Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Twisting the tale

Interesting piece by Tom Sutcliffe in The Independent last week exploring why, in his words, 'we sometimes complain that a novel or a film has taken us for a ride...while at other times we celebrate the fact'.  Sutcliffe's article takes in a couple of recently-published novels, including Tim Pears's intriguing-sounding Landed, but is prompted primarily by Martin Scorsese's new adaptation of Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island.  The film's ending has, as he points out, provoked 'yelps of complaint' from some reviewers - although I've also seen some positive comments about the concluding twist.

I haven't seen the film yet, but I have read Lehane's book which also provoked considerable irritation among some reviewers  - the ever-reliable Petrona, for example, descibed it as 'the worst "cheat twist" I've ever read').  I didn't feel quite that annoyed, but, having largely enjoyed the book, I did find the conclusion disappointing, which I imagine was not the effect that Lehane was aiming for.  The question, as Sutcliffe suggests, is why. 

As a reader and as a writer, I'm not keen on the twist ending - mainly because it's so difficult to do well.  If nothing else, you have to be pretty confident that you're a step ahead of the reader - if the reader's kept pace with you, then your smart ending is likely to appear decidedly lame.  That's not quite the problem with Shutter Island (Lehane's too good a writer for that), but the book does face similar difficulties.  As it moves towards its conclusion, the reader is left trying to make sense of an increasingly puzzling narrative.  Various  interpretations are possible, but many readers will, by that stage, be at least toying with the option that in the end proves to be the right one.  In other words, I suspect the problem with Shutter Island is not that it has a twist ending, but that the ending isn't quite twisty enough.  My personal view is that Lehane has set himself an almost impossible task - because the reader is toying with possible explanations (each of which carries its own implications and significance), any definitive ending is almost bound to feel like a let down.   I would have preferred the book to have ended more ambiguously, but I realise that that would probably just have infuriated a different set of readers. 

It's interesting to contrast Shutter Island with another tale of pananoia with an island setting - Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man.  As I've mentioned before, the film's a perennial favourite of mine, which I never tire of watching, even though it's also heavily dependent on a twist ending.  Echoing Sutcliffe's question, why should that be?  The film's ending works, I think, partly because it plays with our expectations of genre and narrative.  We know how films like this work.  We may not know how the precise details will pan out, but we make assumptions about how this kind of film ends.  When it lurches in a different direction, it is - for the first-time viewer - genuinely shocking.  Interestingly, though, my experience is that knowledge of the ending then enhances subsequent viewings of the film.  While the initial shock has gone, we're left with a new poignancy, an awareness of what's coming which colours our view of the film's characters (particularly Edward Woodward's brilliant buttoned-up Sergeant Howie) and their interaction.  It's one of the few instances I can think of where a 'twist' ending transcends gimmickry and gives the preceding narrative a new resonance.  I'd be interested to hear suggestions of other examples. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Blue Monday

According to one of those fatuous pieces of non-research that marketing companies generate every now and then, last Monday was supposedly 'blue Monday' - the midwinter point when our collective spirits are at their lowest.   I don't know about that (though spending a fair portion of the day sitting on a Virgin Train travelling to and from London didn't particularly enhance my own joie de vivre), but Monday did see two sad departures from the artistic firmament. 

The first was the crime writer, Robert B Parker, best known as the author of the long-running series about Spenser, the poetically-named Boston private eye.  I first came across one of Parker's books in some long-gone bookshop on Stoke Newington High Street in London in the early 1980s, and I immediately became a huge fan.  It's easy to underestimate the quality of the books because they slip down so easily, and part of Parker's skill was to make it look so effortness (although, since Parker claimed to produce only a first draft, maybe it really was).  But his best books are utterly gripping, slickly plotted and full of characters that linger in the memory.  They're fantasies, of course, and perhaps lack the real grittiness that characterises much noir fiction today, but as intelligent escapist entertainment, they're hard to beat. 

The second loss was Kate McGarrigle.  She's now perhaps best known to a younger generation as the mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright, but she was of course, in partnership with her sister Anna, a fine singer and songwriter in her own right.   The first McGarrigles album contains as good a collection of songs as you'll find, and the sisters continued to produce splendid material, albeit rather sporadically, over the subsequent decades.   I'm particularly fond of the two family CDs they produced, The McGarrigle Hour and The McGarrigle Christmas Hour, which gathered together the disparate talents of the McGarrigle/Wainwright clan to perform a selection of traditionally-based songs, and in the process created something quite magical. 

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. 

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. 

Friday, September 18, 2009

More men who hate women

Not long after making my slightly bemused way through Steig Larsson's The Girl Who Played with Fire, I read Denise Mina's splendid first novel, Garnethill.  I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to get round to Denise Mina.  I have a horrible feeling it may be because, somewhere in the back of my mind, I had her rather pigeonholed as a woman's writer (not, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, that there's anything wrong with that. And maybe at that point I should stop digging).

Certainly, there are strands to Mina's writing which might (very unfairly) be characterised as chicklit noir. But by that I mean only that she writes superbly well about young women, their relationships (with each other and with men), and their problems.  But in Mina's writing the problems tend to be more profound than just looking for the new Mr Darcy - sexual and physical abuse, poverty, alcoholism. 

That makes the book sound depressing - and in some ways it is - but what I loved about Mina's writing is the wit and warmth.  She is particularly good at presenting the mutually supporting relationships between her heroine Maureen and her closest friends and her brother.  But there's nothing cosy or sentimental about Mina's world - one of Maureen's closest confidents apparently betrays her, her mother is a manipulative alcoholic, and her other siblings are best loved from a continent away. 

The book explores some of the same territory as Larsson's books - sexual abuse, violence against woman - but their styles are very different.  I was intrigued by a piece by Nick Cohen in last Sunday's Observer, which highlighted Larsson's revolutionary socialist background.  Larsson treats politics, including sexual politics, as a crusade - his approach is worthy and well-intentioned but often feels to me patronising (with the emphasis on the 'patr-') and didactic.  Mina, by contrast, just presents us with life, in all its messiness and confusion.  Like Lisbeth Salander, Maureen is a victim of sexual abuse.  But Maureen isn't a brilliant kick-boxing computer hacker.  She's just a young woman in a dead-end job who drinks too much, has a history of depression, and gets into messy relationships with married men.  She gets things seriously, even fatally, wrong even when she thinks she's being smart.  But she has enough bottle, resilience and street-nous to get to places the police can't. 

