Tuesday, 28 December 2021

Uncommon Danger - Eric Ambler

Uncommon Danger (1937) was Ambler's second novel.  The setting is contemporary.  Fascist governments are rising all over Europe and challenging the dreadful divisions imposed by the Versailles conference after World War I.  Russia and Romania are the main claimants for oil-rich Bessarabia, but plutocrats worldwide are desperate to get their hands on the black gloop worth almost as much as gold.  Key Russian documents are stolen.

Our hero is a freelance journalist called Kenton who has lost all his ready money on poker dice.  Then, out of the blue, the only other passenger in his railway compartment, who claims to be a commercial traveller called Sachs, offers him a tidy sum to smuggle a package through customs for him.  Kenton is in no position to refuse.  He is an honest fellow and goes to the hotel Sachs nominated, to return the package and collect the other half of his fee.  Only to find Sachs murdered and Kenton himself the only suspect.

The rest of the book is a series of adventures which reminded me of The Thirty-Nine Steps - Ambler is in many ways the bridge between Buchan and Bond.  The Russian agents, Andreas Zaleshoff and his sister Tamara, are by and large the good guys, Colonel Robinson and Captain Maitland, operating on behalf of the London capitalists, are very much the baddies.  Smedoff, the ageing femme fatale, who appears right at the end, is a magnificent character.

Excellent fun.
 


Friday, 24 December 2021

Laughing Torso - Nina Hamnett

 

Nina Hamnett was a wild child of the nineteens and twenties.  Posh but not rich, she escaped from rural Wales to London where she studied, on and off, to be a painter - and from London to Paris before and after the War, where she slept with a variety of painters, did a lot of drawing, and sold the odd painting to keep the wolf from the door.

They are all here - Modigliani looms large, Brancusi, Cocteau and Radiguet,  Hamnett drops the big names like small bombs.  She introduces Valentino to James Joyce.  Some names are evidently so big that she has to refer to them as A or Countess B.  It's a whirlwind of parties and balls and cabarets, liberally sprinkled with nude dancing.  Hamnett does not judge and doesn't care how you might judge her.

There is no real structure to the narrative.  She tries to be chronological but frequently fails.  It doesn't matter.  This is gossip and tittletattle in a breathless rush.  And she's really good at it.  She brings exotic scenes alive and makes highly-strung artists instantly human.  Laughing Torso provoked outrage and glee when it was published in 1932.  Aleister Crowley tried to sue; he failed but he needed publicity more than he needed cash.

There is a sequel, Is She a Lady?, which came out in 1955, the year before she fell (or threw herself) out of the window of her flat in Paddington.  I will have to track it down.

There is no better account than Hamnett's of Bohemianism of the period on both sides of the Channel.  As a painter, there is no better portrait of W H Davies, the 'Supertramp', than hers.

Robert B Parker's The Devil Wins - Reed Farrel Coleman

Robert B Parker was a massively successful writer of moderately hardboiled crime fiction series, notably the Spenser series.  His second string, with nine novels, was Jesse Stone.  Doubtless somebody was hired to continue the Spenser series when Parker died in 2010.  Reed Farrel Coleman was the second writer hired to continue the casefiles of Jesse Stone.  This is the second of six continuations thus far.

Coleman is himself the author of successful series.  He has also collaborated with others, including Ulster's own Ken Bruen.  He is, in short, a professional.  He knows what he is doing.

So, Jesse Stone is a former LAPD homicide detective who lost his job because of his drinking.  He moved crosscountry to become local police chief in Paradise, Mass., a commuter town for Boston.  In The Devil Wins an autumn wind reveals three bodies in an abandoned building, two young girls who went missing 25 years earlier, and a fresh John Doe.  A side of Paradise and its history is revealed that Stone knew nothing about.  His righthand woman, Officer Molly Crane, was friends with these girls.  There's a lot of pressure on Stone to solve the case, particularly from the town's elected leaders.  The national media is interested, especially when the mother of one of the girls, a noted sexpot in her day and now married to an elderly millionaire, goes off a cliff minus her panties.

