Monday, 24 December 2018

Babylon Berlin - Volker Kutscher

This is the original book (2007) of the TV series (2017). You'd be hard pressed to recognise it. The characters are different - Detective Inspector Gereon Rath is addicted to morphine in the series but only dabbles in cocaine in the book; Charlotte Ritter is a prostitute who wants to be a detective in the series but is a well brought up clerk in the book. Some characters are renamed for the series, others wholly invented for. For example, the Countess is a key figure in the series, a cross dressing singer in the central nightclub; in the book she makes a fleeting appearance towards the end, never sings, and the club which is the whole point of the series barely figures. Perversely, the only really interesting character in the book, other than Rath - gangland supremo Doktor Marlow aka Doktor Mabuse - doesn't make it to the series where he is replaced by the fairly anodyne 'Armenian'.

In short, the book is nowhere near as good as the TV series and I simply cannot understand why the companies involved bothered to buy the rights when they could (and largely did) make up an original period piece without being stuck with the rubbishy main storyline (tedious hogwash about smuggled Tsarist gold). Nothing about the book smacks of 'international best seller'. It starts well but rapidly loses pace and ends up about 40% longer than the storyline warrants. I've no idea whether the translation, by Niall Sellar, accurately conveys the original, but there is a horrific blooper towards the end - 'pedalled' rather than 'peddled' - which should see whoever did the proof reading summarily dismissed.

As you might surmise, I was hugely disappointed. I did like the cover art, though.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Some Hope - Edward St Aubyn

Some Hope is the third in St Aubyn's Patrick Melrose series, the successor to Bad News which I reviewed on this blog earlier in the year.

It's a successor only in the temporal sense. Eight years have passed since the death of Patrick's father in Bad News. Patrick is now 30, his fortune depleted, and completely drug-free. He has, it might be said, lost everything that drew us to him in Never Mind and Bad News. Fortunately he has kept his excoriating wit; unfortunately we are not afforded sufficient opportunity to wallow in it. For Some Hope is only tangentially about Patrick Melrose. In truth it is about an ill-judged birthday party at the country house of some ghastly aristocrats, who have invited Patrick along with countless others, including Princess Margaret, who was still among us when the book was published in 1994.

The novel consists of snatches of waspish conversation between the partygoers and examples of just how stuck-up and downright horrible Princess Margaret was in later life. While this is all amusing - and on occasion laugh-out-loud funny - it is not Melrosian. Patrick, hates himself just as much as he hates other people and is therefore entitled to the sharpest and blackest of humour.

I enjoyed the book and happy to recommend it. It is, however, impossible to escape the suspicion that St Aubyn was merely treading water when he conceived it. He can and has done better and I will continue to read him whenever I get the chance.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

The Wench is Dead - Fredric Brown

Fredric Brown (1906-72) was a prolific author of pulp mystery and sci fi stories. The Wench is Dead (from 1953) is more of a novella, albeit a very short one. I read it as an e-book which didn't have numbered pages; I'm guessing it was somewhere around the 40 pages mark. And yet it is more novel than short story, encompassing the entirety of the convoluted action and a good measure of backstory.

Thus we learn that Howie is a scion of a Chicago business family who has won himself a Bachelor of Sociology degree but nevertheless finds himself washing dishes in a rundown Los Angeles chow house. He has a friends-with-benefits arrangement with B-girl prostitute Billie the Kid. His grand amour, however, is for nasty sweet wine. Drink, as so often, has been his undoing. Billie sends him to her neighbour Mame to borrow wine. Mame is a hype not a drunk but one of her customers the previous evening left her a bottle of the sweet stuff and she is more than willing to oblige Howie.

The next thing Howie knows, Billie is shaking him awake with the news that someone has killed Mame. Worse, the milkman saw Howie enter her apartment. His description is in the paper. Obviously Howie needs to scram - Billie will lend him the money. Howie feels obligated and offers to marry her. But Billie is a B-girl and knows she will never be acceptable in Chicagoan business circles.

She's a diamond in the rough. Howie is a poor sap in a jam. The Wench is Dead is pure noir. The publisher of the e-book even contrives to have him played on the cover by Elisha Cook Jnr, dead before the titles roll in countless noir classics of the Forties and Fifties. And Brown distils it like fine Scotch on the rocks rather than the nasty pints of cut-price muscatel favoured by his anti-hero. Great fun.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Stalin's Ghost - Martin Cruz Smith

Stalin's Ghost comes before Tatiana (reviewed below) in the decade-spanning Renko series. The tone and various characters are common to both. Renko, once the highest of high flyers, is hanging on to his job with his fingertips. A measure of how far he has fallen is that, when passengers claim to have seen the ghost of the late Stalin in an underground Metro station, Renko is put on the case. Needless to say, this is not what either the case or the book is really about.

Renko is shot in the head by the father of his more-or-less adopted son, the street chess prodigy Zhenko. His bosses in Moscow use the excuse to banish him to the backwater city of Tver. It is Renko himself who requests Tver because his lover Eva has left him for the Special Forces hero turned celebrity cop Nikolai Isakov who is standing for the Russian Patriot party in the forthcoming election - and Isakov is grounding his campaign in his home city of Tver.

The plot is complex and I don't believe all strands are fully wrapped up. There is a book between Stalin's Ghost and Tatiana (Three Stations, published in 2010) and it may be that they are completed there. The characters are brilliant, as ever with Smith. Even one of the prostitutes on the Metro train sticks in the memory. Zhenko is annoying because he is a teenage boy. Eva is infuriating because she is unreliable.

And as always Smith's prose, simple yet refined, is a pleasure to read.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Quarry's Choice - Max Allan Collins

I found this thanks to, which has fast become a Facebook favourite of mine. Max Allan Collins I vaguely knew as a prolific writer of contemporary pulp (although I had no idea how vast his range was before looking him up on Wikipedia) and Quarry rang a bell somewhere at the back of mind. I soon realised, on reading the set up chapter for this story, that the bell was the TV series Quarry which I had enjoyed last year but which had nevertheless got cancelled.

Anyway, the book series which Collins began at the time it is set (mid-Seventies) is about a Vietnam vet who returns home to find nothing waiting for him. No job, an antipathetic if not downright hostile citizenry and his wife having an affair with a local petrolhead, who soon suffers a nasty and highly memorable accident. Quarry (not his real name) is, however, exactly what the Broker is looking for - a hitman who can be relied upon to do the wet work efficiently and permanently. The Broker is the go-between. Quarry never knows who the client is or - up front - the reason the nominee needs to die.

Except in this case. The Broker is the client after Quarry saves him from an initial hit. The job takes him down to Biloxi where he signs up with the progressive wing of the Southern Mafia, which controls the casinos, bars and strip joints along the coast.

Turns out there is more wet work in Biloxi than anyone envisaged. Quarry's services are in high demand. He has choices to make - hence the title.

Collins writes with fluid grace. His phraseology is just sufficiently hard-boiled; it never even threatens to spill over into pastiche. His book, written in 2015 (39 years after Quarry's debut) but still set in 1972, is historically convincing with just the right amount of period detail. The twist, when it comes, is a great one. I did guess who it would involve but got nowhere near how.

Excellent. I want more.

And by the way, I love the cover.

Monday, 26 November 2018

The Golden Apples of the Sun - Ray Bradbury

This collection of Bradbury short stories dates from the early Fifties, before he had committed himself wholeheartedly to science fiction. Thus most of the stories here are not sci fi. By and large they are fantasy, some tilting more towards allegory.

It might not be the usual Bradbury field but it is definitely the usual Bradbury standard of writing. That is to say, exceptional. These stories might have appeared in pulp magazines but Bradbury still polishes his phrases, looks out for and treasures the occasional quirk, and leaves nothing on the bone. My personal favourites are 'The Flying Machine' (set in a mythical ancient China and definitely allegorical), 'Hail and Farewell' about a boy "twelve years old with a birth certificate n his valise to show he had been born forty-three years ago', and the opener, 'The Fog Horn' in which a sea monster perhaps a million years old answers the call.

