Monday, 30 March 2020

Sirens - Joseph Knox

At last – Manc noir! Deep black crime set in good old Manchester. When all is said and done, whyever not? Manchester has been derelict, the great British industrial wasteland, for over fifty years to my knowledge. When I taught there in 1980-1 the kids were battling racist cops led by a fascist religious maniac in the streets of Moss Side. They broke into the cop shop and stole the Special Branch murder kit the Met had hidden there.

Wait a minute … I’m talking myself into this, aren’t I?

To an extent, Joseph Knox has beaten me to it. Only to an extent. I don’t think he’s old enough to remember the good old days when every copper with aspirations was hopelessly corrupt, certainly in my Northern experience of the time. It is of course a matter of fact with the Met. Pretty much permanently. But I believe the war on the miners and the Hillsborough disaster were what separated proper cops from the scum. Cops are much better now.

But not according to Knox in Sirens. His cop, Aidan Waits, is suspended for corruption (stealing drugs from the station) and trying to save his career by doing a deep undercover job for his Superintendent. His investigation is complicated when a local MP enlists him to find his seventeen year-old daughter. Both jobs mean getting inside the Franchise, the main drug operation of the moment. This Waits does easily. He finds the girl – but then she is murdered. If Waits can’t find who did it, he’s going to get fitted up. Suddenly all the good guys are out to kill him while all the bad guys and gals want to help. In the manner of top quality noir, things become very grey. He sorts it, of course, because he was always intended to be a series lead. The solution is complicated but satisfactory – perhaps one linkage too many.

The main problem, though – and it is by no means a fatal problem – is that neither Knox nor his editor know when to end. It’s a series, guys – we can catch up with folks next time round. Far better, in a noir, to leave a few threads loose.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Mona Lisa Overdrive - William Gibson

This is the third of the original cyberspace novels. It supposes, I suspect, a certain level of familiarity with what went before. I don’t have it, but I nevertheless really enjoyed the book. I like everything by Gibson. I must have read half-a-dozen and haven’t found one yet that falls significantly below standard.

Mona Lisa Overdrive is about the stars of cyberspace, which we of course have had for the last ten to fifteen years. In reality that Gibson didn’t suspect, reality stars don’t become vastly wealthy (Kardashians excepted), they just slip away. The crossover into ‘real’ life isn’t as seamless as many expected. However, our main female protagonist, Mona, is a teenage prostitute who gets sold and chemically adjusted because she looks so much like the big cyber star, Angie Mitchell, has just completed rehab but is somewhat tarnished, so the big idea of those gangsters who control such things, is to stage her kidnap and then seemingly recover the much more malleable Mona to take her place.

Meanwhile the world goes to rack and ruin on a tsunami of drugs. The Yakuza in Japan have a major office in London to which the head Yakuza sends his dozy daughter Kumiko with a virtual friend for company. There are machinations. Hardcore devotees of cyberspace are doggedly working on the questions of what it looks like. Some extremists are hard-wired in. A bunch of these cluster at Dog Solitude, where Slick builds killer monster robots and there’s an apocalyptic battle.

It’s all great fun, beautifully written, prescient, thought-provoking. Gibson is a genius.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Capital Crimes - (ed) Martin Edwards

Capital Crimes is one of the British Library's magnificent crime classics, edited by Martin Edwards, who oversees the entire series. What we have here are Golden Age short stories which share a London location. They range from Conan Doyle ('The Case of Lady Sannox', which I have reviewed elsewhere on this blog) to Anthony Gilbert ('You Can't Hang Twice'). Some are naturally better than others but for once there are no duds. My favourite is 'The Hands of Mr Ottermole' by Thomas Burke, 'the laureate of London's Chinatown' apparently, and definitely a breath of fresh air as a working class writer, and 'Cheese', an offbeat item from Ethel Lina White, author of what became Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes.

Friday, 13 March 2020

John Masefield - Muriel Spark

I never realised Muriel Spark wrote literary criticism. In this case she basically wrote it twice - in 1952, long before she was famous, and a thorough revision in 1991, when she was a literary icon. We are regularly reminded of this duality throughout the text.

It is a short book in which she essentially focuses on three narrative poems of some length, The Everlasting Mercy (1911), Dauber (1913), and Reynard the Fox (1919), none of which I have read. It doesn't matter. Spark convinces me that I ought to and that these are significant of their type. She benefits, of course, from having met Masefield who gave amiable support throughout the first version in 1952. Equally, he benefits from having Spark to defend him, being everything he was not - modern (in the day), young and female.

We think of Masefield as the poet of the sea, and Dauber is indeed the story of an aspirant painter who goes to sea, but it was The Everlasting Mercy that made him famous (very famous, almost overnight), the story of a Victorian rustic hooligan who sees the light. I really must look it up.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Absolute Beginners - Colin MacInnes

I remember the movie coming out - and dying the death as one of the great turkeys of our time. It was so bad, I waited more than 30 years before tackling the original book. It is by no means a bad book but I can see why the movie stank. You don't want to give Julien Temple material that is already glib and superficial.

It is the summer of 1958 and London sizzles in a heatwave. The first generation of British teenagers are coming into their own and our hero (unnamed) is at the heart of the action. He is a street photographer and fan of contemporary jazz. He is entangled with the lovely Crepe Suzette but she gets engaged to her homosexual boss. Our hero professes to be modern but actually his story is as old as time. His mission is to win back Suzette and to defend the vulnerable - in his case, the put-upon black people like his mate Cool who are under threat from racists. Along the way he encounters pop stars, advertising gurus, debutantes, gay people and Teddy Boys.

MacInnes has a buoyant, bounce-along style which convincingly captures the patois without descending into code. His characters have silly names but are nonetheless three dimensional and attractive. He even succeeds with the deeply uncool like the hero's dying father and his randy mother and achieves real depth with the latter.

For me, though, it is the background of the first Notting Hill riots that gives the novel an immediacy and weight that the film so woefully lacked. Absolute Beginners is not really about youth culture, it's about the birth of multiculturism. As such, it deserves a better reputation than the movie left it with.