Monday, 18 December 2017

Siddhartha - Herman Hesse

I may have mentioned before that I am not religious. Religion has no attraction for me although I am interested in the narrative aspects. In any event, it is not reasonable to shun a novel by an undoubted master just because it happens to be about religion.

I clearly am no expert on Buddhism. I had long thought that Siddhartha the 1922 novel was about the Buddha himself. This is not foolishness on my part - Siddhartha Gotama is one of the generally accepted forms of the Buddha's given names - it is novelistic guile on the part of Hesse. His Siddhartha is not a prince like Gotama but a Brahmin, a hereditary Hindu priest. As an adolescent he becomes dissatisfied with organised religion and joins a band of wandering samana (searchers for truth) with his best friend Govinda. After a few years of fasting and begging Siddhartha and Govinda hear about the Enlightened One, Gotama. They visit him and hear him teach. Govinda is converted to Buddhism but Siddhartha, being a conceited young man, feels the Buddha's teaching is not enough. He does not doubt that Buddha is enlightened, but that teaching - even from Buddha's own lips - is not the path to enlightenment. For Siddhartha, each person must find their own path.

From the very start of what is only a hundred-page novella, you sense that Hesse, verging on middle age, is searching for his own take on the meaning of life. The questions and misgivings that Siddhartha explores are the author's own.

I somehow doubt that Hesse ever ended up in the bed of the most famous courtesan in India but Siddhartha does. To win her affection he becomes a merchant and a gambler. He tries to conduct his affairs in a righteous manner but after twenty years or more realises it cannot be done. He abandons his pregnant lover Kamala to resume his search for enlightenment. He meets Govinda, now a Buddhist monk. He meets again the ferryman Vasudeva, who took him across the river to Sansara all those years ago. Through Vasudeva, he eventually finds the clue to enlightenment, which is the subjugation or eradication of the self in order to achieve oneness with everything else. The ending, when his oldest friend Govinda sees all this through Siddhartha's smile, is profoundly beautiful.

I still have no interest in religion but my interest in Hesse is revived and I really must tackle the late, philosophical-cum-transcendental novels that won him the Nobel Prize in 1946.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Tyger - Adrian Mitchell

Tyger is a celebration of William Blake written for the National Theatre in 1971. Note that word 'celebration'. In no sense is this a play but it is theatrical and it certainly is celebratory. Mitchell is still mired in that period of reverential obscurity that follows death. He is not thought good or bad because he is not thought about at all. Mitchell was such a poet of his time - the Sixties - that one wonders what the next generation will make of him. Those of us who remember the era (OK, the Seventies was more my era but I knew who Mitchell was long before I read the original reviews of Tyger) will recognise it here, with the added bonus of hefty slices of Blake's lesser known poetry.

The problem with the text is that this was very much a musical, with tunes by Mitchell's regular collaborator, the jazz musician Mike Westbrook. Much of the dialogue and the vast majority of the poetry was intended to be sung. Without the tunes, what can we make of the words? In truth, not a lot.

The style is Ubuesque. Blake starts attacking the establishment and ends up being exiled to the moon where he starts to build his New Jerusalem. Inbetween there are some very funny spy interludes and a hilarious turn by Mad King George the Fifty. There is also a toe-curlingly awful sketch in which great poets of the past and present salute Blake's achievement in comic verse. It's a rag-bag but one which is constantly inventive, persistently off-beam and thoroughly subversive, much like its hero. A monument to its day, which I don't see being revived anytime soon.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Istanbul Passage - Joseph Kanon

Joseph Kanon is like Alan Furst, one of the US writers of grown-up wartime espionage novels. I like them greatly but they don't seem to do so well in the UK market. They definitely deserve to be better known. Perhaps the problem is that they are so similar in style in subject. Perhaps together they achieve bestseller status on this side of the Atlantic.

It will surprise no one to learn that this, Kanon's sixth novel (the immediate precursor to Leaving Berlin, which I reviewed here) is set in Istanbul. It is 1945 and loyalties are in a state of flux. Russia, so recently a US ally, is now the enemy, more so than Germany at any rate. Turkey is seeking a relationship with both superpowers, the surviving Jews are trying to get to Palestine, and the Balkans are by and large up for grabs. Some Balkan states sided with the Nazis, others opposed. Romania tried to out-Nazi the Nazis, the only occupied country to set up its own concentration camps. It is a Romanian Nazi, Alexei, who is passing through Istanbul on his way to the US.

Leon Bauer, a US tobacco executive who dabbles in espionage, is given the job of picking Alexei up and passing him up the line. The pick up is by the Bosporus, late at night. Someone attacks. Leon shoots back - and kills the guy who told him to collect Alexei. This is a great start to a novel. What happens now? Well for starters Leon is put in charge of the investigation. At the reception after the funeral he meets an embassy wife (the embassy being in the capital, Ankara, not Istanbul which only has a consulate) and the begin a guilty affair.

Leon's wife, Anna, is in a nursing home. She has not communicated or reacted since a boatload of her fellow Jews which she had arranged was sunk. Leon's friend Mihai, who was with him at the pick up, is a Romanian Jew, the last person on earth willing to help him get Alexei out of the country.
This is how spy novels should be - deal and counter-deal, shifting priorities, nuanced compromises. There is action but not too much. Yet Kanon can keep our attention for four hundred pages by just piling the pressure onto Leon. The final twist is excellent, the setting - Galata Bridge, joining Europe and Asia - just brilliant. Nothing is as it seems. Everybody is betraying somebody.

Kanon's style takes some getting used to - short, ungrammatical sentences - and it works best in the high-tension passages. One section, a party in the residence of the former harem girl Lily, goes on far too long. It's an important passage, even crucial, but Kanon really needed to divide it up. How long does he think the reader is going to read in one go? I tend to read in half-hour bursts. Three sessions to read one episode (he doesn't do chapters) is frankly two too many. These are minor quibbles though. The characterisation is very good, the plot brilliant, and the research - as ever - faultless.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Even Dogs in the Wild - Ian Rankin

This is the third Rebus and Fox story. I reviewed the first, Standing in Another Man's Grave, a year or so ago and have evidently missed the second, Saints of the Shadow Bible. No matter: Rankin is always able to make his novels sufficient in themselves as well as part of a series.

Rebus is retired and Fox has left Complaints. Somebody is going around murdering people with no apparent connection - Senior Scottish lawyer and peer Lord Minton, a lottery winner up north and Big Ger Cafferty, Edinburgh's gangster emeritus. Actually, the killer takes a pot shot at Cafferty and misses. The cases are linked because each has been given warning, a note shoved their letterbox declaring I'M GOING TO KILL YOU FOR WHAT YOU DID.

Meanwhile a gang of Glasgow thugs are in town looking for a purloined shipment of drugs. A squad of Glasgow cops follows, to which Fox is attached for want of anything better for him to do. Rebus, meanwhile, is the only person Cafferty is willing to talk to. Things develop. The link is obvious from quite early on, sadly predictable and the subject of more or less every contemporary British crime novel nowadays. But what matters here is how the story is unravelled and the strength of the characters.

Which is where the problem lies. Malcolm Fox, no matter how fond of him Rankin has become, no matter how much story he tries to load onto his shoulders, is far too dull to keep pace with Rebus. Any section with him in is instantly forgettable. Rankin is aware of this and relegates him to the gangster subplot. It is Fox who is placed in jeopardy. Unfortunately I was rather hoping it would prove fatal.

Rankin is a great crime novelist. The noir-tinged Scottish procedural is his baby and nobody does it better. But it has become slightly old fashioned. The taste now is for full noir. And he has let his characters grow old, which means their continued involvement in crime is always going to stretch credulity. By incorporating Fox he has diluted the mix. There are so many senior coppers involved here that I lost track. I enjoyed it, but was not blown away. Still, it won't stop me reading the next instalment or seeking out Saints of the Shadow Bible, which, if nothing else, has a much better title.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Angelica Lost and Found - Russell Hoban

Published in 2010, Angelica Lost and Found was Hoban's last book. He died the following year. His powers clearly were undiminished to the end. Angelica bristles with ideas, invention, and joie de vivre.