The story really is well done.  The town comes alive with its friendships, alliances, rivalries.  The characters, too, are three-dimensional, expertly layered.  But it's the steady revelation of the mystery that Coleman does so well.  I shall certainly keep my eye out for more of his work.  Who knows, I might even try one of Parker's originals.  

Tuesday, 21 December 2021

The Secret Pilgrim - John le Carre

Billed as the last of the 'Smiley' novels, The Secret Pilgrim (1990) is actually the story of 'Ned', a Circus spy whose mostly second-division career is built under the aegis of Smiley.  As his career winds down Ned is put in charge of the Sarratt nursery for fledgling agents.  It occurs to him to invite the retired Smiley to give an after dinner speech to the students.  He never really believes that the secretive master will actually come, but he does, and he speaks freely.  But it is Ned's experiences which illustrate Smiley's points.  Thus what we have is an episodic sequence from Ned's career interspersed with commentary and context by Smiley - not at all an easy device to pull off, but Carre, being himself a master, does so without apparent effort.  He also succeeds in making it moving.  Ned, like Smiley, runs spies and interrogates traitors.  For Smiley it was Karla and the ultimate traitor, Bill Haydon; for Ned it is lesser fry - conflicted men and women, culminating in the tremendously sad, tremendously lonely Foreign Office underling Cyril Frewin, whom Ned has to win over and destroy just days before handing in his credentials.

Smiley, too, hands in his credentials.  "It's over," he says, "and so am I. ... Please don't ask me back ever again."  The Cold War has ended, but Smiley and his creator set us up for the new enemy, unfettered capitalism, as deadly to the common interest of mankind as any nuclear bomb.  The best le Carre novel I have read in years.  Genuinely superb.

Monday, 13 December 2021

The Drought - J G Ballard


Ballard's classic climate disaster sci fi has never been more relevant.  Dr Charles Ransom lives on a houseboat on a lake by a river, a hundred or so miles from the sea.  But it hasn't rained for years, the river is drying up, fresh water is at a premium and society is starting to break down.  Ransom is one of the last to leave for the coast, taking with him a few fellow strays.  He has left it almost too late.  The beaches are now a militarized zone, cut off by chainlink fences to protect the desalination plants.  But the people are restive.  Every day there is an incursion...

Years pass - this is Ballard's clever move - and the populace by the coast is fragmented.  Some live miserable lives, working together to collect seawater on desalination beds.  Others, like Ransom and his ex-wife, fend for themselves on the periphery.  Ransom develops the belief that there is a secret supply of water inland.  The best way to find it is to follow the dry river bed back the way he came.  He collects another rag-tag band and sets off.

He returns to Mount Royal and Hamilton, to the very street he lives on back in normal times.  The water supply is virtually next door, at the Lomax estate.  Richard and Miranda Lomax were always eccentric.  Now they are stark mad, eating stray people and breeding mystical halfwits with the demented shaman Quilter.  Ballard makes his final section a dark, twisted take on The Tempest, which is pretty dark anyway when you think about it.

It's a magnificent book, the best of Ballard's sci fi that I have read thus far.  With a great last line.

Thursday, 9 December 2021

The Darkroom of Damocles - Willem Frederik Hermans

I'd never heard of W F Hermans before I got the Pushkin newsletter.  He was a leading postwar novelist in the Netherlands and won many prizes.  Having now finished The Darkroom of Damocles (1958) I'm not at all surprised.

Henri Osewoudt is a strange young tobacconist in the small town of Voorschoten.  He is in many ways androgynous - he doesn't need to shave and yet he is clearly not impotent.  He has married his older cousin, who taught him everything he knows about sex.  His father was murdered by his mother during a fit of insanity.  The mother has since been released into Henri's rather lacklustre care.

In 1940, as Holland is falling to the Nazis, Henri bumps into a Dutch officer called Dorbeck who, bizarrely, looks a lot like Henri, except for the fact that he has dark hair and can grow a beard.  Dorbeck asks Henri to develop a roll of photographic negatives for him, which Henri does (badly) and posts off to the address Dorbeck provided.