Mina's world doesn't divide, on the whole, between good and evil, but between those who are messed up and those who are even more messed up.  Few escape unharmed and many end up harming others, however decent theirintentions.  But the characters and dialogue sparkle, carrying us through the grimmest moments, buoyed up on a tide of wine, whisky and weed. 

There were lots of things I loved about this book.  Not least, whereas most crime fiction gives us police procedure from the police's point of view, here we see things through Maureen's eyes, as the detectives shift from seeing her as a potential suspect, then as an unhelpful witness and, finally, as a resented ally.  The interview scenes are terrific - truculent deadpan dialogue with neither side sure what the other is up to. 

It's not a perfect book - the plot perhaps eventually stretches credulity a notch too far and, for those inclined to such things, it's probably not that difficult to guess who done it.  But those are minor quibbles - what lingers are the characters, the settings and the dialogue.  I can't wait to read more. 

I notice that Mina's recently been in the usual spat with James Kelman about the relative merits of Scottish crime and literary fiction.  Having now read both authors, i know which I'd pick.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Playing with fire

Welcome back (assuming there's still anyone out there).  More or less back in the harness now after two weeks of walks along splendid windswept Scottish beaches, pints of excellent Black Isle Brewery beer, and some really superb food.  And even the weather was reasonably kind. 

I see that, while I've been away, the irrepressible Mike Ripley has set the cat among the proverbials with some disparaging remarks about Scandinavian crime fiction.  I don't agree with much of what the talented Mr Ripley says here (though I do generally), although he probably has a point about the 'me too' tendency which drives publishers constantly to look for more of the same.  But 'twas ever thus, I suppose.

I was particularly struck by Mike Ripley's comments because, as it happened, much of my holiday reading (more limited than usual, this year, for some reason) was focused on the Scandinavians.  I was particularly pleased finally to get round to Jo Nesbo's latest in English, The Redeemer.  Typically excellent, I thought, and Nesbo alone disproves Mike Ripley's characterisation of the Scandinavians as humourless.  Harry Hole's deadpan wit strikes me as every bit as amusing as Andy Dalziel's earthy humour (and I bow to no-one in my admiration for the great Reginald Hill).  In fact, now I think of it, Nesbo reminds me rather of Hill - a similar growing cast of memorable characters, a similar liking for complex plotting and clever structures, and a similar ability to move from the comic to the serious without missing a beat. 

But, of course, it's impossible to generalise about Scandinavian crime, and one person's pickled herring is another's poison.  This was forcibly brought home to me when, also on holiday, I finally got around to reading Steig Larsson's second Millennium book, The Girl Who Played with Fire.  This is one of those moments when I almost hesitate to toss in my two penn'orth of opinion because I feel so far out of step with what appears to be most of the rest of humankind. 

For what it's worth (nothing, given the book's worldwide sales), I really didn't like it.  I very much enjoyed the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, despite its oddly discursive style, because I was able to lose myself in its world and its characters.  The second book, though, just didn't engage me.  Partly, as with the first, there's a problem of editing (or lack of it) - the book starts with a 120 plus prologue which, unless Larsson returns to it in the third book, has nothing to do with anything that follows.  And we also get, to take just one example, an extended description of the heroine's visit to Ikea including a listing of every item purchased.  I hate visiting Ikea on my own account.  I certainly don't want to have to accompany a fictional character to the place. 

I can see that, given that the books were published in this form in Swedish and that Larsson is sadly no longer around to approve any changes, editing is problematic. But a bigger problem for me was that, for all its 600 and more pages, the book didn't seem to have much of a plot.  The heroine, Lisbeth Salander, is accused of the murder of two journalists investigating sex trafficking.  This in turn is apparently linked to some grand political conspiracy, and some secret about Salander herself.  But, whereas Nesbo would have constructed some intricate jigsaw pulling all these elements together, here all we get is a series of implausible coincidences and not-very-startling revelations.  And, whereas in the first novel Larsson laced the plot with fascinating digressions into Swedish politics and finance, here the sex trafficking theme feels like little more than a plot device.  

This probably wouldn't matter too much if I'd been hooked by the characters and background.  Here, the characters felt increasingly two-dimensional.  The hero, Mikael Blomkvist, is given little to do.  The police are largely cyphers.  And the much-praised Salander seems, in this book, to have as much depth (and, for that matter, relevance to the feminist cause) as Lara Croft.  In fact, the whole thing has rather the air of a video game, right down to the characters' apparent indestructibility. 

I read the book with genuine surprise and disappointment, because the critical consensus is that this one is even better than the first.  And certainly the vast majority of reviewers (even those who expressed some of the same reservations) and the millions who have purchased the book worldwide don't share my view.  I should say that, while I'm always happy to enthuse about anything I like (in the hope that you might like it too), I don't normally post negative reviews because - well, it's just my opinion and who needs it? But in this case I don't imagine that Steig Larsson's worldwide sales are going be to too heavily dented by anything I might say, and I'm genuinely intrigued by the gap between my views and those expressed by other readers. So, if you read the book and liked it, please feel free to disagree with me.  As vehemently as you like. 

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, June 4, 2009

The Hole story

I blogged a little while ago about the translators' panel at this year's Crimefest.  The discussion was fascinating and all the panel members were luminaries in the field, but I think I've begun to develop a particular respect for Don Bartlett.  Bartlett, among other credits, is the English translator of the Norwegian writer, Jo Nesbo, author of the Harry Hole series.  I've just finished my third of Nesbo's books, and he's emerging as my current favourite among the plethora of Scandinavian crime writers now appearing in English.  The atttraction of the books for me is the character of Hole himself, and the wonderful deadpan wit that permeates the dialogue.  Hence my admiration for Bartlett - I presume that the tone of the books is Nesbo's, but Bartlett succeeds admirably in establishing the perfect English voice for the books and their characters. 

There has been some controversy about the publication of the English translations as the books were, rather unhelpfully, published out of order.  Bartlett explained that The Devil's Star, actually the fifth book in the series, had been published first in English simply because it had attracted the most interest in Scandinavia.   This is fairly standard publishing practice, and in most series it doesn't matter too much.  Unfortunately, the third, fourth and fifth of the Hole books have an overarching sub-plot (if a sub-plot can overarch - underpinning, perhaps?) which is critical to the development of the core characters.  Although each of the books stands up well in its own right, reading The Devil's Star first would inevitably have reduced the pleasures of the preceding books.  

