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.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

The Resureectionist - James Bradley

The Resurrectionist is exactly what it says it is, set in London at the turn of the 19th century, the story of young Gabriel Swift, apprenticed to a respectable anatomist, who finds himself subsumed into the dark underbelly of the business.  I was unfamiliar with the work of James Bradley, one of Australia's foremost young novelists.  He is a writer I shall be following with interest.  I love the way he writes, using present and past tenses to separate main narrative from backstory.  His turns of phrase are often unexpected, sometimes poetic.  I like the fact that he doesn't feel the need to wrap up every loose end (Gabriel doesn't know, so why should we?)  I especially admired the confidence with which he switched the scene about four-fifths of the way through.  A good read - and an important novel. Recommended.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Long Time Dead - Tony Black

The fourth novel featuring down-at-heel ex-journo Gus Drury bestriding the meaner than expected streets of Edinburgh.  Having been so disappointed with the second DI Brennan novel (having loved the first), I remain a bigtime Dury fan.  With his chaotic lifestyle and choice social circle, he is perfect vehicle for Tartan Noir.  With his tragic back story of physical abuse from his football-hero father, he has the necessary weight to carry the flippancy.

The actual crime here is not especially interesting - the victim is almost Cameronesque in his unlikeability, and for the same reason.  It doesn't matter.  The gangland supremo Boaby 'Shaky' Stevens is involved, as is DI Fitz Fitzsimmons, sworn enemy of Freemasons.  The action rattles along and Black pushes the personal jeopardy for his hero just about as far as it is possible to go.  Highly enjoyable.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Broken Skin - Stuart MacBride

The third in the superb Logan McRae series, and to my mind the best I have so far read.  Broken Skin features multiple crimes (burglaries, rapes, a fisting-to-death on Aberdeen's BDSM scene, and the world's worst brat-from-Hell, porn and paedophilia) mixes in Logan's complicated love-life, DI Steel and her cigs, DI Insch, his sweeties and boiling blood pressure, The Mikado and the legendary Ma Stewart.  The best line, which in its way epitomises the tone, goes to DI Steel: "I'd rather you didn't wank off my constables with a bread knife."  Quite.

Violent, funny, serious on subjects which warrant seriousness, and effortlessly flowing - near as dammit 600 pages, which just fly by.  The pupil of Rankin and McDermid, MacBride is surely the best of his Tartan Noir generation.

Monday, 17 June 2013

The Midnight Swimmer - Edward Wilson

I'm not the biggest fan of spy fiction, particularly spy fiction of or set circa 1960.  OK, it's Bond, I absolutely hate Bond - I lost interest in the movies with Thunderball and the novels as soon as my voice broke.  I tried reading the novels again recently - Casino Royale and Diamonds Are Forever - and I still find them poorly written and pompous.

Imagine my reaction then, to this, the third in US expat Edward Wilson's series featuring William Catesby, a Bond clone with a difference in that he wears the bowler and pinstripe but began life as a working class lad from Lowestoft.  I absolutely loved it.  One major attraction is that it's wrapped around real events (the Cuban missile crisis) with real people mixed in with the fictional.  There is something of Deighton is the amount of detail Wilson delights in, and inevitably a flavour of le Carre in the double-dealing.  Like his protagonist, Wilson's attitudes and conclusions are often unexpected.

The writing is not without fault.  There are a lot of unwarranted question marks in the later sections of the ebook, a sign of faltering proofreading, and - more seriously - there are far, far too many epilogues.  It's a series; who cares what happened next?  We'll find out in the next instalment.

Wilson himself is an unusual character.  Baltimore-born, he fought in Vietnam but ended up teaching further education in England.  He has been a British citizen for 30 years now.  I'm keen to read the earlier Catesby novels but especially keen to read his Vietnam novel, A River in May (2007)

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Natural Causes - James Oswald

This is the first mainstream novel from Oswald, who has previously written fantasy.  The paperback has just come out and the second Inspector Tony McLean novel, The Book of Souls, comes out on July 4.  I read the ebook version.

You google Natural Causes and you get a lot of stuff about the opening chapter.  I don't know how it works in the paperback but in the ebook Oswald has deleted the controversial opening, which was actually a pitch for a competition, but includes it as an appendix with an explanation.  For me, a version of the shock-open or something else entirely should have been considered.  It took me ages to get hooked on the story.  Don't get me wrong, the writing is good, the characters interesting, but there are far too many of them and I kept forgetting who was who.  I was interested - I wasn't gripped.  Fortunately, perhaps, Natural Causes is 400+ pages and by about halfway (the hit-and-run) I was hooked.  Certainly, I will give Book of Souls a go.

Funnily enough, Oswald is co-judge of the Crime in the City short-story competition with Craig Robertson, another up-and-coming Tartan Noir exponent who promised much but didn't quite grab me as I would wish to be grabbed.  One thing very much in Oswald's favour, though, is his sense of irony.  His crime-writing mentor is manifested in Inspector McLean's 'apprentice', DC Stuart MacBride.