For those who have not encountered Hoban before, the concept takes some swallowing. Here goes---
Volatore the hippogriff (offspring of a griffin and a mare) has escaped from Girolami da Carpi's painting of a scene from Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, specifically the scene from Canto IV in which Ruggiero, aboard the hippogriff, rescues the naked Angelica from the sea monster Orca. So far, so straightforward, yes? Hoban's Volatore has been enthused by the idea of a naked Angelica, so he sets out to find his own, in post-Millennium San Fransisco. As you do. The Angelica he finds is the gallerist daughter of two painters. She likes the idea of an amorous hippogriff and they have sex. They then become separated. And it is Angelica who embarks on a quest to find Volatore.

She finds a number of men who smell like Volatore, some of whom even call themselves Volatore, but none of them actually are Volatore the hippogriff. There is the painter who can't remember painting the painting of tiny elephants and the Hollywood hairstylist who buys it and then chucks it into the bay where Angelica and her psychiatrist lover fish it out. Meanwhile Angelica adopts a cat and Volatore enters a Russian man's penis.

All this in 71 chapters over 237 big print pages.

I think this is one for specialist tastes. I loved it.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Ancient Images - Ramsey Campbell

Given my long fascination with horror fiction it seems remarkable that Ancient Images (1989) is the first Ramsey Campbell novel I have read.

Campbell has been writing since childhood and thus is very unlikely to make mistakes with construction or deployment of plot. In this book, at least, story is absolutely everything. Ostensibly it is about a suppressed British quota quickie movie from 1938 starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Sandy's friend Graham, a researcher in forgotten films, has managed to track down a copy but before he can show it he 'jumps' off the top of a block of flats. The film itself has been stolen. Sandy, a TV film editor, sets off in pursuit.

Her quest takes her into Wicker Man territory where she tracks down some truly ancient images which seem to be mirrored in the film, and some very ancient versions of those who had repressed it. To say more would be to give the game away.

Campbell wisely sets all the events of the past within a very contemporary picture of England at the time he wrote it. The Right Wing Press and TV is full of stories about Enoch's Army, a tribe of New Age travellers, who Sandy comes into contact with several times. They, of course, hark back to a way of life in the deep past from which the 'ancient images' stem.

Campbell manages to keep the action moving, the tension building. Until the climax everything supernatural is half-glimpsed, and when the climax comes it is allowed to unfold at exactly the right pace for me. The characters are well-drawn. It is a masterstroke to have a female protagonist who can be intimidated in very different ways to the men who preceded her on the quest. Sandy is exceptionally well-drawn. The places she visits are all made distinct and - those I know - realistic. The idea of the film, Tower of Fear, is wickedly reminiscent of all those horrible clunkers Karloff and Lugosi churned out in their declining years - right down to ghastly music hall comic relief.

I was entertained and impressed. Ancient Images certainly won't be my last foray into the world of Ramsey Campbell.

Friday, 17 November 2017

The Girl From Venice - Martin Cruz Smith

The Girl From Venice is Cruz Smith's latest, the successor to Tatiana, which I recently reviewed here. It is a very different kettle of fish (excuse pun - it's about a fisherman). Set during the strange period between the Allied invasion of Italy and the Nazi departure. Venice, scrupulously unbombd by either side, delineates the boundary between.

Cenzo is the middle of three brothers, a fisherman from one of the poorer islands in the lagoon where fishermen live. His older brother Giorgio is a movie star, a Mussolini favourite, the so-called Lion of Tripoli. Younger brother Hugo was drowned during what may have been the only airborne attack on Venice. One might Cenzo fishes a young girl out of the water. He thinks she is dead but she's not. She is Guilia, daughter of Jewish academics. The Nazis are searching everywhere because she holds a secret.

Cenzo eventually arranges for her to be smuggled to safety. This is where the book loses momentum. Cenzo is too determinedly ordinary to be our hero. He only comes alive when Guilia is around. Fortunately he finds her again for what is to all intents and purposes Act Three, but it has to be said Act Two is a bit of a slog, albeit the flamboyant Giorgio livens it up from time to time. The ending is good and I enjoyed reading about Mussolino's bolt hole in the wonderfully named Salo. I'm assuming this is historic fact because Cruz Smith is so damned good at research. He writes pretty well too. He has decided to soak this story in fisherman lore and tweaks his prose accordingly, successfully. Events rapidly become myths - superstitions are made into plot points.

Overall then, an enjoyable read, sufficiently off-beat to hold our attention when poor old Cenzo doesn't quite manage to.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Savages - Don Winslow

Savages (2010) comes between The Power of the Dog and The Cartel. It is connected in so far as it is set against the cartel wars in Mexico which are the subject matter of the two linked novels. Some of the key characters in those get a mention in this. Otherwise Savages is very different. The Power of the Dog and The Cartel are like James Ellroy on good cocaine rather than bad speed. Savages has flavours of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen and the texture of George V Higgins stripped down.
What? you wonder. Can you get more stripped down than George V? Winslow can. As The Donald might say, Bigly.

As an indication, we have 290 chapters in 302 pages. Some lines are so fragmentary they don't have full stops. Sometimes Winslow takes the time to explain the etymology of some of his acronyms. Ophelia's mom, for example, is Pacu - Passive Aggressive Queen of the Universe. Others you are left to work out for yourself. Some passages are presented as movie script - a fun inside joke once you realise that Oliver Stone had bought the movie rights before Savages was even published. I have mentioned the Stone movie before. It's his best in twenty years and well worth a watch. But it's not as good as the novel.

Ben and Chon grow dope in South Orange County, the best dope on the market. Ben is a third world activist, Chon an ex-SEAL who has served in all the nastiest theatres of post-millennium war. Ben and Chon are best buds from childhood. They are both in love with Ophelia, who calls herself simply O. O loves them both equally.

But then the Baja Cartel seeks to muscle in on their action. Ben and Chon say no. They are happy to walk away and leave the Baja Cartel to it, but the Cartel says no. They want to market Ben's genetically modified blow. They want the boys' market, they want their people. And to make their point, they kidnap O and threaten to dismember her with a chainsaw.

Which is when things get really nasty...

The pace is relentless, the action bloody. Yet Winslow's gift is to stay perfectly balanced on the thin line between violence and schlock. Even the worst of the bad guys have backstory, people they love. The characterisation is rich and varied. It is, in short, a masterpiece.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

John Aubrey: My Own Life - Ruth Scurr

What Ruth Scurr has done here is create a biographical collage from the voluminous papers of the Seventeenth Century antiquarian, best known today for his Brief Lives. For those who only know Aubrey through the brilliant one-man play, also called Brief Lives, created by Patrick Garland for Roy Dotrice, the result is very different, not at all funny and in fact indescribably sad.

Aubrey was a Wiltshire gentlemen, educated at Oxford before and during the Civil Wars. He became addicted to collecting information - I'm quite sure it was an obsessive compulsion for him. He lost his home, his moderate fortune, and his chances of matrimony, all for the sake of piling up topographical, biographical, astrological and historical 'facts'. In his personal papers he goes on and on about the need to get his work published, but those of us with similar problems will recognise early on that he will never compromise the compilation process in order to secure a hard-copy legacy. In fact his only publication, printed just before his death at the age of seventy-one, was little more than a scrapbook of trash and leftovers. He had entrusted everything else to fellow antiquarians who ripped him off for their own work without ever giving him credit.

Aubrey did in fact achieve things of lasting significance. He is the first to relate Avebury to Stonehenge (albeit William Stukeley hijacked his research and passed it off as his own). If we want to know about significant figures of the Commonwealth period - written out of his history by the Monarchists - Aubrey is often the only source.

Scurr has achieved a brilliant book. Her rare and subtle interpolations (all flagged up as "On this day" and used to provide a general context for what Aubrey was writing at a particular time) merge seamlessly. She has modernised Aubrey's prose without losing any meaning, simply to allow him to speak to us directly. Hugely impressive but, like I say, very sad.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

In the Cold Dark Ground - Stuart MacBride

I think I must have missed a couple of instalments in the Logan McRae saga. I knew that Logan had given up the big city (Aberdeen) in favour of a rural posting (Banff) back in uniform. I knew he had taken up with the Goth beauty Samantha and that he had been the surrogate father for at least one of DCI Steel's children. But I didn't know that Samantha was in a vegetative coma following an attempt on Logan's life or that the urbane gangland fixer John Urquart had bought his old flat for a ridiculously overblown price - that is to say criminally, comproimisingly inflated.

