Tuesday, 27 December 2016

John le Carre, The Biography - Adam Sisman

There are a couple of problems that writing a biography of a still living, still practicing creative artist always present. Additional problems face the biographer of an artist who is, to a certain extent, a fictional construct in his own right.

Le Carre is, of course, a pseudonym. In the early days, when interviewed in the le Carre persona, David Cornwall gave conflicting accounts of his secret service experience. Since then he has channeled enormous amounts of autobiographical material into his fiction, especially concerning his scapegrace father Ronnie, who crops up all over the place and is the dominant character in le Carre's most autobiographical (and for me, most exhausting novel) A Perfect Spy, which I have been wrestling with for months. The Perfect Spy was le Carre's thoroughgoing attempt to purge the Ronnie factor from his life. It is also in many ways his last Cold War novel. And that is where, in an ideal world, Sisman should have left it.

Sadly he gives us another 200 pages of the later career, which le Carre has spent anatomising the state-controlled corruption of globalisation with its arbitrary wars and exploitation of so-called 'emerging economies'. How can anyone take a view on a work so vividly in progress? Who can say how it has effected its creator while the creator is still creating? Well Sisman can't, that's for sure. Instead we get 200 pages of what is essentially tactics and results - le Carre's regular switches of agent and publisher, the setting up and closing down of the company to manage his copyright and royalties, the production company he now owns with his sons, and swathes of reviews from all the usual suspects. My teeth positively ached when Sisman gave us the petty feud between le Carre and Salman Rushdie, now happily resolved.

It is, of course, an authorised biography. Le Carre worked with Sisman as, throughout his career, he has worked with scriptwriters on the films of his books. The question arises, how truthful is le Carre? How truthful can anyone be who has so thoroughly fictionalised his own life? Sisman himself makes the point towards the end: David Copperfield, he reminds us, was Dickens' most autobiographical novel, but that doesn't make it autobiography. With le Carre the question becomes even more complicated because no sooner had Sisman's breezeblock landed in 2015 than le Carre published his own 'autobiography' The Pigeon Tunnel, which is next on my reading list. Funnily enough, Sisman describes an earlier attempt by le Carre to anthologise the various autobiographical fragments he has produced over the years. Le Carre abandoned the project. Is The Pigeon Tunnel the same material reworked? We shall soon see.

As for this, like so much of le Carre's middle period output, especially The Perfect Spy, it is much too long. I nevertheless warmed to character of David Cornwell, still furious after more than fifty years. And I warmed somewhat towards Sisman who scrupulously (unlike so many contemporary biographers) left himself out of the story. It is the definitive biography to date. It would have been a lot better in two volumes.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Carmilla - Sheridan le Fanu

Perfect for Christmas night reading, Carmilla is effectively the mother of Dracula. John Polidori was the father, with Lord Byron a sort of fairy godfather. Polidori's The Vampyre came out in 1819, originally credited to Byron in the hope of bigger sales. In fact The Vampyre was Byron, thinly veiled under the name Lord Ruthven, the name he had appeared under in Glenarvon (1816), a scandalous bodice-ripper by Byron's spurned mistress Lady Caroline Lamb. Carmilla - likewise a novella - came out in 1871 and derives from the legend of Hungarian noblewoman Elizabeth Bathory, who is said to have preserved her beauty by bathing in the blood of young virgins. A quarter of a century later along came Bram Stoker to combine to two - all he needed to find was another medieval Eastern European blood fiend, preferably one with a catchy name.

Stoker was a Dubliner, like le Fanu, and it is inconceivable that he should not have known Carmilla. He was working, in Dublin, for a newspaper co-owned by le Fanu when the story came out in serial form in late 1871. He may or may not have known of Polidori. The term 'vampire' was not original and indeed is deployed in Carmilla. Modern screen Draculas may have a whiff of Byron about them but Stoker's Dracula, in the novel, does not. Indeed the only thing Stoker seems to have added to what le Fanu supplied, aside from material lifted from the life of Vlad Tepez, is the vampiric means of transmission. The bite itself passing on the contagion seems original to Stoker. Le Fanu has some obscure device of vampires infecting suicides and I'm not sure that the question of transmission arises in Polidori (it certainly doesn't in Byron's 'fragment' "The Burial".

Carmilla was written at the very end of le Fanu's life, by which time you would hope he had developed a graceful turn of phrase. Sadly, a lifetime's slog as a journalistic hack seems to have undermined his prose, which plods somewhat. On the other hand his structure is very clever, a story within a framework, which then admits other stories. The frisson that made it successful, however, is the implied lesbianism between Carmilla and the narrator Laura. Given that Laura speaks to us directly we can be safe in the assumption she did not die. The victim is Berthe, ward of General Spielsdorf, the neighbour and friend of Laura's father in Styria. We only see Carmilla as beautiful and loving and extremely sexual. It is Spielsdorf who later reveals what she really is and how she must be destroyed - which, incidentally, is done in the way familiar to all Dracula fans. The learned man who assists at the destruction is Baron Vordenburg of Graz, who is described thus:
He was tall, narrow-chested, stooping, with high shoulders, and dressed in black. His face was brown and dried in with deep furrows; he wore an oddly-shaped hat with a broad leaf. His hair, long and grizzled, hung on his shoulders. He wore a pair of gold spectacles, and walked slowly, with an odd shambling gait, with his face sometimes turned up to the sky, and sometimes bowed down toward the ground, and seemed to wear a perpetual smile; his long thin arms were swinging, and his lank hands, in old black gloves ever so much too wide for them, waving and gesticulating in utter abstraction.
Small wonder, then, that Stoker preferred to combine Vordenburg's knowledge of vampiric lore with the more reassuring professional person of Doctor Hesselius. to whom Laura's narrative is addressed - et voila, Van Helsing!

Le Fanu doesn't do bats but there is an animal entity. In the most horrific passage of the novella a monstrous cat - 'four or five feet long' - pounces on Laura's bed.
The two broad eyes approached my face, and suddenly I felt a stinging pain as if two large needles darted, an inch or two apart, deep into my breast. I waked with a scream.
Intriguingly, le Fanu leaves a major question unanswered - who is the mysterious 'Countess' who claims to be Carmilla's mother but who dumps her daughter first on Spielsdorf, then on Laura's father. She meets Spielsdorf at a masked ball and refuses to unmask for him because. she insists, he will recognise her. Did le Fanu simply forget? I doubt it; the encounters with the Countess are allotted too much space within the hundred pages of the novella. Perhaps le Fanu planned to bring her back in a follow-up story. After all, Carmilla was one of five stories published in In A Glass Darkly (1872), all of which were presented as being from the papers of Doctor Hesselius, who thus became the first occult detective. Sadly, le Fanu died early the following year before he could publish more.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet - Elaine Feinstein

Published in 2001, this was the first full-length biography of the enigmatic Hughes. As such, it laid out the groundplan which others have since followed. A fair bit of detail about the childhood years, a long account of the six-year marriage to Sylvia Plath, and a brisk canter through the remaining thirty-five years.

Feinstein is herself a poet, thus her insights into Ted's work are particularly valuable. She was a friend of Ted and fellow client of his sister/agent Olwyn. As such, she provides a welcome counterbalance to many of the more militant accounts from the pro-Plath camp. Whilst she does rather gallop through the second half of Hughes's career, she nevertheless takes due time to consider and evaluate the stream of work he maintained. She even delves into areas that few others mention - his prose work, for example, notably the vast Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. She is frank in her depiction of the always controversial Olwyn and generous in her account of Carol, Ted's second wife. Ted's death, which was fresh in her mind when she wrote the book, is profoundly moving.

The only area in which I take exception is a series of broad and unsupported generalisations which for reasons unknown Feinstein makes about Northern men and their attitude to women. It is an area in which I may be better qualified, being myself a Northern man, a generation younger than Hughes, admittedly, but from the next valley along with most of my ancestry from the same valley as him. I even share his South Yorkshire connections. And I can assure Feinstein that, in my experience, she could not be more wrong in her assumptions about the term 'mother' when used as a synonym for 'wife'.

With that proviso, which is of course always open to argument, there can be no better place to start delving into the life of England's greatest poet of the late Twentieth Century.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman

It has been almost a fortnight since my last post. The delay is not because I'm reading some colossus of a book (though I now am) or that I've been wasting eyesight on a book I cast aside before finishing. It's because I did finish Anansi Boys, perhaps against my inclination,
Now, to be clear, I am a huge fan of Neil Gaiman. I adored Neverwhere and Black Orchid frazzled my brain. Anansi Boys, though...

