Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Jack and the Thames Torso Murders - Drew Gray and Andrew Wise

A new Ripper, the subtitle asks? A new suspect, certainly, and a lot of impressive investigation of themes rarely tackled before (the use of rail, trams and buses; the possibility that the killer worked for a firm that had cornered the market in horse butchery and had depots all over London) but for me the fundamental premise - that 'Jack' was responsible for both series of murders in London in 1888 - falls flat. It was the one thing that police and experts agreed on at the time: whoever dumped the torsos was not the same person who slashed up women on the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields. It strikes me, moreover, that their motives were different. For example, the torso killer was not greatly interested in the reproductive system of his victims whereas Jack seems to have been interested in nothing else.

Overall, though, this is a highly commendable addition to the field of Ripperology with a refreshing academic sub-structure. The new suspect is credible for one or the other series (more likely the torso murders), certainly lived locally and died at the right time. The last chapter alone, surveying the growth of the Ripper industry, is worth the price. The annoying thing for me is the selectivity of the sources surveyed. The old Ripper hands who co-operated with them are beyond reproach, many other significant contributors are ignored entirely. Leonard Matters, the first in the field, is dismissed because of 'errors' that are never specified. For me, too much credibility is given to geographic and psychological profiling, techniques which have rather fallen from favour since their heyday in the late 20th century. That said, any theorist really has to opt for a local or an incomer. Gray and Wise, go with the majority nowadays, and go for a local. Once you've done that, geographical profiling is always going to be a strand of your thesis.

There is, ultimately, a lot here that is new. New means of getting from A to B in and around the murder ground are brought to light. Convincing arguments are made in favour of including more victims in both series and I for one won't be satisfied until I have followed these up myself.

If you're interested in the Ripper, you have to read this.

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

I Am Legend - Richard Matheson

Robert Neville believes he is the last man alive after a plague turns the rest of humanity into vampires. He has lost his wife and daughter but Neville is immune to the plague, probably because of something that happened during his military service.

Neville is getting used to living alone. If it wasn't for the hubbub every night when his neighbours howl for his blood, his life would be tolerable, with his freezer stashed full of food, his store of whisky and his books. Neville is a practical man, an autodidact. He works out how the plague is transmitted, why some of the traditional weapons work better than others, and experiments with a vaccine, albeit he has no one to test it on.

Then his solitude is disturbed, first by a dog, and then by Ruth, a young widow who he forces back to his house to test for vampirism. And that's pretty much it. I Am Legend is a short book, a novella really, but Matheson still gives himself ample room to explore his subject in depth. I was particularly impressed with the bacteria theory. I also liked the fact that his characters were not stereotypes. Neville is likeable when sober, deeply unpleasant at other times. Ruth starts out as a typical immature victim but is not all that she seems. The plot is not complex but it is absolutely compelling. Matheson keeps the twists coming all the way to the end.

Monday, 22 July 2019

The Crying of Lot 49 - Thomas Pynchon

A phantasmagorical medley of paranoia, conspiracy and latent psychodelia, Pynchon's second novel appeared in 1966. It is of its time in that it references the West Coast music scene, specifically of San Francisco, that was to erupt in 1967 and the widespread use of hallucinogens. At its core it has a much deeper timeline, dating all the way back to Thirteenth Century Europe where the German princelings of Thurn und Taxis built a staggering fortune on the back of the first transnational postal service. This went underground after the Thirty Years War and now services only syndicalists and anarchists. It's that peculiarly American obsession, postal fraud, and Oedipa, trying to observe her duties as executor of the will of her onetime lover Pierce Inverarity, sees its symbol of a muted post horn everywhere. Ingeniously the Tristero post boxes are marked W.A.S.T.E.

For such a short novel, only 142 pages in this edition, there's an awful lot of story and ideas. The ending is awkward. We find out what W.A.S.T.E. stands , what Lot 47 is and how come it is crying or cried, but really you get the impression that Pynchon has simply run out of steam. It's a lot of fun, though, and I'm really pleased I finally got round to reading it.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Roseanna - Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

They dredge Roseanna from the lake, naked and dead. The local police investigate, the murder squad from Stockholm become involved, and when they realise the dead woman is American, they get in touch with Detective Kafka stateside.

This was Sjowall and Wahloo's first collaboration, the first of their ten Martin Beck novels. In a sense it was their homage to Ed McBain, who to a great extent created the police procedural in the States; but Beck is really a unique creation, the Swedish precursor of the likes of Inspector Wexford, the ultra-realistic police procedural, the grind as well as the glamour.

It is the best of the Beck books I have read so far, mainly because it takes so many risks. I suppose they reasoned that Roseanna had to be a hit otherwise the other nine would never happen, therefore it had to stand out from the crowd. Which it certainly does. I have always been a fan of the interview typescript technique which features heavily here. But what really caught me was the progressive revelation of Roseanna as a healthy young woman living (and of course dying) on the eve of the Sixties Sexual Revolution. Indeed she dies because she is sexually liberated.

Ed McBain seems realistic because he is so fantastically stylised in his writing. Sjowall and Wahloo, in translation at any rate, are genuinely downbeat and quotidian. Their mastery is in the plotting and the gradual peeling back of the layers until the truth is revealed. As Henning Mankell puts it in his introduction to this 2006 reissue: "The book describes the fundamental virtue of the police: patience."

