Monday, 30 March 2015

The Black Echo - Michael Connolly

I remember reading the early Connolly novels back in the 90s.  I loved The Last Coyote  and Blood Work and Trunk Music and can't remember why I stopped buying or borrowing them.  I read The Lincoln Lawyer a couple of years ago and thought it mediocre.  Presumably I read something else earlier and thought the same.  Anyway, The Black Echo is not only an early Connolly, it's the very first, published in 1992.  It features Harry Bosch, which is another plus.

It is more than a crime novel - and Connolly's best always rise above genre.  In many ways it's a Vietnam novel.  Harry and the murder victim, Billy Meadows, were tunnel rats back in 'Nam - they went blind into the network of tunnels the Viet Cong had spent decades digging, and there they encountered the Black Echo.

I liked this a lot.  I liked the way Harry already has a back story, an earlier case which led to him being reassigned to Hollywood and which incurred the undying hatred of Internal Affairs.  He's already therefore a rogue, an outsider - 'not one of the police family'.  And his alienation gets deeper with every chapter.  Connolly's style is effective, the dialogue has the tang of authenticity without being overwrought or over-simple, and his descriptions are frequently skewed from the norm.  I guess the solution to my Connolly problem is to start again at the beginning - or, this being the beginning, continue in time order - and see what happens.  So it's The Black Ice next, then!

Sunday, 22 March 2015

The Savage Altar - Asa Larsson

"If you like Steig Larsson," says the hideous yellow blurb bubble, "you'll love Asa Larsson." Well, yes I did and No I didn't.  I loved The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo when I read it back in the day, but my enthusiasm dimmed as the trilogy progressed.  And I really came to dislike this other Larsson's debut.  Of course, in the first wave of the original Larsson's success, every Nordic crime novel in creation got snapped up by British publishers.  Rushed and clumsy translations poured from the presses.  How tempting it must have been to sign up another Larsson, irrespective of merit.  The need was to get it out as quick as possible.  Translator Marlaine Delargy was either under colossal time constraints and brought in a very basic rendition, or Larsson herself writes in a clumsy simplistic manner.  Either way, it's very unsatisfactory.  The title, too, has been sexed up for the British audience.  Originally, and in America, it was Sun Storm, which has even less to do with the plot.

The plot - ah yes, the plot.  A charismatic young preacher is gruesomely murdered in the church his writings paid for.  His gormless sister is arrested but no one seriously believes she did it.  Meanwhile Rebecka Martinsson, childhood friend of Sanna and Viktor, now a rising star of the legal profession in Stockholm (for which we see no evidence whatsoever) feels obliged to rush home and embroil herself with the very people she fled a decade earlier.  Throw in the pregnant police woman from Fargo and you just have it.  There is no mystery - the killer is simply announced when it dawns on our author that she hasn't set one up.  The killer, unsurprisingly, smacks strongly of Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs.

Trivial, trite, underwritten and formulaic.  Penguin ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Stamboul Train - Graham Greene

Predating Brighton Rock by six years, Stamboul Train (1932) is an early Greene 'entertainment'.  It predates Murder on the Orient Express by two years but comes four years after Christie's Murder on the Blue Train.  Thus neither author can be said to have emulated the other, though they may have influenced each other to some extent.  In any event, murders on trains had been a staple sub-genre of crime fiction since William Huskisson MP was run down and killed on the opening day of the Manchester-Liverpool Railway in 1830.

Greene's fictional world is very different from that of Mrs Christie.  The journalist Mabel Warren is an overt, no-bones-about-it lesbian, whilst her lover Janet Pardoe is a self-indulgent fortune hunter.  Our heroine, Coral Musker, is a showgirl but not naturally a goodtime girl or easy lay, though Mr Myatt, the wealthy supplier of superior currants encounters no great difficulty in that regard.  The beauty of Greene, even early Greene, is that his characters are densely layered, each capable of good and bad, heroism and cowardice.  Most conflicted is Dr Czinner, the exiled revolutionary, who has hidden for years in an English prep school but is now heading home to face whatever fate awaits.  Least conflicted is the casual murderer Grunlich, who we first encounter in Vienna, halfway through the book and serves as the polar opposite of Czinner but who, even so, is not without courage, as he demonstrates in the wonderfully-evocative Subotica.

Greene's smartest trick is to get his characters off the train every now and then, notably in Subotica but with various other excursions along the way.  By doing so, he raises his novel above genre and frees it from convention.  All train crime novels are essentially locked-room murders, which necessitates every character lying about his or her involvement.  The murder in Stamboul Train doesn't take place aboard the train and is peripheral to the main suspense.

The book, ahead of its time in terms of lesbianism and casual sex, is sadly very much of its time in its treatment of the Jewish Mr Myatt.  He dresses as a caricature Jew - fur coat and shiny suit - and is so Jewish that apparently everyone recognises his race at first glance.  Everyone despises him, even Coral to begin with, purely because he is a Jew.  More unpleasantly, he seems to despise himself because he is a Jew.

