Thursday, 28 February 2013

Murder Mile - Tony Black

The second in the DI Rob Brennan series came as something as a disappointment.  Not that it's intrinsically less good than Truth Lies Bleeding, but that it's exactly the same.  And I mean exactly, almost a replica.  It reads well, it moves along, but every step is an echo of what we read before.  And the deep background of the characters which is so admired in the earlier book is missing here.  As for the plotting, we know who did it far too early on and can guess how the denouement is shaping up by about two thirds of the way in.  The denouement is extremely well written though, building the tension beautifully.

Not so much an advance, then, more a holding statement.  Hopefully the third Brennan moves things forward.  Black is definitely worth sticking with.

Monday, 25 February 2013

A Death in Summer - Benjamin Black

The fourth of Black/Banville's Quirk Dublin series and the successor to Elegy for April, reviewed below (October 2012).  The standard is every bit as high and I admire the subtlety with which BB uses the Fifties to reflect on the present.  It would be giving too much away to say how in this instance, save to say it is Ireland's perennial problem.  As the indomitable Inspector Hackett puts it on the penultimate page, "It's the times, Doctor Quirke, and the place.  We haven't grown up yet, here on this tight little island.  But we do what we can, you and I.  That's all we can do."

The plotting is so superbly done in this novel - tightly integrated like a Swiss watch movement - that I find it impossible to comment specifically without giving the game away.  As it happens, I did guess whodunit for once.  Did it matter?  Not a jot.  The crime is merely the frame in which the artist develops his canvas.  The best period detective series around.   The latest Quirke is Vengeance, and between A Death in Summer and Vengeance came The Lemur, which apparently links Fifties Dublin with modern Manhattan.  Can't wait.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Politics and the English Language - George Orwell

"Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."  So wrote Orwell in this 1945 essay and the description has never been more applicable than it is today.  "We've never had so many people working!" trumpet the Tories.  No, say I, because we've never had so many people.  Only a million or so people were working in Britain in the second half of the fourteenth century - but that was more or less everyone, percentage employment levels in the upper nineties whereas today it's what?  Less than 25%?  Over the last 30 years governments have been defined by words they completely subverted the meaning of - 'community' for Maggie Thatcher's neo-Nazis, 'trust' for New Labour.  'Reform' has come to mean destruction, whereas 'business' now means peculation.  Who knows what that most revolting political term, 'technocrat' actually means.

In fact Orwell was lamenting the decline of the written language generally.  If only he could have seen the damage word-processing has done.  That said, the examples he cites were unforgiveable then and remain so now.  His six rules for rescuing writing remain inarguable:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive when you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules rather than say anything outright barbarous.
I particular like Rule 6.

Also in this volume from Penguin's Great Ideas is Orwell's review of James Murphy's unabridged translation of Mein Kampf published immediately before the outbreak of war in 1939.  Orwell wrote in 1940 and reminds us vividly that appeasement of Hitler was official government policy until the Day War Broke Out.

"For at that date Hitler was still respectable.  He had crushed the German labour movement, and for that the property-owning classes were willing to forgive him almost anything.  Both Left and Right concurred in the very shallow notion that National Socialism was merely a version of Conservatism."

And that's something we would do well to bear in mind every time a career politician opens his or her mouth.

Mid-Century Drama - Laurence Kitchin

I was browsing the might Skoob in London's Brunswick Centre when I found this.  One key aspect of my research is the role of radio drama in developing British theatre in the 1950s and early 60s.  One contention of my thesis is that only the patronage of BBC radio brought Beckett, Pinter and Arden to audiences sufficiently large to warrant commercial management (and it was all commercial in those days) risking them on the London stage.  Note, I do not claim that radio was the only way for the angry generation; for example Osborne and Wesker went straight to the stage.

Anyway, I was disappointed.  I should have known I would be when I realised that Laurence Kitchin was the drama critic of the Times, which has naturally scorned the most democratic of performance media since Day One.  Instead what we get here is a tour of everything that alienated audiences from the clique that was London theatre circa 1955 - the tedious, impenetrable visits from the Moscow Art Theatre and the Comedie Francaise - with a sort of baffled consideration of why anyone might think television could contribute to art.  In that sense the book was useful to me - as a launch pad for why I and my generation rebelled against this highhanded elitist guff.

