Thursday, 31 January 2019

The Unfortunate Englishman - John Lawton

John Lawton seems to derive great enjoyment from playing with the internet. There are loads of hits when you Goggle him, about half of which are for this John Lawton, the writer not the musician. But none of them manage to tell you any more than you already know. He is the author of eight Troy novels (the Metropolitan Police detective, not the ancient city) and two Wilderness novels, of which this is the second. Wilderness is actually Holderness, but let's not get bogged down. He, Lawton, seems to have worked in TV on both sides of the Atlantic, though we are not told in what capacity or the titles of any programmes. He now, apparently, lives in Derbyshire.

This playfulness, this layering of truth, is carried forward into The Unfortunate Englishman and presumably the Troy series. Characters all have two or three identities on the go and none are what they seem to be. All the books are set in the Cold War era, with a particular focus on the years 1960 to 1963, about which Lawton has written a non-fiction history.

The Unfortunate Englishman starts in 1963 but zips happily back and forth, from the end of WW2 to 1965 across 171 very short, snappy chapters. Essentially it is about a bumbling part-time spy, Geoffrey Masefield, who is caught photographing top secret sites during a trip to Moscow. Joe Wilderness, an East End criminal turned agent, is sent back to Berlin by his boss and father-in-law Alec Burne-Jones to arrange the exchange of Masefield for Bernard Alleyn (formerly Leonid Liubimov of the KGB) currently resident in Wormwood Scrubs.

Wilderness does not want to return to Berlin station, mainly because of what happened in Chapter One. But he owes Burne-Jones too many favours to refuse. Eventually the main players all assemble at a checkpoint between East and West to do the deal - then comes  the brilliant twist.

Along the tangled way Wilderness becomes the father of twin girls and Masefield gets to have sex with two Russian twin sisters. Joe encounters so many old friends and old enemies that I have to wonder what went on in the first Wilderness novel Then We Take Berlin (2013). He also arranges a potentially lucrative sideline in a vast trove of high quality wine he has acquired from a Nazi.

The Unfortunate Englishman is a tremendous read. Lawton writes like a dream. His characters are infinitely complex yet all absolutely credible. I am going to read everything he has ever written,. I recommend you should do the same. Then let's compare notes.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Dominion - C J Sansom

Sansom is obviously best known for his historical crime series featuring Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake. There are, however, two standalone novels, Winter in Madrid and Dominion (2012) which are both well worth reading.

Dominion is set in 1952 (the year Sansom was born) in an alternate Britain. Here, the appeasers in government surrendered to the Nazis in 1940. A decade on, Britain has been allowed to retain its empire whilst itself becoming part of the pan-European German empire. The Nazi war machine is still fighting Russia in the east. Churchill and Attlee have been forced underground. The ghastly Lord Beaverbrook sits in 10 Downing Street with Mosley as Home Secretary and Enoch Powell as Minister for India. Hitler is no longer seen in public. Everyone knows he is ill; those in a sufficiently elevated position know he will die soon and fear that the SS and the Army will turn on one another to succeed him.

David Fitzgerald is a civil servant at the Colonial Office. He is recruited to the Resistance after his young son is killed in a domestic accident. Rather than try and heal the rift with his heartbroken wife, David would rather risk everything by secretly raiding the files at his workplace. To get at the files he flirts with one of the clerks, whom he knows is besotted with him.

Frank Muncaster was David's roommate at university, a secretive, solitary weakling with a hideous rictus grin. He was horrendously bullied at school and even his own brother loathes him. Returning to Britain for their mother's funeral, Edgar Muncaster cannot resist bragging about his top secret work in the States. Frank is so horrified that he pushes Edgar out of the window and winds up in a mental hospital. Finally Frank is so afraid of electric shock therapy that he reaches out to the only friend he ever had, David Fitzgerald.

By this point, Edgar has confessed to his employers. America might be neutral regarding Europe and its wars but Adlai Stevenson has just been elected President and there is a school of thought that he might reach out to the British resistance. There are spies everywhere, many of them double agents. The news of what Frank Muncaster knows is everywhere. The Americans obviously want him, but so do the Germans and, most of all, the British Resistance.

David's cell is charged with rescuing Frank and getting him out of the UK. The story has four main protagonists and we switch viewpoints between them. There is David's story, his wife Sarah (who finds herself involved in a truly horrifying incident in Tottenham Court Road), Frank, and Gunther Hoth of the Gestapo, who is determined to end a distinguished career by tracking them all down.

Hoth reminds me of one of the many brilliant ideas in Dominion. Hoth is based in the German Embassy in London, which is Senate House, commandeered from the University of London and draped with enormous Swastika flags. What an image that is! Equally striking is the smog which blankets key stages of the rescue operation. Another reason for setting the novel in 1952, the Great Smog only lasted four days in early December yet it changed British attitudes to burning coal forever.

Dominion is a long book but the pace never flags. The story strands are swept neatly together in a set piece finale on Brighton Beach. Sansom adds a substantial historical note at the end, which is the place to do it. It is there for those who want to read it, not something you feel obliged to wade through before starting the story. Personally I didn't read it but I did skim it and could not help noticing Sansom's unexpected views on Scottish Nationalism.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Bloody January - Alan Parks

Bloody January is a debut novel, though Parks cleverly leads us to believe there was an earlier story. Publishers Canongate have done a solid job in promoting Parks and they are right to do so. I can't remember a better first novel in any Tartan Noir series. DI Harry McCoy is definitely on his way to a TV near you.

