Sunday, 28 April 2013

Still Midnight - Denise Mina

Denise Mina is often grouped with Tartan Noir novelists like Stuart MacBride and Tony Black.  She is Scottish and much of her work is crime fiction (she even has degrees in law and crime), but I would suggest a more suitable grouping of contemporary Scottish crime writing.  There is nothing especially noir about Still Midnight, the first of her DS Alex Morrow series.  Instead it is a story about the modern urban family.

Two pumped-up nutters carry out a ham-fisted home invasion on the Anwars' bungalow.  One accidentally blows sixteen year old Aleesha's hand off.  The other grabs paterfamilias Aamir, not the intended target, and bundles him into the van.  Later, he demands £2 million ransom.  Aamar runs a hole-in-the-wall newsagent's for a clientele of alkies and addicts; unless the family has a dodgy sideline, there's no way they can access money like that.

Alex Morrow has her own family secrets - her gangster father and half-brother, the domestic tragedy in her own homelife.  Her proxy family of the police service is likewise dysfunctional.  Her professional father, DI MacKechnie, favours her 'sibling' DS Bannerman, who is smug, self-satisfied and destined for higher things.

Then there is a third family, the gangland Tait clan, who it turns out have significant links.

It is all expertly handled.  The writing is shrewdly judged, always appropriate, handling difficult issues like race without either patronising or sermonising.  Even the happy(ish) ending, which would have jarred horribly if this really was Tartan Noir, succeeds because Mina has taken time to build her characters and make them all multi-faceted.

It is a bloody good read, and I want more. 

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Lowlife - Alexander Baron

Alexander Baron  (1917-99) wrote fourteen novels and a dozen or so TV scripts.  The Lowlife, from 1963, is a classic London novel, in a line direct from Tom Jones to Oliver Twist.  The key to a London novel is the focus on the city within - or below - the city of commerce and pomp.  The scene here is Hackney, specifically not the East End as Baron points out, but a quietly fading community of bedsits and flats.

Everyone in Baron's fictional world is a lowlife.  Hero-narrator Harryboy Boas, is a gambler who occasionally does a bit of Hoffman pressing when he finds himself in need of cash.  Otherwise he stays in his room in Ingram's Terrace and reads classic novels or sleeps until it's time to go to the dog track.  Harryboy is forty-five years old and the nearest thing he has to a girlfriend is a West End courtesan rising forty.  Nobody in this world has a regular 'straight' job.  The nearest approximation is Harryboy's brother-in-law Gus, a bookmaker, and book-keeper Vic, who moves his family into the downstairs flat thus inciting the plot, who wants to qualify as a company secretary so he can indulge in what today we call insider trading.

The plot is seamless - it seems to be nothing yet it keeps on going, finally sparking into real jeopardy for Harryboy.  The sequence in which he very nearly gets his come-uppance only to (briefly) come up trumps is genuinely exciting.  The subsequent twist, coming out of nowhere as things do in real life, was beautifully achieved.

Baron's writing is simply magnificent, note-perfect throughout.  He sets out to evoke a world, familiar yet unknown, and does so completely.  His characters are all multi-faceted, right down to the cringing landlord and the courteous little gangster.  There are no stereotypes.  Everybody has value, even Vic's appalling wife Evelyn.

I adored this book and can't wait to get hold of another.  Strip Jack Naked, King Dido - the titles alone call out to me.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Amorous Nightingale - Edward Marston

Edward Marston is a prolific author of historical mysteries, with several series on the go.  I read the first of his highly successful Railway Detective series a few years ago and many, many years ago I read The Merry Devils, the second of his Nicholas Bracewell/Elizabethan Theatre series.

This, though, is the second of his Christopher Redmayne series.  Redmayne is a London architect, working in the first decade of the Restoration.  This story is set in 1667, the year after the Great Fire, boom time for those in the building trade.  Christopher, however, seems able to knock off a design in a couple of shakes and spend the rest of his time as a proto-gumshoe on the King's ticket.  One of Old Rowley's many actress mistresses has been kidnapped; Redmayne and his oppo, puritan parish constable Jonathan Bale, must find her.

The theatre is inevitably a factor here, and I must admit to a problem which is not likely to trouble many.  When I read The Merry Devils I only had two drama degrees and thought it slightly under-researched in terms of the Jacobethan stage.  I now have four drama degrees and am appalled at how under-informed Marston is regarding the Restoration stage.  It's not terminal, but it's very distracting.  Still, if you write as many historical series as Marston does, over as many historical periods, how much research can you expect?

A more substantial flaw, for me, was the superficiality of the writing.  Precious little description, either personal or environmental.  You'd think an architect would take more notice of all the new buildings shooting up from the ashes.  There is pace, which is a good thing, an appropriate amount of backstory which is neatly handled, and dialogue with just enough period flavour to pass muster.  But the plot is clumsy - a villain we know nothing about, an absurdly contrived conspiracy and, the biggest hurdle to my enjoyment, scenes in which the unnamed, un-described bad guy confers with his henchpersons.  More than anything, The Amorous Nightingale suffers the lack of a coherent point of view.  I suspect I would have enjoyed it a lot more if it had all been from Christopher's POV or, better still, a first-person account from the lugubrious Bale, struggling to balance his loathing of king and theatre with the peril facing Harriet Gow.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ - Philip Pullman

Commissioned as part of the Canongate Myth series, which in itself will anger some people, Pullman's re-imagining of the gospel story was always going to be controversial.