In the Cold Dark Grave is Logan's tenth outing. His search for a missing person leads to a naked male body in the woods. His head is covered with plastic and his body has been bleached to remove any forensic traces.These are the signature stylings of Malcolm McLennan, "Malk the Knife", gangland supremo of Edinburgh. The dead man turns out to be a partner in a shipping business with apparent links to McLennan. The other partner is missing - but turns up safe and sound back home. Meanwhile the police inquiry, now headed up by Steel's MIT unit, discover the dead man's collection of graphic homemade porn. Turns out his partner was a partner in every sense...

Logan has to cram in a lot of funerals over the coming weekend. First he has to pull the plug on Samantha as the palliative care team at her nursing home have given up hope. At the same time he is called to the deathbed of the Aberdeen kingpin Wee Hamish Mowatt, who has always been oddly fond of Logan and who now wants him to take over his empire. The other contender, the ultra-thug Reuben Kennedy, begs to differ. To top it all off another angry female officer, Superintendent Niamh Harper, takes charge. She seems to have taken against Logan for no reason. But there is a reason - and it's a good one.

MacBride is on top form. Some of the wisecracks are laugh out loud funny, the action dark and bloody, and the plot, despite its complexity, remains somehow credible throughout. The crime is always just an inciting incident in the McRae novels, but here it remains logical and brilliantly deployed. I didn't guess who did it or who the mole on the police team was, but the clues were all there. I say it again, Brilliant.

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Shakespeare Conspiracy - Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman

I'm a sucker for the who-really-wrote-Shakespeare genre. Let's get it straight, though - I don't for one moment that Shakespeare of Stratford was largely responsible for most of the plays that appeared under his name in 1623. He probably wrote most of Titus Andronicus and nothing of Comedy of Errors. For the late great plays - say, 1600 to 1610 - he wrote the vast majority but never all of the texts, which is why they are the best plays. He wrote very little of The Tempest or Timon of Athens or indeed Taming of the Shrew, which are mostly by John Fletcher. The so-called witty dialogue (or, as I prefer to think of it, space filler) in trash like Much Ado, As You Like It, is Thomas Middleton, and Middleton also wrote the witchy stuff in Macbeth. It is simply not possible for him to have written 37 plays in blank verse in a career of barely twenty years. Try it and see. Nor was it required. Stage plays were a team effort in Jacobeathan times, just as TV series are now. Shakespeare in his prime was team leader. He came up with the core plot, wrote the big speeches, and had final cut on the contributions of those lower down the food chain. The only bits he couldn't control were the clown bits (Will Kemp and Robert Armin), which is why they are so toe-curlingly bad. The reason nobody in Stratford seemed to notice he was a playwright is that they didn't know and didn't care; there was no theatre locally, and so far as the neighbours knew he was a prosperous merchant with a big house and two daughters likely to come with decent dowries. It is simply not true that we know more about other playwrights of the period. We know more about Marlowe because he was a spy, a student and he was murdered. He was also, in my opinion, a much more original writer who invented the form (Shakespeare was a better man of the theatre). Try, for example, to trace the life of Shakespeare's collaborator Fletcher, or Fletcher's collaborator Beaumont, or the omnipresent Middleton. All of them had longer careers than Shakespeare. All had the occasional hit. All effectively vanished without trace. Nor is it a credible argument that Oxford or Bacon wrote the plays under pseudonyms. There was absolutely no reason to - Queen Elizabeth and King James both loved the theatre and any aspiring favourite could win big kudos by being theatrical, hence so many patronised acting companies. Bacon was a decent writer of factual prose, Oxford's surviving fragments are amateurish in the extreme.

Having got that off my chest, what of The Shakespeare Conspiracy? Well, Phillips and Keatman get my attention because they accept that the merchant of Stratford wrote the plays. They tackle the other question, why is so little known? They conclude it's because he was a spy. Well, Marlowe certainly was, Jonson might have been (personally I think he just grassed up his peers) and Anthony Munday, a playwright of almost zero merit, probably was. To support their theory they revert to the game of literary clues. Ingeniously they take the frontispiece of the Sonnets and the mysterious Mr WH. How is WH the 'onlie begetter' of poems that the title credits to Shakespeare? They spot that there are superfluous full stops everywhere. Take one out and you get Mr W Hall, who they have traced in the records of the spymasters. Was this Shakespeare's alias when working undercover? They say yes, obviously, ignoring the quibble that everyone Hall was associated with in the archives did not use an alias. They then go on to try and link Shakespeare with the Gunpowder Plot, which is silly but no more so than the Bacon or Oxford theories. They argue that Shakespeare ended up related by marriage to several of the plotters - an argument so complex that I couldn't make head nor tail of it.

Great fun. The best of its type that I have come across lately. To be read for sheer amusement and to learn more about conspiracy than  about Shakespeare the man.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Tatiana - Martin Cruz Smith

Like everybody else, I read Gorky Park when it came out thirty-plus years ago. I later read Stallion Gate, which I loved. I wanted to read Rose but never came across a copy. And now here is Tatiana from 2013 and Arkady Renko, hero of Gorky Park, is still going strong.

He's had a tough time in the intervening thirty years. For one thing, time runs differently for him and he is only perhaps a dozen years older than he was in Gorky Park. He has a bullet rattling round his skull and an adopted sort-of son. He may have had DS Victor Orlov as a sidekick in the old days; if so, I don't remember. Orlov is the cop other writers would have made their protagonist - dark, drunken, violent, but rock solid on the side of the angels. Cruz chose Renko, the outsider, the man of principle, who could have risen to the top of the tree if only he had been prepared to play dirty.

Russia, of course, has changed completely since the Eighties. For one thing it's Russia instead of the USSR. Those who would once have risen to power through the Party, now rise through gangsterism. Mob bosses are billionaires. Honest cops and investigative journalists, however, remain the enemies of the state.

Tatiana is an investigative journalist. She has jumped to her death from her rundown apartment. Renko doesn't believe it. It is not his case. He is supposed to covering up whoever it was shot billionaire hoodlum Grisha Grigorenko. Tatiana and the late Grigorenko lead him to Kaliningrad, the capital of organised crime, where he also commits to solving the murder of a high-price interpreter by a man driving a butcher's van with a happy plastic pig on top.

It's the story details that make Cruz Smith's novels stand out from the rest. Here, amongst many others, we have the Ferrari of sports bikes, chess hustling, the interpreter's personal shorthand system. Some of the characters are more interesting than others. You've just got to love a capo di capo called Ape Beledon. Most important of all is the authorial control. He has a lot of material - he is determined to explore the psyche of his hero and, to a lesser extent, those close to his hero - but he never forgets that this is a thriller. It's purpose is to excite the reader. Which it certainly does. Pure reading pleasure.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Typhoon - Charles Cumming

Typhoon is the fourth of Cumming's post Cold War spy novels. It comes straight after The Spanish Game, which I reviewed earlier this year and was greatly impressed by. It shares some of the same elements - revolutionary terrorism in a forlorn corner of an apathetic nation - but here the nation is China and the minority the Uighurs of Xinjiang province. I have to be honest, I had never heard of the Uighurs, and in a way I guess that's Cumming's point. I also have to admit, I did not love Typhoon.

It's not the theme, setting or essential plot that bothers me - it is certainly not the writing which is as good as Cumming always is - it's the structure. Cumming has chosen two major events of China's emergence into the free market world, the hand-back of Hong Kong in 1997 and the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and decided to link them. The narrative is thus in two halves. This is not in itself a problem. The problem is that nothing thrilling happens in 1997 except the domestic difficulties of spy life, and the first half is therefore far too long. Others might have tried for the same effect through flashback but I don't believe it would have worked any better - probably worse. The problem is there is far too much backstory and it's just not interesting enough. The second half, on the other hand, is almost entirely brilliant, the plot racing along nicely. The end, I'm afraid, is a bit of a dud, sadly underwritten. Cumming cuts away from the action too soon. He has already given the game away in fact, in an irritating prologue involving an even more irritating occasional narrator, a writer called Will. Will serves no purpose whatsoever as he is not present at 99% of the action. The only purpose he does serve is, as I indicated a few sentences ago, he strips the narrative of jeopardy. We know from the start that the hero, the good honest spy Joe Lennox, survives whatever is coming later.

