Monday, 28 September 2020

A Killer is Loose - Gil Brewer


A Killer is Loose (1954) is the second half of this two-for-one ebook from the golden age of pulp.  Steve Logan is down to rock bottom.  His wife Ruby is about to give birth any minute.  He is out of work and out of luck.  He is thinking of selling his treasured luger but first he wants to collect a couple of hundred bucks he's owed by a local bigshot for work did on his yacht.  Purely by chance he comes across Ralph Angers, who literally tries to walk in front of a bus.  Steve saves him, Ralph naturally feels obliged.  He insists of buying Steve a drink in the very bar where Steve planned on selling his luger.  Before Steve knows it, Ralph has the gun and the bar owner is dead.

Steve is dragged along as Ralph runs amok.  Ralph's girlfriend Lillian is another reluctant accomplice. Ralph is an eye surgeon gone mad.  He is carrying the blueprints for a state of the art eye hospital he plans to build - which is bad news indeed for the realtor he consults.  And while all this is going on, Steve knows his wife is in hospital, undergoing an especially difficult labour.

By compressing the timescale into a single day, Brewer cranks up the tension.  By limiting his characters to three principals he can offer us plenty of psychological insight.  I lapped it up.  A minor classic of its genre.

Sunday, 27 September 2020

House of Trump, House of Putin - Craig Unger


Craig Unger tells us, in minute detail, how Donald Trump used Russian money, largely the proceeds of crime, to win the 2016 US election.  It's tough going, because we cannot expect the Russian mafia to be any more opaque than its Sicilian forebear.  The men involved, and they are all men, are criminals who lie as easily as they breathe.  The secrets they hold are, literally, worth billions of dollars.  Donald Trump and his sons, on the other hand, are morons, who wouldn't know a secret if they stepped in one.  Only Trumps would be dumb enough to rent large portions of the eponymous Tower to criminals on the international wanted list.  On the US side we get glimpses into the tangled careers of Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, both key links in the chain stretched between the Kremlin and the White House.

Unger has done his homework.  His claims are all sourced and credited.  People of the so-called Free World should read this and weep.  At the same time we should never forget, Hillary Clinton was an awful choice by the Democrats, unlikeable, cold, and entitled.  It was no mean achievement on her part to make Donald J Trump likeable.

Sohlberg and the Missing Schoolboy - Jens Amundsen


A bit of a curiosity, this: a Norwegian police procedural written, under a pseudonym, by a Norwegian attorney who has spent a lot of time in the US and who has based this story, his first novel, on a real life US case, as yet unsolved.

The missing schoolboy is Karl Haugen, who has disappeared after a pre-school science fair.  He has been missing for a year and his parents are rich, so Commissioner Thorsen calls in his old rival, Harald Sohlberg, on permanent secondment to Interpol and based in America, to review the case and, ideally, find the killer.  He can have all the resources he wants, but all he wants is one assistant.  He gets Constable Wangelin, an ambitious young woman, eager to learn from the master.

The story is good.  Amundsen is interested in the psychology of crime and Sohlberg uses emotional intellect to reveal the killer.  It is all very clean and convincing.  The literary style is, however, horrible.  Instead of explaining the Norwegian terms, habits and lifestyle in authorial voice, or leaving us to find out for ourselves, Amundsen inserts it in dialogue - people who already know, explaining stuff to other people who already know.  I couldn't force myself to overlook this, or the ghastly cover art.  I liked it, but I that's about all I can say.

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Up the Walls of the World - James Tiptree Jnr


James Tiptree Jnr only wrote two novels, and this is the first of them.  For a debut novel, Up the Walls of the World seems remarkably accomplished, but then everything about James Tiptree Jnr was remarkable.  For a start, 'James T Tiptree' was a pseudonym, not in itself unusual in the literature of sci fi.  Next, he was actually a she - Alice Bradley Sheldon (1915-1987), who was a trained artist, intelligence officer in WW2, bisexual, a late returner to advanced education who ultimately got her doctorate when, like me, she was 52.  She didn't publish a sci fi story until 1968, then quickly mastered the form, ultimately publishing nine collections.  Up the Walls of the World came in 1978.

