Friday, 22 October 2021

Berlin Game - Len Deighton


I didn't read Deighton's spy novels when they came out.  I'd been put off spy fiction by reading James Bond, which, when I reached the age of eleven or twelve, struck me as being childishly poor.  I also didn't like the movie of The Ipcress File when I was around the same age - not because it was childish but because I couldn't make head nor tail of it.  I did read Deighton's other work over the years SS-GB and XPD, for example, and I really enjoyed them.

Anyway, Berlin Game is the first in the first trilogy of the Bernard Samson series.  Samson is a mid-ranking member of the Department who is unlikely to rise higher, being neither Oxbridge educated nor ex-military.  He has, however, a skill set indispensable in the current crisis.  He was born and brought up in Berlin, where his father was stationed after the war.  He speaks Berlin German like the native he is.  The perfect candidate, then, to venture into East Berlin and extract Brahms Four, the agent who has been supplying the Department with vital economic data for years.  Also, Bernie owes the man - it was Brahms Four who saved him in Wiemar, back in the day.

It's dangerous.  Bernie's wife Fiona, who also works in the Department, doesn't want him to take the risk, especially when it becomes apparent that someone high up on the UK side is leaking to the KGB.  Finding the mole is one of the things that spurs Bernie to accept the task.  So it's back to Berlin, to his old friends, former colleagues and new enemies.

Deighton pulls the story off magnificently.  Lots of interesting characters, double-crossing and general intrigue.  The masterful laying out of detail is to my mind one of the secrets of Deighton's sixty-year success.  He portions it out just right - not laying it on with a trowel when it interests him (like Fleming) and skipping where it doesn't, but always judiciously, building our mind map brick by brick.  I read this and believed I could smell Berlin in the early Eighties.  Brilliant.

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead


It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2017, it won the National Book Award.  It is a substantial and important novel.  Problem is, it's not that great.  It is interesting and very well-written, but apart from the one big idea (that the underground railroad was exactly that) there's nothing new or unexpected here.  The railroad conceit soon wears thin because Whitehead doesn't push himself to give it any credibility.  I, for example, would have liked other passengers.  The supposedly conflicted bad guy - the slave capturer Ridgeway, is a Clint Eastwood character in one of his lesser films.  I read it.  I won't be queuing up for any of Whitehead's other work.

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Hellfire - Karin Fossum


It's been a while since my last Fossum.  This instalment in her Sejer series dates from 2014 but is set ten years earlier.  Two one-parent families prepare for Christmas.  Bonnie and Simon, a care worker and her young son; and Mass and Eddie, a middleaged woman and her twenty-one year-old with mild learning difficulties.  The following summer, an horrific double murder is discovered in an abandoned caravan.  Sejer and Skarre investigate.

Fossum is very much the Ruth Rendell of Nordic Noir.  Her characters' psyches are explored in detail while the Confucian cop goes quietly about his business.  Like Rendell, Fossum never fails to draw me in, whatever her subject matter.  Hellfire is one of her best.

Thursday, 7 October 2021

The Belly of Paris - Emile Zola


This is the Modern Library translation of Zola's shortish novel of Les Halles, the third in the Rougon-Macquart sequence.  Florent Quenu has finally returned to Paris, having escaped from Devil's Island.  He was unfairly imprisoned for a minor role in an abortive uprising.  He finds sanctuary with his brother who runs a successful charcuterie on the fringes of the newly-built market complex with his wife, the Beautiful Lisa.  Florent is ultimately found a job as inspector of the fish market where he is targeted by the Beautiful Norman, who initially only wants to spite her rival Lisa.

Meanwhile Florent has slipped back into his anti-establishment ways.  He gets subsumed (he rarely takes action) into a gaggle of local hotheads who gather at a local bar.  This draws the attention of the market busybodies and ultimately leads to disaster.

The Belly of Paris hinges on the fat and the thin.  Florent is constitutionally thin whereas Lisa is fat and complacent and conservative.  All of life is contained within the huge market, a world of its own with officials like Florent, merchants like the Norman, and an underclass which subsists on the leftover produce.  As always with Zola the world is mapped and documented.  What makes this novel different is the focus on food.  Several times key revelations are set against the preparation of food.  This is where this translation comes into its own.  Mark Kurlansky is a food writer who came into translation through his researches into international cuisine.  He knows exactly what Zola is talking about and the food sequences really glisten with fat and scent and colour.

A wonderful translation of an interesting book.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

The Hunger - Whitley Strieber


I enjoyed The Hunger much more than expected.  I expected a typical horror story of the era - sub-Stephen King with lots of sex and gore.  Actually, Strieber never uses the word 'vampire' at all but argues for a separate yet twinned species descended from the Lamia (see Keats and Apollonius of Tyre).  Miriam Blaylock may just be that Lamia, a child during the fall of Troy, now resident in New York City in a specially reinforced townhouse.

Sarah Roberts, meanwhile, is a specialist sleep researcher at the Riverside Centre.  She is currently seeking a cure for ageing, in non-scientific terms, the elixir of life.  Her experiments with Rhesus monkeys has spectacularly failed, and her programme may be shut down - until Miriam Blaylock walks in complaining of night terrors.

Miriam and Sarah both have problematic male partners.  John is an 18th century gentleman converted by Miriam who is facing up to the uncomfortable reality that whilst Miriam might be to all intents and purposes immortal, her converts are not.  They age visibly by the minute, consumed by the Hunger but suddenly denied the restorative Sleep. Sarah's partner Tom Havers is a business-oriented medic whose ambition is to rise to the top of the medical world.  Like John, he genuinely loves his woman but also like John he cannot understand the passion that drives her.

The upshot is truly compelling, genuinely thrilling at all the right times.

Strieber's contribution to the vampire studies is the concept of vampiric blood (it is the blood itself which makes the change), which must have been genuinely terrifying during the decade of HIV.  Secondly, he confronts the question of what happens to an immortal being denied of nourishment.  They don't die because they can't and yet they are beyond the point of recovery either through being deprived of sustenance or dismemberment and dispersal.  Fascinating.

Friday, 24 September 2021

Hell is a City - Maurice Proctor


I knew there had to be one somewhere!  A fellow Nelsonian who wrote classic British noir crime fiction.  And here he is, Maurice Proctor, one of the founders of the form, with this very novel in 1954.  Ok, Nelson might have its hellish side but it's not a city.  The city here is Granchester, not to be confused with the Old Vicarage at Grantchester, but very much to be confused with Manchester in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

The armed robber Don Starling has escaped from prison and is believed to be headed home to Granchester.  There, his lifelong nemesis Inspector Harry Martineau awaits.  The two men went to school together and hated one another even as children.  Meanwhile a local bookie's female assistant is snatched while taking the St Leger proceeds to the bank.  Martineau finds her body out on the moors.  Is Starling involved?

What gives this fairly ordinary crime caper its noirish flavour is the linkage between police and criminals.  Not only do they live and work alongside one another, but both draw the line and killing a young woman for money.  Martineau and the robbed bookie both have unhappy marriages.  Martineau is not the pillar of rectitude he appears to be.  He drinks too much and is inevitably drifting towards an affair with a local barmaid.  Any hint of impropriety will extinguish his hopes of promotion.  Recapturing Don Starling, on the other hand, will guarantee advancement.

The Starling and Martineau narratives run alongside one another - another noirish trope.  They come together in a spectacularly set up rooftop showdown in the city centre.  By this point Starling has nothing left to lose and Martineau no longer cares about promotion.  Both men are armed - perfectly credibly - despite the fact that in 1954 no British coppers routinely carried weapons.  And glowering over their deadly encounter is the shadow of the hangman, the legendary Albert Pierrepoint, whose equally legendary pub is namechecked in the book.

I'd never heard of Maurice Proctor.  Thank goodness for Murder Room and other reprint publishers. Hell is a City - great title for a fantastic story. I've already bought another Martineau in ebook.  Can't wait.

