Tuesday, 29 April 2014

They Called It Passchendaele - Lyn Macdonald

The early engagements of the BBC's battle to bore us to death with a four-year wallow in World War I ironically inspired me to tackle a trio of Lyn Macdonald's book that have been sitting on my shelf for the thick end of twenty years.

Originally written to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary, Macdonald's series were groundbreaking in that they focused on the ordinary mugs who risked and indeed sacrificed their lives for this pointless last hurrah of European imperialism.  I should stress that it's me, not Macdonald, who calls it pointless.  She, wisely, lets the men speak for themselves, only narrating events in order to give their personal accounts context.  And the horrors described by those who were actually there - and, almost by definition, survived - screams the futility of it all.  Obviously I began with Passchendaele which, shamefully, I didn't even know was the third battle of Ypres.  Just before starting I tried to look up the military records of my great uncle Bill, who lost his leg in the war - I didn't know when or where, and only met him a few times as a young boy.  But it turned out the regiment he was most likely to have joined, the East Lancashire, was here at Passchendaele,  Their 'southern' officer, Paddy King, is one of Macdonald's main memorialists, and she even includes a verse of their regimental  marching song, which I found tremendously evocative:

"We are the Burnley Mashers/When we go out at neet/The lasses all admire us/and think we look a treat."

Touching, appalling, horrifying - a fitting memorial to those who fought.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Papers of Tony Veitch - William McIlvanney

This is the second of McIlvanney's Laidlaw Trilogy, held by many to be the spring from which Tartan Noir flowed, though I credit the TV series Taggart equally.

McIlvanney is not a genre writer but an award-winning literary writer who found crime fiction as one way of expressing his preoccupations and interests.  Thus Veitch is not really a crime novel - it really doesn't matter who did what to whom.  It is a study of a once mighty city, brought to its knees by Mrs Thatcher, where the hard man has always been as well-regarded as the provost or the Rangers centre-forward.  Jack Laidlaw is as hard as any of villains he hunts down.  The plot drives the narrative but it is the language that makes it sing. Here are just a few of my favourites:

"A lot of the people he dealt with, Milligan thought, must have been home in bed before their self-congratulation went sour and they realised that Macey had been taking the mickey out of the mickey they thought they were taking out of him.  He was so simple he could have sold life insurance in heaven."

"Put a monkey in a toy uniform, Macey thought, and it will try to pull rank."

"She wis a kind wumman, mamither.  Woulda bought extra cheese if she'd knew there wis a moose in the hoose."

"It was a place so kind it would batter cruelty into the ground."

The original ... and in many ways the best.

Hard Truths is a short ebook of an interview with McIlvanney by the contemporary star of Tartan Noir, Tony Black.  It is actually a book of interviews with crime writers chopped up to flog separately on Kindle - a smart idea.  McIlvanney, still going strong at 77, has just got a new publisher, Canongate, who have republished all his work in smart new editions and as ebooks.

He says of Laidlaw, "A detective story, if you get it right you'll have a plot that's going to make people read on but along the way give them serious observation and a sense of the society the novel is passing through."  And of Tartan Noir, "I don't that it'll be the ultimate expression of Scottish culture, folk will come along and do more but I think it's great that there's an area where the value, the significance of the written word is appreciated."

The good news is that, more than twenty years since he finished the Laidlaw Trilogy, McIlvanney is toying with the notion of a prequel, "before he became quite so aggressive", and a "twilight" post-retirement Laidlaw.  We can but hope.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Fatal Colours - George Goodwin

The subtitle says it all - Towton 1461: England's Most Brutal Battle.  Towton was the deciding factor of the first half of the Wars of the Roses, Edward of York's revenge for the deaths of his father and brother at Wakefield.  It was fought at Easter but, this being Yorkshire, it was fought in a snowstorm.  The Lancastrians were massacred and Edward became king.  In the long run it resolved nothing.  Ten years later Edward was hoofed off the throne by Warwick the Kingmaker and had to do it all again at Barnet and Tewkesbury.

Goodwin is an enthusiast rather than a professional historian - he's a member of the Towton Battlefield Society.  He is scrupulous, however, in his references, if a little free-form in the way he pads out his narrative.  For example, a long time is spent debating the various theories of what was wrong with Henry VI.  That's OK, and handled well enough, but at the end of the day he didn't fight at Towton and was, by that stage of his reign certainly, a spectator at his own fate.

I enjoyed the book.  To be fair, I'm much more interested in the personalities of the participants rather than the battle itself.  Goodwin certainly showed me things I didn't already know (and which bore up to further research on my part).  It's a decent book.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

A Broken Land - Jack Ludlow

A Broken Land is the second in Ludlow/Donachie's "Roads to War" trilogy, featuring not-quite-a-gentleman adventurer and arms dealer, Cal Jardine.