Purely by chance, I picked up The Redbreast (the earliest of the books so far available) first and so was able to enjoy the books in the order intended.  The pleasures of the books are manifold - as well as Hole's character and wit, I like the fact that Nesbo is prepared to deal fully with the consequences of his characters and plots.  Hole, for example,  is a serious long-term alcoholic, with all that that entails - not simply a middle-aged cop who has a whisky or two too many at the end of a hard day.  The Redbreast contains a plot development which I won't reveal but which is genuinely shocking and which reverberates through the succeeding books. 

Some have complained that Nesbo's plotting is too convoluted, and there's probably some truth in that.  At times, the books have a slightly Christiesque desire to spring yet another surprise which (while there's nothing wrong with Agatha) for me sits slightly uneasily with the essentially realistic depiction of character and situation.  But that's a minor gripe - and I'm sure many readers will see the complex plotting as a strength.  What stays with me is Hole's dry-as-dust, sometimes bitter irony, and a cast of highly memorable characters. 

I was fortunate enough to walk away from the Crimefest pub quiz with, as my share of the second-place prize (achieved courtesy largely of Ali Karim and Peter Rozovsky, it must be said) a copy of Nesbo's latest English release, The Redeemer. So that's next on the pile to be read - in, I'm pleased to say, the right order. 

Friday, May 22, 2009

Books you have to read: 'Putting the Boot In'

I'm delighted that the Rap Sheet's regular 'books you have to read' column this week features my review of Dan 'Julian Barnes' Kavanagh's splendid, if long forgotten, Putting the Boot In.

Thanks to J Kingston Pierce for publishing the review.  And, if you haven't come across Kavanagh's Duffy books, they're well worth tracking down.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Crimefest 2008: more or less recovered now

I think even I can justify only, to adapt Maxine Clark's elegant phrase, a triphasal recovery.  I've been interested by Declan Burke's take on Crimefest.  I've some sympathy with his views on the panels, though I don't really agree with his view that such conventions are primarily about the business of marketing.  I suspect that only the bigger names and the terminally optimistic would approach Crimefest mainly as a marketing opportunity.  While I'm never averse to shifting a unit or two of product, for me Crimefest was essentially an opportunity to meet like-minded readers and fellow-writers and to engage in some friendly interchange on the subject of crime-fiction.  With the odd glass of wine or beer.  Or two.

I've more sympathy with Declan's view that writers talking about writing isn't very interesting.  If the panels discussions simply focus on promoting individual books/authors, they rapidly can become uninteresting.  The most successful panels, in my view, were the ones that, by accident or design, ended up discussing some more general topic or ranging across a number of authors.  Peter Rozovsky points out, in a comment on Declan's posting, that one of Declan's own panels ended up debating some important aspects of copyright and intellectual property (and, personally, I was also much taken by Declan's citing of Enid Blyton as a literary influence - you and me both, Declan).  In a similar vein, I very much enjoyed the final day's panel, chaired by Martin Edwards, with Steve Hague, M R Hall, Brian McGilloway and Caro Ramsay, which ended up discussing various aspects of authorial technique - plotting, point of view and so on.  I found it fascinating, both as a writer and as a reader. 

There's a lot more I could talk about , even just from my own panels - Leighton Gage discussing Brazil,  Yrsa Sigardordottir discussing Iceland, Stephen Booth pointing out that a realistic police procedural would comprise 250 pages of paperwork before a member of the public phones in to identify the culprit...

But I've recovered now, so I can start thinking about next year.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Crimefest 2009: still recovering...

A few more random thoughts on Crimefest.  There was an enormous amount of good stuff and I'm conscious that, in picking some (personal) highlights, I'm inevitably excluding numerous other excellent sessions.  But, for what it's worth, here are a few of the sessions that particularly lodged in my brain.

First, there was the session on forgotten authors on Thursday afternoon, chaired with characteristic aplomb by the frighteningly knowledgeable Martin Edwards (who also, quite deservedly, took home the Crimefest Mastermind trophy despite receiving only a single point - and a round of applause - for naming all the past presidents of the Detection Club).  It's chastening to realise, not just that authors are forgotten, but that current celebrity is not necessarily an indication of future longevity.  Which in turn raises the question of why some authors survive while others - equally famous in their day, perhaps even equally talented - disappear into the mists of time.

Second, there was the fascinating session on translation, featuring Don Bartlett, 'Reg Keeland', Tina Nunnally and Roz Schwartz.  I was left filled with admiration, not only for their skill and professionalism, but also for the integrity and creativity they bring to the task - the balance between being true to an author and finding the creative mechanisms to reflect that author's voice in a new language.

Third, and last for today, there was John Harvey's session.  While many of us were disappointed that Bill James was, in the end, unable to participate, a solo Harvey gave splendid value for money.  I admire Harvey for countless reasons - not least because he's made a career as a professional author in a world which seems to have rendered full-time writing nearly untenable.  That would be reason enough to admire him even if he were just a journeyman.  But, of course, he's also one of the most gifted crime writers we have.  And, on top of that, he appears to display consummate taste in everything from literature to music to, well, Nottingham.  If he wasn't so charming, I'd probably hate him. I was surprised that, as Harvey comments ruefully on his blog, so few came along to the session.  But everyone else missed a treat. 

More tomorrow, I should think.  I haven't even got on to my sessions yet (which is probably just as well). 

Monday, May 18, 2009

Crimefest 2009: the recovery phase

Well, I got home from Bristol's Crimefest last night, and immediately felt like taking another weekend off.  But it was a thoroughly enjoyable few days. 

There were countless highlights for me, and I'll write more about them in the next few days.  But it was very pleasing finally to meet a whole raft of virtual acquaintances - Maxine Clark, Karen Meek, Martin Edwards, Peter Rozovsky, even the mysterious crimeficreader - and discover that they are all real people after all. And all utterly charming. 

I ought to add particular thanks to Edward Marston, who not only moderated the first of my panels superbly, but also went some distance out of his way to make a newcomer feel at home.  And of course thanks to Adrian and Myles, the organisers, and their colleagues  - I've attended many conferences but rarely one that seemed to run so smoothly.  I imagine they were paddling frantically below the surface at times, but to participants the whole event exuded swan-like elegance and calm. 

