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).