Parks' masterstroke is to combine the two leading tropes of today's Scottish crime fiction - noir and nostalgia. Bloody January is set in 1973, in the week Bowie took Aladdin Sane to Glasgow. McCoy and his new mentee Wattie are hanging around the bus station when a young lad shoots a young girl, then himself. The trail leads to aristocracy, big business, police corruption, the substrates of prostitution and - for a fleeting cameo, Bowie himself. What else could anyone who remembers 1973 possibly want?

The denouement is suspenseful and bloody, on the rooftops of Glasgow in a snowstorm. Brilliant.

My only criticism is that in working the tropes Parks has deployed (and combined) two that for me are already cliché - the obligatory beating of our hero and a flashback to his wretched childhood in a religious children's home. These, however, only occupy a few pages and do explain his relationship with the local villain Stevie Cooper. Other than that, the characters - especially Cooper - are compelling and credible. I especially liked McCoy's boss Murray who comes across straight but who might have a lot of secrets behind his success. The writing, both prose and dialogue, reads absolutely note-perfect and is technically very accomplished. There are writers who have been hammering away for decades who come nowhere near Parks' level of artistic fluency.

A debut that I thoroughly recommend. I can't wait for the next instalment.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Voyage to Venus - C S Lewis

Voyage to Venus (originally published as Perelandra in 1943) is the second of Lewis's planetary trilogy, the successor to Out of the Silent Planet, which I reviewed here last year. The narrator - who, very cleverly, is Lewis himself - is summoned to the home of his friend Ransom, who has just about recovered from his trip to Mars. Ransom has now been summoned to Venus where the Black Archon is up to no good. Ransom went to Mars, it will be recalled, in Professor Weston's spherical space ship. This time he will travel in, of all things, a coffin transported by the Oyarsa of Malacandra. (For the uninitiated, Malacandra is Mars is the Old Solar language, Perelandra Venus and Thulcandra is Earth. Each planet has a guardian angel subject to the Creator Maledil, and flitting about the Higher Heavens are invisible angelic beings called eldils.) We know that Ransom survives the journey because he returns, by the same means, at the end of Chapter Two, He then tells Lewis what he has been doing on Venus and, more importantly, what he learnt.

This is what makes Lewis's sci fi so different. As much time is spent on moral discourse as on adventure. The worlds of his imagination are theatres for the exploration of spiritual tenets. Venus is thus the Garden of Eden before the Fall. The only humanoid character Ransom meets is Eve. She is naked - as is Ransom, because nudity is very much a prerequisite of space travel for Lewis - and green. She is Queen and there is a King but she cannot meet him because Maledil says so. Venus is mainly a watery world. There are floating islands, which are where most of the action takes place, and somewhere out there is the Fixed Land, which the Lady cannot visit because the King is there.

One day an object falls into the sea. It is Weston's spaceship with Weston aboard. He seems to have undergone some sort of character change since Ransom last saw him on Mars. He has given up the imperialist intent of colonising the planets for Earth and stripping them of their minerals. He claims to have been sent to Venus on a mission very similar to Ransom's. Gradually it becomes clear - Weston is the Serpent to the Lady's Eve. He teaches her about clothing (fortunately, it doesn't last) and killing birds and beasts for personal adornment. Ransom realises it is Weston he is meant to stop. He attacks him - he kills him - but Weston cannot die. In what for me was the highlight of the book he becomes a zombie, an Un-Man animated by the malevolent spirit of the Archon.

The breadth of Lewis's imagination is absolutely astonishing. There is a long passage in which Ransom escapes from the underworld (evocative of Dante's escape from Hell by climbing up Lucifer's bare back) pursued by the remnants of Weston. Each cave is made different, each shaft unique. Accompanying Weston is a sort of giant insect which Ransom automatically assumes is a monster. Lewis even takes the time to explore the alien structure of the cave opening through which Ransom regains the light.

A second astonishing volume, then. I really cannot understand why these works are not better known. They are unique, imaginative, stimulating and as thoroughly English as Milton or Blake. One more to go, the ominously-named That Hideous Strength.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Jack the Ripper- Terry Lynch

I picked up this book as part of an Amazon bundle. I simply couldn't resist. Why had I never heard of it before? Because it is published by Wordsworth in their series 'Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural' and received minimal promotion, most people assuming, no doubt, that it was slasher fiction. Lynch doesn't use the usual publicity device of naming a new suspect so even the tabloids passed it by.

It is, however, an essential read for the dedicated Ripperologist. Lynch is no prose stylist (and I don't suppose he would claim to be); he has been poorly served, if at all, by an editor. Yet he does a strong line in good old-fashioned logic. Rather than structure everything around a theory of who did it, he does a thorough job of reviewing and mostly sidelining the theories of others. The truth is, we don't know who did it and in all probability will never know. For me, Lynch finally demolishes the notion that Elizabeth Stride was a Ripper victim. Once this is out of the way, the time pressure is off for the murder, an hour so later, of Catherine Eddowes. Likewise, Lynch has convinced me that the supposed Ripper letters are all irrelevant nonsense.

He also offers a valuable reminder that the Ripper was not as extraordinary as we often assume. He wasn't the only uncaught London serial killer of 1888, nor the most prolific, nor even the first. Whilst the East End was terrorised by Jack, someone was dumping female torsos in the western reaches of the Thames. The torso killer started in 1887 and was definitely still killing and dissecting in 1889. There is even a theory that he deliberately dumped one torso in Pinchin Street, Whitechapel, in order to put the blame on his knife-wielding rival.

I would not recommend Lynch's book to someone dipping a toe into Ripperology, but I would strongly commend it to anyone who finds themselves convinced by the better written works of Stephen Knight or Tom Cullen. And no one who has read as many Ripper books as I have can consider themselves a completest without it.