Wednesday, 23 August 2017

He Who Fears the Wolf - Karin Fossum

I have blogged before about how poorly promoted Karin Fossum is in this country. Since Steig Larsson, anyone with so much as a vaguely Scandinavian name has been snapped up by a publisher and launched with a barrage of ads in the Press, heralding the debut of the new Nesbo. Few have made it to a second contract. But here is Fossum, already a successful series writer before the Girl even thought about getting her Dragon Tattoo and - more importantly - all the signature tropes of the best Scandi Noir: deep, dark secrets; focus on the excluded; and gruesome deaths. Yet where, other than Goodreads and here, do you see her mentioned?

This is the second Inspector Konrad Sejer novel, first published in 1997. The cover is as uninspired as ever; I can only assume she somehow upset the art department at Vintage. Inside, however, is the best of her novels that I have so far read, and I am was already a big admirer. All the action takes place on a single day. An old lady is murdered, a bank is robbed, a hostage taken, and a chubby kid from the boy's home reports seeing the local lunatic who has escaped again. Over the course of twelve hours or so, Sejer investigates and indeed solves all. But Fossum gives equal space to the offenders and the relationship that develops between them. I won't say more for fear of giving the final twist away. It is a very good twist, worthy of Nesbo himself.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Good & A Nightingale Sang... - C P Taylor

C P Taylor was a Glaswegian Jewish Marxist autodidact playwright who lived and worked in Newcastle and who died ridiculously young in 1981. He was only in his early fifties yet had written some 80 plays for stage, TV and radio, in just 20 years.

Good is his masterpiece, a last-minute breakthrough onto the national stage when the RSC staged it  in London just three months before Taylor's death. It is an examination of the axiom generally attributed to Edmund Burke: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Halder is a good man, a university professor who supports his scatterbrained wife and dutifully visits his senile mother in the nursing home. But this is Germany 1933 and the Nazis are on the rise. Halder is dismissive, even mildly subversive. He has a Jewish friend, the psychiatrist Maurice, and a taste for 'degenerate' American-style jazz.

No doubt influenced by his mother's distressing condition, Halder has written a book which can be read as advocating euthanasia. This attracts the attention of Nazi racial purists. They make overtures to Halder, gradually drawing him into their circle. He initially resists, but as time goes on his qualms are overridden by the need to earn a living. His mother is now back living with him, his wife is even more hopeless about the house, and Haldane has started an affair with one of his female students. The Nazis understand these things. They are supportive, even seductive. Slowly, Halder starts to distance himself from his friend Maurice...

Taylor had made himself a master of open staging through his association with studio theatres like the Traverse in Glasgow and the Live Theatre Company in Newcastle. He also worked in community drama, and thus was able to handle large casts and overlapping scenes. Good is a fine example of both disciplines. Halder is onstage almost all the time, accompanied by a live jazz band (a very Taylorean device). The other characters effectively come to him. Very unusually, several scenes overlap, with Haldane switching in and out of conversations with different people in different locations and even at significantly different times. Only a writer at the height of his game could pull this off and it takes a very special actor to accomplish it onstage. The late great Alan Howard, a consummate stage actor and the best Hamlet I have ever seen, created the role in London and New York.

If Good is Taylor's take on Brechtian Epic Theatre, the other play in this Methuen edition deploys many of the same techniques on a more domestic scale. And a Nightingale Sang... (1977) is the story of the working class Stott family of Newcastle, from the day World War II broke out (September 3 1939) to VE Day (May 8 1945). Although the action primarily takes place in the family home, it instantly moves elsewhere (chiefly the bench in Eldon Square where lame spinster Helen meets her married lover Norman for illicit purposes). There are times when two things are happening simultaneously, as when Eric is waiting nervously in the parlour while the women are upstairs with Joyce, trying to persuade her to come down and be proposed to. George Stott, the father, bangs away on the upright piano - all the popular songs - while Mam Peggy consoles herself with Catholicism and Peggy's father Andie wanders from one daughter's house to the other, starting with his dead whippet in a bag and ending up hiding from the amorous widow who wants to marry him.

It's a dialect play - a dialect I have always known and liked, though I daresay it limited the play's chances in the South back in Taylor's lifetime. We are now used to the device of setting a scene (and, better, underscoring the action) with period popular music, but it should be noted that A Nightingale Sang... preceded Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven by a full year. There is much more breaking down of the fourth wall in Nightingale than in Good, and appropriately so, given that so much of what we hear is Helen's personal inner life. The final scene, in which she dances, not with faithless Norman who has scurried home to mother and wife in the Midlands, but with Joyce's rapscallion hubbie Eric, features both soliloquy and music - the Nightingale finally does dance - and it is heartbreaking.

