Thursday, 31 December 2009

Suddenly It's Murder - Jack Trevor Story

As this is the last set of notes for the year (106 books read, with another already started), I thought I’d better make the effort and do something more than ‘ditto’ or ‘see below’, even if it is yet another Sexton Blake by Jack Trevor Story. In the absence of affordable copies of the few mainstream books by Story to complete my collection, I turned to these. I like his writing and I enjoy stories from the SB series as a whole. For me it is a perfect marriage of talent and subject, in a format we seem to have lost in the UK.

The details of the story are irrelevant, although it is something of a shell game involving kidnapping and a number of layers (not quite twisty enough to be called twists). The whole is superbly constructed and rattles along at an excellent pace, fulfilling all the requirements of a pulp thriller.

Of course, we get a lot more when JTS is writing. The character observation, especially of the characters unique to this story, is finely wrought with little details being allowed to create a larger picture. A longer novelisation would have allowed for more background to provide a convincing reason for the sudden ending, but enough was hinted at so that it wasn’t out of character. Minor characters also add flavour to piece with interesting performances that are both unusual and convincing.

Not only does this book exemplify the best of this kind of writing, it also serves to illustrate one of the things that concerns me about modern publishing. This kind of writing serves as a high quality apprenticeship. JTS wrote some fine, literate, and very deep novels – ones that reflected society and the human condition. His vision of the world became darker as he grew older, not least because of his (literally) bruising encounters with the woodentops of Notting Hill.

His work as a writer undoubtedly benefited from the hack work involved in producing Sexton Blake tales. Working to tight deadlines and a tight formula whilst endowing the work with a very individual voice is the mark of a good writer. He has never, in my opinion, had the recognition he deserves. But then he was not a flash git who courted publicity, just a hard working novelist and screenwriter who was able to entertain at the same time as provoking thought. We need more writers like that in print. We need more publishers to invest in their midlist authors and nourish such talent. They seem to have forgotten how. Which is a shame, because the writers are out there. It would make 2010 a special year if the mainstream publishers began to recognise this. It would be in everyone’s interest if they did. So, if there’s a fairy out there granting wishes for the New Year – that will be mine.

And to everyone who has visited and read this blog – thank you and may your New Year be peaceful and prosperous.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The Big Steal - Jack Trevor Story

JTS – SB – See below.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Unseen Academicals - Terry Pratchett

This latest outing from Mr Pratchett (thanks, Heather) is deceptively low key. Given the subject matter, this could have been about mayhem on the streets. Instead we look at the story from behind, as it were. And being low key we are treated to a leisurely and classic piece of writing from someone who has long since had nothing to prove.

Although football is the overt subject, and it is a subject subtly milked for all it is worth, it acts as a vehicle for the way in which such things affect the lives of ordinary people. It shows how they are swept up by enthusiasm, caught in the dreams and plans of others, encounter friendship in unexpected places and hostility exactly where you would expect it to be.

And whilst we are treated to more of the antics of the shakers and movers of Discworld, the joy (as ever) is in the characters whose lives are lived quietly and often with difficulty in the back rooms. A variation on Romeo and Juliet is played out (and comment made on the original) almost invisible in the foreground; and in the background we have a wide ranging and typically gentle commentary of the morality to be found in many fantasy works where (as in films) a handy ‘villain’ is chosen in order that the hero can slaughter them wholesale without troubling the shrivelled peanut that serves as their conscience. What is more, and in passing, long-running story threads from several other books are carried forward (although not entirely resolved as I have seen one commentator claim) whilst others are (possibly) started.

This is a book without a word or scene out of place. It never flags, it is not padded, and it is beautifully written with a deceptive simplicity. Given the health of the author it is all the more remarkable and all the more precious. I hope there are more, but we have had riches aplenty from Mr Pratchett and I, for one (of the many) am extremely grateful.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Concrete Island - J G Ballard

After the intensity of Crash, this book feels very low key. Ballard has returned to the simplicity of style and structure found in his earlier novels. Indeed, this feels more akin to those in some ways. Yet it is also clearly a thematic sequel (the middle of three works dealing with the brutalising effect of the modern world). The car and its servicing architecture provide the setting for this story.

Maitland, an architect, loses control of his car on the urban Motorway after a blow out. His car careers off the road and down an embankment into a large triangle of ground completely surrounded by busy roads. Concussed he climbs back up to the road and after attempting to flag down a passing car is hit and thrown back down the slope onto the island.

Stranded and injured, he encounters the other inhabitants of this isolated patch of ground; fighting for survival and a way out. Possibly. Because in this location (a patch of ground now overgrown but concealing the remains of houses, a church, a cinema) Ballard has found the perfect metaphor for the embattled mind. Surrounded by the rush and noise of the harsh, machine led modern world, Maitland retreats into this starveling patch of land full of ruins and the kind of flora one associates with war zones and bomb sites.

Empty and mostly dead, Maitland nonetheless seems to find it preferable to the ‘real’ world. He plans all the while to escape, yet seems reluctant to leave. He works harder to dominate the others who live there (aspects of his own self) and enshrines himself in a makeshift temple constructed of parts ripped from crashed cars. Perhaps there is even an element of autobiography here, but I would guess it is unconscious.

Overshadowed as it is by its predecessor, this novel rarely receives the praise it deserves. It is a tightly written, highly concentrated glimpse into the workings of the mind; yet manages to look outward as well, working as a commentary on the kind of society that has so many cracks and dark underplaces that it is possible for people to disappear completely and never be found, let alone missed or mourned.

If you are going to call anything ‘literary’ fiction, this is it. And it puts a stinger under the wheels of the clanky old mobile home of all the milk-and-water, self-obsessed, middle-class maunderings of what passes for ‘literary’ fiction these days.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Courier For Crime - Jack Trevor Story

Most of the JTS Sexton Blake’s that I have read to date have been of a particular type – witty, light, entertaining. They have also sometimes bordered on the farcical. Yet this one is different. To begin with it has an urban setting. The London of the late 1950s is never overtly described, yet the settings for each scene are beautifully drawn and when put together, along with the tiny snippets of incidental detail, a realistic and detailed picture is drawn.

The other major difference is the sense of menace. By concentrating the opening of the book on Marion Lang and her predicament along with the reaction of the other characters to this, Story succeeds in setting the mood for the whole novel – the threat that hangs over the individuals and the Blake organisation. This is done with great subtlety. Story can draw broad, comic characters and make them seem realistic. Here he proves that he is just as capable of giving us a serious, dark toned work where one actually fears for the main characters.

The quality of the writing is, as ever, high. The plot is subtle enough to hold interest without being over-complicated. The characters are well rounded. The dialogue is crisp and to the point. Lean and fighting fit; it’s a master class in good writing.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

She Ain't Got No Body - Jack Trevor Story

Sexton Blake

The Thirty-nine Steps - John Buchan

I last read this when I was 10. That was… a long time ago. It came as a surprise when the book arrived in the post to see how slim it is. A very pleasant surprise given my tirades in another place. Even more so because it is the kind of book that you can (as I did) sit down and read in one go.

Which leads me to another remarkable thing. I last read this book when I was 10. Granted, I have seen various (and mostly botched) movie versions (including that truly awful TV remake recently); but I remembered it all vividly. And I still enjoyed it. Which just goes to show what an impression it made on me at the time and perhaps goes some way to explaining why I am so intolerant of badly written books.

Buchan wrote this book as something to do whilst he was recovering from an illness (as one does). It is meant as nothing more than light entertainment. And it delivers. But it delivers extra as well. As entertainment it works because the story taps into the zeitgeist (of 1914) and rattles along at breakneck speed. It is one of the earliest of chase thrillers and also an early example of an espionage thriller. Many books (and films) have used the format since.

As well as being an intriguing story, it is well written. The minor character sketches are well drawn and Hannay is sufficiently rounded (and flawed) to make him a credible hero. And the whole is leavened with sufficient dry humour and self-doubt to make the credible hero a human being. Criticism has been levelled at some of the assumptions made by the book, but these are character traits rather than any underlying theme and, indeed, there are characters (Hannay included) who refute such assumptions.

If you are looking for a good yarn free of unnecessary plot twists, you could do a great deal worse than this.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Crash - J G Ballard

It is difficult to know what to say about a book that has had so much said about it in the decades since it was written. It is certainly not a book one reads for a bit of fun. Ballard wanted it to be uncompromising and uncomfortable and he achieved that. But he achieved so much more. Because in Crash he was the first to articulate in literature what has become evident the world over. We are obsessed the motor car and the landscape we have built for it. We are so obsessed; it is in the nature of a sexual fetish.

Ballard was never quite sure whether he had written the book as a warning or not. I think it transcends that, because as well as an articulation of a very specific and dangerous obsession, it also explores humanity in a world that it had not, until that time, been able to live in. The world of the book is the world that many inhabit. A world designed for machines. The car, the plane, the city, the road. We are told they are there for our benefit, but as recent events have clearly shown us, they tolerate us, but there is no emotional attachment to us. We are crushed on a daily basis by the machine. Mutilated, poisoned, and killed by cars; our spirits tortured and destroyed by our service to the machine.

The book is also a warning that that the machine is crumbling. Crash contains only one image from nature, that of leaves falling from trees. The rest is concrete and steel, roads, cars, aircraft, and the all night service stations and shops that litter our cities. Yet even that is decaying. The landscape is littered with scrap heaps, with dunes composed of shattered windscreen glass, flaking paint and all the detritus of the car crash. Interiors, where one might expect to find shelter are full of items that break and penetrate flesh.

