Monday, 25 November 2013

The Lost Get-Back Boogie - James Lee Burke

Another non-Robicheaux, non-genre novel from Burke, this from 1986 and nominated for a Pulitzer.  No wonder.  This is a genuine, deeply-considered novel of rural America.  Iry Paret is released from Angola Prison in Louisiana after killing a man.  He gets permission to serve out his parole in Montana, with a friend from prison, Buddy Riordan.  Iry plays hillbilly music on guitar, Buddy grooves on jazz and LSD.  Having just buried his own father (his mother died in a fire strongly reminiscent of the real-life drama of the young Woody Guthrie) Iry comes under the sway of Buddy's old man, Frank, an oldstyle ranching man bent on closing down the paper mills that provide most of the employment in that neck of the woods.

If anybody doubts Burke's gifts as a writer, they should read The Lost Get-Back Boogie.  Just as Iry makes his guitar sing, Burke has crafted every sentence of his story.  There are no wrong notes here.  It is a novel of history and character with the plot entirely and equally derived from both.  I can't recommend it too highly.

I see from Burke's website that he wrote a Civil War about ten years ago.  That's a must for me, then.

An Uncertain Place - Fred Vargas

I've been keeping an eye out for Vargas's work for a while.  She is said to be one of non-Scandinavian Europe's foremost crime writers.  An Uncertain Place is one of her Commissaire Adamsberg series.  I was looking forward to reading it.

It started well - severed feet ostensibly trying to 'walk' into Highgate Cemetery in London.  The thing is, though, a preposterous 'hook' only works if you can provide a thoroughly sensible explanation.  And Vargas doesn't.  The plot gets more and more ludicrous as it proceeds.  I won't give the game away because Vargas clearly has fans - but it wasn't for me.  The writing had an ephemeral quality, not unlike Hakan Nesser or Andrea Camilleri, but both those guys manage to anchor themselves with decent plots.  I only finished reading An Uncertain Place over the weekend and already I've forgotten who did it and, indeed, what it was they did.

Not for me.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Hope of Heaven - John O'Hara

Like his contemporary Nathanael West, John O'Hara was a master of the novella in an age when the fashion was for full-length novels.  So here he has to bundle the title novella with a load of his short stories.  The stories are all very well - typical New Yorker fare - but my interest is in the novella.

The year is 1938 - Hope of Heaven came out the same year as the much better known Pal Joey.  Malloy is a scriptwriter in Hollywood.  He has money, he has a girl - not a Hollywood girl but a sensible girl who works in a bookshop and who lives with the brother she has to all intents and purposes raised.  Then one day gets a call from a guy who claims to know his brother back home in Gibbsville.  This Don Miller wants to meet up with Malloy but never quite gets there, and when he does he turns out to be called Schumacher.  The real Don Miller lost his travel cheques; Schumacher found them and has been living off them ever since.  He thinks someone's after him, a detective hired by the insurance company.  Malloy has no interest in the guy or his problems.

Meanwhile Peggy's long-lost father pitches up, an ageing charmer with an anecdote for every occasion.  Malloy sees through the facade but takes a shine to him all the same.  And thus the seeds of tragedy are sown.

O'Hara is a tremendous writer, idiosyncratic yet amazingly readable.  His characters are all utterly convincing and he takes them down unexpected byways.  Seriously, strongly recommended.

Slow Burner - William Haggard

More classic British espionage from the so-called "adult Ian Fleming", this from 1958 when naked women with guns were considered exceptionally racy (and, in fairness, the introduction of this one is done with considerable relish).  Haggard's secret service (the Security Executive) consists of Colonel Russell, his deputy Major Mortimer, and a secretary, all in a suite of rooms somewhere in Whitehall.  Haggard's world is the world of the civil service - the world he himself inhabited - a world of not-quite-good-enough former public schoolboys.  Indeed it might be more accurate to describe Haggard as the father of le Carre's Smiley.  This is a world where you can deduce a chap's regiment by the length of his stride.  Where policemen salute and spy masters doff their bowler in return.

The story here is a good one - the potential loss of Britain's post war super fuel, the Slow Burner of the title.  There is some high spirited scientific mumbo jumbo and two women, one more proper than she needs to be and the other nowhere near.  There are even intimations of sex.  Great fun.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Stonemouth - Iain Banks

Having recently read The Crow Road I pounced on this, his penultimate novel.  Actually it covers much of the same ground as The Crow Road - young Highlander returns home from the city to face his demons - but handles it in a very different way.  In Stonemouth (which is the name of the 'toun') the rich folk are actually drug runners with aspirations of gentility.  The Murston family ran young Stewart out of town five years ago for gross disrespect.  Only now is he allowed back, paradoxically to pay his respects at the funeral of the patriarch Old Joe Murston.  But there are terms - the funeral's on Monday and Stewart is expected to head back south first thing on Tuesday.  Or else.

And so the story in folds in past and present, and indeed in past and present tense.  In many ways it is a conventional novel but Banks was not a conventional novelist and he always manages to charge his stories with wit, imagination and even a sort of mystical mystery.  I am hooked.  Happily I have already acquired my next Banks novel.

Friday, 1 November 2013

The English Monster - Llloyd Shepherd

I wondered if Lloyd Shepherd had done yet another take on the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, the first real English serial killings, known to all from De Quincey's Murder Consider'd and The Maul and the Pear Tree, the classic work from P D James and T A Critchley.

But no.  Shepherd has done something else entirely, a mash-up of fact (heavily based on James and Critchley, as he freely admits) and a separate storyline which begins 250 years earlier.  To say more would be to give the game away and I hate it when reviewers do that.  Suffice to say, Shepherd brings off his fantastical trick with considerable aplomb.

It has to be said, though, that the traditional stuff - the researched material which for most of the book sticks closely to the facts - works better than the imagined.  One reason for this is that his London is realised in such detail whereas other locations (Jamaica, South America) are poorly imagined.  I frankly have no idea where the Potosi Mine is or was.

Also, the monster becomes a monster with startling alacrity.  I would have liked more on the disintegration of his personality.

But I carp and I shouldn't, because The English Monster held me from start to finish.  If it didn't manage to horrify, it nevertheless intrigued and entertained.  And for a debut novelist, that's some achievement.  Recommended.