Essentially it is a mechanistic farce - a limited number of characters forever popping up in one another's lives. Improbability is the whole point of farce, which is one reason it doesn't greatly appeal to me. And, to be absolutely fair, Gaiman does offer some justification through the context of Caribbean mythology. After all, if events didn't come across as wildly improbable, how would we know the gods are involved?

The book has its funny moments, lots of them, some of which made me laugh out loud, which I rarely do. The problem was I couldn't really care about these people. And that is, I suspect, because Gaiman has erred in choosing an almost entirely Caribbean cast of characters. Gaiman is not of Afro-Caribbean ethnicity and neither am I. How can we possibly understand the particular complexities of the lives of Afro-Caribbeans and their communities? Sure, we can research their mythology - and Gaiman handles this aspect with aplomb - but Fat Charlie and his circle live in contemporary Florida, London and on a fictional island. In the first two locales they definitely face challenges which Gaiman and I don't.

Again, let me be clear, there is no hint of racism here. Gaiman clearly likes all his characters. But for me that's not quite enough. The characters are lacking a context. That leads inescapably to a lack of three-dimensionality and character progression.

The other problem is the lack of jeopardy. In a farce, the jeopardy is usually the potential loss of the true love. Charlie's girlfriend Rosie is not the one he should be with, so losing her is the right thing, whereas the true love, Daisy, is right alongside from Charlie from early on. In fact, he can't lose her even when he wants to.

So there it is, the reason for my reluctance to blog about Anansi Boys. It won't stop me reading more Gaiman, not by a long chalk. It is not a bad book: it is expertly written, bowls along, with jokes. It just lacks that element of fantasy which for me is essential - believability.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

The Man Who Japed - Philip K Dick

One of three early novels collected here, The Man Who Japed was written in 1956. It is set in the second decade of the 22nd century but it looks and sounds a lot like 1956. What Dick is doing is satirising the homely, apple-pie culture of the American Fifties and preserving its worst aspects - the sanctimonious self-righteousness, the fetish of the upwardly mobile, and above all the hysterical dread of infiltration by the unclean outsider.
Armageddon devastated the Western World in the 1970s. A hero arose from the ashes, Major Streiter. Unfortunately Streiter was a South African major at a time when the Boer state was not exactly known for its liberality. The society that Streiter created in his own image was called Morec - Moral Reclamation. Provided they remained moral, a family could aspire to rise over the generations, winning leases on one-bedroomed flats ever closer to the omphalos, the statue and spire honouring the New World Patriarch in Newer York.
Allen Purcell is one such high-flyer. In his late twenties, he has his own agency providing 'packages' for the state broadcaster Telemedia (TM). One morning Purcell is offered the ultimate promotion - director of TM. There's just one problem: earlier in the week Purcell spent the night in Hokkaido, drinking wine with two outsiders of his acquaintance; on the way home he passed through the park and 'japed' the statue of Major Streiter. That is to say he vandalised it. Big time. His unauthorised absence has been noted. A couple of days later he is seen with an attractive young woman who is not his wife.
The young woman is in fact the sister of Dr Malparto, a key figure in the flip side of Morec, the side polite society doesn't like to talk about - the Resort, where Morec sequesters the ne'er-do-wells, the artistic, the antisocial, the morally unreclaimable. The Malparto siblings kidnap Allen Purcell, try to psychoanalyse him, but Allen escapes, takes the job at TM, and ends up committing the ultimate jape.
Like so much of Dick's work this is satire but not as we generally think of it. Allen Purcell is by no means the archetypal Star Wars freedom fighter. His weapon of choice is not a laser gun but mockery. Yet he is a rebel, he has a cause, and in the end he turns his back on the easy solution. He is, unusually for a Dick hero, quite likeable. I liked him anyway.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Slade House - David Mitchell

Slade House is a traditional English haunted house story disassembled, dissected, twisted and tweaked by a master of literary tropes. Mitchell favours multi-viewpoint narratives and has made Slade House the perfect vehicle for the technique. Every nine years, over five cycles from 1979 to 2015, innocents and/or investigators are enticed to the suburban mansion that was once Slade House. Some are linked, others independent. On every occasion we and they have to try and disentangle what is real and what is not. Piecemeal throughout the novel suggestions are offered regarding the origin of the 'orison'; only at the end is the full story revealed.

Mitchell has previously been drawn to the epic format. Here, the shorter form (only 230 pages) suits his purpose better. For Mitchell, it seems to me, form and structure matter more than elegant wordplay. His words are well-chosen, his sentences polished, but he leaves the complexities to ideas which are by their nature labyrinthine. The orison, for example, is a concept Mitchell developed in his earlier novel Cloud Atlas, a sort of spiritual or supra-natural version of virtual reality. Here he traces the idea from various esoteric belief systems. Whether there is any basis for this in real world religious practice is immaterial. It reads as plausible, even authoritative, and thus the reader accepts it.

For all the structural bias, Mitchell creates characters who hold our interest for as long as they need to. The guileless son of a pretentious single mother, a libidinous copper, a chubby fresher from the local university, her sister the online reporter and, ultimately, the kick-ass doctor of psychiatry. The interdependency of the Grayer twins, whose career unites the episodic narrative, is especially well handled.

I liked this novel a great deal. I commend it to all.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Mad Weekend - Roddy Doyle

Open Door has published at least five series of short novellas by Irish authors, the Irish profits of which are donated to a charity of the author's choice. Open Door is a subset of New Island, Ireland's leading independent publisher, who have some enticing books on their list.

Mad Weekend is really a long short story, a shaggy dog narrative joke about three Dublin lads who go to Liverpool to watch a match, losing one of their number along the way. The ending is improbable - but who cares? You read Roddy Doyle because being in his company is fun. He writes like a dream, seemingly without effort but doubtless polished over and over. Everybody in his fiction is a bit of an eejit but essentially a decent sort.

It's a half-hour, forty minutes read. Can't think of a better use of my time. And I'm definitely signing up for New Island emails.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

She Who Was No More - Boileau-Narcejac

It's not unusual for writers to collaborate under a shared pseudonym - Ellery Queen, for example, or Nicci French. Less common, perhaps unique, is a collaboration in which the surnames are combined to make a brand name. That was the case for Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, both of whom were known writers before pooling their resources as Boileau-Narcejac. She Who Was No More was the first of twenty collaborative thrillers. They also wrote a boy detective series and authorised follow-on Arsene Lupin stories.

She Who Was No More became Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic film noir Les Diaboliques (1955) amd Hitchcock transformed D'entre les Morts (1954) into Vertigo (1958). In short, it's hard to imagine a pair who contributed more to the field of psychological thrillers - their deeply flawed characters, the carefully layered settings and atmosphere, and their killer narrative twists are all signatures of the genre - and yet they and their works are largely unknown. I would not have come upon them had it not been that the niche publishers Pushkin Vertigo (no prizes for guessing where the name came from) gave me a voucher for signing up to their emails.

The plot of She Who Was No More is so intricate that it's hard to describe without giving the game away. Basically the travelling salesman Ravinel and his mistress Lucienne conspire to murder Mrs Ravinel and head south with the insurance payout. It goes very wrong indeed, and the twists keep coming to the very end. Geoffrey Sainsbury's new translation retains the crisp dialogue and almost poetic descriptive passages. The words on the page work almost like music in counterpoint, making something beautiful and seductive out of a storyline that is basically sordid and venal. I loved it and am definitely keen to read more.

The best crime novel I have read this year.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Dictator - Robert Harris

Dictator is the concluding third of Harris's Cicero trilogy (the others being Imperium and Lustrum). Unsurprisingly, given that it purports to be the lost biography of the great man written by his slave and later freedman Tiro, it ends with Cicero's brutal murder on the orders of Octavian/Augustus in 43BC. It is therefore the volume that deals with the period of Roman history that most of us are most familiar with, the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, his assassination, and the subsequent battle for supremacy between Octavian, Mark Antony and the Zeppo Marx of the Triumvirate, poor old Lepidus.