All in all, classy ephemera.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Death of Anton - Alan Melville

Alan Melville (1910-83) was one of those bright young men who became a jack-of-all-trades with the BBC (producer, writer, performer) before World War II. I remember him on television in the Sixties. He is almost entirely forgotten now and I for one did not know he had written crime novels in his twenties. So many thanks to the British Library for adding Death of Anton to their Crime Classics reprints series.

The detective, Chief Inspector Mr Minto (there is no first name) is such a brilliant creation that you can't help wishing he had spawned a series. His much younger sister is about to marry a vacuum salesman and Minto is in town for the wedding, which will be conducted by his brother Robert, a Catholic priest. Carey's Circus is also in town, and the Mintos are at Dodo the clown's party when Anton the tiger-tamer is found dead in the tiger cage. The initial view is that the tigers mauled him, but Minto of the Yard is not fooled. He spots three bullet wounds.

Melville was a famous wit and this is therefore a light-hearted romp. Minto is very funny - but nobody's fool - and the circus setting guarantees a cast of eccentrics for Melville to play with. The mystery is well-plotted and I certainly did not guess who had done it or why. Entirely satisfactory on every front. As I say, the shame is there was no follow-up. After the war Melville channelled his comic talents into musical theatre and that is somewhere I wouldn't venture at any price.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Black Seconds - Karin Fossum

Helga Joner's ten-year old daughter disappears on her way to the local shop. Inspector Sejer therefore starts his investigation as a missing person inquiry. As time passes, and Ida remains missing, the chances of finding her alive diminish.  After a while the child's distinctive yellow bike shows up, undamaged. Some time later the body itself is found, badly damaged but not sexually assaulted, and dressed in a brand new nightgown. Bizarrely, she seems to have been frozen.

There are suspects - in Ida's family and in the local community. Ida's cousin Tomme pranged his car the same night Ida disappeared - are the two events connected? And then there's the local eccentric - the grumpy, monosyllabic village idiot Emil Johannes, who rides a three-wheeler motorbike with a trailer that could easily accommodate a child.

Black Seconds won the prestigious Martin Beck Award in 2002 and it is easy to see why. It sits wholly within the Beck tradition - patient, productive police work and understanding of human frailty - rather than the lurid psychopathy of Jo Nesbo. The scenes in which Sejer questions Emil Johannes are beautifully done and utterly riveting. I'm a big fan of Fossum - many of her other novels are reviewed here - and Black Seconds is one of her best.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Earthlight - Arthur C Clarke

Two hundred years in the future (from 1955) Earth has colonised the planets of the Solar System. Generations of humankind have been born and lived off-Earth. The situation is not much different from that of the British Empire in 1939 - the subordinate states are too big, the dominant hub too small and too demanding. The Earth is considered to be withholding essential heavy metals from the Federated planets. Conflict is inevitable and imminent.

For this reason Bertram Sadler, accountant, is sent to the Moon to try and track down whoever is leaking secret information to the Federation. The Moon consists of Central City and peripheral specialised bases, like the Observatory Sadler is officially auditing. But the Observatory's work is hampered by unknown traffic. It turns out an unauthorised base is being built nearby. Is this the first act of war by the Federation?

It all sounds like the perfect plot for a sci fi thriller. But, this being Arthur C Clarke early in his career, there are no thrills. Indeed, we are lucky to get a plot. What Clarke is interested in is the science. Sixty years on, of course, the science is faintly risible. Men have colonised the solar system but are still reliant on teleprinters and analogue radio. Even television scarcely figures. The standout sections for me were the ones about light beams on the Moon and the limited effect of atomic weapons in space. I sincerely hope Arthur C was right on both counts.

Friday, 9 November 2018

The Devil in the White City - Erik Larson

I first found Erik Larson when I acquired his book about Crippen and Marconi, Thunderstruck, reviewed here in February 2016. In that review I alluded to this book, which likewise combines the US serial killer H H Holmes with the building of the Chicago World's Fair, which effectively supplied him with victims during the summer of 1893.

The idea, on first glance, seems terrific, but like Thunderstruck there are problems. In Thunderstruck it was the fact that not only did Crippen and Marconi never meet, they were rarely in the same country. Marconi did not invent wireless telegraphy in order to catch Crippen, it just happened that his invention was used in Crippen's capture. Also, the point of interest with Crippen is that he was such a meek man, the worm who literally turned on his appalling wife. No one can accuse H H Holmes of similar shortcomings. He was the ultimate predator, killing for the simple pleasure of being there at the death. Then there is his purpose-built hotel of horror, with its built-in gas chambers and chutes to the basement for easy disposal. On the other hand Marconi was always interesting in everything he did, whereas Daniel Burnham was only one of many architects who worked on the World's Fair, albeit he was the team leader. His partner John Root was the visionary behind the scheme but died before work began. Far more interesting than Burnham are the landscape designer Frederick Law Olmstead, driven mad by overwhelming toothache, and the mercurial George Ferris who came up with the awesome wheel which saved the fair's financial bacon and was probably the single defining legacy of the show.

The main problem, however, is that the six months of the fair was only part of Holmes's murderous career. In a sense it was a deviation from his usual practice, which was to kill wives, mistresses and business partners for their life insurance. Too little is known of Holmes for him to be anything other than an enigma. He was not caught until more than a year after the fair ended and during a long time in prison he wrote his own story for money - three 'confessions', each more appalling than the last. How much, if any, was true? How many did he really kill? We will never know. One mystery that sticks with me is who did he leave the money to? Tracing his heirs, several of whom he had almost certainly killed and others who probably were not as legally entitled as they assumed, would be a real tangle to unravel.

Larson's research is again hugely impressive. I love his declaration that "I do not employ researchers, nor do I conduct any primary research using the Internet. I need physical contact with my sources, and there's only one way to get it. To me every trip to a library or archive is like a small detective story." You and me both, Erik - not that I could afford to use researchers even if I wanted to. And he writes like a dream, always pitch-perfect, never remotely dull. I will certainly snap up the next book of his I come across. I quite fancy Dead Wake about the sinking of the Lusitania.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Rampage - Harold Schechter

Rampage is one of a series of short, true-crime stories published as Amazon Originals. The collection is called Bloodlands. This one is a good place to start because it covers the first modern rampage shooting spree, the 1949 case of Howard Unruh.

Now, I fancy myself a keen student of true crime but to be honest I'd never heard of Unruh. This I find odd. The spree itself is unbelievably bad - he shot and killed thirteen, including three children - and survived. That's perhaps the oddest thing. Most spree killers are their own final victim. Others turn on the police, knowing they'll be killed. Unruh did take a few shots at the local cops when they arrived at his home, but he soon surrendered. He not only answered questions at the time of arrest, he went on answering questions for the remaining sixty years of his life. He wasn't executed, he never even went to prison. He was incarcerated in the local mental hospital. No time limit was set but in Unruh's case it meant life. He was 89 when he died, 29 when he went on his fifteen minute spree in Camden, New Jersey.

And despite all the questions, he never really explained what made him do it. His neighbours were simply getting on his nerves. He thought they talked about him, about the fact that he didn't have a job and lived with his mother. But some of those he shot were unknown to him, some were children, far too young to have interacted with the asocial but polite young man. Schechter, who has written dozens of full-length true crime books and has a distinguished academic career, hints at the possibility of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - Private Unruh served in the later years of WW2 and was something a crack shot - but possibility is all it is. Unruh never claimed to have been traumatised by anything. He knew he had done wrong, he seemed to regret it, and knew he would be rightly punished.

In lesser hands, Unruh's story could have been stretched and padded interminably. Schechter recognises that the defining quality here is brevity: the short time the spree lasted, the alarming number of victims (almost one a minute), and finally the long enigmatic and persisting lack of explanation. Schechter's prose is precise and purposefully flat, letting the horrific facts speak for themselves. It's a perfect commuting read and the presentation, with contemporary photos and the checkmarks from the cover ticking off each victim, is really clever. I have already bought others in the Bloodlands Collection and will doubtless buy more. There are currently six.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

All Tomorrow's Parties - William Gibson

All Tomorrow's Parties - a title always guaranteed to snag the attention of a Velvets' fan like me - is the third part of Gibson's late-90s Bridge Trilogy. The others are Virtual Light and Idoru. I haven't read either of those but I'm certainly going to now.

