Monday, 27 February 2017

The Emperor - Ryszaed Kapuscinski

This Penguin Classic is a classic of reportage rather than fiction or indeed non-fiction. Kapuscinski was a Polish reporter who had spent time in Ethiopia but who was not a witness to the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. He knew, however, that the abolition of the Ethiopian Empire was probably the last there would ever be. Slipshod commentators often talk about 21st century empires in connection with Russia but there is a fundamental difference: Vladimir Putin might have absolute autocratic authority but not even the most servile Kremlin bureaucrat thinks that authority will pass to his son and heir, if he even has one. In Imperial Ethiopia all authority was vested in the emperor, whose main claim to power was that he had managed to beat all the other princely and ducal contenders. In his youth Ras Tafari had probably been the best of a bad lot. During his exile during the Italian invasion he had even managed to establish himself on the world stage, perhaps the first black ruler of the modern era to do so. But after forty-four years on the throne, four-and-a-half decades of sitting cocooned in his palatial nest of sycophants, what had he become? One of his retainers, referred to as F, provides the answer as early as page 5:
It was a small dog, a Japanese breed. His name was Lulu. He was allowed to sleep in the Emperor's great bed. During various ceremonies, he would run away from the Emperor's lap and pee on dignitaries' shoes. The august gentlemen were not allowed to flinch or make the slightest gesture when they felt their feet getting wet. I had to walk among the dignitaries and wipe the urine from their shoes with a satin cloth. This was my job for ten years.
Yes, the institution of monarchy had become so debased that significant people had to put up with being peed on, and a man was employed to wipe their shoes. This, however, was not the most ludicrous example of royal protocol. There was the Hour of Assignments during which the emperor doled out rewards to his courtiers; there was no penalty for those who had failed for some reason, they were simply not rewarded and that was the kiss of death for their career. Haile Selassie, it was maintained, had risen above the hurly-burly of actually conferring with his courtiers face to face. His face was immobile, his voice inaudible. Thus all power was invested in the Minister of Pen who alone stood close enough to hear the imperial whispers. But he too was dispensable. If His Venerable Highness should let it be known that the Minister of the Pen had misinterpreted his wishes...

The court has officers such as Keeper of the Third Door and Imperial Pillow Bearer, but no elected politicians and no serious ministers. Yet the palace was a hive of activity from early morning to late at night. Hundreds of people busied themselves with absolute nonsense and useless flummery whilst outside the compound the people starved to death in their thousands. This is the regime that Kapuscinski recreates through interviews with the former officials whose world fell apart when Haile Selassie turned out to be mortal after all.

A lesser hand might leave us feeling sorry for the senile old man in his palace. Certainly Kapuscinski has sympathy for the redundant servants who, in the post-imperial Ethiopia cannot walk safely in public and who have to hide behind their initials in his book. But he has no sympathy at all for Hailie Selassie and his corrupt ministers, the former under house arrest, most of the latter executed. At the end of the book he writes:
With state money the dignitaries built themselves palaces, bought estates, travelled abroad. The Emperor himself amassed the greatest riches. The older he grew, the greater became his greed, his pitiable cupidity. One could talk about it with sadness and indulgence, were it not for the fact that HS - he and his people - took millions from the state treasury amid cemeteries full of people who had died of hunger, cemeteries visible from the windows of the royal Palace.
 I wish I could think of a journalist that insightful writing today.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

In a Glass Darkly - Sheridan Le Fanu

I got hold of this, Le Fanu's last book, because it is presented as highlights from the casebook of Dr Martin Hesselius, the prototype Van Helsing who oversees the vampire hunt in the magnificent Carmilla, which  I read over Christmas and which is currently one of the most viewed posts on this blog. Carmilla is indeed the fifth of the five stories in this collection. As I have already reviewed it in depth, I shan't repeat myself, especially since I didn't re-read it so soon.