The trilogy is an awesome achievement. Vast amounts of research must have been done, yet Harris wears his acquired learning lightly. He is especially good at playing off Cicero's philosophical writing against his political opportunism - at one stage or another Cicero manages to suck up to all the major players without once recognising his own duplicity. As a party politician myself, I couldn't help but place him in the Independent camp, a chancer who will jump aboard any passing bandwagon and insist - at very great length - how it was his idea in the first place.

The murder is a historical gift of an ending to all his machinations, betrayed by an off-the-cuff witticism.

Our true hero, however, is Tiro. It is he who sees and reports all the flaws in his employer's character whilst remaining doggedly loyal to him throughout their long, shared life. Tiro is how Harris deploys his masterful gifts as a storyteller. Dictator in itself is not as good as, say, An Officer and a Spy; it is infinitely better than The Ghost. The trilogy as a whole is probably Harris's greatest achievement in fiction.  His new novel, Conclave, doesn't appeal - can it possibly be as good as Paulo Sorrentino's The Young Pope, now showing on Sky Atlantic? Checking through the page of 'Also by' I notice I haven't read (or, frankly, heard of) The Fear Index. Maybe that is where I should head next.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Standing in Another Man's Grave - Ian Rankin

This, apparently, is Rebus #18 and Fox #3, which handily also reflects their respective contributions to this story. It's a great idea to bring the two police protagonists together but it doesn't really work because Fox of Complaints only serves to tell us what we already know - that Rebus, now retired and working for Cold Cases, is a bit of a maverick.

The idea of setting Rebus's return in Cold Cases, on the other hand, works well. Every professional relationship we have followed through the preceding 19 novels is now reversed - Siobhan Clarke, formerly his oppo, is now his direct superior; Ger Cafferty, notorious gangland kingpin, is now also officially retired and Rebus's occasional, awkward, drinking buddy. Otherwise, the things which defined Rebus are thankfully much the same: nothing in his life except policework; the drive always to make things harder for himself than they need to be.

Forget the Malcolm Fox stuff, which is either a failed gimmick or (as I prefer to believe) a necessary device to frame Rebus's potential return to the force; this is essentially old school Rebus. Perhaps I should amend that slightly. Standing in Another Man's Grave is Rebus after he became fully grown from around the fifth novel in the sequence, when he gradually transitioned from detective to flawed hero.

The story is a good one. Rebus is able to link a missing young woman to a series of previous disappearances which convince the inquiry team there is a serial killer on the loose. Thus Rebus is seconded to the main inquiry, reunited with Clarke, and all is business as usual. There is a good running joke about the ambitious DCI being called James Page (i.e. Jimmy Page, the Led Zeppelin legend). We have the usual conflict between traditional hands-on policing and modern micro-managed policing-by-computer. Rebus mixes with the Edinburgh underworld in all its glory.

The midpoint twist I expect we would all see coming - I certainly did for once in my reading life - and the ultimate solution is neither here nor there. Somebody had to do it, it has to be Rebus who finds him, no one of course believes Rebus and Clarke has to be equivocal. That is what we want from a Rebus novel. That is what we get. In this instance we also get Rankin at the height of his powers. It's a long novel, 350 pages, but Rankin is able to fill it with character and complexity.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Kingdom Come - J G Ballard

Kingdom Come, from 2006, was Ballard's last novel. It ploughs his usual field - suburban dystopia, As usual, his principal characters are mundane men and women offered just a glimpse of something higher. In High Rise the driving force was class division, the castes rigorously separated by floor, In Kingdom Come everyone is the same class - the amorphous middle class that inhabits the soulless, faceless dormitory towns around the M25. The totem to which they aspire is the shopping mall, the giant Metro Centro which dominates the fictional township of Brooklands. Even as our outsider, Richard Pearson (a typically anonymous name) pitches up, the dream is beginning to sour. Some lunatic opened fire on the mall shoppers thronging the atrium, Richard's estranged father, a retired airline pilot, is among the dead.

Richard has nothing better to do - he has just lost his job in adverstising alongside his marriage - so he stays on in Brooklands. He stays to settle his father's affairs there but ends up moving into the old man's flat. He gradually gets drawn in to suburban life. He meets various locals - solicitor, doctor, policewoman, He meets David Cruise, the minor celebrity who helms the Metro Centre's cable TV channel. He worked with Cruise in the old days. Richard has ideas for making Cruise's onscreen persona more compelling...

Ballard's problem is that his vision of the near future is already out of date. He thought that consumerism was rotting the public psyche whereas it was always unrestricted credit that made us sick. The banks were allowed to count debt as profit on the fatuous premise that it would someday be repaid. Only two years after Ballard published - a year or less before he died - the truth was revealed to the world. Malls like the Metro Centre were built on foundations of sand and how the economists and entrepreneurs wish we could be seduced back through the doors.

The other problem is that Richard Pearson is not really an outsider. He is a member of the glitzy London elite with his fancy flat in Chelsea and his classic Jensen car. Brooklands is the creation of people like him, the place where they decant the people they don't want to live next door. For people like Pearson the M25 isn't how the poor folk get into inner London, it's how the residents of inner London bypass the suburbs. Pearson virtually drips contempt and we can't avoid the conclusion that it's a contempt entirely reflecting that of his creator. Take the opening para:
The suburbs dream of violence. Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world...
The plot, such as it is, is predictable, the twists predictable. Ballard is concerned not with his story but with his thesis and as such both suffer. The odd thing is, you can't stop reading, a measure of Ballard's deceptively prosaic style. In that sense Kingdom Come is a fitting coda to a fifty-year career, however it brings nothing new to the table.


Monday, 31 October 2016

Horror Stories - E Nesbit

How this figures in the Penguin Worlds series of "Classic Science Fiction" is beyond me. Surely no one is more embedded in her time than Nesbit? And why we need the 500 word introduction by Naomi Alderman (co-curator) defeats me utterly. The cover couldn't be less appropriate if it tried.

That said, I was only vaguely aware that Nesbit had written ghost fiction (and it is very much ghost fiction we are talking about here). I think I may have come across "Man-Size in Marble" many moons ago, but that's about the extent of my knowledge.

Anyway, Nesbit is known today for her books for under-sixteens, The Railway Children (1906) of course, but also The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904). Her ghost stories were written for magazines and periodicals before she became famous and collected in three volumes between 1893 and 1897. Though they often go back to events in the mid-Victorian period when Nesbit herself was a young woman, the starting point is always the last twenty years or so of the 19th century. Surprisingly they are rarely written from the female viewpoint - she adopted the sexless 'E' of her authorial persona for a reason - and the female characters tend to be weak, doting and simplistic. Her heroes are young men about town, often priggish, very much devoted to their social status, hot-blooded and rash in their decisions. Nesbit has an habitual tone in which all her characters are depicted critically. She has a marvellously brisk way with back-story, which should be an object lesson to us all. Take this from "The Three Drugs":
The nature of his trouble is not germane to this story. There was a woman in it, of course, and money, and a friend, and regrets and embarrassments - and all of these reached out tendrils that wove and interwove till they made a puzzle-problem of which heart and brain were now weary.
 The usual framework is a love affair, either ill-judged or doomed. She is preoccupied with the idea of the loved one's return from the dead. There are a couple of exceptions: "The Three Drugs" and "The Five Senses", which I suppose just about qualify as early science fiction. In both cases medical men experiment with medically enhanced consciousness; in both cases the experimenters are themselves overwhelmed. They were highlights of this collection for me, but there was only one item I disliked - a something-and-nothing fragment called "The Judgement: A Broadmoor Biography", which sounds much more enticing than it actually is. It only lasts four pages and is an ill-advised venture into first-person dialect. It smacks of bottom-drawer material which should have been binned or otherwise forgotten. My advice is to skip it and enjoy everything else here. It's a collection which every student of the genre should read at least once.

Monday, 24 October 2016

The World in Winter - John Christopher

John Christopher has often been likened to John Wyndham. Indeed, some people seem to think the two are one and the same, especially given the number of pseudonyms they both used. In fact John Christopher was Sam Youd (1922-2012) aka Stanley Winchester, Hilary Ford. Peter Graaf etc. Christopher was undoubtedly influenced by Wyndham (for Tripods see Triffids) but specialised in man-made catastrophe whereas Wyndham favoured space invaders.