I love Gibson and I loved this book. The bridge in question is the Golden Gate, which has been taken over by interstitial settlers since the long overdue earthquake made it unsafe for vehicles in the early 21st century. People there live in small re-purposed containers and sell stuff to tourists. Meanwhile in Tokyo, Colin Laney lives in very similar conditions in a subway station. There he immerses himself in the net in search of nodal points and his idoru Rei Toei, a seductive holograph. Laney sends ex-cop Rydell to collect the projector carrying Rei Toei. Rydell's next port of call is the bridge where he encounters his former girlfriend Chevette, also returning to the bridge where she lived with a previous lover.

From there on in, it's the beginning of the end of the world as bridge-dwellers have come to know it. I won't reveal any more because the plotting is so wonderfully tight. The dialogue is sharp, the prose sizzles with cyperpunk connectivity. Nobody but nobody does it better than Gibson, the Elmore Leonard or Stephen King of near-contemporary dystopia.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Aleister Crowley, the Beast Demystified - Roger Hutchinson

This is a refreshing take on the Crowley sub-genre. These are usually sensational or lurid, taking the tone of a couple of red-top scandal sheets that proclaimed the middleaged Crowley to be the wickedest man alive, the Beast of the Revelation personified. We should have looked more into these so-called newspapers. One was John Bull, the personal propaganda of the demagogue and fraudster Horatio Bottomley. Another was the Sunday Express, then as now a sad comedown for the chips wrapped in it.

Hutchinson's take is that Crowley was one of many ego-centric eccentrics who came to prominence during the Edwardian era. The sons of fairly wealthy men, they were public school educated (usually unhappily), unable to find a place for themselves in the newly globalised world and not rich enough to ignore the problem. Crowley, in these terms, was remarkable only in that he chose and stayed with occultism (or 'magick' as he typically called it). The fact that he stayed with magick is what set Crowley apart and what brought upon him the wrath of the right wing British press. Occultism had been fashionable in the 1880s and 90s, but in the Twentieth Century most dabblers moved on to full-blown fascism.

Hutchinson keeps it short, which is a wise move; too often, Crowley biographers feel obliged to fill space with endless quotes from the magickal lore which their subject churned out to maintain some sort of income. Regarding that sort of material as pure hack-work, and the press campaigns as entirely made up, Hutchinson ends up being surprisingly generous to his subject. He regards the Beast as a bad poet, though no worse than many others of his era, a mediocre novelist, and a really rather gifted writer of non-fiction. He certainly inspired me to try some of Crowley's fiction, which is apparently almost entirely autobiographical.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Mother London - Michael Moorcock

Mother London is not what we expect of Michael Moorcock. That's our shortcoming, not his. He wrote Mother London in 1988 when he was absolutely at the top of his game, capable of writing absolutely anything. And here's the proof.

There's very little sci fi, but a load of fantasy. That's because Moorcock's three protagonists are on and off mental patients and we spend as much time as they do in the world of dreams. The London 'mother', insofar as there is one, is Mary Gasalee, a teenage mum who emerges from the ruin of her house in the Blitz, cradling her infant daughter. The moment she hands the baby to the ambulance crew she collapses - and remains in a coma for the next fifteen years. We enjoy her dreams which she spends largely with Hollywood stars - Merle Oberon is a particular dream friend and Ronald Colman keeps turning up unexpectedly. When Mary wakes she is in her middle thirties but still looks eighteen; everyone mistakes Mary and her daughter for sisters.

Recuperating in the hospital garden she meets Josef Kiss and does what women always do with Josef. We have already met Josef. He is an old style variety act - a mind-reader, albeit like Mary he can do it for real. In the war he made himself an ARP warden and a disarmer of unexploded bombs. This is how he met the eccentric Scaramanga sisters (in one of the best sections of the entire book). Since the war he does small character parts in film and on TV. He is best known as the face of frozen fish fingers. Josef is only sporadically mad and he occasionally books himself into various mental hospitals for rest and recuperation.

The third protagonist is David Mummery, a freelance journalist much younger than Mary and Josef. Josef, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the city, its legends and byways, is David's mentor, Mary his first love. David is not as strong a character as the other two and therefore carries very little of the narrative. I was thinking he was a mistake until I came to the very last section and realised why he was there.

Chronology in Mother London is prismatic. If it matters, we are told when we are in the chapter headings. We always know where we are - London - and are mainly specifically located by ancient pubs. There is no apparent rationale behind the ordering of the sections except at the beginning and the end. The beginning is the weekly get-together of the patients at a clinic. The end is at the Scaramanga's cottage which will replace it after Thatcher's cuts. In this fictional version of the 1980s Thatcher is very much PM but Secretary of State for Health is Josef's antithetical sister, Dame Beryl Male, whose husband is in charge of the mental hospital where the protagonists first meet.

There is a splendid backdrop of fleeting characters, of whom I especially enjoyed the Fox family of villains. Many of these background characters are gypsies, who seem to fascinate Moorcock. And why not? They have been in London, he reckons, since it was pontoons in the primeval marshland. The Matter of Britain is also here, the buried demigods Lud, Gog and Magog, and Bran. And the three protagonists, all to varying extents able to hear the thoughts of others, are assailed by wedges of stream-of-consciousness which we soon recognise as flags of manic episodes.

I was absolutely stunned by Mother London. It truly is a masterpiece of London fiction. You have to be mad to live there, of course, so all Moorcock's core characters are.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

The Unholy City - Charles G Finney

Sometimes you stumble on something that's completely out of the blue. This 1976 paperback with the hideous and far too literal cover proclaims The Unholy City (1937) "a masterpiece of weird adventure." Well it's certainly not an adventure, it's definitely weird, and it might well be a masterpiece.

Charles G Finney (1905-1984) was the great-grandson of an identically-named evangelist and prolific writer (so be careful if you put the name into a search engine). His first novel, The Circus of  Dr Lao (1935) was deemed the most original book of the year in the National Book Awards. It was later turned into a partly-animated movie (The 7 Faces of Dr Lao) by George Pal. Tony Randall - later famous as  Felix in The Odd Couple - apparently supplies all seven faces. I really must get a copy of book and film.

The Unholy City is partly a continuation in that our narrator, whom we eventually learn is called Captain Butch Malahide, comes from Abalone, the Arizona town visited by Dr Lao's circus. He is taking a world tour by airship but the airship crashes, leaving Malahide the only survivor. He scoops up all the money he can find from his late fellow passengers (a large amount of drachmas, though pointedly not the Greek variety) and sets out for the nearest city. On the way he encounters Vicq Ruiz, who convinces Malahide to accompany him to the city of Heilar-way where they will enjoy a bacchanal to celebrate the fact that Ruiz will die very soon. He woke this very morning with a presentiment to that effect.

Before they get to the city they encounter the Chiam Mings, who own the monster on the cover. Malahide and Ruiz are exposed to the beast, but Malahide has a pistol and shoots it. End of adventure.

The remainder of this very short (120 page) book is the bacchanal. The twosome drink prodigious amounts of szelack, travel hundreds of miles up and down the Calle Grande in supercharged taxis, watch a black citizen get railroaded in court, get interviewed by the Scavenging Scribe of the Tandstikkerzeutung newspaper, pay off Ruiz's debts with Malahide's drachmas, pick up a couple of women (Mrs Schmale and Mrs Schwackhammer), eat several meals of chops and green onions, get into fights, watch an experimental play, and are taken for members of three groups of insurgents (the elderly, the taxpayers and the unemployed) who have separately decided to rise up together against the repressive government of Heilar-way such as it is.

Throughout the day they hear and read news reports of a giant tiger terrorising the suburbs.

