Saturday, 30 March 2013

Pal Joey - John O'Hara

Probably O'Hara's most famous work today, thanks to the musical and musical movie, Pal Joey is in fact an epistolary novella, only 70 pages long in this omnibus edition from the 1980s.  Having not read O'Hara before, I did not know what to expect.  I certainly didn't expect it to consist entirely of semi-literate letters.  I envisaged Updike; what I got reminded me strongly of Nathanael West, which suited me just fine.

We never learn Joey's last name, nor that of his sole correspondent and sometime pal Ted, who is doing much better than Joey is the swing era of 1938-41, which is when the book was written.  As a novella it relies more on nuance than plot and as such succeeds remarkably well.  I loved the interview with 'girl reporter' Melba, the sad little affair with wealthy widow Mavis, and above all the magnificent coda of the 14th letter, 'Reminiss', where Joey reflects sourly on what might (should) have been.  The line - "I even wear a little rug up front but so does the Grooner and Freddie Astare" - encapsulates it all.  Wonderful.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Rivers of London - Ben Aaronovitch

Ben Aaronovitch is part of the Doctor Who circle, having written episodes in the Dark Ages of the 1980s.  He also wrote for Blake's Seven and something called Jupiter Moon.  There are flavours of the Doctor in this, the first of his Grant and Nightingale series, but for me it was more redolent of Mike Carey's magnificent Felix Castor series.

It's giving nothing away to reveal that young mixed-race PC Peter Grant finds himself seconded to Inspector Thomas Nightingale's magic and supernatural division, when a face-tearing-off entity starts murdering punters in Covent Garden.  The rivers of the title - more precisely their genius locii - play a significant role in the resolution.

The writing is not quite as big and graphic as Carey's but is underpinned with a wry humour and a wonderful sense of place.  The chase sequence at the end is far and away the best bit of writing I have come across during my dabbles in the sub-genre (which also includes Paul Magrs' Brenda mysteries).

I adored this book and will be snapping up the others (Moon Over Soho and Whispers Underground).  One caveat, though.  The bonus short story included in the paperback I read - "The Home Crowd Advantage" - is pants and best skipped for fear it might put off the casual browser.

The Ancient Greeks - M I Finley

Moses Finley sounds like my kind of academic - harassed out of the US by the McCarthy witch-hunt.  This book was definitely my kind of book - solid academic information in a highly readable form.  The original 1963 hardback was apparently subtitled "An Introduction to their Life and Thought", which is exactly what Finley provides.  I, for example, had never really understood the so-called Greek Dark Ages or just how tied up with the rise of Athens Pericles was.  Finley soon sorted that out.  He apparently also wrote (amongst much else) The World of Odysseus, which is now high up on my reading wish list.  Recommended.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Unwanted - Kristina Ohlsson

Unwanted is the debut from former Swedish anti-terrorism officer Kristina Ohlsson.  One might assume it would therefore be a thriller; instead it is a fairly mundane police procedural about a psycho-killer on the loose.  As the cover implies, it has been designed to cash in the post-Killing wave of Nordic Noir.  And, to an extent, it has its own Sarah Lund in the shape of Fredrika Bergman, a civilian police detective (we can but assume they exist) with a mildly idiosyncratic love-life.

Now Fredrika might make an interesting protagonist.  Unfortunately the concept of protagonist seems to have passed Ohlsson by, along with the time-honoured tradition of describing what our main characters look like.  What we get therefore is a team which is not actually a team: leader Alex Recht, who we are told is a legend but never does anything to warrant legendary status, Fredrika, and traditional low-grade plodder Peder Rydh, who has the traditional troubled homelife.  Peripheral team members are glossed over as if their first name is sufficient.  Some aren't even that developed.

The poor quality of technique is a shame because the idea is a good one.  It would be better if, when the psycho is finally cornered, we had any meaningful insight into his psychology.  Personally, given we get stream-of-consciousness from various associated characters, I would have included some from his well-warped perspective.  Instead we get an overlong epilogue in which we are told what happened next for our police friends - I for one didn't care and would have left things as near the climax as I could.

The writing itself is functional, which is all it needs to be.  There are a few typos and some sloppy proof-reading (in the ebook version, anyway), which again smacks of the quick cash-in.

All in all, interesting enough to warrant trying the second in the series, Silenced, which came out in English last month (the third, The Disappeared, is due out in August).  I would consider the ebook, I would certainly borrow from the library, but I wouldn't dream of buying the full-price paperback.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Havana Fever - Leonardo Padura

Padura is a celebrated crime novelist in his native Cuba, now beginning to make a name in English.  He is published in the UK by Bitter Lemon Press, who specialise in noir from faraway places.

Let's be clear, this isn't serial-killer noir in the Nordic mode, nor a sly take on contemporary life through the lens of crime as, for example, the Montalbano series.  Frankly, if it wasn't for the fact that the protagonist is Count Mario Conde, hero of four earlier crime novels, it wouldn't be crime fiction at all.  Conde retired from the force a decade ago and now, at 48, is like Hakan Nesser's Inspector Van Veeteren, a dealer in old books.  He stumbles onto a fabulous private library and that leads him to investigate a forgotten bolero singer who made one record and vanished just after Castro's revolution.  The original owner of the library and Conde's late father both seem to have been besotted with her.  Ultimately, old crimes are linked to one contemporary crime but really Havana Fever is noir in its tone and in its preoccupations - clubs, jazz, nightlife, sex, corruption and people who turn to whatever means necessary to scrape a living.

The pace is slow, the characters and background incredibly deep and rich.  Everybody who crosses a page of Havana Fever has lived a life and has a story to tell.  It's the mystery of life as much as the mystery of Violeta del Rio.  I loved it.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The Veiled One - Ruth Rendell

Volume 14 of the Wexford series, The Veiled One was written in 1988, about the time the author became seriously famous with the TV series and the creation of Barbara Vine.  It is thus quintessential Rendell with a strong foretaste of Vine - a murder mystery which turns on warped psychology.  There is also an interesting but unlinked subplot referencing the women's protest at Greenham Common.

It all starts in the run-up to Christmas when a woman's body is found in shopping centre carpark which Wexford himself has just left.  Indeed, the body is found close by where his car was parked.  The gruesome twist is that the woman was garrotted, a almost unique method in British murder.  Wexford is sidelined for a time - to explain why would be to spoil the plot - and in his absence Mike Burden takes up the investigation.  He becomes convinced he knows who the murderer is.  Is he right?  That's the beauty of Rendell's craft.  She keeps you guessing right to the end.  She doesn't cheat, she doesn't bend the rules, but relies solely on depth of character to keep you hooked.

A very, very good example of its genre, and as such highly recommended.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Ripper's Apprentice - Donald Thomas

1986 classic from the author also prolific as Francis Selwyn.  As the image suggests, this belongs to the Inspector Swain series and concerns a serial killer loose in London three years after the Ripper's Autumn of Terror.  I'm not sure whodunit will be much of a surprise to fans of the form but for me the pleasure was entirely in the writing - from the mystery man's ramblings, written in his own urine, to the horse-faced Inspector's surprisingly lively sex life.  The case is a real one but I have no idea whether the blackmail aspect is historical or not.  Does it matter?  Not a jot.  Reading this was pure unadulterated delight.  Can't wait to get my hands on another.