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.