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Crime fiction and the paradox of capitalism

There, I knew that title would grab your attention.  The phrase 'paradox of capitalism' was actually taken from an interesting article in today's Guardian by Timothy Garton Ash.  Ash's article, about the status of global capital, touches on many issues, including the semi-serious proposition that those responsible for the curent financial crisis might be accused of 'bankslaughter'.  His conclusion, drawing on Max Weber and Daniel Bell, is that there is a fundamental tension at the heart of capitalism, in that "the production side depends...hard work, punctuality, discipline and a readiness to accept deferred gratification" whereas  "the demand side...depends on [people] being self-indulgent, expansive, pleasure-seeking and given to living in the now".

It's an interesting argument, but I was more struck by a passing comment, earlier in the article, about the financial crisis: "not for the first time, novelists (such as Tom Wolfe) and filmmakers (such as Oliver Stone with his Wall Street, featuring Gekko) were ahead of economists and political scientists in identifying the disorder".   From my recollections of The Bonfire of the Vanities and Wall Street, I'm not entirely sure whether Wolfe and Stone really identified the disorder, or were simply joining in the party.  But Ash's comment did ring a bell in respect of some of the crime fiction I've been reading recently. 

In preparation for attending the Crimefest convention in Bristol (14-17 May, details here), I've been proving that I'm not entirely "self-indulgent, expansive, pleasure-seeking and given to living in the now" by dutifully reading books by as many as possible of my fellow panelists.  Not, of course, that it's in any sense a duty as, without exception, the books have been thoroughly enjoyable. 

But, particularly in reading reading books set in disparate parts of Europe such as Yrsa Sigurdardottir's My Soul to Take (Iceland) or Anne Zouroudi's The Taint of Midas (Greece), I've been struck by the premonitions of the financial crash.  Both of these books were, I presume, written before the worst of the downturn and so make no explicit reference to the crisis.  Both books, though, appear aware of the fragility of a bubble which, as it turned out, was on the point of popping.  Interestingly, too, both books address the paradox that Ash describes.  Sigurdardottir's highly entertaining book is set in a struggling new age health spa which wonderfully embodies all the dysfunctionality of a society which has accrued more money than sense.  Zouroudi's equally enjoyable novel explores a financial corruption that depends on the exploitation of free-spending tourists.  Both books contain plenty of barbed commentary about a species of capitalism which, as we now know, was teetering on the edge of collapse. 

It'll be fascinating to see where crime fiction goes next.  Wherever it is, I suspect we'll be a step or two ahead of the politicians. 

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Guesting on Petrona

I haven't posted on here for the last week or so because I had a bit of a domestic crisis to sort out (my father was taken ill at the far end of the country, but I hope everything's now okay).  So I was particularly pleased when I returned today to find that Maxine Clarke of the excellent Petrona blog had taken a comment I'd made on one of her earlier postings and turned it into a fully-fledged posting in its own right.  I'm extremely flattered, and I was also very interested by some of the responses. 

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Exploring the Hills

There's been a rumbling debate in the crime fiction world about so-called 'literary' novelists trying their hand at crime fiction.  The most obvious example is John Banville's 'Benjamin Black' oeuvre, but other examples include Kate Atkinson and Susan Hill, both of whom have embarked on crime series in recent years.  I suppose the debate rests partly on one's definition of 'crime fiction' - if we simply mean fiction about crime, then it's hardly a new phenomenon.  Macbeth and Hamlet spring to mind, for example. In part, too, it's simply a marketing issue.  A couple of interesting 'mainstream' novels I read last year - Sebastian Faulks's Engleby and Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost - might easily have been marketed as crime fiction. 

But I think it's slightly more than that.  I feel that the best contemporary crime writing starts from a conscious awareness of the conventions of the genre - a set of expectations which the reader brings to the party.  These aren't cast-iron rules, but rather a set of starting assumptions - that the crime will be solved, that mysteries will be explained, that the streets may be mean but the hero(ine) won't be, that the author will, by and large, play fair by the reader, and so on.  These conventions may simply be accepted, or may be challenged or subverted, but part of the reader's enjoyment comes from seeing what the author is doing with an established form.  The effect is not dissimilar to a poet writing a sonnet, say, or ottava rima. By working with, or against, the disciplines of the form, the writer can achieve effects or explore territory which might not otherwise be available.  

Much of this relates to plotting, so it's difficult to offer examples without giving too much away about individual books.  But, to take one broad example, Reginald Hill strikes me as a master at (among other things) finding ingenious ways of using crime-fiction conventions to explore ever more diverse material - from the moving invocations of World War I in The Wood Beyond to the playful reimagining of Jane Austen's Sanditon as a crime novel in The Cure for all Deseases.  Hill's a crime writer to his finger-tips (though clearly also a very literary one), but is also, to my mind, one of the most interesting novelists currently working. 

All this was brought to mind through reading another Hill.  Susan Hill is one of those so-called literary novelists who's made the move into crime-fiction with her Simon Serrailler series.  I'm a great admirer of this Hill also - both for her fine mainstream novels and for her previous forays into genre fiction with the ghost stories, The Woman in Black and The Mist in the Mirror.  I was intrigued to read her crime fiction, although, typically for me, I didn't start at the beginning but jumped in with the second of the series, The Pure in Heart.  This may or may not have been a good place to begin, since the book has proved more controversial that its predecessor (have a look, for example, at the divided opinion in the Amazon reviews).  And I can see why. 

Again, it's difficult to say too much without discussing the plot.  But much of the book's power, for me, came from the disjunction between its apparent form and its content.  The book begins, and for the most part continues, as a relatively conventional, quite cosy police procedural - bringing to mind P D James's Dalgliesh novels or Ruth Rendell's Wexford books.   The characters are mostly solidly, even exaggeratedly, middle class, except for the few who are even more solidly, perhaps even exaggeratedly, working class. It's a world polarised between cathedral greens and sink estates. 

But it's the plotting that surprises.  Without revealing anything of the plot, I'll say only that Hill continually subverts the reader's (or, at least, my) expectations.  Plot lines don't lead where you expect, issues are raised but not always resolved, characters appear but don't play a significant part.  Hill is quite happy to challenge Chekhov - if one of the characters brings in a loaded revolver, don't necessarily expect that it'll be used. 

