trying to 'walk' into Highgate Cemetery in London.  The thing is, though, a preposterous 'hook' only works if you can provide a thoroughly sensible explanation.  And Vargas doesn't.  The plot gets more and more ludicrous as it proceeds.  I won't give the game away because Vargas clearly has fans - but it wasn't for me.  The writing had an ephemeral quality, not unlike Hakan Nesser or Andrea Camilleri, but both those guys manage to anchor themselves with decent plots.  I only finished reading An Uncertain Place over the weekend and already I've forgotten who did it and, indeed, what it was they did.

Not for me.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Hope of Heaven - John O'Hara

Like his contemporary Nathanael West, John O'Hara was a master of the novella in an age when the fashion was for full-length novels.  So here he has to bundle the title novella with a load of his short stories.  The stories are all very well - typical New Yorker fare - but my interest is in the novella.

The year is 1938 - Hope of Heaven came out the same year as the much better known Pal Joey.  Malloy is a scriptwriter in Hollywood.  He has money, he has a girl - not a Hollywood girl but a sensible girl who works in a bookshop and who lives with the brother she has to all intents and purposes raised.  Then one day gets a call from a guy who claims to know his brother back home in Gibbsville.  This Don Miller wants to meet up with Malloy but never quite gets there, and when he does he turns out to be called Schumacher.  The real Don Miller lost his travel cheques; Schumacher found them and has been living off them ever since.  He thinks someone's after him, a detective hired by the insurance company.  Malloy has no interest in the guy or his problems.

Meanwhile Peggy's long-lost father pitches up, an ageing charmer with an anecdote for every occasion.  Malloy sees through the facade but takes a shine to him all the same.  And thus the seeds of tragedy are sown.

O'Hara is a tremendous writer, idiosyncratic yet amazingly readable.  His characters are all utterly convincing and he takes them down unexpected byways.  Seriously, strongly recommended.

Slow Burner - William Haggard

More classic British espionage from the so-called "adult Ian Fleming", this from 1958 when naked women with guns were considered exceptionally racy (and, in fairness, the introduction of this one is done with considerable relish).  Haggard's secret service (the Security Executive) consists of Colonel Russell, his deputy Major Mortimer, and a secretary, all in a suite of rooms somewhere in Whitehall.  Haggard's world is the world of the civil service - the world he himself inhabited - a world of not-quite-good-enough former public schoolboys.  Indeed it might be more accurate to describe Haggard as the father of le Carre's Smiley.  This is a world where you can deduce a chap's regiment by the length of his stride.  Where policemen salute and spy masters doff their bowler in return.

The story here is a good one - the potential loss of Britain's post war super fuel, the Slow Burner of the title.  There is some high spirited scientific mumbo jumbo and two women, one more proper than she needs to be and the other nowhere near.  There are even intimations of sex.  Great fun.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Stonemouth - Iain Banks

Having recently read The Crow Road I pounced on this, his penultimate novel.  Actually it covers much of the same ground as The Crow Road - young Highlander returns home from the city to face his demons - but handles it in a very different way.  In Stonemouth (which is the name of the 'toun') the rich folk are actually drug runners with aspirations of gentility.  The Murston family ran young Stewart out of town five years ago for gross disrespect.  Only now is he allowed back, paradoxically to pay his respects at the funeral of the patriarch Old Joe Murston.  But there are terms - the funeral's on Monday and Stewart is expected to head back south first thing on Tuesday.  Or else.

And so the story in folds in past and present, and indeed in past and present tense.  In many ways it is a conventional novel but Banks was not a conventional novelist and he always manages to charge his stories with wit, imagination and even a sort of mystical mystery.  I am hooked.  Happily I have already acquired my next Banks novel.

Friday, 1 November 2013

The English Monster - Llloyd Shepherd

I wondered if Lloyd Shepherd had done yet another take on the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, the first real English serial killings, known to all from De Quincey's Murder Consider'd and The Maul and the Pear Tree, the classic work from P D James and T A Critchley.

But no.  Shepherd has done something else entirely, a mash-up of fact (heavily based on James and Critchley, as he freely admits) and a separate storyline which begins 250 years earlier.  To say more would be to give the game away and I hate it when reviewers do that.  Suffice to say, Shepherd brings off his fantastical trick with considerable aplomb.

It has to be said, though, that the traditional stuff - the researched material which for most of the book sticks closely to the facts - works better than the imagined.  One reason for this is that his London is realised in such detail whereas other locations (Jamaica, South America) are poorly imagined.  I frankly have no idea where the Potosi Mine is or was.

Also, the monster becomes a monster with startling alacrity.  I would have liked more on the disintegration of his personality.

But I carp and I shouldn't, because The English Monster held me from start to finish.  If it didn't manage to horrify, it nevertheless intrigued and entertained.  And for a debut novelist, that's some achievement.  Recommended.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Three Novellas - D H Lawrence

The Ladybird is set at the very end of World War I.  Lady Daphne's husband is a POW in Turkey, Count Dionys, a German officer she knew as a child, is in a military hospital in London and then a detention house for enemy officers.  Both men are eventually released.  Daphne has to examine her feelings for both of them.  On the surface, it's very Lawrence, full of mystical sexual impulses.  I enjoyed the contemporary subtext, though.  At one point it seemed to me Lawrence was reflecting on the fall of the old imperial order and advocating the rise of new, charismatic leaders.  1923, when the trio of novellas was published, is too early for Hitler or Franco but Mussolini had become Italian PM the year before.  Is this what Lawrence was responding to?

The Fox is more archetypical Lawrence - brutish young stud comes between two undeclared lesbians running an unproductive farm.  It is powerfully atmospheric, and I found the characters interesting, but the predatory fox metaphor is obvious and overdone.

The Captain's Doll purports to be a comedy.  I enjoyed until about halfway, when the machinations of plot took over from character.  Then it lost me completely with the longest, most tedious travelogue since that awful, endless passage in the middle of Little Dorrit.  In both cases it is purely filling space.  By far the least interesting of the three.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

To the Bright and Shining Sun - James Lee Burke

Only Burke's second novel but a classic of modern Depression fiction.  The Kentucky coalfields are dying by the day.  The James family have devoted their lives to the union cause.  Old Woodson had his chest caved in by a rockfall and is now a happy-pappy, clearing forest trails for welfare.  His teenage son Perry is busy sabotaging strike-breaking scabs.  But Perry goes too far and has to get clear of the county.  He signs on with the Job Corps.  He makes mistakes but does well.  Things look like they're on the up - until Perry gets called back home to watch his father die - and to seek revenge.
A powerful story, expertly told, an example of what Burke might have been had he not become seduced by the lure of series crime fiction.  Not that Burke's crime novels aren't good, even great, it's just that this is better because it has higher aspirations.  I shall keep an eye out for more of his singles.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Fort - Storm Jameson

I've got to be honest: my copy doesn't have a cover and I've borrowed the above image from the ever-reliable Fantastic Fiction.  Also, I only bought it because the title cropped up during some academic research I'm doing on another forgotten bestseller of the Thirties and Forties, Eric Linklater.

