Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The Seeds of Time - John Wyndham

 Ten short stories from the master of speculative fiction.  A mixed bunch, naturally - that's the appeal of short stories - but entertaining overall.  My personal taste is for the elegiac or malicious ("Time to Rest", "Wild Flower" and, in the malicious category, "Dumb Martian".)  I found the comic ("Pawley's Peepholes" and "Compassion Circuit") less successful.  My favourite in the collection was "Meteor", in which survivors of an advanced civilisation land on Earth and soon wish they hadn't.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

The Killer Inside Me - Jim Thompson

Thompson (1906-77) was the king of American pulp noir.  Nobody of his era did it nastier and he can still shock today.  The Killer Inside Me is probably his best novel, though I quite liked King Blood when I read it twenty or so years ago.  He takes great liberties with first person narrative, yet he gets away with it thanks to sheer bravura.

That is not to say Thompson was in any sense a poor or sloppy writer.  Let us not forget, as so many do, that he wrote the scripts of Kubrick's The Killing and Paths of GloryThe Getaway and The Killer Inside Me have both made into Hollywood movies twice, The Grifters once.  Several others have been adapted as French movies.  Maybe it's the resolutely humdrum name, but Thompson really should be much better known than he is.

What we have here is the account of Lou Ford, Hicksville TX deputy, good old boy and psycho killer.  There are all sorts of reasons why they can't catch him.  Mainly, he's much smarter than they think he is.  Secondly, he simply doesn't care whether they catch him or not.  He's not to blame.  It's the sickness (italicised throughout), which first troubled him as a boy.  In the end, by unexpected literary sleight of hand, they do catch him.  Lou still doesn't care.  He has already prepared the final spree - for himself and others: "All of us that started the game with a crooked cue, that wanted so much and got so little, that meant so good and did so bad."  A sentence that pretty well defines the form.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Kim - Rudyard Kipling

I encountered Kipling as a child, which was clearly a great mistake.  I didn't get it.  I hated it.  Thick end of half a century later this amazing cover image stared at me out of the library window.  I considered overnight whether I should risk associating myself with a work of Kipling. Thought what the hey, borrowed it, and had my eyes well and truly opened.

There is a view that for Kim, and for Kim alone, Kipling won the 1907 Nobel Prize, this of course being before Baden Powell fetishized the Jungle Books.  I can well believe it.  Kim is an astonishing tour de force, literature which transcends mere narrative.  There's something of the Pilgrim's Progress at work here, but with a total immersion in the multi-coloured world of Raj India.  Kim is only a child but he has two distinct identities, Sahib and native guttersnipe, which he switches between at will.  For this reason he is subsumed into the Great Game (British Intelligence) whilst at the same time being the devoted chela of the Tishoo Lama.  How any novelist can make an interesting character out of a lama with no personal identity, engaged on a hopeless quest, beats me.  That Kipling can make him so attractive and compelling defies belief.  The other characters likewise: the Afghan horse dealer Mahbub Ali, the healer of pearls Lurgan Sahib, the garrulous widow, the all-powerful Woman of Srinagar, and the Babu doctor - a magnificent gallery, all richly realised, several without even a name to distinguish them.

Apart from the cover, this Penguin classic is a horrible edition.  There are far too many endnotes, sometimes three or four a line, which interferes with reading pleasure.  It would have been much better to include an appendix dealing with Kipling's use of local colour.  To my mind, he uses Indian names like a conjurer uses abracadabra - it really doesn't matter what they mean, they are there to add zing to the experience.  The introduction by Edward W Said is unforgiveable.  Why commission a critic who doesn't like Kipling?

For one thing, it is far too long.  Introduce it, for Pete's sake, don't append a scholarly paper.  As a piece of criticism it is very old fashioned, the sort of stuff that was de rigeur in the seventies and eighties but has long since passed its sell-by date.  Said seems to have convinced himself that Kipling is a racist.  Nonsense, as all those wonderful characters I have just listed demonstrate.  Kipling is not patronising his Indians, he clearly adores them.  Kipling evidently considered the Raj to be a good thing, but that doesn't make him racist, it makes him imperialist - a man of his era.

Said is a Conrad specialist, so he compares Conrad and Kipling.  There is no connection or parallel.  Conrad was a Pole who turned himself into an Englishman.  Kipling was an Englishman born and raised in India.  Conrad was pretty much a nobody when he arrived in England; Kipling couldn't have been more Establishment - he was Stanley Baldwin's cousin for one thing.  If the Conrad comparison is not sufficiently spurious, Said goes on to compare Kipling's Kim with Thomas Hardy's Jude.  Why?  Again, no sensible comparison is either possible or conceivable.  Kim is a happy-go-lucky youth devoid of all ties, Jude a depressive stonemason weighed down by family. Ridiculous.

Back to the main issue, though.  This is a staggeringly brilliant novel.  Read it - re-read it if need be.  But skip the intro and don't waste time on the notes.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Truth Lies Bleeding - Tony Black

Black is the latest star of Tartan Noir, albeit he was born in Australia.  Truth Lies Bleeding is the first of his procedural strand featuring DI Rob Brennan.  You'd never guess it given the huge amount of backstory that is implied here.  I for one checked that the publisher hadn't somehow made a mistake but no, that story (which is solved here) was never written, and that is a mark of the quality of Black's writing.  He may knock them out at a rate of knots but this novel at least is a finely crafted work of art.