And in this world you must switch off your sensibilities if you are to avoid being sucked into the maelstrom of obsession. Yet switching off makes us willing advocates and slaves of the machine. The world we have created is one that has no place for us; it is one in which we must scurry and scuttle through the pipe work and hidden spaces, staying out of the bright lights where we become easy targets. We are rats in a maze of our own making. Rats in a maze that grows out of control.

Ballard dropped his experimental approach to narrative to write this book. It doesn’t need it (although it would have been interesting to see how far he could have taken that). Instead, he uses straightforward narrative techniques to carry us into the bad acid trip and the finale in which man and machine make their first clumsy attempts at mating.

I loved this book when I first read it and still think it is a work of genius. It still shocks. It still screams its message of brutal head-on crash. The stench of burning rubber rises from locked wheels; the odour of exhaust permeates the air, fills our lungs and taints our clothing; the victims, mangled in the machine, bleed and die. The whole ungainly juggernaut is dissected with clinical efficiency and set before us. What we do with it, the author says, is our affair, but be warned: this is no sick fantasy; it is a very real world. It was real in 1973 when the book was first published. It is much more so in this new and crumbling millennium.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Dewey - Vicki Myron (with Bret Witter)

Dewey was a cat. Found as a kitten in the book drop of the public library in Spencer Iowa, he was raised by the librarian and staff, adopted by the town and went on the become famous worldwide for being… well… a cat in a library.

Anyone who knows me, knows I have a thing for cats. We had two of our own until this year. So reading a book like this (something I would not normally do) was… challenging. The loss of our two is still raw and reading of Dewey’s last days was not easy.

Having said that, I enjoyed the book. For two reasons. Firstly it’s about a cat and the people whose lives were improved by his presence. Cats can do that if you let them. They live life on their terms, but they are also sensitive to our emotions. Secondly, given the circumstances of Vicki Myron’s life, this could so easily have been one of those awful misery memoirs. It wasn’t. There have been hardships aplenty in her life, but this book is a celebration of a relationship that helped her through the bad times. It is a celebration of simple virtues – of love, trust, and community. And it’s not spread on thick with a trowel, either.

Refreshing to read of a celebrity whose life brought warmth to others and in return asked only for a bit of yarn to play with, a box to sleep in, and reserved the right (as nearly all cats do) to be picky about his food.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Collapse Of Stout Party - Jack Trevor Story

Sexton Blake.
Jack Trevor Story.
If you read these notes regularly, you know the rest.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The Defence Of The Realm - Christopher Andrew

I’ll come to the subtitle of this book shortly, but this is the much publicised history of MI5 celebrating the centenary of its foundation. Christopher Andrew was made a member of the Security Service in order that he should have access to all their files as well as to staff.

Given that he had a hundred years of history to cover, not just of the Security Service, but of the political and social context in which it has operated, a thousand pages seems a tad sparse, especially as this is [a] the first history by an ‘insider’ to be made public and [b] the shortage of histories based on source material (rather than gossip and the bias of disaffected ex-members of the Service). One suspects an editorial decision to go for a single volume history, but it does seem something of a lost opportunity.

As the author is at pains to point out, the intelligence community has had very little exposure in the way of in-depth and high quality historical assessment. This is, of course, partly because of the nature of their work. However, there is no real operational reason why earlier parts of the Service’s history should not now be scrutinised. British intelligence during the Second World War has been treated to a very comprehensive multi-volume analysis (and very interesting it is as well). The work and context of MI5 (along with SIS, GCHQ, and Special Branch) could well provide interesting historical works, not least because of the light it would shed on what are often otherwise inexplicable decisions and events.

For all that, this is a very readable narrative of the work of the Security Service. We are not only treated to a chronological history of the operations carried out by the Service, but also of the internal organisation and the ups and downs of the Service as an organisation. Much of the earlier history is well covered in more popular texts and there are few surprises. There are times when I wanted to know more; plenty, in fact. We are all too often told that something came to the attention of the Service, but never how. In the early days, when you could happily have fitted the entire staff into my flat and still had room for the cat, it seems nothing short of a miracle that they not only discovered things, but were able in both World Wars to not only counter the espionage threat posed by Germany, but run an elaborate network of double agents and misinformation operations.

Post-World War Two history is also given a new perspective, especially during the period when the British Empire was dissolving. The relationship that the Security Service had with countries emerging from Colonial rule was quite remarkable. Quite how one views that depends on one’s attitude to post-colonial rulers, but those with whom the UK did business seemed, for the most part, to be very grateful for MI5’s assistance in ensuring the transitions were, again for the most part, peaceful.

The closer we get to the present day, the less informative the book becomes. There may be good operational reasons for this, but as the book never discusses working methods in detail, this begins to cause problems. And here it would be apposite to consider the subtitle of the book: ‘The Authorized History of MI5’. Christopher Andrew makes a big play on the distinction between an ‘Official’ history and an ‘Authorized’ history. His claim for the latter – in which he has full access and authorial independence to be critical where he sees fit – is somewhat tarnished by several facts. He is a well known writer on matters of intelligence and would not have been given the job if he was outright critical. And his approach to what are some of the more controversial events of the late 20th and early 21st centuries leave one wondering whether he left his critical abilities outside on Millbank every time he walked through the door.

This is not to say I am worried that he does not agree with my perspective on events like the Lockerbie bombing or the shooting dead of three unarmed members of the IRA in Gibraltar, for example, but in the case of one, no controversy (or any of the plausible alternative evidence) is mentioned, and in the other it is dismissed as mistaken. Whilst the size and scope of the book does not allow for in-depth discussion of these (and other controversies), they are handled in such a way as to call in to question the author’s impartiality. And, as a consequence, one is left wondering about other events as well. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but it easy to see how such conspiracies are fed.

If you know little or nothing of the history of MI5, this is a book worth reading. The author can write well and makes an interesting and clear narrative of complex events. And it certainly offers a new perspective to events of the last 100 years. I do feel, however, that it was a missed opportunity to give us more detail than already exists and to be more robust in the discussion of events that are by no means as clear cut as the author would have us believe.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Violence In Quiet Places - Jack Trevor Story

Another Sexton Blake by JTS. There is little to say about this title that I have not already said about previous ones in the series. It is a typical Story setting, witty with dark undertones, entertaining, and it makes use of a simple but effective twist in the story. We really do need a lot more of this type of work today, but the dictates of the market (that is, the dull bean counters who run publishers) will not allow for such work to be produced. It might not be high literature (thank goodness, as most of what passes for that these days is shite), but it is good writing and it is entertaining – of far greater worth to literary culture than the latest garbage with a celebrity’s name on the cover.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Across The Acheron - Monique Wittig

They don’t write them like this any more. Rather, they are probably getting written, but there are very few publishers prepared to offer such intelligent fare. Which is a great shame because this is a powerful book.

This is Wittig’s version of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Variously labelled ‘feminist’ and ‘lesbian’, it is all that but so much more. For this journey through Limbo and Hell shows us the experience of women in all its raw and visceral truth. The souls she encounters are of those who have abused, mutilated, and brainwashed by socities around the world who treat women as inferior objects. It is a passionate book by turns funny and disturbing, surreal and all too horribly real.

Written with great intensity, each vignette is poetic yet stark. Wittig’s use of language is not especially complex or convoluted. She drives home her point time and again with concise, simple to understand words. And this makes the work all the more powerful. It is the testament of ordinary women using ordinary words.

As an advocate for feminisim, Wittig is passionate. She loves women and she feels their pain because it is her pain. As a writer, she is superb. Controlled, intelligent, witty, using language in the most effective manner. Nor is she afraid to forgo convention; not in experiment for experiment’s sake (although there is a place for that), but simply in striving to use the medium to its very best effect. In this she succeeds. For that alone I would admire this book. Combined with the message it conveys, I have no hesitation in saying it is one of the very best books I have ever read.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Crime Stories & Other Writings - Dashiell Hammett

This Library of America edition is a collection of twenty-four of Hammett’s short(ish) stories, the transcript of an uncompleted novel which bore the title The Thin Man, but very little else that resembled the finished novel of that name, and a couple of ‘essays’ (which amount to little more than writer’s notes). In all, Hammett wrote little more than ninety shorter works (some very short), so it seems a shame they could not have been presented in a two volume edition, because those that were excluded seem to me to be of no less merit than those included. That said, this is a wonderful collection for anyone who wants a good selection but isn’t, like me, a Hammett completist.

Most of the tales are the first person narratives of Hammett’s unnamed Continental Op. On the surface, these are hard-boiled thrillers. A private detective working for the Continental Agency goes down those mean streets, etc. And even at that superficial level, these are well written, tightly plotted works full of exquisite characterisation. But look deeper and you find a lot more at work. The narrator gives the impression of telling his story in a straightforward fashion, but he is a less than reliable narrator. Despite his hard front, it is clear that he is still engaged with the world, building his own moral network to cope with the terrible things he has to deal with. And he does not tell us everything. Many of the stories have an untold background with can be open to interpretation. It is this, in particular, that elevates Hammett’s work above many of the other crime writers of that ilk.

The quality of the stories is uneven (although if my best was anywhere close to Hammett’s worst, I’d be a happy man). His Ruritanian adventure doesn’t quite convince, perhaps because he is working outside a familiar setting. Along with several other pieces it has the feel of being written with an eye to the film industry, reading like a story outline for a movie.

As examples of quality writing, you can do little better than a collection like this. Irrespective of subject matter, Hammett can teach all aspiring writers a thing or three. The first is plot. With a crime thriller, you need one. And it has to be watertight otherwise people will pick it apart and lose interest in the rest of what you have to offer. Characterisation. Hammett tells us a certain amount about his characters, but he lets them tell us the rest through their actions and reactions. And language. Hammett works hard to keep his use of language fresh.