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Getting Carter - Nick Triplow


I've written before about Ted Lewis - see me reviews of GBH and Plender, below - but this is the book that led to those books being republished as No Exit titles.  That alone warrants bonus points to Nick Triplow, who also introduced the aforementioned.  To save time scrolling, I was staggered by the brilliance of GBH, less so by Plender.

This critical biography of the forgotten author falls somewhere between the two.  It is absolutely thorough on the life, but is shackled by the fact that Lewis was a pretty appalling person who had talent in abundance but drank it all away.  Far more interesting for me is Triplow's recreation of Hull and Humberside during Lewis's two periods of residence.  I was resident there between times and Triplow's account rings pitch perfect to me.

I also thoroughly enjoyed his assessments of the books and the field of pre-Lewis British noir crime fiction.  In summary then, a significant book which adds additional depth to the novels.  It's just a shame about Lewis himself. 

Monday, 13 September 2021

The Napoleon of Crime - Ben Macintyre


"Thrilling," cries the Telegraph.  "A highly charged thriller!" squeaks the Independent on Sunday.  No it's not.  Anyone who works in the media and writes a book is always going to get quotes for his blurb.  In this case only Macintyre's employer seems to have bothered to read it.  "A well-researched and lively account," says the good old Times, and The Napoleon of Crime is certainly that.  In fact Macintyre's liveliness is adversely effected by the depth of his research.  He thinks Adam Worth, the said Napoleon, is compelling.  He isn't.  A Napoleon of crime is only interesting when he's caught, until which time he is just another inexplicably rich person.  He may or may not have contributed to Conan Doyle's creation of Professor Moriarty, but anyone who has read the stories will tell you he's not very interesting either.

The thing about Worth is that he did two interesting things - he stole and returned Gainsborough's painting of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, at that time the most expensive painting ever sold at auction.  He stole the painting boldly and personally.  He returned it clandestinely and may even have been paid to do so.  He was never charged with the theft.  Yes, that's really unusual and interesting - but unfortunately the two events are twenty-five years apart.  Twenty-five years in which Worth slowly sank lower and lower.

What Macintyre should have written was the story of the painting, overlaying the rapid rise and painfully slow descent of Worth.  But he has discovered too much detail about Worth in the files of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and just cannot bring himself to sublimate any of it.  Thus the first part of the book, leading up to the theft, is rip-roaring.  Everything after that point is just plain boring. My quote, if anybody wants it for a future edition, would be 'Disappointing.'

Sunday, 5 September 2021

Tales of Hoffmann - E T A Hoffmann


We've all heard of Tales of Hoffman, obviously.  But how many have read the tales?  Well I now have - and my breath has been taken away.  Unfortunately this Penguin Classics version isn't all the tales, so I'm guessing you have to hunt down other editions to complete the set.  Still, the eight tales here make for a marvellous read.

First off, these are not short stories, as the 'tales' element might have inferred.  Seven of these are novellas, the other - 'The Mines at Falun' - either a long short story or a short novella.  Hoffman (1776-1822) seems to have written his entire literary output in the last six or seven years of his short life.  Before that he tried painting and succeeded to an extent as a composer.  And all the time he was a middle-ranking local bureaucrat.

R J Hollingdale, in his introduction, makes much of Hoffman's 'double life'.  It is Hollingdale's thesis that many of his characters have double lives.  That's certainly true, but many of them are also mad, as are the worlds in which they find themselves.  A better argument - which Hollingdale also makes - is that Hoffmann is the direct precursor of Poe.  This is especially true of the first novella here Mademoiselle de Scudery, an aged aristocrat at the court of Louis XIV, turns amateur sleuth in order to unmask a serial killer.  But then we have the very creepy 'The Sandman', in which the story itself has two lives.  And my favourite, 'The Choosing of the Bride', in which a sad local bureaucrat in his forties gets embroiled with what may be a two hundred year old goldsmith and his associate, the Wandering Jew.  This, by the way, is a knockabout comedy.

The truth is, I can think of no one remotely similar to Hoffmann.  The closest I can think of is Neil Gaiman. (Is 'The Sandman' some sort of arcane clue?)  I am a Gaiman enthusiast and now I absolutely crave more Hoffmann.  Unique, brilliant - otherwise indescribable.

Monday, 30 August 2021

Abraham Lincoln - John Drinkwater


Abraham Lincoln is the play that made John Drinkwater famous on both sides of the Atlantic.  He produced it at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, which he ran, in October 1918.  It then transferred to London and became an enormous hit, even though - as everyone said at the time - it had none of the usual attributes of commercial theatrical success.  There is no love interest, no jokes.  Any real conflict is either offstage or internal until the very last moment.  There are no surprises.  Barely any continuity.  Instead we jump from Lincoln at home, accepting nomination, to the White House a year later,  then two years later, then Appomattox, April 1865, and finally Ford's Theatre, a few evenings later.

What the play had, however, and what the English public desperately wanted to see as the world's worst war finally ended, was a moral hero who justified the bloodshed and pledged reconciliation.  This, of course, is not what Allied politicians ultimately delivered, but it was absolutely what the public wanted.  And it is beautifully done.  Drinkwater was a minor Georgian poet who dabbled in verse drama before he wrote Lincoln.  He was also a man of the theatre.  His father had walked out on a secure teaching job to go on the stage.  Drinkwater himself had been with Barry Jackson, who had founded and built the Birmingham Rep in 1913, for more than a decade.  He knew what the public wanted and he provided it.

The history is accurate enough, but it is revealed subtly and only when absolutely needed.  Nobody's character develops much except for Lincoln, who undergoes every bit of suffering during the bloody Civil War but keeps on going because do so is the right thing.  He frees the slaves.  He lets the defeated Confederate cavalry keep their horses to till the land.  And as we all know, for this he was shown no mercy.  The assassination, which we all know is coming, is handled in the only way it can still be shocking - in a true coup de theatre, which must have been a nightmare to stage (Barry Jackson himself designed the sets).

Traces of the conventions of the English Arts Theatre movement survive in the poetic chorus of two 'chroniclers'.  These are easily ignored for the modern reader.  We will simply say, this is why Drinkwater was the least successful of the core Georgian poets.  He made up for it by being a much better playwright than any other (and, for those who don't know, all the others wrote plays).

Thursday, 26 August 2021

The Smiling Man - Joseph Knox

OK, I was ambivalent about Knox's debut, Sirens, but I was interested enough to read this, the second Aidan Waits novel.  No reservations now - Knox is up there with the best of his generation of British crime writers.  This is a proper novel, properly original, with the full novelistic strata of interlinked storylines - plus our first real insight into our hero's pitch-black backstory.

Waits is on permanent night duty, paired with the equally toxic DS Peter Sutcliffe, who lives up to his name.  They are investigating the arson of various litter bins when the call comes in from the closed pending sale luxury Palace hotel.  There's a man in room 413.  He's smiling.  He's dead.  The only real clue to his identity is an inscribed copy of the Rubiyat of Omar Khyam.  Waits traces this to a nurse called Amy.  They bring her in to identify the body.  She doesn't need to see his face.  There is obviously one foot too many for it to be her former lover.

Then there's the case of Cherry the streetwalker, whose body is fished out of the canal.  Only Cherry is really Christopher.  The whole plot unravels along these eccentric lines.  Ir's just brilliant.

I was going to end with "I can't wait for the next Waits novel,' but it turns out I can.  Knox's next book is a true crime story, set in Manchester., and called, fittingly, True Crime Story.  That is what I want to read asap.

Saturday, 21 August 2021

V2 - Robert Harris


Harris yet again surprises with his ability to turn quite thin material into a compelling read.  I mean, everyone knows the story of von Braun and his V2 rockets.  We know they didn't win the war and we know they didn't do as much damage - or create as much fear - as the V1 doodlebugs.  Indeed, this story is so thin that Harris actually splits into two narratives - English woman, German man - to stretch it to an acceptable read.  And yet it is great fun, even thrilling at times.  How does he do it?