He hears nothing for four years.  Then Dorbeck sends a message.  He is now a leading member of the underground, working with London to get rid of the Nazis.  He draws Henri into the circle and Henri very quickly finds himself assassinating traitors and collaborators.  He finds a new Jewish girlfriend and thus has to rid himself of the old wife.  He is captured by the Nazis, freed by the Resistance, disguises himself as a woman and, in that guise, crosses into the part of Holland already liberated by the Allies - and is promptly arrested as a collaborator.

The rest of the novel is about his yearlong quest, in custody, to prove his innocence.  He needs the war hero Dorbeck to come forward but Dorbeck cannot be found.  What has happened to him?

I must confess I was getting a little bored with the last bit - until the thunderbolt was very cleverly dropped.  It really is a stunner - one I've used in my own short fiction but never saw coming here.  Some critics have likened Hermans to Camus and Sartre, and I see where they are coming from.  Highly recommended.

Friday, 3 December 2021

The Case Against Satan - Ray Russell

 

A real discovery so far as I'm concerned.  I had never heard of Ray Russell before stumbling across this short novel in the horror section of an online used bookseller.  Russell (1924-99) was an editor at Playboy who published all the greats - Vonnegut, Bloch, etc.  This, and the collection Haunted Castles, which dropped through my letterbox this morning, seem to be the extent of his own published work.  On the one hand it's a crying shame because he is stunningly good; on the upside, he took his time and got his stories as near perfection as possible.

The Case Against Satan came out in 1962, long before The Exorcist, which it clearly influenced.  Here, too, it is a young girl (sixteen years old) who is possessed by a demon and exorcised by her local priest and the diocesan bishop.  It's a long time since I read or saw The Exorcist so I can't remember if the lead priest in that had his doubts about demons.  The priest here, Gregory Sargent, is very modern in his views.  He trusts psychiatry, which the Catholic church in 1962 didn't, and he writes racy articles for magazines not a million miles from Playboy.  Bishop Conrad Crimmings is old school.  The contrast between the clergy, plus Sargent's inner conflicts, mirror the battle for the soul of Susan Garth.  In the non-clerical world we have conflict between anti-Catholic printer and agitator John Talbot and the easy-going precinct police lieutenant Frank Berardi.  And at the root of Susan's possession Russell in no way shies away from the likely cause - which to the best of my recall, The Exorcist goes nowhere near.  All of this in 138 beautifully written pages.  Gothic for grown-ups!

Sunday, 28 November 2021

Billy Summers - Stephen King

 

The latest King novel, Billy Summers is the story of a former US army sniper turned high-price, high-principle hitman.  Billy only kills bad men.  In this instance, he is promised a huge amount of money - enough to retire on - to terminate a lowlife killer who kills a man who beat him at poker and attacks a woman who brushes off his advances.  It seems a lot of money for a lowlife who's likely to get the needle anyway, but a lot of the cash is to cover Billy going undercover in the hick town, potentially for months, whilst the victim's lawyers argue against his extradition to a death-penalty state.

Billy always figures that these waters are deeper than they seem.  Billy likes to seem dumber than he really is.  It's part of his self-preservation routine.  He takes precautions, which get compromised when he settles into his fake life a little too well.  So he carries out the hit and disappears.  The promised payment doesn't arrive.  Billy has been stiffed.  That is unacceptable.

The rest of the novel is Billy's quest for settlement.  He has a young woman, Alice, alongside, whom he rescued from the street after she had been gang-raped.  Gang rape is also unacceptable and a price has to be paid.  All through the book we get Billy's back story: how he became a killer, then a sniper.  We also get a powerful reprise of The Shining when Billy and Alice are in Colorado, preparing the final act, but that is the only hint of the supernatural in Billy Summers.  In that sense it follows Mr Mercedes and the Bill Hodges trilogy.  In a sense we also get the gunslinger of The Dark Tower.  A lot of King tropes, then, which only enrich the story.  It is a beautiful book, as good as anything King has written, not a single bum note that I could see.  A consummate treat from a living, thriving master.