Entertainment; quality writing; originality; a view onto a world previously considered not quite suitable for serious literature… what more could you ask? A well-produced hardback book at a reasonable price? This is the book for you.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Dishonourable Member - Jack Trevor Story

This is a lightweight and entertaining farce of the type that Story does so well. Set in and around Cambridge (an area he knew well) it involves the goings on at a small hotel. As with all farce, there is plenty of mistaken identity, grabbing the wrong end of the stick (a hockey stick, in this case), chasing around, a smattering of sex, and a (largely) happy ending.

Whilst it will probably never win any prizes, it is a cheery book that is well constructed and well written. Story has an obvious affection for his characters; turns in some wonderful descriptions; and keeps the whole thing going at a great pace. It would make good television

One aspect of the work that stands out is Story’s ability to make his central character sympathetic. This is a womanising MP who is in the job for the expenses (the book was written in 1969, so a prize for prescience would be in order) and who cannot stand his wife. So he says. For this is written in the first person and it becomes apparent from his actions that we have a less than reliable narrator. A character you should loathe is likeable (without the point being pushed) and whilst he wanders the borders of caricature, never quite strays too far from realism.

If you want a light read that is well written and which displays a fine sense of humour without ever feeling the need to be spiteful (all too common these days), this is a book for you.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Crime Writer’s Guide To Police Practice And Procedure – Michael O’Byrne

Writing police procedural crime novels, or having police in your fiction, can easily lead to basic mistakes that undermine your story. The world of policing can sometimes seem esoteric, yet understanding the basic structure is easy enough. Especially with a book like this.

Written by a policeman who went through the ranks to the very top, this lays out in a logical order all that you need to know about how the police in the UK work. Although it concentrates on serious crime (as that is what most fiction writers concentrate on), the principles apply to all policing. Investigation, organisation, tools of the trade, technology, and other areas are all covered.

This is not an in-depth study, but it does provide enough information to allow writers to structure their plots correctly. It also works as a handy reference on a point to point basis, with references to useful website and other sources of information.

It does tend to peter out toward the end at a point where I wanted more information. And it does lack what I would have considered essential – a bibliography of standard texts on policing (training manuals and the like). It would also have been interesting to have a chapter on police training and more on internal culture. Crime novels are always interesting, novels about the police would also, I am sure, be of equal interest.

Despite the missing sections I feel would have improved the book, this is an excellent resource for writers. Clearly written, it explains technical matters without jargon and demystifies policing. If you are interested in writing crime novels set in the UK, this is a book you should have on your shelf.

Monday, 9 November 2009

The Frightened People - Jack Trevor Story

Yes. Another one of the Story Sexton Blakes. This has an intriguing story about black market scrap metal and how radio-active waste finds its way into the foundry of a toy factory (this being in the days when we had a manufacturing industry). The human stories of those affected is interwoven with the hunt for those who perpetrated the crime.

It is typical Sexton Blake and it is typical Jack Treor Story, although the subject matter somewhat constrains Story’s normal sense of humour. This, however, allows him to concentrate more on character and the motives of those ordinary folk in the tale who are driven to extraordinary actions.

This is one reason why I so much enjoy Story’s contributions to this series. He keeps the balance between quality story telling and fine writing, all within a formula. There are some fine portraits of people and of their lives offering us a picture of the late 1950s every bit as detailed and fascinating as any history text.

All that aside, this is, like the other SBL tales in general (and Story’s in particular) a diverting and exciting read which proves, if proof is really needed (except for certain sections of literary society) that genre tales can be every bit as good as ‘literary’ fiction. Sometimes, a whole lot better.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

The Good Angel Of Death - Andrey Kurkov

This latest translated offering from Kurkov is typical fare. Moving into a new flat in Kiev, Kolya finds that the previous owner has left behind an edition of War and Peace. Inside it is hollowed out and nested in there is a heavily annotated version of a book by the poet Shevchenko. A series of bizarre events follow that propel Kolya onto a voyage of discovery, crossing the Caspian Sea and the deserts of Kazakhstan. Along the way he meets the usual troupe of misfits, finds love, and is adopted by a chameleon.

It also seems, in part, to be addressing Kurkov’s own situation – a Russian living in his adopted Ukraine, still writing in Russian. This is done through the story about the Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko, itself an interesting enough background. Kurkov, however, cannot resist adding his own surreal spin on the matter with a tale of sand imbued with the ‘spirit of the Ukraine’.

At one level, this is all one might expect of Kurkov - a whimsical, surreal tale with a very dark edge. At other levels, the book is a disappointment. Putting the lax proof reading to one side (missing and misspelled words, and at least one occasion when characters are mixed up), it is difficult to pinpoint what I felt was wrong with the book. The text has a different translator to previous Kurkov books. That said, Bromfield is a good translator. Either he was having a bad month or so, or the text is just plain dull.

Part of that is down to the first person narrative that realies on a dull narrator. Dull not just in his narrative abilities, but as a character. Even given the surreal events of Kurkov’s books, his central character usually has good motive for what he does. Kolya seems to be an empty vessel. Given the subject matter, this may have been intentional, but it doesn’t make for a good read.

Plodding style and poor character development are married with a story that is far too obscure to travel easily beyond the deep concerns regarding nationalism that are to be found around the shores of the Black and Caspian Seas. There is certainly a story to be told, but this has failed to be it.

Another problem is the length of the text. It is far too long for a story of this nature. Had it been condensed to about two-thirds its current length without losing any of the content it would have been a much more intriguing read, capturing that poetic surrealism of earlier works. Indeed, one might be forgiven for thinking this book was an earlier work, something Kurkov had written before he finally managed to get published and has since resurrected.

Having said all that, I still read the book to the end. Kurkov, even when not at his best, is still worth reading, and the book does improve toward the end. If you’ve not read him before, start with this as it lets you in gently to his view of the world. If you like it, you have much better books to move on to. And if you don’t like it, you have better stuff to move on to.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Crime Is My Business - W Howard Baker

A bit of light reading whilst I have two much heavier tomes on the go. This is another Sexton Blake (SBL 408). Baker was an efficient and prolific wordsmith, writing under a number of different names as well as becoming editor of the series. He may not have been the most elegant stylist, but it takes a particular skill to turn out tales of this kind on a regular basis.

I am not a collector of SBL per se, but I did pick this one up because it is based on material supplied by Jack Trevor Story (and regular readers of these reviews will know of that particular enthusiasm). I am not well enough versed in these things to pick out Story’s contribution. The setting seems to be pure Story, as do some of the characters, but it has been written (or rewritten) with a heavier hand. As an example, Story would have described the area accurately and with wit. Baker seems to dismiss it as a dump, useful only as a setting. Clearly, given that Baker’s name is on the cover he did most of the work.

The setting itself was also something that attracted me to the tale, because it takes place (mostly) in and around Newhaven and Brighton, in Sussex. That is, these places are mentioned, and there are aspects of the setting I recognize, but beyond that, it could have been anywhere. This was a shame as I would have liked to have seen an accurate portrayal of places in which I later lived.

The story itself is fairly standard Sexton Blake fare - drug smuggling, murder, espionage, with a bit of glamour and humour thrown in for good measure. The inventiveness of authors (and cover artists) in producing variations on a theme with the added pressure of knowing the hero will always prevail is astounding.

This is not a work to take seriously, but it was an enjoyable read and it does make one wonder how much has been lost now that writers no longer have pulps of this nature as a place where they can hone their skills (or discover that this is their level).

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Omon Ra - Victor Pelevin

It has taken me too long. I have wandered around Pelevin’s books for a few years now, trying to decide whether to spend money on them (and no, the library doesn’t have them). I wish now that I had done this sooner. Because I have been missing a real treat.

Omon Ra is a heart-breakingly bleak, absurdist, farce. Ostensibly a satire about the Soviet space programme – in which expendable young men are suborned for the pride of their Motherland into suicidally manning ‘automated’ spacecraft – this work goes much deeper and far wider. Beneath the layers of social satire are musings on the nature of reality, on growing up, on friendship. The despair-ridden backdrop, far bleaker than any moonscape, is shot through with moments of real tenderness.

Written in a spare, matter of fact style in which the real and surreal work perfectly alongside each other, the idiocies of political ambition are thrown in sharp contrast with the simple desires of the human being. The ability to capture vivid moments with a handful of words, the complex weaving of imagery (wonderfully preserved in the translation by Andrew Bromfield), the sharp simplicity of the story, all speak of a master at work.

Whilst reading I caught flashes of the Strugatskys, Ballard, Beckett, and Kafka without the work ever being in their thrall. Pelevin has covered similar territory to these and other authors, but with his own distinct voice. I very much look forward to reading more of his work.

Friday, 23 October 2009

House Of Many Ways - Diana Wynne Jones

This is DWJ back on form, as far as I’m concerned. There did seem to have been one or two recent books that wobbled (although a DWJ wobble is still better than most work of this nature). Here we return to the world of Howl and his moving castle along with favourites such as Calcifer and Sophie (all much better in the books than in the film).

Charmain Baker is sent to look after the house of a distant relative, a wizard, whilst he is away being treated by the elves for an unspecified illness. Comic mayhem ensues as Charmain is drawn into the quest to discover exactly why the King is so poor. There is much else besides and most things are rarely what they seem to be. In fact, that is such a trademark of DWJ’s stories that one can spend a lot of time wondering what is happening and miss the journey. Which is why I will doubtless re-read this fairly soon.

