Sunday, 29 March 2009

Monday, 23 March 2009

Morag's Flying Fortress - Jack Trevor Story

There is a tendency to think of Story as a writer of comic fiction (Sexton Blake and westerns notwithstanding) and for the most part he is, although that barely scratches the surface. Sometimes, however, he produced a book like this one. It has all the trappings of a comic novel, especially the trappings of a Story comic novel (which are highly distinctive). Yet the author has used this and the expectations thereby raised to create a truly disturbing and deeply insightful novel.

We are a storytelling species, we like order, we like explanations, we like a narrative. But life isn’t like that. There isn’t a plot. There aren’t chapters. The ends don’t get tied up. The order we try to create out of the shifting sands is what keep us sane. If we accept the chaos and allow everything else to push us around, we tend to get pushed out of society. If we try to impose too much control, we go mad, because what we think is happening never matches reality so we are forced into more extreme explanations, more bizarre narratives.

This is exactly what happens in this book. The details of the story are, in a sense, irrelevant. There is no way of knowing where truth, reality, and the constructs of the damaged mind coincide. What is clear is that Story has captured this descent into madness in fine detail and with tremendous irony. The closer that Alec comes to a resolution of all his problems, the deeper into mental instability he travels.

But the novel works at another level as well. There is a lot of Jack Trevor Story’s own life wrapped up in the tale and the older he became the more bewildered he was by the world. Not confused; he understood with savage clarity about the greed that was engulfing society and the politicians and social institutions that used and encouraged such an attitude. What bewildered him was why ordinary, decent, hard-working folk stood by and let it happen; why the victims of greed were accused of causing society’s ills; why the promise of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s – the creative energy, the will for peace and love – was so easily corrupted.

There are no answers here. A person whose world collapses so comprehensively is never going to find them, partly because they no longer the capacity to recognise what a valid answer might seem like. What we do have is the writing of Jack Trevor Story at a whole new level, a level so far beyond most of his other work it is difficult to comprehend at first just how far he has gone. He is using the same tools as before and presenting us with a familiar landscape, but the perspective has shifted and we know we have read a work that is one the best novels of the twentieth century.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Playback - Raymond Chandler

Chandler’s last completed novel is a curious affair. It is short, has a curious drifting quality, and a happy ending. That aside, it is still well-written and displays all the dry wit and world weariness we would expect of a Philip Marlowe story.

Written toward the end of Chandler’s life when he was losing the battle with booze, there are some insightful moments that are, for me, more effective than his portrait of the anguished writer in his previous book. The night attendant in the garage who has seen the world develop around him, use him, and pretend he did not exist; who has lived as an outcast in a rich man’s world; who ended his life in an outside privy. This is a minor character written with a great deal of sympathy.

As for the rest, it is a tale of frustration with Marlowe not knowing why he is tailing someone, unable to get answers from anyone, and worn out by the time he does. The back story is a little weak and the book itself reads a bit like an extended movie treatment. But if this is to be considered Chandler’s weakest novel, it is still of a standard to which the rest of us could happily aspire.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The Long Goodbye - Raymond Chandler

I am a fan of Raymond Chandler’s work (who would have guessed it). I also know that The Long Goodbye is considered by many to be his best work. I’m not one of them. For me, it should be called The Over Long Goodbye. It needed a sharp edit, because it was a bit too damn precious.

I know that Chandler was exorcising his own demons – having an alcoholic writer centre stage makes that pretty obvious, but he let this one get away with a bit too much. Why has Marlowe moved? Oh yeah, so that scene toward the end works. Why do all the threads need to be tied up so tightly and neatly? Well, we can only speculate on that, perhaps an author’s desire to impose order in the one place where he has real control.

There is nothing wrong with the plot. There is nothing wrong with the writing. These are both handled as well as ever. But it does begin to ramble, much as a drunk would when telling a story. There’s always another bit, there’s always a digression, there’s always a sense of going round in circles.

For all these faults I still like the book and would much rather read it than a lot of other novels. To open one’s own life to speculation so thoroughly takes a lot of courage, to do so seamlessly in the context of a crime novel takes a lot of skill. And it contains one of the best ever character sketches for a minor character I’ve ever come across. Marlowe offers a dollar to a chauffer who has taken him home and when the chauffer refuses, Marlowe offers to buy him a copy of Eliot’s poems; the chauffer replies that he already has a copy – so much said in a very short, almost throw-away exchange.

That is why I like Chandler’s writing; that is why I would encourage others to read his books. And even this one, where Chandler is a bit self-indulgent (and goodness knows he earned the right), can easily be used to teach everything you need to know about good writing.