This can't be accidental, so presumably Hill has consciously written a crime novel that challenges conventions - an unexpectedly radical piece of writing wrapped in a very middle-brow, Middle England form.  And, although I was left with some reservations, I thought it worked.  Hill always writes beautifully, and her characterisation is solid and convincing even when she's (deliberately?) straying close to crime-fiction caricature.  The result felt to me like the kind of book that another of my favourite underrated writers, Stanley Middleton, might have produced if he'd ever tried to write crime fiction.  Middleton's books can appear shapeless because they don't follow the neat narrative arcs we associate with fiction.  I find them gripping for precisely that reason - because they reflect the uncertainties and unpredictabilities of real life.  In The Pure in Heart, Susan Hill seems to have tried something similar in the crime genre.   I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A bit bonkers. That's why she's such an exceptional writer

I've long been a big fan of Margery Allingham, one of the quirkiest and most interesting of the 'Golden Age' crime writers.  I was therefore intrigued to stumble across this fascinating and, for a newspaper article, usually detailed account of her life and works.  Allingham still tends to be underrated, compared with Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers, but I think she was a better writer than either.  I'd include her best work - particularly The Tiger in the Smoke and Hide My Eyes - among my favourite books in any genre. But she was hard to pigeon-hole - the article quotes her biographer, Julia Jones: "Margery might write the same 'book' twice, but never more. So you get huge disparities between one book and the next."  That's very true - some of the books are funny and light-hearted, others are dark and ominous, but they all have a distinctive voice which seems to offer a new perspective on the world.

The articles detail the difficulties and challenges faced by Allingham, who suffered from a series of physical and mental health problems.  Julia Jones concludes: "... Margery, in the nicest sense of the word, was a bit bonkers. That's why she's such an exceptional writer.”  I don't know whether that syllogism is entirely sustainable, but I certainly feel that the remarkable qualities of Allingham's books stem, in part, from her ability to see things just a little differently from the rest of us. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Crimefest 2009

I managed to miss the first Crimefest convention in Bristol last year because it clashed with another prior commitment, but I'm very much looking forward to attending this year's from 14-16 May.  The organisers have put together an impressive and diverse programme, ranging from luminaries such as Michael Connolly, John Harvey and Andrew Taylor, all the way down to - well, me, I suppose. 

I've been invited to take part in two panels.  The first is 'The Big Heat: Police Procedurals' moderated by Edward Marston with participation from, as well as yours truly, Stephen Booth, Alison Bruce, and Pauline Rowson.  The second is entitled 'Border Incident: Crime in Foreign Climes' , is moderated by Paul Johnston and features Chris Ewan, Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Anne Zouroudi.  A pretty varied mix of writers in each case, which I'm sure will provide the basis of a fascinating discussion. 

There are countless people I'm looking forward to meeting there, including esteemed writer/bloggers such as Martin Edwards and Declan Burke, both of whom I've corresponded with virtually but not met face-to-face.  I'm also pleased to see that the list of attendees includes various stars of the crime fiction blogosphere, including Maxine Clark and Peter Rozovsky, who are regular virtual visitors to these pages.  Looks like the makings of an excellent weekend.  If you want to find out more, all the details are here.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A last farewell to Murder One

I happened to be in London earlier in the week and, with half an hour or so to spare between meetings, found myself in the vicinity of Leicester Square.  In the past, that's the point at which I'd have made a visit to the excellent Murder One on Charing Cross Road, idled away some time browsing through the racks, and emerged with at least one book I wouldn't have found anywhere else. I've been doing that, given half a chance, for much of its 20-odd year existence.

I did the same this time, of course, but it was a poignant visit because, as we all know, Murder One is due to close imminently.  The credit crunch bears a little of the blame - in that it hindered Maxim Jakubowski from selling the business as a going concern, as he'd hoped.  But the real culprit, lurking in the drawing room with the lead piping, is the internet.  The likes of Amazon, Abebook and Alibris may be a boon to those of us who buy too many books, but they're increasing sounding the death-knell for the independent bookshop - particularly, I imagine, for the specialist shops like Murder One.  Ten or fifteen years ago, Murder One was pretty much the only place where I could easily buy, for example, US editions of crime books.  Now, I can buy them at the click of a mouse. 

I suppose that's just progress.  But something's been lost along the way - the sheer serendipitous pleasure that comes from browsing in a good, thoughtfully-stocked bookshop.  Whenever I've visited Murder One, I've come away with something that I would never have found through Amazon or its equivalents.  However much the on-line bookshops try to recreate the sensation of bookshop browsing, it's never quite the same without the physical dimension.  I've bought dozens (hundreds?) of books from bookshops just because they caught my eye and looked interesting.  I don't think I've ever done that with Amazon, however much information they throw at me. 

I did it again this week, coming away with a Donald E Westlake I'd not read - something I'd never had bought on-line because it wouldn't have occurred to me to look for it. 

So - with the possible exception of its impact on my bank balance - the loss of Murder One and its equivalents is a great sadness.  I was glad I had the chance to pay one last visit, and also that I finally took the opportunity to say hello to Maxim Jakubowski - in all my visits, I'd never had cause to disturb him if he was in the shop - and to wish him and his staff well.  I understand there are plans to try to continue the mail order side of the business - I hope so, and I hope they succeed in giving their larger, but much more anonymous, competitors a run for their money. 

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Looking back at 2008 (part 4)

Well, the snow came and went, the skies clouded over, the temperatures rose, and now we're somewhere closer to a normal damp Cheshire January. 

I'm a little conscious that I've so far ended up talking about fewer books than I'd intended, due to my rambling ways.  So today perhaps I should just begin with a quick resumé of some of the books that have, one way or another, stayed with me from 2008.  First, as a long-standing Reginald Hill fan, it was a bumper year as the ever-prolific Mr Hill gave us two books to delight in.  The latest Dalziel and Pascoe, A Cure for All Deseases (intriguingly retitled The Price of Butcher's Meat in the US) unexpectedly combined the contrasting wisdoms of Andy Dalziel and Jane Austen.  Possibly a more lightweight addition to the series than some, but still a joy to read.  I really don't know how Hill manages to be so prolific and so consistently good.  This year he also gave us a new Joe Sixsmith, the wonderfully titled The Roar of the Butterflies.  The Sixsmith books are generally less substantial and more playful than the Dalziels, but I thought this was great fun.  In an odd way, it reminded me of the wonderful Duffy books that Julian Barnes used to write as Dan Kavanagh, and there's little higher praise than that. 

