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.