The second part of the book is cheap and nasty - reverential interviews with the theatrical great and good of the day lifted straight from the pages of the Times where they first appeared.  The interest here was thin: Peter O'Toole before Lawrence, the realisation how early Ashcroft was made a dame.  I was interested in the interview with Peter Holmes, who seems to have been seen as a star of the future whilst at Oxford, unusually combining the roles of actor, student and road navvy; it seems he later became a respected teacher and died in 2010.

My favourite of these interviews was the last, with Stella Adler (1901-1992) whose long career meant that she worked with Stanislavsky, the Group Theatre, Marlon Brando and Robert de Niro.  She lectured at Yale and founded her own acting school.  I find this much more impressive and appealing than Kitchin evidently did.

Here is a thoughtful review from John Wyver, to whom the book was more useful since his research is into stage plays on television.

NOTE: This review also appears on my Media & Culture blog.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Sergeant Verity and the Swell Mob - Francis Selwyn

I happened upon this series by accident but will purposefully seek out more.  Francis Selwyn is a pseudonym of Donald Thomas, poet, prolific author and Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Cardiff University.  His passion appears to be Victorian crime fiction, because as well as the Verity series he has written (as Thomas) the Inspector Swain series (The Ripper's Apprentice sounds right up my street) and currently produces pseudo-Sherlocks.  His latest, Death on a Pale Horse, is due out next month.  As Selwyn he wrote Hitler's Englishman: The Crime of Lord Haw-Haw (1987), which has long been part of my collection and is my go-to research book regarding William Joyce.  Also as Selwyn he produced a book on Neville Heath which I am now looking out for.

Meanwhile, back to Sergeant Verity.  Some might say it is redolent of Peter Lovesey's seminal Sergeant Cribb series, which certainly predate Verity.  I am a great admirer of Cribb, albeit not of Lovesey's later work.  But Selwyn is the more adventurous writer and I enjoyed this, the fifth of the series, for the off-the-wall undercurrent.  Villains with names like Old Mole, Stunning Joseph, and Sealskin Kite are always going to attract me, and I also enjoyed the fact that Verity - wholly unlike Cribb - isn't all that bright.  The chase on the Brighton Parliamentary I thought was superbly done, a complex scenario executed in a genuinely thrilling style.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Rabbit is Rich - John Updike

The third in the Rabbit Angstrom sequence and the last volume of the Rabbit omnibus, Rich is set in 1979-80.  President Carter is trying to rescue the hostages from Iran, big oil is sucking the life out of the US economy but Rabbit is rich, having inherited his father-in-law's Toyota franchise.  Harry is middle-aged now, part of the country club set, with a blossoming sex life at home and, later, abroad. Essentially, though, this is a novel about children, the next generation and how the indiscretions of their elders impact upon them.  Old Man Springer's actions have made Rabbit rich whilst anchoring him to Janice and lumbering him with the care of belligerent old Ma Springer, not that easy-going Harry objects to either.  Harry's infatuation with Jill (in Redux) has alienated him from his son Nelson whilst his earlier affair with Ruth (Run) may have resulted in an unknown illegitimate daughter who might possibly be the bewitching country girl who shows up one day in Harry's showroom.  Then Nelson arrives home (from Kent State) with amiable Melanie but it turns out he's really engaged to Pru/Tessa, who turns out to be carrying the Angstrom's grandchild.  A time, then, for taking stock - or, in Rabbit's case, one last indulgent spree.

I have loved all three of the Omnibus Rabbits and am so glad I didn't read them all in one go.  I'll be keeping an eye out now for Rabbit at Rest.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Wilful Behaviour - Donna Leon

The eleventh Commissario Brunetti novel, from 2001, is a doozy.  The blurb on the back had me worried: "buried secrets dating back to the Second World War" raised the prospect of awkward flashbacks, a sure sign of mid-series flag.  But no, not by any means.  Leon gets through the entire complex back story without a single flashback.  In fact the writing here is a fine as I have seen from her.  I particularly loved the resonant delicacy of the last line.

Venice really came alive for me in this one and I actually learned stuff about what the Italians got up to in WW2 and the attitude of later generations.

Wilful Behaviour is a crummy title by any standard but the book reawakened my enthusiasm for the Brunetti series.  Strongly recommended.