Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dan Brown for non-dummies

It's perhaps reassuring that the hype around the latest Dan Brown, The Lost Symbol, died away rather quickly (albeit leaving record sales in the process).  I don't particularly share the usual critical negativity about Brown - though this may be because I've never ventured beyond The Da Vinci Code.  And, in truth, I only read that because there was a copy in a holiday cottage we rented a year or two back.  The book struck me as splendidly silly and, at times, almost wilfully badly written (the Daily Telegraph once produced a highly entertaining 'Top 20' of Brown's worst sentences).  But, in fairness, I finished the book in a few hours and felt no particular inclination to put it down, which is what you expect from a thriller.  I'd describe him as an adult Enid Blyton except that I think that, for a host of reasons, Blyton's a much more interesting writer.  But more of that some other time.

I mention Brown because his name floated into my head while reading Andrew Grieg's intriguing novel, Romanno Bridge.  I'd picked up the book partly because I've had a couple of other Grieg novels sitting on my 'to be read' pile for ages and hadn't got round to them (and if you ask why I didn't just read those, then you're obviously not a true book-buyer), and partly because I'd regularly driven past the village of Romanno Bridge on drives to Edinburgh and was intrigued by the name.  Mostly, though, it was because the book had a fascinating premise, prompted by the 1950 theft of the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey.  The book plot draws on the idea - which has some roots in legend, if not necessarily in historical fact - that, not only was the Stone replaced by a fake after the theft, but that the Stone itself was only a surrogate for an older, more ornate Coronation Stone. 

At one level, this is just the McGuffin around which Grieg builds a thriller involving a raft of intriguing characters.  At the same time, though, the book is also a meditation on Scotland and Scottishness.  Beyond that, in line with its Borders setting, the book is also a tribute to the work of John Buchan.  It's a sequel (or, at least, includes the same characters as) Grieg's earlier more explicit tribute toBuchan, The Return of John Macnab

The plot parallels with the Dan Brown oeuvre are evident, and it's illuminating how differently two writers can treat superficially similar material.  If Brown writes spectacularly badly, Grieg writes beautifully, evoking the Scottish setting with a poet's touch.  If Brown ends every chapter on a cliff hanger, Grieg is not afraid, even at the most tense points, to slip away from the narrative into leisurely digression.  If Brown's characters are two-dimensional, Grieg's quickly become real - even the psychopathic killer who stalks the plot has an interest in ornithology.

I suspect that some readers may find that the book sits awkwardly between thriller and literary novel.  Personally, though, I was enthralled by its quirky charm.  And now I really should get round to those other Grieg books on my shelves. 

Friday, November 13, 2009

It kills itself to explode

It's been a while since I gave you an update on the Mongolian death worm.  I notice that the ever-informative UB Post provided a comprehensive overview of the subject a few months ago.  The English is a little idiosyncratic but the article will tell you everything you ever wanted to know (and quite probably a little more) about the infamous worm and its supposed habitat. 

"I'm Brezhnev's driver: I killed the pig."

The ghost of the Communist era lurks behind all the Nergui books, most notably in The Outcast.  In this week of events recalling the fall of the Berlin Wall, it's perhaps chastening to remember just what a strange world it sometimes was.  Here's an intriguing piece by Australian ABC News's Mark Colvin which, as well as recalling the unique flavour of Soviet humour, also mentions his own experiences of visiting his father, a former British Ambassador to Mongolia (not, I should add, the entirely fictional one who is featured in The Shadow Walker). 

Friday, November 6, 2009

Phnom Penh should have been first

A little while ago I passed the news that Louis Vuitton was about to open a branch in Ulaan Bataar.  You've no doubt been desperate to know how that's been going, so I'll direct you to this splendidly dry assessment from Euromoney.  I was particularly interested to learn that Louis Vuitton sell 'emotions, not goods', which makes me wonder why they bother stocking all those bags and suitcases in their shops. 

The Euromoney piece also mentions Dale Choi's blog, which I'd recommend as a good source of information on various things Mongolian. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

That was Zen

The death of Michael Dibdin a couple of years ago came as a shock to me, not just because it was untimely but also because somehow Dibdin always struck me as a quintessentially modern writer.  His books seemed very successfully to skewer key aspects of contemporary society - individualism, consumerism, political corruption, opportunism - in a manner that was always entertaining and often enlightening.

