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.