The writing is spare yet manages to conjure acute descriptions and set a rich background. Characters are well drawn without getting unnecessarily complex. And the frustrations of growing up and learning life’s little lessons are well presented with a gentle humour. The only jarring note was the odd flash of cruelty. Not out of place one might think in a fairy tale, and when it is between humans I do no flinch as there is invariably payback. Here, though, there was a touch of casual cruelty involving animals and it didn’t sit well with me. I would also like to have seen more use made of the interior of the wizard's cottage, but perhaps a sequel is in the air.

All in all a smooth and delightful read that is worthy addition not just to the Howl series, but to her entire canon.

The Blonde And The Boodle - Jack Trevor Story

I had intended to keep this for a treat a bit later in the year. No will power. Another of Story’s Sexton Blake tales, this is closely akin to his novel The Trouble With Harry. Whilst the plot is different it has the kinship of a cousin, perhaps. The small town setting is also reminiscent of other later works. So even here, in a pulp, Story was exercising his talents and his preoccupations, making those work for him.

The tale is fairly straightforward. A bank robbery is meticulously planned by a woman who is a bank clerk and her crime writing husband (with a touch of wickedly smiling self-portrait in there). But from the very beginning nothing is ever quite what it seems and events didn’t quite happen the way you think they did. Even Sexton Blake looks he might be flummoxed by this case.

With twists and turns that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Jive Club, the tale rolls on at a rollicking pace. It is beautifully crafted; written with economy and style; and retains a dark humour throughout. And for all the murder and mayhem, it remains good natured as well, another of Story’s trademarks in the earlier part of his writing life.

The only problem with this is that I’ve read it know and will have to save my pennies to go and buy another one. The originals may have been ten pre-decimal pennies (that’s less that a shilling (5p) for you youngsters, about 4p, in fact), but they don’t come with much change from seven or eight pounds these days. Still, for such superb writing it’s a small price to pay.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Charlie Bone And The Red Knight - Jenny Nimmo

The seventh and final book of the Charlie Bone series brings this wonderful story to a satisfying close. I won’t discuss plot, because that cannot be done with spoiling this and other books in the series. Suffice it to say that amongst the expected victories, there are surprises.

It has been a wonderful journey. I have loved these books from the start in a way I never managed with another seven book series about a boy with magical talents. Rowling’s books always felt contrived, to me, and they were none of them particularly well written. Jenny Nimmo, on the other hand, is a superb writer. Her books are pitched at just the right level. They are engaging and warm, even though there are some quite horrible events. They are tightly plotted and consistent. And they are imbued with a gentle sense of humour.

Book production also plays a part. With the Charlie Bone books there has been a rare and truly wonderful melding of content and presentation. The interior of each book is lush, with a page header that makes the text feel almost hand-written. The end-papers are full of information and beautifully drawn. And the covers… Sam Hadley is to be congratulated for his excellent illustrations, each of which is relevant to the book and printed on a glossy cover that sparkles. The whole package is what books should be about – a joy to hold, own, and read.
If you haven’t read Charlie Bone yet, please go out now and make a start.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Camp Concentration - Thomas M. Disch

Aside from one or two references to the Vietnam War in which this work had its roots, this book remains as fresh and as relevant as ever. And for anyone who has ever claimed that sci fi is pulp, I challenge them to read this and not agree that it is highly literate, elegant, witty, dark, and highly accomplished.

The book is the journal of Louis Sacchetti, a poet and conscientious objector who finds himself first in an ordinary jail and then in the Dantean Camp Archimedes of the title. There he comes to realise that the prisoners are part of an elaborate experiment. They have been infected with a mutated form of syphilis which increases their intellectual capacity at the same rate it shortens their lives.

Creating a group of geniuses in a prison camp has the expected outcome, but just how they plot and execute their escape is a mystery until the very end. Of course, the world into which they escape, ravaged by the wars they were meant to help win and the disease with which they were infected, is a mixed blessing.

Packed with philosophical and religious discussion, with particular reference to ethics, this might sound like a dry story. Far from it. It flows with consummate ease. Disch was an exceptional poet and it shows in a prose that is condensed and fluorescent without ever becoming obscure. What is more it is packed with literary references that never once hinder the flow or meaning of the work. If you don’t get the references, it makes no difference to the fluidity and fierceness of the work.

As a critique of western society, this has barbs you don’t notice at first. The story draws you in with subtlety until it is too late and the impact of its message – that we have created a hell on earth every bit as destructive as Dante’s vision, every bit as vile as the concentration camps of Europe – hits you smack in the face.

The book met with critical acclaim, yet has now fallen into relative obscurity. One can’t help wondering if Disch knew why when, talking of his science roots in an interview, he said: “I have a class theory of literature. I come from the wrong neighborhood to sell to The New Yorker. No matter how good I am as an artist, they always can smell where I come from.”

Monday, 12 October 2009

The World Without Us - Alan Weisman

This book gets sorted to the top of two piles. The first is the pile of most interesting books I have read about a world without people (largely because it is the only book I possess or have read on this subject). The second is the pile of most depressing books I have ever read.

No living thing exists without changing the world around them in some small fashion. That’s what life does. However, over millions of years it has developed to create a complex web of interdependence, new species evolve to fill empty niches. There have been explosions of life and mass extinctions. Until now only once in the past has the world been so radically altered that the legacy has lasted through billions of years – when algae began to pump out so much oxygen the only place left for it to go was the atmosphere.

We take oxygen for granted. Most life on the planet depends on it (and those things that don’t have a relationship with those that do). But that change to an atmosphere with oxygen was a step in the evolution of life and it gave rise to new life. The by-products of human existence, however, are like the cold hand of death. We have produced poisons that will still be present long after humanity has become extinct; long after the planet’s atmosphere has been stripped away. Indeed, they will still be here when the Sun expands and the Earth is destroyed.

This has been done already. And along the way we have turned fertile land into deserts, dried up rivers and seas, killed off whole species for sport or fashion, and strewn our filth into every corner from the highest mountain peak to the deepest ocean trench. Every living creature contains chemical toxins we have produced. If we, as a species, were to disappear tomorrow, the cancerous ulceration of our presence would be here for in some form or other until the very end of the world.

Weisman’s book is well researched (if at times tiresomely undermined by his propensity for introducing people as if they were characters in a badly written novel). Each chapter is an essay that looks at one strand of the human legacy. It points out that all the things we hold to be good and noble about our species would last a few centuries (all that art work and architecture, all that music, literature, and so on – useless without us anyway). All that is thoughtless, careless, and born out of greed will carry on poisoning the planet for thousands and millions of years to come.

Perhaps the most depressing thing about this book is that there is nothing much in it that is new. All this stuff is well known to scientists, technologists, and politicians (well, maybe not politicians as most of them as thick as pig shit and a lot less useful) but nothing is done about it. Individuals can make a choice in some countries, but whilst we allow greed to be enshrined in our political and legal systems, things will only get worse.

Despite the extra layer of gloom this settled around me, it is nonetheless a book I would recommend. It is, on the whole, well-written. It covers a great deal of ground, conveying complex ideas without once resorting to jargon. At no point does it go for sensationalism – it doesn’t need to. It is certainly thought provoking. Read. Consider. And then look at all the plastic that surrounds you.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Geek Love - Katherine Dunn

It is very rare for me to give up on a book. I don’t like doing it because I know what goes into writing the damned things (and the more difficult endeavour of getting them into print). So I tried. I really did try. But in the end I cut my losses and put it on the pile to go to the charity shop.

Some books I give up on because the writing stinks. That is not the case here. Dunn seems to know how to string words together in an elegant way. Some books get the heave because the plot or subject matter is risible. Plot is somewhat irrelevant here and the subject matter… without wishing to sound ghoulish, it seemed to be to my taste (although the hyperbole of the quotes on the cover were just that – these people had clearly led very sheltered lives if they found the content ‘disgusting’, ‘shocking, ‘tasteless’, ‘raw’, or ‘bizarre’).

So why did I give up? The answer is ‘boredom’. I found the book unutterably dull. Despite the Hallowe’en costume grotesqueries, it seemed to me to be a mundane soap opera and it was an effort to turn the page. Getting to page 129 (where my brain switched off for the last time and refused to re-engage) was like getting part way up a steep hill on a foggy day. Hard work with no reward or prospect of any reward. The book did not engage me emotionally, intellectually, viscerally, or professionally.

If there were points being made they were either the ones being signalled with big waving flags (yes, we know it is ‘ordinary’ folk that are the real freaks) or way too subtle for me. If there were endearing characters, I wasn’t the person they would bond with. If there were wider points being made, I am happy picking them up from more engaging work.

None of this is to say I don’t think others should try the book. It’s not one of those books that makes me wonder how it got into print. It simply didn’t engage me. If you do try it, I hope you have more joy of it.

Invitation To A Murder! - Jack Trevor Story

This is one of a number of works that Story wrote for the Sexton Blake Library (No 429, May 1959). And I love it for a number of reasons. First and foremost it is Jack Trevor Story. This is a pulp story, written to formula, written to a specific word count (or rather, page count, as the point size of the text is adjusted accordingly), using stock characters that cannot change too much (if at all). It takes a special skill to be able to turn out several of those in a year. To be able to make them literate, amusing, and intriguing; to add character depth and development without stepping outside the bounds; the comment on society; and to provide a fun read – that takes genius.

The tale is simple. A young woman is murdered and Sexton Blake becomes involved, not least because of an intriguing phone call. We catch a glimpse of the world in which this young woman lived. A model and aspiring actress, we slowly begin to discover that she is not the devoted young daughter her parents believed her to be. She has exploited all sorts of people and one of them could take no more. Story makes a wonderful job of keeping us guessing whilst leaving a trail of clues.