We must make allowances for attitudes of the past but it has to be said the Myatt problem did limit my enjoyment.  Everything else, though, was great fun and I especially warmed to the amoral Grunlich, who brings an extra dimension to the novel at the halfway point.  And I love Paul Hogarth's cover art on this classic Penguin.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Bay of Souls - Robert Stone

Bay of Souls by Robert Stone

Bay of Souls is the seventh and last novel by the late American master Robert Stone, who died earlier this year.  There are echoes here of other US masters - Hemingway in the love of hot exotic climes, James Dickey in the dissonance between man and nature - but Stone nevertheless conjures up something unique.  He adds the trope of academia, previously ploughed by Roth and Bellow, but again Stone's is different - a backwater university of no great account.  It is not our hero, Michael, who is the fish out of water here - far from it, we get the impression that this is the best he could have hoped for.  No, the fish out of water is Lara the Caribbean temptress, who is definitely slumming it.

Inexplicably, we think, she and Michael start an affair.  Michael cannot believe his luck and is prepared to abandon his wife, his son, his reputation such as it is - anything to keep Lara onside.  Lara, of course, has an ulterior motive, which is to get Michael to come with her back to her home island.  Michael, you see, is an accomplished diver and Lara desperately needs something retrieved from the deep.  That is a physical something; while Michael is coerced into going after it, Lara abandons learning, sophistication, worldly achievement to perform the ancient voodoo-esque ritual to free the soul of her dead brother.

This is where Stone truly demonstrates his difference, treating the fantastical with as much consideration and probity as he treats the campus back in America.  Lara is not mocked or despaired over; Michael is not disdained or judged.  Instead, both principal characters judge themselves.

Unusual, accomplished, and well worth reading.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Venice, Pure City - Peter Ackroyd

I wish Ackroyd would get back to writing novels instead of these endless tie-ins for eye-candy TV series.  I was happy enough with his 'biographies' of London and the River Thames, but this - commissioned for Sky Arts - is 380 pages of puff.  He hasn't called it a biography because that infers life, and there is none of that here.  Nor is it a study, because it would have to be battened down with more fact than is apparent here.  I suppose it could be called a reverie, or a reflection upon themes Venetian - music, painting, empire-building etc. - but that would be generous.  It's beautifully written, of course, which only serves to remind us of the waste of talent involved in this gratuitous guff.


Anno Dracula (1992) is the first volume in what became a series of the same name.  Kim Newman is one of the best-known British authorities on horror films, horror stories and pulp fiction.  Anno Dracula  is all these and more.  The 'more', essentially, is that it is an alternative world story of a fictional world.  In this made-up world, Count Dracula did not die at the hands of Van Helsing and his crew but survived to marry the widowed Queen Victoria and invite all his vampire friends over to England.

It is 1888 and Jack the Ripper is slicing up vampire prostitutes.  Charles Beauregard is instructed by the Diogenes Club (chaired by Mycroft Holmes) to put a stop to Jack's japes.  Shortly thereafter he is forcibly impaneled by the Limehouse Crew  (chaired by one Fu Manchu) to do the same thing.  And so the story unfolds, not so much horror or detective yarn as a pastiche of both.  It's meant to be fun and half the fun comes from spotting literary cameos among the walk-ons.  I am a fan of both forms and doubt I got more than half of them.  Fortunately Newman provides end notes to ensure we know what we missed.  Less happily, this 2011 reissue (with the fabulous cover art) also includes several other slabs of Newman which are less enlightening.  Still, no one is forced to read them and a novel of more than 400 pages scarcely shortchanges the consumer.

A clever romp, witty, effectively-written and great fun.  I shall certainly keep an eye out for Volume 2, The Bloody Red Baron.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Little Red Monkey - Eric Maschwitz (& Bevis Winter)

This is not actually an original novel but a novelisation by British hack Bevis Winter of the original BBC TV series written by Maschwitz back in 1953.  By the time this paperback was issued in 1961, Little Red Monkey had already been adapted into a Ken Hughes B movie.

Maschwitz was not actually working for the BBC in 1953, however he had been Director of Variety until 1939 and would become Director of BBC TV before switching to ITV in 1963.  He had been nominated for an Oscar for his script work on Goodbye, Mr Chips.  An original Maschwitz script for TV was therefore a very big thing indeed for the BBC in 1953, and it went out in Saturday evening primetime from January of Coronation Year.

To read more about the film and TV versions, click here.  This, however, is a book review.  The writing is a little clumsy, no doubt because it is the work of Winter.  The plot, however, is brilliant.  Two scientists burst through the Brandenburg Gate, bringing Soviet research secrets to the West.  One of them is murdered soon after in London.  He dies clutching the titular monkey.  It is Colin Currie's job to protect the remaining boffin until he can be flown away to Canadian safety.  Meanwhile, foreign dirty work is afoot in London.  Colin's former sweetheart witnesses an investigative journalist getting mowed down by a truck.

It all comes to fruition on a fog-bound night in the rural Home Counties.  I was particularly impressed by the way Maschwitz plays fair with the reader.  The revelation of the killer is truly astonishing but once you know the clues are all there in the preceding text.  For Alfred Hitchcock or even Len Deighton the monkey might just have been an eye-catching maguffin, but for Maschwitz it is the principal clue.