Reading Typhoon, I was constantly reminded of Le Carre's The Perfect Spy, which I have been reading sporadically for well over a year and just cannot come to terms with. One the one hand I hate it for its endlessly looping narrative and lack of narrative drive, on the other I have to admire the sheer skill that has gone into writing it. Being compared with Le Carre is no bad thing. Maybe Typhoon is Cumming's Perfect Spy, not the most enjoyable of his output but an essential landmark in the development of a great writer.

Monday, 23 October 2017

A Hero in France - Alan Furst

I've said it before, I'll say it again: Alan Furst just gets better and better. A Hero in France came out in 2016. It's the usual territory - World War II, Europe, spies and agents - distilled down to the consistency of a fine cognac. It's the shortest of Furst's novels, just over 200 pages, with all extraneous matter chiselled away so that every word not only counts, it resonates.

It's early 1941 and Britain, France's only ally, is losing the war. 'Mathieu' - his cover name or, more appropriately, his nomme de guerre - has set up one of many independent resistance cells smuggling crashed airmen out of France and allied agents in. But the net is tightening. Berlin has tired of the French security service's attempts to crack down on resistance and is thinking of sending in the Gestapo. Before they do, however, they send Berlin's top cop, Otto Broehm, to coordinate attempts to break down the Parisian cells. He recruits an undercover agent, the Serbian criminal Kusar, to infiltrate Mathieu's group.

As always with Furst, the setting is impeccable, utterly convincing. You feel confident that he knows these streets, has visited these bars and cafes, has ridden these trains. His characters are mostly pseudonymous yet they all have back stories, the full range of emotions, hopes and fears. They interact. They have the sort of relationships that feel completely right in wartime. Indeed, I could have done without the last couple of pages in which their real names and what happened to them are revealed. It's not something I felt the need to know. And it also means we will not be meeting them again in a future book.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

The Lurking Fear - H P Lovecraft

This Wordsworth collection concentrates on the non-Cthulhu. non-Arkham stories. The main preoccupation here is the Gothic, specifically inbreeding and ancient bloodlines tainted. The introduction by Matthew J Elliott is useful and the last entry is Lovecraft's own insights into his craft .Notes on Writing Weird Fiction'.

As for the stories themselves, some are unfinished or abandoned drafts, included for the completists. But there are also classics like 'The Music of Erich Zann', 'Beyond the Walls of Sleep', 'The Beast in the Cave' and, my favourite, 'The Rats in the Walls'. Overall, though, you wouldn't want this collection to be your first acquaintance with Lovecraft. There are many better and more typical collections, of which I have quite a few.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The Lantern Bearers - Rosemary Sutcliffe

This is the third book of Sutcliffe's Late Roman trilogy, published as long ago as 1959. It is a book for Young Adults but makes no concessions to juvenile sensibilities. The battles are brutal and forced marriage laid out with all its consequences. Oddly for a woman writer, the female characters are all cyphers - they get carried off against their will, they have children and for that reason only stay with their unwanted spouses - including our hero Aquila.

Aquila is Romano-British. He is meant to be with the last legion when it sails away from Britain in 410. He deserts, gets captured by the North Saxons and ends up fighting with the Celtic resistance in the mountains of Wales. |For me, this is where things get interesting - how does Sutcliffe handle the Arthur problem? Head on. She starts with Geoffrey of Monmouth, strips away the magical fluff, and leaves us with Ambrosius Aurelielinus and his young nephew Artur. On the opposite side she gives us the story of Vortigern, elected king of the Britons, and his rebellious sons. Vortigern invites the Saxons to settle and defend him against the Scots and Picts. He marries Hengist's seductive daughter Rowena and essentially loses all his illusory power.

The historical detail is magnificent, as accurate as it can be, given that Sutcliffe is writing about the onset of the so-called Dark Age. Aquila, who we follow from his late teens to middleaged warrior with a battle-aged son, is a compelling character, deeply conflicted over his lost Roman roots and loyalty to the island of his birth, however hopeless the cause. It is only at the very end that the meaning of the title is revealed and I found it quite moving.

The real treasure here, though, is the magnificent artwork of Charles Keeping.

Friday, 6 October 2017

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths - Harry Bingham

This is the third in Bingham's superb series (I know I'm reading them in reverse order, but what can you do?). It is slightly better than The Dead House, which I thought was brilliant, and just as good as The Deepest Grave.

The premise - that Fiona is given the chance to enhance her skills with an intensive course in undercover policing, then gets to do it for real in a multinational computer scam - allows Bingham to explore his character's tangled psyche. We already know that Fiona is 'different' psychologically, but the assumed personalities she has to take on for the sake of the story throw into sharp relief just how shallowly-grounded her actual personality is. Fiona Grey, for example, is a muted version of Fiona Griffiths, Jessica Taylor is Fiona Griffiths turned up to eleven. And of course all this is described in first person, present tense, by the Fiona Griffiths we are used to.  Her underlying disorder, Cotard's Syndrome, which put her in the psychiatric hospital as a teenager, bubbles up throughout. No wonder boyfriend, wannabe fiance Buzz stands no chance of a permanent relationship. No wonder hitman Vic very nearly wins the girl.

Again, I cannot recommend the Fiona Griffiths series highly enough. If you like dark crime fiction, you really must check it out asap.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Even the Dead - Benjamin Black

I was so appalled by The Lemur that I have avoided anything by Black over the last couple of years. I was in two minds when I saw this on the library shelf. Had he cheapened or otherwise banjaxed Quirke, one of the best crime series of recent years? Mercifully not. If anything, I am heartily relieved to say, Quirke continues to get better.

Quirke's drinking has finally caught up with him. He is cloistered at Mal and Rose's house, wondering if he will ever go back to the pathology lab, when his assistant and prospective son-in-law David Sinclair pops in for a second opinion. Leon Corless, son of a notorious Irish communist, has been found dead in a burning car. David thinks young Corless was dead before the car hit the tree. So does Quirke. So does Inspector Hackett.

So the story gets under way. It is full of all the usual tropes - conspiracy, the Church, baby-farming, dark deeds of the recent past, and Joe Costigan, Quirke's equivalent of Professor Moriarty. But as ever with the best of Benjamin Black, it is the storytelling rather than the story that keeps us hooked. The gentle friction between long-established characters, the Byzantine interconnections of the tiny upper middleclass of 1950s Dublin, the steady plod of life's wheel. Malachy is ailing, David is restless, Quirke has a new woman in his life. Evelyn Blake is the perfect match for Quirke because she exemplifies everything familiar about his tight little world: she might be an Austrian psychiatrist but Quirke knew her late husband, a drunken doctor who worked at Quirke's hospital, and Quirke used that connection to get his daughter Phoebe a job as Evelyn's receptionist.

As ever, there is great pleasure to be had in characters who are only passing through: Leon's father Sam, whose politics have cost him everything including perhaps his only child, and the loathsome rent-collector/enforcer Abercrombie. Both men, one of them a widower, the other surely never married, live in ghastly rooms above shabby shops. Black takes obvious glee in forensically detailing the grot.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Moriarty - Anthony Horowitz

I am no great fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories which even as a child struck me as more legerdemain than logic. I am, however, a big fan of John Gardner's Moriarty series from the middle Seventies and, posthumously, 2008. To tell the truth I grabbed this off the library shelf because I thought it was the 2008 instalment.

But no, it is Horowitz, he of Midsomer Murders and Foyle's War and the Alex Rider series of thrillers for Young Adults. I liked Foyle's War, Midsomer Murders was meretricious trash, and I am far too old to have encountered young Master Rider. Still, I'm game. I gave it a good go. I finished it. I enjoyed it .. to an extent.