Not being active in the business these days, I have no real way of assessing where Taylor's reputation stands today. Wherever, it should be higher. I have other plays of his about the house, collected while he was still alive and writing. I must look them out.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Caine Mutiny - Herman Wouk

When I saw that Herman Wouk was celebrating his 102nd birthday earlier this year I felt obliged to seek out his best-known work - his bestseller The Caine Mutiny (1951).

Wouk goes to great lengths to assure us that this is not a fictional account of his service during the war, which just happened to be on a minesweeper-destroyer, much like the Caine. Indeed, he certainly isn't Willie Keith, the main character through whose eyes we view the story. Wouk was ten years older, for one thing, and not born wealthy. Wouk tries to show us that the character closest to him is aspiring novelist Tom Keefer, who encourages the mutiny then gives evidence against the mutineers at their court-martial. Wouk, like Keefer, got his publisher's contract whilst serving at sea.

The truth is, Caine is not a true story - there was no ship of that name, and no mutiny - yet the power of the novel comes from its undoubted veracity.

Wouk's service informs every page. He knew exactly what it was like to serve your time aboard a floating hulk like the Caine. He knows full well it is not going to be commanded by premier quality seamen. However, he makes the point repeatedly, they are all of them willing to do their duty. For the ordinary crew it is just another job. For the handful of officers it is a berth in which to learn their craft and hopefully advance up the ranks. The new captain, Philip Francis Queeg, is just such an officer. He joined before the war and is therefore a regular navy man (unlike the wartime 'reserves' like Keith and Keefer); he has nine years' service but this is his first command.

Queeg is unpleasant. Because he knows he can never be friends with his officers, he goes overboard as a disciplinarian. He carries the rulebook to ludicrous extremes, alienating one and all. But he never crosses the line. He never goes beyond the rules. The problem which leads to the 'mutiny' (which is held by those who carry it out to be justifiably relieving the captain of command) is because he seems to be a coward in action and quite possibly deranged.

The trial takes up a huge chunk of the book - so much so that Wouk turned it into a hugely successful play in 1953. The slight downside is that, whilst Willie Keith has been charged with encouraging the mutiny, he was not even on the command deck when it happened. The trial focused on is that of Lieutenant Stephen Maryk, Queeg's executive officer, who actually seized command.

The trial and the mutiny are both truly spellbinding. The novel is long but never drags. Willie Keith is amusing enough - especially in his self-indulgent affair with the nightclub singer May Wynn - and Queeg more than crazy enough to hold our interest. Willie's coming of age and Queeg's psychological collapse are built up through incidental, wholly convincing details.

The Caine Mutiny is a war novel without equal. It does something that most others fail to do in that it spells out the price that every man pays for military service. Never mind the risk - there is little to no risk in minesweeper destroyers; the damage is psychological. Free, intelligent men are prepared to submit themselves to a rule book that is petty and oppressive because they come to realise that those in charge couldn't get them to do such mind-numbing, pointless activities any other way.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Gilgamesh - Derrek Hines

Hines is a Canadian poet who lives in Cornwall. He studied the ancient Near East at university and thus is comfortable in the world of Gilgamesh, hero of the world's oldest epic. It is worth dwelling on the age of this text and the events and people concerned. The historical Gilgamesh lived about 2800 BCE. To use a crude measure, that's half a millennium further away from the birth of Jesus than we are. The text was first written down, in the world's oldest known form of writing, about 500 years after his death. The stories in it, however, were probably circulating in oral form within living memory of his death. In short, it is incredibly - bordering on unimaginably - old. It is so old that is probably not possible to transport the modern reader into the world described. Hines's approach is not to try to. Instead, he uses modern terminology to startle us into accepting the difference of the most ancient of ancient worlds. Again, back to crude measures: we find the world of Tutankhamen alien - Gilgamesh goes back a further millennium and a half.

For an epic, Gilgamesh is surprisingly short, only 61 pages in Hines's version. Yet there is a satisfactory amount of incident. As usual the gods fall out over the humanity project. Gilgamesh is semi-divine and so full of himself. So the gods create another powerful being to set against him. This is Enkidu, the beast-man who lives and communes with the animals. Given the age of this work you have to wonder if this is some sort of race-memory of a time when there were other versions of us wandering about. Enkidu is certainly the earliest surviving instance of a wild man or, as the medieval English called them, wodwoes or green men.