This is not fantasy literature, it is fantastical. In a sense it is a cock-eyed Pilgrim's Progress. The relationship between Malahide and Ruiz is the inverse of that between Don Quixote and Sancha Panza; Ruiz spouts high-flown chivalric nonsense about honour which the monosyllabic Malahide apathetically accepts. The nearest parallel I could think of was Nathanael West who was writing his slim satires at the same time as Finney. The language is deliberately archaic ("By gad, sir!"), the shenanigans bordering on slapstick. Before fighting a couple of roughs who are seeking to steal their lady-friends, Ruiz has to hand Malahide his dentures and spectacles and enlist his help to adjust his surgical support.  The roughs, meanwhile, are given a thorough beating by the slim redheaded girl cashier with the huge grin. There is also surrealism: Malahide becomes obsessed with the spectral figure of Frances Shepherd, disgraced daughter of the notorious bank president, whom he bumps into all across town, finally getting close and personal in the zoo recently vacated by the rampaging tiger.

At its heart - the Germanic names give it away - The Unholy City is a scathing satire of the rise of fascism, also lampooned by Sinclair Lewis in It Can't Happen Here (1935). You see the reports about the marauding tiger and you instantly conclude Fake News! Nobody reliable has actually seen it, although there are pawprints and savaged corpses. It is a perfect gem of its period. I would add 'and its genre' but what is its genre? Is it, perhaps, unique? Whichever, I loved it.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Journey into Fear - Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler (1909-1998) was the master of spy fiction. Before him there was John Buchan and whoever it was created Bulldog Drummond; after came James Bond. Without Ambler there would have been no Bond. Fleming absolutely stuck with Ambler's formula for success, though in my view his writing was never as good. Where Fleming outshone Ambler, however, was in having the continuing hero. Each of Ambler's major thrillers has a different hero and they tend to be middling men of no particular significance who by chance become embroiled in the machinations of nations. They are more like real spies in that sense and, given that we know they will not recur in the next book, we cannot be sure they will survive, which adds suspense utterly lacking in Bond.

Here, for example, Mr Graham, who lacks even a forename, works in a senior capacity for an international arms manufacturer. This being 1940, the firm's products are in great demand and Mr Graham - having survived an assassination attempt in Istanbul - is trying to get home to England on a cut-price ocean steamer. His fellow passengers are few in number. Any or none of them might be in league with the assassin, who also manages to slip aboard. That, in essence, is the story.

It is down to Ambler's skill as a storyteller that we remain enthralled. His characterisation is excellent, his writing strong. He uses narrative devices well beyond his successor Fleming. For example the first couple of chapters unfold in flashback. We are aware of Mr Graham's amended plan to sail aboard the scruffy steamer, then find out why he has agreed to give up his original plan to travel first class by rail. This gets excitement in good and early (the attempt on his life), introduces the femme fatale (the glamorous nightclub dancer Josette) and reveals the involvement of professional spies in Colonel Haki of the Turkish secret service.

Journey into Fear made an excellent film with Orson Welles as Haki. After the war Ambler moved to Hollywood to write and produce movies. He was extremely successful - I had no idea until I looked him up. He wrote the screenplays for The Cruel Sea and the best of all Titanic movies, A Night to Remember. That is how good he was. Better than Buchan, better than Fleming. The best.

Monday, 8 October 2018

The Trouble With Lichen - John Wyndham

The Trouble With Lichen (1960) is a marked departure from Wyndham's usual output. It remains science fiction and as usual is set more or less contemporaneously. But it is a comic novel, hence what would otherwise be a horribly inappropriate cover. Is it funny? Not laugh out loud, certainly. It takes a comically quizzical look at what happens when an age-preventing agent is discovered by scientists. One tries to bury the discovery, though he cannot resist dosing himself and his children; the other sets up an exclusive beauty clinic. Both choices have repercussions. The truth is bound to get out eventually, and it very quickly does.

The writing is good, the idea close to brilliant. The problem is, Wyndham can't handle the God's Eye View. He sees too much, thus there is lots of so-called comic banter between working class types, stereotypical politicians and the popular press insist on getting involved. Wyndham would have done better by sticking to his two scientists, Francis Saxover (scion of a sort of Wedgwood/Darwen dynasty) and his beautiful and brilliant assistant Diana Brackley. I believe that would have forced him to work out his plot better in his celebrated 'logical' technique. As it is, the sending up of real newspapers like the Guardian and the Mail works well; that of obviously fictional papers like the Trumpeter falls flatter than any pancake.

Oddly, though - and very unusually for a science fiction novel - Lichen provides a convincing snapshot of the society for which it was written. It's a slightly qualified thumbs-up from me then.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Rather be the Devil - Ian Rankin

This is the 2016 instalment of Rebus and continues the high standard of recent Rebus novels. Again, Rebus is shadowed by the insipid Malcolm Fox, former Professional Standards chief, now attached to the Scottish Crime Campus at Gartcosh. Fox is meant to be the antithesis of Rebus, the good cop who plays by the rules, but he never manages to do so and is far too dull to do anything but get in Rebus's way. This was not the case in the two standalone Fox novels, The Complaints and The Impossible Dead, both of which I greatly enjoyed, but the sooner he is ditched from the Rebus series the better. The only contrast we need with Rebus is his former oppo Siobhan Clarke, whose character continues to add richness to successive novels.

The structure here is complex. Rebus is taking his mind off his health problems by looking into an almost forty year old cold case, the murder of Maria Turquand, strangled in a city centre hotel full of bankers and pop stars and crooks. The police, meanwhile, are investigating an attack on local gangster Darryl Christie. His gangland mentor, Big Ger Cafferty, is a prime suspect and so is Anthony Brough, the missing grandson of banking buccaneer Sir Magnus Brough, who was peripherally involved in the Turquand case insofar as his deputy was married to Maria. Thus Rebus is drawn in to the inquiry.

In fact, the cold case storyline rather fizzles out. The main story, however, is full of fun. Big Ger himself plays a full and active role - Rankin is so taken with him, indeed, that this edition contains a short story 'Cafferty's Day' "exclusive to Waterstone's" (which is not as impressive as it might sound, since Waterstone's is the owner of W H Smith's and now Foyles' and is thus the only British mass market book chain). In fact the story is neither here nor there. It could have been worse - at least it ties in to the main novel.

In summary, then: a top quality police procedural, as good as anything similar in the market and a good deal better than most. Rankin remains on top form, which is saying something given that 2017 was the 30th anniversary of the first Rebus.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Out of the Silent Planet - C S Lewis

Lewis's Cosmic Trilogy, of which this is the first, preceded his Narnia books by more than a decade and, indeed, an entire world war. Out of the Silent Planet (1938) was only his second novel, yet the authorial voice is fully fledged, immediately recognisable as the voice of Narnia. In many ways it is Narnia for adults, or slightly older youngsters. The creatures of Malacandria or Mars are varied but still essentially 'human' and there is a strong moral framework underpinning the work.

Elwin Ransom is a philology don on a walking holiday. He stumbles into a business operated by Devine, an acquaintance from school, and Professor Weston, the noted physicist. They have invented a space capsule that works "by exploiting the less observed properties of solar radiation". Ransom is drugged and wakes to find himself aboard the ship, bound for a planet of which he has never heard. Devine and Weston have been there before and have agreed to supply the natives with a specimen of humankind.

The first natives encountered are gigantic sorns. Ransom makes a break for it and finds himself among the hrossa, a sort of seal people who specialise in singing and poetry. As a linguist, Ransom is soon able to talk with them and lives happily with them until a creature no more than a flash of light, an eldil, reminds the hrossa that Oyarsa is expecting him. A sorn called Augray helps Ransom to get to Oyarsa, and it transpires that all the higher orders of being or hnau that inhabit Malacandria co-exist peaceably. Oyarsa is the supreme eldil, the overseer of Malacandria. They are others like him on all the planets of the solar system, even Earth. Earth is called the Silent Planet because its version of Oyarsa is 'bent' - fallen, malignant - hence the creatures of Earth do not co-exist but perpetually struggle for dominance.

The moral and religious element is therefore clear. Malacandria and Earth are both dying planets. The essential scheme of the villains Devine and Weston is to open colonisation of other worlds as a refuge for mankind when disaster strikes. The Malacandrians have no such concerns. They accept death as part of the cycle. In the past other lifeforms have prospered on Malacandria; the roseate clumps which Ransom initially took for clouds are in fact the fossilised remnants of a previous world dominated by creatures of the air, just as Earth was once a world of giant lizards.

