Thursday, 29 August 2019

SF The Best of the Best Part Two - ed. Judith Merril

Had to pick this up if only for the cover and the convoluted title. These mid-Sixties anthologies are notable for the oddments you find and how elastic they are willing to make the Sci Fi genre. The best story here, 'The Wonder Horse' by George Byram, has nothing whatever to do with either Sci Fi or fantasy. The premise is entirely about natural genes and it can hardly be a fantasy because every now and then a wonder horse does come along. I'm thinking Galileo and, currently, Enable. Byram captures the race fan's reaction perfectly. Indeed it is his immersion in the detail of the racing business that makes his story so good.

Similarly there's a Shirley Jackson oddment, "One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts", that just about scrapes in as fantasy, though I would be more inclined to call it a twisted tale. There's an early-to-middle period Brian Aldiss, "Let's Be Frank", which is simply a caprice, and there's the widely anthologised but nevertheless pure Sci Fi, J G Ballard's "The Sound Sweep", which I have discussed here before.

My favourites were "Nobody Bothers Gus" by Algis Budrys and "Day at the Beach" by Carol Emshwiller. Both well written, both leave as much to the imagination as they make explicit.

Thursday, 22 August 2019

February's Son - Alan Parks

I read Parks' first, Bloody January, in bloody January, which was apt. Damned if I was going to wait until next February to read the second in the Harry McCoy series, which is this, February's Son. It starts three weeks after Bloody January ended. McCoy has recovered from his injuries and is called into work the day before his sick leave was supposed to end. This being Glasgow in 1973, there has been a murder, a nasty one. The victim is the current star of Celtic FC and soon-to-be son-in-law of the murderous Jake Scobie, head of one of the Glasgow crime families. Has Jake heard that young Charlie has been playing away? It's a promising line of inquiry, but it grinds to a halt when Jake is butchered in just the same way.

Meanwhile McCoy's friend and childhood protector Stevie Cooper has seen a picture of one of their abusers, 'Uncle Kenny', in the paper. Now they know who Kenny is, can Cooper and McCoy let things lie? We all know that's unlikely.

As I said back in January, Parks is a real find, a direct heir to Ian Rankin, albeit they are about the same age. The police side of his stories is pure procedural with all the banter and implicit loyalties and feuds that involves. The noir side is very dark indeed. Everybody over the last decade has done a child abuse storyline, but Parks has his lead cop as a victim who carries his abuse with him for life.

February's Son is absolutely as good as Bloody January, maybe even slightly better. I like, for example, the way McCoy's relationship with Susan is handled, and the development of the role of Jumbo. The ending is again just a fraction contrived, but this is my one and only criticism. I loved it. Roll on March!

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Trigger Mortis - Anthony Horowitz

I have got out of sequence with my post-Fleming Bond reboots. I have leapt from the first Gardner to one of the most recent. So what? Trigger Mortis is what I'd been hoping for, a Bond that is as great as the first three Connery movies. Horowitz, one of the most successful contemporary writers of general fiction, is a way better writer than Fleming, as indeed all Fleming's successors are. More importantly, he is a more gifted writer than any of the others, except perhaps Faulkes, who I haven't read. Most importantly, he has chosen to write in period, filling in the gaps, as it were. Trigger Mortis (the title sounds horrible but is in fact brilliant) comes immediately after Goldfinger. Thus we start off with Bond in bed with Pussy Galore. We then plunge headlong into Grand Prix racing at its most dashing and daring (the Nurburgring in 1957). This would have been good enough for many thriller writers but here is only Act One: it introduces the villain, a Korean meglamaniac, and the main plot, which is about the Space Race.

I am very cynical when it comes to Bond. I have already indicated the only movies I care about and it should be noted that I was only nine or ten when I fell asleep in the cinema during Thunderball. I have avoided anything that came after Roger Moore. I read all the Fleming books before I went to see Thunderball. I enjoyed them at the time, but was not a critical reader when only ten and under/ I revisited them perhaps fifteen years ago and was appalled at how bad they are. Fleming himself is interesting but nowhere near as interesting as his brother Peter, a real life adventurer, married to a movie star, and field commander of the British Resistance we never needed in the second World War. Peter was also a better writer, albeit he overwrites in the devil-may-care style popular in the Thirties when he wrote his bestsellers.