Christopher is best known for his climate change novels, of which this is one. The title says it all: the northern hemisphere is plunged into a new ice age due to a decline in solar radiation. The major powers decide to pack up and head south. Those left behind turn feral through necessity. The emigrants likewise face disaster. The former colonies in Africa are perfectly willing to accept their former oppressors, but only as menials and slaves. The banking system collapses so all the money the Brits brought with them evaporates.

It is a great idea and even now, more than half a century after it was written, the resonances are still there, Christopher's problem is that he can't bring his ideas to life through his characters. His main characters here are preoccupied with their suburban menage a trois and unable to engage with their climatic enemy as much as one would like. Perhaps the scale of the disaster is just too big and humanity simply cannot win.

This is where Christopher falls short of Wyndham. I remember reading one of the Tripod series for young adults, probably the late prequel When the Tripods Came (1988) and the problem was the same. That said, there are some fabulous moments - I absolutely adored the idea of colonising the south coast of England by hovercraft, which of course can skim over the ice sheets blocking the Channel. It works even better fifty years later when hovercraft have become as redundant as traction engines. Perhaps that's something we should reconsider in this era of global warming.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Let It Bleed (Rebus 7) - Ian Rankin

The beauty of ebooks is that you can download one for under £1 in a click. You don't have time or need to speculate. If it's not up to scratch, no biggie. I bought the first Rebus when it came out in paperback, probably in the early Nineties. I still remember how disappointed I was. The plot was nothing much to write home about and the detective's name was just plain silly. I have to say I didn't think much of the early TV adaptations either - the ones starring John Hannah - though they did improve when Ken Stott took over, and Stott remains the model for the Rebus in my head.

Anyway, last week Let it Bleed was on offer and I thought what-the-hey? It's halfway through the series and sure enough Rebus has amassed sufficient character to make time spent in his company enjoyable. The new edition has exclusive extra material from Rankin which for me was best avoided. I really don't need insights into the authorial psyche unless they are incorporated into the main text.

The story itself is very much of its era, the mid-Nineties, when the UK was finally waking up to the legacy of the Thatcher free-marketeers. Entrepreneurship has corrupted every aspect of public life. The legerdemain that Rankin pulls off here is very impressive; he sends us off in pursuit of the usual suspect who turns out to be the wrong suspect. Rankin at this period was not great at the intricacies of the police system (though he is now with his Malcolm Fox series) and Let It Bleed succeeds principally because Rebus is working off the books, which gives him something to lose - his career, the only things he has to keep him from out-and-out alcoholism - if it all goes pear-shaped.

There's something else here which, for me at least, the early books lacked, and that's compassion. The alkies and the junkies and the petty criminals are all real people, the real bad guys - the upwardly mobile - perhaps slightly less so. This enables flashes of wit that really humanise Rebus's world without distracting from the seriousness of the plot.

In short, then, I enjoyed it. The name Rebus is still silly, but after all this time what can Rankin do? I can't help wondering if the Rebus/Fox mash-up Even Dogs in the Wild (2015), presumably a sort of Edinburgh version of Superman meets Batman, might offer me the perfect Rankin experience.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Late Victorian Gothic Tales

It's a great idea to anthologise the late Victorian Gothic. This, after all, is the Gothic everyone knows today, the Gothic of Dracula and the Mummy as opposed to the original Gothic of Otranto and Vathek. Inevitably, though, you are going to end up with a mixed bag.

The first story, for example, is 'Dionea' by Vernon Lee (Violet Paget). 'Dionea' is very much in the neo-baroque mode of Walpole and Mrs Radcliffe. It is nevertheless very effective. 'Lord Arthur Savile's Crime' on the other hand is a spoof, clever enough but not especially funny and I'm afraid I long since tired of Wilde's juvenile precocity.  'Sir Edward Orme' by Henry James is beautifully written but not in any way disturbing. We then come to Kipling's 'The Mark of the Beast' which is both exquisitely written and profoundly disturbing. 'The Dak Bungalow at Dakor', by Kipling's fellow Raj writer Mrs Croker, is sludge not worth anthologising.

Then we have two stories by Conan Doyle at the height of his Sherlock Holmes success - 'Lot No 249', a mummy story, perhaps even the first mummy story, in which the characterisation of the mummy's owner is far more creepy than the mummy itself, and 'The Case of Lady Sannox', which so affected me that I am currently writing a direct follow-up for my own amusement. The thing with 'Lady Sannox' is Doyle's extreme contempt for the titular woman. Is this misogyny or puritanism? The mutilation inflicted on her reminded me strongly of Freud and Fliess's treatment of Emma Eckstein's nose, which has always seemed to me to be more about their sexual fetishes than hers.

Grant Allen's 'Pallinghurst Barrow' has a powerful theme but is poorly written. Two brief contes cruelles by Jean Lorrain have the opposite problem, strong and effective writing about nothing very much. 'The Great God Pan' by Arthur Machen is really a novella, an important distinction in that the fractured narrative he uses would not be practicable in a short story. It is one of Machen's better known works and the first I have read. I like it very much. I especially enjoy the way the horror is suggested and then cut away from, leaving it to the reader's worst imaginings. This of course is the technique later used to great effect by Val Lewton in his 1942 movie Cat People.

The final offering, M P Shiel's 'Viala', is another novella first published, like 'Pan', in The Bodley Head's notorious Keynotes series. Shiel is another pioneer of the macabre who I have heard about but never previously read. He is another I will have to pursue further, albeit he is totally different to Machen. Where Machen goes for subtlety and suggestion, Shiel is anything but. He is so wild and extravagant that often his language cannot keep up. His Viala is the Castle of Otranto remodelled by Vathek and transplanted to the Far North. Significantly for me, as a researcher into William Hope Hodgson, I'm pretty sure I now know where the idea of The House on the Borderland came from. As Roger Luckhurst notes in his introduction, 'Viala' is 'genuinely unhinged' - and that, it turns out, is by no means a bad thing.

To end with the Introduction... It will not be news to regular visitors to this blog, that I tend not to be a fan of the form in general. I have just bought a collection of ghost stories with an introduction of no more than 500 feeble words by some non-entity that made me want to get my money back. In this case, however, the Introduction and Notes are essential and add hugely to the experience of reading the book. Luckhurst knows whereof he speaks and can be trusted as a source for others. Well done to him and to Oxford World's Classics for producing this gem.

Friday, 7 October 2016

When William Came - Saki

Saki (H H Munro) is best known for mordant short stories like 'Gabriel-Ernest' and 'Sredni Vashtar'. Indeed, I hadn't realised he had written any novels. In fact there are three novels of which this is the third, published in 1913.

The date says it all - the eve of World War I, the last glorious summer of imperial peace and prosperity. But in Saki's world the titular William is Kaiser Bill and Great Britain has been annexed to the Hohenzollern Empire almost by accident. The German navy and air-ships were just too advanced. Rather than resist, the king abdicated and went into exile in his personal empire of India. It was not so much an invasion as a fait accompli.

Obviously everyone in 1913 was aware that war with Germany was a possibility. Invasion literature was incredibly popular. H G Wells published The War in the Air in 1908 and William le Queux had been knocking them out since 1894. But Saki's twist is to make the invasion bloodless, thus leaving him free to be witty and, in the scenes relating to Gorla Mustelford's debut as a 'suggestive dancer'. downright hilarious.

The story is set in the first full London season since the fait accompli. Society has moved on - or perhaps remained unmoved. The upper classes have accepted the odd grafin and welcomed Prussian officers with their cheerfully coloured uniforms and resorted to the usual trivial pastimes. Cicely Yeovil is a social fulcrum, with her shiny-haired young men and Gorla's debut to oversee. So it's all a bit of nuisance when her husband Murrey shows up.

Murrey is a man who travels to stave off the boredom. When William came, Murrey was battling fever in a Finnish hospital. When he heard about the fait accompli he assumed it was a product of his fevered imagination. Now back in London, he cannot accept it. He toys with the notion of heading off to the court in exile in Delhi - either that or taking up the mastership of the hunt down in Wessex.

Saki, at heart the short story master, does not hammer out a plot. The story is more that of the various participants. Gorla's debut is counted a success and the next social highlight is a march-past of the massed ranks of Boy Scouts in the Mall - which is where Saki springs his surprise.

It's a superlative twist, the last thing I expected, both amusing and moving.