The story is startlingly profound, very different from the general run of science fiction. Continuing into the second part of the trilogy, Voyage to Venus aka Perelandra, seems inevitable.

Friday, 21 September 2018

The Distant Echo - Val McDernid

The Distant Echo has, with hindsight, become the first in the Karen Pirie 'cold case' series. I make what might seem an odd point because whilst it is a cold case and Karen Pirie is in charge of the file, she doesn't appear until about 360 pages in and contributes nothing to solving the case.

What in fact we have is a dense, two-part crime story. In 1978 a bunch of mates, studying together at St Andrews University, stumble upon a body in the snow. Rosie Duff was nineteen, a barmaid at one of the student pubs. She has been raped and stabbed and dumped in the old Pictish graveyard. The boys are initially treated as suspects. They were drunk, they had access to a suitable vehicle, all bar one are of the right blood group. But there is no real evidence. They are bailed, their names leaked to the Press. It is assumed by all they are guilty. They are so overwhelmed by the pressure that one tries to commit suicide. In trying to save him, the lead investigating officer, DI Maclennan, loses his life. In effect, whoever killed Rosie is now responsible for the deaths of two people.

That story makes up about half of a 560-page book. The detail is immense, the characterisation forensically detailed. Flash forward twenty-five years. It is now 2003 and forensic science has moved on considerably, albeit nowhere near so much as it has today. Police all over the world are re-opening old cases in light of the latest advances in DNA profiling. The Chief Constable of Fife has decided to get with the programme and has set up a small cold case unit. Karen Pirie has the Rosie Duff profile, which is very much a priority, given that the other cold case officer is the younger brother of the late Maclennan and James Lawson, the first police officer on the scene, is now ACC Crime with special responsibility for the unit.

The four original suspects are now spread across both sides of the Atlantic. Alex and Ziggy are still close, even though Ziggy is a paediatrician in Seattle while Alex is a Glasgow manufacturer of greeting cards. Tom aka Weird became an evangelical Christian under the pressure of the original investigation and now conducts a TV ministry in America. Davey is a lecturer in French and has no real contact with the others, despite living barely an hour's drive from Alex and despite the fact that has sister Lynn has long been married to Alex.

No sooner has the case been reopened than Ziggy dies in a fire. Then a second member of the quartet is murdered. Another is attacked in the street and left for dead. The list of suspects is long and the police have no new leads. The evidence from the original investigation into Rosie's murder has gone missing.

The Distant Echo (not a great title) is a fabulous, serious, psychological and procedural crime novel. It demonstrates why McDermid is the grande dame of Tartan Noir. It is essential reading for students of the genre. I got it because I had seen a review for the latest Karen Pirie. I'm now seeking out the rest of the series.

Monday, 17 September 2018

The Last Enemy - Richard Hillary

Hillary was born in 1919, an Australian brought up and educated in Britain. He joined the RAF on the outbreak of war, shot down five enemy aircraft and then, on his fifth mission, was blown out of the sky over the Channel by a Messerschmitt.

The canopy of his Spitfire was faulty and he couldn't bail out as quickly as he should. His hands and face were badly burnt before, ultimately, the plane rolled and he fell out of the cockpit into the water. He was rescued by the local lifeboat and taken to a series of hospitals, ending up in the care of pioneering plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe.

That's as far as Hillary takes us in this memoir, written in 1942. He goes into no detail of how bad his disfigurement was and this slightly crappy edition provides no preface or introduction to tell us what happened to him in later life.

Considering the book itself, Hillary starts with his shooting down. He then backtracks to his idle days at Oxford and enlistment, with his varsity pals, in the RAF. He describes training in Scotland and the long wait to achieve a Spitfire posting. It gets a bit dull, to be frank. However the second section, in hospital, turns out to be surprisingly effective. Hillary finds an engaging tone somewhere between modesty and extreme heroism (which, modestly, he focuses on the other patients, all of them burnt airmen). There is no real end, presumably because he was still receiving treatment when he wrote the book.

This is where a capable introduction or appendix would have come in handy. Hillary certainly was receiving treatment, from another specialist, in 1942. His disfigurement was so bad that Lord Halifax had refused to let Hillary be seen on a propaganda tour. Naturally this was a massive blow to a young airman full of testosterone and it seems he lost confidence. Hence he was taken to New York - to the Ritz Towers Hotel, where legendary Anglo-Indian actress Merle Oberon is said to have administered two weeks of specialist reassurance. Soon Hillary had blagged a return to flying, even though his hands were so maimed that he couldn't handle a knife and fork. He crashed his light bomber in January 1943. He was still only 23 years old.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

The Bone Won't Break - John McGrath

The Bone Won't Break is the text of lectures given by McGrath at Cambridge University in 1988. A similar series of lectures, from 1979, had been turned into A Good Night Out.

The latter told the story of how McGrath, a successful television screenwriter and author of one stage success, Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun, which Jack Gold turned into a 1968 movie starring Nicol Williamson and John Thaw, had founded - with like-minded collaborators - the 7:84 touring theatre company in 1971. The name comes from the statistic that 7% of the population controlled 84% of the wealth. Now, of course, the first number is smaller, the second higher.

In the good days of Heath and Wilson, 7:84 received funding from the Arts Council. Its biggest success was McGrath's play The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil. This was theatre of dissent, left wing agit-prop, which 7:84 took to the communities involved in the halcyon days of North Sea Oil.

By 1979 7:84 was two companies, an English and a Scottish one. McGrath was English (born in Merseyside) but was a Scotsman by marriage, deeply involved in the early days of the devolution campaign. McGrath was a totem of the awkward squad - which was what, in those days, the Arts Council existed to fund.

The Bone Won't Break describes the Thatcher years, in which the purpose of art was quite deliberately subverted in order to squash voices of dissent. Instead of sponsoring alternative forms of theatre, funding under the horrendous reactionary prig Lord Mogg (father of Jacob) went to centres of excellence like the RSC, the National Theatre, and above all else, Covent Garden. Nobody complained. Everybody loves classical theatre. Don't they?

English 7:84 lost its grant and died in 1984. The Scottish version stumbled on until 2008 with residual funding from the Scottish Arts Council. I'm sure it did good work but the fact is it was something of a fossil, a reminder of earlier, better days.

And here I agree absolutely with McGrath. Theatre in the Seventies, when I did my first degree in drama and worked in the profession, was vibrant, challenging and multiform. Every voice, from cut-glass to Glasgow growl, found an outlet. Audiences had choice. Performers cultivated them. Now, it's all ghastly musicals. Outside Edinburgh in August there are no fringe spaces. Culture has lost. Thatcher and her uncultured goons killed it. Now grime music is Britain's last remaining voice of dissent, sometimes for as long as couple of months before the music industry buys the rights and sanitises the product.

Theatre Studies now is all about musicals and dance. Musicals are a mongrel form, very few of which achieve real success. Dance is an incredibly hard discipline. It can sometimes be radical but hardly ever political. Protest theatre will never conquer the West End, nor should it try. Its place is the small venue, the country field, the car park, the public space every city is now creating where its markets used to be.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Garnethill - Denise Mina

Garnethill (1999) is the first of Mina's series of the same name featuring ex-mental patient and abuse survivor Maureen O'Donnell. It is also her first novel, though you'd never guess.

Maureen has decided to end her relationship with Douglas, a therapist from her mental health clinic. She gets terrifically drunk one night, rolls home to her flat in Garnethill, and wakes next morning to find Douglas in her living room, his head hanging off and something deeply unpleasant hidden in her hall cupboard. Obviously Maureen is prime suspect - if not her, the police reason, then her drug dealer brother Liam.

Despite her somewhat addled memories of the evening in question, Maureen is confident she didn't do it. The police don't seem to be listening, so she investigates herself, sometimes with Liam's assistance, more often with Lesley, her biker pal from the women's refuge. Liam aside, she gets no support from the rest of her family, who initially assume she did it during one of her mental episodes. Maureen's mother Winnie is a colourful alkie. Maureen's sisters are both upwardly mobile, loving but with no idea about their younger siblings. Their father has long since disappeared, following young Maureen's allegations of abuse.