As if being presented with well-written entertainment was not enough, the volumes of the Sexton Blake Library are a joy to behold. The cover illustrations are fine examples of their type, especially when you get to the late ‘50s. The advertisements are reminders that the same things have been set out to tempt us for decades, yet manage to convey an air of innocence. And the letters page… You have to wonder how much of those letters were produced in-house. In this issue several of them were, including the one from a gentleman signing himself Mike J Moorcock (who penned a Sexton Blake of his own, although it came out under the house name of Desmond Reid).

In a discussion I once lamented the demise of publications like this and was told that television had replaced them. Well, television may have been responsible for their demise, but it has not replaced them. Story did also write for television, but there is little to compare with his ability to produce a great story that was at once literate, entertaining, witty, and wise.

Friday, 9 October 2009

The Committed Men - M John Harrison

I must have read this. I have the original paperback. I remember buying it. It shows signs of wear (which means I read it more than once). Yet I did not remember anything. Normally a scene or an image will stay fixed somewhere in the subconscious (more often than not in my case attached to entirely the wrong book), yet this was like reading the book for the very first time. And was I disappointed? No. Simply mystified that such a wonderful book didn’t somehow make more of an impression.

Published in 1971, I suspect this was overshadowed by other works around at the time. It certainly follows the entropic theme that was so prevalent in works by others associated with the New Wave – Aldiss, Ballard, Moorcock, Sladek, and so on. Indeed, you can see the elements employed by those writers standing at the core of this work. A post-apocalyptic landscape, wet and chilly. A band of misfits on a seemingly pointless and hopeless quest. A peppering of the off-beat, with nods to other authors, especially that other MJ.

Yet for all that, this is Mike Harrison’s work and no pale shadow of anyone else’s. Everything that appears in later, more mature work, is to be found here. The same refusal to play god with world building. The same dark humour. The same surreal settings that blossom like fungus and mould across the face of the real. And by saying this is to be found in Harrison’s more mature work is not to imply this is somehow immature. Far from it.

We have here a work that is assured and highly accomplished as well as, dare I say it, literary. The characters are interesting. They may not develop much, but that is not the point of the book. And we are certainly left with enough to be curious about how they came to be as they are and where they might go afterwards. The portrayal of a society dissolving into the mire is well realised. We are left wanting more.

The book is also short and tightly written. One could wish that authors and publishers would get back to work of this length. If a story requires length, then it should be long, but much sf these days is bloated, full of stuff that doesn’t need to be there to tell the story. Publishing seems to demand 100,000 plus words when many stories would be far better told in 70,000 or less.

If you like Harrison’s later work, this is well worth seeking out.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Mother Of Plenty - Colin Greenland

This is the concluding novel in the Tabitha Jute trilogy. In some respects this is the least satisfying of the three. The great scheme that lay behind all the events is, frankly, a stupendous let down. It could have been so much more, with much barbed comment on the way in which the pointless pastimes of the decadent impact on everyone else. However, the dénouement seems to have been retrofitted and an opportunity to make this a theme of the three books was lost. On the other hand, of course, it may be that the ultimate aim of the three books was to complete a trilogy, a form much loved by readers of sf and fantasy.

The book was also formulaic. After the anarchy of Seasons of Plenty, this one plodded a bit. Villains resurrected, confrontations contrived, and a cast of characters it was difficult to distinguish one from the other (I gave up trying in the end), and very little that seemed involved, as if the author had begun to lose interest in his characters. For all that, it was still well written and contains some wonderful scenes.

Greenland has also created one of the more interesting characters in Tabitha Jute. Amoral, confused, trying to get along and kicking back at authority. There may be a degree of cliché about her, but everyone has that. The flaws are not grafted on to make her a rounded character, they have grown out of her experience and drive her. They are why she loses control in such spectacular fashion and why, as the book closes, she sets out on her own once more.

If you haven’t read these, I can recommend them. Even where they falter, they outshine much else in the field. They are fun as well, which for me is an immediate plus.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Seasons Of Plenty - Colin Greenland

Second books of trilogies often sag – partly under the weight of expectation, partly because most authors only have a story to fill two books and try to spin out the tale. Colin Greenland avoids this. To begin with, I suspect that the first Tabitha Jute story was meant to be a stand alone, but the ideas wouldn’t stop flowing after the first book finished. So, a few years later, we had a second book (and later on a third which made up the trilogy). Then there is the fact that the tale falls neatly into three self-contained sections, each with its own arc. And finally, the books are about a person as much as they are about a series of events.

That last reason is especially applicable to this book. In essence it is a journey. On the surface, it is an interstellar voyage. Beneath the surface and within the spacecraft, it is the transformation of characters and a whole society. Deep within, it is about the mental disintegration of Tabitha Jute and the first signs of her emergence back into what we might loosely call sanity.

All three levels are handled expertly as a single story. The journey is the contrivance by which the society of disparate persons is isolated. Their development and the inner journey of Jute are one and the same as the spacecraft (the size of a large asteroid) is also depicted as a brain. The goings on within the spacecraft are an analogue of the goings on within Jute’s mind.

This sounds fairly heavy, and it certainly has its moments, but on the whole it takes up the sense of fun that was evident in the first book and runs with it. The result is a chaotic romp, a gallimaufry of a book. It is vivid, exciting, engaging, has its tongue very firmly in its cheek whilst contriving to poke that tongue out at some ripe targets.

And it is a work that refuses to insult the intelligence of its readers. Whilst the world building is evident and comprehensive, it isn’t spoon fed to the audience. There are times (a lot of times) you have to engage your grey cells and get them to do some work. For me that sets this above most science fiction which relentlessly plods through everything that the author has compiled just so you get the picture, both of the book and of how clever the author wants you to think they are.

Greenland doesn’t need to stoop to such low tricks. This is a book that is fun to read, in which characters and plot are in perfect balance, in which we are treated to really good writing, in which serious points are made, and which I will definitely return to again.

Friday, 11 September 2009

And Chaos Died - Joanna Russ

Joanna Russ is not an easy read. This is not to say her writing is not fluid, exciting, interesting. It is. It runs like a refreshing mountain stream. But it is so packed with ideas and rich imagery; you have to concentrate to pick up the nuances that are integral to the work. This is the poet singing. And it is a song worth the listening.

With an idiosyncratic voice, Russ tackles interesting ideas. Ostensibly science fiction (a future setting because that best serves the story to be told), such categorization serves to put Russ in a ghetto where many readers fear to venture. This is a shame. The natives might be a bit odd, their culture a bit a strange, but they are mostly harmless.

The premiss of the book is simple. Two survivors land on a planet with a small population of human telepaths. Whilst there, one of them has his latent powers awakened. When they are rescued, attempts are made to understand and utilise these new found powers. This could have been a gung-ho techno-thriller or a paranoid fantasy of the kind Dick did so well. In Russ’s hands we view the story from within the person struggling to come to terms with their new view of the universe.

It is a dreamlike vision, part nightmare, part hallucinogenic trip. Everything is seen afresh and we glimpse a future world through the disorientation of a human mind that has had all its assumptions about the world and how it is experienced turned inside out. This is handled with consummate skill. There is always a rationale for what happens (rather than some writers who have tried this simply by writing nonsense). But what gives the story its real strength is the fact that at its heart there is a strong, human story.

This dense, poetic work, repays all the effort you put into reading it as images stay long after the covers are closed. For a second novel it is phenomenal.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Mothstorm - Philip Reeve

The third (and concluding?) part of the adventures of Art Mumby and his family is as rip-roaring and rollicking (sorry Myrtle) as its predecessors. With the same blend of humour and invention, the Mumby family are about to celebrate Christmas when news of an impending invasion of the solar system reaches them and their guests.

As with all such adventures, nothing goes smoothly. From the very beginning, their forces are divided as the intransigence of representatives of the Empire upset Jack Havoc. He takes his ship off in one direction whilst the Mumby’s head outward to face the coming Mothstorm.

There are battles, revelations, soppy bits (and a fine throwaway about boarding kennels for older sisters), and an adversary greater than any they have so far faced. As such, this is a more straightforward tale than the previous two. We know the characters well enough now for developments (such as they are) to take a firm back seat to a break neck story.

Well-written with those odd touches of humour and jokes thrown in for adults (echoing the recently published Mortal Engines prequel); this proves that a book can be literate and a great deal of fun. The illustrations are equally delicious. And together they provide a wonderful and affectionate send-up of all those boy’s own adventure stories written at a time when there was still an Empire and it was considered a ‘good thing’.

This book provides a satisfying conclusion to all three volumes, yet there is undeniably a whole solar system of trouble out there and it is to be hoped that the author will one day give us more.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

The Salutation - Sylvia Townsend Warner

Warner finished her 1927 novel, Mr Fortune’s Maggot, with an envoy: ‘My poor Timothy, good-bye! I do not know what will become of you.’ She was clearly very fond of her protagonist. The novel was clearly complete in itself. Yet Timothy Fortune was left a self exile from paradise. It worried her. Indeed, it worried her so much that five years later she sat down and wrote The Salutation.

This novella is a powerful piece of writing. Where the novel had the search for happiness as one of its themes, this self-consciously has the search for sorrow as a central theme. Timothy Fortune, after wandering half the world by taking temporary jobs on ships, makes his way to the pampas of South America (the location never becomes more specific than that).

There, he wanders, much as Beckett’s tramps wandered. He is lost in a metaphysical haze, going on despite knowing that he cannot go on. Looking for a place to die, he finds a place to live. Fevered by infection and exposure to the sun, he fetches up in a large estate house known as The Salutation. Like the rest of the novel the name, and the place itself, is so layered with symbolism (perhaps much of it unconscious) that it would take a book to unpack it all.