Of the author's own attitude to the German threat we need be in no doubt. When war came Hector Hugh Monro was 44 years old. He nevertheless enlisted and served on the front until he was killed by a sniper in November 1916. So he is a hero and a writer of consummate skill. He deserves be better remembered.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The Complete John Silence Stories - Algernon Blackwood

Blackwood was nudging forty when he made his name with the 1908 short story collection John Silence - Physician Extraordinary. He lived for another forty-three years, became a voice on radio and a skeletal face on early TV, but the first decade of the Twentieth Century was his most productive.

The 'extraordinary' thing about John Silence is that he is a psychic doctor. The tendency has been to class him as a psychic detective like Hodgson's Carnacki (interestingly commissioned by their mutual publisher when it became obvious no more Silence material would be forthcoming) but that is not the case. In some of these stories Silence is little more than a bit-part player, brought on at the end to cure the occult affliction. He is really a therapist, showing victims how to cure themselves, or a consultant brought in to take drastic action. To solve a mystery as a detective is to discover the truth; John Silence, adept in the occult arts and practices, already knows the answer.

The original five stories from Physician Extraordinary are all here in the original order, plus "A Victim of Higher Space" which may have been written alongside the others but which wasn't published until Day and Night Stories in 1917. One thing should be stressed, these are not short stories. They are all around 40 pages save for 'The Camp of the Dog' which is nearly 60. This is important because the long form allows Blackwood to build his horror in layers. Nothing in itself is especially shocking but the cumulative mass really gets into the reader's psyche.

Two of the stories particularly enthralled me, 'Ancient Sorceries' and 'Secret Worship'. Silence is the protagonist in neither; he is just someone who the protagonist confides in. This is good because Silence is a bit of a superhero - hugely wealthy and impossibly learned. He can never be in much jeopardy, so to hook the reader someone else has to be. In 'Ancient Sorceries' it is 'little Vezin ... a timid, gentle, sensitive soul' who finds himself marooned in a rural French town where the locals celebrate the titular sorceries and transform themselves into cats. In 'Secret Worship' it is Harris, a silk merchant,  who decides to visit the school he hated as a boy. The school is in southern Germany, run by monks. Harris is made welcome, which turns out to be a very bad thing for poor Harris.

To us, the idea of Victorian tradesmen being educated in Germany seems odd, but it is Blackwood's personal story. He was a perpetual traveller from childhood and is perhaps best known today for tales like 'The Wendigo' which brought Gothic horror to the vast open spaces of Canada, where Blackwood spent much of his twenties. Here, Canada is the setting for 'The Camp of the Dog'. Blackwood was also a member of the Golden Dawn, with Yeats and Mathers, Crowley and Arthur Machen, hence his taste for ancient ritual and, indeed, devil worship. Given the extraordinary nature of the author's life - the first half of it, anyway - S T Joshi's introduction to the collection is essential.

The book is a curiosity, but it is essential for anyone interested in that singular period between roughly 1890 and 1914 when occultism and ritual magic were actually fashionable.

Monday, 3 October 2016

You Were Never Really Here - Jonathan Ames

Pushkin Vertigo is a new imprint focusing mainly on classic crime fiction (including Vertigo itself) but also including some contemporary work such as this, from 2013 (Pushkin Vertigo Originals).

Ames is an American journalist, author and screenwriter, creator of the TV series Bored to Death. "You Were Never Really Here" is actually halfway between a short story and a novella. It took me just over an hour to read. I like that - tell your story without padding, leave it at precisely the length it needs to be. Within the eighty-odd pages of this big-print/small-format paperback he has polished his prose to a stiletto edge. For example:
He had come to believe that he was the recurring element - the deciding element - in all the tragedies experienced by the people he encountered. So if he could minimize his impact and his responsibility, then there was the chance, the slight chance, that there would be no more suffering for others. It was a negative grandiose delusion - narcissism inverted into self-hatred, a kind of autoimmune disorder of his psyche...
Joe, the hero, is off the books - off every imaginable book - ex-FBI, ex-Marine, ex-human being save for his role as carer for his octogenarian mother. He earns his crust by fighting a very specialized niche crime, rescuing young girls kidnapped for sexual purposes. He operates through a whole series of cut-outs. His handler contacts a bodega owner who puts a misspelled notice in his window to notify Joe that he needs to call in.

This case is a big case. The daughter of a state senator has been abducted. The senator has received a text telling him where she is. All Joe has to do is get into the brothel and rescue her. Which he does, with considerable malice aforethought. The brothel, however, is run by powerful people. There are consequences for Joe. His cut-offs are cut out - with extreme animus. Joe uncovers the secret. And resolves to seek revenge.

We don't see the revenge. That is another story. Maybe Ames will tell it, maybe he won't. But we have been given all the pointers we need to imagine what Joe's revenge will be, and that is better than reading about it. That freedom to imagine the very worst is the genius of this little book, why the short format is perfect for the author's purpose. It's the best of its kind that I have read since Point Blank.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek - Barry Cuncliffe

I don't remember when I first heard about Pytheas - it was more than thirty years ago and it may even have been via one of Barry Cunliffe's other books. I have been fascinated ever since.

Pytheas is said to have been the first man to circumnavigate the island of Britain and leave a record of his voyage. This was around 350 BC. Beyond that, we stray into less certain ground. For a start, Pytheas wasn't really a Greek. He was a citizen of the Greek maritime colony of Massalia, modern Marseilles. His book, On the Ocean, has not survived. What we know of it is quoted or referenced by later writers - some of them, like Pliny, more than four hundred years later. Others like Strabo, writing about the time of Christ's birth, only quoted Pytheas to demonstrate what a fantasist he was. Strabo, however, was an armchair geographer, writing in the declining, decadent years of Greek culture, whereas Pytheas was a son of the Great Expansion and claimed to have seen the far-off islands for himself. What clinches Pytheas's story for me is that he was a merchant on the make - he wanted to explore Britain in the hope of turning a profit. That rings true.

Pytheas also claimed to have visited Ultima Thule, an island north of Britain regarded as the last habitable outpost of humanity. Cunliffe explores the various possibilities. Was it Iceland, Norway, one of the Danish islands or one of the Faroes? The truth is we will never know. I accept without question that it was possible to get to Iceland from the north of Scotland in the vessels used at the time - boats and ships did not change greatly in the North for another fifteen hundred years and we know that early medieval travellers made it to Greenland and even North America. I question if it was Iceland, though. Iceland is so very different; anyone who landed there could not avoid noticing the difference (and there was no point going anywhere if you did not at least try to make landfall). On the other hand we do not have Pytheas's original text. We do not even have quotations from it that are 100% reliable. It is all a matter of judgement. Cunliffe is a scholar of history, the greatest scholar of Celtic Britain, a hands-on field archeologist; for him ancient texts are simply possible clues to new discoveries on (or in) the ground. Pytheas, of course, did most of his exploration on the water, where no trace will ever be found.

Cunliffe's other great gift is his writing ability. He never simplifies for the sake of making a cheap point, nor does he bombard the reader with unnecessary scholarship. His desire is to bring Celtic Europe to life for everyone. And he does that here brilliantly.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Rare Earth - Paul Mason

Paul Mason is the celebrated TV journalist, probably the last openly left-wing member of the breed. Rare Earth (2012) is his first and so far only novel.

As you would expect, it is about TV journalism. His hero, David Brough, is a gritty Northerner, difficult to employ because of his old-fashioned yen for a real story. He is part of a team visiting China to provide some colour for a feature on the next economic superpower. Unfortunately he stumbles on pollution, corruption and state manipulation of the market in rare earth (compounds essential for digital hardware).

Fair enough, you might think. An interesting and worthwhile read. But then Mason springs his big surprise. Many of the characters are troubled by ghosts - yes, actual dead people spirits who converse with the living as if they were, well, alive. Then there are fantastically inventive characters like the "private military and security" team of supermodel bikers who rescue Brough from the desert and eighty-four year-old General Guo, who once swam in the Yangtse with Chairman Mao and who now seems to be running everything despite living in a shantytown shed.

It's the inventiveness that keeps you hooked for 300+ pages. That and the pacey style, because Mason writes exactly like he speaks - in superfast epigrams. In the hands of another this would be a worthy but scarcely surprising story (it's not exactly a secret that globalisation is built on poverty and corruption); with Mason we get a kaleidoscope of facts, comedy and fantastical fizz. He should make time to write another.