Well, he has clearly done his research.  That is a given with Harris.  He carefully gives us just about enough to show it is reliable without overburdening us as so many modern authors do.  For example, in order to make us even slightly interested in what happened at Peenemunde he gives us an RAF raid on the site in which Rudi Graf's love interest is killed.  Graf is Harris's German protagonist, a scientist, not a Nazi, and a friend of von Braun, who is an SS officer.  Our English heroine is Kay Caton-Walsh, a WAAF who sleeps with unsuitable men and blags herself into a proper war job, working out the launch site of rockets.  This is perhaps Harris's best device.  As the end of the war draws nearer, the protagonists in this novel are brought physically closer - Graf and the rockets at the Dutch resort of Sheveningen, Kay and the trajectory-trackers a few miles south at Mechelen in Belgium.  The thrilling part of the book comes when the Germans figure out the Allies are there and aim a rocket at them.

There are a couple of interesting characters who go nowhere, which unsettled me, notably a feisty girl who works in the Nazi brothel, and a psychopathic SS man who builds the rocket factory with slave labour.  V2 is a good book, and great fun to read, but with a bit more ambition it could have been outstanding.

Monday, 16 August 2021

The Bird's Nest - Shirley Jackson


I've read a little Shirley Jackson (We Have Always Lived in the Castle is reviewed here) but I had no idea she wrote a novel like this.  The Bird's Nest is the tangled psyche of Elizabeth Richmond, a dull 25 year-old orphan who lives with her aunt.  She suffers from back pain and headaches so her family doctor refers her to starchy old Dr Victor Wright who fancies himself adept at psychotherapy.  Wright isn't an actual psychotherapist, you understand, just an enthusiastic dabbler.

Wright hypnotises Elizabeth and unleashes multiple personalities - Lizzie, Beth, Betsy and Bess, who - rivals with one another - unleash chaos.  The trick Jackson pulls off is to tell her story through different characters.  The mark of her genius is that she doesn't do the obvious and split the narrative through the split personalities.  No, she gives us Elizabeth herself, Betsy (the most active of the alternates), Doctor Wright (twice) and fiesty Aunt Morgen.  Moreover, only the verbose, pontificating Wright narrates in the first person.  It's very clever, beautifully done, and totally engrossing.  No wonder The Bird's Nest is a Penguin Modern Classic.

Thursday, 5 August 2021

In Matto's Realm - Friedrich Glauser


A real discovery!  Friedrich Glauser (1896-1938) is called the Swiss Simenon but is far more interesting.  Here, he sets his story in a Psychiatric Clinic - the director has gone missing as has one of his patients, a self-confessed child killer.  For most writers this would mean a great deal of painful research.  Not for Glauser, a schizophrenic who had spent long periods of time in such clinics.  On top of that he was addicted to morphine and opium, had done time for forging prescriptions, and had served in the Foreign Legion.  He wasn't even Swiss - he was born in Vienna.

So what does a madman make of the madhouse?  He of course has great sympathy for the patients, but also the staff.  The most compelling character in the novel is Dr Ernst Laduner, the deputy director, who has a smile that looks like it's been pasted on, eccentric verbal tics and a taste for sometimes brutal experimentation.  And then there's Glauser's series detective, Sergeant Jakob Studer, formerly an inspector but busted back to sergeant, aged fifty, by his bete noir Colonel Caplaun, whose alcoholic son just happens to be a patient of Dr Laduner.

The story grips like a vice.  We become fully conversant with this alien world and its inhabitants.  The year is 1936.  In Germany radical events are underway but all we hear of them is an unidentified voice ranting on the radio.  This is clearly Hitler, who would have no toleration whatsoever for someone like Glauser.  And this is Glauser's genius - we have to work these things out for ourselves, though we are left in no doubt about Studer's antipathetic views on fascism.  Indeed, Studer does many things we might not expect of a heavily-built German-speaking cop coming up to retirement.

It's a thrilling, fascinating and in many ways beautiful book.  At this halfway stage of the year, it's my favourite read of 2021.

Friday, 30 July 2021

The Man Who Was Saturday - Patrick Bishop


The problem for a biographer of the politician Airey Neave is that it was interesting at the beginning and at the end with nothing of interest inbetween.  As a young man in World War II he escaped from Colditz and was the first British escapee to make it all the way home.  He went on to work with resisters in occupied Europe but, worthwhile and commendable as this was, he did most of it from a desk in Whitehall.  After the war he became a Tory MP, spending 30 years as an unexceptional backbencher.  In 1975 he organised Margaret Thatcher's successful bid for the Tory leadership.  She naturally offered him any job he wanted in the Shadow Cabinet and he chose, as his first and only front bench job, Shadow Irish Secretary.  This of course was towards the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  Bombs on the mainland were starting and the IRA was splintering into ultra-violent factions.  One of these was the Irish National Liberation Army, which on March 30 1979 blew up Neave and his car as he was leaving the underground car park of the House of Commons.

In his lifetime Neave was known for the Colditz escape.  Now he is remembered, if at all, for his horrible death.  Those are the two events that interest Bishop in this book.  He provides good context for each and there was much that was new to me in relation to the Irish situation in the Seventies.  My main interest in seeking out the book, however, was another military disaster which Neave was witness to, and which he went on to write about - the siege of  Calais in which hundreds of allied troops were abandoned to fight to the death and so occupy the German army whilst the rest of the failed British Expeditionary Force was evacuated from Dunkirk.  Neave was there with a non-combatant searchlight squad (something I had not heard of).  He was wounded early on, quite seriously, and was ultimately taken prisoner.  There was enough here to satisfy me that I really need to get Neave's own book on the episode.

The problem, as I say, is the yawning 30-year gap in the middle.  Neave was happily married and kept busy with constituency work, work for an engineering company that employed him, and with a reasonably successful writing career.  But it's not enough to fire up any biographer.  When Neave accidentally finds himself wheeling and dealing over Mrs Thatcher's future, this reader can't help wishing he had failed.  I lived through Thatcher's reign of terror and I roundly hated her.  Neave, of course, didn't live to see what he had inflicted on his beloved country.  Bishop tries to mollify my kind of reader with regular disclaimers of the 'he probably wouldn't have agreed with her more controversial policies' variety.  Oh yes he would.  He put up with the senile Churchill, the useless Eden and the appalling Heath (who he actually hated).  Monetarism, deindustrialisation and mass unemployment were hardly going to worry him.

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

The Winter of Our Discontent - John Steinbeck


Not everything by Steinbeck is as famous as The Grapes of Wrath or Cannery Row.  But I enjoyed In Dubious Battle a couple of years ago and now I find The Winter of Our Discontent strangely moving.  It was Steinbeck's final novel, published in 1961, and got a poor reception in its day.  That is probably because it is about its day, set in the lead-up to the election that would ultimately return JFK, and also, I suspect, because it is very much an internal novel, as opposed to the wide open spaces and universality of Wrath or East of Eden.  Even a smallscale work like Of Mice and Men somehow seemed larger than this.

Ethan Allen Hawley is the scion of a historic Long Island family.  The Hawleys made whaling money but Ethan's father lost most of it before the war and Ethan himself lost the rest after returning from service.  He is now the clerk in Murullo's grocery store.  Otherwise he is happy, married to Mary with a son and a daughter and cosily housed in the Hawley family mansion.  He likes to goof about and make jokes, and, the novel being set mainly in his head, we get more than our share of his horseplay.

Then glamorous widow Margie Young-Hunt, an amateur psychic, predicts a change of fortune.  Ethan plays along and gradually sees the signs of change in real life - but only if he betrays his friends and joins the general corruption of the civic leaders.

The way Ethan's dilemma plays out took me completely by surprise.  I share many of the reservations of Steinbeck's first readers but have the ending is going to stay with me for a good long time.

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

The Long-Legged Fly - James Sallis


The Long-Legged Fly (1992) is New Orleans noir in which PI Lew Griffin searches for lost women over four decades.  Only he doesn't find them all and in the end he turns to writing New Orleans noir crime fiction featuring a shambolic PI called Lew Griffin.  Like, I mean, wow.  Post-modern or what?

