Tuesday, 29 September 2015

An Officer and a Spy - Robert Harris

Harris is one of those writers it's impossible to ignore.  He sells millions of books yet is neither formulaic nor predictable.  His choice of subject matter is incredibly diverse though I suspect his favourite themes might be boiled down to espionage, political power, and the abuse of both.

Certainly that is the case with his latest novel.  It's no secret that his topic is the Dreyfus Affair (1895-1906) and, obviously, everyone knows the outcome of that, more or less.  Yet Harris is so skillful that he manages to maintain tension for a full 500 pages.  He takes for his hero the young rising star of the military establishment Georges Picquart.  As a reward for his minor role in convicting Dreyfus of treason, Picquart is raised to the rank of colonel, the youngest in the French army, and put in charge of the counter-espionage section which of course played a much rather role.  Early on, Picquart stumbles across a much more plausible candidate for the German spy.  His superiors have such faith in him that they allow him licence to investigate further - right up to the point where Picquart tells them that if his man is guilty, Dreyfus must be innocent. From that moment, his life and career is systematically dismantled.  He ends up dishonoured, imprisoned, disgraced.  The end for Dreyfus we know, but I had no knowledge of Picquart or his subsequent career, and that is how Harris is able to keep us hooked.

The other unusual trait for such a successful writer is that Harris, by and large, gets better with each new book.  There is a section here in which, through Picquart, he diagnoses how the French establishment became so convinced of Dreyfus's guilt on such flimsy evidence.  I suggest that section epitomises quality literature.  Frankly, if the passage isn't a work of genius it's damn close to it,

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Critic - Peter May-

The Critic is the second of May's Enzo Macleod series, one of the many novels he wrote and published abroad before his Lewis Trilogy was taken up at home in the UK and The Blackhouse made him a bestseller.  All have now been rushed out to cash in on his success, thereby flooding the market and putting a lot of people off.

However, because they haven't been written to cash in, the standard is high.  May wrote them to try and become a bestseller, and was therefore both ambitious in his storytelling but careful with his prose.  Once The Critic gets going, this certainly pays off.  For the first couple of chapters, I have to say, I was in two minds.  All the descriptions of landscape were essentially the same, though what else May could have done in describing the intensive wine-making country around Albi in the south of France, I don't know.  Then the trick of the prologue paid off and I realised I was in safe hands.

Enzo Macleod, like May, is a Scottish ex-pat of middle years.  He is colourful: he sports a ponytail, a white stripe in his hair and eyes of different colours.  He is a professor of forensic science at Toulouse University but has (in Book One of the series, apparently) set himself the task of solving the unsolved cases in a book written by Roger Raffin, whose ex is now Enzo's girlfriend and who, in this book, finds an unusual way of evening the amatory score.

Essentially, the story here is that an overmighty US wine critic is found, crudely displayed, three or four years after he disappeared.  In the meantime his remains have been stored in the local wine.  Enzo therefore immerses himself in the lore and process of wine to figure out who did it.

The detail, the science and the local characteristics are well and convincingly handled.  I learnt a few French terms I didn't know which will come in useful in my own writing.  Enzo is a great character but, in this book at least, has too many women around him who are not sufficiently distinguished for easy tracking.  The male characters are little better drawn but at least there are fewer of them.  The final revelation was a bit peremptory but that never really bothers me in crime fiction.  Someone has to do the deed and their motives will always be a bit on the loopy side.  I really liked, however, the very last revelation which opens the door for Book Three, Backlight Blue, which I will happily try for the title alone.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Under the Skin - Michael Faber

Under the Skin was Faber's first novel, published in 2000, when it won the Saltire First Book of the Year Award.

I would suggest that we have here is a fable about factory farming.  Human beings are selected, cut from the herd, force-fed in underground pens and ultimately processed as food for the elite of another, extraterrestrial civilisation.  But those who do the processing are merely the social rejects of that civilisation and, in the case of just two - the pioneer Essin and our protagonist Isserley - they have themselves been mutilated beyond belief, to resemble an earthly man and woman.

Essin, who does not trouble us much, manages the remote Highland farm which provides cover for the subterranean processing plant.  Isserley drives up and down the road network preying on hitchhikers.  Her orders are specific: they must be decent specimens, unlikely to be missed, and always male.

Faber's masterstroke, which elevates the book from simple sci-fi, is making Isserley female.  She is not a woman, although she looks more or less like one thanks to mammoth surgery, but she is female, the only female in the expeditionary force.  She is thus apart from her own kind.  But she was always apart.  When she was younger, on her native planet, she was considered beautiful.  Elite males promised her the world but always let her down.  In the end, her only escape from the Estates - the bottom rung of her underground society, was the experimental surgery which turned her into what she considers a freak and left her in constant pain.  Isserley knows she can never go home because then she would definitely be a freak.  She can pass a 'vodsel' (earthly human) but she can never be one - her surgery is not that convincing, as a would-be rapist discovers.  Then she learns that her unsought, unique status on the farm might be under threat.

I read the ebook and don't know quite how long the print version is.  I would say, however, that the text is just long enough.  Faber's prose style is perfectly judged and his descriptions of the Highland are both fresh and beautiful.  A millennium must-read.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Dracula Unborn - Peter Tremayne

Peter Tremayne is one of the pseudonyms of the astonishingly prolific Peter Berresford Ellis. Dracula Unborn, the first of the trilogy illustrated above, was written when he was only in his early twenties. In 1977 the idea of continuing and developing the characters of another author was relatively radical whereas today it is commonplace.  Tremayne brings a remarkable amount of background knowledge to his story and much of it turns out to be accurate.  I had not suspected he was so young when he did it.

