Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Don Fernando - W Somerset Maugham

Don Fernando is a book about a book that never happened. It is billed as a travel book but it is really about travel in the mind and Maugham doesn't visit that many of the places discussed. Those he does go to are only described as they once were, in the Golden Age of Spain. Maugham's putative protagonist would have lived in the Golden Age and his picaresque adventures would have brought him into the orbit of those who made it golden - Cervantes, Ignatius Loyola, Saint Theresa, El Greco.

In the end he gets distracted by a painting of an English monk posing as an English saint. The face becomes the face of his character and the persona he builds is therefore English rather than Spanish and thus he cannot write his novel. Instead he writes this, first in 1935 then completely revised in 1950. It is a wonderful read. Maugham's mind is so fertile, his writing so elegant. I especially enjoyed his thoughts on the Spanish theatre (the only real Spanish theatre before the mid 20th century) of Lope da Vega and Calderon. Theatre is my specialty, of course, but I was also fascinated by his exploration of mysticism during the Counter Reformation (which is by no means my specialty).

Thursday, 20 February 2020

The Moon of Gomrath - Alan Garner

First published in 1963, The Moon of Gomrath is one of Garner's novels for younger readers, the follow-up to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. I have no idea why I didn't read it when it came out; I was old enough or thereabouts. Instead I have had to wait the better part of sixty years.

What I admire about Garner is that he doesn't write down to his audience. This is a book of magic and monsters, about as far from Cinderella and Monsters as it is possible to get. His monsters step out from a midnight-dark Celtic past and they are bloody and vengeful. Here we have the Morrigan, the original and ultimate predatory female, along with the shapeless Bodach and the Wild Hunter. They rampage about Alderley Edge, then (in 1963) the deep rural wilderness above Manchester, now the place where Manchester footballers build their mansions.

The monsters are much more vivid than our ostensible heroes, Susan and Michael. Michael, especially, seems to specialise in being sent out of the way as often as possible. The mythical beings who back them up - the wizard, the dwarf, the elf and the other chap - are pretty insipid, too. The evil ones are what really grab the imagination.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

The Strangled Queen - Maurice Druon

Book Two of what is said to have been a series which had enormous effect on George R R Martin. You can see why. Bloodshed, intrigue, adultery, and inbreeding between great royal and ducal houses, all of them closely related. Droun has either the advantage or disadvantage of it all being more or less historical fact.

Droun wrote The Accursed Kings (Les Rois maudits) between 1955 and 1977. The starting point is the destruction of the Knights Templar by Philip IV of France and his tame pope. The Order was accused of blasphemy but really the king and the pope just wanted their wealth. The Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, is burned at the stake. With his dying breath he curses the royal family - hence the title.

Inside a year Philip IV (the 'Iron King' of the first novel) is dead and his useless son Louis the Hutin (the 'hesitant') is on the throne. Louis and his younger brothers have all been married off to cousins who have all betrayed them with servants and attendants. Two of the sisters are still imprisoned at Richard the Lionheart's ironically-named Castle Galliard.  One of these, Marguerite, is now technically queen. But Louis is more than capable to embarrassing himself without her assistance. He wants the marriage annulled, and to achieve that he needs a pope. His great minister, Enguerrand de Marigny, naturally claims he can fix the problem. He had better, because King Louis's uncle, Charles of Valois, is after Marigny's head, and has the support of the giant Robert of Artois, friend and cousin of absolutely every member of the dynasty.

That is essentially the plotline of The Strangled Queen - in as near a nutshell as the tangled affairs of the House of Capet circa 1320 allow. The thing that makes Druon special among historical novelists is not merely than he can handle so much information, it is the lightness and ease of handling. Standard novelists would need 600 pages (we can only imagine how many massive volumes George R R Martin himself would require) bur Druon uses less than 300. To read him is a joy, and we should be grateful to Humphrey Hare for the expert translation. I have The Iron King here somewhere. I'm definitely going to re-read it.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Wolves Eat Dogs - Martin Cruz Smith

Renko Returns - yes he does., or rather did, in this taut thriller from 2004. Truth be told, Renko has returned several times since Gorky Park made Smith an international bestseller back in 1981. Better to say, this is the first of a later career series which also includes Stalin's Ghost and Tatiana, both reviewed here. It is definitely the first Renko novel set after the collapse of the USSR.

This an stunning idea. A couple of New Russian zillionaires get killed. Both are connected to the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster, thus Investigator Renko is despatched to Chernobyl by his boss, who is ever-keen to get rid of him. I don't know how he does it, but Smith conjures up an absolutely convincing world that has developed in the radioactive shadow of the breached reactor in its vast concrete and steel sarcophagus. Supposedly a Forbidden Zone, Renko finds a unique community of natives who never really left and chancers from the outside world.