Monday, 16 March 2009

One Man's Meat - Colin Watson

Murder, blackmail, and the absurdities of big business are once more the playground and target of Colin Watson. But there is not so much bounce, not so much throw and fetch as in previous books in the series. This one suffers a bit from trying to tie two plots together and it has an unsatisfactory ending. The character that winds up the story and gets everyone out of trouble is an interesting creation, but she is overused here and it deflates what has promised to be a darker book.

That said, it is still tightly written and creates the atmosphere of the times (the early 1970s) with deft character portraits and well realised scenes. Much of this is in the detail. A whole way of life for elderly people in sheltered accommodation, for example, is given in an amusing anecdote that takes up a couple of paragraphs. The proprietors of a hotel are equally vivid and endowed with a life beyond their brief appearance.

Not, then, the best of the series, but still a book worth reading even if only for the appreciation of a author who knows how to write in a quiet, literate, unfussy way that is richer than many of its anaemic literary counterparts. That alone lifts above a great deal of other work.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Broomsticks Over Flaxborough - Colin Watson

Another superb outing for Inspector Purbright and the constabulary of Flaxborough. As ever this is sharply writing, well plotted, and overflowing with wonderful characters. It also takes a sideswipe of some ferocity at the absurdities of advertising – with a dry wit worthy of Jack Trevor Story.

This novel is also distinguished by a more than accurate portrayal of pagans. Granted, the novel centres on those who abuse paganism for their own ends, but it does point out the distinction between this minority (a minority you will find in any social group or community) and those whose beliefs are genuine. All too often, authors get this so badly wrong, perhaps doing their research by reading the worst end of the tabloid press, that it is a real relief to see it done correctly.

In all other respects, this novel pleases as well. Watson is a superb writer. Unpretentious, witty, a great observer of ordinary people, and with the skill to portray small town life with a joyous turn of phrase. As an entertainment, it is perfect. As a social commentary, it is equally perfect, simply because it does not try to be one.

If you enjoy quirky and well-written mysteries you probably already have some (if not all) of Colin Watson’s books on your shelves. For those that have not yet discovered his work (and sadly you’ll have to go hunting in second-hand bookshops) I envy you for the wonder of tasting such books for the first time.

Friday, 13 March 2009

The Lady In The Lake - Raymond Chandler

A change of scenery as Marlowe heads out of the city and into the hills in a search for a missing person. Perhaps inevitably, what he finds is a corpse. But there is nothing inevitable about the rest of the story. All the usual elements are there, but they are woven into something new and the differences in setting provide a refreshing contrast to earlier works.

Although written much more quickly than the previous novel, it does not show. Chandler brings the same level of professionalism to this work as to all the rest, but it does mark a change in his life. His first four novels were written in a five year period. There were only three more completed in the last sixteen years of his life. True, he produced some good work for the movies, but the burst of energy and anger at the hypocrisy in society which produced the early novels had been spent.

The complexity of the plot required an explanation at the end which is perhaps a slight disappointment. Anyone reading the novel with care (and, of course, it is a book that can be re-read) will follow the twists and turns, but it is handled better than in most novels and whilst it slows the pace, it does not create an anti-climax.

The writing has also matured. Chandler was a vivid writer from the start, but his descriptions of the lake and its community are extremely well done (Marlowe’s several brief encounters with deer are both amusing and pin sharp in their accuracy. But whilst the contrast between rural and urban life is pointed, there is no dewy eyed romanticism. It’s not the scenery that commits murder, it’s the people.

With an end that fittingly marks what would be the last Marlowe novel for some time; this is yet another fine work that uses a specific genre to explore the universal verities of human existence.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The High Window - Raymond Chandler

There is a subtly different feel about Chandler’s third novel. All the usual elements are there, and the writing is just as good, but behind the hard face we catch a glimpse of sadness. This may be a reflection of the author’s struggle with the book (or the struggle with the book may have been because he was determined to deepen the character of Marlowe). Either way, we get a novel that is as deserving of praise as anything else he wrote.

What starts as a search for a missing person (and a missing rare coin) soon develops into the usual complexities that arise from blackmail and murder. Along the way, we catch glimpses of the sterile lives of a wealthy family and have the opportunity to compare and contrast that with the sterile lives of the poor. Marlowe is tetchier. At first this makes him seem a less sympathetic character; but it becomes clear why he is like this, because it becomes clear that the focus of the novel is not the story, but one of the apparently minor characters.

It wouldn’t be possible to discuss this without unravelling the whole story. Suffice it to say, it would be enough to disgust anyone, especially as we see the consequences of one person’s determination to protect their good name.

