Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A farewell to Stanley Middleton

Thanks to the all-knowing Dave Lull for alerting me to the sad death, just short of his 90th birthday, of Stanley Middleton.  I've written before of my enthusiasm for Middleton's work.  Despite his winning one of the earliest Booker prizes for his novel Holiday in 1974, Middleton remains perhaps one of the most under-rated of British novelists.  His work is resolutely unfashionable, dealing with middle-class, middle-English, largely uneventful lives.  And yet his prose is capitivating, and his plotting turns the minutiae of everyday living into gripping narratives.

Middleton's death doesn't yet seem to have reached the British press, other than The Guardian.  I hope that other obituaries will appear in due course.  In the meantime, thanks to Dave for drawing my attention to this piece by Ross Bradshaw of Nottingham-based Five Leaves Press, excellent current publishers not only of Middleton's Holiday, but also of a series of splendid short crime books by the likes of John Harvey, Stephen Booth and Lawrence Block. 

Update: Today's Guardian carries an excellent obituary on Middleton, written by Professor Philip Davis, who was himself one of Middleton's pupils. 

Monday, July 27, 2009

Acid-spitting and lightning-throwing

I've long been intrigued by the notion of the Mongolian death worm, if only because it sounds more the stuff of horror movies than, say, Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster.  Now two New Zealanders have embarked on a quest to try to track down the fabled creature which supposedly haunts the Gobi Desert.  According to this splendidly straight-faced report of their expedition (though I note that the story is categorised under 'entertainment'), the worm 'jumps out of the sand and kills people by spitting concentrated acid or shooting lightning from its rectum over long distances'.  Which, you must admit, is quite a trick. 

I wish them well.  As it happens, I'm up to Loch Ness in a couple of weeks so perhaps we'll be able to exchange photographs on my return...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Floods in Ulan Bataar

The recent flooding in Ulan Bataar hasn't received much coverage in the West, but the scale of the casualties and damage was significant in terms of Mongolia's population.  Here's a very thorough account from ReliefWeb, and also some potent images from the BBC.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Coming up 'Roses, Roses'

One of the few disappointments at this year's otherwise excellent Crimefest convention was that Bill James had to withdraw at late notice.  I was disappointed because I've long thought James to be one of the most intriguing and underrated of British crime writers.  In the event, we had the compensation both of a excellent solo interview with John Harvey, and also of Harvey reading extracts from what many consider to be one of James's best books, Roses, Roses

It may be that James remains undervalued because, compared with some of his police proceduralist counterparts (including the excellent Harvey himself), he's something of an acquired taste.  His books tend to be driven by character rather than plot (not that there's anything wrong with his plots), and the characters themselves are engaging but far from straightforwardly likeable.  Other crime writers may give their characters the odd peccadillo  to add colour,  but James makesflawed humanity his central theme.  His characters are cynical, devious and lustful - and the bad guys are even worse.  But James's is an ambigious world.  His police heroes, for all their cynicism, are driven by a fierce intelligence and a profound moral imperative.  In a broken society, it's the realists, not the sentimentalists, who provide the ethical counterweight. It's no surprise that one of James's books, Astride a Grave, takes its title from Samuel Beckett, or that Beckett's Endgame is referenced in Roses, Roses.  If Beckett had ever turned his hand to crime fiction, it might have turned out a little like Bill James. 

James's books are realistic, but they're not exactly naturalistic.  As Peter Rozovsky (a big champion of James's work, who was no doubt even more disappointed than I was to miss him in Bristol) has pointed out, James is  one of the finest stylists in the crime genre.  His dialogue in particular is glorious - oblique, elliptical, freighted with meaning.  And often hilarious.  The books themselves veer from the blackest of black comedy to genuine tragedy, often within a few sentences. 

John Harvey's reading (and his citing of it as one of the books he'd like to have written) sent me back to Roses, Roses.  It's a remarkable novel from the heart of James's series about Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur and Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles.  It begins - and this isn't a spoiler since it's revealed in the opening sentence - with the death of Harpur's wife, Megan, who has to date been a significant presence in the series.  And, as Harvey pointed out, that opening sentence is perhaps one of the best in crime fiction:

'When she was killed by three chest knife blows in a station car park, Megan Harpur had been on her way home to tell her husband she was leaving him for another man.'

Hard to top that, but James takes us back into Megan Harpur's life as her husband, himself serially unfaithful, determines to uncover the reasons for her death.  In the process, he creates, not just a gripping crime novel, but also a remarkable meditation on love, loyalty and loss. 