There can be no doubt that Horowitz is a proficient writer and a master storyteller. His characterisation, here at least, and for a reason I will not go into, is thin and two-dimensional. Briefly, and hopefully without giving too much away, the intricacies of the story rather limit what he can do in terms of character development. There is none; it's all about revelation.

Broadly, the premise is this: Moriarty and Holmes have vanished into the Reichenbach Falls; American gangsters seek to take over Moriarty's British crime empire; Frederick Chase of Pinkerton's and Inspector Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard team up to thwart them.

There are touches which border on genius. For example, Jones has made himself into a Holmes superfan, dedicated to the continuity of his methods. There is a superbly psychopathic teenager. The Holmes/Watson trope is worked for all its worth in the Jones/Chase relationship. But in the end it all depends on the big twist and how you react to it. It is a huge, massive, stupendous twist and I hated it. I considered myself cheated. I'm still offended by it 24 hours after I read it.

Horowitz includes his own Sherlock Holmes short story, "The Three Monarchs", as an extra, which cleverly reflects the main narrative with Inspector Jones. It struck me as very much in the Conan Doyle tradition, so obviously I didn't like it much. On the other hand, at least it didn't rest on a make-or-break twist.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

Well, what can I say? Where do I start? Lincoln in the Bardo is, quite simply, the most extraordinary book I have read in years. It is experimental, existential and yet profoundly moving. It is, on the face of it, bat-shit-crazy, and yet it never once loses its humanity.

I am kicking myself for not realising up front what the Bardo is. I thought it was perhaps a district in Washington. Obviously, it is Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan version of the Elysian Fields, where the dead go initially, before moving on to an even higher plane. As a writer on the Elysian conversations of Eric Linklater and a researcher into the early work of Ted Hughes, who was deeply immersed in Bardo-based projects which never saw the light of day, I consider myself duly abashed.

We enter the Bardo through many pages of quotations, which as far as I know are genuine, from accounts of the death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, son of the President and possibly the first presidential child to die in the White House. These then segue into snatches of speech from people who seem to have nothing whatever to do with Willy or Abe - Roger Bevins III, Hans Vollman and the Reverend Everly Thomas, who we come to realise are our guides to this entry level of the afterlife. They are spirits and make no physical concessions to their former corporeality. Mr Bevins has hundreds of hands and eyes, Mr Vollman a prodigious member. They have come across the new arrival and don't know how to help. Children normally pass through this stage quickly but something is keeping Willie back.

That something is his father, the President the psychopomps have never heard of, already weighed down by the horrors of a civil war they cannot imagine. He comes to Willie's tomb, takes out the body and cuddles it, unaware that everything he loved about his son is looking on. It is young Willie who in the end comforts his father and persuades the spirits of the Bardo (of whom we encounter dozens) to accept what they have thus far been unable to accept - their death. It's a beautiful touch - Saunders creates euphemisms for the Bardo like sick-box instead of coffin. The book ends in a blaze of multiple matterlightblooming phenomena as the Bardo depopulates.

It sounds ridiculous - it looks impossible on the page, with chapters as short as a single line and all the conversation laid out like quotations and no non-speech at all. And yet it works beautifully. Saunders is a well-respected essayist and short story writer but, amazingly, Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel. Turns out it was well worth waiting for. It's an instant classic of modern American fiction, comfortably up there with Pynchon and Salinger and Jonathan Safran Foer.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Hand-Reared Boy - Brian Aldiss

The Hand-Reared Boy, part one of Aldiss's Horatio Stubbs trilogy, purports to be the autobiographical coming-of-age memoir of a sexually-precocious teenager on the eve of World War II. Horatio, we assume, is Aldiss thinly coated. But is it? Aldiss, who died last month at the grand age of 92, is clearly not called Horatio and I doubt very much he had a brother called Nelson. Horatio, it is very clear, was born in 1922; he is seventeen when war breaks out in 1939. Aldiss, however, was born in 1925. So what is going on? What is real personal experience, and what is novelistic construct?

That is essentially what kept me going with this ebook - that, and Aldiss's plain-speaking prose style. What is basically a pubescent marathon of masturbation is rendered extremely readable. I remember reading it when it first came out, when I was Horatio's age, in 1970. It didn't interest me because I had all the usual teenage emotions, hopes and guilt about sex but I didn't have siblings and I didn't attend a public school. In fact, it put me off Aldiss for a considerable period. My feeling at the time was, this is an impossibly middleaged man (who was 45, the same age Horatio declares himself to be as he writes) with a moustache like my dad's, who was trying to cash in on the somewhat sordid British take on the sexual revolution of the Sixties. Reading it now, much older and with much more impressive facial foliage of my own, knee-deep in an age of Neo-Puritanism, I read with more experience, technical knowledge, and compassion.

Is Sister Traven, the school nurse, who relieves the pressure for so many of the boys in her care, based in any way on a real person? Did Aldiss, like Horatio, really interfere with his younger sister? As a senior Youth Magistrate I have sent boys into youth custody for doing exactly that. As a non-family person, now with no relatives whatsoever, what the hell goes on in ostensibly 'normal' families?

I bought the other two volumes in an Amazon Kindle deal on the day Aldiss died, so we shall see what develops.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Conclave - Robert Harris

Robert Harris seems to have set himself a challenge - how to turn the well known or unthrilling into compulsive reading. For An Officer and a Spy he took the Dreyfuss case, which surely at least half his readership must have known, and made it fresh and compelling. In Conclave he has taken a subject which I for one could not care less about, limited it purely to the arcane election process of the new pope - no murders, no espionage, precious little scandal - and made it absolutely thrilling.

I have witnessed many vote counts, even as it happens presided over one just as arcane as the papal system, yet I was 100% enthralled. How does Harris do it? It's not clever literary tricks. It's certainly not wordplay. The plot in Conclave is more or less prescribed by ecclesiastical law and fairly predictable. I guessed who was going to win the moment he showed up and spotted the twist, although I admit I didn't quite get it right, and Harris revealed it really well. I can only conclude it's the honesty of his approach. He actually cares about these elderly men and their ancient task. He has done his research in impressive depth and is not ashamed to tackle the prickly question of faith. It is not, of course, the present pope he is writing about or indeed the last, but the cloistered election takes place against a distant backdrop of an absolutely contemporary Europe.

As an exercise in the craft of storytelling Conclave is a masterclass. I am not religious, couldn't care less about the papacy although I do rather admire the current incumbent, but Harris played with my emotions like a virtuoso. He keeps getting better and better and if he keeps on at this standard I might yet forgive him The Ghost.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Everything Flows - Vasily Grossman

I tried reading Grossman's Life and Fate when Radio 4 did an epic dramatisation a couple of years ago. I failed. I saw this much shorter work and thought it might be a way in to Grossman's work. I finished it, which was good, but I'm not sure I want to commit myself to another go at Life and Fate which is ten times longer.

Don't get me wrong, Everything Flows is a major work, impressive in many ways. It took Grossman eight years to write, his last eight years, and it is obviously unfinished. But there are several problem. It is a story of the Gulag - specifically the challenge facing Ivan Grigoryevich on his release after thirty years - and the atrocity of the Soviet penal system is always interesting. But it is not Grossman's story. Despite being Jewish, intellectual, a writer and opinionated, he was in no way suppressed by the Stalin regime. Indeed, his fame as a war reporter - his account of the extermination camps was used as evidence at the Nuremberg war trials - cushioned him from criticism. Some of his novels and short stories were successful. It was Krushchov rather than Stalin who took against him and the late novels were held up indefinitely as the censors demanded more and more rewrites.

The unfinished nature of the book, no doubt exacerbated by Grossman's stomach cancer, is all too evident. He has no vision for what the novel should be. He has an overarching theme about the Russian people's fetish for totalitarianism but cannot find a way to incorporate it as story. Instead the last quarter of what is only a 220 page book is given over to a historical essay purportedly written by Ivan Grigoryevich after the death of his landlady-lover. The essay is far too long and full of rather convenient aphorisms which strike my inner ear as glib and facile rather than insightful. It suffers especially because it follows a first-person narration of the Ukranian famine by the landlady-lover which is truly heart-rending.

