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.


Sunday, 23 July 2017

Love Like Blood - Mark Billingham

Love Like Blood is by my calculation the fourteenth in Billingham's Tom Thorne series. What Billingham brought to the crime fiction table back in the early Noughties was contemporaneity.  His cops were good examples of the fictive type - conflicted, maverick, a little raucous - but the subject matter came straight from the headlines. That remains the case here, where Billingham takes on the culturally sensitive issue of honour killing. He adds a further twist which is horribly credible: few people in any community have the capacity to kill, extremely few could bring themselves to murder their own child - so what if someone offers to do it for them, for a price?


The problem, though, is that after thirteen novels Billingham's characters have developed far too much back story which has to be acknowledged. It's a tricky balance for any series writer and Billingham doesn't quite pull it off. To be fair, he has given himself an extra problem in that Thorne is shacked up with Helen Weeks, his other series character, who is, I'm sorry to say, excruciatingly dull. Admittedly I am slightly biased in that I hate the dull-as-dishwater TV adaptation of In the Dark currently going out on BBC1, which even the great MyAnna Buring cannot save. To be fair to myself, I started Love Like Blood before the series started and it was only later that I realised the uninteresting woman in the novel was also the boring woman on TV. We also have the storyline of DI Nicola Tanner, whose partner has been murdered in their own home. It is Tanner who has the contract honour killing theory and she gets in contact with Thorne who is already investigating a possibly linked murder. This plot device works very well and is entirely credible, but again it provokes yet more back story and, ultimately, that proves to be the final straw - though I must say there is a staggering plot twist which brings all the storylines together at the end in a stroke of sheer brilliance.

Overall, then, Love Like Blood is good - very good in parts - but not great. There is an imbalance between exposition and action, and it tilts the wrong way, which is really unfortunate because Billingham is so good at action.

I expected brilliance from Billingham after something like twenty books in total, an assumption based, not unreasonably, on the promise of his first three, Sleepyhead, Scaredy Cat and Lazybones, all of which I really admired.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Vulcan's Hammer - Philip K Dick

The last of the three early, short novels in this collection is Vulcan's Hammer. Is it the best? Hard to say: they are all different, all effective in their way. Is it the one I enjoyed most? To an extent. Is it the one that gave me the frisson? Easy answer. Yes it is.

Vulcan's Hammer was published in 1960, when computers filled warehouses and could barely count up to ten. Dick posits a post-apocalyptic world of about now when the world has come together in the utopian concord that everything will be fine so long as we agree to have policy determined by machines instead of men. That machine is Vulcan 3 which, spookily, occupies a facility in Switzerland not unlike CERN. In order to generate the best policy Vulcan has to be fed with every scrap of information available. Hands up who's thinking Google right now? Google's motto, Do No Evil, seemed cool to begin with, now it's morphed to ironic. Vulcan is also served by a multinational corporation. They call it Unity.

Dick accurately foresees the problem with super-super computers. There comes a time when they will replicate themselves, repair themselves, and if we stop feeding them information they will take measures to gather it for themselves. Should we be foolish enough to try and attack them, they will defend themselves. They may even fight back - which is where the hammers come in, in case you were wondering; I'm afraid they end up in their ultimate version as a prime example of an author who is halfway through his story when he realises he hasn't justified the title.

The writing is very measured for Dick, who notoriously wrote at a furious rate. The characters are very well drawn - as rounded as the protagonists in longer works such as The Man in the High Castle, written two years later and very much my kind of Dick novel. Essentially what makes the story zing is that the characters have doubts and consciences, a trait often missed in lesser SF where, of course, such things are personified as the enemy.

I have really enjoyed the three novels in this Millennium collection. I've learned quite a lot about SF signatures and tropes. I therefore recommend.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Spook Street - Mick Herron

I hadn't come across Mick Herron before. Had I noticed the blurb from the Mail on Sunday I would never have picked Spook Street up, which would have been a shame because, though the Mail on Sunday has no sense or taste whatsoever, this really is an excellent, fresh take on contemporary British spy fiction.

For a start, it's sardonically comic. Jackson Lamb, our team leader, is an appalling slob. The team he leads at Slough House are known elsewhere in MI5 as 'slow horses'. They are, in short, the unmanageable ones.  They have initiated disaster at some point in their career but MI5 dare not sack them in case they go to the Press, in which case some officers who still have prospects might end up in the adjoining prison cell.

Still, even slow horses have their day. Sometimes a case arises which is inescapably their province. Here, the proper domestic spies are fully engaged with a suicide bombing in a shopping mall. River Cartwright, one of Lamb's team, goes to visit his grandfather who is suffering dementia. Only someone claiming to be River has already shown up. The old man, who is not so senile that he can't vaguely remember his own grandson, shoots him dead - because David Cartwright was once also an habitue of Spook Street, by no means a slow horse but a candidate for First Chair. Who has sent an assassin to kill him? Is the old man as gaga as he seems? And how come the assassin and the suicide bomber travelled on papers of British citizens who never existed but who were created by MI5 back in David Cartwright's day?