Monday, 22 November 2021

McGlue - Ottessa Moshfegh

 

McGlue (2014) is the only novella so far from multi-award-winning US author Moshfegh.  It's a cracker.  I read it in a sitting because I couldn't put it down.  McGlue is a total reprobate, more or less seduced into running away to sea by an acquaintance called Johnson.  The year is 1851; both McGlue and Johnson come from the township of Salem.  McGlue's only interest in life, from an early age, has been rum.  Johnson keeps him well-liquored and relatively safe, because Johnson ultimately wants McGlue to do him a favour.  One morning in Zanzibar McGlue comes more or less to his senses.  He is taken aboard ship, kept confined, and returned to Salem to stand trial for the murder of his friend Johnson.

The book consists of McGlue trying to untangle the tatters of rum-soaked memory.  He is often unable to tell fact from delusion - Johnson, for example, regularly visits him in prison as he awaits trial.  It is wonderfully done.  Moshfegh inhabits every pore of her unappealing yet oddly innocent protagonist.  She's won a lot of prizes and no wonder.

Sunday, 21 November 2021

Confessions of a Mask - Yukio Mishima

Confessions of a Mask is Mishima's first major novel, published when he was only 24.  It is a roman a clef, heavily autobiographical, about a young man coming of age in the dying days of the Second World War.  It is different and daring in that it is about the hero's burgeoning homosexuality, which he hides behind a 'mask' of normality by courting a young woman he tries hard to convince himself that he loves.  I hadn't realised before that 'Yukio Mishima' is itself a mask, a pen-name adopted to shield his respectable and strait-laced family.  Nothing Mishima writes is ever likely to be bad.  He is, to my mind, one of the finest writers of the Twentieth Century, the great 'lost' Nobel Laureate.  But personally, he is repellent - moreover, he knows it.  Here there are passages in which you very nearly hate him, yet he saves the situation because you cannot possibly feel more repelled by Mishima than Mishima himself does.  Knowing what he ultimately did makes the frequent references to suicide in this young man's text all the more ominous.  Confessions of a Mask is a masterpiece, no question, but it's not a comfortable one.

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

The Anarchy - William Dalrymple

 

I adored Dalrymple's Return of a King; this one not so much.  I knew no more about Afghanistan than I did about colonial India, but Dalrymple managed to educate me about the former - again, not so much about the latter.  Of course, the latter is even more complex, but I never felt confident about the geography or tribal ethnicity of the main protagonists of The Anarchy.  That said, I was clear about the causes of the Anarchy and its timeframe.  Unfortunately, it was all rather a depressing mirror of the state I now live in and detest.  Debauched, long-outdated aristocrats desperate to claw their last profit from the poor, outwitted by the first global corporation, imposed upon a culturally rich nation by foreigners who had yet to accumulate much culture of their own.  The standout character was Shah Alam, the last hope of the Mugal Empire, who did his best, suffered much, and ultimately came to nothing much.  Tipu Sultan of Mysore was another strong character but overall the cast seemed to be rather two-dimensional.  Dalrymple only really came good when discussing those on both sides who truly loved India as much as he does.  And the chapters were far too long.

Friday, 5 November 2021

Mr Wilder & Me - Jonathan Coe


I've read a bit of Jonathan Coe before and always enjoyed them - but Mr Wilder & Me is in another league.  It's simply a masterpiece of fiction.  The story is simple enough - in 1977 a young Greek woman called Calista Frangopolou is asked to provide translation services for the Greek shoot on Billy Wilder's penultimate film, Fedora.  She becomes innocently friendly with Wilder, his writing partner I A L Diamond ('Iz') and their respective wives.  She continues with the crew as they move on to Munich and Paris.  In Munich she hears about Wilder's wartime service and a postwar documentary.