I therefore turned to those commissioned by the Estate to keep the cash rolling in. Colonel Sun and Licence to Kill are both reviewed on this blog. It's interesting that Gardner, who kept the franchise going longest, wrote a Moriarty version of Sherlock Holmes, as of course did Horowitz more recently. I preferred the Gardner Moriarity, which, coincidentally, I also read when I was both young and old. But I tell you, Gardner's Bond is not in the same league as Horowitz's. I genuinely cannot remember a thriller so well done, so thrilling that I could not stop reading.

An absolute triumph - a classic of its rather esoteric sub-genre.

Oh ... one last note. Trigger Mortis actually contains original material by Ian Fleming. Don't worry, it's not noticeable. Horowitz must have smartened up any actual writing, and it's only the writing that let Fleming down. The ideas were highly original, even brilliant in their day.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

London Rules - Mick Herron

The Jackson Lamb series really hits its stride with London Rules. The regular characters have been whittled down to the best, extraneous or one-off characters are kept in their place. The plot is excellent - a bunch of terrorists working through a destabilisation scheme stolen from MI5 - but Lamb novels are not about plot. No, the interplay of dysfunctional characters is what makes it work.

Take for example Roderick Ho. We don't care how good he is at computer stuff. We take his digital prowess as read. What matters to us is what a wazzock he is - and in London Rules he is the wazzock to end all wazzocks. Shirley Dander has been to compulsory anger management classes, which is like an arsonist stocking up on firelighters. And J K Coe is starting to emerge from his shell. All these are great ideas. Recent instalments have centred on River and Louisa; here they take more of a backseat. I personally enjoyed the reappearance of Molly Doran, the legless archivist of Regent's Park.

Excellent. I would say Herron is currently top of his genre. But the thought occurs, is he not the inventor and sole practitioner of this genre?

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

After the Silence - Jake Woodhouse

You wonder, how does a new writer get a four-book deal with Penguin? Then you read his personal profile. Then you realise what After the Silence actually means (the 1996 US movie, the charity that supports victims), And you realise, Woodhouse has confected a premise well nigh guaranteed to snag the attention of interns chasing hashtags at the publishers. He's an entrepreneur. He does wine. He has written a Euro thriller about child sexual abuse.

Of course, he would have got no further if he couldn't write or his book was boring. His writing is functional, which will do. His plot is well above average, bordering on very good indeed. But After the Silence is a moneymaker. Woodhouse even writes it in short filmic scenes to save the scriptwriter having to do it. There is no art here, nothing unexpected. The characters are given dense backstories but remain as dull as dishwater, and there are far too many protagonists.

Ostensibly Jaap Rykel of the Amsterdam police is our hero. His partner gets killed so obviously he wants to solve that but is not allowed to. Obviously he does it anyway. It doesn't take much solving, unfortunately; it is obvious who done it from the villain's first appearance. Jaap mainly has to solve the separate mystery of the dead man hanging naked from his apartment. His enquiries catch the attention of a young woman detective from the sticks who is investigating an arson murder of her own. And Jaap needs a new partner and has to make do with the one nobody else wants, whose various errors lead to more deaths.

It's all perfectly pleasant. I never wanted to stop reading but nor was I ever excited or intrigued. After the Silence is one of four, The Amsterdam Quartet, all of which are out now. I'm afraid I have got as far as I shall be going.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Murmuring Judges - David Hare

The second in David Hare's state of the nation trilogy, Murmuring Judges is, as the title suggests, an examination of the state of the legal system and what, in legal terms, counts as a win. The play was first staged in 1991 and it's disappointing how little has changed. Indeed - the question is unavoidable - can it change? In a combative system there can only be winners and losers, and one of the upsides of criminal law is that there are no grey areas. Having just written that last clause, I'm asking myself if it needs qualification. There should be no grey areas - you are either guilty or you are not. The intractable problem of the legal profession where everyone from beat constable to Lord Chief Justice keeps a scorecard is that grey areas are too often made out to be black or white.

Gerard gets five years, which seems a bit unfair. He was only a peripheral player in the crime and has no previous. But still his barrister, Sir Peter, can live with it. It was, after all, only a Legal Aid case. Not the sort of thing he would usually tackle. So Gerard is a new prisoner and Sir Peter has a new pupil, Irina. She's very bright, of course; she's also black and beautiful. She looks good on Sir Peter's arm for an evening at the opera. Trouble is, she's interested in Gerard's case. She recognises the unfairness of the sentence and is concerned about something the main police witness said.