The trick is, though, Lew Griffin, despite his drink problem and penchant for life's losers, is and remains a compelling character.  You can't help but side with him.  He has a bad news background but has improved his mind over the years and believably winds up with a lecturing gig on the back of his success as a writer.  The son of his first marriage is also a writer-academic.  He disappears in the last section.  The love of Lew's life, who lives in Paris, joins in to help Lew investigate.  The trail runs cold back in New York and Lew doesn't find his son, at least not in this novel.  So it's one last failed investigation.

I was startled by this book - startled mainly that I hadn't come across Sallis before.  He is extremely good and deserves to be as big as, for example, James Lee Burke.  Highly recommended.

Monday, 19 July 2021

The Dead - Howard Linskey


There's a hell of a lot of story here in much fewer pages than most contemporary crime novels.  I find that extremely impressive.  Either Linskey writes like a dream or he is careful to revise as he goes.  I don't see that you can produce this standard with the get-a-first-draft-done-and-fic-it-later method.

There is also an apparent mountain of pre-story, carried forward from the previous two books which I haven't read.  No problem, Linskey gives you the exposition you need when you really need it; in the meantime, he cleverly lets you draw your own conclusions.

David Blake, at forty, has risen to the top of the crime tree in his native Newcastle.  He is married with a baby daughter.  Like any good modern entrepreneur he is already planning his exit.  But first he has unfinished business, like who killed his father, why and (unusually) when.  Then there is a Russian ex-pat zillionaire who wants to use his drug lines to smuggle men and arms into Russia.  But, most pressingly, the daughter of Blake's bete noir in the police force has just been brutally murdered and Blake's name is very much in the frame.

As I say, I was extremely impressed with this book.  I know Newcastle pretty well and nothing here jarred with me.  The story moved along at a bracing pace yet there were terrific character studies here too.  I shall be reading more Linskey.

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Memoirs of a British Agent - Robert Bruce Lockhart


The title night suggest a secret agent, but that would have been impossible in 1933 when Lockhart published.  The title is strictly accurate.  Lockhart was the agent of the British government to Moscow in 1917 and 1918 when the British did not recognise the revolutionary regime but desperately needed them not to side with Germany in what turned out to be the second half of World War I.  Lockhart was at the time just thirty years old.  He had been with the British Consulate in Moscow before the war (the capital was St Petersburg, hence that is where the Embassy was) but had suffered a nervous breakdown early in the war and had returned to Britain.  He, however, had the social skills, the contacts and the gift for languages needed as the only British representative in critical times.  More importantly, he had a genuine love of Russia and the Russian people.  He was friends with Kerensky and arranged his escape when the Bolsheviks took over.  He then met with Trotsky on a daily basis and was greatly impressed with Lenin.  It was Lenin, on his sickbed as he recovered from the assassination attempt by Dora Kaplan, who freed Lockhart from the Kremlin where he was held prisoner during the Terror.  Whilst in prison Lockhart encountered the mysterious head of the Cheka Jacob Peters, who may have been Peter the Painter, leader of the anarchists in Sidney Street, London, during the infamous siege.  Peters gave Lockhart a present on his (Peter's) birthday in 1918 - his (Lockhart's) mistress, Moura, who herself became an infamous femme fatale.  Also of dubious allegiance was Sydney Reilly, supposedly an Englishman but actually came from Odessa.  Lockhart tells us everything he knew about Reilly - the 'Ace of Spies' - but that is almost nothing.  Nobody knew everything about Reilly.  Lockhart concludes that Reilly almost certainly set him up by concocting and releasing to the Russian Press the so-called 'Lockhart plot'.  Why Reilly might have done so remains a mystery.

There is no other English witness to these events which shaped the world we still live in.  This should be a set book for advanced level history.  Lockhart is scrupulously honest.  He was a married man when he consorted with Moura but he tells us about it nonetheless.  I have never read elsewhere about the assassination of German officials in Russia who were trying to win over the Russians to their cause.  I would have liked to learn more about the British military 'mission' sent to Archangel, but Lockhart was half a continent away in Moscow and only knew anything at second hand.

Sunday, 11 July 2021

The Monk - Matthew Lewis


The Monk is the transitional novel between the High Gothic of Walpole and Beckford and the Romantic Gothic of Polidori and Mary Shelley.  The fanciful foreign setting is retained - in this case Madrid - but here it is particularly apposite.  The man turned monster is Ambrosio, the prodigy recently appointed as head of his order and the sensationalist preacher at the cathedral.  His end is partly at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition.

The Monk is a multiple narrative, two intertwined stories told in several voices.  This works surprisingly well and was no doubt an influence on Stoker when he produced Dracula almost a century later.  Essentially, Don Lorenzo and Don Raymond are two young men about town, heirs to great fortunes and noble titles.  Raymond has already fallen for Lorenzo's sister Agnes and Lorenzo meets young beauty Antonia at one of Ambrosio's packed sermons.  Both are good, religious girls.  Agnes, indeed, is on the verge of becoming a nun.  Raymond, nevertheless, gets her pregnant.  Ambrosio, meanwhile, has been seduced by one of his novices, a woman disguised as a monk.  She is a very naughty woman and uses demonology to enable Ambrosio to murder Antonio's mother, drug, kidnap and ultimately rape Antonia.  Meanwhile Agnes's pregnancy has been discovered and the domina of the Order of St Claire has her immured in a secret sepulchre.

Yes, it's that level of Gothic.

Everything about The Monk was sensational when it was published in 1796, not least that it's first-time author was only twenty and already a Member of Parliament.  Lewis later had some success on the stage but was forever 'Monk' Lewis.  Despite bans and edits and withdrawals from circulation The Monk was a runaway success and has continued for more than 200 years as an underground classic.  Most people have heard about it (let us not forget that Lewis visited Byron and Shelley and their establishment at the Villa Diodati immediately before the creation of The Vampyre and Frankenstein) but not everybody has read it.  They really should.  It is better than it has any right to be.

Sunday, 4 July 2021

The Debacle - Emile Zola

The Debacle is intended to be part of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, but it is really a historical novel - recent history which Zola himself witnessed and reported as a journalist.  That is both the problem and the book's appeal.

Jean Macquart is a peasant who has joined the army to better himself.  This plunges him, in 1870, into the disastrous Franco-Prussian war, which was short and brutal, which set the scene for the horrors of World War I, and which haunted French sensibilities for almost a century.  The French were beset with hopeless leaders, political and military.  Napoleon III was dying and wasn't even emperor in his own household.  Macmahon, marshal of France, suffered the indignity of being shot in the backside very early in the climactic battle of Sedan and was hors de combat for the rest of the day.  The Prussians had Bismarck and needed no more.  The army in the field surrendered, Napoleon abdicated, but Paris refused to give in.  The Prussians therefore laid siege over the winter.  Early in 1871 the Government of National Defence under Adolphe Thiers made peace and the Prussians withdrew.  Again Paris struck out on its own, forming the Commune, the first socialist, feminist, revolutionary autonomy.  Thiers, now President of the Second Republic, moved to Versailles and set about conquering his own capital.  The Commune only lasted from the middle of March to the end of May before going out - literally - in a blaze of glory.  They burned down official buildings, monuments and the imperial palace.  One of the city arsenals blew up.

It's an incredibly complex story which Zola divides into three: the build-up to battle, the battle, and the siege and commune.  He sets his tangled personal stories against this background but, being real events which the majority of his first readers (in 1892) had experienced, historical fact always has to dominate fictional fancy.  The result is inevitable - fiction loses every time.  Jean is wounded in the battle - he has to spend an unconscionable time recovering (and is then hospitalised for fever in Brussels) but is suddenly fit enough to enlist in time for the Versailles army to invade Paris because Zola needs to bring him face to face with his counterpart Maurice Levasseur, who has taken up the cause of the Commune.