Given the time of writing, the hand of Hammer weighs heavily.  You can picture the crappy sets and see the late Michael Ripper giving us his usual turn as Toma the village innkeeper.  In the story, Mircea is the youngest son of the actual Dracula by his second wife.  When the old man 'dies', Mircea is summoned from Italy by the brothers he has never met.  Again, this is typical Hammer hokum and Tremayne includes all the expected tropes.  Yet he somehow manages to keep them fresh and generates a fair amount of tension.

My only complaint is a minor one. Whilst I was confident of all the backstory involving the historical Vlad and the fictional Dracula, I was never confident that these characters were living in the 1480s.  I never imagined that they were wearing the clothes of the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance, and that's a pity.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

La Place de L'Etoile - Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature.  La Place de L'Etoile is the first novel in his Occupation Trilogy and was also his first novel, published in 1968, when Modiano was only 23.

Though nothing of what happens is specifically in 1968 it is very much a book of 1968.  I can't imagine how readers who don't remember the excitement of '68, when the whole of Western Europe seemed to teeter on the brink of revolution, can come to terms with Place de l'Etoile.  Our hero is Raphael Schlemilovitch, or so he says; his persona is readily changeable.  What doesn't change is his Jewishsness, although he is not practising and is not in any way persecuted.  Instead, in his main persona, he is an incredibly rich young man of Venezuelan origins but born and brought up in Paris. He fancies himself a writer of belle-lettres and amateur philosophy.  His main preoccupation, though, is the Nazi occupation of France, which he is not old enough to remember but re-lives, working backwards from university to college to school and immersing himself - not with the Jews who suffered - but in those who hated them, especially the antisemitic artists who collaborated.

First and foremost amongst these is the novelist Celine.  Celine himself does not appear yet he is everywhere.  His characters become Modiano's characters.  The very first passage of the book is a pastiche of Celine's unique style - short, staccato, semi-sentences and exclamations.

The plot radiates from the central pivot of Raphael and his obsession.  Time is relative.  Every passage is a self-contained prose poem. People appear and disappear only to pop up again years later, or earlier, in another city entirely.  Even the narrative person changes when Raphael falls in lust the Marquise and her passion for sexual role-play.  Yet it all makes sense in a surreal way.  I was enthralled.

It's a very short book, just over 100 pages, but you have to take your time reading it or you will miss some of the nuances.  Just to sum up, I'm pretty sure the Place de L'Etoile has nothing to do with any of it.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Exile - Denise Mina

Exile is the second of Mina's 'Garnethill' trilogy. The first, not surprisingly, is Garnethill.  The heroine, Maureen, is a damaged, abused young woman with a drug-dealing brother - not unlike Alex Morrow in the later novels.  The setting would seem to be Glasgow, as it should be in Tartan Noir, but actually about half the book takes place in London, which is a tremendous mistake, especially since the people Maureen mixes with there, even the copper with the Met who eventually listens to her, are Glaswegian,

It's a second novel which Mina made doubly hard for herself as the second in a series.  One of Mina's themes is that Scottish women have traditionally been abused by their men.  She wants to say that oppression has made them strong and feisty, a positive message.  Sadly, she undermines herself at every turn, because two of the sleaziest baddies are women and all the white knights who ride to Maureen's rescue are men - Scottish men, at that.

Exile is highly readable.  It is well plotted but, in this Orion paperback, poorly proof-read.  There are far too many characters, especially the ill-defined secondary women, and I often had to pause and wonder who is this when they reappeared much later.  There is one exception, though - Kilty Goldfarb, a great fun character who has no real purpose and has apparently just been plonked in the story to add some much needed light.  Or perhaps I was beguiled by the fact that she has the name of a well known firm of solicitors in Leicester West, now I believe defunct.  Spooky, eh?

In summary, not Mina's best by a long chalk (for me, that remains The End of the Wasp Season) but still better than many of its peers.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Some Other Place, The Right Place - Donald Harington

The second of Harington's 'Stay More' novels, dating from 1973 and somehow or other filmed as The Return (1985).  I haven't seen the movie version but I'm guessing much was omitted.  For one thing, it is a colossal read; indeed I just couldn't keep at it and I have actually read the book over several months.  Not that I got bored with it, far from it - every time I thought 'Harington can't get another twist into this', he did.  As with Lightning Bug (see below) he uses different voices expressed in different typefaces, but here he also uses narrative poems and various levels of reality.  Just as Harington featured in Lightning Bug, here he features as an adult called G, a deaf professor of fine art who gets embroiled in the search for a missing teenager, Diana.  Diana is voluntarily missing.  Driving home from college she hit a pothole and had to stop in New Jersey for repairs.  While waiting she saw an article in the local newspaper about an 18 year old local lad, Day, who seems to recall a former life under hypnosis.  Diana is intrigued because Day claims to be recalling the life of Daniel Lyam Montross, her maternal grandfather.  Daniel kidnapped Diana as an infant - her rescuers shot and killed him.  Eighteen years later Diana persuades Day to run away with her.  They travel across New England and, later, Hillbilly country, moving from lost township to lost township, guided by the 'memories' of Daniel Lyam Montross.  Eventually - and I do mean eventually - they arrive in Stick Around, the place Daniel hid with baby Diana and where he died.  This is where G, who also remembers Stay More/Stick Around from his own childhood, finds Diana, happily and heavily pregnant.  Day, it seems has died, apparently a suicide.  But nothing in Some Other Place... is as it seems.  Not even death is certain.

I loved Some Other Place and am girding my loins before tackling the third installment The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks. But not just yet.