Enkidu annoys the locals by freeing animals from their traps. They opt for one sure way of taming him. They hire the temple prostitute Shamhat to shag some civilisation into Enkidu. This works. Enkidu forgets the language of the animals. The scent of the harlot on him drives the animals away. So, inevitably, he turns up in Gilgamesh's city of Uruk. The two supermen wrestle. Neither can best the other so they end up blood brothers, the closest of friends, inseparable.

Together they defeat the wizard Humbaba and the bull Taurus. It dawns on the gods that they now have two overmighty humans on their hands. They debate which one to kill off. Enkidu sees this in a dream and saves them the bother. He sickens and dies; the suggestion is that he chooses to die rather than risk the gods choosing Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh is naturally distraught. He roams the land seeking a means to be reunited with Enkidu in the netherworld. The gate-keeper goddess Shiduri suggests he approaches the ferryman Ur-shanabi, the only one allowed to cross the river of death both ways. In most versions Gilgamesh meets the Sumerian Noah - Uta-napishti - in the Underworld, who has been made immortal for surviving the Flood. The text of this meeting is a possibly a later addition - it is certainly a later discovery - and Hines does not give us Uta-napishti's account, which I find a problem. Uta-napishti is the only one who can give Gilgamesh the true price of immortality - not a blessing but a penalty paid by those who defy the gods, living death.

Overall, though, this a great version to introduce Gilgamesh to the modern reader. Overall, the use of modern language and contemporary terms works well. I loved the characterisation of Shamhat as a bar-room tart. I especially enjoyed the squaddie's account of the Humbaba campaign. Wisely, Hines keeps the most poetic, quasi-mystical passages simple and unforced. For example, when Gilgamesh laments for his dead friend:
We stood with the glow of Eden's river
still warm on our backs;
and before us the river of clay
into which men pressed our story... 

Monday, 31 July 2017

Cannery Row - John Steinbeck

Cannery Row (1945) is the distillation of Steinbeck. It contains everything he does best, in his best style and in the perfect format. Only 168 pages long in this Penguin paperback, it nevertheless manages to come across as epic in its panoramic view of the lives and aspirations of the denizens of the rundown Californian shanty town that faces onto the sardine canning factories where, from time to time, some of them might work.

This is not the Depression of The Grapes of Wrath - there is plenty of honest work for those who want it, but the residents of Cannery Row would rather not, most of the time. Doc has his own business in among the canning factories, Western Biological, where he pickles and prepares exotic sea creatures for scientific study. Doc is our hero inasmuch as Cannery Row has one. He is involved in everything and the others are ultimately realised in their relationship to him. There's the general merchant Lee Chong, who sells Doc his beer. There's Mack and the boys who live in Lee Chong's former fish meal store, which they have refurbished as the Palace Flophouse; they just want to throw a party for Doc, to celebrate all he has done for the community. The first attempt backfires, but in the end they throw a proper party, fights and all. The girls from Dora's Bear Flag Restaurant, the local cathouse, work shifts in order to attend.

The focus slides from group to group, There is a sense of Steinbeck studying the community the same way Doc studies the life in rockpools. The wondrous descriptions of the latter - especially the baby octopus hunt - are what moved me most. Then there's the opening section which truly sets the tone, when Horace Abbeville, unable to pay his bill at Lee Chong's, settles up by making over the fish meal store to the Chinaman, then goes straight up there and shoots himself. Lee Chong has got himself a storeroom he doesn't really need; in return he makes sure Abbeville's dependents never go hungry.

That is how things work out in Cannery Row.

That is why they gave Steinbeck the Nobel Prize.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Jack of Spades - Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is a phenomenon. I remember reading one of her stories in 1973 and she's still turning out top-quality fiction today. Jack of Spades is from 2015 and is one of her clever, exciting modern horror stories. Stephen King and Dean Koontz would get 500 pages out of the same material but Oates opts for cool, compact precision below which lurk many dark and nuanced layers.

Andrew J Rush is a fifty-four year-old author. He is very successful but not quite in the league of King or Koontz or Peter Straub. Indeed he is known as 'the gentleman's Stephen King', a title he is happy to claim. Recently, though, he has developed a second literary string, publishing gory cult horror as 'Jack of Spades'. Rush fully gets the parallel with King - he even sends King copies of the Spade paperbacks. The King motif is one Oates plays with, like a cat with a spider. Much is made of the link with King's The Dark Half, which I haven't read, especially when 'Jack' starts a commentary in Andrew's head. But the real ploy is a brilliant inversion of Misery.