All this is conveyed by the story, by atmosphere, and by the characters. The more subdued Marlowe with a deepening inner anger sits at the heart of it. The writing and structure is more relaxed, thus contrasting with the tightly wound Marlowe. And despite Chandler’s increasing frustration with the novel and a growing personal restlessness (or maybe because of it), he takes the form a step further and proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that ‘genre’ writing can be every bit as intelligent and insightful as ‘literary’ writing.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Little Dog's Day - Jack Trevor Story

This is markedly different to Story’s earlier work. Whilst it retains a sense of humour and writing that is as sharp and as tight as ever, it is the work of a man whose view of the world has been forever altered. The story involves a dystopian near future and the adventures of those trying to escape. The characters are less sharply drawn (although a damn sight sharper still than most authors manage) and where there was once a sympathetic hearing for everyone there is now an almost paranoid fear of authority figures.

You need to know the story behind this. In 1969, Story was arrested for driving through a set of broken traffic lights on a deserted street. He was badly treated physically, denied his asthma medication, and later convicted for offences he had not committed on perjured evidence presented by the police. He never fully recovered either physically or mentally. It took another twenty years for him to get back to the top of his writing form.

Little Dog’s Day was written not long after this terrible experience and it shows in this book – dedicated to the police officers involved. Whereas previously his worst portrayal of the police had been as bumbling amateurs (and Story wrote a lot work for books and television involving the police), more normally as decent folk doing the best they could in the circumstances life handed them, we now find them firmly in the authoritarian camp, complicit in the brutal and often violent behaviour seen as necessary to keep the populace in order.

None of this has prevented Story from producing an excellent book. He still manages to smile, and still recognises that humour is by far the most effective weapon against the kind of pomposity that, if unchecked, leads swiftly to authoritarianism and fascism. But the humour is darker, the style more fragmented, and one closes the book feeling a little sadder for the world.

Story was bewildered and frightened by Thatcherism. What he would have made of the world today is anybody’s guess. That he managed to continue writing at all after what happened to him is remarkable. That he managed to keep his sense of humour alive is a wonder. That he continued to write great books is a fact that books like Little Dog’s Day prove unequivocally.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

King Arthur - Christopher Hibbert

Reprinted by Tempus in 2007, this is the classic work from the late ‘60s that reignited a popular interest in Arthur and the possibility that he was a historical character. And despite it now being forty years old, this book is still the ideal primer for anyone coming to Arthur and Arthurian literature for the first time. A lot of work has been done since the book first appeared, but much of that has been to refine the basic ideas set out by Hibbert.

The book sets out the legends, the literature and examines the historical record. It shows how the literary heritage expanded and developed (and gives an excellent summary of Malory’s Le Morte D’ Arthur). This is placed against a context of the history of the period in which a real Arthur may have lived, and takes a look at some of the then recent archaeological investigations into the period – most notably at Cadbury.

It would, perhaps, have benefited from a bibliography, allowing readers to take the next step in their exploration of the historical and literary figure of Arthur. And it is a shame that the publisher did not take the opportunity to correct obvious errors of typography and layout. However, this was, and remains, an important work and it is good to see it in print again.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Man Pinches Bottom - Jack Trevor Story

It is forty-seven years since this book was first published and it very much goes to show how little things have changed. Through a series of plausible, but coincidental events, the child-like Percy Paynter (artist and editor of a children’s comic) becomes the object of the hunt for a child molester. The speed with which events turn against him and the rabid viciousness of the press in whipping up vigilante action are as familiar today as they ever were.

On the surface this is a comic work, albeit one with a hard and dark edge to it. Yet buried deep within it, underpinning the story, is a heart-felt statement about the state of modern society. Which makes this comic writing at its best. It is not a series of jokes and pratfalls. It is a novel about ordinary people. And nobody does ordinary people better than Jack Trevor Story.

He has a keen sense of structure and an artist’s eye, using words as his brush to paint portraits that have a life beyond the canvas. The story remains believable all the way through, especially when it comes to the petty jealousies and ignorance that cause so much harm. The social commentary is an integral part of the plot, rather than bolted on, so that we are never once lectured about anything but left to draw our own conclusions.

In the end, what we have is a superbly crafted, beautifully written, complex, and unpretentious work that outstrips the literati of the time and which is still far better than most things getting into print today.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Farewell, My Lovely - Raymond Chandler

Second books, they say (whoever ‘they’ may be), can be a problem. Chandler either never heard this or didn’t care. He has simply pushed forward a step or twelve and improved on his already superb work.