In the obvious sense it's a study of a refugee who became a feted director but outlived his vogue - mirrored, of course, in Tom Tyron's rather trashy novel about Fedora which I rather enjoyed at the time.  But Calista is telling her recollections from circa 2013, when she has become a moderately successful composer of movie music and has twin daughters about to leave the domestic nest.  Lessons learnt from Wilder and Diamond back in the day come into play.

I don't know how Coe has done it, but in a book only 250 pages long he manages to create an enormous amount of room for his characters to move and develop in.  This is how he is able to avoid cheesy coincidence and deploy extremely poignant subtlety instead.  And in the middle of the book, when Billy's secret is revealed, he slips effortlessly into movie-script format - more brilliantly still, he does it in Wilder-Diamond style.  Like everything else in Mr Wilder & Me, it's note perfect.

Wednesday, 3 November 2021

Slough House - Mick Herron

 

Slough House has been deleted from the Regent Park mainframe.  The Slow Horses are being tailed.  Ex-Slow Horses are being tracked down and killed.  Jackson Lamb, for all his innumerable faults, is not going to tolerate things happening to his joes - which is bad news for those who commit such affronts.

Diana Taverner, first desk at the Park, has meanwhile dabbled with privatisation.  Not for personal gain, of course, but because the GRU have been sending over idiots to spread toxic chemicals around English cities.  This turns out to be a mistake on many levels, not least of which is that, in her hour of need, she has to turn to Jackson Lamb.

Also back in the frame is Sid (Sidonie) Baker, who once took a bullet for River Cartwright, is back from the dead, hiding out at the country house River just inherited from the Old Bastard.  She thinks she is being pursued by Mormon missionaries.  The Yellow Vests are venting on the streets of London and Jackson Lamb meets a gay American of restricted growth who believes his boyfriend has been murdered on the orders of Vladimir Putin.

Mick Herron's alternative take on the Secret Service is back for a seventh anarchic romp - the best to date in my opinion.  The critical take on contemporary Britain is absolutely on the nose and there were many laugh out loud moments.  Herron is also excellent on the suspense, where needed, and the car chase through benighted rural Kent was beautifully done.  A masterpiece of its kind.

Friday, 29 October 2021

1922 - Stephen King


Originally collected in Full Dark, No Stars (2010), this is now published as a single novella by Hodder and Stoughton in the UK.  It's the first straight horror fiction by King I have read in probably twenty years, but as with Joyland (reviewed last year) I fell immediately back into the sheer visceral pleasure I experienced back in 1977, reading Carrie on the train home from Middlesbrough.

From the beginning of his career King has been a master storyteller, particularly fine in first person narration which, on reflection, I guess most of his shorter works are.  Here, the narrator is Wilf James of Nebraska, a farmer who has lost his farm, lost his family, lost his left hand, and who is now confessing all his sins in a lonely lodging house room.  Only he is not quite alone - and more visitors are making their way down the passage.

The story itself is fairly standard.  It's what King does with it that makes it special.  The stoicism of Wilf is standout.  I also loved the conception of the Conniving Man within us all.  The evocation of period is, it goes without saying, perfect, the characterisation superb.  I loved every second of this book.  A gem. 

Thursday, 28 October 2021

Homicide Blonde - Maurice Proctor

 


A second Murder Room reissue by my fellow Nelsonian, this one from 1965, eleven years after the first Inspector Martineau, Hell is a City, which I reviewed on this blog about a month ago.  With strong overtones of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, a child killer is stalking the industrial quarter of Granchester.  Then it turns out that the killer is not actually picking children, he's after blondes.  A teenage woman is taken, then an older woman.  One of Martineau's murder squad coins the term 'Homicide Blonde'.

Proctor has honed his craft over the series.  He juggles two suspects, both men dominated by their mothers, both chasing the final victim.  Martineau investigates a possible ancestry clue, which is certainly different. There is a wonderful misdirection about halfway through and a savage twist at the end.  Thoroughly enjoyable and absolutely recommended.

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.