Monday, 29 July 2013

The Bat - Jo Nesbo

This is the first Harry Hole, published in Norway as far back as 1997 but not translated into English until 2012.  When I first learnt The Bat existed, I wondered why hadn't they brought it out in America and the UK?  Having read it, I know why.  It isn't as good as whatever they started the English run with.

It's OK - better than OK and a good bit better than most other Nordic Noir thrillers that have been hurriedly published in the wake of Nesbo's success - but it is nowhere near as good as books like The Redeemer and The Leopard.  It is a million miles from the mighty Headhunters.  Frankly, I wish they hadn't bothered.

For starters, it isn't Nordic, it's Aussie with a guest Nord.  Harry has been flown off to the southern hemisphere after a minor Norwegian TV personality is murdered in Sydney.  This in itself is wholly implausible.  It quickly becomes irritating that the Australians can't pronounce Hole the Norwegian way and take to calling him Harry Holy.  Even Nesbo can't make a joke as thin as that last 374 pages.  There are long, tedious tracts of Aboriginal folklore which have no connection with the story and are there to show off Nesbo's research.  The red herring might as well wear a red herring hat it is so obvious he's not the killer and the real bad guy can be arrived at by the Agatha Christie method (i.e. who do we think is least likely to have done it?)  I finished the book less than twelve hours ago and have already forgotten why he did it.

For all that, the story moves along at an engaging pace, you get a lot of Harry's backstory, and Nesbo is always worth reading.  I believe there's another early Harry still to be translated.  I'd like to say I'll give it a miss, but I probably won't.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Cold Granite - Stuart MacBride

This is it, the first of the Logan McRae series.  Well, I say first.  Certainly it is the first to be published - it is, indeed, MacBride's first published book - but the sheer amount of backstory here makes it clear to me that there was an earlier, unpublished attempt.  No doubt whilst hawking that round publishers MacBride wrote a successor, Cold Granite, which was accepted, helped, probably, by the amount of backstory.

Anyhow, it's a thumpingly good start, an assured welcome to the world of Grampian Police.  Logan is back on duty a year after having his guts perforated by a serial killer he captured.  This is why they call him Laz, because he is Lazarus back from the dead.  The day starts badly.  The mutilated body of a small boy have been found.  Things spiral downhill from there.  DI Steel is otherwise engaged, so Laz is assigned to DI Insch, he of the temper and the sweeties.  The pathologist is Laz's ex, Isobel.  The newshound harrying McRae for the inside track is the new-in-town Colin Miller.

There are other magnificent writers of Scottish crime fiction - Rankin, McDermid, Mina (whose just won an award for her latest) - and all crime fiction is to a greater or lesser extent noir, but MacBride is far and away the most accomplished purveyor of Tartan Noir as a specific genre, and with Cold Granite established himself as such from Day One.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Ties of Blood - Graham Reid

Where was I in late '85?  I can't imagine how I missed these six thematically linked TV plays, but I clearly did.  I remember the Billy trilogy from '82, which made Reid's name and introduced the telly-goggling world to Kenneth Branagh, but these...

Anyway, I'm glad I know them now.  Reid, himself a Belfast man who served in the British army, does not deal with the troubles as a sensational bloodfest.  Instead he focuses on those on either side of the conflict who have to live with it - local people, some Protestant, others Catholic, and the army of occupation.  In each play locals and army come together, usually for sexual purposes, and thereby cause conflict with their peers.  The excellent drawing on the cover above, by one P J Lynch, hits the subject matter perfectly.

Inevitably, the consumer is going to like some plays more than others.  For me, my favourites were the first and fifth, McCabe's Wall and Invitation to a PartyMcCabe's Wall is about bred-in-the-bone hostility.  McCabe's IRA sympathies date back to 1916 and he would sooner alienate his children than compromise his principles.  Invitation to a Party is a more complex piece; British soldiers are honey-trapped but the two lairy lads escape whilst the honourable soldier wanders innocently into a completely separate trap.  The play which didn't engage me was the last, The Military Wing.  A military hospital in which the nurses have military rank is just too weird for me to identify with.

Google as I might, I can't find what Reid has been up to over the last twenty years.  He seems to have hit his stride as he turned forty and then slipped into semi-obscurity.  Obviously his subject matter is no longer contemporaneous but I have no doubt Belfast still has issues, especially now the hardliners are making something of a comeback.  He has also lost his canvas, which was the sorely-missed Play for Today, but other writers of his vintage have coped by writing series and feature-length films.

I'm definitely on the lookout for the Billy scripts.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Prester John - John Buchan

Odd that I should re-read, in the space of a week, two stories which I hated when forced to read them at school when I was twelve or thirteen; odder still that I should have bought both at the same time from my favourite bookshop, Skoob, underneath the Brunswick Centre in London.  The other, of course, was 'Odour of Chrysanthemums', which I didn't realise was in The Prussian Officer.

