Monday, 29 June 2020

Down for the Count - Martin Holmen

Harry Kvist never took a count in his boxing career but things have got pretty low since his retirement. He is fresh out of jail after serving eighteen months for intimidation. He misses his prison boyfriend, he needs money, he needs his old friends. But the old laundress in his street has died at the hands of her retarded son. She has left Harry a note, reminding him that he promised to look after the lad. And so Harry launches into an investigation which brings him into contract with the old woman's long estranged daughter, local property developers, the asylum where the boy is now imprisoned, the special school where he was educated, and the special police squad who look after the special needs of the Swedish king.

Every bit as good as Clinch (the first part of the Stockholm Trilogy and reviewed on this blog a couple of years ago), Down for the Count is full of compelling characters, brutal action and dark humour. I can't wait to get my hands on the third instalment, Slugger.

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Running Blind - Desmond Bagley

I had, of course, heard of Desmond Bagley. He was a big noise in the Sixties and Seventies. I had not realised that he died comparatively young (59) in 1983. I had never read any of his books. Then I was pointed in the direction of this linked double-bill (the 'Slade' novels) in ebook for only £1.99.

It was certainly money well spent. Written in 1970, Running Blind hasn't dated at all, presumably thanks to Bagley's habit of keeping things simple on the surface and deep beneath. Alan Stewart, the hero, comes to us with considerable back story, so much so that I was startled to realise there were no earlier instalments.

Stewart owns a Scottish glen but was brought up in Sweden. He is a retired British spy, having fallen fall of his department head, Slade. He spends a lot of time in Iceland, has an Icelandic home, an Icelandic girlfriend, and speaks the language. Hence he is asked by Slade to deliver a small package to a contact there. Stewart interprets this as a peace offering, a potential route back into espionage, and agrees.

Once in Iceland, he is ambushed. Everyone seems to know he is there, and carrying something important. He is chased across the volcanic landscape and soon realises the man in pursuit is the former KGB agent Kennikin. For Kennikin the chase is personal; in Stewart's last mission he accidently emasculated the Russian. Surely, in all the circumstances, Kennikin is also on the inactive list. So who has sent him to Iceland?

I was fascinated to learn that Running Blind was Bagley's first spy thriller. You'd never guess.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Three Political Plays - Michael Hastings

Michael Hastings was the enfant terrible of the Angry Young Men. Look how young he was when his first plays were produced. He was always political and had a lifetime fascination with Africa. I remember watching his TV epic, The Search for the Nile, several times, and on the basis of that I bought his first collection of published plays when I was still at school.

This Penguin collection brings together three of his most overtly political plays. In chronological order, Lee Harvey Oswald was first staged in 1966, two years after the Warren Commission published its transcripts and report, deciding that Oswald was the lone shooter of President Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963. It is essentially a documentary drama, with the Commission members, combined in one body, questioning its best two witnesses - Oswald's batty mother Marguerite and his terribly young Russian widow Marina. They act out their relevant remembrances of Lee as he goes progressively off the rails. Hastings does not throw into question Lee's guilt, though he does mention a few anomalies. He is much more interested in the question of context - what was it that so radicalised the assassin?

For the West is a study of the crazed dictator Idi Amin, written ten years after Oswald but still while Hastings was under forty and while Amin was still propped up in pretend power by those who pulled his strings. It is good, but not as good as Oswald. As a character Idi is less compelling than Lee. I suppose the problem is, Idi was always going to fall one way or another. Lee is the man who stopped us finding out what kind of president Kennedy could have become in a second term.

The Emperor is a dramatization of Ryszard Kapusccinski's long-form journalistic account of Haile Selassie's fall, which I reviewed a year or two back on this blog. The problem here is that there is nothing to dramatize, or at least nothing that benefits from dramatization. The key to the book is that we hear the testimony from real people who worked as part of the imperial household. They know it is all sham, they know they look ridiculous to the outside world, but these are the best of all possible jobs in a land bled dry. The other thing is that all reported the Emperor as a silent figure into whom his subjects could read whatever they wanted. The play isn't helped by the typical Jonathan Miller production device (Miller is given a co-writer credit, though what he could possibly have added is beyond me) of a handful of actors acting the parts and playing silly buggers with doors and windows. The sort of rubbish that was considered cutting edge in 1987 but led to the total extinction of serious straight plays in the commercial theatre.

Friday, 19 June 2020

A Divided Spy - Charles Cumming

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Charles Cumming is the new British master of spy fiction. He is comparable with le Carre and Deighton. His range is wider than the former, his writing slightly more refined than the latter. Both octogenarian masters are brilliant constructors of plot and Cumming is near as dammit their equal.

A Divided Spy is the third Thomas Kell novel. It has a sense of ending about it but I am hoping it is just the third of a sub-trilogy within a longer series. It ties up storylines from A Foreign Country and A Colder War (both, of course, reviewed on this blog) and introduces a discrete, highly contemporary story about Islamist terror strikes on UK soil.