One reviewer described it at the time as a hybrid of a play and a short story.  No it's not, it's a novella and I'm sure the word was current in 1941.  Jameson wrote it in the couple of months immediately after the fall of France in June 1940.  It is set, specifically, on June 13.  A wounded English officer has taken refuge in the cellar of a French farmhouse.  Also hiding there is a French officer and two of his junior officers.  During the night another English soldier arrives and a German is captured.

What the story is really about is Jameson's utter contempt for the defeatist element of the French nation.  She does not make the mistake of over-egging the heroism of the English nor portraying the young German as just a mindless fanatic.  She is convinced both of the justice of the war (despite having been co-founder of the Peace Pledge Union in the late Thirties) and the damage it will surely do to the world.

The ending is a surprise which would have been much more powerful at the time.  As it happens, it is exactly the effect my subject Linklater pulls off at the end of his first radio 'conversation', The CornerstonesThe Fort was also adapted for radio in 1942.  You have to try and imagine the effect the ending had on British listeners enduring the Blitz.

Rogue Royale - Jeremy Duns

Jeremy Duns is a British author of Cold War spy fiction (featuring Nick Dark) who now lives in Finland.  He is the man who found out R J Ellroy was writing his own ecstatic reviews on Amazon, which recommends him strongly to me.

This is an ebook which expands on journalism he wrote following his discovery of an never-filmed script for Casino Royale, penned by the legendary Ben Hecht (The Front Page etc.).  At something over 10,000 words it is the perfect length and subject for a non-fiction ebook.  Now I can't stand Bond in either film or print, especially print, but Duns is a fan and is able to place Hecht's work in the developing Bond canon during the early Sixties.  He is not too dazzled by Hecht's reputation to spare him due criticism for dumb ideas like the mindreader who helps Le Chiffre cheat at cards.

It's an impressive piece of research and eminently readable.  I recommend it.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Hurry On Down - John Wain

This is the book that is said to have started the Angry Young Men on their angry way.  Actually, it's more of a Movement thing, very slightly (1953) predating Amis and Larkin.  In essence, it's a classic English comic picaresque, the misadventures of Charles Lumley in the first year or so after leaving university.  What makes it different is that Charles has no mission (other than to find a mission) and sets himself firmly on a downward trajectory - accidentally becoming a window cleaner, car delivery driver (and crook), hospital orderly, chauffeur, nightclub bouncer and radio gag-writer.  What I especially liked was the dense quality of the writing.  I've always found Kingsley Amis somewhat glib and superficial whereas Wain seems to be always aware of the relationship between art and character.  There are some marvellous lines here, for example: "His life was a dialogue, full of deep and tragic truths, expressed in hoarse shouts by red-nosed music-hall comics."  Brilliant - a bona fide classic of the mid twentieth century.  This should be on the school curriculum.

And by the way, check out that superb cover art by Len Deighton.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Euripides V - Andromache, Herakles' Children, Herakles

Volume V in the Methuen Euripides series edited by my former drama lecturer, J Michael Walton.  He and I failed to see eye to eye on more or less everything but I have to admit I found his introduction here interesting, reliable and stimulating.

On the other hand the translation of Andromache, the main reason I bought the book, is downright bloody awful.  I really cannot stomach translators who want to advertise their own dramatic conceits.  A new version by an established creative writer, like Ted Hughes, or Brecht, or Tony Harrison - that's something else, a new version of an ancient original.  This exercise by Robert Cannon is just risible.  I'm no Greek scholar but I'm willing to bet Euripides didn't write one clause per line.  Ghastly.  Still, I suppose it's a measure of Euripides' greatness that a powerful tragedy still shines through.

I had assumed, in my ignorance, that Herakles' Children and Herakles itself weren't up to much - scraps from the master's table.  With the former I was definitely wrong - the battle of wills between Herakles' mother Alkmene and the devious Eurystheus, King of Argos and deviser of the Twelve Labours, is compelling.  A complicated back story, mixing one part history with four parts myth, is expertly doled out in bite-sized portions.  And Herakles himself isn't in it.  Indeed, Euripides' fascination with the hero - both here and in the eponymous play - seems to be about the human consequences of godlike heroic achievement.  That said, Herakles itself seems to be missing an act.  Did Euripides really just have a character called Madness appear, make a speech, send our hero off his nut and then just bugger off?  I don't think so.  But I did enjoy the Choral song about the Twelve Labours, which sounded to me like an extremely ancient form incorporated by Euripides as a device to demonstrate just how long ago his play was set.

The translation of the two Herakles plays is by Kenneth McLeish and a much happier product.  This, after all, is meant to be basically a source book from which performers can then build their own interpretation.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Crow Road - Iain Banks

I'm ashamed to say I was only inspired to seek out a Banks novel by the rather impressive way he handled his early death.  I'm also abashed to realise that such a great writer was out there - and I, who fancies himself a litterateur - hadn't read him.

I had, of course, seen the BBC dramatization of The Crow Road back in the Nineties (which the Beeb, for pretty much the reasons given above, recently repeated).  I liked the TV version but it's nowhere near as good as the book.  The blurb on the front touts Banks as an 'imaginative' novelist.  What's that supposed to mean?  Well in this case it means a novelist who can imagine the world of part of a Highland community in such detail that he can even describe the inner workings of a piece of constructivist modern art.  The three families focussed on have such a depth of backstory that every twist and turn of their interconnections seems to have been mapped.  There is a central mystery but that's only really the fuel that keeps Prentice, our hero, peeling back the layers.  When the mystery is finally resolved it seems almost irrelevant - and yet it completes the novel.

Five hundred pages plus and I can only find one fault.  What is the point of the third McHoan brother, the one unsurprisingly deleted from the TV dramatization?  It seems odd that someone with so vivid a vision should keep trundling him onto our shared imaginative stage for no good reason.

I loved this book.  I will seek out more.  I might even try the sci-fi.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Come Unto These Yellow Sands - Angela Carter

Angela Carter was a true enthusiast of radio drama which she found ideally suited to her gothic sensibilities.  For Carter, radio was the natural home of her fantastical creations.  So what we have here are the radio versions of Company of Wolves, Vampirella and Puss in Boots, plus the title play, a magnificent dramatic feature on the Victorian artist, madman and murderer, Richard Dadd.  I suspect I saw the same exhibition of Dadd's work from the madhouse that Carter did, sometime around 1973.  I too fell under the spell of The Fairy-Feller's Masterstroke.  We all did.