Timothy Fortune finds hospitality and healing, but it is not without cost. For as he heals, he remembers his past and the sorrow returns. And he dreams. He dreams of misfortune at the hands of a young boy, grandson to the widow who owns The Salutation. Waking, he supposes, to find he is at the beginning of his dream.

This is a densely written, rich, glorious, and beautiful piece of writing. At the same time it is free of all affectation. There is no attempt by Warner to show off her cleverness, her wonderful use of language and imagery. They are there, clear for all to see, but they are integral to the story, in service of telling us what happened.

The Salutation was the title work of a collection, and like most of her collections of shorter work, is now difficult to find. However, Mr Fortune’s Maggot and The Salutation have now been collected into a single volume as one of the New York Review Books Classics series. Well worth getting hold of.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Collected Stories - Raymond Chandler

In the best traditions of economy, Raymond Chandler recycled his material. When he began work on his novels, he had a growing corpus of shorter works on which to draw. Scenes, ideas, characters, and themes were used again. Indeed, whole stories were woven together to create the novels. This may sound like cheating, but it is not.

If you have read all the short stories (and short is a relative term here, with each of the stories averaging close on 17,000 words), you have not read the novels. Each piece in this collection is complete in itself, a well-crafted story that satisfies on many levels. Excellent plotting balanced well against intriguing characterisation. Wonderful use of language that manages to be economical and lyrical at the same time. And always a sense of being in the presence of someone who takes the craft and the art of writing seriously.

Most of the stories are detective stories and appear in this collection in their original form. Most of the private detectives have names other than Marlowe, although he does make a few appearances. And he was, of course, the protagonist of all the novels.

Reading the whole collection sequentially is intriguing. The bulk of them pre-date the novels and there is a steady progression of sophistication over a six year period. Chandler’s ability to conjure a scene was always good, from the very beginning, but the integration of character with environment becomes more assured, as if Chandler was learning that the two are integral.

There are four forays toward the edge of Chandler’s established territory. In Pearls are a Nuisance, he seems to be trying his hand at something along the lines of Hammett’s The Thin Man. For me, it doesn’t quite work as it feels a little too self-consciously an attempt at humour. Chandler’s writing is already full of wry humour and dark wit. It doesn’t need the levity, largely because he does not seem to handle it well in this situation. Two other stories, The Bronze Door and Professor Bingo’s Snuff work much better. These tackle the mysterious rather than the mystery and are superior tales of the kind that would have been well adapted for something like The Twilight Zone.

And then there is English Summer. Subtitled ‘A Gothic Romance’, it feels like a story that would have worked better had it been set in his more familiar Bay City world. The gothic is not quite gothic enough (perhaps not having time to develop in a short story) and it feels to me overworked. There are some that have suggested it shows potential for a whole new direction for Chandler and it was an area he did express an interest in developing. But circumstance dictated otherwise. For those who believe it shows he might have written a great literary novel, I can only say, he already had. Several of them.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Alice In Sunderland - Bryan Talbot

I had this book on my wish list for a long time before buying it. I was a bit wary. I know the area and the subject matter quite well. The fact that it was constantly referred to as a novel added to that hesitation. But after walking round it for a few years, I finally took the plunge.

There is no doubt that Bryan Talbot is up there with the best. He is an artist of enormous skill and sensitivity. He has a terrific imagination. And this is leavened by a deep interest in the history of the form (some of which we are introduced to in the pages of this book).

What we have, through the graphic artist’s eye, is a history of Sunderland and its connection with Alice Pleasance Liddell and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Offered as a kind of variety performance, hundreds of elements are woven into a deeply satisfying exploration of history, social attitudes, art, and much else besides.

I took great delight in revisiting places and bits of history that I knew from my time on Tyne and Wear and was equally delighted by the way in which the story of both Alices and the Revd Dodgson were given a fresh airing. For this was also a book about myth and the places of myth – how some is positive and has a place in our lives and how some grows out of ignorance.

There is a partisan element to the book that colours some of the facts, but these colours are, for the most part, transparent. And I was also left frustrated by the fact that the medium does not allow for deeper exploration of some of the issues (but this does have to be balanced by the fact that it allows those issues to be presented in a vivid way that will, I hope, inspire people to look at them in greater depth – and there is a bibliography for such folk).

And I found a typo (p277, in case anyone is interested, large panel, bottom right).

Reservations aside, there is no doubt that this is groundbreaking stuff. Bryan Talbot has proven without doubt that graphic books are capable of conveying complex, non-fiction narratives (just as he shown with fiction). For anyone who is chary of the claims that graphic works are not just for kids, I would recommend this book.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Notebooks Of Raymond Chandler - Frank McShane [ed]

This is a slim volume containing bits and pieces salvaged from Chandler’s few surviving notebooks plus a short story. The bits and pieces are largely brief notes on ideas for stories, a list of possible titles (some of which hint at other directions Chandler may have taken as a writer), and extracts from other writers whose thoughts had clearly struck a chord.

As a writer myself, I find this kind of thing fascinating, especially as there is virtually no editorial comment, no attempt to interpret. Indeed, the few editorial notes there are simply elucidate some of the more obscure aspects of what is presented. What we have is a glimpse into the mind of an artist. Because make no mistake, Chandler was a first class artist. His devotion to both the art and the science of writing is evident here. He worked hard to produce short stories and novels that look simple.

Also evident is Chandler’s sense of humour. This is not, perhaps, the first thing you think of when considering his work, but he does have a keen eye for the absurd and his work is leavened with wit and humour (albeit dark). There are also glimpses of Chandler’s social conscience. It is never made explicit; Chandler is too good a writer for that. But it is clear that he understands what poverty does to people (and not just from first hand experience).

Of greatest interest to me were the snippets where Chandler muses directly about writing. This is not only of interest in terms of his craft: he has carefully copied the thoughts of others on writing and the composition of novels; but also of his own approach: not content with copying these pieces, he analyses them and comments on them. It also further illuminates his humour and wry disposition. Having copied notes on how to write a novel, he adds, ‘The above is all bunk…’

The essay ‘A Qualified Farewell’ is about the time he spent working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Typically, it is not about the place or the personalities (although a few do get a mention). It is about the way that Hollywood treats writers. The way it treated them then and, sadly, the way it still treats them. Except things are now worse. And again, typically, it is not a whinge about money. It is about how the system in Hollywood crushes the creativity out of writers; about how everyone is considered an expert on scriptwriting except the writer. It was not a happy time for Chandler, yet even in this short and sometimes bitter essay, he uses the experience and description of the negative to suggest a way or ways in which there might be a positive. It is clear from the level of production (and the experiences of other writers since) that Hollywood has yet to find a positive approach to writers and writing.

All in all this is probably a book for Chandler aficionados (which I am) and anyone interested in the craft of writing (which I am). Indeed, if you are interested in writing, this book is worth more than many of the ‘how to’ books on the market.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Lost Stories - Dashiell Hammett

Not so much lost as ‘never before collected’. And Vince Emery is to be congratulated on tracking them down and bringing them together in this way. Because set out in chronological order and with concise and acute observations in between they constitute an excellent record of a writer’s development.

The stories and other pieces range from one page skits to full on stories. Not all of them are crime. Not all of them are pulp. What they all are, however, is inimitable. Hammett was an unpretentious writer. His style matches the content perfectly. The appearance of ease was obviously studiously crafted. And we are given stories at the end of all that hard work which are easy to read, full of inventive and lively language, packed with detail and wonderful characterisation, and which offer more observation on the human condition than many ‘literary’ writers could ever hope to make.

This is, perhaps, brilliantly demonstrated in the short piece ‘The Advertising Man Writes A Love Letter’. Having served his time as a copywriter, Hammett puts his skills to use by transferring the stock phrases and tricks of advertising copy into a love letter, complete with testimonials and reply coupon. On the surface it is a joke, and a funny one at that. But look at it again and it gets to the very heart of contemporary life and relationships whilst making observations of the consumer society in which we live (then and now).

Between the stories there is also a good deal about Hammett’s life, his battle with TB (and the even tougher battles to get and keep his disability pension), his time in Hollywood and what it did to his writing and self-esteem, his politics.

I love Hammett’s writing. This book has shown me how that developed and how the man developed along with it. That made it a double treat.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Ministry Of Fear - Graham Greene

It is wartime London. The height of the Blitz. A man weighed down with a guilty conscience attends a small fund-raising fete in the hope of a little distraction. He gets a great deal more than he bargained for. The everyday setting and the great prize of a home made cake (with real eggs) were clearly chosen as a familiar setting from which to launch the adventures that follow.

At a time when Greene was still trying to keep his ‘entertainments’ and his serious works separate (as if there ever should have been a conflict), this feels like two books squeezed between one set of covers. As a result, characters that could have been fascinating portraits of people under extreme duress were sidelined to the story. At the same time, the story is only partly developed with little thought given to the motives of the characters beyond the need to drive the plot.

I can see that Arthur Rowe’s guilty conscience provides a motive for other characters, but it still feels a little contrived, as if Greene were trying to explore an ethical conundrum in the wrong setting. Placing such a character with such a past in the maelstrom of a Blitzed London and allowing him to find redemption or otherwise through events would have made a great novel in itself. Likewise, the thriller with its somewhat coy references to ‘top men’ and the foolishness of leaving documents unattended – twice – does at times feel like it needs a bit of work.