The plot is complex but held together, more or less, by the theme of abuse - sexual, physical, official. Even dead Douglas gets involved by leaving Maureen an appreciable amount of money as some sort of compensation. To say any more about the story would be to give too much away. The writing is of a very high standard, the tone - enlivened here and there by the grim Glaswegian humour - is spot on. The characters - those within Maureen's ambit, anyway - are fully rounded and very human in their instability. Perhaps the antagonists could do with a touch more development; circumstances got in the way of me posting this review yesterday, having finished it the evening before, and I had to take a moment to remember who killed Douglas and why, and I still can't remember the character's name.

That's my only criticism. I loved Garnethill. Sadly, it transpires I read the second in the series, Exile, back in 2015 and reviewed it here. Turns out I didn't like it as much as I liked Garnethill. Still, there's always Resolution.

[Previously posted on this blog.]

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Mourning Becomes Electra - Eugene O'Neill

Mourning Becomes Electra dates from 1932 when O'Neill was at the pinnacle of his powers and only a couple of years before he won the Nobel Prize.

Dramatically, it is a colossal enterprise: three full-length plays harking back to the very earliest surviving drama whilst remaining ostensibly naturalistic, and characters brimming over with (then) ultra-modern Freudian complexes. Because it is set in the immediate aftermath of the US Civil War, there is also an element of historicity.

The fundamental model is the Oresteia of Aeschylus (458BC), the only surviving Greek trilogy albeit it lacks his satyr play, which we know was called Proteus. In the original, Agamemnon returns from Troy to find that his family has turned in on itself in his absence. His wife is unfaithful, his children too emotionally entangled with each other to relate normally to the greater world. It's all to do with the curse that fell upon the House of Atreus (Agamemnon's father), who cheated the goddess Artemis of a golden lamb. I think...

In New England in the 1860s the Judge's wife Christine Mannon and her daughter Lavinia await the return of husband Ezra, a brigadier general in the victorious Union army, and brother/son Orin, who has been wounded in the head. Christine and Vinnie are at daggers drawn over sea captain Adam Brant, who Christine is sleeping with, who Vinnie might or might not have taken a shine to, and who is anyway the illegitimate son of Ezra's late brother, disowned for his lack of decorum by their father Abe. Ezra finally arrives home - the first play in the trilogy is 'Homecoming' - and Christine kills him with poison obtained by Brant.

'The Hunted' opens with the funeral of Ezra. Vinnie knows what her mother did and is more than half unhinged. Orin arrives, already knocked loopy by his head wound, and is driven properly off his head by shock. He and Vinnie follow their mother to Brant's ship - a ship owned, of course, by the Mannon family - and hear her plan to elope with him. Once Christine has gone, Orin kills Adam. They return home to gleefully break the news to Christine, and Orin, who has had an Oedipus complex all his life, kills her too.

The third play is 'The Haunted'. Vinnie and Orin are living together at the family mansion. There is gossip in the village about the sudden deaths of their parents, but locals maintain the Mannons have always been unlucky and console themselves with the notion that there is always payback for wealth and privilege. Vinnie is planning to marry her longstanding beau Peter Niles; Orin is supposed to marry Peter's sister Hazel. But Orin is haunted, not by guilt (he is proud of safeguarding the family reputation) but by the thought of losing Vinnie, whom he is now unnaturally attached to. Vinnie promises to forget Peter and stay with Orin forever, if only he will stop writing his account of what happened to their parents. Satisfied, Orin kills himself. The play and the trilogy ends with Hazel persuading Vinnie not to marry Peter because she's ruining him, and Vinnie resolving perforce to keep her promise to Orin.

I'm not going the way Mother and Orin went. That's escaping punishment. And there's no one left to punish me. I'm the last Mannon. I've got to punish myself! Living alone here with the dead is a worse act of justice than death or prison! I'll never go out or see anyone! I'll have the shutters nailed close so no sunlight can ever get in. I'll live alone with the dead, and keep their secrets, and let them hound me, until the curse is paid out and the last Mannon is let die!"
The exclamation marks speak for themselves. There are hundreds of them across the three plays in thirteen acts. They suggest, I believe rightly, that this borders on expressionism, which would have been heightened by the implied use of masks - the Mannons are always described as having faces like masks. For example Lavinia:
Above all, one is struck by the same, life-like mask impression [like her mother Christine] her face gives in repose.
Masks is one of the elements O'Neill took from the drama of ancient Athens. The other is the chorus - made up of various gossiping locals under the leadership  of the koryphiaos, the Mannon handyman Seth Beckwith. I'm not sure O'Neill really got the purpose of the Greek chorus, which was to provide the main characters with insight into their actions. Here they just gawk and gossip and provide much needed comic relief.

O'Neill also to an extent mirrors Greek staging. There is a dwelling - the Mannon house - and we can be either inside or outside. There are various rooms we can visit when we are indoors. He cannot help but break away in the later part of 'The Hunted' though. He takes us to a wharf in Boston and Brant's ship, of which we can see the quayside, the deck (from which Adam conducts an exchange with the Chantyman, a stand-in chorus-leader, who might well be played by the same actor who usually plays Seth), and Adam's cabin within, where he and Christine plan their elopement while Orin and Vinnie listen in from above on the deck. Were this performed in a Greek amphitheatre it is easy to see how this could be accommodated on the platform stage with the single structure on it - but I would love to see it done as described by O'Neill here.

O'Neill, like Bernard Shaw, provides novelistic description. There can be no question it makes the scripts easier to read. For me as a multi-graduate in drama it's a problem because I'm always thinking how could this be done in reality?

I had a whale of a time reading it though. It's fantastic stuff - such ambition, such dramatic skill, such characters - I'm almost tempted to add an exclamation mark of my own. I wish somebody would put it on today. An American production, perhaps, touring to the National or Stratford? Now, where did I put my copy of Strange Interlude?

This by the way is edition you want if you can get it. This Cape paperback reproduces the text as they first published it in 1966 and it might even be a reproduction of the 1932 original. No guff, no notes, just a master and his masterpiece.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

The Blaze of Noon - Rayner Heppenstall

Rayner Heppenstall... Where to start? Well, the only reason I bought this book was because Heppenstall is relevant to two of my radio drama research subjects, Eric Linklater (whom he hated) and Dylan Thomas (whom he claimed to be closer to than he was and who quite probably hated him). I have read some of Heppenstall's lesser works. His Imaginary Conversations are rubbish, his Four Absentees is a bit snooty but essential to the study of Fitzrovia in and after World War II.

I knew The Blaze of Noon had been a bit scandalous when it came out in 1939 because Heppenstall tells us so at least twice in every book. What makes it scandalous is the sex. One would think, twenty years after Lady Chatterley, with Henry Miller in full flow attitudes might have been more advanced in 1939. Not so. There is a good deal of sex and immorality here; the descriptions are accurate, almost clinical; and mutual masturbation features. But what makes it shocking or distasteful is the contempt with which the process is depicted. Neither partner cares two hoots about the other or indeed other partners who may be effected.

In other senses the novel is even more daring. Our narrator - I hesitate to call him 'hero' or even 'protagonist' - is Louis Dunkel and Louis Dunkel is blind. He used to be prominent doctor but sight loss has reduced him to the role of masseur, in which capacity he is to spend the spring and summer in Cornwall with the slightly invalid Mrs Nance and her niece and nephew, Sophie and John Madron. Louis describes how he gathers first impressions. He is disturbed and intrigued because Sophie withholds all the usual clues from him. Louis becomes obsessed with Sophie, John becomes slightly obsessed with Louis. Mrs Nance has plans for Louis. She has another niece, Amity Nance, living not too far away. Amity is blind and deaf and is cared for by a permanent nurse. Amity's possible arrival is both a prospect and a threat for Louis. When she does finally arrive in the closing sequences of the book things get really distasteful.

Heppenstall is remembered by many as a world-class hater. He claimed to have been a socialist when young but made no bones about being the most reactionary of Tories in later years. He worked for the BBC for twenty years in the Forties, Fifties and early Sixties, so Telegraph Toryism would have been expected. Although he was in his late twenties and married when he wrote The Blaze of Noon, the opinions reflected here are juvenile and sometimes downright nasty. He wears his learning like a teenage boy wearing his father's coat. He seems to have learnt an enormous amount of things with neither the personal depth to understand them or the wisdom to evaluate them.