What else?  Well, I finally got around to trying Brian McGilloway's much-praised Borderlands, the first of his Inspector Devlin series.  A good down to earth cop with - praise be! - a wife and family, and a terrific bleak setting.  I'm looking forward to reading the next ones.  Another down to earth cop who's also, so far, managed to hold on to his family is Chris Simms's Jon Spicer.  Chris is actually a neighbour of mine (quite literally), and the world and characters he describes are the ones I see around me.  I haven't got to his latest, Hell's Fire, yet. but its predecessor, Savage Moon, was his best so far - combining a strong mystery with an intriguing exploration of Britain's colonial legacy in Kenya.

Shifting gear again, S J Bolton's Sacrifice is a fascinating mix of Gothic thriller and police procedural, set in a splendidly sinister Shetland.  I suspect I'm not really part of the target demographic for this book - just an inkling from the way she describes the handsome, charismatic doctors - but, as a long-time fan of The Wicker Man, the concept appealed strongly to me.  It's a great read, which nicely balances some border-fantastical ideas with believable characters and settings, concluding with a plot-twist which I found genuinely chilling. 

And still that's just scatching the surface.  But I suppose my greatest enjoyment this year came not so much from new discoveries as from getting to grips properly with a couple of authors I'd previously tried but, for whatever reason, hadn't fully appreciated.  The first was Jo Nesbo.  Nesbo's books have been very heavily promoted in the UK over the last couple of years.  I tried The Redbreast initially and enjoyed it, but didn't find myself rushing to read more.  I'm not sure why - it was readable enough, with an intriguing lead character in Harry Hole and at least one plot twist that left me breathless.  But, in line with Maxine Clarke's comments, the plot was a little too convoluted, the pace perhaps slightly too meandering.  This year, though, for some reason I picked up Nemesis and started to read.  All the same criticisms could be levelled at it - perhaps even more so with regard to plot convolutions.  But I found myself engrossed, mainly by the character of Harry Hole.  While he very much fits the familar middle-aged, alcoholic, disillusioned cop template, he has a wit and sense of corporate mischief that most of his equivalents lack.  I'm always intrigued by the tensions of corporate life - which are present in the police as much as is in any other organisation - and Nesbo writes beautifully about these. 

I also like the fact that Nesbo dosn't pull any punches - for example, Hole is a genuine alcoholic, whose life totters on the edge of chaos, rather than just someone who drinks too much Scotch when the going gets tough.  I'm looking forward to reading The Devil's Star - which also means that, quite by accident, I've read these three books in the right order, rather than the order in which they were published.  There's been a lot of criticism of various publishers for issuing translated books out of order - I guess it's for commercial reasons and generally doesn't matter too much.  But here it does because, as well as each individual story, there's a wider plot which develops across the novels. 

Just as I got to grip with Nesbo in 2008, I also finally got round to reading Fred Vargas properly this year.  I'd read Seeking Whom He May Devour a couple of years ago (mainly because I was staying in France near where it was set).  Again, I'd enjoyed it but hadn't felt urgently impelled to read more - partly, I think, because Vargas's Detective Commissaire Adamsberg felt almost like a peripheral figure in the book.  Earlier this year, though, I tried Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, and enjoyed it enormously.  As with Nesbo's books, the real joys lie in the characterisation, particularly of Adamberg himself.  Vargas's plots tend to be - well, slightly batty, to be frank, but that's clearly deliberate.  She's having fun with the genre, and that's always (okay, almost always) be to encouraged.  My only slight reservation about Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand was that it was largely set in Canada, rather than France.  I was left with a sneaking sense that I was missing something in not witnessing Adamsberg in his natural habitat. 

That was confirmed when I read Have Mercy on Us All.  This is set in a Paris that's as evocative as Simenon's, and I thought it was tremendous - playful and chilling at the same time.  Yes, the plot's as bonkers as ever, but in a way that somehow seems to be exploring some profound issues.  In this book, Vargas reminded me of Margery Alllingham at her best - Vargas's eerie Paris matching the London of Tiger in the Smoke or Hide My Eyes.  In my book, praise doesn't come much higher.  Still not sure about those English titles, though...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Looking back at 2008 (part 3)

Another fall of snow during the night.  From the front of the house, the spread of the distant Pennines looks spectacular, but it still feels like a good time to stay inside and look back.  Particularly back to last summer when the sun was shining (occasionally, at least) and we were all still under the illusion that there was some money left in the world. 

I seem to have read a lot over the last year – and, as ever, all kinds of stuff.  I always have at least one book on the go and often more, and I prefer to vary what I’m reading, moving from fiction to non-fiction , or from crime fiction to non-crime fiction.  I have a friend who, when he finds an author he likes, ploughs rigorously through the complete oeuvre, ideally in chronological sequence, until he’s exhausted the seam.  (This does mean, incidentally, that he spots inconsistencies that aren’t evident to those of us who read, or for that matter write, in a more fragmented manner.  Just ask him some time about John Rebus’s musical tastes.)  I can’t do that.  Even with my favourite authors, I’d rather eke out the pleasure, vary the texture with something different.  

I also like reading stuff – again, fiction or non-fiction – related to where I happen to be or what I happen to be doing.  A minor literary high point of the earlier part of the year was reading Phil Rickman’s The Fabric of Sin while staying in an atmospheric cottage in the centre of Ledbury in Herefordshire.  Ledbury isn’t Rickman’s Ledwardine (which is in several other parts of Herefordshire altogether), but it was close enough to give the book an additional frisson.  I’ve said this before, but if you haven’t yet discovered Rickman’s Merrily Watkins books, do yourself a favour and give them a try.   They’re something quite unique, tottering gently on the border between crime and supernatural fiction, but always staying just the right side of the fantastical, with a range of terrific, fully believable characters.  And, although the notion of a female Anglican vicar sounds as if it might stray into Richard Curtis territory, they’re anything but cosy.   I haven’t got to his new one, To Dream of the Dead, yet so that’s a treat for 2009.  Incidentally, could someone explain to me why the BBC bothered to make the risible Bonekickers (the first episode of which carried some uncanny echoes of The Fabric of Sin) or the dull Apparitions, when they could have done an adaption of the Merrily Watkins books instead?

