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.