What Carter achieves here is a seamless meld of fact and disordered fantasy.  Doctors and Dadd's former friends discuss his condition whilst characters from his paintings - Oberon, Titania and the Fairy-Feller himself - discuss their own reality.  Magnificent.  Very few radio plays nowadays attempt anything remotely so ambitious, and the situation is likely to get worse as we goes weeks on end without Drama on 3 and the plays on 4 become every more like bad TV.  So transport yourself back to the late Seventies and early Eighties when Carter was working in radio and remember that they did these things differently back then.

For a longer, more scholarly review click here.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Serjeant Musgrave's Dance - John Arden

Classic stage play in the classic Eyre Methuen blue paperback, the badge of quality when I began collecting drama.  Serjeant Musgrave was first performed at the Royal Court in 1959, produced by Lindsay Anderson.  Every element of that sentence is a badge of quality.

It was resonant then and it's resonant now because it is more than anti-war play; it is, to my eye anyway, anti pointless colonial wars which also asks the question, what do you do with a standing army in peacetime - why loose it on the working class, of course.  How often have we seen that?
For those unfamiliar with Arden's blend of Brecht and folk tradition the writing might seem difficult.  If so, the trick is to read it aloud.  Then it sings.  Arden came towards the end of the Angry Young Men era but he continued writing longer than any of the others and, more importantly, kept his anger stoked to the very end.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Phantom - Jo Nesbo

As it says on the cover, the new Harry Hole thriller, and the best yet in my view.  Harry gets into the story good and early and there's no need for him to opt out of the official police investigation as he is no longer a policeman and the real cops have already closed their investigation.

Harry's excesses are understandable because the case is the only case that conceivably drag him away from his sober new life in Hong Kong.

I particularly admired the way Nesbo is prepared to take risks.  Who is this talking at the beginning and indeed all the way through.  Then we realise.  Then we realise who he is talking to.  Superb craftsmanship.  I can't think of anyone else who could pull it off so successfully.  The only comparison I can think of is Nesbo's standalone, The Headhunters, which is probably the best Nordic Noir novel ever.

After the disappointment of The Bat, which was juvenilia best left untranslated, Phantom came as a huge relief.  Nesbo on top form - unbeatable.  And the next Harry Hole, Police, is already out.  Let me at it!

The Road to Wigan Pier - George Orwell

Supposed classic - massive disappointment.  The first half seems acceptable - things that Orwell witnessed personally, statistics he collected - but then you realise: he's looking at the lower working class like a lab assistant watching bacteria through a microscope.  He has no emotional engagement whatsoever.  Worse, he fails to recognise or probe the emotional engagement they have with one another.  Orwell describes the squalor in which they live and sleep but never seems to register that the working people, and even the unemployed, bear the squalor by being out of the house as much as possible.  I knew these people - not at the time, of course, but in their 50s and 60s.  They were my family.  They came from the slums of Sheffield, which Orwell regards as a face unfit for human habitation.  My great-uncle who, to me as a child, was the greatest man alive, lived in a back-to-back with communal toilet block in the yard and a pigeon loft above the lavvy.  These people lived out of the home.  The women chatted on their doorsteps.  They went to the cinema, to social clubs (never pubs for my relatives, many of whom worked for breweries).  Other families lived their lives around church and chapel.  Spiritualism was popular, as was night school.  Many were actively involved in politics, others trades unionists and communists.  All of this passed Orwell by.

The second half was recognised at the time as awful - the publisher, Victor Gollancz, felt obliged to publish an apology for it in the first edition (omitted in this Penguin edition).  The second half is the story of Orwell's journey from middle class public schoolboy, via Burma, to ineffective, vaguely socialist, social critic.  I read it with mounting disgust.  But I did read it, all the way to the end, so it must have some literary quality.  I was planning on getting Homage to Catalonia, or Down and Out in London and Paris, but I think I'd rather try Jack London instead.

The good news - it hasn't put me off Orwell's fiction.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Bad Monkey - Carl Hiaasen

The brand new caper from the king of comedy crime.  Recent Hiaasen's might have fallen slightly short but not this. Busted from detective to roach inspector after having sodomised his girlfriend's husband with a dustbuster, Yancey sets out to solve the mystery of the left arm which turns up where it shouldn't be.  What can go wrong?

One of Hiaasen's recent shortcomings has been recycling old characters.  The governor gone renegade was great fun but surfaced once too often for my liking.  These, so far as I am aware, are all new characters, thus fresh and engaging.  You even empathise with a low-rent thug like Egg after the titular monkey has set about him.

In fact, that's my one criticism.  Not enough monkey and not enough monkey being really, really bad.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Caller - Karin Fossum

I've said it before and I'll keep saying it until everyone agrees - Karin Fossum is by far the most accomplished of the Nordic noir writers.  Jo Nesbo himself praises her, and he's no mug.  If only she were properly published and promoted in the UK, she'd be a fixture in the bestseller lists.
I adored this book, the ninth in the Inspector Sejer series.  It is redolent of Ruth Rendell in the way Fossum can bring horror to the humdrum and the psychological depth of her characterisation.  She doesn't do cyphers; even the most incidental of her characters has a life.  In this instance I particularly enjoyed the way she is content to leave one of the storylines unresolved.  Who did let the dogs out?
Like all Fossum's books, this is slim.  Every word has been weighed.  As close to perfection as makes no difference.  Essential reading for crime fiction fans everywhere.  

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Splendour & Squalor - Marcus Scriven

Splendour & Squalor, Marcus Scriven's first book, is a study of three appalling aristocratic families which rather proves my suspicion that great families start with one great man (or woman, in the case of Bess of Hardwick) and then never produce another worth spit.  What we have here is two dukes and two marquesses.  The title 'marquess' is itself a clue - too rich for an earl, nowhere near respectable enough for a dukedom.  The dukedoms here are not especially illuminating, the first (Leinster) the reward for heirs of the first transplantation of the second millennium who did 700 years' service keeping the native Irish downtrodden, the second (Manchester) granted to the Montagu family for services sucking up to both Cromwell and Charles II.  The marquisate of Bristol ... why that was ever created is just unfathomable.

The problem with three of our 'heroes' is that they never expected to inherit.  Edward Fitzgerald, 6th Duke of Leinster, had two elder brothers, one mad, the other a casualty of World War I.  Angus Montagu 11th Duke of Manchester likewise inherited from his brother whereas Victor Hervey 6th Marquess of Bristol, was 35 before he even became heir apparent.  All three then went on to marry often and usually badly.  Montagu and Hervey were also jailbirds, for fraud and burglary respectively.  Hervey's son and heir, John 7th Marquess, was gay and drug-addled.  He also did time before dying of Aids a few years after his younger brother and heir, who suffered from schizophrenia, hanged himself.  By and large all had appalling childhoods, though John's was definitely worst.  All frittered away their inheritance.  Fitzgerald died in a bedsit, Montagu in a rented flat, Victor in Monte Carlo and John in much reduced circumstances.  But they all have heirs and the line continues.