Nobody does it better than "the godparents of Scandinavian crime fiction" (Jo Nesbo). It may well be that Sjowall and Wahloo never did it better than in Roseanna.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Kolymsky Heights - Lionel Davidson

Is Kolymsky Heights the greatest thriller ever written? That is always going to be a subjective question. Objectively, though, no one can deny Davidson's immediately post-Soviet techno yarn should be in the running.

Davidson is an unusual figure. He had a forty-year career and was always successful, but he only seems to have produced eight novels, of which Kolymsky Heights is the last. I remember reading the penultimate, The Chelsea Murders, in the early Eighties, but have never even seen the others in a library or bookshop.

You can see why there was a sixteen year gap between Chelsea and Kolymsky. The amount of research must have been colossal, let alone developing a hero capable of delivering linguistically, ethnographically and physically. Davidson's novels all seem to have different heroes, which probably contributed to the lack of productivity. The thing is, I suspect he wrote constantly - there is sixteen years' worth of writing on every one of the nearly 500 pages.

Basically, odd-ball academic Porter is asked to go undercover in the vast secret area of Siberia to contact a Russian scientist who everyone thought was long dead. There is a secret in the secret lab. The secret is revealed perhaps two-thirds of the way through and is rather touching in the way it is handled. The book is about the adventure itself - getting to the secret lab and getting back out again, which effectively involves traversing the biggest country on earth both ways. There is plenty of action, a convincing love affair, and, above all, lots and lots of thrills.

Kolymsky Heights is a classic novel of its time and of its genre. Is it the greatest? Quite possibly. The other seven novels are must-reads for me.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Solaris - Stanislaw Lem

1961? This book was written in 1961? When British sci fi was dominated by the likes of Arthur C Clarke and Fireball XL5? When Hollywood was still churning out cheap genre flicks like The Blob? Really, it's unbelievable.

I'm relatively new to the field and haven't got my sub genres sorted, but Solaris, to me, is hard sci fi, as hard as it comes. It's not all about technology but the real science - the literature of science - is there. Indeed, it is all about a specific field of science, Solarist studies. Albeit the novel only lasts 200 pages, a good third is devoted to reviewing the literature, from the first explorers to theorists and dissenters. Over a century after its discovery Solaris remains on the cutting edge of astronomical science, with its twin moons, one blue, one red, and its all encompassing 'sea'. Many scientists believe there is life o Solaris. To be precise, they believe there is a single life form, that the sea itself is conscious. The sea amuses itself by creating and then destroying elaborate structures. A permanent space station has been established to observe the process - but the sea is equally studying the observers.

There are only four scientists aboard the station at any one time. Kelvin arrives to find that one of them, his former tutor Gibarian, has died. The other two, Snow and Sartorius, are not exactly welcoming. Snow initially seems to think he's not real and Sartorius has locked himself in his laboratory. Then Kelvin encounters a giant, half-naked, African woman who completely ignores him. This, it turns out, was the 'ghost' that haunted Gibarian. We never find out who or what is haunting Snow and Sartorius, but Kelvin is soon joined by his wife Rheya, who has been dead for the last decade.

What the sea is doing is searching the minds of the humans and creating something that looks like the person of their dreams. These creations have to improve on the likeness, learning from their partner how to behave. Kelvin knows this isn't Rheya - he shot the first clone off into space from which she simply cannot return - yet as the second version becomes more lifelike he cannot help falling in love with her.

Thus, in addition to the deep scientific background, we have a moral and philosophical debate - essentially the sex robot debate over half a century before such things became remotely possible. The twist is that, in the end, even Rheya herself knows she isn't real.

Truly stunning - a breathtaking achievement. The benchmark of thoughtful science fiction.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

The Prince and the Whitechapel Murders - Saul David

I'm a thoroughgoing Ripperphile and therefore could not resist this fictional version.

It's a Zulu Hart novel. That gave me pause. Zulu is actually Major George Hart VC, son of an Irish actress with Zulu blood and the Duke of Cambridge. No, not the current one - this is George, 2nd duke of Cambridge, Field Marshal and cousin of Queen Victoria. As such Zulu George is recalled from Gibraltar and offered two clandestine tasks - the first is to infiltrate the Fenian movement that is terrorising London, the second to keep and eye on the second in line to the throne, Prince Albert Victor, and wean him off his homosexual friends. This is complicated when prostitutes start being 'ripped' in Whitechapel and clues point to the prince's involvement.

The adventure clips along nicely. Young George is a splendid character for an adventure series, brave, honest and just sufficiently conflicted to spice things up. The plot is cleverly worked and gives what is probably a fair portrayal of the young prince - thick as a plank, sexually conflicted, but not a danger to society. I won't say who David puts forward as his murderer but I will reveal that he goes for one of the rarer ploys, which is that the Ripper was a two-man operation. This relies on two of the murders, Liz Stride and Martha Turner, neither of whom are always canonical. But it also reflects a number of more recent serial killer cases in which two men were involved, for example the John Duffy railway murders.

Interesting ideas, entertainingly deployed.