Andrew suddenly finds himself sued for plagiarism by a local madwoman, C W Haider. It turns out she has sued King and others on the same basis. She is old money, the last of her line, and lives in a crumbling Gothic mansion in the same New Jersey township as Rush. Part of her claim is that Rush has broken into her house and stolen her outlines and plots.

The case is thrown out, naturally. Haider collapses in some sort of fit and is temporarily hospitalised. So Rush, egged on by Jack, does what Haider claimed he had already done. He inveigles his way into her house, leaves as a present a book signed by 'Steven King' (not Stephen), and steals some of her valuable first edition books. He also finds her stash of manuscripts and sees that there really are very obvious similarities, and that Haider's work precedes his. The discovery sends him progressively off the rails. Jack of Spades is his secret alter ego, but smalltown celebrity Andrew also has other, deeper secrets that Oates cunningly holds back until the very end.

Jack of Spades is a short book - 224 pages, small format, big print - but it is completely realised. Not a word is wasted, not a line is superfluous. It's a gem.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

The Dead House - Harry Bingham

Harry Bingham is one of those relatively new crime writers I've seen reviewed and wondered about reading. I have to admit that what put me off was the female lead. Not that I have anything against women detectives - but few male authors can really do great things with them; even as a male reader I get the feeling there is always something missing.

Good news - Harry Bingham is an exception to that rule of thumb. DS Fiona Griffiths is a fabulous series character. Yes, there remains something missing but that is expressly the point. The entirety of her life before adoption is missing. The people who adopted her, who love her and whom she loves in return, have dubious connections. There is a massive backstory hanging over this, the fifth in the series, which - brilliantly - Bingham refers to but does not expound upon. He is playing the long game and we, as readers, are happy to trust him to reveal it when the time comes.

The setting is Wales - big city Wales (Cardiff) where Fiona is based, and the remote village of Ystradfflur, the valley of flowers, where she finds her crime scene. As Bingham puts it---
Deep Wales. Real Wales,
This is the Wales that pre-existed the Romans, that will outlast our foolish time on earth, our crawl across the face of this dark planet.
 In Ystradfflur is a Dead House, the place by the chapel where poor Victorian villagers could lay out their loved one for visits prior to burial. There lies a young blonde woman in a white dress ringed by candles. She has had high quality plastic surgery but hasn't shaved her legs recently. Fiona notices this because she spends the night with the corpse, who she decides to call Carlotta. She communes. She holds hands. And we start to realise just how strange and damaged Fiona really is.

The supporting characters are equally well drawn - vivid where they need to be, prosaic when their main purpose is the highlight the flaws in Fiona. The plotting is multi-layered and complex. The denouement is hinted at throughout but I certainly did not see it coming. I have read a lot of books in my life, averaging at least two a week over half a century and I have never ever seen that ploy used. Yet it works brilliantly. There is real danger for Fiona, real tension for us, both there and in the caving sequence and in her interaction with Len Roberts, the failed smallholding hill farmer who has gone primitive and who is suspected of dark deeds.

The best British crime novel I've read this year. Highly recommended.


Sunday, 23 July 2017

Love Like Blood - Mark Billingham

Love Like Blood is by my calculation the fourteenth in Billingham's Tom Thorne series. What Billingham brought to the crime fiction table back in the early Noughties was contemporaneity.  His cops were good examples of the fictive type - conflicted, maverick, a little raucous - but the subject matter came straight from the headlines. That remains the case here, where Billingham takes on the culturally sensitive issue of honour killing. He adds a further twist which is horribly credible: few people in any community have the capacity to kill, extremely few could bring themselves to murder their own child - so what if someone offers to do it for them, for a price?


The problem, though, is that after thirteen novels Billingham's characters have developed far too much back story which has to be acknowledged. It's a tricky balance for any series writer and Billingham doesn't quite pull it off. To be fair, he has given himself an extra problem in that Thorne is shacked up with Helen Weeks, his other series character, who is, I'm sorry to say, excruciatingly dull. Admittedly I am slightly biased in that I hate the dull-as-dishwater TV adaptation of In the Dark currently going out on BBC1, which even the great MyAnna Buring cannot save. To be fair to myself, I started Love Like Blood before the series started and it was only later that I realised the uninteresting woman in the novel was also the boring woman on TV. We also have the storyline of DI Nicola Tanner, whose partner has been murdered in their own home. It is Tanner who has the contract honour killing theory and she gets in contact with Thorne who is already investigating a possibly linked murder. This plot device works very well and is entirely credible, but again it provokes yet more back story and, ultimately, that proves to be the final straw - though I must say there is a staggering plot twist which brings all the storylines together at the end in a stroke of sheer brilliance.