That said, it is still a superior work of its kind and certainly resists the temptation many authors would have had to tie up all the loose ends. It is economically written and even the discursive sections feel genuinely like a peep into Rowe’s head rather than into the mind of an omniscient author. It is certainly a great deal less melodramatic than the Fritz Lang movie based on the book.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Knife - R J Anderson

Starting out as a child’s adventure fairy tale, this book morphs half way through into a romance. It does this without straying from the plot because the development of an emotional life, the development of regard for others no matter what one’s own situation, are major themes of the book.

A closed community of fairies is slowly dying. Amongst their number is one who, through a throwing off of convention, reaches out to provide them with hope for the future. This venture is not without personal cost, which is where the conflict and tension of the story arises.

Any book that depicts fairies treads both a well-worn path and faces the danger not just of cliché but of continuing an image of fairies much corrupted by the Victorians. This book is clearly well aware of that for it contains reference to this. There is talk of an artist who seems to be based on Richard Dadd (with, perhaps, a touch of Richard Doyle thrown in). And whilst the fairies are diminutive, they are by no means twee.

The world of the fairies is well-realised, yet we are spared any explanations beyond those that forward the story. This spares us from long expositions and explanations whilst setting a story in a believably otherworldly fashion.

If you are looking for an intriguing tale that young and old alike can appreciate and which is rooted in genuine fairy tradition, you could do a lot worse than this.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

A Most Wanted Man - John le Carré

The ‘war on terror’ has sunk many writers – of fiction and non-fiction. We have had all the usual gung-ho garbage with the convenient new villains. We have had endless hand-wringing from non-fiction writers who really have no idea what they are talking about and bought into the world-changed-on-911 rhetoric of the most rightwing government the US has ever had. The result has been a terrible muddying of the waters.

Finally we get a book that knows what it is talking about. John le Carré has always remained relevant and his work has always been well-researched. True, we are on familiar territory, but that is because this new ‘war’ is being fought by people who have yet to adjust to the modern world. They were brought up, taught, and mentored by a generation that thought it won the Cold War and which has since been dazzled by technology.

Yet in the end, the conflicts of today are the same as they have always been. They are about people and the sense that some are bullying others. And when the victims fight back the bullies cry ‘foul’. And in this volatile mix are the psychos – on both sides. This is all presented in a gripping story set in Hamburg when a Chechen refugee arrives illegally in order to claim the contents of a safe deposit box.

The passion and the anger of the author at the absurdities of the world and at the crass assumptions made by some are evident. Yet he presents the story and its background in clear detail and has the courage to allow his readers to make up their own mind.

le Carré’s writing continues to improve. He has always been a good writer, but his work has become increasingly fluent. The writing is simple, spare, and yet it manages to be rich at the same time. His characters may, at times, seem like refugees from earlier works, but that is only because this is a small world affecting only certain types of people. For all that, he manages to create convincing portraits that leave enough uncertainty to make them prey to all the frailties of humanity.

The novel ends on a gloomy and downbeat note, which is perhaps the most telling indication of the author’s feelings of the current situation. It is also a general reflection of the world in which we live and a particular reflection of the shady world in which these events are played out. Nothing is certain. Nothing ends. There is never any opportunity to tie up loose threads.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

The Anglo-Saxon Age - John Blair

This is one of the Oxford University Press ‘A Very Short Introduction’ series. Originally published as the text for an illustrated book, it works very well as a primer for anyone who does not know the period or who, like me, is interested in just how an author is going to encompass five hundred years of history in seventy-five pages.

Of course, this is John Blair writing, so it covers the political, social, religious and cultural history with verve. We are given just enough to form a broad picture and teased just enough to want to go and find out more. Yet for all its brevity, it deals with the subject in an intelligent and interesting way. At no point in reading this did I feel I was rushing through too quickly.

There is a useful bibliography that lists books that will start to fill in the gaps (including the main primary sources); a brief chronology that will help you find your way round the book; and a few maps and illustrations (as one would expect of a history book). If this period of history is a blank to you, I can’t think of a better place to start.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Alien Accounts - John Sladek

Although a collection of short stories, the style and common themes make this very much like a novel. Two hefty stories ‘Masterson and the Clerks’ and ‘The Communicants’ sandwich a number of shorter pieces. The aliens of the collection’s title are human beings, aliens in their own world gone mad. Centring on the usual Sladek pre-occupations, we see ordinary people coping with (and often ground up and spat out by) corporate life.

Of these, ‘Masterson and the Clerks’ is my favourite. Like a child of Beckett and Kafka on acid, we follow Masterson through the surreal permutations of daily life in an office. No one knows what is happening beyond their own small contribution and even then no one truly understands what that is all about. Their lives are bounded by the forms they must process. In later stories we see some of these forms and they are works of genius, horribly prescient in some cases.

In the centre of the collection, there is a story in which a character sets out on a holiday away from the bizarre office life he leads. Yet even here there is no escape. The whole world is a puzzle, there are no edge pieces, no picture to work from, and may of the pieces are blank. After realising that his money doesn’t seem to be getting any less, despite the number of meals he has had en route, Andor begins to suspect that he might have been on the coach and travelling for a lot longer than a day. We have all had journeys like that. Andor’s is still going on.

The final story is Sladek at his most surreal. Several stories interweave, with characters in one suddenly becoming comic book characters in another until it is difficult to know what is real and what is fictional (not that you’re ever sure to begin with).

As ever, it is impossible to synopsise these stories. They have to be read to be appreciated. Not just for the story itself, but for Sladek’s sharp wit, his passionate anger at the idiocies of the modern world, and his compassion for the ordinary person caught in the grinder.

Why this collection was ever brought out under the banner of science fiction is beyond me. Sladek is a satirist. He often uses sci fi tropes as they afforded him the best vehicle with which to construct his stories, but these are highly literate stories and deserve to be more widely known than they are.

A Journal Of The Plague Year - Daniel Defoe

Ironic that I should choose to read this at the same time as Robbe-Grillet’s book. Defoe achieves in the early eighteenth century a lot of what Robbe-Grillet discusses in the mid-twentieth. Defoe, of course, was making it up as he went along – in more ways than one.

To begin with, although this is the best factual account we have of the Great Plague of London in 1665, it is not a history. Presented as an eye-witness account, it contains all the horrifying facts in stark simplicity woven into a journal that plots the progress of the disease through the city. Defoe accumulated a great deal of first hand material and presents it in such a way that it is hard to remember that this is not a history or social documentary.

Interspersed amongst the facts are heart-rending personal stories, recounted with the simplicity and naivety of an ordinary person recounting their adventures. Listen to the testament of the survivors of disaster today and you will get that same mix of emotion and hard fact.

Defoe had no models for this kind of creative non-fiction. Yet he shaped the story to give it a narrative, tension, great characters (even if most are vignettes), and above all a sense of place. Because this book is as much about London as it is about Londoners. The city and its inhabitants are presented with images that are extremely vivid and touching without once becoming falsely sentimental. A terrific and thought-provoking read.

For A New Novel - Alain Robbe-Grillet

A huge amount of literary experimentation took part in the 1960s and 1970s, partly as a result of what Robbe-Grillet was doing with his own work. To some, his work is incomprehensible; to others he showed the way to free the novel from its constraints. I love it.

Be that as it may, what he was trying to achieve eluded many people. He had written various essays about his ideas on literature, and many of those were collected in this book. Seen by some as a manifesto for the nouveau roman, it is a much more interesting work than that. A manifesto will kill a movement at the moment it gives it birth. The strictures are so severely limiting they allow for no creativity or development and invariably end with the original signatories arguing and throwing tantrums.

Robb-Grillet’s book examines his own thinking and, in the process, looks at the way literature has developed and could develop in the future. He lays down no rules, but examines the structure and raison d’être of the novel in a way no critic or theorist had done before (and very few have done since). He also deconstructs the popular image of the nouveau roman and in so doing eloquently makes his case for fresh thinking.

Whilst there was a great deal of interest in these ideas and many new works appeared at the time that were exciting and genuinely innovative, much of the work that was done to lift the novel and move it forward into the twentieth century has been lost. This is not so much that Robbe-Grillet’s ideas do not make sense as it is a failure on the part of many publishers to have the courage to allow experimentation.

It is hard to imagine in the current climate a writer like Robbe-Grillet making any headway, let alone being part of the mainstream. This is not to say I believe everyone should write like this. Far from it. But without pioneers, without people being allowed to push to the limits, break them, and wander into the unknown, the mainstream cuts deeper into its own rut and never has the chance to spread and fertilise broader fields.

You may not agree with everything (or anything) Robbe-Grillet has to say, but the book really should be read by anyone serious about their writing. It is thought provoking, an easy read, and like opening a window on a room shut up all winter to let in a fresh, warm breeze.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The Old Men At The Zoo - Angus Wilson

Some things don’t change. I was ambivalent about this book when I first read it in the 1970s and I felt the same way this time. There is no doubt that it is well written. Angus Wilson is a really good writer and undeservedly neglected. And given that it is a broad and satirical side-swipe at a number of targets, it has not dated (despite being set in the early 1970s) and the plot is extremely plausible. But…

The story tells of the political infighting of two factions at London Zoo – one that wishes to move forward and offer the animals the limited liberty of a wildlife park and the other that wishes to restore the Zoo to its Victorian glory. The wider political parallels are obvious. This petty bickering is set against a background of deteriorating international politics and eventual nuclear war in Europe.

This is just the sort of story I would normally relish. Petty bickering in the face of annihilation. Beautifully observed characters. A keen and satiric study of social class. But it leaves me unmoved. And it leaves me unmoved because the author has not provided us with a sympathetic character. As a first person narrative, he had the ideal opportunity, but failed to do so. The main character is a cold fish and as unloveable as all those that he constantly mimics and criticises. Indeed, the only character for whom I had any sympathy is killed off about half way through.

