Monday, 27 January 2014

Illumination - Matthew Plampin

An unusual book - intriguing - with a great deal going for it and yet not quite getting there.  The setting is fresh - the Siege of Paris by Bismarck's Prussians in 1870, a comparatively recent event but not one I have come across in popular fiction.  The main characters are also unusual, the feisty English journalist Elizabeth Pardy and her twins, Hannah and Clem.  Hannah has run away to Paris to become an artist; Elizabeth and Clem receive a letter begging them to come and rescue her.  Hannah knows nothing about this, nor has she any intention of being rescued.  She couldn't be happier, living in Montmarte with her lover Jean-Jacques Allix, hero of the radical Left.

This is a brilliant premise, which only gets better when Clem hooks up with the aerostier Besson.  Plampin has a luminous writing style in which his artistic eye furnishes striking and beautiful images.  He is, understandably, especially good on colours and visual tone.  The twists and turns of the Pardy family fortunes are diverting enough but it all comes to a somewhat peremptory end.  When push comes to shove, the setting is a siege and, whilst we are told about the dreadful suffering of the people, Pamplin never quite succeeds in making us feel their suffering.

I liked Illumination a lot - but I didn't love it, and I really wanted to.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Old Gold - Jay Stringer

I hit upon this ebook via Amazon's 99p deal of the day, a great way to find new writers you might want to follow across all formats in the future.

I was amazed to realise Old Gold is Stringer's first novel, such is the level of accomplishment and the amount of background his characters come with.  To start with, it has an interesting new twist on modern noir - because it's set in Stringer's native Black Country, the West Midlands, specifically Wolverhampton (check out those mean streets, Mr Chandler!).  Our hero, Eoin Miller, also comes with a twist I've never come across before, in that he's half gypsy.  Other than that he's not untypical of modern noir protagonists - he's an ex-cop, separated from his wife, a heavy drinker, who does investigative work for the local drug barons.

The story is layered, complex and, ultimately, irrelevant - because in proper noir the crime is merely the device which drives our characters forward.  Noir is all about character.  Miller intrigues, he beguiles.  He gets beaten up more than once and nearly killed.  The subsidiary characters are well-drawn and fully three-dimensional, even the ones who will never return.  So many writers, new and established, don't bother with that these days yet it makes all the difference between formulaic pap and genre literature.

I loved this book.  I definitely want more.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Long Glasgow Kiss - Craig Russell

The second novel in Russell's 'Lennox' series sees the eponymous Canadian gumshoe chasing a Vietnamese Dragon (as opposed to a Maltese Falcon) round the extremely mean streets of early 1950s Glasgow.  Lennox is a brilliant idea - modern Tartan Noir with a hero straight out of 1940s US cinema noir.  One criticism: not having read the first, I was some way in before I realised it was supposed to be 1953-4.  Once I realised, though, I was hooked.  Russell works all the classic tropes - rival gangs, women of dubious virtue, boxing - and comes up trumps.  I didn't guess the final twist and that's all you really need from a detective plot.  There are now four in the series, and I'll be reading them all.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The Complaints - Ian Rankin

This is the first of Rankin's two novels (to date) about Malcolm Fox and the Edinburgh police complaints unit.  Typically, I read the other one, The Impossible Dead, first.  I enjoyed that greatly but consider this one better.

I read Rankin when he first came out.  I read the first three Rebus novels, then gave up because they weren't up to scratch.  I found the TV dramatisations clichéd and avoided subsequent Rebus novels like a bad cold.  I should probably reconsider and try revisiting the series halfway through - something like Dead Souls or The Falls - because I always enjoyed his stand-alone Jack Harvey thrillers and consider the Complaints novels to be of superior quality.

Rankin is still fond of a cliché - the Complaints quickly becoming the subject of complaints - but they are virtually impossible to avoid in genre fiction.  It's what you do with them that counts.  And here it's the starting point for a complex, multi-layered conspiracy set against the collapse of the banks in 2008-9 which, thanks to the Royal Bank of Scotland, was an extreme blow to Scottish pride and the Scottish economy.  Current events are central to the story and totally engrained in the action and for me, that sets this book head-and-shoulders above its competitors.

A great way to start my reading year.