The story is set on three 'worlds'.  We start in interstellar space where a vast entity, so big it can destroy or make worlds, floats, not quite inert, pondering the mission of which it has a conception more instinctive than intellectual.  Next is the windy planet of Tyree, where squid fly, communicate in colour, where males tend the children while females do the gathering and exploring.  The Elders of Tyree are aware of the coming of the Destroyer.  Then to contemporary Earth, where ESP researchers are doing experiments on a group of psychics.  The inhabitants of the Earth and Tyree collide, displacing identities from bodies.  Then they all migrate to the nervous system of the Destroyer...

I was amazed, enthralled - inspired.  A whole new dimension of sci fi opened up to me.  Fortunately, the other novel is also in this ebook.  Then I must progress to the stories.

In case anyone is wondering if it was happy ever after for Sheldon/Tiptree, think again.  In 1987 she shot her husband, phoned her attorney and then killed herself. 

Monday, 14 September 2020

The Magician - Somerset Maugham


Despite living until 1965, Maugham was essentially an Edwardian novelist.  This, from 1908, is him dipping a toe into the world of James's Turn of the Screw; in other words, fin du siecle gothic.  Maugham was also a novelist who turned personal experience into fiction.  He had encountered Aleister Crowley, "The Wickedest Man in the World", and despised him.  Crowley is Oliver Haddo, the Magician of the title.  In Parisian bohemia he comes across Margaret and Arthur, Arthur a successful London physician, Margaret his beautiful ward whom he intends to marry as soon as she turns eighteen. Today, this raises eyebrows, and Maugham was clearly aware of it, even in 1908.  He goes to great lengths to demonstrate that their love is romantic and true.  Haddo spitefully takes Margaret from Arthur and marries her.  She briefly returns to Arthur but cannot resist the animal magnetism of Haddo.  Arthur with his friends Suzie and Porhoet determine to rescue her from Haddo's ancestral pile in Staffordshire.

Maugham is a much better novelist than posthumous neglect would indicate.  He wrote The Magician at the height of his powers, midway between Liza of Lambeth and Of Human Bondage.  He has devised a gothic plot and come up with some extremely clever ways of making it credible.  The characters are in a constant state of flux.  Haddo gets fatter and fatter with every appearance; Margaret goes from English rose to debauched jade and finally a pale shadow of her former self; Arthur and Suzie, from the start an obvious match in age and two halves of a whole in terms of personality, slowly get younger and more attractive as they grow closer.  The end, when it came, was genuinely horrific.  A mini masterpiece of the genre, which deserves to better known.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Ghost in the Machine - Ed James


There are times when what you need is a straightforward police thriller, preferably Scottish.  And having finished the 600+ pages of Mr Biswas was one.  Two days leisurely read; great characterisation, interesting plot and sound resolution.  Perfect.

Ed James's series (one of several) is set in contemporary Edinburgh and features newly-appointed DC Scott Cullen.  Cullen is a great device for James.  He's only around 30 and has a long career in front of him (and there are already several other novels in the series).  What James really does well is giving his hero the right number of gaffes and crucial discoveries.  He places him square at the centre of the action and keeps him there.  He has not saddled Cullen with a drink and drug problem, or an ex-wife or any of the usual stereotypical problems.  Instead, he is a normal guy with a normal guy's everyday problems - enough to give him three-dimensional realism but not enough to get in the way of the plot.

The supporting characters are equally good and I look forward to downloading Scott Cullen 2 to my Kindle, the next time I just need a solid, professionally-crafted, deeply pleasurable read.

Thursday, 3 September 2020

A House for Mr Biswas - V S Naipaul

V S Naipaul considered A House for Mr Biswas his first serious fiction and his best-known.  He wrote it at the end of the Fifties, as he was approaching thirty.  The setting is Naipaul's native Trinidad but Mohun Biswas (called 'Mr' from childhood) is about a decade older than him.  Indeed, Biswas dies in early middle age.

There is a Dickensian element to the structure.  Biswas's lifetime quest is to secure a house of his own and the story is divided into chapters around his housing status through life.  Biswas is a clown and a bit of a blowhard, who rises to a job as staff reporter on a Port of Spain newspaper and an unsecured social worker in a postwar community project.  Naipaul was a professional writer from his student days at Oxford and became a dreadful snob, pompous and opinionated.  Perhaps that came after he wrote Biswas because the 600-page book never becomes boring or didactic.  It is, in short, a traditional English comic novel set entirely in Trinidad.

I had never read Naipaul before Biswas and it may be I never read him again.  But I thoroughly enjoyed this.