He was a strange, unpleasant man. This is a strange, unpleasant novel. It is well written, beautifully constructed (in that sense you would not think it was his first novel), and I cannot imagine the world as discovered by a blind man being better done. Otherwise these are characters you meet everywhere in fiction of the period albeit they reveal shortcomings you will rarely find elsewhere. Yes, Heppenstall is critical of their behaviour - but Heppenstall was critical of everyone and everything all his life. These are quintessentially Heppenstall-type people.

Monday, 27 August 2018

The Shape of Sex to Come - Douglas Hill (ed)

What a title, eh? Amazing to think that you probably wouldn't get away with it today but back in the Seventies a title with sex in it would get you a publishing deal by return of post. Not everything is progress just because it happens later. And a couple of the well-known writers, I was pleased to see, foresaw the return of the puritans.

All eight authors here - and anthologist Douglas Hill himself - are or were well-known Science Fiction writers, mostly connected with Michael Moorcock, who rounds off the collection. Hilary Bailey took the connection further than most; she was married to him.

The sex is not especially graphic. This is to be expected, as very few writers in the genre predict a better future. Only John Sladek's 'Machine Screw' was meant to have any pornographic overtones (it originally appeared in one of Paul Raymond's top-shelf magazines). It's about a machine raping sex robot and it is easier to understand once you know that Sladek liked his satire with his surrealism.

Moorcock and Anne McCaffrey serve up slabs of fantasy adventure, which is not top of my list. Of the two I preferred Moorcock's 'Pale Roses' which is longer and therefore richer in its strangeness. It is part of his Dancers at the End of Time subset, which I haven't yet tackled, and which put me off him back in the Seventies. For the time being, anyway, I'm sticking to Moorcock's stand alone work. Mother London is on my waiting-to-be-read table.

Brian Aldiss's entry, 'Three Song for Enigmatic Lovers', is him on top form. I may well read it again because I suspect I missed some of the inferences. A K Jorgensson's 'Coming of Age' is the story I found most disturbing, Thomas M Disch's lousily titled Planet of the Rapes' is a clever reversion of expectations, and Robert Silverberg's 'In the Group' the most relevant to today because it's basically about digital copulation. My favourite, though, is Hilary Bailey's 'Sisters', which is a near-future story about the consequences of female liberation and the loss of the maternal role. In theme it is not dissimilar to the Disch story; in treatment, however, it is a world away for the simple reason that it is by a woman who was very clever and something of a pioneer. I was extremely impressed and definitely want to read more of her work.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

The Traitor - Sydney Horler

Sydney Horler (1888-1954) was a British thriller writer immensely popular in his day. He was serialised in the News of the World and sold more than two million copies of his many books. He was very much of his day - an admirer of officers and gentlemen, a fan of empire, a disdainer of the foreign. His popularity died with him and this 2015 reissue by the British Library, I have to say, does little to warrant rediscovery.

Horler writes in an obvious hurry and like many hurried authors is overly reliant on dialogue to advance his plot. Worse, he has a habit of referring in these tedious passages to 'the speaker', which I will henceforth take to be a sure indicator of rubbish. The plot is labyrinthine. In 1917 Captain Clinton falls for a sexy French-Garman femme fatale and as result 5000 Allied troops die on the Front. For this service he is naturally given command of MI5. Eighteen years later his adopted son Bobby Wingate falls for the same femme and is court-martialled for passing British secrets to damned foreigners.

The thing is - the point of interest, really - that we are talking 1935. War is coming, not with Germany this time but with Ronstadt, which is very like Germany. Indeed, to a large extent, even in the novel, it is Germany, perhaps the bits we don't associate with decadent Weimar. The tyrant of Ronstadt is Kuhnreich, who doesn't have a Charlie Chaplin moustache but is otherwise noticeably Hitlerian. It's an odd choice by Horler and I suspect he was one of the many Brits associated with newspapers who admired Hitler and the revivified Reich. It spoils the book, on balance (actually, it's one of many things which spoil a not-great-to-start-with book) because it is so blatantly Ruritanian.

It's the odd, unintended things which add the occasional pleasure. The burglar who breaks into Bobby's girlfriend's bedroom has a gas gun to put her to sleep. The secret writing is revealed by the very last thing we would imagine. There just aren't enough of them to make reading it worthwhile. Martin Edwards, who also oversees the British Library's classic crime reissues, says in his introduction that Horler relies on a "least likely suspect" for the final twist. All I can say is, I knew who it was and I never usually get these things. On the positive side it was, very much, the final twist.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Thin Ice - Compton Mackenzie

Quite a surprise, this. I hadn't realised Compton Mackenzie (who I came at via his Highland novels and his involvement with Eric Linklater) had ever written a book about homosexuality, let alone one as sensitively handled as this one. I should have known, however, given that I knew that Sinister Street and Carnival (which became the first great literary adaptation by BBC Radio in 1929) were considered quite racy in their day, and I had read somewhere that he wrote a couple of lesbian novels, one of them Extraordinary Women.

Actually, I think I avoided Extraordinary Women for fear it might be comic. Thin Ice (1956) certainly isn't comic. It's a beautifully done faux memoir of a friendship between Henry Fortescue, a politician, and George Gaymer, a gentleman of leisure, between 1896 and 1941. Both, of course, are versions of Mackenzie himself. It was Mackenzie who founded the Eastern Intelligence Service during World War One and who later insisted on supporting the wrong side, in his case the Greek republicans. In the book it is Henry who is recalled from the political wilderness to run an Eastern Intelligence Agency in World War Two and whose lifelong advocacy for the Turks has kept him out of high office.

Most of the time Henry can contain his homosexuality, which was of course a crime in those days. But when he has time on his hands, or is frustrated by politics, he becomes reckless with rent-boys. George helps cover these indiscretions up in a small way - other gay men within the political class take care of most things - until the end, when Henry is inevitably blackmailed and George has to confront the seedy side of his friend's private life.

The memoir style works beautifully. It is not the story of a great man with a guilty secret, or a man who missed his chance at greatness through weakness. It is the story of a much-loved friend with a problem. George does not judge or shy away from Henry's gay friends and lovers - indeed he often comes to like and admire them for their personal qualities. Nevertheless he claims to have written his manuscript immediately after Henry's death in 1941 and kept it under lock and key until 1955, when he judges that society is more prepared to receive it.

In its way, Thin Ice is a miniature masterpiece by one of the great writers of English novels in the 20th Century.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

The Late Mr Shakespeare - Robert Nye

Nye (1939-2016) was one of those poets who, like Ted Hughes and Peter Redgrove, fed their imagination with the deep dark mythos of the British Isles, often as channelled through Robert Graves's concept of the White Goddess.

Like Hughes, Nye was also fascinated with Shakespeare. Hughes crammed all his Shakespearean considerations into the vast and dense Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. Nye found what I suspect was a much more lucrative outlet in rumbustious fiction. His career-changing hit was Falstaff (1976); he also wrote Mrs Shakespeare and, late on in his career this, which we can consider to be his final word on the subject.

The novel purports to be a life of the poet compiled, fifty years after Shakespeare's death, by the octogenarian Pickleherring (real name Robert Reynolds), the bastard son of a bishop and a bawd, discovered as a boy in Oxford by the great man himself and enlisted to play the female roles in his greatest plays.

Some seventy years later, Pickleherring subsists in the attic of Pompey Bum's whorehouse on the South Bank of London, sucking pickled mulberries and spying through his peephole on the girl in the room below. He clings to life purely in order to finish his life of Shakespeare, the researches for which he keeps in a hundred boxes. His life is, as it always has been, inseparably bound up with his subject, so we ricochet around the decades with little seeming order. Pickleherring has lived long enough to know all the barmy theories that have sprung up since Shakespeare's death. He has visited Stratford many times and been on terms, of a sort, with the great man's widow and daughters, though he did rather disgrace himself at the bard's funeral, when he dressed up in Ann Hathaway's clothes and became intolerably aroused.