The procedural stuff is front and centre and eminently credible.  Black does not resort to the crude device of having his protagonist taken off the case a.s.a.p. so he can charge about like a private detective.  Brennan's battle is pretty much to stay on the case.  He has flaws but is not a drunk - again, Black inverts the stereotype and has Brennan declare that he never drinks more than one with the lads.

In fact, life at Edinburgh police HQ was so carefully evoked with murder squad members all behaving like proper, trained professionals, that I wondered if Truth Lies Bleeding was really noir at all.  The page one murder was bleak and gruesome but where does gritty become midnight black?  Answer: when Black unveils the twist that indicates the motive for the murder.  Oh yes, this is noir all right, better than most and as good as any I have read recently.

Black's first four novels featuring Gus Drury seem more traditionally noir.  It makes no odds to me.  I plan to read the lot.  Black has an excellent website and an interesting take on the use of ebooks to amplify the canon.  For that reason I am going to break with my own convention and add a second image.

The Knox Brothers - Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald was the daughter of the eldest Knox brother and therefore niece of the other three.  This fourfold biography was her first book, published in 1977 when she was sixty years old.

The writing is elegant, the elegiac tone maintained throughout.  The problem is, for all their widely touted brilliance, the brothers were peripheral players.  Fitzgerald's father Edmund rose be to editor of Punch, Wilfred and Ronald were noted but not spectacularly distinguished churchmen.  Ronald, the youngest, famously turned Catholic as a young man (newsworthy at the time because his father was Anglican bishop of Manchester) whereas Wilfred was extremely left wing politically
 and absolutely conservative in (Anglican) religion.  The only brother who contributed significantly to wider society was the academic Dillwyn, whose abstruse talents as a classicist were turned to code-breaking in both World Wars.  He is credited with the insight that finally broke the German Enigma code.

The priestly brothers never married.  Edmund and Dillwyn both did but their wives are non-entities in Fitzgerald's account and the book suffers in consequence.  The only woman who figures is the stepmother, who took on the Knox brood (and the elderly, slightly dotty bishop) when the first Mrs Knox died young.  The redoubtable Ethel Knox seems to me worthy of a biography of her own.

Because the Knoxes are chiefly noteworthy for their association with greater events and greater men there is insufficient space in this four-hander joint biography to satisfy whichever interest is yours.  Ronald Knox is my particular interest, not because he translated the Bible but because he wrote Golden Age detective novels - and formulated the rules of the genre - and because he made a notorious radio broadcast just before the General Strike.  His famous friend was Evelyn Waugh, who scarcely figures here.  Waugh wrote a much better biography of Ronnie which was far more useful to me as only Waugh guides us to the actual script of the broadcast.  Father Thomas Corbishley, for those who are interested in such things, wrote a life of him from the religious standpoint, which is better than Fitzgerald on the decision to convert and his life at Oxford but, oddly, less insightful on the semi-authorised translation which occupied the Monsignor in later life.

One other point: if you are going to write a life of one who is dead, you really ought to cover the death.  Dillwyn's premature death is sketchily covered here, Wilfred and Ronnie more hinted at than described, and Edmund - Fitzgerald's father - not at all.

In summary, readable, enjoyable, but not sufficiently instructive for me.  I much prefer Fitzgerald's fiction.  There is a review of her wartime novel Human Voices over on my media and culture blog.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Prague Fatale - Philip Kerr

The latest Bernie Gunther exercise in Nazi Noir turns out to be something of a disappointment.  For all the fascination of the context, it is nothing more than a locked room mystery in the Agatha Christie mode, and once you've recognised that it's easy to guess who done it on the traditional Christie least-likely model, complete with hopelessly overwrought 'motive'.  Even the writing, normally the saving grace of any Kerr novel, stands in sore need of editing.  There is a terrible misstep somewhere near the middle when Gunther becomes a mere mouthpiece for Kerr who has decided to stray in post modern irony.  All in all, the book is far too long for what is at best a literary caprice.  I'm sorry I disliked it so much because I was delighted with the other Gunther novels I've read recently (A Quiet Flame, If the Dead Rise Not), and I will certainly look out for the next, A Man Without Breath.  On that score, a word of congratulation to Kerr and his publishers.  I really don't like the modern practice of banging a preview of the end of every book.  Kerr/Quercus have come up with a much better idea - log on to his website, sign up for his newsletter, and read it there.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Dark Blood - Stuart MacBride

First review of the New Year is our auld acquaintance Stuart MacBride, whose Dark Blood is the sixth in the Logan MacRae series.  At its dark heart is sex predator Richard Knox, released on licence and dumped on the Grampian Police because he has inherited his grandmother's house in Aberdeen.  The Press, the victims' relatives, and organised criminals from Scotland and the North of England, they all want to lay violent hands on Knox.  But is he just a docile nonce who's found God, or is he the keeper of dark and lucrative secrets?  It takes Logan the thick end of five pages to discover the truth.

The usual series characters are all present and correct - Beardie Beattie, Biohazard Bob, DI Steele (doubly on the razor's edge because her wife is about to give birth to Logan's child and because they've put locks on the office windows to enforce the smoking ban) and Logan's gangland benefactor Wee Hamish.

The plot, however, has too many elements - not all can be satisfactorily resolved without recourse to the long arm of coincidence - and I early on took against