Scriven writes well, accentuating the sympathetic traits of his characters whilst not hesitating to criticise their excesses.  He guides us effortlessly through horrendously intertwined family trees.  In his epilogue he points out that whilst these parasites no longer have a God-given right to national governance, their life peer successors are not much better.  I particularly enjoyed the following:

"A decade earlier, the pretensions of that senatorial order had been advanced by the ennoblement of a pathological liar (championed by John Major), despite the protestations of the Honours Scrutiny Committee, whose misgivings were speedily vindicated when the fledgling peer was later imprisoned for perjury."  In fairness, Scriven even-handedly cites lords Taylor (cash-for-questions), Mandelson (cash for just about anything) and Watson (arsonist) from the Labour benches.

My one criticism is that Scriven promises detailed sources and extra notes on his website (click on the name above) and they're not there.  Bit shoddy, that.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Guilty Men - Cato

A truly great reissue by Faber Finds (if only they'd use Royal Mail instead of that slipshod private delivery firm, they'd be the publisher of my dreams).  Originally issued by Gollancz and boycotted by all nice Tory bookseller chains like W H Smith, this was the underground bestseller of 1940, shifting 200,000 copies in six months.  Written in the immediate aftermath of the Dunkirk disaster, when people still remembered the appalling price paid by the 30th Infantry Brigade (almost total annihilation) in the pointless defence of Calais, diverting at least some of the triumphant Germans in order to buy time for the armada of small boats to get the routed BEF off the beaches, it points the finger squarely at the men responsible - the laissez-faire Tories of Baldwin and Chamberlain who did absolutely nothing for an entire decade, whilst unemployment ballooned, Hitler did exactly what he felt like doing regardless of British foreign policy pledges and commitments to his victims which the Fuhrer well knew, having met them, Chamberlain and his cabinet of spineless sycophants would never honour.  Not all the Tories were to blame, of course; Churchill and his supporters, several Liberals and the leading lights of Labour all lambasted the government for letting Britain fall behind in the arms race - but, of course, Baldwin and Chamberlain could always rely on that unpardonable Labour turncoat Ramsay Macdonald and the more reactionary trade unions.

The most astonishing thing - the aspect which is so hard for hindsight to deal with - is that Chamberlain continued to beam complacently right up to the Nazi invasion of Norway (which he was telling the House would never happen when somebody slipped him a note saying it just had) and continued to serve in Churchill's cabinet as Lord President of the Council.

'Cato' was the collective pseudonym of three Beaverbrook journalists, Peter Howard, Frank Owen and Michael Foot, a future Labour leader with considerably more backbone than Macdonald.  Foot provides a preface to this edition which is considerably better than the longer and slightly tedious by John Stevenson, which covers much of the ground dealt with, with more style and venom, in the original text.

A book that names and shames - a book which caught and encapsulated the mood of its moment - a political book that is not afraid to cross party lines and praise those of different allegiance who nevertheless do the right thing.  How we need something of the same today - it was after all, a coalition government that sent the British Expeditionary Force to Flanders with bayonets against tanks, heavy cannon against flying artillery.

Politicians of right and left always bang on about the need for schools to teach British history with more Churchill in it.  We'd do well to make Guilty Men a set text.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Murder Clear, Track Fast - Judson Philips

Another classic Penguin greenback from my favourite purveyor of classic American hardboiled crime fiction.

It's 1961 and attorney Don Channing is delegated to solve the Fails case, one way or the other.  Jerome Fails was murdered last year, shot slap between the eyes.  His mother is convinced Jerome's wife did it, but no one else who has investigated the case agrees.  Mrs Fails senior says this is because they've all fallen head over heels for the lissom Mrs Fails Junior.

The Fails fortune is at stake - and most of that fortune is invested in the Fails bloodline, stabled at Saratoga.

Channing finds himself caught between two classic femme fatales, both widows, but which one is the black widow?  Channing struggles to make sense of the conflicting evidence - until he wakes up, his second day in town, with a dead woman in the bedroom.

Philips unravels his plot with consummate skill.  He leads into the bizarre world of racehorse mania without once belabouring us with his research.  He tells us this is how things are organised in Saratoga in August and we believe him.  I cannot fathom why Philips isn't held in the same esteem as Hammett or Ross Macdonald.  He really is of that class.

By the way, isn't Bernard Hodge's cover art frankly superb?

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Holy Orders - Benjamin Black

The latest Quirke mystery shows Black on top form.  The last, Vengeance, was a bit of a dud as a mystery, albeit the quality of the writing was as superlative as ever.  This time the story is also up to the mark.  What at first sight is taken for the body of a naked boy is pulled out of the canal.  On closer inspection the body turns out to be an adult male, albeit a scrawny one.  Inevitably, the dead man ends up on Quirke's autopsy table.  "Jesus Christ," Quirke cries, "I know him."

And we're off.  All the regular characters are involved to a greater or lesser extent.  Hackett and Phoebe, of course;  Isabel, back from touring Ibsen to the provinces;  Malachy Griffin and Rose; and, omnipresent, the mystery and horror of Quirke's childhood, embodied in the present by the ghostly presence of the enigmatic Costigan.  There are new characters, some of whom I expect will return, notably the tinker king Packie the Pike.

Quirke has a new demon this time round.  He seems to be hallucinating.  We end with him about to receive his diagnosis.  I suspect I know what it is, having had something similar myself, so I certainly empathised wholeheartedly.  But I'll probably have to wait till next year to find out for sure.

Slowly but surely Banville/Black is building a classic canon.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Revolutionary Road - Richard Yates

Yates wrote his masterpiece in 1961, when he was thirty-five years old.  The novel is set in 1955 when Yates, like his hero Frank Wheeler, was 29.  The year was an obvious hook for me and it inevitably made me think of my parents, who, like so many of the war generation, wanted to make something worthwhile and different of the peace, only to succumb to grinding normality with the arrival of kids.

There are only five characters of any real relevance, Frank and his wife April, their slightly more conservative friends and neighbours the Campbells, and local realtor and busybody Mrs Givings, a reminder that earlier generations also had their ambitions and also made sacrifices.  Yet across more than 300 pages Yates never once lets the pace slacken and only once - an ill-advised sortie into April's childhood - does he lose focus.  The characters are put under microscopic scrutiny yet retain many of their secrets.