They are all here, discussed in detail. Mr W H, the rival poet, the various Dark Ladies. Nye flaunts his scholarly researches through Pickleherring's scandalmongering pen. And great fun they are - Lucy Negro, 'Rizley'. The description of Christopher Marlowe and his wretched murder is profoundly moving. John Florio, the source of so many Shakespearean plots, springs from the shadows of centuries and the notion that John Shakespeare was his son's inspiration for Falstaff is resoundingly made. What the fat butcher may or may not have got up to nine months before Will's birth scarcely bears thinking about - nor indeed what Mary Arden might have done to the boy in infancy.

By having in effect two settings - the Elizabethan Golden Age and the early years of the Restoration when the censorious hand of puritanism still weights heavily - allows a play of stark contrasts: licentious pleasure versus bluestocking constraint. Nye makes the absolute most of both. His romps are Rabelaisian, the darkness of the 1660s sometimes very bleak indeed (for example, what are we to make of the actions and fate of Pickleherring's late wife, Jane?).

The Late Mr Shakespeare is a book of enormous richness. I loved it because I am a scholar of such matters. Four degrees in drama - you can't avoid Shakespeare no matter how hard you try. Importantly, though, I loved it because of its style, the characters, the brilliant way he establishes the famous gentleness of Will whilst at the same time revealing nothing of what really goes on in his head, because Nye is clearly of the opinion that genius is unfathomable.

Essential reading and great entertainment. Nye is now very much on my reading list.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Childhood's End - Arthur C Clarke

Childhood's End dates from 1954 and was therefore written not long after Prelude to Space; yet it is a million miles away in terms of literary craft and scientific ideas.

In my review of Prelude (see below) I suggested that it barely qualifies as a novel, lacking all the normal constructs of the form (character development, tension, etc.). It was, in fact, a framing device for explaining Clarke's ideas about early space travel. In Childhood's End the ideas are much more radical - how does Earth deal with the sudden arrival of aliens, specifically 'good' aliens as opposed to, say, the Martians of H G Wells? The structure is also much more novelistic, albeit there is no real protagonist and only an antagonist if you regard the aliens as collectively a single character, not an unreasonable proposition given what happens to the titular children.

The narrative is in three parts. The first, in Clarke's favoured end time of the 1970s, is a few years after the sudden appearance of gigantic alien ships over the major cities of earth. Their leader, Karellen, is over New York where he interacts only with the Secretary General of the United Nations. The aliens refer to themselves as the Overlords, Karellen is the Supervisor. They say they have come to save Earth from its own atom bombs. They enforce peace across the globe and promote the notion of one world. Other than that, they do not interfere. From the moment they arrived, everyone has wondered what the Overlords look like. Even Secretary General Stormgren, who has regular meetings with Karellen aboard his spaceship, has never actually seen his host, who is hidden behind a screen.

The second section is set 50 years later, when the Overlords finally decide that the people of Earth are ready to see them. I did not for a moment guess what they look like, and I won't reveal it here. For me, it was a masterstroke, the best moment in the book. We then meet other people who are involved with the Overlords one way or another. We meet the Greggsons, George and Jean. We meet Jan Rodricks, who stows away on one of the Overlords' transports when it returns to the home planet. The journey there and back will seem to him like four months; in Earth time it is eighty years.

The third section is ten years after the second. The Greggsons have two young children, nine-year-old Jeff and the infant Jennifer. They are now living in a sort of dropout community, two Pacific islands, New Athens and New Sparta. Perhaps Clarke had heard of the American Nature Boys certainly he seems to be predicting the hippy reaction to world of hi tech science. Finally it become apparent why the Overlords came to Earth and what their long term (very nearly a century) aim was. It involves the children. And when Jan Rodricks finally returns after eighty years, he finds that he is the last true human being.

All this in less than two hundred pages is an astonishing achievement. With Clarke you of course get all the technical context and the predictions. My favourite of the latter is on the subject of TV:

Do you realise that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels? f you went without sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that's available at the turn of a switch! No wonder that people are becoming passive sponges - absorbing but never creating. Did you know that the average viewing tome per person is now three hours a day? Soon people won't be living their own lives any more. It will be a full-time job keeping up with the various family serials on TV!

Clarke underestimated the number of channels and overestimated the quality of the programmes. But in essence he's spot on.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Lost Light - Michael Connolly

Lost Light (2003) sits bang in the middle of the "Harry" Hieronymus Bosch series. Harry has walked out of LAPD after twenty-odd years and registered as a private investigator. His first case, however, is one he has carried away with him.

Back in the late Nineties Harry was assigned to a movie unit using $2 million in real money for a particular shot. The shoot was raided, obviously by someone with inside knowledge. Harry shot one of the raiders but never found the body. Later, Harry found the body of a woman from the production unit who also logged the money at the bank. Later still, two cops investigating the robbery were shot in a bar. One died, the other wishes he had; he's been left in a wheelchair, totally paralysed. He is another element of Harry's motivation for putting things right.

No sooner has he opened the old file than pressure is on him to leave well alone. His former partner, Kiz, now with the chief's office, warns him off. The FBI warn him, too. Turns out one of their own has disappeared, presumed dead, whilst working the case. The same agent, it appears, contacted Dorsey, the cop killed in the bar, just before she disappeared and he died. Something about one of the stolen bills turning up where it shouldn't.

Already, in just a couple of paras, we have a story so deep and tangled that for me it was reminiscent of Connolly's early and best work. Back in the Nineties, I bought each of his books as it came out in paperback. I gave up before the Bosch series really got going because I thought Connolly had become marooned in his formula. Clearly 9/11 was a shot in the arm for him. Writing about the immediate aftermath of the Twin Towers and the dark shadows of the War on Terror give us some of the very best sections of a very good book.

The denouement is as tangled as the premise. I will say no more than that - except, perhaps, to mention a revelation about Harry's personal life that I never saw coming. First rate reading by a master of his craft. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Do Andoids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Philip K Dick

From 1968, this is surely Dick's best known work. OK, that's almost entirely due to the movie Blade Runner, which shares some but not many elements of the novel. Thus the question is, is the original any good?

Yes it is. I have seen Blade Runner but it must be thirty years ago. I was not interested in the new version or sequel that came out recently. I hate most modern sci fi movies. It's the green screen and computer animations. They are so overwhelmingly fake. Interestingly, the fake v reality dilemma is the core of the novel. Bounty hunter Rick Deckard earns his fee by 'retiring' rogue androids. He has gizmos and tests which even the best androids can't beat. And yet Deckard is addicted to mood changing hardware (the Penfield mood organ), he believes in the communal faith of Mercerism, and he keeps an android sheep on the roof of his building. For this is post-apocalyptic San Francisco, 1992, and most real animals are either endangered or extinct. It is the height of Deckard's aspiration to own a genuine ostrich or goat or even perhaps just a squirrel. His neighbour has a horse - 100% real.

A bunch of new model androids has escaped from Mars and returned to Earth, where androids are illegal because they would take work from the educationally-challenged, the chickenheads and the antheads who do all the terrestrial menial jobs. J R Isidore is a chickenhead. He works for a fake veterinary service which really just fixes broken animal androids.

These new Nexus-6 androids from the Rosen Corporation really are very good, almost undistinguishable from real humans - except for one thing, the failure of all androids ever made and the sole unique feature of humankind: empathy.

Deckard visits the factory on Mars and soon figures out that Rachael Rosen, supposedly a member of the family, is in fact an android. Even so he enlists her help to hunt down the last of the renegades: Roy Baty, his wife Irmgard, and Pris Stratton, a variant on the Rachael model. The three of them are holed up with Isidore in one of the thousands of urban apartments left vacant by the apocalypse.

By this time Deckard has had his preconceptions about real and fake ripped apart. He lusts after Rachael. Does that make him an android? Or a human with empathy for androids? They have sex. Neither really feels anything. The most popular TV personality, who may or may not be an android, goes public with the revelation that even Mercerism is a hoax, the prophet really an alcoholic former bit-part player in Hollywood.

The questions keep on coming and it is the questions that drive Dick at his best. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is absolutely Dick at his best, even better than The Man in the High Castle. Is it the best he ever wrote? We'll have to explore further before we can attempt an answer.