Black Orchid - Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

The cover of this 1991 edition gives no clue, but Black Orchid is the graphic novel as high art.  Gaiman, of course, is a legendary writer of such things, now also a major novelist - The Ocean at the End of the Lane is published this week.  Dave McKean, also an Englishman, is Gaiman's friend and early collaborator.  This work began as a short-run special edition DC comic, using one of their dud back characters, and became a cult.

The influence of the mighty Alan Moore, another Gaiman friend, is apparent in the deep philosophical back story.  Gaiman's appeal to comic book fans is evident in the way he anchors this very un-DC narrative in the familiar DC universe: the US cities are Metropolis and Gotham, the super-villain (but not the lead antagonist) is Lex Luthor, and Batman puts in a shadowy cameo.

But the best parts are when Black Orchid, a humanoid plant, retreats from civilization to the rain forest of the Amazon Basin.  Here, McKean's radical rethink of the way graphic art can lay out a narrative really come to the fore.  About 20% of the imagery is so evocative that the creators decided no words were necessary.

I was a major fan of superhero comics when I was a boy and again as a young man.  I tried one a few years back and had really lost the taste.  This is the way forward for me.  I want more.

[There is a brilliant essay on Black Orchid here, which also includes images of some of the sumptuous artwork.]

Thursday, 6 June 2013

D for Deception - Tina Rosenberg

D for Deception is a Kindle Single, a short piece somewhere between a magazine article and a paper (in this case 44 pages).  Originally, in America, it was e-published by The Atavist, a digital publisher with several titles that appeal strongly to me.

Tina Rosenberg is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist.  This is not her finest work.  Reviews imply deep research but the only authority here is Dennis Wheatley himself.  It may be he did what is claimed - his wife and stepson certainly worked for MI5 - but Wheatley was a writer of his time, when popular authors cultivated an air of exotic sophistication.  Wheatley certainly made himself out to be posher than he was and he may well have made his wartime service seem more significant than it really was.  Without direct references to official records, which are easily available (I bought some associated material the day before yesterday for a princely £3), we shall never truly know.

I think we can safely say he played a role and sacrificed some personal success to serve his country. After a five-year break from publishing novels to make time for his war-work, he never again achieved the sort of sales he enjoyed pre-war.

This, then, serves as a reminder that Dennis Wheatley was a cultural icon of his era, with a truly enormous readership.  Nowadays remembered - if at all - as a writer of occult adventure, Rosenberg reminded me that he also wrote early spy fiction with the Gregory Sallust series.  I have a wartime edition of one of them, Faked Passports, published in June 1940, just before he joined London Control.  I have dug it out and added it to my reading stack.

Cell 8 - Roslund & Hellstrom

Swedes Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom are, respectively, a TV journalist and an ex-con turned campaigner for crime prevention through rehabilitation.  They have been writing together since 2004.  Cell 8 is the third of their seven novels - the latest. Two Soldiers, was published in Sweden in 2012.

Ostensibly it is Nordic Noir.  That is doubtless why it was translated into English.  But it is more than simple crime fiction.  There is a theme here - the moral dilemma of the death penalty.  The way this is rolled out is sheer brilliance.  It would be giving too much away to say any more than Detective Superintendent Ewert Grens gets one hell of a surprise when he finds out who the cruise ship singer arrested for kicking a drunk in the face in Stockholm really is.

Grens is theoretically Roslund and Hellstrom's 'hero', a sixtyish untamed bear who left his personal life behind circa 1969.  In practice they deploy a battalion of fully-realised characters all of whom contribute to the narrative.  My only criticism is that the only characters without back-stories are women, and the women are important in this story.

Roslund and Hellstrom use short, punchy chapters subdivided into even shorter sections, many no more than a single paragraph.  Not normally my taste but it works very well here, especially as the tension builds towards the end and people on opposite sides of the Atlantic are all focused on one climactic event.

I was impressed and am on the lookout for more.  Roslund & Hellstrom - a welcome addition to the ever-growing catalogue of Nordic crime writers and surely the next big thing on Swedish TV.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

The End of the Wasp Season - Denise Mina

Another in the DS Alex Morrow series, this one disappointed me slightly.  Firstly, because Morrow is in a happy place, heavily pregnant with twins and sorely lacking her accustomed belligerence.  Secondly, because the murder is all about rich folks and thus I find it hard to empathise.  To be fair, Mina is making a social point about the working poor, the fading gentry and super-rich financial swindlers.  For me, however, the dividing lines weren't stark enough.

That said, Mina still writes like a dream, with a gift for inhabiting the souls of even of her most transitory characters. I enjoyed the book but I didn't love it.  And my enjoyment wasn't helped by piss-poor proof-reading.  It's no wonder hard copy publishers are losing ground to e-publishing.  You'd forgive the misprints in a book that costs you under £2, but not one that costs £12.99.