What more can I say? It is brilliant, thrilling, a masterpiece of its genre, compulsory reading for aficionados.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

The Vampire of Ropraz - Jacques Chessex

This short novella is a late work by the prize-winning Swiss author who died in 2009. It gives the impression of being the straightforward telling of a true-life crime from 1903 but that is a scrupulously maintained illusion. One trick I especially enjoyed was the involvement of Blaise Cendrars, the pioneer of European modernism. I doubt very much he was actually involved with the titular vampire. On the other hand, he definitely wrote the novel Moravagine, which is the novel Chessex says is about the vampire. Cendrars published Moravagine in 1926 but apparently spent much of the rest of his life adjusting and rewriting it. These are the levels of smoke and mirrors which Chessex has whittled down to 106 pages of text.

Returning the plot, Ropraz is a deprived community in 1903 when the graves of young woman are torn open and their bodies violated. It doesn't take very long to identify the person responsible - a twenty-one year old orphan called Charles-Augustin Favez, caught (red-handed as it were) having sex with animals. He is psychologically appraised and the appraiser uncovers the huge level of deprivation and abuse which has led to Favez's brutalisation. No modern Swiss court can do anything other than commit Favez to the asylum.

That isn't the end of the story but to say more would be to give too much away. I want everyone who reads this post to seek out Chessex. Before this I had never heard of him. He doesn't appear to be translated into English much, and I have to note that the translation of Vampire by W Donald Wilson is not exactly beyond reproach. There are a couple of novels available. Meanwhile, Moravagine was translated back in 1968 and I am determined to track down a copy.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Death on Demand - Paul Thomas

Detective Sergeant Tito Ihaka has been rusticated to the New Zealand countryside after the Auckland elite complained about his obsessive pursuit of one of their number for allegedly hiring a hitman to kill his wife. Now, he is suddenly recalled. The suspect has something to say - but will only say it to Detective Ihaka.

The revelation unearths a whole wriggling mess of potentially linked cases - from the suicide of a rich dentist's wife to a prisoner beaten to a pulp in supposedly secure custody. It's all too much for Auckland to handle. Ihaka is on the spot so, despite longstanding animosity, he is roped in to help.

I don't know if there have been other Maori cops in New Zealand crime fiction, but Ihaka is a great conception by British-born writer Thomas. He is old school, rough and rugged, but the twist is he has got his act together in exile. He has lost weight, cut down on the drink, got himself fit.

The plot is tangled, with perhaps a twist or two many, and because of that the set-up chapter takes too long. Once it gets going, however, it moves along like a steam train. All the characters are deftly drawn, Thomas has a masterly command of dialogue, and there is the perfect amount of backstory to give Ihaka his edge. There is apparently another available as an ebook (Fallout). So that's a must for me.

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Dracula, My Love - Peter Tremayne

This is the third of Tremayne's Dracula Lives! series, which I have been reading, intermittently, for five years. I reviewed Dracula Unborn on this blog in September 2015 and The Revenge of Dracula in January 2018. I remarked in the latter that whilst all three novels use the found manuscript device, they are each set in different periods. Unborn was in the 15th Century whereas Revenge jumped to the middle of the 19th. Dracula, My Love is only twenty years or so on from Revenge, set in 1871-2, and is the story of a Scottish orphan, Morag McLeod, who ends up as a nanny in Prussia. As nannies always do, she gets pregnant by the adult son of the noble house. He is killed in the Franco Prussian war and Morag is sent packing to the establishment of the count's sadistic brother in Romania. The baby dies, the baron rapes her, the baron gets his rightful comeuppance and Morag flees to Transylvania where another count is advertising for a governess. It will come as no surprise who the count is.

The story is predictable but very well done. My attention didn't flag for a single moment. What fascinated me was the presence of Dracula's cousin, Elisabeth Bathory (memorably played by Ingrid Pitt in Hammer's Countess Dracula). More fascinating still, Elisabeth seems to have some sort of slasher robot, which Tremayne explains in a footnote. This will simply have to be followed up.

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

The Siege of Sidney Street - Frederick Oughton

Ah, the forgotten art of the film tie-in, or novelisation. OK, you still get novel versions of film and TV franchises, but surely the days sare over when a British B picture warranted the commissioning of a Pan Original, no less, to add to the pleasure of those who enjoyed the movie. Yet here is one such, by the prolific Frederick Oughton, from an original script by Jimmy Sangster, whose How-to-Write-A-Movie book I reviewed last week, and the once famous London novelist, Alexander Baron, who I suspect is also reviewed on this blog.

Odd, though, that people should want a novel when the siege was a real event, only 50 years old at the time so well within living memory, and already the subject of many non-fiction books. The story is an absolute cracker - armed police and infantrymen exchanging gunfire with a small band of anarchists, already wanted for murder, holed up in a derelict tenement. Crowds came to watch as, famously, did the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill. Indeed, Churchill's presence is likely one of the reasons that not absolutely everyone today knows about the Siege; certain elements would prefer we forget Churchill's penchant for shooting militants - and miners. Oughton - and I presume Sangster - hold back Churchill's arrival to the very last chapter, so naturally it is not an issue. The story is extremely well done, opening up the complex background through character interaction. The dialogue is effective and I noted that Oughton was very good at establishing location.

I haven't seen the film - I have no idea why the chap on the front, presumably Kieron Moore, is wearing a light-grey suit at least a decade out of period - but I absolutely devoured the book.