Monday, 12 September 2016

A Sense of Wonder - John Wyndham and others

This collection of three sci-fi novellas put together and introduced by the arch-anthologist in the genre, Sam Moskowitz, can claim to have re-discovered John Wyndham's early story 'Exiles on Asperus'  (1933). Wyndham's estate only published it in 1979, ten years after his death, but here it is in 1976 with Moskowitz claiming it is the first publication in book form, which may very well be true.

Wyndham was 30 when he wrote it, still writing for genre magazines, in this case Wonder Stories Quarterly under a different variation of his name, John Benyon Harris. Moskowitz's point is that the three stories go beyond a sense of the fantastical into a sense of wonder. In other words, they ask mature questions like what is technology for, and what effect will scientific advances have on human nature. I would add the suggestion that the length they have to play with (each runs roughly 50 pages in paperback) allowed them to ask such questions and develop more rounded characters.

In any event, Wyndham's story is, as you would expect, the best of the three. By 2077 Earth has colonised the Solar System (we'd better get a move on then). It is an empire not unlike the British Empire, which did some good things and some appalling things. The Martians, who are regarded as semi-human, have rebelled and been suppressed. The Argenta is transporting some of the ringleaders to a penal colony. They are holed by a message rocket, the 21st century equivalent of a message in a bottle. The message was sent out 25 years earlier by the captain of the Red Glory, wrecked on the planetoid Asperus. It is perfectly possible that the castaways are still there. The Argenta lands to investigate.

The crew are indeed still there. They have bred a second and a third generation. Also resident are the Batrachs, an alien race of bat-like creatures who control the humans, using them to carry out tasks which their wings prevent the Batrachs doing for themselves. So far so predictable. We assume, along with the crew of the Argenta, that the humans want liberating. Without giving too much away, let's just say it comes down to mind control through conditioning. Mussolini was already in power when Wyndham wrote this story; Hitler was on the rise and in Britain the Daily Mail was backing Moseley's Blackshirts. The horrors of the Holocaust were still to come, thus Wyndham reflected a world in which fascism was seen as a possible solution. And that moves 'Exiles on Asperus' into another league entirely.

Murray Leinster's 'The Mole Pirate' and 'The Moon Era' by Jack Williamson suffer by comparison. They don't really ask such big questions and are limited by being earthbound in the former and driven by the prospect of cash rather than wonder in the latter. That is not to say that they do not have their moments.

Leinster (real name William F Jenkins 1896-1975) was a prolific writer of pulp fiction. His mole is a machine which can dematerialise and pass through solid matter. Rather than use it for something significant, it is hijacked and used for bank robbery. There is, however, a fabulously imaginative sequence when inventor Jack Hill is kicked out of the dematerialised mole with nothing but a pair of radioactive snow shoes to prevent him falling through the Earth.

Williamson (1908-2006) was notable rather for those he inspired (Asimov, Pohl etc.) than the stories themselves. He was only 23 when he wrote 'The Moon Era' so it is not surprising that his hero, Stephen Conway, is driven by the primal impulses of financial security and sex. His inventor uncle offers to make him heir to his millions if Stephen will test-fly his latest and greatest invention, an anti-gravity machine that should fly to the moon inside a week.

I enjoyed the concept of a space capsule that basically falls off the Earth. The twist is that it also goes back in time, aeons over the course of a week, landing on a Moon that still supported life forms. Stephen encounters the last surviving female of the pure moonlings. They strike up a relationship in order to escape the impure moonlings, who live in machines, a sort of splicing of H G Well's Martian invaders and the Daleks. It is the totally alien nature of the Mother which sets Williamson's story apart, especially the way in which despite her otherness she and Stephen manage to establish a convincing relationship.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Michael Tolliver Lives - Armistead Maupin

Michael 'Mouse' Tolliver, key character of the Tales of the City series, HIV positive and survivor of Guillain-Barre Syndrome is, to everyone's surprise, not least his own, pushing sixty and very much alive in the first decade of the Third Millennium.

I was a massive fan of Maupin's stories, mopping up the collections as they came out, and was surprised by this late return, especially in novel form. I need not have been. It is a triumph, the product of a master who has reached the pinnacle of his powers. One difference, of course, is that Michael is our narrator, omnipresent and the filter through which we view events. The other is the golden glow of acceptance. The misfits who pitched up at Mrs Madrigal's house in post Haight Ashbury San Francisco bonded by virtue of their outsider status. Thirty-five years later the world has moved on. Gay people and transsexuals are accepted without comment. Michael has married, for goodness sake, and the octogenarian Anna Madrigal now lives in an apartment with three other transsexuals for neighbours, including Jake, who is FTM.

Outside the Frisco enclave, however, things can be a little more awkward. Michael's mother is dying in Florida, which means Michael must visit his brother and sister-in-law who adhere to the militant wing of born again Christianity. Irwin and Lenore could easily be caricatures but Maupin is far too skilled and considerate to fall into that trap. Irwin and Lenore have their problems too - big ones it turns out.

All of life - and death - is here. All the surviving members of the Barbary Lane crowd are covered - Brian and Mary Anne and Mona, who moved to England and became an English country dyke. In its quiet, gentle and above all humane way Michael Tolliver Lives is something of a masterpiece. I'm heading back to the originals and I'm really annoyed that I can't find my copy of Maybe the Moon, which is my favourite Maupin.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

The Myth of Meritocracy - James Bloodworth

This is an essay in Biteback's Provocations series, edited by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. James Bloodworth is a journalist and political blogger. Like Alibhai-Brown, Bloodworth is of the Left, albeit a bit soft-Left for my taste. Nevertheless an unashamedly political publication lacerating the myth of right-wing reform (aka cuts) is to be wholeheartedly welcomed.

Bloodworth starts with another essay, The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) by Labour policy maker Michael Young. Like Thomas More's Utopia, Young's work is a satirical fantasy. Unfortunately those for whom he created policy were a lot less intelligent than he was. The blunt end of politics, Right and Left, adopted 'meritocracy' (Young's coinage) as their watchword. Be it Equality of Opportunity or Equal Access to Wealth, social mobility was the mantra. Yet, as Bloodworth demonstrates in blistering detail, social mobility, after sixty years of actual effort, has never been more of a chimera since the days of serfs and vassals.

What has happened to give the illusion of progress is that the traditional working class - factory workers, miners, weavers - has more or less vanished in post-industrial Britain, a decimation far worse than in other so-called developed nations thanks to a full decade of Thatcherite venom. The working population now is employed in services, retail and distribution, and there really is less of a social gulf between worker and line manager. The elephant in the room is that there is an unbridgeable gulf between the employed oiks and their ultimate paymaster. The super rich do what they have always done: they start off radical and end up ultra-conservative. Richard Branson is the perfect example - a rogue shaker of shibboleths in the Seventies, now a tax exile living on his brand and clinging on to every last penny so that his children and grandchildren will never need to sully their hands with work, risk or stress. The term 'robber baron' has a lot more reality than meritocracy.
The traditional posh, meanwhile, also do what they have always done. They suck up to the likes of Branson, flatter them as entrepreneurs, then suck all the rebellion out of them and make them 'one of us'.

The result is that, despite endless reform, far more posh youths go to Oxbridge than kids from comprehensives. Oxbridge graduates disproportionately dominate banking and parliament. That makes them very unlikely to back any meaningful attempt at tax reform or, indeed, genuine social mobility. The second sons and the thick can no longer find their traditional havens of religion and the armed forces, so they become commissioners at the BBC and Channel 4. Unsurprisingly they favour their fellow Old Etonians and Harrovians who, when all's said and done, are the only ones who can afford to study the arts since the abolition of maintenance grants.

You have probably noticed by now. I really enjoyed Bloodworth's argument, both what he says and the way he says it. He has a real gift for the catchy line. Of course, being hopelessly of the lower orders myself, I would do, wouldn't I?

Monday, 5 September 2016

Nostromo - Joseph Conrad

The deeper I got into Nostromo, the more I was reminded of Camus' The Plague. Both dissect closed societies under stress; both share a preoccupation with moral corruption. Just as The Plague isn't really about the epidemic, so Nostromo isn't really about the title character, who barely appears in the first half of the 450-page book, or even about the San Tome silver mine which infects the lives of everyone in the enclave of Costaguana.  The plague bacillus and the silver mine are merely the causative agents of their respective stories, Nostromo the symptom.

