Sunday, 26 September 2010

Kuldesak - Richard Cowper

Whilst neither the premis of the book (humanity emerging from a computer ruled underground enclave after two thousand years) nor the denoument (computer destroying humanity for its own good outwitted by a new evolutionary trait) is original, the strength of the book lies in the sheer skill with which it is written.

Cowper builds his world with the most subtle of brush strokes and peoples it with realistic characters. He does not explain anything. Through the story of a small group of people, he reveals their world and their culture; and whilst his light is focussed on a small group, we see enough in the half lit glimpses on the periphery to fill in some gaps, but still leave us wondering.

Like his other work, this demonstrates that the best science fiction and fantasy is every bit as well written as ‘serious’ literature and deals with equally serious subjects (in this case what it means to be human).

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Room 13 - Edgar Wallace

Edgar Wallace is perhaps best known for co-writing King Kong and for ‘The Four Just Men’. For many writers that would be enough. It would certainly have brought in a decent amount of cash. But Wallace was famously prolific. 175 novels. Collections of short stories. Screenplays. He even directed. And died in debt - but that’s a whole other story.

It might be thought that someone who can produce so many novels would be turning out rubbish. Now, it is true that his work is not high art (however you care to describe that), but that doesn’t make it bad. He wrote thrilling yarns with strong storylines and interesting (if not always believable) characters. And sometimes he produced books and characters that are on a different level.

One such is Mr J G Reeder. Although he featured in only a handful of books (three novels and two short story collections) he has deservedly found a place in popular fiction as one of those characters that seem to exist independently of the pages in which they appear. Reeder is an enigmatic character. One can easily see him as a precursor of le Carré’s George Smiley. Apparently mild mannered, yet absolutely ruthless when the situation demands; intelligent; reclusive; and relying on his wits and a propensity for understanding the criminal mind.

Room 13 on the surface is a crime thriller, a bit of hokum to enliven the daily commute or unwind with after a dull day at the office or behind the shop counter. It is clear why his work was so popular. Escapism with a strong structure, sympathetic heroes, villains who get their just deserts, and enough intelligence for the reader to feel they have accomplished something more than a bit of time-wasting. That is a great combination for a best-seller.

Revolving around a story of forged money and revenge, the book rattles along with gusto. We are taken into the criminal underworld as imagined by the writer (and probably a long way from the truth). The action is leavened by ingenuity and enough exposition to colour in an otherwise sparsely sketched world. And through it all, almost like a haunting ghost, is the presence of J G Reeder. He doesn’t even appear until Chapter 11 and fades in and out of the narrative much as one would expect of someone who is several times described as on secret service.

And when the book is finished (with some unexpected twists), the character of J G Reeder remains. Despite only a few appearances, he does not fade as quickly as the other characters. There is a sense that he is still there, in the shadows, listening and watching.

This is a book (indeed the whole Reeder series) that any aspiring should read. They are instructive as to economy, plotting, characterisation, and pace. They are fun. And they have left us with one of fiction’s more intriguing characters.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Colour Of Rain - Emma Tennant

First published in 1963 under the pen name of Catherine Aydy, this is Tennant’s first novel. It recounts episodes in the lives of a group of privileged, empty people. A soap opera of childish adults, moving from one diversion to the next, pretending to be oh so civilized. But their world is like a sugar cage. Spun at random, colourless, flavourless and over sweet, brittle. It might be self-supporting, but it is obvious how easily it can break or dissolve.

All the activity is there, one suspects, to divert these people from the fact they stand on the edge of a great inner emptiness. If they did not fill their lives with the shiny baubles they can afford and the vacuous people who are all much the same, they would see the drop into nothing and like many when faced with such overwhelming existential horror; they would step off the edge.

Told largely through dialogue and a brittle prose that reflects the lives of its characters, this is an intriguing little novel. Although in some ways it records a very specific moment in time, that point when children stopped dressing like their parents, when music would influence a whole generation, when the ‘60s as a cultural phenomenon was about to begin, it also timeless. There are still people like this. The source of the money that allows such privileged living may have changed, but these people still flit like butterflies in their own little world. The horror of today is that they have such malign influence on the lives of others and in their own thoughtless way they fight to the death (usually someone else’s) to cling on to their privilege.