Rickman happens to be a Quercus stablemate, though my enthusiasm for his books long predates that.  Another Quercus book which I read in situ, as it were, was Martin Walker’s splendid Bruno – Chief of Police, the first in a series about a small-town cop in the Dordogne.   I took it to read while staying  - well, in the Lot region, actually, but that seemed close enough.  (I perhaps at this point ought to point out that, perhaps contrary to the impression I’m giving here, my life isn’t one long holiday – it’s just that I tend to read more on vacation.)  I was a little worried that Bruno – Chief of Police might turn out to be a little too Year in Province with endless descriptions of enviable foodstuffs and irritatingly idyllic lifestyles.   There’s a little of that, of course – and I’d have been disappointed if there wasn’t – but not enough to get in the way of a thoroughly entertaining story and set of characters.  Bruno’s a terrific creation, and I’m a sucker for stories where the streetwise locals get one over on the bigshots from the city, which is a recurrent theme here.   My only minor reservation was whether the darkness of the underlying plot-line sat a little incongruously with the general light-heartedness of the book, but I know others found it a welcome counterpoint.  Thoroughly recommended, anyway.

I’m conscious that this is beginning to sound like a Quercus log-rolling session – though actually I bought both the above books with my own ill-gotten money.  So let’s move on to something else.  One of my other discoveries this year was Matt Rees’s Omar Yussef series, its Palestinian setting now rendered tragically topical again by current events in Gaza.  The first in the series, The Bethlehem Murders, is a terrific depiction of everyday life in the eponymous city.   I suppose some might question whether a crime novel is an appropriate vehicle for writing about life in Palestine, but it works because the crimes in question emerge directly from the tensions, passions and challenges that lie at the heart of the wider conflict.   Yes, it’s a gripping read with an engaging central character, but above all, it provides a clearer insight into life in Palestine – from a purely human perspective – than any amount of political or journalistic analysis.  That, I think, is one of the things that fiction is for. 

I seem to have done it again – written a lot, but covered only three books.  Oh, well – more tomorrow.  In the meantime, the snow seems to have started to thaw and the weather has reverted to the lifeless grey monochrome that one normally associates with January in the north west of England.  Perhaps the natural order is slowly being restored.   

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Looking back at 2008 (part 2)

Late afternoon, on one of the coldest days we've had in the UK for quite some time, and I've just been for a walk outside. There's a thin layer of  snow on the ground, the air is eerily quiet, the sky drained to a strange translucent orange-pink .  It feels, out there, as if everything is temporarily suspended, frozen in time.

A good time to take stock, then.  I've just been glancing back through some of the books I've read over the past year, piled on shelves (or, in some cases, just piled in piles) in the loosely-arranged chaos that passes for my office. 

Unusually for me, this year I did read one or two high profile books more or less as they appeared - notably Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 and Steig Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Both were heavily promoted, not to say hyped, and I think in both cases this was more or less justified, though I was left with slight reservations.  Smith's book caused a particular furore by being long-listed for the Man Booker, with Canongate's Jamie Byng dismissing it as 'a fairly well-written and well-paced thriller that is no more than that'.  Actually, I thought that Mr Byng had at least a fraction of a point.  While I was pleased to see any thriller getting within spitting distance of the grand old prize, I was a little surprised that it should have been this one.  Child 44 is grippingly readable and provides an extraordinary and harrowing depiction of life in the former Soviet Union, but it is a relatively conventional thriller, with perhaps a little too much reliance on unlikely coincidence and 'with one bound he was free' heroics.  In the end, I felt that the thriller elements risked cheapening the very real power of the set-piece descriptions of Soviet tyranny.  Still, we should cheer the long-listing as a real step towards breaking down the literary hegemony.  Perhaps one day we'll get a chance to see a book like Peter Temple's The Broken Shore on there.

Steig Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo arrived here as a genuine phenomenon, having already sold millions in Scandinavia.  I must confess that, much as I enjoyed the book, the reasons for its runaway success slightly eluded me.  It's a fine book, certainly, but to me its qualities didn't  immediately sing out 'best seller'.  But then, as you'd rightly point out, what do I know?  The book nearly combines a locked room mystery, social and sexual politics, and a couple of highly-engaging, if slightly unlikely, lead characters.  Lisbeth, the girl herself (incidentally, particularly given Larsson's focus on sexual politics, shouldn't that be 'woman'?) is an extraordinary character, and I very much look forward to discovering more about her in the succeeding books.  Maxine Clarke, in her comment on on an earlier posting, wonders whether Lisbeth is something of a male fantasy figure.  Well, definitely not for this particular male, but she's a terrific character nonetheless. 

My only reservation about the book was its oddly discursive nature.  Larsson takes us down some pretty unexpected by-ways on his way through the plot - many are interesting but a few feel decidedly out of place (I recall an extended discription of the specification of the hero's laptop, which managed to be even less interesting than it sounds).  There's been speculation about whether Larsson's untimely death prevented tighter editing of the books.  Perhaps that's the case - certainly I imagine the finer details of the laptop would have been blue-pencilled.  But, in a way, the book's digressions are part of its charm, and one of the reasons why its commercial success is so heartening.  This is the opposite of a formulaic Da Vinci Code thriller, where every short chapter ends on a carefully calculated cliff-hanger.  Larsson takes a while to meander through the plot, but on the way allows you to lose yourself in the minutiae of the world and the characters he creates.  And that, I suspect, is why the book has made such an impact.  I'm certainly looking forward to the next installment.

I seem to have written at some length already, and still managed to discuss only two books.  There's a whole pile of other volumes sitting over there to be discussed but, rather than wear out my welcome, I'll pause here and wait till tomorrow to add the next installment.  See what I mean about carefully calculated cliff hangers?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Looking back at 2008 (part 1)

I seem to recall that, a few years ago, some academic with too much time on his hands calculated the most depressing day of the year to be 24 January.  My recollection (I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm wrong) is that the supporting 'evidence' was one of those meaningless pseudo-mathematical formulae that do nothing more than confirm the blindingly obvious - in this case, the fact that, on top of all the other winter miseries, by 24 January the credit card bill for Christmas will have just popped through the letter-box.

Be that as it may, it's always seemed to me that this first day back after the Christmas and New Year break is usually the most depressing, even for those of us who don't quite have proper jobs to go back to (I do things as well as writing to earn my living, but they don't generally involve me having to turn up at the same office every day).  And this year the bleak open steppes of the new year look even more unnerving than usual  - especially, perhaps, for those of us who don't quite have proper jobs to go back to.