There are other promising strands never followed up on - a widow who is sent to an all-female camp in Siberia and Ivan's cousin Nikolay, who has done rather well out of playing the system and thus feels an appalling burden of guilt. What we are left with, then, is the skeleton of a potentially great novel in progress.

There are, in my view, far too many notes and explanations. There was one thing that struck me, though, in the afterword by Grossman's daughter. When the novel came to light in the Perestroika era no Russian paper would publish it because it wasn't sufficiently Gulag. Are we any different today? An unfinished collection of linked fragments like Everything Flows gets translated and published because it supports our preconceptions about Soviet Russia whilst complete novels of Russian heroism, like Grossman's Stalingrad (For A Just Cause), based on his actual experience, are passed over.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Wheels of Terror - Sven Hassel

Well now. I remember Sven Hassel being very popular in the UK in the mid-Sixties and early Seventies. War books not really being my thing, I never read any, although my dad read them all, and pretty much forgot all about Hassel until I stumbled upon this 2014 Phoenix reprint of his second novel, from 1959, in my local library. I thought, why not? I looked further into the author...

Right, so Sven Hassel was not German, although he certainly fought for the Germans in World War II. Sven Hassel was not his real name but the name he gives to his first-person narrator in his books. Hassel was not even the name he published under in his native Denmark, nor even the name he legally adopted in 1965. Suffice to say, he remains highly controversial in Denmark to this day. Was he hero or traitor or victim of circumstances? That's probably never going to be established to the satisfaction of all. What we can say, more or less for sure, is that he spent the second half of his long life in Barcelona where he died in 2012, and he left a series of fourteen books about a band of misfits (Brigade of Misfits is the alternative title of the only movie version of a Hassel book, which as it happens is an adaptation of this one, Wheels of Terror), the 27th (Penal) Regiment, serving in all the worst battles in all theatres of World War II.

These men are absolutely expendable - all have been convicted of serious crimes and military service is their punishment. They are absolutely brutal but Hassel keeps them human by alternating scenes of appalling violence with the rough humour and downright silliness of men forced to keep unnaturally close company.

The literary style is remarkably original. Each chapter starts with a kind of precis; for example: "They were wounded. You need imagination to get the meaning of that. To go through hospital to understand it." Oddly, none of the core characters are actually wounded or hospitalised in the chapter that follows. You also get an idea of the phraseology in that quotation. It seems somehow oblique, skewed. The sentences are curt, choppy, the paragraphs kept to two or three lines. The dialogue, on the other hand, is florid and grandiloquent. Take this interchange:

"Is that an order, dear Old Un?" asked Porta. "Since you're a sergeant why can't you say in a nice and military fashion: 'I order Obergefreiter Joseph Porta to shut his mouth!'"
 "By God then, it's an order! Shut up, will you!"
 "Now, don't get fresh, you Unteroffizier-crap. When you speak to me you're kindly asked to do so in the regulation army manner addressing me in third person. Full stop."
 "Allright. I, Unteroffizier Willy Beier, 27th (Penal) Panzer Regiment order Obrgefreiter Joseph Porta to shut up!"
"And I, Obergefreiter by God's grace in the Nazi army, Joseph Porta, who's beaten the world record in obstacle-racing, am completely indifferent to Herr Unteroffizier's orders. Amen."
There is no story as such, just a series of adventures or escapades as the Germans advance into and retreat from the USSR. The book ends with an event, not a resolution. It is all highly unusual. I stuck with it but am unclear where I stand on it. Did I like it? Well, I certainly enjoyed some parts and other bits stimulated my imagination. I shall probably have to sample more to try and make up my mind. Perhaps the first in the series, Legion of the Damned, which seems to me to be the best known.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

White Maa's Saga - Eric Linklater

White-Maa's Saga is Linklater's first published novel. It came out in 1929 but describes events of eight or so years earlier. It reflects Linklater's own experience after the war when he went to Aberdeen University (Inverdoon here) to study medicine. Linklater was slightly younger than his alter-ego Peter Flett - he had lied about his age to enlist in 1916 whereas Peter was of full age in 1914 and served for the duration.

This student generation is not like any other. The university acknowledges the common debt to those who served and makes allowances for men like Peter when they fail their examinations. Peter fails three times but seems set to go back for more until the very end of the novel.

Between spells at Inverdoon Peter returns to Orkney where his sister Martin (yes, Martin) runs the farm Peter inherited from their parents. In both Inverdoon and Orkney Peter's main sphere of activity, when not drinking or boxing, is the pursuit of young women. There are three in the novel, nowhere near as many as the hero encounters in Juan in America, Linklater's breakthrough hit.

I'm sure the descriptions of Aberdeen's student quarter are accurate. They are amusing, too, in a studentish way. But it is Orkney, as ever, where Linklater's language takes flight. The various social strands are laid out: spinster Martin, the rambunctious Sabistons of Redland, the tinkers whose travelling seems to have been confined to the islands for several centuries, and those who work for absentee landlords, among them the villainous Isaac Skea.

The simple pleasures of the Annual Fair and an island wedding contrast with the equally ancient traditions of the university. There is no question which Linklater prefers. The climax, set in the neolithic Ring of Brodgar, is exciting and effective. Linklater, who was thirty when the book came out, came into literature with a highly effective bang. Well worth checking out - and don't let the ugly title put you off: it is actually Peter's Orcadian nickname, the dialect term for a herring-gull.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Deepest Grave - Harry Bingham

After reading The Dead House last month, and encountering DS Fiona Griffiths for the first time, I had to have more. Luckily, I found the latest in the series straightaway.

The Deepest Grave starts with the ritual slaying of a Welsh archaeologist. Fiona soon finds herself enmeshed in the weird and not-so-wonderful world of faked antiquities and Arthurian nutjobs. There is a conspiracy afoot; like all conspiracies it is fundamentally silly to everyone on the outside but that doesn't prevent it from doing serious damage to those who stumble where they shouldn't.

There is even more action than there was in The Dead House, with serious jeopardy for Fiona and those she cares about. The climax is downright bloody brilliant, with Fiona's shady but passionate father stepping up to the plate.

In fact the only downside to The Deepest Grave is a totally unnecessary what-happened-next final chapter. Who cares what happens next? Tell us anything we need to know in the next book. If it doesn't add anything to the next instalment it doesn't matter.

But let's be clear, Harry Bingham is as good as it gets in contemporary British crime fiction and I am a confirmed fan.

Friday, 25 August 2017

The Butchers of Berlin - Chris Petit

Having read Petit's 'Troubles' novel, The Psalm Killer, and rating it highly on this blog, I looked forward to reading his latest, especially given it was set in Nazi Germany, which I always find fascinating and repulsive. I am a big fan of Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series, particularly the ones set during the war.

I finished the book, which says something, but I did not love it. The level of research is impressive. The characterisation is hugely disappointing. I think Petit realised it during the writing, because in a sense we have two protagonists, the mummy's boy cop August and lesbian Jewish seamstress Sybil. The former is a nobody whose only distinguishing characteristic is prematurely white hair, only peremptorily explained, and the latter is a doormat, pushed hither and yon by all and sundry. The most interesting character by far is Morgen, seconded from the SS to investigate a series of murders. Morgen is enigmatic, eccentric and, plotwise, a deus ex machina, dropping in from nowhere to save the day when the boy August finds himself in trouble. Morgen is so thinly sketched that I only found out his first name when I Googled the book. The book's most memorable scene is when Morgen gets together, all too briefly, with his equally eccentric brother. They should have been the odd couple through whose eyes we explore the book. Sadly, they aren't.

The plot itself is a conspiracy of which the murders are only the surface. I should have guessed this when I saw David Peace's gushing blurb on the cover. As with Peace, the conspiracy is so abstruse that I have no idea what it is, save that it involves far too many walk-on characters. Telling us that the Third Reich was dark and depraved is not news. Making us feel the effect of this on ordinary people (as Hans Fallada does) would have been impressive. Petit doesn't, therefore The Butchers of Berlin isn't. Sorry.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

He Who Fears the Wolf - Karin Fossum

I have blogged before about how poorly promoted Karin Fossum is in this country. Since Steig Larsson, anyone with so much as a vaguely Scandinavian name has been snapped up by a publisher and launched with a barrage of ads in the Press, heralding the debut of the new Nesbo. Few have made it to a second contract. But here is Fossum, already a successful series writer before the Girl even thought about getting her Dragon Tattoo and - more importantly - all the signature tropes of the best Scandi Noir: deep, dark secrets; focus on the excluded; and gruesome deaths. Yet where, other than Goodreads and here, do you see her mentioned?