I am not usually one for the roman style, the novel of character and emotion.  I much prefer the English comic novel, preferably with an element of the picaresque.  But I absolutely adored this book.  Whenever I forced myself to put it down, I couldn't wait to get back to it.  In literature as in all arts it doesn't really matter what form a masterpiece takes, it remains a masterpiece.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Impossible Dead - Ian Rankin

I never quite got Rankin.  Although I loved his Jack Harvey thrillers, the early Rebus bored me, as did all his TV incarnations, and I therefore missed the point when the series went serious.  I'll have to do some catching up, clearly.  This, however, is the second of Rankin's successor series to Rebus (albeit Rebus is now back), featuring Malcolm Fox and his colleagues from Complaints.

It took a while to draw me in - one of the problems I always had with Rankin is that he doesn't buttonhole you but expects you to stick with it.  I did stick with it and was soon full-body immersed.  It's a cracking story with its roots in a forgotten period, the Tartan terror of the 1980s.  Nowadays we have to make up or bogeymen; back then we bred our own and Rankin is clearly intrigued by the question, Where Are They Now?

Fox is a decent character, no larded-on vices, no overwrought love life.  He has a family, a sister and a father, and they are beautifully drawn, too.  Rankin wisely resists the temptation to let his narrative stray outside of Fox's knowledge.  He is in every scene - even when he isn't physically there, we experience what happened through Fox being told.

Overall, a very impressive, highly-skilled piece of work.  I will certainly lay hands on The Complaints itself, and may well try the reborn Rebus.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Moriarty - John Gardner

Three decades after the first two volumes (The Return of Moriarty and The Revenge of Moriarty), Gardner's third and final volume of the 'memoirs' of the Victorian super-criminal were published posthumously.  The immensely prolific Gardner died in 2007 and Moriarty appeared a year later.

Back in the day, Gardner was very famous - I remember the amount of publicity given the first two volumes, a stark contrast with the zero publicity afforded the third.  He was the first English writer to spoof the Bond genre (with his Sixties series of Boysie Oakes novels) only to be hired to by Fleming's executors to write to continuation Bonds in the Eighties.  He ended up writing fourteen original Bonds and the novelisations of two films, License to Kill and Goldeneye.  I remember reading the first, Licence Renewed but don't remember any more.  Certainly, they can't be any worse than Fleming's because Gardner is a much better writer, so it might be worth having a look.

The good news is that loads of Gardner's works are coming out in ebooks.  The Bonds are available now in America but not here yet.  The five Kruger novels are available here published by Bello, Pan's digital arm.  (I did not know that.)  The other great news is that Gardner has such a spiffy website, so his executors are clearly making an effort to keep his work alive.  Good on them.

Anyway, back to this book...  I loved Return and Revenge back in the Seventies and, only the other week, was musing on how good they were.  Then I went to the library and found this.  Did it excite me as much?  No, but I'm older and more miserable.  Did I enjoy it?  Yes, absolutely - great fun.  Did I admire it?  Again, yes - the thing about Gardner is the way he shows he has done his research without clouting you round the head with it in the manner of Len Deighton. 

I think digital Gardners will be joining my digital bookshelf ere long.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Blackest Streets - Sarah Wise

This is a deeply-researched, unflinching account of the Old Nichol slum in late Victorian Shoreditch.  It has been put together with academic precision but what makes it such a captivating read is that Wise is not shy about saying what she thinks of the slumlords and their elected representatives.  In the case of the Old Nichol they are largely one and the same.  Local government in London at that time was in the hands of the vestry, forerunner of today's parish councils.  Like the parish councils they were expensive, ineffective, self-serving and hypocritical.  The Nichol Vestrymen owned the very slums they pontificated about and when they were forcibly stood down after three years' service, joined the Board of Guardians in order to deny relief to their tenants until they were free to resume their vestry seats.

The ownership of the Nichol properties is Wise's best work here.  Other notable blots on the social landscape included the pointless third duke of Chandos, and Sir "Tommy" Colebrooke, so-called lord of the manor of Stepney, gawd 'elp us.  Vermin both.  She also offers an illuminating insight into Arthur Morrison's classic, A Child of the Jago, which is set in a thinly-disguised Nichol.

Sarah Wise is building an important career writing about the social injustices of the capital of the empire on which the sun never set.  Her first book, The Italian Boy, was about the horrors of the workhouse and her latest, Inconvenient People, concerns the Lunacy trade in Victorian London, a subject I have researched to a certain extent myself.  I can't wait to read her findings.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

City of Fiends - Michael Jecks

City of Fiends is the 31st instalment of the Knights Templar mysteries, which Jecks has been writing since 1995.  Jecks is prolific to the extreme - he writes other series and is a key member of the Medieval Murderers.  Normally, such an output would impact on quality, but City of Fiends is by far the best of the series that I have read.  Recently Jecks has been tempted by the common trap of delaying the entrance of your hero.  Not this time; this time he reminds us of Baldwin before he actually returns to the city (Exeter) and starts sorting out fiends.  By doing so Jecks gets the necessary exposition out of the way and explains one of the key storylines - that this novel takes place during the period when the deposed Edward II was supposedly sprung from Berkeley Castle.  Historically, it is a conspiracy theory, advanced beyond its merits via the internet but it suits Jecks' thirty-one volume narrative perfectly.

There are several murders within the city and some extremely perverse peccadillos.  There is a large cast of supporting characters, richly drawn and clearly distinguished from one another.  Jecks is clever in manipulating our suspicions and he expertly switches our attention from suspect to suspect.  I didn't guess who had really done the crimes, and the unmasking, when it came, was perfectly credible.

I see from Jecks' website that his next novel is a prequel, set before Baldwin's return from the crusades.  I can't wait.  In case I have to, the other good news is that his publishers, Simon & Schuster, are reissuing the entire series from the beginning, three titles a month.

This may be the year Jecks breaks through to the really big time.  On this form, he certainly deserves to.  Hotly recommended.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Vengeance - Benjamin Black

Vengeance (2012) is the fifth of the Quirke Dublin novels, now rebranded Quirke Mysteries, presumably to tie in with the forthcoming TV series.  Banville-Black writes as beautifully as ever and his distillation of period is flawless - but he does tend to forget that these are supposed to be a) mysteries and b) thrillers.  There is no mystery here - I still have no idea why a suicide needs a witness - and zero thrills.  It's a sort of Agatha Christie, dirty-deeds amid the middleclass, without the plotting but with greatly enhanced literary ability.

I don't mind the lack of plot; Black could write a shopping list and I'd still read it.  The continuing characters are developed further, the one-off characters, by and large, are distinct and well-drawn, if a little devoid of purpose.  I do wish Black had avoided the twins trap.  The same cheap trick ruined Colin Dexter for me and Monsignor Knox was making a rule forbidding it.  It's just lazy.