As for the rest, the framing device is very thin. Dr Hesselius only features in the first story, the highly-regarded Green Tea. The story deserves its reputation. It is a truly creepy tale in which the Reverend Mr Jennings overstimulates himself with the titular brew and is consequently haunted by an evidently furious little monkey. The story's power stems largely from the fact that there is no logical reason for the manifestation nor its impotent rage against the vicar. Its main aim seems to be to prevent him taking up his comfortable country living. It operates with demonic malice. In London it will suddenly disappear for weeks on end. Jennings, hoping against hope that his torment has ended, finally risks a visit to his parish, at which point the monkey reappears. Dr Hesselius features in person. In London for some academic reason, he is approached by Mr Jennings who seeks his expert help. The help proves to be less than useless and the poor priest finally ends his suffering in the only sure way.

Next up is The Familiar, very similar to Green Tea. This time a sea captain is dogged by a malevolent midget who calls himself The Watcher, whom everyone can see but no one can catch. This time there is a reason: Captain Barton gave an order that cost a seaman his life. The Watcher is not that seaman but seems to operate on his behalf. Again, the outcome is inevitable... it is in the third story, Mr Justice Harbottle. The judge is haunted by a man he wrongly sent to the gallows and ends up doing away with himself. Evidently the theme of being stalked by guilt was a preoccupation of Le Fanu in the last years of his life. Mr Justice Harbottle is the only story here that comes anywhere near the brilliance of Carmilla. That is because it shares the same undercurrent of decadence and perversion. Harbottle is a vicious hanging judge but he is also a debauchee. It is suggested he hosts orgies in his house and he is certainly shacked up with the hanged man's wife.

The fourth story, The Room in the Dragon Volant, isn't really a ghost story at all. There is a mention, at some point, that previous occupants of the said room have vanished into thin air - and have been seen doing so. That's a promising idea but goes undeveloped. Instead we have a high Gothic romance in post-Napoleonic France. It is essentially a premature burial story. Sadly, the trope only works if the victim is actually buried. Being saved in the nick of time, as our hero is here, is just plain cheating. The writing, however, is exceptionally good, probably the best-written story in the collection.

Overall, three out of five great examples of Victorian Gothic and two perfectly acceptable lesser tales is by no means a bad thing.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Devotion of Suspect X - Keigo Higashino

The blurb proclaims Higashino as "The Japanese Steig Larsson". No he isn't. Nor, in fairness, does he claim to be. There is no resemblance whatsoever. Larsson was a journalist who wrote his Millennium Trilogy and died mysteriously young. Higashino has been a professional writer for many years, has written loads of books for both adults and children, and is now approaching the age of sixty.

Importantly, this is in no sense a thriller. It is utterly devoid of thrills. It is instead a traditional murder mystery with an old-fashioned amateur detective helping the plodding police. The amateur sleuth - "Detective Galileo" - is a university professor of physics. He is, in other words, Sherlock Holmes, who can solve any mystery under the guise of advanced pseudo-scientific flummery.

For a writer of such experience, the style is remarkably dull. It's not poorly written - all the words are where they should be and do what they have to do - yet it seems completely shorn of ambition, artistry, or even interest. There is nothing about any of these characters to grab the reader's empathy. They seem to have no emotional hinterland. Their sole function, as Professor Yukawa says, is to be cogs in the machine of the plot.

And as for the plot...  We know who did it from the first chapter. The only mystery is how will the killer and the killer's accomplice be caught. The plot, as so often in sub-Holmesian fiction, is ludicrously convoluted, or at least is meant to appear so. In fact the disposal is exactly as I observed in my recent review of Bird in a Cage - they cut it up and chuck it in the river. The twist, described on the back as "utterly surprising", was for me at least bleeding obvious from the moment it was set up. Regular visitors to this blog will know that I do not claim to be one of those crime fiction fans who always works out the ending. In fact I hardly ever do. And that perhaps shows how easy this one was to spot. I was so disappointed - 440 pages for what barely deserved a short story.

I suppose The Devotion of Suspect X would cover a medium-haul flight agreeably enough. But if you're fully awake, your critical faculty in reasonable order, it is really not worth the effort. There is a series, apparently, of Detective Galileo novels. I shall steer well clear.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Secret Sharer - Joseph Conrad

"The Secret Sharer" (1910) is by modern standards a short novella. In its day it was a long short story originally published in Harper's Magazine.