Frankly, the characterisation is so sketchy that I didn't know the surnames were Macquart and Levasseur until I looked them up just now.  Jean is simple and honest, Maurice is educated and unpredictable, his sister is an angel, their uncle a goblin.  And yet, as always with Zola, there are fictional moments of astonishing power: for example, what the saboteurs hiding in the woods do to the spy 'Goliath', and particularly the unspoken interaction between Goliath and the girl he fathered a child with.

I can't pretend I loved The Debacle - Zola is not a lovable writer.  But I was impressed, startled and always intrigued.  I bought the ebook because I was researching the Paris Commune for one of my own projects and was frustrated by the lack of impartial witnesses.  Zola certainly filled that hole and I can confirm that nothing here is contradicted by historical scholars.  On the contrary, there is something the scholars can never tell us - what it was like to be there.

Saturday, 19 June 2021

The Guards - Ken Bruen


The Guards is the first novel in Bruen's Jack Taylor series - hardboiled Galway noir laced with grim humour.  Taylor is an ex-garda, alcoholic, who has slid into becoming an ad hoc investigator for hire.  One day Anne Henderson hires him to investigate the supposed suicide of her teenaged daughter.  This brings Jack into conflict with his former police colleagues, the wealthy entrepreneurs who have crossed the Irish Sea to ride the Celtic Tiger, and the most deadly enemy of all, alcohol.  Several beatings, collapses and cures later, he discovers the truth, which is bleaker and blacker than even he supposed.

I quite enjoyed the TV movies with Iain Glen as Jack, but the novels are far better.  Bruen has the style of Chandler, the darkness of Ellroy and a punchier drive narrative drive than either.  His story proceeds in short, tightly-packed chapters, many of which are not even a page in the e-book version.  Interspersed are quotes and oneliners from some very jaundiced but always appropriate commentators.  The story is something and nothing but the character development is captivating, especially of Jack himself and his associate Sutton.

I am a convert to the series.  Only another fourteen - so far - to go.

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

The Third Man - Graham Greene

Graham Greene famously didn't write The Third Man as a novel, he wrote it as a movie treatment.  Inevitably, he was called upon to publish it in book form - to novelise his own treatment after it had been developed with the director, Carol Reed.  This is the result - and I must say it works rather well.  I once read its near namesake, The Tenth Man, which Greene wrote in his dotage, and that was a very different experience (it put me off Greene for at least thirty years).

Some memorable lines in the movie were claimed by others (Orson Welles, for example, and 'cuckoo clocks').  Greene simply doesn't go there.  Another change is that the female lead, wonderfully played by Alida Valli, is of no real significance in the novel.  I don't remember in the film anything about Martens being mistaken for a different writer by the British Council representatives in Vienna.  And Greene sticks to his original choice of Rollo for Martens' first name - which Joseph Cotten apparently considered too camp, preferring Holly instead.

Greene, who loves to write in the first person, has to put himself through hoops to do so here.  In the end he choose the Trevor Howard character, the British agent, who is just about able to 'discover' a lot of information through various interviews with other characters.  The main virtue, though, is that Greene keeps it short.  It is a novella rather than a novel, and all the better for it.

To pad it out to a publishable volume, Penguin include the original of that other classic Greene movie, The Fallen Idol, which was a short story called 'The Basement Room', written in 1935.  I cannot watch the 1948 film nowadays (also directed by Carol Reed).  It's a problem I developed with Ralph Richardson, who plays the servant Baines, during my PhD research.  It dawned on me, listening to many archive recordings of his radio work in the British Library, that he was permanently drunk.  Once you've spotted that, you can't do anything other than watch for the signs.

The short story, however, is brilliant.  Greene gets wholly inside the mind of the young boy Phil, left in the care of the household servants while his parents are on holiday.  Baines tries to show him a good, manly time and ends up scarring the boy's entire life.

Monday, 14 June 2021

The Vampyre - Tom Holland

 I know, I know.  What looks like a coincidence could also be an obsession.  But the fact of the matter is, I've had this novel on my shelves for about three years and was prompted to read it because I liked Wilson's play so much.

I also enjoyed the novel.  The subtitle, 'The Secret History of Lord Byron', tells us all we need to know.  It's hardly a secret that Byron is, to all intents and purposes, the model for the modern vampire - and why he so often has to be a nobleman.  Byron was the host at the Villa Deodati on Lake Geneva in the year without a summer (1816) when the group (Byron, Mr and Mrs Shelley and Dr Polidori) resolved to write Gothic horror stories.  Mary Shelley famously began Frankenstein.  Byron wrote a fragment about a vampire which, Polidori, after he was sacked and returned to England, developed and published as The Vampyre.  The unscrupulous publisher inferred Byron was the real author; both Byron and Polidori objected and the scandal became a bestseller.  Polidori, grieved to have fallen out with his hero, makes him very clearly the anti-hero of the novella.

Anyway, so Holland has taken the vampirisation of Byron and combined it with the huge bestseller (and successful movie of the time) Interview with a Vampire.  The result is not subtle: Byron is the vampire - and not for purposes of satire or sarcasm - and he is sort of interviewed.  The latter is not especially successful, his interviewer, Rebecca, doesn't ask any serious questions and the book is basically a long first person account from Byron.  Holland has done his research and the story of his life in exile - having left England because he abandoned his wife and child - is perfectly convincing.  The vampire side is not quite so well done but I was impressed that Holland has added to the vampire mythos - a new development in the concept of 'golden blood', the ultimate delight for vampires, the blood of their own children.

One reason the novel is slightly unsatisfactory is that it is meant to be continued (in Supping With Panthers).  I don't know whether I can be bothered but anyone who has read it is welcome to tell me about it and even post their comments here.

Thursday, 10 June 2021

Vampire - Snoo Wilson

 Snoo Wilson (1948-2013) was one of the key playwrights of my youth.  Indeed, Vampire was first performed four months before I went to university to study drama for the first time in 1973.  At the time Wilson was the equal of David Hare, Trevor Griffiths and Howard Brenton and ahead of Stephen Poliakoff.  The others went on to commercial success whilst Wilson never really did.

Vampire isn't about a vampire at all.  It's really three loosely linked plays about the essence of vampirism - i.e. sex and death and, given that vampires are believed to start drinking the blood of family members - incest.

The longest and best of the three plays (or acts as Wilson insists on calling them) is the first, which is basically as two act play set in the mid 19th century in which a Welsh minister keeps a tight hold on his three young daughters because he fears they will discover sex - which, this being a play from 1973, they very much do.  Scene Two finds the minister visiting a brothel-cum-seance room to try and contact his beloved wife.  His most liberated daughter just happens to be the star attraction of the combined business.  The man of god ends up having incestuous sex with his daughter in a coffin, convinced that she is the ghost of his dead wife.

The product of this incestuous coupling ends up being the mother of Sarah, the lead character in Act Two, set on the eve of the First World War.  The fight for women's rights is now Suffragism.  Again, the structure is basically two acts, albeit these are too short to stand alone.  Here the second involves Sarah as Mary in a Nativity Play, during which she is examined by those eminent medics, Jung and Freud.

Act Three is a problem - so much so that Wilson was forever changing it in subsequent productions; one such change ended up being expanded into an entire play, one of Wilson's more successful ones, Soul of the White Ant.  The setting in this original version is contemporary London.  The women's movement is now so advanced that Marcia wants to be called Dwight.  Everything is very modern, very extreme (for 1973).  Nothing much happens and the play rather fizzles out.

But I like Vampire because of its rough and ready experimental nature.  Not everything works but the first half works extremely well and could and would and perhaps should stand alone, perhaps in a double bill with one of Wilson's shorter works.  We didn't know it at the time but the Seventies was a golden age for democratic British theatre - a long, long way from the sort of drivel that we today manage to squeeze in between the bloody musicals.

Thursday, 3 June 2021

Plender - Ted Lewis


I loved Ted Lewis's GBH, and obviously love the movie of his Get Carter, but Plender not so much.  It is very much in the style of GBH, alternating chapters allowing first person narrative from each of the main characters, and set in Humberside when such a county existed in the late Seventies - but it is nowhere near as dark and nowhere near dark enough.