This is the second Inspector Konrad Sejer novel, first published in 1997. The cover is as uninspired as ever; I can only assume she somehow upset the art department at Vintage. Inside, however, is the best of her novels that I have so far read, and I am was already a big admirer. All the action takes place on a single day. An old lady is murdered, a bank is robbed, a hostage taken, and a chubby kid from the boy's home reports seeing the local lunatic who has escaped again. Over the course of twelve hours or so, Sejer investigates and indeed solves all. But Fossum gives equal space to the offenders and the relationship that develops between them. I won't say more for fear of giving the final twist away. It is a very good twist, worthy of Nesbo himself.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Good & A Nightingale Sang... - C P Taylor

C P Taylor was a Glaswegian Jewish Marxist autodidact playwright who lived and worked in Newcastle and who died ridiculously young in 1981. He was only in his early fifties yet had written some 80 plays for stage, TV and radio, in just 20 years.

Good is his masterpiece, a last-minute breakthrough onto the national stage when the RSC staged it  in London just three months before Taylor's death. It is an examination of the axiom generally attributed to Edmund Burke: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Halder is a good man, a university professor who supports his scatterbrained wife and dutifully visits his senile mother in the nursing home. But this is Germany 1933 and the Nazis are on the rise. Halder is dismissive, even mildly subversive. He has a Jewish friend, the psychiatrist Maurice, and a taste for 'degenerate' American-style jazz.

No doubt influenced by his mother's distressing condition, Halder has written a book which can be read as advocating euthanasia. This attracts the attention of Nazi racial purists. They make overtures to Halder, gradually drawing him into their circle. He initially resists, but as time goes on his qualms are overridden by the need to earn a living. His mother is now back living with him, his wife is even more hopeless about the house, and Haldane has started an affair with one of his female students. The Nazis understand these things. They are supportive, even seductive. Slowly, Halder starts to distance himself from his friend Maurice...

Taylor had made himself a master of open staging through his association with studio theatres like the Traverse in Glasgow and the Live Theatre Company in Newcastle. He also worked in community drama, and thus was able to handle large casts and overlapping scenes. Good is a fine example of both disciplines. Halder is onstage almost all the time, accompanied by a live jazz band (a very Taylorean device). The other characters effectively come to him. Very unusually, several scenes overlap, with Haldane switching in and out of conversations with different people in different locations and even at significantly different times. Only a writer at the height of his game could pull this off and it takes a very special actor to accomplish it onstage. The late great Alan Howard, a consummate stage actor and the best Hamlet I have ever seen, created the role in London and New York.

If Good is Taylor's take on Brechtian Epic Theatre, the other play in this Methuen edition deploys many of the same techniques on a more domestic scale. And a Nightingale Sang... (1977) is the story of the working class Stott family of Newcastle, from the day World War II broke out (September 3 1939) to VE Day (May 8 1945). Although the action primarily takes place in the family home, it instantly moves elsewhere (chiefly the bench in Eldon Square where lame spinster Helen meets her married lover Norman for illicit purposes). There are times when two things are happening simultaneously, as when Eric is waiting nervously in the parlour while the women are upstairs with Joyce, trying to persuade her to come down and be proposed to. George Stott, the father, bangs away on the upright piano - all the popular songs - while Mam Peggy consoles herself with Catholicism and Peggy's father Andie wanders from one daughter's house to the other, starting with his dead whippet in a bag and ending up hiding from the amorous widow who wants to marry him.

It's a dialect play - a dialect I have always known and liked, though I daresay it limited the play's chances in the South back in Taylor's lifetime. We are now used to the device of setting a scene (and, better, underscoring the action) with period popular music, but it should be noted that A Nightingale Sang... preceded Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven by a full year. There is much more breaking down of the fourth wall in Nightingale than in Good, and appropriately so, given that so much of what we hear is Helen's personal inner life. The final scene, in which she dances, not with faithless Norman who has scurried home to mother and wife in the Midlands, but with Joyce's rapscallion hubbie Eric, features both soliloquy and music - the Nightingale finally does dance - and it is heartbreaking.

Not being active in the business these days, I have no real way of assessing where Taylor's reputation stands today. Wherever, it should be higher. I have other plays of his about the house, collected while he was still alive and writing. I must look them out.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Caine Mutiny - Herman Wouk

When I saw that Herman Wouk was celebrating his 102nd birthday earlier this year I felt obliged to seek out his best-known work - his bestseller The Caine Mutiny (1951).

Wouk goes to great lengths to assure us that this is not a fictional account of his service during the war, which just happened to be on a minesweeper-destroyer, much like the Caine. Indeed, he certainly isn't Willie Keith, the main character through whose eyes we view the story. Wouk was ten years older, for one thing, and not born wealthy. Wouk tries to show us that the character closest to him is aspiring novelist Tom Keefer, who encourages the mutiny then gives evidence against the mutineers at their court-martial. Wouk, like Keefer, got his publisher's contract whilst serving at sea.

The truth is, Caine is not a true story - there was no ship of that name, and no mutiny - yet the power of the novel comes from its undoubted veracity.

Wouk's service informs every page. He knew exactly what it was like to serve your time aboard a floating hulk like the Caine. He knows full well it is not going to be commanded by premier quality seamen. However, he makes the point repeatedly, they are all of them willing to do their duty. For the ordinary crew it is just another job. For the handful of officers it is a berth in which to learn their craft and hopefully advance up the ranks. The new captain, Philip Francis Queeg, is just such an officer. He joined before the war and is therefore a regular navy man (unlike the wartime 'reserves' like Keith and Keefer); he has nine years' service but this is his first command.

Queeg is unpleasant. Because he knows he can never be friends with his officers, he goes overboard as a disciplinarian. He carries the rulebook to ludicrous extremes, alienating one and all. But he never crosses the line. He never goes beyond the rules. The problem which leads to the 'mutiny' (which is held by those who carry it out to be justifiably relieving the captain of command) is because he seems to be a coward in action and quite possibly deranged.

The trial takes up a huge chunk of the book - so much so that Wouk turned it into a hugely successful play in 1953. The slight downside is that, whilst Willie Keith has been charged with encouraging the mutiny, he was not even on the command deck when it happened. The trial focused on is that of Lieutenant Stephen Maryk, Queeg's executive officer, who actually seized command.

The trial and the mutiny are both truly spellbinding. The novel is long but never drags. Willie Keith is amusing enough - especially in his self-indulgent affair with the nightclub singer May Wynn - and Queeg more than crazy enough to hold our interest. Willie's coming of age and Queeg's psychological collapse are built up through incidental, wholly convincing details.

The Caine Mutiny is a war novel without equal. It does something that most others fail to do in that it spells out the price that every man pays for military service. Never mind the risk - there is little to no risk in minesweeper destroyers; the damage is psychological. Free, intelligent men are prepared to submit themselves to a rule book that is petty and oppressive because they come to realise that those in charge couldn't get them to do such mind-numbing, pointless activities any other way.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Gilgamesh - Derrek Hines

Hines is a Canadian poet who lives in Cornwall. He studied the ancient Near East at university and thus is comfortable in the world of Gilgamesh, hero of the world's oldest epic. It is worth dwelling on the age of this text and the events and people concerned. The historical Gilgamesh lived about 2800 BCE. To use a crude measure, that's half a millennium further away from the birth of Jesus than we are. The text was first written down, in the world's oldest known form of writing, about 500 years after his death. The stories in it, however, were probably circulating in oral form within living memory of his death. In short, it is incredibly - bordering on unimaginably - old. It is so old that is probably not possible to transport the modern reader into the world described. Hines's approach is not to try to. Instead, he uses modern terminology to startle us into accepting the difference of the most ancient of ancient worlds. Again, back to crude measures: we find the world of Tutankhamen alien - Gilgamesh goes back a further millennium and a half.