Conrad's theme - certainly the theme of Nostromo and The Heart of Darkness - is the corruption of imperialist capitalism. I suppose, in a sense, it is also the theme of The Secret Agent in so far as imperialism and capitalism are what the anarchists seek to overthrow. Conrad, it seems to me, has no problem with Western powers seeking to 'civilise' the indigenous populations of Africa and South America. Despite the notorious title of one of his novels, Conrad does not strike me as racist in the context of his time. His natives are not debased or in any way contemptible. To help them with work and education is, he seems to say, honourable. His venom is reserved for the secondary agents of change, the money-men who exploit - indeed, steal - the natural resources of the subject territories. The monster Kurtz in Heart of Darkness is the company man who goes into the wilderness to mop up all the ivory he can find, not the dying man gone native that Marlow brings back downriver. In Nostromo we have the American financier Holroyd, presented as a figure of ludicrous pomposity during his brief visit to Costaguana. It is Holroyd who bankrolls Charles Gould in asserting his rights to the silver mine - the 'Gould Concession' that killed his uncle and destroyed his father. It is Holroyd's foolish foray south that cements the reputation of Nostromo, the capataz de cargadores, who rescues him from the untamed wilderness.

Nostromo and Charles Gould are seemingly opposites - the former an Italian sailor who has pitched up by chance in Costaguana complete with assumed name, Gould the third-generation European resident, the pillar of society, heir to controversial rights. Actually they are both victims of Holroyd and his cash. With Holroyd's money behind him Gould devotes every last iota of his energy to his mine, neglecting his wife, becoming apathetic to old friends and neighbours. When revolution comes, as it regularly does in Costaguana, his only concern is preventing the soldier-politicians getting hold of his silver. Nostromo, meanwhile, finds that his fame as the preserver of Holroyd - and, indeed, at least one unseated president - has outstripped his status as capataz of the stevedores who operate the seaport of Sulaco for its other offshore exploiters, the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company. Where Charles Gould is aloof and detached, Nostromo cultivates his own myth and becomes peripherally involved with every aspect of Cosraguanan society. When the Montero revolution threatens, it is inevitably Nostromo that Charles Gould enlists to take his silver out to the OSN steamer that will take it north to Holroyd. In that single transaction both men are corrupted beyond redemption.

One last link with The Plague is the doctor. Bernard Rieux is Camus' hero but in Nostromo's Dr Monyngham the only truly honest man and thus cannot be heroic. Monyngham, the ugly outsider, who moons hopelessly over Gould's wife, knows his own worthlessness. Years ago, a young idealist, he was tortured by a previous regime and after they had starved him and crippled him told them everything they wanted to know. Monyngham is ugly and friendless and not even very good at his job - but he knows corruption when he sees it. There is a nighttime scene between the doctor and Nostromo in the commandeered offices of the ONS, with the body of another pathetic torture victim hanging in background, that has to be one of the greatest scenes in all literature.
Conrad goes to phenomenal lengths to bring us the history and topography of his fictional republic. He uses startlingly modern tricks to take us inside his world. The Monterist revolution is daringly not shown because it would detract from the Faustian pact between Gould and the capataz. Instead it recounted as the boring reminiscences given years later to foriegn visitors by the genial OSN agent Mitchell whose claim to fame is that he was the discoverer and first patron of Nostromo.

The only flaw, it has to be said, is Conrad's inability to create convincing women. There are, famously, no women in the main narrative of Heart of Darkness, only the faintly spectral fiancee of Kurtz whom Marlow visits at the end. In Nostomo there are lots of women - Mrs Gould, the first lady of Sulaco; Antonia, the beautiful daughter of the great Costaguanan democrat and historian; the wife and daughters of Georgio Viola, the former follower of Garibaldi. Sadly none of them leap off the page. Their role is to succour and suffer.

Nonetheless, Nostromo remains a masterpiece.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Masters of Terror Volume 1 - William Hope Hodgson

It's interesting that Corgi chose Hodgson for the first in its Masters of Terror series back in 1977. He was out of copyright by then, of course, and one cannot be a paperback master when they still have to pay royalties. Interest in Hodgson had revived earlier in the decade when one of his Carnacki stories was dramatised in Hugh Greene's TV series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, but I suspect it was the reappraisal of H P Lovecraft that was going on at the same period which led to this publication, because it was Lovecraft who first described Hodgson as a master.

The introduction is by Peter Tremayne, who can always be counted on to do his homework. OK, he is slightly wrong about the dates of Hodgson's apprenticeship at sea - but I only discovered the real dates thanks to being able to view the actual documents online. Tremayne has seen publications which I haven't but will do now.
He discusses the seven stories and the reasons for their inclusion in short but effective order. 'A Tropical Horror' from 1904 was Hodgson's second published story and his first in the genre he was to make exclusively his own - sea-horror. 'The Voice in the Night' is another such, as is 'The Mystery of the Derelict', which Tremayne considers a classic. The fourth story - 'The Terror of the Water-Tank' - is here because it is one of Hodgson's rare attempts at land-based horror. I'm afraid I found it trivial.
The narrator of 'The Finding of the Graiken', one of Hodgson's Sargasso Mythos stories, was too like the narrator of 'The Terror of the Water-Tank' to hold my attention - a middleclass lightweight who does not personally confront the horror. In that respect Hodgson's most effective form was one he hit upon almost from the start: get the hero to spot the horror in the first few paragraphs, then have him confront it face to face (always supposing the horror has a face) and survive to tell us the tale. That is why, in my opinion, 'The Stone Ship' is my favourite in this collection. I had not come across it before - hadn't even heard of it - but it is classic Hodgson: a young hand spots a mysterious wreck, a search party goes aboard and confronts a truly ghastly horror which is revealed in a spectacularly gruesome manner.
The final story, clumsily called 'The Derelict' and thus easily confused with the earlier story, is included because it combines the sea-horror of Hodgson's early period with the science-fiction otherworldly horror of his masterpiece novel The House on the Borderland and the last, still controversial epic The Night Land.

All in all, then, a great introduction to the signature work of an undervalued writer with a useful and authoritative introduction to point you in the right direction for further exploration.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Fall of Troy - Peter Ackroyd

This is a typical Ackroyd confection - a novel that looks and sounds like fictionalised history but actually isn't. You begin by wondering why what is obviously Heinrich Schliemann is called Obermann. Schliemann's young Greek bride was called Sophia, as is Obermann's, albeit the former was Engastromenos whilst the latter is Chrysanthis. Obermann's backstory is the same as Schliemann's - dubious mercantile activities in Russia; a Russian wife. And, obviously, Obermann has excavated the ruins of Hissarlik and is convinced beyond the slightest doubt that he has found the city as described by Homer.

Obermann is physically very different from Schliemann. The real discover of Troy was small and weasel-faced. Obermann is big and athletic, his physical presence as powerful as his belief in Homer's historical accuracy. Schliemann divorced his Russian wife, but one of the key twists of the novel is what Obermann did with his. The big difference, though, is that Schliemann was the discoverer of Troy whereas Obermann's story is specifically the Fall of Troy. The challenges to Obermann's preconceived mental map of Troy and the Trojans spurs him to extreme reactions. As the discrepancies increase they tip Obermann over the edge into primitive, primal behaviour - the sort of behaviour that the evidence suggests the real Trojans indulged in - and thus the book becomes the Fall of Obermann, brought down by Troy.

By changing the names Ackroyd gives himself licence to elaborate on the facts and shape them to suit his story. The challengers to Obermann - the American scholar William Brand and Alexander Thornton of the British Museum - are treated as physical threats, threats to his masculinity. Obermann meets them on terms, but in the end the force of reason wins out.
The Fall of Troy is therefore a book about scholarship, about the manipulation of history, about the idea of hero. What makes it special, the best of Ackroyd's recent novels, is that he uses his themes to enhance and illuminate his characters. Sophia, for example, is the most compelling of Ackroyd's female characters that I have come across. It is she, rather than Obermann, who has stayed in my mind. This is fiction of the highest quality.