The plot hinges on a couple of coincidences, which is never a good place to start.  It is of course conceivable that two schoolfellows from the Lincolnshire side might meet up again twenty years later in Hull.  It is by no means beyond the realm of possibility that one (Plender) might have become a dodgy private investigator, the other (Knott) a photographer for mail order catalogues.  But that they should meet in a transvestite bar, when neither of them is a cross-dresser, on the very night that one of them accidentally brings about the death of a young woman ... well, that's stretching credibility a bit too far.

The final coincidence I didn't see coming and it rather took me by surprise when it did.  It is no more believable than the others but it allowed the story to spiral into darkness at last.  As such, I wish it had done so a lot sooner.  All in all, I'm afraid it reminded me of not-very-good TV drama of the period - A Bouquet of Barbed Wire, and the like.

Saturday, 29 May 2021

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway

 Hemingway's classic roman a clef - also known as Fiesta - was published in 1926 to instant acclaim.  A group of expats meet up in Paris and move on to Pamplona for the Fiesta of Saint Fermin and the bullfighting.  The relationships of the expats is mirrored by the rivalry between bullfighters and their deathly dance with the bull.

Jake Barnes is the Hemingway figure but he is no bull because he has been neutered by a war wound.  He loves the beautiful Lady Brett Ashley and she loves him as much as she loves anyone else.  But she also loves other members of the group, Robert Cohn, whom she has recently spent a holiday with, and Mike Campbell, the British bankrupt she is engaged to.  Unable to have a sexual relationship with Jake, she prostitutes herself with other men, including the young matador Romero, who is only half her age.  Meanwhile the drunken Campbell baits Cohn in the same way Romero taunts his bull in the ring, and Cohn - a college boxing champion - ultimately strikes back.

In one sense Brett is the ultimate New Woman of the Twenties - sexually promiscuous, hard-drinking, frankly doomed.  But Barnes is a Catholic and, as narrator, takes a high moral tone, contrasting Brett with the working girl (Georgette) he picks up in Paris.

The Sun Also Rises is short, complex, multi-layered, experimental and, in summary, a modern masterpiece.  Is it Hemingway's masterpiece?  I haven't read enough to take a view.  But I was enthralled from the first page and became completely immersed.

Monday, 24 May 2021

Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse - Otsuichi


Otsuichi (Hirotaka Adachi) is a master of Japanese Horror.  The origins of the form lie in the 19th century when traditional Japanese ghost stories became a fad in the West.  Nowadays it means horror stories arising from everyday contemporary life.  Thus, for example, Black Fairy Tale, Otsuichi's first novel and the longest item in this collection, is fundamentally about transplant surgery.

Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse was his debut, a novella written when he was only 18 and still in high school, which went on to be nominated for the prestigious Shirley Jackson Award.  That is about nine-year-old Satsuki who dies in a childish accident but whose death is covered up by her playmate Yayoi and her slightly older brother Ken.  The action is narrated by Satsuki, even after death, which is a fascinating device and I did not see the final twist coming.

Next is 'Yuko', a short story about a widow who gets a job with keeping house with a wealthy writer and his invalid second wife Yuko.  Only the housekeeper is never allowed to see Yuko and naturally begins to suspect that she doesn't exist.  The story, set shortly after Japanese defeat in World War II, is beautifully elusive and I'm not entirely sure what happens at the end, which is fine by me.

Then we have Black Fairy Tale, in which teenager Nami receives a donated left eye to replace the one she lost in an accident which also cost her her memory.  She is not the same Nami she was before the accident and her parents and schoolfriends cannot accept the change.  She starts having visions in the transplanted eye and realises they are things seen by the donor.  She sets out to track him down and finds he was a young man killed in a hit and run accident.  She goes to his home town to investigate further and blunders into a real horror.

The great thing about Otsuichi, especially in Black Fairy Tale, is his layering.  For example, who is the author of the Black Fairy Tale collection of stories, one of which - 'The Eye's Memory' - is included here.  In that story a talking raven steals human eyes which it gives to an eyeless girl.  When she puts them in her sockets she has dreams of what the eyes had seen.  Thus the parallels seep over into the main narrative and, when we look back after reading the novel, provide key clues.

I really enjoyed this collection - it's the perfect way to plunge into Otsuichi's grim world as well as a useful introduction to the genre.  I certainly want to try more of both.

Friday, 21 May 2021

All Shot Up - Chester Himes


All Shot Up, the fifth in the Grave Digger Jones/Coffin Ed Johnson sequence, aka 'The Harlem Cycle', is a great introduction to Himes's work.  Set in a snow storm, it is one of those capers in which everything ties together - the man stealing tyres who watches a stick up by fake police in a stolen car and the old woman who gets run down by the gold Cadillac who isn't either old or a woman and who gets up straightaway, only to wind up very dead shortly after.

Such complex interweaving is hard to bring off but Himes does it brilliantly, in a beautifully short novel full of grotesque black humour and smart dialogue.  Every character who so much as strolls across the scene is full realised, every motive is reasonable in its own cockeyed way, and Himes even finds time for commentary on corrupt ghetto politics and the Harlem transvestism scene which was obviously thriving in and around 1960 when this book was written.

As indicated above, this was my first taste of Himes's dark brew.  It certainly won't be my last.

Sunday, 16 May 2021

Agency - William Gibson


The 2020 follow-up to The Peripheral (2014), Agency is the second of Gibson's 'Jackpot' novels - set after the oligarchs have hit the jackpot and destroyed democracy.  In this very near future, the first autonomous artificial reality laminar is about to be launched.  But first it must be tested, and ace app tester Verity gets the gig.  Only Eunice isn't a game.  She is very much weapons grade AR and soon sets about building herself a network of branch plants through which she accesses wealth and technology, all for the public good.  And anybody or anything that operates in the public interest obviously has to be stopped.

By this time cyber technology has enabled the present to communicate and interact with the past, but only the recent past - times sufficiently technological advanced to answer back.  And in this case we are talking 2017 and an alternate past in which Trump didn't win the 2016 election.  The problem is, as this alternative indicates, is that if you interfere even slightly with your own past you don't change your history, you create an alternative, a time branch or 'stub'.  The present has got a handle on this - people whose role is to protect the past, but of course the perception of what's worth protecting and what should be interfered with is subjective.

Anyway, the hunt for Verity and Eunice spreads across several stubs, which means a lot of layers and a lot of characters, most of whom (I'm guessing) featured in The Peripheral.  We don't always get enough back story for us to engage - I couldn't give two hoots about Wilf and Rainey and baby Thomas in cosplay London, but Connor, the gung-ho drone pilot, is great fun.  Fortunately Verity is interesting enough, and Eunice has been given a sassy African-American avatar that keeps us amused.

It's a complex story in a complex narrative.  The core idea is dazzling and confronts the challenge of time-travel literature head-on and, by and large, successfully.  I get bored, however, with super-rich superstars like Stets and his super-cool artist girlfriend.  Somebody wants to blow them up, be my guest - which rather undercuts the tension at the end.

For all my reservations, Gibson remains miles ahead of the pack and always worth reading.

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Les Diaboliques - Barbey D'Aurevilly


Latest stop on my tour of decadent French fin de siecle literature is Barbey D'Aurevilly's collection of scandalous short stories from 1874 - so scandalous that it was confiscated by the Ministry of Justice.  You might think, so what?  Victorian sensibilities, even across the Channel, were very different to ours.  But no, the fate of the promiscuous woman in 'At a Dinner of Atheists' is horrific bordering on pornographic in any era.  Likewise the nature of the 'Woman's Revenge' in the final story.

It's called The She-Devils in most English translations but I think that leads to misconceptions of misogyny.  Each of the six stories features a strong, transgressive woman but I don't think for a moment that Barbey D'Aurevilly looks on them with contempt or disgust.  On the contrary, I believe he is fascinated by them - aroused, certainly, but also intrigued.  The stories are long - forty to fifty pages - and he gives himself plenty of time to probe their psychology and motivation - in itself a counter to any she-devilishness, because of course devils do devilish things for the sheer hell of it.

