Sunday, 29 September 2013

Bad Monkey - Carl Hiaasen

The brand new caper from the king of comedy crime.  Recent Hiaasen's might have fallen slightly short but not this. Busted from detective to roach inspector after having sodomised his girlfriend's husband with a dustbuster, Yancey sets out to solve the mystery of the left arm which turns up where it shouldn't be.  What can go wrong?

One of Hiaasen's recent shortcomings has been recycling old characters.  The governor gone renegade was great fun but surfaced once too often for my liking.  These, so far as I am aware, are all new characters, thus fresh and engaging.  You even empathise with a low-rent thug like Egg after the titular monkey has set about him.

In fact, that's my one criticism.  Not enough monkey and not enough monkey being really, really bad.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Caller - Karin Fossum

I've said it before and I'll keep saying it until everyone agrees - Karin Fossum is by far the most accomplished of the Nordic noir writers.  Jo Nesbo himself praises her, and he's no mug.  If only she were properly published and promoted in the UK, she'd be a fixture in the bestseller lists.
I adored this book, the ninth in the Inspector Sejer series.  It is redolent of Ruth Rendell in the way Fossum can bring horror to the humdrum and the psychological depth of her characterisation.  She doesn't do cyphers; even the most incidental of her characters has a life.  In this instance I particularly enjoyed the way she is content to leave one of the storylines unresolved.  Who did let the dogs out?
Like all Fossum's books, this is slim.  Every word has been weighed.  As close to perfection as makes no difference.  Essential reading for crime fiction fans everywhere.  

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Splendour & Squalor - Marcus Scriven

Splendour & Squalor, Marcus Scriven's first book, is a study of three appalling aristocratic families which rather proves my suspicion that great families start with one great man (or woman, in the case of Bess of Hardwick) and then never produce another worth spit.  What we have here is two dukes and two marquesses.  The title 'marquess' is itself a clue - too rich for an earl, nowhere near respectable enough for a dukedom.  The dukedoms here are not especially illuminating, the first (Leinster) the reward for heirs of the first transplantation of the second millennium who did 700 years' service keeping the native Irish downtrodden, the second (Manchester) granted to the Montagu family for services sucking up to both Cromwell and Charles II.  The marquisate of Bristol ... why that was ever created is just unfathomable.

The problem with three of our 'heroes' is that they never expected to inherit.  Edward Fitzgerald, 6th Duke of Leinster, had two elder brothers, one mad, the other a casualty of World War I.  Angus Montagu 11th Duke of Manchester likewise inherited from his brother whereas Victor Hervey 6th Marquess of Bristol, was 35 before he even became heir apparent.  All three then went on to marry often and usually badly.  Montagu and Hervey were also jailbirds, for fraud and burglary respectively.  Hervey's son and heir, John 7th Marquess, was gay and drug-addled.  He also did time before dying of Aids a few years after his younger brother and heir, who suffered from schizophrenia, hanged himself.  By and large all had appalling childhoods, though John's was definitely worst.  All frittered away their inheritance.  Fitzgerald died in a bedsit, Montagu in a rented flat, Victor in Monte Carlo and John in much reduced circumstances.  But they all have heirs and the line continues.

Scriven writes well, accentuating the sympathetic traits of his characters whilst not hesitating to criticise their excesses.  He guides us effortlessly through horrendously intertwined family trees.  In his epilogue he points out that whilst these parasites no longer have a God-given right to national governance, their life peer successors are not much better.  I particularly enjoyed the following:

"A decade earlier, the pretensions of that senatorial order had been advanced by the ennoblement of a pathological liar (championed by John Major), despite the protestations of the Honours Scrutiny Committee, whose misgivings were speedily vindicated when the fledgling peer was later imprisoned for perjury."  In fairness, Scriven even-handedly cites lords Taylor (cash-for-questions), Mandelson (cash for just about anything) and Watson (arsonist) from the Labour benches.

My one criticism is that Scriven promises detailed sources and extra notes on his website (click on the name above) and they're not there.  Bit shoddy, that.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Guilty Men - Cato

A truly great reissue by Faber Finds (if only they'd use Royal Mail instead of that slipshod private delivery firm, they'd be the publisher of my dreams).  Originally issued by Gollancz and boycotted by all nice Tory bookseller chains like W H Smith, this was the underground bestseller of 1940, shifting 200,000 copies in six months.  Written in the immediate aftermath of the Dunkirk disaster, when people still remembered the appalling price paid by the 30th Infantry Brigade (almost total annihilation) in the pointless defence of Calais, diverting at least some of the triumphant Germans in order to buy time for the armada of small boats to get the routed BEF off the beaches, it points the finger squarely at the men responsible - the laissez-faire Tories of Baldwin and Chamberlain who did absolutely nothing for an entire decade, whilst unemployment ballooned, Hitler did exactly what he felt like doing regardless of British foreign policy pledges and commitments to his victims which the Fuhrer well knew, having met them, Chamberlain and his cabinet of spineless sycophants would never honour.  Not all the Tories were to blame, of course; Churchill and his supporters, several Liberals and the leading lights of Labour all lambasted the government for letting Britain fall behind in the arms race - but, of course, Baldwin and Chamberlain could always rely on that unpardonable Labour turncoat Ramsay Macdonald and the more reactionary trade unions.

The most astonishing thing - the aspect which is so hard for hindsight to deal with - is that Chamberlain continued to beam complacently right up to the Nazi invasion of Norway (which he was telling the House would never happen when somebody slipped him a note saying it just had) and continued to serve in Churchill's cabinet as Lord President of the Council.