If you haven't discovered Bill James and the Harpur and Iles books, then you've twenty-five novels to look forward to, all of them worth reading and several of them as good as crime fiction gets.  But take them slowly. Like any acquired taste, they can rapidly become addictive.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Dry wine and slightly sour milk

Adrian Bridge in The Daily Telegraph has been in Mongolia, doing largely the standard tourist things, but provides an entertaining account nonetheless.  Mind you, I think he was misled if he thinks that airag contains 'dry wine'  (here's a more accurate description). And that headline pun is wince-inducing even by my standards.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A long forgotten bag

The always entertaining Mike Ripley has recently caused a minor stir by referring, perhaps a mite disparagingly, to the 'love affair between Nordic crime and the chattering classes'.  Whether or not the very talented Mr Ripley has a point (and I think he's right that the focus on Scandinavian crime fiction has caused some other excellent translated fiction to be overlooked), it occurred to me that, if I were so inclined, this story might give me the chance to jump on the bandwagon.  

In brief, a Mongolian silver crown stolen in 1984 from a Stockholm museum has been found in the police headquarters in the city, after some twenty years in what's described as 'accidental storage'.  The museum chief Anders Björklund  is quoted as saying: "We would like to thank the national police service for housing the silver Mongolian crown for such a long time."  I can't help thinking that there might have a been a touch of irony in his tone. 

Shots of vodka upon the stones

The Outcast is set in the days leading up to Mongolia's summer Naadam Festival.  Here's an interesting account from the UB Post about preparations for the horse-riding events. 

Friday, July 3, 2009

Zevon Handed

The late Warren Zevon is, of course, the crime-fiction fan's songwriter of choice.  Not just because he was a terrific songwriter (though we was) but also because he was such a fan of the genre himself.  He was a huge fan of Ross Macdonald, co-wrote songs with the likes of Carl Hiassen and Thomas McGuane, and was friends with James Crumley, Stephen King, Faye and Jonathan Kellerman and Ridley Pearson.  I'd always had him pegged as a hard-boiled type, but at one point in his journals he even enthuses about a forthcoming Barbara Vine book.  He had ambitions to write crime fiction himself.  It never happened, but we get a flavour of what might have been in countless of his songs. 

And the favour's been returned.  Hiassen and many others have referenced Zevon's music in their books.  'Things To Do in Denver When You're Dead' and Christopher Brookmyre's debut 'Quite Ugly One Morning' borrowed their titles from Zevon songs. 

I mention all this because I've just finished reading I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (another song title that was borrowed for a film, this time by Mike Hodges, incidentally), a biography of Zevon, written by his ex-wife, Crystal Zevon.  On the whole, I'm not a big fan of rock-star biographies.  My impression is that despite (or, more likely, because of) the drugs and debauchery, the life and thoughts of rock-stars tend to be pretty dull.  But Zevon, for all his brilliance as a writer and performer, was never quite a rock-star.  His work has a mercurial genius, but always occupied an awkward space somewhere between mainstream and cult.  And in his earlier years, when albums like Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy might really have pushed him to stardom, he was too busy putting the 'hell' into 'hellraiser'. 

But all of this makes a fascinating read.  Shortly before his death from lung cancer in 2003, Zevon asked his ex-wife to write a biography that would tell the whole truth about his 'dirty life and times'.  Unsure how to approach this daunting task, Crystal Zevon interviewed Zevon's friends, relatives and associates and compiled what turned out to be a quite extraordinary oral account, beautifully constructed and always gripping.  It is, in any case, a remarkable story.  Zevon's mother was a Mormon and his father was a small-time gangster.  Zevon learned to play on a piano that his father literally won in a poker game.  As a musically-gifted teenager he visited Stravinsky at his home in Hollywood.  He moved from California to New York to become a folk singer, with some initial success, and ended up as musical director for the Everly Brothers.  Well, you probably get the picture.

Zevon's first real success came with the Warren Zevon album, a mordant, witty chronicle of LA life which, unlike much from the mid-1970s, sounds just as good thirty years on.  His growing success, however, coincided with a descent into a spectacular alcoholism.  Even on the scale of celebrity excess, Zevon's was something quite startling.  It's even more remarkable, in hindsight, that he managed to pull himself back from it and spend the last 17 years of his life (at least up to his diagnosis with terminal cancer) completely sober.  It's worth adding that Zevon is one of the few popular musicians whose later recordings (Life'll Kill Ya, My Ride's Here and the post-diagnosis The Wind) are easily a match for the work of his supposedly prime years. 

Zevon comes across as a consistently paradoxical figure - nightmarish and impossible to live with, but inspiring a weird loyalty in many of his friends and associates.  It's a cliche to suggest that bad behaviour is a fair price to pay for genius.  It's also untrue - many true geniuses have managed to live perfectly stable lives.  But it might be that Zevon's particular gifts, like those of Scott Fitzgerald, were the recompense the fates allowed him in return forthe chaos of his daily existence.

One small afternote.  Each chapter of the book begins with a quote from a different Zevon song.  I was finishing reading it the other night while listening to Zevon's 2000 album, Life'll Kill Ya.  Just as I reached the opening of the chapter 'Ourselves to Know', I found myself listening to Zevon singing, in precise co-ordination, the words that were printed in front of me.  If you make a pilgrimage, Warren reminded me, 'you take that holy ride yourselves to know'.  Whether Zevon ever really got to know himself, I'm still not sure.