It is clearly a first novel from a time when novelists were expected to grow and were given time to do so by their publishers. But there is some fine writing here. Light, sharp, and full of an accurate social criticism that lifts the shiny surface and shows us what is beneath.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Romantic Egotist: An Unauthorised Biography of Jack Trevor Story - Brian Darwent

It is difficult to know where to start with this book. I read it because of my love of Story’s work, but I have to say I found the experience to be loathsome. On a very basic level, the book is badly written. The style is pedestrian. It rambles and, as a result, it confuses. It hasn’t even been properly proofed as spelling mistakes and typographical errors abound. As a biography it fails on a basic level. It cites no sources and seems to contain nothing that could not be gleaned from Story’s fiction (always a dubious prospect for whilst Story was known to mine his own life extensively for material, it was fiction he was writing).

Whilst we are offered a vaguely chronological amble through Story’s life, it is not placed in any but the narrowest social context. Rather like placing something on its own in a display case. Having no idea of how usual or unusual were Story’s circumstances in his early life, for example, it ends up being presented as something of a freak show. A person’s formative years are important to an understanding of their life, especially if their life is considered worth documenting. Without that background, without that context, we are adrift from the very beginning.

And this continues. Jack Trevor Story was a writer. Yet much of the work is glossed over as if the author of the biography didn’t want to talk about the books and other writings beyond mentioning that they were written at a certain time. To me this rather misses the point, particularly as some of Story’s work is now difficult to get hold of. Even a dedicated collector like me has only a fraction of his output. And where the work is mentioned, I could not shake the feeling that it was being sneered at.

This was a missed opportunity on a grand scale. Jack Trevor Story was a complex man whose life was equally complex, not to say complicated. He was certainly a highly talented, not to say unique writer - a man who never let his work settle into a rut. One would think that the point of a biography would be to try to unravel the complexity and explore the writer’s life and his work. In the end, however, we are left with the impression the author gave up trying, that it was all too much like hard work, that he expected Story to dictate his life to him in a coherent fashion. Story certainly wasn’t happy with what he saw of it. Neither was I.

Story’s life and work is fascinating, as is the milieu in which he worked. The opportunity is there to explore how publishing worked for the jobbing writer in the ‘50s and ‘60s and beyond; how the television and film industry treated writers (and still does); how someone managed to keep writing and producing fresh material despite (and because of) the events in his life. The opportunity is also there to place Jack Trevor Story where he firmly belongs in the top rank of writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Sadly, all that has been wasted.

If you want to know about Jack Trevor Story, do not seek out this book. It would be a waste of effort and money. Seek out Jack Trevor Story’s books instead. There you will find writing of rare talent that outshines much of what passes for literature today; that is genuinely comic; and which reflects the chaos that is modern life.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Steppenwolf - Herman Hesse

It is sometimes difficult returning to a book that you read in your late teens and have not re-read since then. There is a huge accretion of memory (often erroneous as memory can be) and emotion, especially when it is one of those books you recall as having had a profound effect. So much so that I went on to read whatever of Hesse I could find.

Returning to this, I am struck by two things that I probably didn’t consider on the original reading. The first is the language. My German has never been good enough to tackle something like this so I rely on translation. That means I do not know if it is the original or the translation that is so stiff-necked, so formal, but it simply felt at odds with the subject of the book. The structure is by no means standard for a novel. Hesse is happy to play with that. It seems unlikely he would be so in thrall to his native language that he would not know how to match the language to the various moods of the book.

The second is that for me, this will always be a book associated with adolescence and a flowering of my creative side. To my adult self it seems a juvenile work. Interesting, but a bit embarrassing, a bit too conscious of its literariness. This does not mean I do not like it. Every work as ambitious as this must be allowed a level of ‘roughness’ because it is venturing into places no one has been before.

Although a novel this stems from an age before writing courses and professionalisation of the art dictated current ‘axioms’. It is a novel of ideas. Whilst things happen (although not very much), the work is more interested in the development and exploration of ideas. The plot, such as it is, is a very loose framework on which to hang the discourse. Characters are almost irrelevant.

When I was reading the end section I was put in mind of the TV show The Prisoner (the original, not the appalling ‘remake’). That too had its faults, but it was nonetheless intriguing and explored many of the themes to be found in Steppenwolf - about identity, about being trapped, about escape, about trying to make sense and impose a pattern on an essentially chaotic world. And ending with a seemingly bizarre series of surreal events from which ideas and messages can be constructed to your heart’s content.

I am glad I took the time to revisit, and I would recommend it to younger readers as it is a book that anyone concerned with the nature of our inner lives should read; but it should be read early when it has time to imprint those essential messages, especially those about the way in which the life of the mind cannot be sustained without recourse to the feeding of the body and the senses.