The mystery, as ever, runs deep. Smith handles it with the wit and grace of a true master. There is a secondary revelation in the final pages, a device I have never seen before. It almost passed me by. Then I realised, and my jaw dropped. A must-read for any self-respecting fan of the genre.

Monday, 10 February 2020

A Star Called Henry - Roddy Doyle

A Star Called Henry (1999) is the first part of The Last Roundup trilogy (the others being Oh Play That Thing and The Dead Republic). Our hero is Henry Smart, son of Henry Smart and brother of the titular Henry Smart. Henry Senior is the one-legged bouncer for a Dublin brothel at the turn of the century. Henry who is now a star was the first child of Henry Senior and his wife Melody Nash who, much-loved, died in infancy. Henry our hero was the next son to be born, in 1901. Henry Senior automatically gave the boy his own name, which caused a rift with Melody that never healed. By the time he's 8 our Henry is on the street. He is big and handsome, even as a child. His father literally resurfaces one time to save his son from certain death, then vanishes, leaving his signature weapon behind, his wooden leg.

Soon Henry is wielding the lethal leg, initially as a gang assassin. Then he survives the Easter Rising 1916, a gunman inside the Dublin Post Office, and becomes a righteous murderer, slaying spies and traitors to the Cause. He also trains up the next generation of lads for the IRA. He marries his lady-love, his former teacher Miss O'Shea and is enjoying family life when the Civil War erupts. Henry is no longer the coming lad. He is twenty and already a semi-mythical hero. The lads he trained have now outgrown him. They are worse than murderers, they are politicians. Henry makes one last appearance, and then escapes from Dublin using the same method favoured by his father - the underground water courses of the city.

A Star Called Henry is a magnificent achievement, all the characteristics of Doyle at his best, anchored to a story of great things. Doyle is too much of a humanist to allow Henry to kill without question. He rightly insists on there being consequences. The characters are astonishingly well drawn, from the amiable Latvian Jew Climanis to Piano Annie and her sad, one-armed husband. Best of all is Henry himself, a force of nature who cannot be constrained by rules, political beliefs, or really anything approaching civilisation. I've got my eye open for Oh Play That Thing and fingers crossed that Doyle manages to maintain this quality.

Monday, 3 February 2020

A Cold Case - Philip Gourevitch

Philip Gourevitch writes for the New Yorker because he is a master of long-form journalism. And that's essentially what A Cold Case is - a long piece of journalism in big print with a few photos thrown in. It doesn't really amount to a book, largely because the subject isn't big enough.

In itself, the subject is fine. Frankie Koehler, a killer as a juvenile and violent armed robber in his twenties, killed two men in New York in February 1970 and vanished. Almost thirty years later a cold case investigator for the Manhattan DA picked up the case just prior to retirement. It turned out Koehler had ostensibly been living a more-or-less respectable life in California. There was, however, a suspicion that he might have been visiting New York every now and then to do favours for former gangland chums - in other words, killing people. So the police where waiting when Frankie was suckered into returning. They found him armed but cooperative.

It's a good story, as far as it goes. The problem is, Gourevitch doesn't really get enough insight into the life Frankie was living for the missing 30 years. Frankie fully admits the 1970 murders as part of his plea bargain, but nothing else. He seems to be revealing information to the cops and to Gourevitch himself, but it all amounts to nothing.

Interesting. That's about as far as I can go.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Blind Eye - Stuart MacBride

A Logan McRea story from 2009, this is MacBride on top of his form - dark, witty, and set in Aberdeen. Polish people are turning up with their eyes removed and the sockets burnt. Some of them survive. Inevitably, McRae, back from sick leave (having eaten human flesh in the previous novel) gets seconded to DCI Finnie's team. Meanwhile his immediate boss, DCI Roberta Steel, is pressuring him for a donation to her wife Susan's dream of a baby. On the positive side, his luck is in with the tattooed girl from IB and he uncovers a lead which gets him a free trip to Poland.

In Poland he meets a hot Polish policeman and a blinded bomb maker. This leads to McRae and the girl getting blown up - and we're still only about two-thirds of the way through the book.

I have always enjoyed MacBride. For me, he has overtaken Ian Rankin at the top of the Scottish crime fiction tree. Rankin's problem is that his hero has become aged and inactive. That hasn't yet happened with McBride, but Blind Eye reminds me how great he was in his pomp and that things have faded slightly over more recent novels. Still, as with Rankin, I won't be able to resist new instalments.