The authorial style, especially the at-one-remove (recit parle) storytelling, is not to everyone's taste but it is of its time - the parallels with Huysmans are obvious - and I was held spellbound.  Very dark material, not for beginners, but I want more.

Thursday, 29 April 2021

The Last London - Iain Sinclair


Sinclair's forty-year project to map the soul of London ends here.  The London he started exploring in the 1970s no longer exists; perhaps its soul no longer does, either.  Sinclair certainly struggles to find it.  When he started out London, only recently been rebuilt after the Blitz, was in apparent decline.  Rooms were cheap and plentiful, as were jobs of all kinds.  But a megapolis is always in a state of renewal and decline and Sinclair has documented the cycle.  He ends with the transients being driven from the centre to the furthest outskirts.  He starts here with London's putative great moment, the 2012 Olympics, which was alarmingly transitory, and ends with the vote to leave Europe in 2016.

Along the way he renews old friendships - fellow malcontents and dissenters, fellow psychogeographers.  They recreate former expeditions, revisiting old haunts where they still exist.  The Last London is a work of recollection, scrutiny and foresight, always moving, the synapses always firing, making and remaking connections with deeper history.  Time, for Sinclair and his associates, is not so much a progression as an accumulation.

I found it fascinating, endlessly thought-provoking.

Monday, 26 April 2021

Invasion of the Body Snatchers - Jack Finney


This classic demonstrates the axiom that in sci fi the idea is everything.  'The Body Snatchers' started out as a magazine serial, then it was refined into book form.  Then came the first movie and the book was renamed, then it was updated for a second movie a quarter of a century later, which is this version.  It all makes no difference.  Smalltown USA is infiltrated by pod plants that turn into exact facsimiles of whatever they find themselves close to - other plants, discarded trash, human beings.  It fundamentally similar to The Day of the Triffids but more claustrophobic (the facsimile people can seal off the township).  Another neat twist is that the voices of science and reason - an absolute necessity in alien life form fiction - are themselves facsimiles.  The best part of the movies - when Kevin McCarthy runs up against a speeding car - is here too, and indeed is one of the best-written sections of the novel.  All in all, it's great fun.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Consequence of Fear - Ted Allbeury

 Ted Allbeury (1917-2005) was that rare thing among spy writers - a real one.  Yes, John le Carre and Ian Fleming were spies but not in the sense that Allbeury was.  Fleming, for example, was never in the field.  Allbeury on the other hand, was SOE, parachuted into France and remaining there until the end of the war.  Le Carre (David Cornwall) was in the field during the Cold War and therefore risked arrest.  Allbeury was actually captured by the Russians in the act of recruiting agents.

As to writing ability, Allbeury is certainly much better than Fleming.  He lacks Fleming's ability to fetishize the trappings of spycraft but perhaps makes up for it with better ideas for world threats.  In Consequence of Fear, for instance, written in 1979 and thus substantially before Chernobyl, the focus is a nuclear disaster which the Russians have covered up for two decades.

James Boyle was a spy in the war.  As such he ran Otto Lemke, a German spy captured in Croydon with a radio set, who for the rest of the war broadcast false material to his homeland in return for a train of young women willing to sleep with him.  Thirty years later Boyle is a QC who has just been offered a judgeship.  Lemke is an East German sports journalist who has somehow got hold of detailed documentation about the nuclear spill.  He is willing to trade this for asylum in the US with his latest teenaged girlfriend.  On one condition - he wants James Boyle to manage his defection.

So, under cover of offering legal advice to a TV company planning to broadcast the Moscow Olympics in 1980, Boyle heads for Russia.

I was impressed with how easily Allbeury guides his reader through the very convincing intricacies of Cold War political posturing.  The story does not develop as would generally be expected (and here Allbeury comes close to the standards of mid-career le Carre) and the end came as a complete surprise.  I shall certainly read more.

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Titus Groan - Mervyn Peake

Re-reading Titus Groan, I was struck by its uniqueness.  I couldn't come up with an English novel quite like it.  Vathek, perhaps, or I was I just associating Beckford's folly at Fonthill with the castle of Gormenghast?  Thomas Love Peacock's Nightmare Abbey then; but that is literary satire and Peake's achievement goes much, much deeper.

If anything, Titus is about the absurdity of traditional ritual.  Within the fantastical confines of Gormenghast life is entirely circumscribed by age-old convention dating back seventy-six generations and now enters a seventy-seventh with the long-awaited birth of the titular male heir.  At the same moment seventeen year-old Steerpike, one of Mr Swelter's kitchen scullions, seizes the moment to begin his own climb to power.  Steerpike is the malevolent agent of change, who grooms the earl's twin sisters to burn down Earl Sepulchrave's beloved library (storehouse of tradition), triggering the mental breakdown which convinces him he is the Owl of Death.

In just over a year Sepulchrave dies and Titus undergoes his 'earling'.  The twist, setting us up for the second instalment (Gormenghast itself), is that Steerpike ends up being appointed deputy keeper of the rituals.

Peake's writing is superb; sumptuous descriptions befitting such a fine visual artist, but also a truly poetic way with words.  Any writer who unearths and uses the word 'spilth' is my kind of writer.  Peake also has the advantage of being darkly funny.

Friday, 9 April 2021

Down There - J K Huysmans


The ultimate fin de siecle degenerate novel, so they say.  In fact La Bas is an academic discussion about the state of French literature at the end of the Nineteenth Century.  It was decadent, certainly, but that does not make a book about it decadent.  Durtal, our unheroic hero, is a middleaged novelist who has followed the naturalism of Zola about as far as it will go and found it lacking substance.  What he misses is the human soul.  So he sets out to bring naturalism and psyche together in a historical study of Gilles de Rais, the notorious 'Bluebeard' of medieval France.

Gilles de Rais interests Durtal because he started out as a pious soldier, the most important ally of Joan of Arc.  But after Joan's execution and the end of the war with England he becomes dissolute, debauched and appallingly depraved.  After he has defiled, butchered and discarded countless young children he is finally brought to book.  At his trial he confesses everything but recovers his Christian faith to such an extent that the parents of his victims escort him to his death, praying for his salvation.

Durtal wants to wallow in faith of the medieval kind.  He befriends the bellringer of St Surplice and through him an eccentric astrologer who claims he is being murdered remotely by a priest who has gone rogue and now celebrates the Black Mass.  It is the Black Mass which Durtal ultimately witnesses that gives the book its reputation.  Actually, this is nothing at all alarming, more childish than satanic.  What really did raise my eyebrows was what startled me a couple of years ago when I read Zola.  It's the sex.  Durtal finds himself being seduced by the wife of another dining companion and sleeps with her only because she can get him admitted to the Black Mass.

The end of the novel is something of an anticlimax.  The rest of it is absolutely fascinating.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

The Kreutzer Sonata - Leo Tolstoy


The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) is a novella, and thus much less daunting than Tolstoy's vast novels.  To be honest, I only chased down the ebook because I had read in Max Nordau's Degeneracy (1892) that it was a degenerate work, which I thought somewhat unlikely.  Now, having read it, I can see where he was coming from.

On one of those interminable Russian railway journeys, our narrator finds himself buttonholed by a second rate count who insists on telling him why he murdered his wife.  The count is called Pozdnyshev; the wife doesn't merit a name.  He explains that like all young men of his class he used prostitutes and other men's wives before marriage.  Because of that he conflated married love with sex and thus became hugely disappointed as early as the honeymoon.  His wife was beautiful and great in bed.  Other than that they had nothing in common.  Nevertheless they had five children.  He liked the bits where she was pregnant and nursing because at those times there was no sex.  After her fifth pregnancy, however, the expensive doctors told her about contraception, thus forcing them back into one another's company.  Under this regime the countess lost weight and recovered her looks.  She regained her prowess at the piano and gave a soiree with a professional violist.  At this, they played Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata.  The count describes how this tune inspired his conviction that his wife and the musician were lovers, hence---

It is very clever how, to all intents and purposes, Tolstoy creates his own soundtrack for the count's descent into murderous madness.  The murder itself is recounted in elaborate, almost excruciating detail.  It is very unlike our expectations of Tolstoy, himself of course a count who was debauched in youth and then married...  We are left wondering how the Countess Tolstoy felt about this work, especially since I'm sure I read somewhere that she untangled his drafts and prepared decent copies for the publisher.