None of these quibbles will prevent me reading more.  The sixth Quirke Mystery, out now in hardback, is Holy Orders.  Can't wait.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Red Flowers for Lady Blue - Donald Thomas

I had so been looking forward to reading this book.  Over the last year I have rediscovered Thomas's Inspector Swain series, realised he also writes as Frances Selwyn and in that guise, discovered his Sergeant Verity series.  Red Flowers for Lady Blue is one of Thomas's Sonny Tarrant series and I shall not waste my time with another.

Tarrant is supposed to be a sort of latter-day Moriarty or Fu Manchu, the spider at the hub of the underworld web.  He lives at the seaside with his doting mum, which is a nice touch, but other than that is about as frightening as a Chelsea bun.  We are told he is behind all crime and held in awe by lesser crooks, but we see none of it.  The idea, I suspect, is that behind the suits and hail-fellow-well-met attitude Sonny is murderous and amoral.  In this novel, however, the idea is not made flesh.

There are far too many characters and the plot is too convoluted.  Things happen - we are supposed to accept that Sonny is pulling the strings - but we don't see him do it and there is no explanation of how it is done.  For me, the most interesting character was Sonny's lawyer, Stan Bowlett, night-school educated and sharp as a switchblade.  The biggest disappointment was the title character, who starts off a sex-mad vamp but rapidly fades into the background.  She is of zero relevance to the plot.

The setting is 1936 - Abdication year.  As it happens I know a lot more about that era than I do the Victorian world of Swain and Verity.  I am not happy with Thomas's period touches - was David Niven a big enough star at that point to have the moustache named after him?  Surely it would have been a Roland Colman at that date.  The fleeting theatrical background, on which I am an expert just as Thomas is an expert on the Victorian underworld, also fails to convince.  I'm sure the Ivor Novello and Jack Buchanan shows mentioned are right because they're easily Googled, but I don't feel he's explored these mercurial characters at all.  Dicky Dash, Thomas's version of Max Miller, is much more entertaining and should have been given a proper role in events.

As I say, a disappointment.  Another further works by Thomas aka Selwyn will have to be pre-Millennium for me.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Couples - John Updike

Written in 1968 but set in 1963-4, Couples is Updike's take on the sexual revolution as it was happening.  Ten couples in Tarbox, Massachusetts, mix, recreate, swing and fornicate.  It's the spirit of the times - after all, even the President is doing it.  But first Kennedy's baby dies, then Kennedy himself.  Piet Hanema and the pregnant Foxy Whitman outrage their social clique by becoming serious about one another.

Piet is the nearest thing we are given to a protagonist.  The bald dentist Freddy Thorne is, if anyone is, the antagonist.  But ten couples means twenty individuals; not all of them are equally active in the narrative and, unfortunately, none of them are especially likeable.  I would go further: some are more obnoxious than others.  I found it really hard to care.

That said, there is some wonderful writing here.  Updike is writing a modern novel, so he does it in a modern style.  Sometimes, with contemporary jokes and 'hip' talk, it doesn't retain its power forty-five years on.  Other passages, though, are simply magical.  There is a seascape towards the end which more than compensates for the tawdriness of some of the preceding material.

I was impressed.  I was not moved.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Whisper Town - Judson Phillips

I was sorting out my bookshelves (more a cull than a rearrangement) and found several books I didn't know I had, of which this was one.  I have no idea when I acquired it and, having now read it, I'm pretty sure I didn't read it at the time of acquisition.

What a treasure!  Phillips 1903-1985 wrote mystery thrillers for sixty years.  Under his real name, and the pseudonym Hugh Pentecost, he is said to have turned out a hundred novels.  If they're all as good as Whisper Town, he is ripe for rediscovery.

This is classic American noir - a small town where everyone knows everyone else but each only knows a little of the other's secrets.  It starts with an accident, a drunk-drive hit-and-run, but becomes a witch-hunt into the teacher behind the high school's sex education programme, then it becomes a murder.  It all takes place over a single week.  Every element is fully resolved, but the device by which Philips delivers the final denouement is breathtaking - every bit as good as the twist in Nesbo's Headhunters.  I really should have spotted it, especially as the character has my mother's maiden name, which is also my stage name, but I didn't and I like to think that is because of Phillip's mastery of his craft rather than me not paying proper attention.

The writing itself is an object lesson of how these things should be done.  No frills, no affectations, yet every sentence and every phrase refined to deliver the ultimate impact.  As an example, check out the last half-page of Part One, page 70 in this edition.

I'm happy to say I also have another Phillips novel I didn't know I had, which I shall be reading imminently.  But then what shall I do?  I'm afraid - lightened bookshelves notwithstanding - I shall have to acquire more.  I owe it to myself.

Monday, 29 July 2013

The Bat - Jo Nesbo

This is the first Harry Hole, published in Norway as far back as 1997 but not translated into English until 2012.  When I first learnt The Bat existed, I wondered why hadn't they brought it out in America and the UK?  Having read it, I know why.  It isn't as good as whatever they started the English run with.

It's OK - better than OK and a good bit better than most other Nordic Noir thrillers that have been hurriedly published in the wake of Nesbo's success - but it is nowhere near as good as books like The Redeemer and The Leopard.  It is a million miles from the mighty Headhunters.  Frankly, I wish they hadn't bothered.

For starters, it isn't Nordic, it's Aussie with a guest Nord.  Harry has been flown off to the southern hemisphere after a minor Norwegian TV personality is murdered in Sydney.  This in itself is wholly implausible.  It quickly becomes irritating that the Australians can't pronounce Hole the Norwegian way and take to calling him Harry Holy.  Even Nesbo can't make a joke as thin as that last 374 pages.  There are long, tedious tracts of Aboriginal folklore which have no connection with the story and are there to show off Nesbo's research.  The red herring might as well wear a red herring hat it is so obvious he's not the killer and the real bad guy can be arrived at by the Agatha Christie method (i.e. who do we think is least likely to have done it?)  I finished the book less than twelve hours ago and have already forgotten why he did it.

For all that, the story moves along at an engaging pace, you get a lot of Harry's backstory, and Nesbo is always worth reading.  I believe there's another early Harry still to be translated.  I'd like to say I'll give it a miss, but I probably won't.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Cold Granite - Stuart MacBride

This is it, the first of the Logan McRae series.  Well, I say first.  Certainly it is the first to be published - it is, indeed, MacBride's first published book - but the sheer amount of backstory here makes it clear to me that there was an earlier, unpublished attempt.  No doubt whilst hawking that round publishers MacBride wrote a successor, Cold Granite, which was accepted, helped, probably, by the amount of backstory.