Needless to say, we find ourselves aboard ship in exotic waters, in this case the Gulf of Siam. Our 'hero' is the new captain, two weeks into his first command and struggling to exert his authority over the junior officers. He finds relief by spending the night on deck - until he looks down and sees what seems to be a naked, headless body floating in the water. In fact it's a living man who, once aboard and seen in the ship's night lights, is extremely like the captain himself.

The newcomer, Leggatt, was first mate of a ship becalmed nearby. He too was an outsider, who had to demonstrate his authority. Unfortunately this led to the death of a seaman. Leggatt was locked in his cabin until he could be delivered to civilian authority. Her escaped and swam through the islands until he found the ship he is now aboard.

The captain has a decision to make. Should he return the fugitive? Should he hold him prisoner until the next decent-sized town? Or should he aid and abet? Can he bring himself to condemn someone so like himself in face and situation? That's the moral dilemma and Conrad doesn't shirk the challenge. Of course the captain makes the wrong choice - Conrad's protagonists almost always do, hence the drama - and we are soon heading into shore in the teeth of a furious typhoon that has the blood pounding in our imaginative veins.

Bird in a Cage - Frederic Dard

Another forgotten period gem from Pushkin Vertigo. Frederic Dard (1921-2000) was the native French equivalent of Simenon. Like Simenon, Dard churned out several hundred novels (his equivalent of Maigret was San-Antonio) and, like Simenon, he wrote so many bestsellers that he became a tax exile in Switzerland.

Like Simenon, his best novels are the standalone noir thrillers of which this is one, dating from 1961. It's very short - only 120 pages. Everything is pared down to the bone. Everything takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Albert returns home after six years in prison. He killed his girlfriend in a fit of jealousy. His mother has died while he was away. Her flat is full of memories. He pops out for a Christmas drink. He meets a beautiful young woman and her daughter. The child is up way beyond her bedtime, so Albert carries her to the woman's apartment. He makes overtures. His overtures are not repulsed. Then things get really weird.

The twist, as so often in noir, is both breath-taking and, on reflection, really silly. Why people in noir can't simply bash their loved one's brains out and chuck them in the river is beyond me. Nevertheless, Dard has a grip like a vice on the reader's attention. The details are worked out with forensic detail. Every word and every piece of action is made to count. The metaphor of the title is beautifully played. And, best of all, Dard leaves us in suspense. Downright brilliant.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Clinch - Martin Holmen

This is real winner, which I happened upon by signing up to the Pushkin Press newsletter.
Holmen brings something radically new to Nordic Noir - a period piece set in the early days of classic American Noir. Genius!

Harry Kvist is a down-at-heel former boxer in Stockholm 1932. His main source of income is repossessing bicycles from renters out of funds. The Great Depression in Stockholm is excruciatingly hard. The streets are full of tramps and madmen. Envious eyes are cast at the rise of Hitler's Nazis, who seem to herald a resurgence of the common man.

One December night Harry accepts an out-of-town commission to go and collect a debt from one Zetterburg. Harry strong-arms the guy and arranges to return the next day for the money. But Zetterburg is found dead in his flat and Harry, who is not entirely unknown to the city constabulary, is brought in for questioning. He was seen by a nosy neighbour leaving Zetterburg's building.

Fortunately, he has a potential alibi - a prostitute he passed the time with while waiting for Zetterburg to come home. He was also seen elsewhere in the city at key times, cruising the gay bars. Because Harry's not-so-secret secret is that he prefers rough sex with young men. Very rough.

Anyway, Harry is released and sets out to track down Sonja the bowlegged prostitute. Along the way he comes across a one-eyed Austrian who seems intent on killing him. Then he happens upon a former movie siren who also likes it a little rough.

The book is first-person, present tense, the only way to take your Noir. Holmen has a style all his own, which works brilliantly. He conjures up Stockholm with a glamorous veneer that is only paper-thin. His cast of supporting characters is set with jewels like Harry's landlord Lundin and the prissy proto-Nazi detective Olsson. And the femme fatale, the blowsy drug-addled Doris, is heartbreakingly fatal,

Clinch is the first in a trilogy of Kvist novels, apparently. Next up is Down for the Count. You can count me in!