For an epic, Gilgamesh is surprisingly short, only 61 pages in Hines's version. Yet there is a satisfactory amount of incident. As usual the gods fall out over the humanity project. Gilgamesh is semi-divine and so full of himself. So the gods create another powerful being to set against him. This is Enkidu, the beast-man who lives and communes with the animals. Given the age of this work you have to wonder if this is some sort of race-memory of a time when there were other versions of us wandering about. Enkidu is certainly the earliest surviving instance of a wild man or, as the medieval English called them, wodwoes or green men.

Enkidu annoys the locals by freeing animals from their traps. They opt for one sure way of taming him. They hire the temple prostitute Shamhat to shag some civilisation into Enkidu. This works. Enkidu forgets the language of the animals. The scent of the harlot on him drives the animals away. So, inevitably, he turns up in Gilgamesh's city of Uruk. The two supermen wrestle. Neither can best the other so they end up blood brothers, the closest of friends, inseparable.

Together they defeat the wizard Humbaba and the bull Taurus. It dawns on the gods that they now have two overmighty humans on their hands. They debate which one to kill off. Enkidu sees this in a dream and saves them the bother. He sickens and dies; the suggestion is that he chooses to die rather than risk the gods choosing Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh is naturally distraught. He roams the land seeking a means to be reunited with Enkidu in the netherworld. The gate-keeper goddess Shiduri suggests he approaches the ferryman Ur-shanabi, the only one allowed to cross the river of death both ways. In most versions Gilgamesh meets the Sumerian Noah - Uta-napishti - in the Underworld, who has been made immortal for surviving the Flood. The text of this meeting is a possibly a later addition - it is certainly a later discovery - and Hines does not give us Uta-napishti's account, which I find a problem. Uta-napishti is the only one who can give Gilgamesh the true price of immortality - not a blessing but a penalty paid by those who defy the gods, living death.

Overall, though, this a great version to introduce Gilgamesh to the modern reader. Overall, the use of modern language and contemporary terms works well. I loved the characterisation of Shamhat as a bar-room tart. I especially enjoyed the squaddie's account of the Humbaba campaign. Wisely, Hines keeps the most poetic, quasi-mystical passages simple and unforced. For example, when Gilgamesh laments for his dead friend:
We stood with the glow of Eden's river
still warm on our backs;
and before us the river of clay
into which men pressed our story... 

Monday, 31 July 2017

Cannery Row - John Steinbeck

Cannery Row (1945) is the distillation of Steinbeck. It contains everything he does best, in his best style and in the perfect format. Only 168 pages long in this Penguin paperback, it nevertheless manages to come across as epic in its panoramic view of the lives and aspirations of the denizens of the rundown Californian shanty town that faces onto the sardine canning factories where, from time to time, some of them might work.

This is not the Depression of The Grapes of Wrath - there is plenty of honest work for those who want it, but the residents of Cannery Row would rather not, most of the time. Doc has his own business in among the canning factories, Western Biological, where he pickles and prepares exotic sea creatures for scientific study. Doc is our hero inasmuch as Cannery Row has one. He is involved in everything and the others are ultimately realised in their relationship to him. There's the general merchant Lee Chong, who sells Doc his beer. There's Mack and the boys who live in Lee Chong's former fish meal store, which they have refurbished as the Palace Flophouse; they just want to throw a party for Doc, to celebrate all he has done for the community. The first attempt backfires, but in the end they throw a proper party, fights and all. The girls from Dora's Bear Flag Restaurant, the local cathouse, work shifts in order to attend.

The focus slides from group to group, There is a sense of Steinbeck studying the community the same way Doc studies the life in rockpools. The wondrous descriptions of the latter - especially the baby octopus hunt - are what moved me most. Then there's the opening section which truly sets the tone, when Horace Abbeville, unable to pay his bill at Lee Chong's, settles up by making over the fish meal store to the Chinaman, then goes straight up there and shoots himself. Lee Chong has got himself a storeroom he doesn't really need; in return he makes sure Abbeville's dependents never go hungry.

That is how things work out in Cannery Row.

That is why they gave Steinbeck the Nobel Prize.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Jack of Spades - Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is a phenomenon. I remember reading one of her stories in 1973 and she's still turning out top-quality fiction today. Jack of Spades is from 2015 and is one of her clever, exciting modern horror stories. Stephen King and Dean Koontz would get 500 pages out of the same material but Oates opts for cool, compact precision below which lurk many dark and nuanced layers.

Andrew J Rush is a fifty-four year-old author. He is very successful but not quite in the league of King or Koontz or Peter Straub. Indeed he is known as 'the gentleman's Stephen King', a title he is happy to claim. Recently, though, he has developed a second literary string, publishing gory cult horror as 'Jack of Spades'. Rush fully gets the parallel with King - he even sends King copies of the Spade paperbacks. The King motif is one Oates plays with, like a cat with a spider. Much is made of the link with King's The Dark Half, which I haven't read, especially when 'Jack' starts a commentary in Andrew's head. But the real ploy is a brilliant inversion of Misery.

Andrew suddenly finds himself sued for plagiarism by a local madwoman, C W Haider. It turns out she has sued King and others on the same basis. She is old money, the last of her line, and lives in a crumbling Gothic mansion in the same New Jersey township as Rush. Part of her claim is that Rush has broken into her house and stolen her outlines and plots.

The case is thrown out, naturally. Haider collapses in some sort of fit and is temporarily hospitalised. So Rush, egged on by Jack, does what Haider claimed he had already done. He inveigles his way into her house, leaves as a present a book signed by 'Steven King' (not Stephen), and steals some of her valuable first edition books. He also finds her stash of manuscripts and sees that there really are very obvious similarities, and that Haider's work precedes his. The discovery sends him progressively off the rails. Jack of Spades is his secret alter ego, but smalltown celebrity Andrew also has other, deeper secrets that Oates cunningly holds back until the very end.

Jack of Spades is a short book - 224 pages, small format, big print - but it is completely realised. Not a word is wasted, not a line is superfluous. It's a gem.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

The Dead House - Harry Bingham

Harry Bingham is one of those relatively new crime writers I've seen reviewed and wondered about reading. I have to admit that what put me off was the female lead. Not that I have anything against women detectives - but few male authors can really do great things with them; even as a male reader I get the feeling there is always something missing.

Good news - Harry Bingham is an exception to that rule of thumb. DS Fiona Griffiths is a fabulous series character. Yes, there remains something missing but that is expressly the point. The entirety of her life before adoption is missing. The people who adopted her, who love her and whom she loves in return, have dubious connections. There is a massive backstory hanging over this, the fifth in the series, which - brilliantly - Bingham refers to but does not expound upon. He is playing the long game and we, as readers, are happy to trust him to reveal it when the time comes.

The setting is Wales - big city Wales (Cardiff) where Fiona is based, and the remote village of Ystradfflur, the valley of flowers, where she finds her crime scene. As Bingham puts it---
Deep Wales. Real Wales,
This is the Wales that pre-existed the Romans, that will outlast our foolish time on earth, our crawl across the face of this dark planet.
 In Ystradfflur is a Dead House, the place by the chapel where poor Victorian villagers could lay out their loved one for visits prior to burial. There lies a young blonde woman in a white dress ringed by candles. She has had high quality plastic surgery but hasn't shaved her legs recently. Fiona notices this because she spends the night with the corpse, who she decides to call Carlotta. She communes. She holds hands. And we start to realise just how strange and damaged Fiona really is.

The supporting characters are equally well drawn - vivid where they need to be, prosaic when their main purpose is the highlight the flaws in Fiona. The plotting is multi-layered and complex. The denouement is hinted at throughout but I certainly did not see it coming. I have read a lot of books in my life, averaging at least two a week over half a century and I have never ever seen that ploy used. Yet it works brilliantly. There is real danger for Fiona, real tension for us, both there and in the caving sequence and in her interaction with Len Roberts, the failed smallholding hill farmer who has gone primitive and who is suspected of dark deeds.

The best British crime novel I've read this year. Highly recommended.