The conceit that Jesus and Christ are twins is clever and intriguing.  It allows Pullman to play with the duality of the Christian - as opposed to the historical - Jesus Christ.  The writing is, of course, beautifully simple, the chapters short and snappy.  The characterisation, however, is zero and thus the reader can never get fully involved with the narrative - we cannot identify with these people, and whether this is intentional or not, I feel the book suffers as a result.

The narrative is essentially that of the gospels.  In a sense it is about the writing of the gospels as Christ follows his brother around, recording his words and deeds.  There is a dimension added by the stranger who visits Christ and collects the written records from him.  About halfway through he reveals himself to be an angel, though we never learn his name.  This is Pullman's masterstroke as far as I am concerned - the stranger is the one character who stayed with me after I had finished reading.  The Bible gives us the enigma of Jesus Christ, Pullman gives us the enigma of the stranger.

The reason for the twins is fairly obvious from the outset.  That is not a criticism.  Pullman's aim, it seems to me, has been to contrast the very human Jesus - a force for freedom - with the restrictive, censorious church that was founded in his name.  It is a subject I often think about myself; I don't believe in God or religion but I absolutely accept the historical truth of Christ and try to disentangle his teaching from the manufactured myth.  My conclusions are by and large the same as Pullman's.

This is not a book you are meant to enjoy reading.  It is a book intended to make you think.  I thought whilst reading it.  I am still thinking about it.  It's a major work by a major writer.  How can a dedicated bibliomaniac not read it?

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Psycho - Robert Bloch

Bloch's 1959 classic, forever eclipsed by the Hitchcock movie, here in the Bloomsbury Film Classic series from the late Nineties.

First off, I was surprised by how close the movie stuck to the novel.  Hitchcock hagiographies suggest the Master made many drastic changes but the book itself disproves this.  In one of recent spate of Hitchcock biopics Alma persuades Hitch to bump the Janet Leigh character off good and early - but Bloch does it at exactly the same point.

The big difference is the character of Norman Bates.  In the novel he is nothing like Anthony Perkins.  As to whether this is a good or bad thing, I am undecided.  For me, both work.  Where the novel really suffers is by going on two chapters after the denouement.  It has to be said, though, that this was typical of its era - psychology had to be explained in 1959 - and we should remember that this is the first real psycho killer novel, published only two years after Ed Gein, the model for Norman Bates, was revealed as America's first real serial killer - certainly the first to keep physical souvenirs.

Apparently Bloch wrote two sequels, Psycho II and Psycho House, both much later.  The first might be worth a look... But I'd be much more interested in his essay, 'The Shambles of Ed Gein'.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Loss - Tony Black

This is more like it!  Proper Tartan Noir and the best Tony Black I have read so far.  Loss is the third in the Gus Drury series, and noir is much easier with a non-cop as protagonist.  Gus, an unemployed ex-reporter with far too many dodgy mates is bound by no rules save personal honour.  He has friends, contacts, and even an ex-wife he's reunited with, but essentially he works alone.

It's coming up to Christmas - family time.  The snow is falling, Edinburgh is packed with Christmas shoppers - and Gus's respectable younger brother turns up with a bullet through his heart.  We have the perfect scenario for an amphetamine-fuelled quest for revenge.

Black's writing is pitch perfect.  The side-of-the-mouth wisecracks, my favourite concerning the Scottish Parliament building:  "It was our national shame; well, one of them.  The cost had been the cause of massive anger and political recriminations, but none of the main players had lost their hats.  I'd read in the paper recently that, at night, the forecourt of the place had been taken over by skateboarders.  I saw their tracks now: wheel marks, skids and doughnuts on the concrete.  A half-billion skatepark - money well spent.

"Out the back of the parliament a Marks and Spencer food van was being unloaded.  Christ, this got my goat - did those bastards deprive themselves of nothing?  Fucking Markies food deliveries whilst half the country is on bread rations.  It boiled my piss."

It's also much easier to do noir in the first person.

The chase at the end is masterful and Black avoids the mistake of continuing after the resolution.  Indeed, the laconic pay-off that ends the book is as good as I've ever seen.  Top recommendation.

Monday, 8 April 2013

The One From the Other - Philip Kerr

After the great disappointment of the last Bernie Gunther novel I read (Prague Fatale, see below), I can happily say that this, despite the horrible title, is one of the very best.  Written in 2006, it was Kerr's return to Bernie after 15 years, and leads straight into its successor, A Quiet Flame, which I really rated.

The plotting is brilliant, the theme (nobody is who they seem) maintained throughout, and there is the essential element of extreme jeopardy for our hero.  It's set in 1949 and finds Bernie running a hotel overlooking the Dachau concentration camp.  He is hooked in to the conspiracy by, as usual, an attractive woman and the story spirals out from there.  I certainly didn't see any of the twists coming.

There is also a long prologue set in Berlin and Jerusalem in 1937.  I kept wondering how this was relevant.  But then, brilliantly, it was.

Fiercely recommended.