The witness is Barry, who has a reputation for closing cases. His girlfriend Sandra is also concerned about Gerard's sentence. She was present on the arrests and noticed something odd in the way Barry treated the senior, more hardcore criminals.

The scale is panoramic - something that could only really be staged by a massive, publicly-funded theatre company. There are lots of characters and lots of subplots. You can almost see Hare plotting his thesis on a huge whiteboard. And it's very, very good. In the end Gerard wins his appeal and gets six months reduction in sentence. So everyone's a winner - except Lady Justice.

I had forgotten how good David Hare can be. I followed him when we were both young and still have most of his plays from those years. He went upmarket in the Eighties whereas I became much more political, and I ceased to pay attention. I have, however, seen his more recent TV films and found much to be enjoyed. Clearly I have catching up to do.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

The Man Who Was George Smiley - Michael Jago

The title says it all. John le Carre admits basing his most famous character on John Bingham, his mentor during his brief time at MI5. Le Carre had to quit when his books became famous, Bingham didn't because the books he had been writing for over a decade had not been so successful. He was a noted author, nevertheless, and lots of people looked forward to the new Bingham novel in the Fifties. Unlike le Carre, Bingham didn't hide behind a pseudonym. Indeed, in his heyday, most people knew he was also Baron Clanmorris in the Irish peerage.

Bingham's ancestors are one of the fascinating elements of the book, especially his useless father Maurice and snobbish mother Leila, who spent much of their married life in seaside boarding houses. Bingham's own children were more successful - his daughter Charlotte was one of the scandalous young female authors of the Swinging Sixties, a big bestseller whilst still in her teens.

Bingham was something of an accidental intelligence officer. He was a newspaper columnist when war broke out and Maxwell Knight took him on. He quickly became Knight's deputy in the war against rightwing Nazi sympathisers in the UK. Knight left the service soon after the war but Bingham kept coming back, serving through the Cold War, the Blunt affair and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. He kept on writing but could not replicate his initial success or get anywhere near le Carre's fame. In truth, he will go down in history as the model for Smiley.

This is an unusual tack for a biographer to take and I must say Michael Jago pulls it off remarkably well. He is particularly good on the umbrage taken by Mrs Bingham/Lady Clanmorris, herself a published writer and performed playwright, who felt it was unfair that her husband's character should be hijacked with no recompense.

An excellent book, thoroughly researched and full of insights into the 'Circus' of the Sixties and Seventies.

Friday, 2 August 2019

The Alchemist - Ben Jonson

I have never really got on with Jonson. Too much allegedly clever cant for my taste. However, this Revels edition from the Manchester University Press managed to keep my attention and I really came to enjoy it. It's an academic edition so there are inevitably lots of footnotes. As an academic of drama as opposed to a student of language, I felt able to ignore these and concentrate on the key element of any farce (an element often overlooked), which is - is it funny? And by and large, yes it is. In this edition, rather than other versions I have tackled, the momentum is kept going and the unity of place and time underlined by using the French method of scene structure - that is to say, a new scene every time someone new comes onstage. The Alchemist is a play about coming and going, and Act V in particular would be hard going if it wasn't broken down into scenes. This way, the rather improbable ending becomes very funny indeed.

It is interesting how Jonson is able to do without many stage directions. Anything we need to know is referenced in the dialogue. Whilst we're at it, the dialogue is in verse and therefore metrical but Jonson uses broken meter to set up arguments and verbal interplay. I have to say I was impressed.

I was not at all impressed with the introduction by E H Mares. Mine is a vintage edition and the 'critical apparatus' as it is quaintly termed dates from 1967. The problem, I think, is that it predates meaningful theatre study in UK universities.  I was part of the first generation to be able to do all four of my degrees specifically in drama. That said, I was seeing a lot of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama in and around 1967 and I didn't come across anyone trying to do it on a proscenium stage. Certainly, no one would countenance doing it that way now. Yet Mares goes on for page after page describing how to compromise the action onto a box set. Tedious and irrelevant, as was the history of performances in butchered formats which, from Garrick on, focussed on one of the dupes, the tobacco seller Abel Drugger, rather than the con men Subtle and Face and their moll Doll Common. Still, that's the great advantage of introductions; if they don't hit their mark they are easily ignored.