Although this is a crime novel with a wickedly simple tale spun into complexity by everyone protecting their own little empires of crime; it is so much more. I will put that again. So. Much. More. It is packed with social observation (on which Chandler does not comment – he has no need) of an America that many would have us believe is a thing of the past. It isn’t. Corruption, casual and appalling racism, crime, and the existence of a social underclass are painted with vivid colours.

Much of this is in the detail. Chandler doesn’t give us a lecture, he never wavers from telling us a story, but he does shine a bright light into some very shady corners. As always, much of this derives from character and setting. And through it all are threads that draw all the vignettes together into a larger tapestry. Moments like Marlowe’s careful capture of a beetle in an office and its later release on a bush contrast starkly with the casual killing of two spiders by a policeman; moments of atmosphere that are universal and particular at the same time (especially the weather eye kept on the fog or the momentary savouring of the smell of home).

And from this we get not only a sharply observed slice of social history, but we get a great story (which still reveals detail after many readings), and one of the great tragic characters of fiction for whilst Malloy may not have the intellect of a Hamlet or Lear, his course to destruction is marked from the moment he first appears.

Whilst it could be argued that The Long Goodbye is technically more competent and thus a better novel, it doesn’t have the raw edge and energy of Farewell, My Lovely. And both stand shoulder to shoulder with Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. If you never read any other American crime novel because the genre does not appeal, at least make the effort to read these three.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler

Chandler’s first novel, a tale of blackmail, murder, and sleaze, is fully-formed and mature. In some ways this is not surprising. He had served his apprenticeship in both life and in writing. Perhaps more importantly, he had consciously studied the genre and set out to do the job well. His early aspirations to be a poet are evident in his flowing prose, his tight writing, and his superb descriptions.

On the surface, The Big Sleep is a crime novel. Marlowe is hired to check out a blackmailer to see what would be the best way to deal with the situation. He is quickly drawn into the gutter where pornographers, drug dealers, and professional gamblers prey on the addictions of others. To call it a crime novel, however, is to suggest it is nothing more than an entertaining puzzle, which is well wide of the mark. Crime is the framework on which Chandler hangs his portraits of people and how they react in the worst of possible situations. In The Big Sleep, we also see the consequences of addiction and of the crimes that are committed.

There are some who accuse Chandler of misogyny (and occasionally make the distinction between author and character and accuse Marlowe of misogyny), but I feel this misses several points. Marlowe tends to mix with a particular type of person, male and female. Some he likes and treats well, others he does not like. Some he gets disgusted with even when he realizes they perhaps cannot help themselves. It is a realistic reflection of the world in which Marlowe lives and of the character. But it is also the genre in which Chandler writes. He was writing to a specific formula. What sets Chandler apart (along with others who have worked within the crime genre but also transcended it) is the quality of his writing and the depth of his creation. At no time does he allow the genre to confine what he writes. Rather, he uses the very solid foundation to build a better and more interesting piece of work. And all this whilst still telling a great story.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Nation - Terry Pratchett

Before I read this, if anyone had asked which was my favourite Pratchett book, I would have struggled to come up with an answer. There were several contenders on the list. Now, I won’t have a problem (unless he writes something better, of course).

This is a remarkable novel. The writing, as always, is superb. Pratchett has a storyteller’s voice. He can (and often does) convey the most complex of ideas through the simplest of situations, using the simplest of language. This is because he loves the story and he loves his readers. And here, a writer of excellence has excelled himself.

Moving away from Discworld, he uses events of contemporary resonance (flu epidemic, tsunami, imperialism) and sets them in a world very much like our own. Within this context, he tells the story of a survivor of a tsunami that has destroyed his whole tribe. We see how, with the help of a young girl from the other side of the world, he begins to rebuild his nation. Along the way, they both question everything, finding their own answers and rebuilding a world that suits new times.

Integral to this beautifully told tale are meditations on love and loss, on belief and religion, on politics and the nature of power, on personal relationships, on what it means to be human. Pratchett never preaches, but he does provoke thinking and the idea that we should all think for ourselves and, where possible, do things for ourselves. And that is a good thing.

Such a short review as this can’t do the book justice. I have no doubt that it has been dismissed by many as a fantasy for children. Well, it is that, and it should not be disregarded because of this. For one thing, it is destined to be a classic. For another, it contains more humanity and philosophical discussion than most literary authors manage in a lifetime of writing. And it is so well written it should be offered as a set text for all aspiring authors. Above all, however, it is a superbly told tale – a story to be enjoyed for its own sake, a story to be revisited.

Buy it. Read it. Read it again.