Anyhow, it's a thumpingly good start, an assured welcome to the world of Grampian Police.  Logan is back on duty a year after having his guts perforated by a serial killer he captured.  This is why they call him Laz, because he is Lazarus back from the dead.  The day starts badly.  The mutilated body of a small boy have been found.  Things spiral downhill from there.  DI Steel is otherwise engaged, so Laz is assigned to DI Insch, he of the temper and the sweeties.  The pathologist is Laz's ex, Isobel.  The newshound harrying McRae for the inside track is the new-in-town Colin Miller.

There are other magnificent writers of Scottish crime fiction - Rankin, McDermid, Mina (whose just won an award for her latest) - and all crime fiction is to a greater or lesser extent noir, but MacBride is far and away the most accomplished purveyor of Tartan Noir as a specific genre, and with Cold Granite established himself as such from Day One.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Ties of Blood - Graham Reid

Where was I in late '85?  I can't imagine how I missed these six thematically linked TV plays, but I clearly did.  I remember the Billy trilogy from '82, which made Reid's name and introduced the telly-goggling world to Kenneth Branagh, but these...

Anyway, I'm glad I know them now.  Reid, himself a Belfast man who served in the British army, does not deal with the troubles as a sensational bloodfest.  Instead he focuses on those on either side of the conflict who have to live with it - local people, some Protestant, others Catholic, and the army of occupation.  In each play locals and army come together, usually for sexual purposes, and thereby cause conflict with their peers.  The excellent drawing on the cover above, by one P J Lynch, hits the subject matter perfectly.

Inevitably, the consumer is going to like some plays more than others.  For me, my favourites were the first and fifth, McCabe's Wall and Invitation to a PartyMcCabe's Wall is about bred-in-the-bone hostility.  McCabe's IRA sympathies date back to 1916 and he would sooner alienate his children than compromise his principles.  Invitation to a Party is a more complex piece; British soldiers are honey-trapped but the two lairy lads escape whilst the honourable soldier wanders innocently into a completely separate trap.  The play which didn't engage me was the last, The Military Wing.  A military hospital in which the nurses have military rank is just too weird for me to identify with.

Google as I might, I can't find what Reid has been up to over the last twenty years.  He seems to have hit his stride as he turned forty and then slipped into semi-obscurity.  Obviously his subject matter is no longer contemporaneous but I have no doubt Belfast still has issues, especially now the hardliners are making something of a comeback.  He has also lost his canvas, which was the sorely-missed Play for Today, but other writers of his vintage have coped by writing series and feature-length films.

I'm definitely on the lookout for the Billy scripts.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Prester John - John Buchan

Odd that I should re-read, in the space of a week, two stories which I hated when forced to read them at school when I was twelve or thirteen; odder still that I should have bought both at the same time from my favourite bookshop, Skoob, underneath the Brunswick Centre in London.  The other, of course, was 'Odour of Chrysanthemums', which I didn't realise was in The Prussian Officer.

As a kid, it was the African names that put me off Prester John - typically, one of the reasons I like it so much now.  It takes some nerve to call your main location Blaauwildebeestefontein without batting an authorial eyelid.  And it's not as if Buchan was writing to a captive readership; this, in 1910, was his first bestseller.

Then, of course, the action and the issues were contemporary.  The last Boer War was only a few years ago and everyone would know (unlike me) about Beyer's masterstroke with the guns at the Wolkberg.  Not that it matters, though it is essential to read Buchan with an Edwardian eye.  He is unashamedly imperialist, but so was his world.  A purist would say he is racist.  I am not so sure.  He certainly patronises the natives but his hero, Crawfurd, repeatedly stresses the need to improve things for the Africans and he attacks those who exploit them.  The race he really despises is the Portugoose [sic], in the person of Henriques, who encourages a native rising purely to get his hands on their treasure.  Laputa, the 'heir of John', the would-be emperor, epitomises the noble savage.  His word can be relied upon.  His fall - literally - is an heroic end.

What people forget about Buchan is how good he was at maintaining the pace of an adventure.  Prester John is all action and fairly bowls along.  It's a Boys' Own adventure for slightly older boys.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Bad Intentions - Karin Fossum

Bad Intentions (2010) is the eighth in Fossum's Inspector Sejer series.  I had previously read the seventh, The Water's Edge (2009) and the standalone novel Broken (2008), both of which I rated highly.  Indeed, Fossum was my personal discovery of the year 2010.  Why is she not featured on this blog as often as other purveyors of Nordic noir?  Because she is seriously badly published in the UK by vintage.  The covers are uninspiring (I mean, just look at it) and they seem to do almost zero marketing.  You never find them in major national bookstores and happening on one in your local library, as I have done for all three aforementioned, is pure fluke.

Fossum, who is Norwegian, writes psychological crime in the manner of Ruth Rendell.  She eschews serial killers and conspiracy.  In this novel we are not sure if there has been a crime at all.  If there has been, we know for sure whodunit, but not exactly what has been done or why.  There is no gore, no startling twists, and yet Fossum holds our attention from the first sentence to the last.  She is a major writer and deserves to be better known.  I mean, the least Vintage could do is give her an English-language website.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

The Prussian Officer - D H Lawrence

Poor old Lawrence never had any luck.  In July 1914 he marries a von Richtofen, in November he published a volume of short stories the first two of which are sympathetic portrayals of German soldiers.  A hundred years on, however, they are great stories.  The titular tail is really a collision of the castes: the officer is aristocratic, aloof from normal human emotion; his orderly is the common man, in love with a common woman.  'Thorn in the Flesh' is about new recruit Bachmann of whom too much is expected.

My favourites, though, are 'Daughters of the Vicar' and 'Odour of Chrysanthemums'.  'Daughters' is essentially about the class system in the same way as 'The Prussian Officer' - the good looking sister feels obliged to uphold the family status and thus submits to a loveless marriage with a strange vicar who comes from money.  The plain sister, meanwhile, falls passionately in love with a collier.  'Chrysanthemums', which I remember being forced to read at school when I was thirteen or so and had thus completely forgotten, is about the wife of a collier who has taken to drink.  She's stuck in the cottage with their two young children, waiting for him to come home, cursing him when he doesn't.  He's gone to the pub again, she assumes.  She won't lower herself to go and get him but she is willing to ask her neighbour to do so.  Eventually they bring Walter home.  He's been trapped in the mine for hours after everyone else went topside.  He suffocated.  His wife and his mother lay him out in the parlour.  For his mother he's a saint, for the wife he's dead meat.  She cannot comprehend that they were once one flesh.  She cannot mourn.