In essence then, it is a longish disquisition on the thesis that men who use prostitutes shouldn't get married, whereas married men should abstain as far as possible from sex, at least until age reduces the urge and obviates the consequences.  This is argument which got Nordau's dander up and, according to him, made Tolstoy's name in Western Europe.  It certainly kept my interest.

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Streets of Darkness - A A Dhand


Bradford is burning.  A A Dhand knows how to set the clock running and amp up the tension.  Detective Harry Virdee is on his early morning run when he finds the crucified man - a pillar of the Asian community, hugely wealthy and the winner of last night's Parliamentary by-election.  Race was the issue in the election - the city was stuffed with BNP activists.  And now Shakeel Ahmed has been murdered in the most brutal, blasphemous way.  Today is Eid.  The Asian community will be celebrating.  The BNP is planning to march...

Harry is suspended but his boss gives him a career-saving mission - to find notorious racist headcase Lucas Dwight, recently released after serving fourteen years - the only nutcase mad enough for a murder like this.  Meanwhile, Harry's wife is about to give birth and wants to celebrate Eid properly.

This is a fascinating read, the best launch of a crime series I've read in ages.  Bradford is Dhand's city, this is his community.  Everything rings true.  Harry is Sikh but has married outside the community - Saima, his wife, is Muslim.  For that, both families have rejected them - all except Harry's businessman brother Ronnie, with whom he shares a dark secret.  The other characters are striking - Dwight, the boxer with a murderous liver punch, has changed in prison.  Taxi driver Bashir Iqbal, ostensibly Dwight's counterpoint in the Asian community, is truly terrifying.  The pace is relentless, the tension at times overwhelming.  You wonder, how much more twisted can this get?  Edge of the seat time.

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Shell Game - Sara Paretsky


I seem to be revisiting a lot of authors I first discovered thirty years ago.  Sara Paretsky was touted as the big thing back then and it's no fault of hers that  V I Warshawski didn't become the big screen icon that seemed likely when Kathleen Turner took on the role for the titular movie in 1992.  I haven't investigated in any depth but I don't think there were more movies, which is a shame.

Anyway, the books have continued and continued to sell big around the world.  Shell Game is one of the more recent, just out in paperback in the UK.  Chicago private detective Warshawski has aged with dignity; she can't take the knocks as easily as she did in her youth, but she still takes them and keeps coming back for more.  In this novel she gets caught up in two family cases.  Her mentor Dr Lotty's Canadian geek nephew gets snagged as main suspect in the murder of a failed archaeologist and does absolutely nothing to help himself; and Vic's own nieces (via her calamitous early marriage to corporate lawyer and major shit-hell Dick Yarborough) pitch up after the thick end of twenty years.  Well, one of them does; the other has gone missing after a work trip to an exotic Caribbean island.

Warshawski has built up a lot of personal baggage during the years I've been away and it's all here.  But it's all delivered simply, as and when needed, and never gets in the way of the story.  The plot is complicated, even contrived, but Paretsky buoys proceedings with lots of commentary on the state of Trump's America.  In the end, like Trump, it's all about fake money.

I enjoyed Shell Game a lot and will certainly be looking for more Warshawski.  Maybe I should try one from the middle period next.  And will someone please make a decent movie!

Monday, 22 March 2021

Consider Phlebas - Iain M Banks

Consider Phlebas is the first of Banks's 'Culture' sci fi novels.  The Culture is at war with the tripedal Iridans and our protagonist, Bora Horza Gobuchul is a humanoid Changer working with the Iridans.  Indeed, the novel begins with the Iridans rescuing Horza from a fate worse than death - only to plunge him into another when their ship comes under attack and Horza is picked up by a bunch of space pirates and taken aboard their spaceship Clear Air Turbulence (CAT).  Their leader Kraiklyn is heading for the artificial world of Vavach and the ultimate high stakes game of 'Damage'.  The stakes couldn't be higher, because the Culture has announced it is going to destroy Vavach at midnight.

Horza escapes by assuming Ktaiklyn's identity and taking over command of the CAT.  His real identity is revealed by another escapee from Vavach, the Special Circumstances Agent Perosteck Balveda.  Horza leads the group to Schar's World, where he used to live with a group of other Changers and where a Culture Mind is said to be hidden.

Consider Phlebas is pure space opera.  Like all space opera, it is drawn with a relatively broad brush.  Entire civilisations are either wholly bad or wholly good.  Banks tinkers slightly with the form, blurring friendships and loyalties.  The imaginative stakes are very high.  Banks clearly loves describing the science behind his ultra-high tech conceptions.  To balance this, the prose and dialogue is deliberately prosaic.  Things move along nicely and there is refreshing humour when required.  In the end, things more or less work out.  But I still have no idea what the title refers to.

I'm new to the space opera form, though I have several other examples stacked on my Kindle, ready to try.  I enjoyed Phlebas and will certainly explore further.

Tuesday, 9 March 2021

The Never Game - Jeffery Deaver


Jeffery Deaver broke through in the UK around the time I took a twenty-year break from contemporary American crime fiction, albeit I did catch his breakthrough book The Bone Collector.  Now I picked up this, from 2019, the first in a trilogy about reward hunter Colter Shaw.  Shaw was brought up a survivalist.  His father Ash was a brilliant academic who suddenly headed for the California wilderness and sealed himself and his family inside a compound.  The adult Colter now uses his wilderness skills to track down missing people, sometimes killers.  He does it for the reward money although sometimes he doesn't bother to collect.  He travels all over the US.  His actual home is in Florida but he has a luxury RV and will go anywhere the trail leads him.

In this case a young woman has gone missing - but not the young woman Shaw is trying to rescue in the teaser (which shows straight off how clever a storyteller Deaver is).  The case leads him into the dark heart of the Silicon Valley and its hardcore gaming community.  Shaw has never used his computer for anything other than work so we learn about gaming with him.  Meanwhile Shaw plays his own complex mental game, the titular Never Game, which was Ash Shaw's method of instilling survival skills into his three children.  Never do this, never do that ... etc.

Also slowly unravelling in the background is the mystery of Ash Shaw's death fifteen years ago and the disappearance soon after of his eldest son Russell - arcs which are clearly going to complete over the trilogy.

I was impressed.  Deaver has an easy style, informal yet always controlled.  His story skills are superb and he has clearly done his research.  This we can tell because he names his sources at the end - citing one of my favourite books, The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (reviewed on this blog something like five years ago).  His supporting characters are multi-faceted and therefore able to drive the narrative when necessary and hold our interest at other times.

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Shadowplay - Joseph O'Connor


Modern fiction at its very best, Shadowplay is the story of the triumvirate that brought London's Lyceum Theatre its greatest days at the very end of the 19th century - Sir Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Bram Stoker, their general manager, who knocked off his best-known novel in his spare time.  One theory maintains that Count Dracula was based on Irving, so the vampire theme lies across O'Connor's story.  There are also fun jokes - for example, Jonathan Harker, the young scenic whizz hired by Stoker, turns out to be a cross-dressing young woman, thereafter known as 'Harks'.  Mina is the name given to the theatre ghost and some of the best writing here is about the ephemeral jaunts of the long-dead spirit.  Mina's room is the abandoned space inside the theatre where Stoker does his writing.  This being the 1880s, for the most part, Jack the Ripper is here too.  But at heart it's a three-handed love story; for all their wildly inappropriate behaviour the three principals are all emotionally tied to one another for life.  O'Connor brings their world beautifully alive.  He is a major contemporary writer.  As a token of how good he is, I draw your attention to the end Coda - totally unnecessary, far too long, and yet so achingly written I wouldn't want to lose a single word.