Overall, then, Love Like Blood is good - very good in parts - but not great. There is an imbalance between exposition and action, and it tilts the wrong way, which is really unfortunate because Billingham is so good at action.

I expected brilliance from Billingham after something like twenty books in total, an assumption based, not unreasonably, on the promise of his first three, Sleepyhead, Scaredy Cat and Lazybones, all of which I really admired.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Vulcan's Hammer - Philip K Dick

The last of the three early, short novels in this collection is Vulcan's Hammer. Is it the best? Hard to say: they are all different, all effective in their way. Is it the one I enjoyed most? To an extent. Is it the one that gave me the frisson? Easy answer. Yes it is.

Vulcan's Hammer was published in 1960, when computers filled warehouses and could barely count up to ten. Dick posits a post-apocalyptic world of about now when the world has come together in the utopian concord that everything will be fine so long as we agree to have policy determined by machines instead of men. That machine is Vulcan 3 which, spookily, occupies a facility in Switzerland not unlike CERN. In order to generate the best policy Vulcan has to be fed with every scrap of information available. Hands up who's thinking Google right now? Google's motto, Do No Evil, seemed cool to begin with, now it's morphed to ironic. Vulcan is also served by a multinational corporation. They call it Unity.

Dick accurately foresees the problem with super-super computers. There comes a time when they will replicate themselves, repair themselves, and if we stop feeding them information they will take measures to gather it for themselves. Should we be foolish enough to try and attack them, they will defend themselves. They may even fight back - which is where the hammers come in, in case you were wondering; I'm afraid they end up in their ultimate version as a prime example of an author who is halfway through his story when he realises he hasn't justified the title.

The writing is very measured for Dick, who notoriously wrote at a furious rate. The characters are very well drawn - as rounded as the protagonists in longer works such as The Man in the High Castle, written two years later and very much my kind of Dick novel. Essentially what makes the story zing is that the characters have doubts and consciences, a trait often missed in lesser SF where, of course, such things are personified as the enemy.

I have really enjoyed the three novels in this Millennium collection. I've learned quite a lot about SF signatures and tropes. I therefore recommend.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Spook Street - Mick Herron

I hadn't come across Mick Herron before. Had I noticed the blurb from the Mail on Sunday I would never have picked Spook Street up, which would have been a shame because, though the Mail on Sunday has no sense or taste whatsoever, this really is an excellent, fresh take on contemporary British spy fiction.

For a start, it's sardonically comic. Jackson Lamb, our team leader, is an appalling slob. The team he leads at Slough House are known elsewhere in MI5 as 'slow horses'. They are, in short, the unmanageable ones.  They have initiated disaster at some point in their career but MI5 dare not sack them in case they go to the Press, in which case some officers who still have prospects might end up in the adjoining prison cell.

Still, even slow horses have their day. Sometimes a case arises which is inescapably their province. Here, the proper domestic spies are fully engaged with a suicide bombing in a shopping mall. River Cartwright, one of Lamb's team, goes to visit his grandfather who is suffering dementia. Only someone claiming to be River has already shown up. The old man, who is not so senile that he can't vaguely remember his own grandson, shoots him dead - because David Cartwright was once also an habitue of Spook Street, by no means a slow horse but a candidate for First Chair. Who has sent an assassin to kill him? Is the old man as gaga as he seems? And how come the assassin and the suicide bomber travelled on papers of British citizens who never existed but who were created by MI5 back in David Cartwright's day?

That is a plot that would suffice for any straightfaced spy novel. Herron is able to deliver more because his spooks are comic and to be able to laugh at or with them we have to know something of who they are. Thus Herron's misfits end up being more rounded than many leading characters in mainstream series (Spook Street is itself the fourth in a series). Drink and domestic problems are not enough to give the slow horses their edge. Thus we have Roddy Ho, deluding himself that he has a proper girlfriend; the homicidal Shirley, and J K Coe who, his colleagues conclude, is "either PTSD or a psychopath."
The bad guys are equally conflicted, equally well-drawn. The prose style is exactly right throughout and there is a twist about 80% of the way through that is as devastating as anything by the master of such things, Jo Nesbo (see, for example, the mighty Headhunters.

I hugely enjoyed Spook Street in every way - intellectually, artistically, and sheer laugh-out-loud. I'm off down the library tomorrow to hunt out more.