As a kid, it was the African names that put me off Prester John - typically, one of the reasons I like it so much now.  It takes some nerve to call your main location Blaauwildebeestefontein without batting an authorial eyelid.  And it's not as if Buchan was writing to a captive readership; this, in 1910, was his first bestseller.

Then, of course, the action and the issues were contemporary.  The last Boer War was only a few years ago and everyone would know (unlike me) about Beyer's masterstroke with the guns at the Wolkberg.  Not that it matters, though it is essential to read Buchan with an Edwardian eye.  He is unashamedly imperialist, but so was his world.  A purist would say he is racist.  I am not so sure.  He certainly patronises the natives but his hero, Crawfurd, repeatedly stresses the need to improve things for the Africans and he attacks those who exploit them.  The race he really despises is the Portugoose [sic], in the person of Henriques, who encourages a native rising purely to get his hands on their treasure.  Laputa, the 'heir of John', the would-be emperor, epitomises the noble savage.  His word can be relied upon.  His fall - literally - is an heroic end.

What people forget about Buchan is how good he was at maintaining the pace of an adventure.  Prester John is all action and fairly bowls along.  It's a Boys' Own adventure for slightly older boys.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Bad Intentions - Karin Fossum

Bad Intentions (2010) is the eighth in Fossum's Inspector Sejer series.  I had previously read the seventh, The Water's Edge (2009) and the standalone novel Broken (2008), both of which I rated highly.  Indeed, Fossum was my personal discovery of the year 2010.  Why is she not featured on this blog as often as other purveyors of Nordic noir?  Because she is seriously badly published in the UK by vintage.  The covers are uninspiring (I mean, just look at it) and they seem to do almost zero marketing.  You never find them in major national bookstores and happening on one in your local library, as I have done for all three aforementioned, is pure fluke.

Fossum, who is Norwegian, writes psychological crime in the manner of Ruth Rendell.  She eschews serial killers and conspiracy.  In this novel we are not sure if there has been a crime at all.  If there has been, we know for sure whodunit, but not exactly what has been done or why.  There is no gore, no startling twists, and yet Fossum holds our attention from the first sentence to the last.  She is a major writer and deserves to be better known.  I mean, the least Vintage could do is give her an English-language website.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

The Prussian Officer - D H Lawrence

Poor old Lawrence never had any luck.  In July 1914 he marries a von Richtofen, in November he published a volume of short stories the first two of which are sympathetic portrayals of German soldiers.  A hundred years on, however, they are great stories.  The titular tail is really a collision of the castes: the officer is aristocratic, aloof from normal human emotion; his orderly is the common man, in love with a common woman.  'Thorn in the Flesh' is about new recruit Bachmann of whom too much is expected.

My favourites, though, are 'Daughters of the Vicar' and 'Odour of Chrysanthemums'.  'Daughters' is essentially about the class system in the same way as 'The Prussian Officer' - the good looking sister feels obliged to uphold the family status and thus submits to a loveless marriage with a strange vicar who comes from money.  The plain sister, meanwhile, falls passionately in love with a collier.  'Chrysanthemums', which I remember being forced to read at school when I was thirteen or so and had thus completely forgotten, is about the wife of a collier who has taken to drink.  She's stuck in the cottage with their two young children, waiting for him to come home, cursing him when he doesn't.  He's gone to the pub again, she assumes.  She won't lower herself to go and get him but she is willing to ask her neighbour to do so.  Eventually they bring Walter home.  He's been trapped in the mine for hours after everyone else went topside.  He suffocated.  His wife and his mother lay him out in the parlour.  For his mother he's a saint, for the wife he's dead meat.  She cannot comprehend that they were once one flesh.  She cannot mourn.

It is years and years since I read any Lawrence.  I had forgotten how ahead of his time he was, how preoccupied with sex and sensuality.   In many ways the short story form suits him best.  For me, the ones set in Nottinghamshire with an industrial background always hit the spot.  They don't necessarily have to be about mining - take for example 'Goose Fair' in this collection.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

The Holy Father - Tony Black

This short, festive ebook showcases the other side of Black and demonstrates why he is so often compared to Irvine Welsh.  It's humour, and it's very, very black. It's Christmas Eve and underemployed carpenter Joe is visited by the late Rangers Wizard of the Wing, Davie Cooper.  Davie brings tidings from the Big Man: Joe's girlfriend Mary-doll is up the duff with the next messiah.  Davie's now got wings, so it must be true.
Joe and Mary duly trek across town following the star.  Along the way they encounter three not-so-wise jakeys who bring gifts of a sort.  It's laugh out loud funny on occasion, regularly rude, and perfectly suited to the short ebook form.  Any more and it would risk turning trite.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Swag Man - Howard Jacobson

Swag Man is a short memoir/long article published as an Amazon Kindle Single by the Tablet Magazine (a new read on Jewish life).