'Cato' was the collective pseudonym of three Beaverbrook journalists, Peter Howard, Frank Owen and Michael Foot, a future Labour leader with considerably more backbone than Macdonald.  Foot provides a preface to this edition which is considerably better than the longer and slightly tedious by John Stevenson, which covers much of the ground dealt with, with more style and venom, in the original text.

A book that names and shames - a book which caught and encapsulated the mood of its moment - a political book that is not afraid to cross party lines and praise those of different allegiance who nevertheless do the right thing.  How we need something of the same today - it was after all, a coalition government that sent the British Expeditionary Force to Flanders with bayonets against tanks, heavy cannon against flying artillery.

Politicians of right and left always bang on about the need for schools to teach British history with more Churchill in it.  We'd do well to make Guilty Men a set text.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Murder Clear, Track Fast - Judson Philips

Another classic Penguin greenback from my favourite purveyor of classic American hardboiled crime fiction.

It's 1961 and attorney Don Channing is delegated to solve the Fails case, one way or the other.  Jerome Fails was murdered last year, shot slap between the eyes.  His mother is convinced Jerome's wife did it, but no one else who has investigated the case agrees.  Mrs Fails senior says this is because they've all fallen head over heels for the lissom Mrs Fails Junior.

The Fails fortune is at stake - and most of that fortune is invested in the Fails bloodline, stabled at Saratoga.

Channing finds himself caught between two classic femme fatales, both widows, but which one is the black widow?  Channing struggles to make sense of the conflicting evidence - until he wakes up, his second day in town, with a dead woman in the bedroom.

Philips unravels his plot with consummate skill.  He leads into the bizarre world of racehorse mania without once belabouring us with his research.  He tells us this is how things are organised in Saratoga in August and we believe him.  I cannot fathom why Philips isn't held in the same esteem as Hammett or Ross Macdonald.  He really is of that class.

By the way, isn't Bernard Hodge's cover art frankly superb?

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Holy Orders - Benjamin Black

The latest Quirke mystery shows Black on top form.  The last, Vengeance, was a bit of a dud as a mystery, albeit the quality of the writing was as superlative as ever.  This time the story is also up to the mark.  What at first sight is taken for the body of a naked boy is pulled out of the canal.  On closer inspection the body turns out to be an adult male, albeit a scrawny one.  Inevitably, the dead man ends up on Quirke's autopsy table.  "Jesus Christ," Quirke cries, "I know him."

And we're off.  All the regular characters are involved to a greater or lesser extent.  Hackett and Phoebe, of course;  Isabel, back from touring Ibsen to the provinces;  Malachy Griffin and Rose; and, omnipresent, the mystery and horror of Quirke's childhood, embodied in the present by the ghostly presence of the enigmatic Costigan.  There are new characters, some of whom I expect will return, notably the tinker king Packie the Pike.

Quirke has a new demon this time round.  He seems to be hallucinating.  We end with him about to receive his diagnosis.  I suspect I know what it is, having had something similar myself, so I certainly empathised wholeheartedly.  But I'll probably have to wait till next year to find out for sure.

Slowly but surely Banville/Black is building a classic canon.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Revolutionary Road - Richard Yates

Yates wrote his masterpiece in 1961, when he was thirty-five years old.  The novel is set in 1955 when Yates, like his hero Frank Wheeler, was 29.  The year was an obvious hook for me and it inevitably made me think of my parents, who, like so many of the war generation, wanted to make something worthwhile and different of the peace, only to succumb to grinding normality with the arrival of kids.

There are only five characters of any real relevance, Frank and his wife April, their slightly more conservative friends and neighbours the Campbells, and local realtor and busybody Mrs Givings, a reminder that earlier generations also had their ambitions and also made sacrifices.  Yet across more than 300 pages Yates never once lets the pace slacken and only once - an ill-advised sortie into April's childhood - does he lose focus.  The characters are put under microscopic scrutiny yet retain many of their secrets.

I am not usually one for the roman style, the novel of character and emotion.  I much prefer the English comic novel, preferably with an element of the picaresque.  But I absolutely adored this book.  Whenever I forced myself to put it down, I couldn't wait to get back to it.  In literature as in all arts it doesn't really matter what form a masterpiece takes, it remains a masterpiece.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Impossible Dead - Ian Rankin

I never quite got Rankin.  Although I loved his Jack Harvey thrillers, the early Rebus bored me, as did all his TV incarnations, and I therefore missed the point when the series went serious.  I'll have to do some catching up, clearly.  This, however, is the second of Rankin's successor series to Rebus (albeit Rebus is now back), featuring Malcolm Fox and his colleagues from Complaints.

It took a while to draw me in - one of the problems I always had with Rankin is that he doesn't buttonhole you but expects you to stick with it.  I did stick with it and was soon full-body immersed.  It's a cracking story with its roots in a forgotten period, the Tartan terror of the 1980s.  Nowadays we have to make up or bogeymen; back then we bred our own and Rankin is clearly intrigued by the question, Where Are They Now?

Fox is a decent character, no larded-on vices, no overwrought love life.  He has a family, a sister and a father, and they are beautifully drawn, too.  Rankin wisely resists the temptation to let his narrative stray outside of Fox's knowledge.  He is in every scene - even when he isn't physically there, we experience what happened through Fox being told.

Overall, a very impressive, highly-skilled piece of work.  I will certainly lay hands on The Complaints itself, and may well try the reborn Rebus.  Highly recommended.