This is, of course, a personal reaction to the book. Others may find that Carter, the narrator, is likeable. Had it been a third person narrative, I would have had no problem. But living inside the head of an objectionable snob sullied what might otherwise have been one of my favourite books.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Billion-Dollar Brain - Len Deighton

In this fourth outing, attention is turned to private intelligence groups and private armies. In a book that is eerily prescient of the late and unlamented Bush administration in America, we learn of a Texan whose ambition, in crude terms, is for America to rule the world. To do this he sets up a super-computer which is used to analyse and control a network of agents in Soviet territory.

Not only does the book highlight the horrifying prospects of such militaristic ambition (there is nothing to choose between Stalinism and the self-righteous right-wing ideologies that ‘oppose’ it – in Darwinist terms these are two dinosaurs competing for the same niche); but it also highlights one of the great failures of intelligence gathering in recent decades. It cannot be done electronically. It cannot be done from a distance. If you are going to play the game, you have to play to win.

This is presented in Deighton’s laid back style. The eponymous hero is still working out run-down offices in Charlotte Street and wrestling with paper-work and coping with inter-departmental rivalry. Minor characters recur. And, as in this work, a minor character from a previous book moves centre stage where the bright lights pick out every flaw with unforgiving clarity. The central character is clearly becoming tired of his job. He does it well, but the futility and the heartbreak become increasingly clear.

Compared with the three previous books, this one is both more relaxed and more trusting of the reader. The tendency to explain (no matter how well handled before) has gone and it is left very much to the reader to work out what has happened. This makes for a compelling read and a book that stands re-reading. And in the end you are always left wondering whether what characters say has happened is in fact the case.

As ever, the writing is sharp, the dialogue superb, and descriptions are both original and accurate. The atmosphere of different parts of the world is well defined and the wintry setting suits the bleakness of the story. All in all, clear signs that Deighton’s writing is maturing and that his powers as a story-teller are undiminished.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The Allingham Minibus - Margery Allingham

This collection was put together after Margery Allingham died and brings together a number of miscellaneous pieces that might otherwise have faded into obscurity. As it is, the collection is not that easy to come by and my own is a battered American edition with an Italian price sticker on the back.

Anyone looking for Albert Campion will be disappointed. There are only a couple of stories featuring her near ubiquitous detective and these are both slight tales. There is, however, a feast of other work including a substantial novella. Whilst not her best work, it is an inventive crime tale that might easily have been reworked as one of those Campion novels in which he seems to drift through without doing very much, yet turning up all he information necessary to solve the mystery.

As for the rest, they demonstrate that Allingham was one of those rare authors who writes just as well in the short form as they do at full length. The stories were for magazine publication and many of those in this collection are tales of the supernatural. They do not go for the horror angle, although several of them are genuinely chilling. Rather they provide entertaining tales with a twist that when collected lose a little of their impact as you start looking – although Allingham is astute enough not always to go for the obvious.

What marks them out as great stories is the economy of style. A great deal of characterisation and atmosphere is packed into a few pages, especially in those tales that are set in her beloved Essex. Nothing is wasted, yet they still manage to convey considerable depth. Well worth studying if short stories are your thing. Well worth reading for their entertainment value; and a must at Hallowe’en or Christmas if you want a ghost story for your gathering.

Funeral In Berlin - Len Deighton

Len Deighton’s third novel is a tour de force. Arguably the quintessential cold war spy story (just ahead of le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold), it contains everything that makes a good novel. A great story, excellent characterisation, flawless plotting, wonderful atmosphere, and just enough irreverence and experimentation with form to give it an edge over its rival(s).

The chapter headings use rules and descriptions of chess in a striking way to add an extra dimension to the story, especially as the protagonist says early in the novel that he prefers games with a better chance of cheating. But he has no choice. He is just a piece on the board and his moves are dictated as much by others as by his own free will.

Revolving around a plot to smuggle a defecting Soviet scientist to the west, we soon see this is one of a number of unfolding strategies. Move and counter move reveal more and more of each player’s motives, revealing the ambiguity that lies at the heart of the world of espionage. Opponents work with each other, friends work against one another. The enemy… No one is really sure. And the deeper into the story we delve, back to the Second World War where the Cold War was started, the more uncertain the world becomes.

Personal greed and corruption are also at play, meeting with political conflict in a surreal borderland called Berlin. It was, perhaps, inevitable that Deighton would set a book in this city and that he would return there much later with his Samson books. The city is presented to us in all its strange glory and we gain a real sense of the bizarre world that existed there in a divided Europe.

Yet the book never gets above itself. Whilst the ideologies of west and east face off across the Wall, this is about the individuals whose job was as much to keep the Cold War cold as it was to spy on the other side. And we see it from both perspectives. The well-rounded anonymous protagonist finds a wonderful foil in the KGB’s Colonel Stok. And these characters inhabit the real world – a place of bills and milkmen, of petty jealousies and small betrayals.

As a portrait of the time it is far better than many literary novels as it sets out to tell a particular story. In recounting that tale, we are treated to a wonderfully detailed picture that is drawn with great skill, coloured with subtlety, and displayed without pretension.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

R. U. R. and The Insect Play - Josef and Karel Čapek

R. U. R. – which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots – is credited with giving us the word robot (from the Slavic robota meaning ‘hard work’ or ‘drudgery’). Robot these days is generally used to refer to a mechanical construct, whereas in the play, these are artificial humans, redesigned and grown using a secret process. The play is set on a remote island where the company, R. U. R., creates its robots. It covers a period of several years from the time when one of he scientists in charge of production is encouraged by a visitor to try to give robots a soul. The project backfires and as robots become aware of their position (used as slaves and as expendable soldiers in increasing numbers of wars) they begin to revolt. Eventually they reach the island where their kind are produced and the final confrontation is played out.

The Insect Play tells of a tramp and his observations of the insect world – butterflies, beetles, and ants – with one act devoted to each of the groups of insects. On the surface it sounds whimsical. The butterflies chase each other about like empty-headed beautiful people, the beetles slave away to make their pile, and the ants engage in all out warfare that reminds the tramp of his own experiences in the trenches of the First World War.

Not much there, one would think, yet these two plays (along with other work by the Čapeks) are important in a number of ways. To begin with they are part of the tradition of highly political and philosophical science fiction to emerge from Eastern Europe. They are also a key part of the tradition of theatre as social conscience. Both plays in this volume are concerned with the way in which we treat others and the consequences of mistreatment. They are highly critical of totalitarian regimes. Had the Čapeks survived beyond the Second World War, it is highly likely they would have fallen victim of Stalin.

If only to keep the voice of dissent alive these plays should be read and performed. Totalitarianism and the exploitation of other people come in many forms and disguises and we need to be reminded of the terror and degradation this brings. Yet these plays are also worth keeping alive because they are good plays. Perhaps a touch dated, but that’s just fashion. They are not heavy with their message, but offer good, simple storytelling with a moral we can all draw for ourselves.

Friday, 19 June 2009

The Third Man - Graham Greene

Greene wrote this novella as a means of exploring the atmosphere, characterization, and plot prior to producing the screenplay for the film. It was not originally intended for publication. That these private notes are in fact a compelling piece of prose in their own right says a great deal about Greene as a writer.

Set in Vienna in the aftermath of the Second World War, it tells of how Holly Martins arrives to take up a job for his old friend Harry Lime. He arrives just in time to attend Lime’s funeral. Enraged by the suggestion that Lime was involved with the more unpleasant end of the black market economy, Martins sets out to clear Lime’s name and ends up learning a great deal more than he bargained for.

The constraints of the form (novella and film) mean that the plot is pared down to a minimum and the emphasis is on character and on atmosphere. For all that, the plot is still intriguing enough to sustain interest. And it shows what can be done when real talent is brought together and allowed to innovate.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the novella is the way in which it captures the seedy atmosphere and frozen streets of the post-War Viennese winter. The political background is captured and explained without clunky exposition. The weariness of all involved, stirred up by the confused energies of Martins, is subtly portrayed.

All in all, this is a classic of storytelling. Read the book (it is usually coupled with The Fallen Idol). See the movie. Enjoy the quality.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Horse Under Water - Len Deighton

When you debut with a novel like The IPCRESS File, expectations on the second book are high. Very high. And Len Deighton did not disappoint. His central character returns, still working for the same department, still viewing the world with a cynical and unsentimental eye.

This story begins as an operation to provide covert funding for an opposition group in Portugal at a time when it was still controlled by the right-wing government of Salazar. The money is to be forged US dollars recovered from a sunken German submarine. However this soon develops with a sub-plot concerning heroin (hence the title) and a much more alarming legacy of the Second World War.

Deighton provides an immense amount of detailed background, both historical and technical, without once making the book feel like a lecture. Exposition is kept to a minimum and even then it is worked into scenes quite naturally. And we are also treated to further background on the life of an Intelligence operative – the office routines, committee work, and tedium.

The plot and the writing are tighter than the first book, and it examines a subject (Nazi sympathies amongst the British) that many authors would have treated with far greater bias and a great deal less subtlety. The trademark humour and descriptions are still present, as are the intriguing chapter headings and appendices.

This was the only one of the first quartet of Deighton’s works that was not filmed. It is a shame, as it would have provided excellent material. On the other hand it does allow the book to be read without the shadow of Michael Caine falling across the page. Whilst it is true he made an excellent job of the films, it always clashes in my head with the knowledge of the character’s background as given in the books.

If you want a lesson in subtlety and in constructing a complex plot that mystifies without confusing, this is an excellent book to study. And you’ll get great entertainment from it as well.