The land broken is Spain as the Civil War breaks out in 1936.  Cal is Barcelona supporting British entrants to an alternative Olympics, an event which, if it happened had passed me by entirely, and if not is a brilliant concept.  His boxer buddy Vince is there as trainer and Cal is busily fraternising with the locals in the shape of anarchist translator Florencia.

I like many things about this second instalment, largely because it didn't go quite the way I anticipated after reading the first, The Burning Sky (see below).  Many characters return - one in a unexpected twist late on in proceedings - but Vince, for example, goes home to London halfway through.  Florencia is one of the big differences.  In Burning Sky Ludlow seemed uncomfortable with his one significant female character, who was relegated much of the time to off-screen women's stuff.  Here Florencia is active in all regards, a richly drawn character whose fate we care about.  I also liked the fact that the historical conflict is not resolved but Cal's personal conflict is.

The series gets better book by book, and it started pretty well.  I am desperate now to lay hold of volume three.

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Flood - Ian Rankin

The Flood is Rankin's first novel, out of print for many years and republished in 2005 because, as Rankin says, original copies were going for silly money on the Internet.

In his introduction Rankin makes lots of excuses - it's a first novel, a young man's novel, he was doing other things at the time - but I suspect he is really very proud of it.  And so he should be.  I am notoriously not a Rebus fan, I like the 'Complaints' series and I always enjoyed his Jack Harvey thrillers.  I enjoyed The Flood hugely.  It may be old fashioned of me, perhaps even touchingly immature, but I like stories of outsiders and psychos with a touch of the macabre.  I especially like novels written during the Thatcherite Terror which encapsulate the damage done to the working classes.

What we have are Mary Miller and her son Sandy, father unknown, born when she was fifteen in a mining town in Fife.  Fifteen years later the pit has been closed and residents have had all the hope sucked out of them.  Sandy is about to experience first love.  For Mary it will be second love - she hasn't had sex or romance since the night Sandy was conceived.  But she's still only thirty or thirty-one and striking looking with her silver hair and dark eyes.  The rumour among the disaffected is that Mary is a witch.  She has so many secrets.  Is that one of them?

If there are any faults here, I am happy to forgive them.  For me, a cracking read that I devoured in just two sittings.  Highly recommended.

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Saint Zeta Society - Ruth Rendell

 A recent (2012) addition to the oeuvre, this is one of Rendell's stand-alone London underbelly novels, chronicling the criminality that goes on our very doorstep and the psycho next door.  In this instance the psycho is Dex, who thinks his phone is God (a clever conceit in itself).  It is not Dex who starts the murder ball rolling but he does his bit to finish it.

I love the setting - a very select square in what I thought was Chelsea but which turns out to be Pimlico.  I don't much care for the society formed by the 'servants', which only really serves as a device to get the core characters together.  The characters, though, are a fascinating bunch, from nanny Rabia, to so-called au pair Montserrat, to June, in service for sixty years to the "Princess" and Thea, who insists she's not a servant at all and gets dissed in the street for having red hair.  The characters I've listed are all female.  There are lots of male servants as well but none of them caught my interest in any way.  I would have liked more time with Dex in particular.

So, not one of Rendell's very best.  Then again, Rendell's second rate is ten times better than most people's best.  She really is, as Ian Rankin says on the back, the world's greatest living crime writer.

Saint Zita, by the way, is the patron saint of skivvies, apparently.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Murder at the Savoy - Maj Sjowahl and Per Wahloo

The sixth of the Martin Beck novels, Murder at the Savoy starts with precisely that: a man walks into the Savoy hotel and shoots a famous business tycoon in the head.  It happens in Malmo but because the victim is so well known Beck is drafted in from Stockholm.

The novel dates from 1970, so obviously things have moved on with the likes of Mankell and Nesbo, but Beck is where it all started for Nordic Noir.  Sjowahl and Wahloo created the template which makes Scandinavian crime (ironically Danish rather than Swedish or Norwegian) such an international sensation on TV.  That's not the plotting or the filming or even the acting - it's the social conscience, which is present in plenty in Murder at the Savoy.  The victim, of course, is an entrepreneur and therefore the enemy of the welfare state.  The murderer is the welfare state striking back.  That does it for me every time.

A classic of the genre.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Web - John Wyndham

Web wasn't published until ten years after Wyndham's death.  You can see why Wyndham himself didn't publish.  Although the premise is sound, it isn't developed far enough.  Wyndham has got an ending - the only ending possible - but we must assume he thought he could and should add more incident in the middle section.  For my money, we could also have done with a bit less exposition in the first third.  But despite its faults, Web is still very much Wyndham - his customary theme of nature disturbed by man, the dry first person narration, and the occasional silly name.  It's a quick read but a perfectly satisfying one.  I've certainly read worse ephemera.