It is years and years since I read any Lawrence.  I had forgotten how ahead of his time he was, how preoccupied with sex and sensuality.   In many ways the short story form suits him best.  For me, the ones set in Nottinghamshire with an industrial background always hit the spot.  They don't necessarily have to be about mining - take for example 'Goose Fair' in this collection.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

The Holy Father - Tony Black

This short, festive ebook showcases the other side of Black and demonstrates why he is so often compared to Irvine Welsh.  It's humour, and it's very, very black. It's Christmas Eve and underemployed carpenter Joe is visited by the late Rangers Wizard of the Wing, Davie Cooper.  Davie brings tidings from the Big Man: Joe's girlfriend Mary-doll is up the duff with the next messiah.  Davie's now got wings, so it must be true.
Joe and Mary duly trek across town following the star.  Along the way they encounter three not-so-wise jakeys who bring gifts of a sort.  It's laugh out loud funny on occasion, regularly rude, and perfectly suited to the short ebook form.  Any more and it would risk turning trite.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Swag Man - Howard Jacobson

Swag Man is a short memoir/long article published as an Amazon Kindle Single by the Tablet Magazine (a new read on Jewish life).

The Swag Man in question, we assume, is Howard's father Max, a huckster on the Manchester markets, always on the verge of making millions or going bankrupt, but never quite managing either.  Howard, of course, was dragged into service for Max's routines, and had no aptitude for it whatsoever.  But the true hero, the Swag Man made spectacularly good, is Frank Cohen, apprentice to Max, hero to Howard, DIY entrepreneur, collector of YBAs and co-founder, in April 2013, of the free to enter Dairy Art Centre in Bloomsbury.

What Jacobson gives us, in under fifty pages, is a snapshot on Jewish advancement in Manchester in the second half of the twentieth century, the last time someone could rise from the street markets to a Cheshire mansion, or in the author's case, the Booker Prize and sub Stephen Fry national treasuredom.  Two decades of Blair and Cameron and that awful prune Clegg have put a thorough-going stop to social mobility.

Monday, 8 July 2013

The Mission Song - John le Carre

You quickly realise that le Carre's starting point is the 'Scratcher' Thatcher attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea in 2004.  You know, therefore, that the really guilty parties are never going to be brought to account and that the Establishment will protect its own.  This is what gets le Carre's goat and why he is driven to write the novel, but his challenge is distract you from what you already know, and this he achieves with his narrator/protagonist Salvo, son of a mission priest and now the go-to man for interpreter services in more or less any African language you fancy.  His talents have brought him to the periphery of the UK secret services and it is they who send him undercover to the Wonga list plotters.  It's Salvo's conversational voice that keeps us hooked, especially as he falls for the nurse Hannah and leaves his wife Penelope, upcoming (and likely down-going) star of the British Press.

As always, le Carre has begun with meticulous research but the book is best when its in Salvo free flow.  I can't think of a more engaging and likeable protagonist in any other le Carre book.  An object lesson, then, in the wonders of first-person narrative.

Friday, 5 July 2013

The Morbid Age - Richard Overy

This is the antithesis of the inexplicably popular David Kynaston books, which strike me as little more than informed cut-and-paste from the popular press.  Overy, by contrast, concentrates entirely on intellectual discourse with virtually no press or even parliamentary context.  Were people like Cecil Day-Lewis and Storm Jameson really influential outside their metropolitan peer groups?  How has Overy measured their cultural penetration?  Does he really care about opinion in the great industrial cities?  Does he appreciate the influence of worker's education, the co-operative movement or night schools in the North and Midlands?  (A single paragraph four pages from the end is all we are offered on the Labour Movement per se.) Were things different in Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland?  Overy doesn't even mention that in the Thirties the BBC had extensive regional opt-outs - slots which were precisely the dais for alternative local input on the major issues and preoccupations of the day.

For all its shortcomings, The Morbid Age is a magnificent read.  Overy is hugely well-informed about his chosen era and, more importantly, has taken the time to consider his source material critically and in depth.  The title is his thesis and he amply proves it.  Essential reading for anyone interested in the period, wholly reliable within its own terms, but not the whole picture.

Talking of pictures, how great is the Christopher Nevinson painting they've put on the cover?  As iconic, in its way, as the original artwork for Metropolis.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Arena - William Haggard

William Haggard (Richard Clayton, 1907-1993) was a professional civil servant.  Technically spy fiction, I suppose, The Arena (1961) is really a story of realpolitik.  The arena in question is merchant banking, supposedly the province of upper middle class English gents but - even in 1961 - the playground of foreign chancers trading in dodgy money.  Like the majority of Haggard's fiction, one of the principal characters is Colonel Charles Russell of the Security Executive, the sort of spymaster who calls in favours and drops hints over a brandy at his club.  But Russell is not the protagonist here.  The protagonist who drives the plot and arranges its denouement is Walter Hillyard, director of one merchant bank which is the subject of a hostile takeover bid from another.  Hillyard, too, is old school, so much of a gent that he and his wife don't have sex.  Hillyard's main objection to the takeover is that it is fronted by Sabin Scott, one of those pushy stateless upstarts.  As the story progresses, Walter's preconceptions of his world fall apart at the same alarming rate as his health (he is diagnosed with sudden onset diabetes).  He has always known, of course, that his father-in-law and senior partner Lord Laver passes for an English milord but is actually third generation Mafioso.  The bank Walter is so proud of was set up to launder the proceeds of Neapolitan crime.  He knows, also, that the director of the respectable bank he turns to for help has anglicised his name to hide his racial origins.  Walter knows these things but now he has to face them - and thus we are drawn into his personal tragedy.
The personal narrative, for me, sets Haggard above some other spy writers of the period.  The world he depicts is corrupt but his protagonist is not.  We don't care about the financiers and their shadowy clients.  We do care about poor old Walter Hillyard.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

The Best Radio Plays of 1989

This is apparently the last of the annual series before John Birt began dismantling the artistic side of the BBC.  It is not the best of the series, it has to be said.  The Baby Buggy by Elizabeth Baines, is a two-hander about the demands and expectations of becoming a mother.  I thought it was great with subtle use of quite advanced radio dramatic technique.  Jennifer Johnston is primarily a novelist who writes the occasional play, and O Ananias, Azarias and Misael (great title)  would work equally well as a stage monologue or short story.  That said, it is a wonderful character study of a woman in the throes of walking away from her old life.  The remaining three plays are all by American writers who have either lived a substantial period in Britain or, in the case of Craig Warner, still do.  (Warner's recent work includes exceptional TV plays about Alan Turing, Lehman Brothers, and Princess Margaret.)  The Stalin Sonata by David Zane Mairowitz is the best of the three, a dark comedy about the two sides of Stalin - the bully with a taste for the arts.  Warner's piece, By Where the Old Shed Used to Be, is a freewheeling fantasy with echoes of Cinderella and a neat line in unexpected gore, for example when the more gormless of the repulsive stepsisters cuts her hand off in order to remove her bracelet.  It's not to my taste but this sort of thing was fashionable at the time and it is very well done.  Richard Nelson's Eating Words was simply not to my taste.

For a fuller, more academic appraisal of the individual plays in this collection, click here.