There's no doubt that 2008 was an extraordinary year.  For me, some domestic factors compounded the strangeness of what was going on, but frankly the wider world needed no help in the surrealism department. The novelist James Meek provides an excellent, and nicely provocative, summary of some of the main points of the year's madness in today's Guardian.

Above all, 2008 confirmed my long-held suspicion of financial 'experts'.  The truth really is that, to borrow William Goldman's famous phrase, 'nobody knows anything'.  Almost nobody saw the crash coming - and certainly not with this speed and ferocity.  And now we discover that, all the way along the line, most of these ludicrously overpaid individuals didn't even have a clue what they were really playing with.  Funnily enough, it turns out that we ordinary citizens - the ones who kept saying, 'You know, call me stupid but I can't really see how this works' - were right all along.  Which reinforces another of my long-held views - that you can persuade a man (I'm not so sure about a woman) of anything, provided he's clever enough. 

The only good news, at a personal level, is that, through a mixture of cussedness and inertia, I've managed successfully to ignore most of the financial advice I've been given over the past decade.  With the result that my finances are now in a much healthier state than might otherwise have been the case.

With that off my chest, I can perhaps look back at 2008 with less Osbornesque anger.  Actually, financial meltdown aside, there were some very good parts to the year for me - the paperback of The Adversary, the publication of The Shadow Walker in the US and Germany. and the UK hardback of The Outcast.  I suppose the highest of the high points was the starred review of The Shadow Walker in Publishers Weekly, but that was one of quite a few. 

More widely, 2008 seemed to be another pretty good year for crime fiction.  I'm one of those people - I think there's probably a self-help book about us - who Buy Far More Books Than They Can Read (though never self-help books, as it happens).  The result is that I tend to pick up on books pretty randomly, as the whim takes me.  This year, though, I did manage to read some highly promoted new crime as it appeared, and a fair few others at least before they had disappeared entirely off the critical radar.  And, on top of that, I finally managed this year to get to grips properly with a handful of writers who came burdened with friends' or reviewers' recommendations - in most cases, as itturned out, entirely justified. 

Having whetted your appetite, though, I'm going to pause here before this posting becomes novel-length in its own right.  But I'm planning a daily posting at least for the rest of this week just to compensate for the long hiatus over Christmas.  I only hope you can contain your excitement. 

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Stew or smorgasbord?

Thanks to Declan Burke of the ever-entertaining Crime Always Pays blog for a namecheck during his week as guest poster on The Rap Sheet.  Declan is asking whether there really is such a beast as 'Irish crime fiction', concluding that, given the richness and diversity of the material on offer, there probably isn't.  Thankfully, he's not going to let that stop him writing about it. 

I'm sure Declan's right.  It seems to me, as an outsider, that Irish crime fiction is in an incredibly strong state at the moment, but that it's characterised by its extraordinary diversity rather than by any easily-identifiable common tone or voice.  Declan cites numerous examples in his posting, as he does every day on his excellent blog - if you want to begin exploring what's out there, you couldn't find a better guide.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Detectives Beyond Borders

I've mentioned Peter Rozovsky's splendid blog, Detectives Beyond Borders, a few times recently.  While the blog is always entertaining and insightful, I hadn't previously realised that Peter is a man of such profound good taste - as evidenced by the extraordinarily generous comments he's been making about The Shadow Walker over the last few days. 

Modesty forbids me from saying any more, but Peter does always offer some interesting thoughts about the setting of crime fiction in exotic locations (referencing Clive James's New Yorker article on crime fiction which we've discussed before around these parts).

Oh, and I suppose I should just mention that The Adversary officially hits UK bookstores today...

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Clive and Prejudice

Clive James's New Yorker article on crime fiction seems to have set the cat among the proverbials.  Those provoked by his provocative article might be provoked even more by the slightly different, and rather blunter, version that appears on his website

Clearly, entertaining as the article is, I don't agree with James's conclusions.  But, as the lady more or less said, I wouldn't, would I?  However, I'm still intrigued by the suggestion, which I don't really think James follows through, that there are fundamental differences between genre fiction and 'literary' fiction (I'll leave the definition of the latter to someone else).  I think this is right.  If nothing else, genre fiction almost inevitably operates in a context of conventions and reader expectations.  Think of those tiresome lists of the 'rules' that crime writers should follow.  It's possible to subvert the conventions - the late Michael Dibden was a master of such subversion - but that has to be a conscious act.  And it's often in the face of reader resistance.  If you doubt that, take a look at the mixed Amazon reader reviews of Dibden's delightful Back to Bologna

But these conventions also impose discipline.  Crime writers are compelled to plot tightly and, by definition, to engage with big themes and intense emotions.  Those who do it best - from Raymond Chandler to Peter Temple - produce fiction with an intensity and energy that's rarely found in contemporary 'literary' fiction. 

At the risk of drifting (further) into pretentiousness, and to take an analogy that Clive James the poet or lyricist might appreciate, perhaps it's the difference between writing a sonnet and writing free-verse.  In theory, there are limits to what you can do with a sonnet, whereas the potental of free verse is infinite.  But most free verse is unreadable, and the best sonnets are transcendent. 

By the way, did I mention that the paperback of The Shadow Walker is out in the UK today (3 May)?

Dove and Theft - Clive James on crime fiction

An interesting New Yorker piece by Clive James which begins with a consideration of Henry James's 'The Wings of the Dove' but rapidly (and perhaps understandably) moves on to a wide-ranging overview of current crime-fiction, taking in the late Michael Dibdin, Donna Leon, Andrea Camilleri, Benjamin 'John Banville' Black, Gene Kerrigan and others on the way.  There's a slight sense that James (Clive, not Henry) is just reviewing what he happens to have read recently, but the piece offers some interesting insights and provocations.  In particular, he points to the increasing emphasis on distinctive locations in crime fiction - difficult for me to challenge that one.  He's also interesting on the potential tensions between the demands of 'literary' and 'genre' fiction, however we might choose to define those terms. I'd be interested to hear James's views on my Quercus stablemate, Peter Temple.

Incidentally, those who like Clive James's writings may be interested to know that his partner in musical crime, Pete Atkin (the pair have been writing excellent songs together for some 40 years, largely unnoticed by the world at large...more information here and recent CDs can be purchased here) is performing with an acoustic band in Bristol on 21 June 2007.  This is Pete's first performance with a band in an awfully long time, so is likely to be quite an occasion...details here