I have always been interested in Troy. The Lost Treasures of Troy by Caroline Moorhead (1994) is my favourite non-fiction account of Schleimann's great project.
It is twenty years since I read it, so I won't review it here. Nevertheless I recommend it unreservedly. A quick internet search suggests it may now be called Lost and Found. Such are the perils of a title.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Psalm Killer - Chris Petit

It's surprising, when you think about it -that the thirty-year 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland haven't spawned their own genre. I mean, the premise has everything - ancient blood feuds, dark deeds in ordinary streets, corruption and double-dealing on a truly epic scale. Perhaps it is still too soon. Perhaps so little of the truth is out there in the public domain that building a fiction on what little we do know seems like a hostage to fortune.
None of this, clearly, deterred Chris Petit, film maker (e.g. the cult Radio On) and occasional crime novelist. Psalm Killer came out in 1996, a year before the Northern Ireland Agreement, and is set mainly a decade earlier with flashbacks to ten years before that. It therefore covers most of the period.

The protagonist is Inspector Cross of the RUC, an Englishman married into the Ulster squirearchy. Petit thus deals with the key obstacle in writing about the Troubles - which side is right and who is the good guy. Cross is an outsider, even to the RUC. His marriage is failing and he has always been a disappointment to the in-laws. He has no real opinions about the situation.  He checks under his car for bombs every morning before leaving for the office. He investigates murders.

Our antagonist, the titular Psalm Killer, is also English, an emotionally crippled soldier who volunteered to serve deep undercover in Northern Ireland. Known only by his codename Candlestick, he first infiltrates the loyalist paramilitaries, then switches to the Republicans. He disappears, ostensibly killed, only to surface again in the mid-Eighties. Unlike Cross, Candlestick does have opinions. He is apparently killing people to draw attention to his beliefs.

This brings us to Petit's central theme, which is the corruption, institutional, moral, political, that kept the Troubles going so long that by 1995 peace seemed to be in nobody's interest. Petit has done tons of research - he provides a long bibliography with useful pointers to what the main sources discuss - and he deploys his discoveries by showing rather than telling. The problem, though, is that to show so much corruption in all its multifaceted glory requires a book of considerable length. At 635 pages in paperback, The Psalm Killer is simply too long, the story so complex that by the time of the final twist - which is a good one - I could no longer remember who the surprise person was.

So, Psalm Killer has its flaws, but there is so much quality here, so much information that no one else has revealed so effectively, that it is well worth seeking out. Petit writes well. He takes the trouble to give his characters back stories and Achilles' heels that go beyond the norm. It is a fine example of a genre that should exist but doesn't. In that sense it not only defines the genre, you could say it is the genre.

I am keen to read more. Robinson, Petit's first novel from 1993, sounds like my cup of tea,

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Blood on Snow - Jo Nesbo

Given that Midnight Sun is billed as Blood On Snow 2, it comes as no suprise that Blood On Snow itself is the precursor of Midnight Sun - the reason Olav runs away to the deep north. The set up is ingenious, worthy of James M Cain. Olav, whose only talent is as a fixer, is ordered by his gangster boss to kill the boss's much younger wife. Olav, of course, falls for the wife, which means doing a deal with his boss's rival, the Fisherman (who ultimately pursues him to the deep north in Part 2). The twists are obvious in hindsight, but Nesbo's great gift is the ability to slide them past you, unnoticed, as you read. Olav is a much more interesting character here than in Midnight Sun - a psychopath whose heart is in the right place. It sounds bizarre but it works.

Again, a very slim volume in which irrelevant detail is pared to the bone.  I liked it better than Midnight Sun. It is not a patch on Headhunters and inferior to perhaps half the Harry Hole Oslo series.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

A Ring of Roses - John Blackburn

I am a massive fan of Blackburn (the author, not the town and certainly not the football team). He seems to be largely forgotten today, though I gather Valancourt have recently begun reissuing his books. In his day Blackburn was massive, and his day really was the 1960s. His world is one of rapid technical advances, generational change and the Cold War. A Ring of Roses is one such, from 1965.

No prizes for getting the reference in the title. The plague resurfaces in Berlin and the opposing superpowers have to come together to prevent a pandemic. What makes the story quintessentially Blackburn is that this is the genuine medieval plague unearthed by chance and genetically manipulated to make it resistant to the obvious cures like penicillin.

Regulars Blackburn characters reappear - General Kirk with his torn hand and Sir Marcus Levin, concentration camp survivor turned super scientist. There is dark humour - the plague-spreaders are hidden behind the names of characters from the more macabre stories of the Brothers Grimm (Iron Hans and Clever Gretel) - and whilst we are encouraged to think that a former Nazi scientist is behind the outbreak, it turns out not to be quite so simple. We get flashes of the Cold War blame game and the revelation that in 1965 a custom-built Ferrari came in just under £7000. Less of a surprise is that the British Press was as ghastly and underhand then as it is today.

John Blackburn writes thrillers with a twist. No one in his day wrote them better and I can't offhand think of anyone today. He writes simply and with pace. This Penguin greenback is 158 pages and packs in more story than contemporary thrillers dragged out to twice the length.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Down and Out in Paris and London - George Orwell

Down and Out is the direct precursor to The Road to Wigan Pier, previously reviewed on this blog. It is nowhere near as effective, partly because half of it doesn't ring true.

Originally it was more an essay than a book and dealt only with Orwell's time as a dish-washer in Paris in the late 1920s. Before Orwell could find an English publisher he had to pad it out with the English element. British publishing, even more then than now, was London-based and London-focused, so whilst most of the tramp material takes place around rural England, Orwell clearly had to squeeze in enough London sequences to keep the interest of the Metropolitans. The fatuous framing device he used to achieve this - popping in to touch a London friend for a couple of pounds every so often - is what convinces me that Orwell was never in fact a tramp but fictionalised his research.

That research was clearly considerable and can be considered generally reliable. There is a further clue when he states that a particular workhouse casual ward was deplorable but was much improved when he visited it subsequently. No - this reads to me like Orwell was told it was rough by one of the tramps he interviewed and when he went to see it (as an investigative journalist rather than a casual) he found it was not so bad after all. Again, Chapter XXXII - notes on London slang - this is surely 'notes I made while talking to tramps on the Embankment' - isn't it?

The first half, the French half, has narrative because real life has narrative. We can be sure that Orwell lived it, more or less as described. The second half, the English material, has no such narrative. It is hard to fix on a time period or even a season when it is supposed to have happened. As reportage, it doesn't convince me. I think the clincher is that it was for Down and Out in London and Paris that Eric Blair decided to publish under a pseudonym. Why? Because he was ashamed of his artifice and knew his friends would ask questions to which there were no honest answers.

Nevertheless, the book is pretty good fun, enlivened throughout by vivid characters like Boris the aspirant head waiter in Paris and Bozo the London pavement artist. You've really got to hope they weren't made up too.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Noonday - Pat Barker

Noonday is the concluding part of Barker's second wartime trilogy (unlike the Regeneration Trilogy, it doesn't seem to have a name), which interestingly carries the characters forward from WWI to WW2, specifically 1940 and the London Blitz.

I have said before, in my review of Toby's Room, that this trilogy is not as good as Regeneration, albeit the premise is much the same - artists at war are subjected to pioneering medical treatments. The difference is that Regeneration is about poets, many of whom we have heard of, having their traumatised souls put back together in a North Country sanatorium; this second sequence is about painters and plastic surgery and is set primarily in bohemian London, which makes it all a bit precious. Another shortcoming is that the characters are not real people but heavily and obviously based on real people, which is distracting for those of us who can guess. And, unfortunately, the central character in the latter is a woman, Elinor. In Toby's Room, therefore, credibility is stretched to get her into the hospital where Kit Neville is having his face restored.The truth is, society women played virtually no meaningful role in WWI. Some indeed did a bit of nursing but mostly it was just good works and posturing. Things were different in WWII and that makes Noonday a much better book than Toby's Room. Elinor, her husband Paul, and the disfigured Kit Neville are all actively engaged on the Home Front, Paul an ARP warden, Elinor and Kit both driving ambulances. They are all now in their Forties, facing the same middleaged crises we all face, only heightened by the very real prospect of being blown to smithereens at any moment.

Barker is a fantastic writer and there are moments of great beauty here. There is a moment towards the end when Kit and Elinor wave to one another across a firestorm which is truly heartbreaking. I also really enjoyed the skewering of Kenneth Clark, long before his Civilisation fame, recruiting war artists from his personal coterie and chasing after young girls.

[Also reviewed on this blog]