The Swag Man in question, we assume, is Howard's father Max, a huckster on the Manchester markets, always on the verge of making millions or going bankrupt, but never quite managing either.  Howard, of course, was dragged into service for Max's routines, and had no aptitude for it whatsoever.  But the true hero, the Swag Man made spectacularly good, is Frank Cohen, apprentice to Max, hero to Howard, DIY entrepreneur, collector of YBAs and co-founder, in April 2013, of the free to enter Dairy Art Centre in Bloomsbury.

What Jacobson gives us, in under fifty pages, is a snapshot on Jewish advancement in Manchester in the second half of the twentieth century, the last time someone could rise from the street markets to a Cheshire mansion, or in the author's case, the Booker Prize and sub Stephen Fry national treasuredom.  Two decades of Blair and Cameron and that awful prune Clegg have put a thorough-going stop to social mobility.

Monday, 8 July 2013

The Mission Song - John le Carre

You quickly realise that le Carre's starting point is the 'Scratcher' Thatcher attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea in 2004.  You know, therefore, that the really guilty parties are never going to be brought to account and that the Establishment will protect its own.  This is what gets le Carre's goat and why he is driven to write the novel, but his challenge is distract you from what you already know, and this he achieves with his narrator/protagonist Salvo, son of a mission priest and now the go-to man for interpreter services in more or less any African language you fancy.  His talents have brought him to the periphery of the UK secret services and it is they who send him undercover to the Wonga list plotters.  It's Salvo's conversational voice that keeps us hooked, especially as he falls for the nurse Hannah and leaves his wife Penelope, upcoming (and likely down-going) star of the British Press.

As always, le Carre has begun with meticulous research but the book is best when its in Salvo free flow.  I can't think of a more engaging and likeable protagonist in any other le Carre book.  An object lesson, then, in the wonders of first-person narrative.

Friday, 5 July 2013

The Morbid Age - Richard Overy

This is the antithesis of the inexplicably popular David Kynaston books, which strike me as little more than informed cut-and-paste from the popular press.  Overy, by contrast, concentrates entirely on intellectual discourse with virtually no press or even parliamentary context.  Were people like Cecil Day-Lewis and Storm Jameson really influential outside their metropolitan peer groups?  How has Overy measured their cultural penetration?  Does he really care about opinion in the great industrial cities?  Does he appreciate the influence of worker's education, the co-operative movement or night schools in the North and Midlands?  (A single paragraph four pages from the end is all we are offered on the Labour Movement per se.) Were things different in Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland?  Overy doesn't even mention that in the Thirties the BBC had extensive regional opt-outs - slots which were precisely the dais for alternative local input on the major issues and preoccupations of the day.

For all its shortcomings, The Morbid Age is a magnificent read.  Overy is hugely well-informed about his chosen era and, more importantly, has taken the time to consider his source material critically and in depth.  The title is his thesis and he amply proves it.  Essential reading for anyone interested in the period, wholly reliable within its own terms, but not the whole picture.

Talking of pictures, how great is the Christopher Nevinson painting they've put on the cover?  As iconic, in its way, as the original artwork for Metropolis.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Arena - William Haggard

William Haggard (Richard Clayton, 1907-1993) was a professional civil servant.  Technically spy fiction, I suppose, The Arena (1961) is really a story of realpolitik.  The arena in question is merchant banking, supposedly the province of upper middle class English gents but - even in 1961 - the playground of foreign chancers trading in dodgy money.  Like the majority of Haggard's fiction, one of the principal characters is Colonel Charles Russell of the Security Executive, the sort of spymaster who calls in favours and drops hints over a brandy at his club.  But Russell is not the protagonist here.  The protagonist who drives the plot and arranges its denouement is Walter Hillyard, director of one merchant bank which is the subject of a hostile takeover bid from another.  Hillyard, too, is old school, so much of a gent that he and his wife don't have sex.  Hillyard's main objection to the takeover is that it is fronted by Sabin Scott, one of those pushy stateless upstarts.  As the story progresses, Walter's preconceptions of his world fall apart at the same alarming rate as his health (he is diagnosed with sudden onset diabetes).  He has always known, of course, that his father-in-law and senior partner Lord Laver passes for an English milord but is actually third generation Mafioso.  The bank Walter is so proud of was set up to launder the proceeds of Neapolitan crime.  He knows, also, that the director of the respectable bank he turns to for help has anglicised his name to hide his racial origins.  Walter knows these things but now he has to face them - and thus we are drawn into his personal tragedy.
The personal narrative, for me, sets Haggard above some other spy writers of the period.  The world he depicts is corrupt but his protagonist is not.  We don't care about the financiers and their shadowy clients.  We do care about poor old Walter Hillyard.