Many current crime writers, myself included, owe a considerable debt to Dibdin.  This is partly because he was one of a group of British writers - the most notable others probably being Ian Rankin and John Harvey - who created a genre of police procedural which now almost feels like the norm.  It's intriguing that the first Rebus, Resnick and Aurelio Zen books were published within a year or two of each other in the late 1980s.  I'm not sure what was in the air back then (although Harvey has cited Hill Street Blues as a key influence, filtered through his TV series Hard Cases, on the Resnick books).  Whatever it was, it produced a fascinating cluster of middle-aged, world-weary, streetwise detectives in a wealth of books that were witty, literate and beautifully plotted and characterised. 

Dibdin went a step further and set his books in an Italy, avoiding the tourist cliches and trying to get as far under the skin of the country as a foreigner can.  While he was by no means the first crime writer to set his books in exotic locations, his cynical, ironic but always respectful take on Italian mores again helped to open the door for another generation of writers.  Without the influence of Dibdin (and of Martin Cruz Smith's Renko series which began a few years earlier), I doubt I would have embarked on the Nergui books. 

Another of Dibdin's great qualities was that, while he always played appropriate due to the conventions of crime fiction, he didn't take the genre too seriously.  His non-Zen books included playful, but generally highly effective, takes on Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and other totems of crime fiction.  His penultimate Aurelio Zen book, Back to Bologna, divided readers by adopting an equally playful approach to his recurrent protagonist.  I enjoyed the book enormously, though I could see why some readers felt he was perhaps letting a little too much ludic daylight in on his particular narrative magic. 

For some reason, it's taken me a while to getting around to reading Dibdin's final Zen book, End Games.  This wasn't a conscious choice - I've just been working me way through the endless 'to be read' piles - but maybe I was also waiting to savour this last treat. 

I don't know if the title, which carries various resonances in the book, was Dibdin's original.  It suggests that, like Rankin's Exit Music, the book might have a valedictory air.  In fact, apart from a passing reference in the final chapter to the possibility of Zen taking early retirement (not on the grounds of failing powers but simply because, once again, he has come into conflict with the intractable bureaucracy of the Italian state), there is no real hint of farewell in the book (although the ever-assiduous Mark Lawson managed to unearth a few more possible allusions). 

End Games is perhaps not, in fairness, Dibdin's best book. Zen has been sent to cover for an absent police chief (who has, quite literally, shot himself in the foot) in Calabria in Italy's far south.  Zen feels like a fish left high and dry, at odds with the local culture, cuisine and populace.  That, for me, is one of the book's problems.  Dibdin has never played safe with location - whereas Rankin's Edinburgh or Harvey's Nottingham (or, for that matter, Donna Leon's Venice) are more or less characters in their own right, Dibdin always took pleasure in moving Zen into unfamiliar territories.  Generally, this works weli, dragging Zen out of his comfort zone and allowing the reader insights into the diverse aspects of Italian society.  Here,  I wasn't sure that Dibdin's heart was fully in it.  The complaints about the heat, the dryness and the ubiquitous tomato (the devil's food, as far as Zen is concerned, which might come as a surprise to those familiar only with Southern Italian cuisine) feel a little perfunctory.  The tension between Zen and his new subordinates never quite seems fully developed. 

But, if the book is slightly sub-par Dibdin, it still displays all the qualities that marked him as one of the leading crime writers of his generation - the evocation of landscape, the prose-style, the dialogue, the characterisation, the satire.  Here, the satire is largely directed at Jake Daniels, the vapid American entrenpreneur who, despite his wealths,  makes up in stupidity for what he lacks in knowledge.  If Dibdin's pastiche occasionally drifts slightly over the top, his mimicking of Daniels's voice generally feels pitch-perfect and is always a delight. 

This book probably isn't the best place to start if you've not read the Zen books before (that would be Ratking, the first one).  But, if you have and you've enjoyed them, it's not a bad place to finish.