Thursday, December 31, 2009

Midwinter ghosts

MIdwinter is the time for ghost stories, and I was pleased to see that this year the BBC revived its practice of producing a spooky Christmas drama, though this year opting for Henry rather than M R James with an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw.  Sadly, I've not yet had a chance to view it as it clashed with yet another showing of that splendidly creepy film, The Wicker Man.  Even though I possess both the original version and the so-called Director's Cut on DVD, I never pass up an opportunity to see it again. (I should perhaps point out for younger readers that this is the original 1973 film with Edward Woodward not the quite remarkably dire Nicolas Cage remake.  I still can't understand why anyone would want to remake the original film while apparently having no understanding of its unique qualities.)

My real ghostly treat this year, though, was re-reading Kingsley Amis's wonderful short novel, The Green Man.  Since his death in 1995, Amis's reputation seems to have faded slightly, and there's a danger that he may be remembered for little more than Lucky Jim.  Wonderful as that first novel was, there's plenty more in Amis's oeuvre that's equally worth of attention, and The Green Man is a splendid example, not just of Amis's unique genius, but also of his craft.  It's a beautifully constructed tale of an alcoholic innkeeper and restaurateur, Maurice Allingham, and his encounter with the troublesome spirit of a prior inhabitent of the inn that gives the book its title (and which itself takes its own name from some apparently older inhabitent of the woodlands around...).  Amis was a great admirer of M R James, and the book brilliantly translates James's methods into a  modern setting.  Like James, Amis is adept at balancing humour with terror, and the novel applies  typically Amis comedy as a counterpoint to some genuinely unnerving scenes. Above all, unlike many ghost stories, The Green Man is filled with utterly convincing, three-dimensional characters.  Allingham's alcoholism, for example, is not simply a plot device - though it usefully positions him as the most unreliable of narrators - but is also fully explored and realised. Amis even manages to contrive an encounter between Allingham and God, which somehow succeeds in being both moving and disturbing, rather than risible. 

If you feel like seeing out the old year with a chill to match the weather outside, I'd recommend settling down with The Green Man.  In any case, best wishes to everyone for the coming year and thanks to all those who've supported my various endeavours over the last twelve months. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Airth Works

Rennie Airth's first book, River of Darkness, was well received on its release in 2000 and nominated for various awards.  I read it a while ago and enjoyed it very much.  Its an unusual crime novel, set shortly after World War I and featuring a hero, Detective Inspector John Madden, who is both a survivor and a victim of that war.  The book is not so much a mystery novel - we're made aware of the killer at a relatively early stage - as a combination of police procedural and psychological thriller, and it's Airth's handling of those two elements that I found particularly engaging.

Airth is interested in the machinations and politics of a police service  just edging itself into modernity, and much of the book's entertainment arises from the delicate dance between policemen and politicians faced with a particularly brutal set of killings.  At the same time, Airth is clearly fascinated by the endeavours of psychologists - another emerging discipline - to come to grips with behaviour which, only a few decades before, would have been characterisedas simply evil.  Lurking behind this, of course, is the shadow of the war itself - both a cause and a manifestation of the brutality in question. 

I've recently finished reading the second in the series, The Blood-Dimmed Time.  This is set some years later, in 1932, and Madden has  retired from the Force, and is now married and occupied as a farmer.  Once again, though, he finds himself involved in the search for a serial killer - this time a sexual predator on children.  The themes of the second book parallel those of the first - the politics of policing, the psychology of savagery, the impact of the First War and the growing threat of the Second.  As before, Airth develops an impressively rounded set of characters and beautifully captures the landscape and atmosphere of the Sussex setting.  And implicit in the book is the sense of a society, a century, gradually spinning out of control.

Airth's not the most prolific of writers.  The third book in the series, The Dead of Winter, set in 1944, has appeared only recently.  It's now made its way to the top of my 'to be read' pile, a treat in store over the Christmas break.  I hope it's as good as the first two. 

Monday, December 14, 2009

The promise and the threat

Interesting article from the Wall Street Journal about the uneasy relationship between Mongolia and China (one of the themes of The Outcast, as it happens), highlighting the growing influence of the latter over the former.  Alongside that, though, here's a piece from the Moscow Times suggesting that Mongolia might become the world's fastest growing economy over the next few years.  It's unlikely that Mongolia's relationship with its two nearest neighbours is going to become any more comfortable...

Friday, December 11, 2009

Buuz Word

Mongolian food doesn't usually get the best press, but here's a report from the UB Post on the rather wonderful buuz, which are, in the words of the article, 'delicious steamed dumplings... made with mutton or beef and onion mince'.  I'm feeling hungry just reading it.

And, by the way, in advance of the mass market US edition of The Shadow Walker (out in Spring 2010), it's nice to get a passing mention in Alex Remington's Huffington post blog.