That is a plot that would suffice for any straightfaced spy novel. Herron is able to deliver more because his spooks are comic and to be able to laugh at or with them we have to know something of who they are. Thus Herron's misfits end up being more rounded than many leading characters in mainstream series (Spook Street is itself the fourth in a series). Drink and domestic problems are not enough to give the slow horses their edge. Thus we have Roddy Ho, deluding himself that he has a proper girlfriend; the homicidal Shirley, and J K Coe who, his colleagues conclude, is "either PTSD or a psychopath."
The bad guys are equally conflicted, equally well-drawn. The prose style is exactly right throughout and there is a twist about 80% of the way through that is as devastating as anything by the master of such things, Jo Nesbo (see, for example, the mighty Headhunters.

I hugely enjoyed Spook Street in every way - intellectually, artistically, and sheer laugh-out-loud. I'm off down the library tomorrow to hunt out more.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The Third Reich - Roberto Bolano

Like virtually everyone else, I first heard of Bolano when he died ridiculously young in 2003. Like lots of my fellow literati I bought his final novel 2666 when it came out. And like a large proportion of my peers I struggled to love it.

However it turns out 2666 was not the last of Bolano. He left archives, drafts and outlines. He left The Third Reich, which seems to have been written towards the start of his career and, for whatever reason, discarded. It finally appeared in 2010 (2011 in English). This I absolutely loved.

Bolano was Chilean but he lived most of his adult life, such as it was, in Spain. In fact the lived in a minor resort on the Costa Brava, just like the one where The Third Reich is set.

The title naturally suggests the Nazis, and our anti-hero Udo Berger is indeed German, as is his girlfriend Ingeborg, her holiday friends Charly and Hanna, and the owner of the hotel, Frau Else. But The Third Reich is actually a war game. This is the 1980s when war games came in boxes rather than downloads and Udo is the German champion, lined up for a big match in Paris, who is developing a new strategy for publication.

The Germany Bolano actually plays with is that of Kafka. When Charly goes missing Udo's exceptionally ordered life starts to crumble. Even though he doesn't like the louche and feckless Charly he becomes overwhelmed by the need to stay on, long after Charly's body has been found and repatriated, long after the season has ended and the hotel around him is steadily heading for hibernation.

Udo fills his days by playing The Third Reich in his room with El Quemado, a disfigured beach bum of unknown origin who lives inside a pile of his own pedalos. El Quemado knows nothing about gaming but is "a quick study" - very quick. Soon Udo finds himself in retreat...

Like Kafka, nothing is really resolved. Mysterious linkages appear and fade. All that really matters is the carefully documented narrative of Udo's disintegration. Found among the papers is not usually a great indicator of quality, but in this instance it really is.

I am usually snitty about blurbs. Fair's fair, though. The cover blurb here - from the now defunct Independent on Sunday - couldn't be more right:
Overflowing with Bolano's exuberance, dark humour, and sarcasm, The Third Reich is a good introduction to this great and disquieting novelist.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Cartel - Don Winslow

The Cartel takes up where The Power of the Dog leaves off - it is the second, conclusive round of the lifetime, life-and-death duel to the death between the DEA's Art Keller and Adan Berrera, patron of the combined cartels of Mexico.

I loved The Power of the Dog when I read it earlier this year. The Cartel is just as good, perhaps slightly better. Happily, Winslow still resists the temptation of going the full Ellroy. His world is very dark, very treacherous, and astonishingly violent, but it remains none of the main participants is actually stark staring mad. That's the point - Adan is all about business; where would the Mexican economy be without him? There's a great passage on page 514 where he says:
After the crash [of 2008] the only source of liquidity was drug money. If they shut us down it would have taken the economy on the final plunge. They had to bail out General Motors, not us. And now? Think of the billions of dollars into real estate, stocks, start-up companies. Not to mention the millions of dollars generated fighting the 'war' [on drugs] - weapons manufacture, aircraft, surveillance. Prison construction. You think business is going to let that stop?
That's the beauty and the power of Winslow. He is so on-the-razor's edge current. I gather his latest novel, The Force, is going to propel him into the major league. Even before the book comes out, the TV version is in production. Don Winslow is already pretty big. Within a year he is going to be huge. I just hope he can stay current.

Writing this post, I think I have hit upon what makes The Cartel ever so slightly better than The Power of the Dog. It's the subplot about Pablo Mora, crime reporter on the local newspaer in Juarez, the frontline of the cartel war. Pablo is lazy, submissive, but he comes through in the end. Boy, does he come through. I can't offhand think of anything recent that has moved me so deeply as his last post. For many writers that would have been the whole story. Here it is just part of the mix. Other readers will be more stirred by other storylines. The point is, every reader will find something to treasure here.