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.