… wot I read in the last few weeks.
White Lioness by Henning Mankell. Another in the Inspector Wallander series, this one with strong African connections, reminding the reader that the author has lived in Mozambique for part of his life. Unlike the previous novel in the series which on leaving Sweden rather lost it’s narrative cohesion this holds the attention, in fact grips it satisfyingly in a genuine page turner. There is also a believable realism in the inability of the Swedish police to resolve a series of disparate events into the one solution they seek to the tragic crime that opens the book. Of course in the process of producing such a book an amount of artistic licence and creative plotting is called for, but in this case it results in an enjoyable read.
One of the attractions, particularly to me, of so many ‘crime’ stories, apart from the frequent puzzle of whodunnit, is the race between the reader and the ‘detective’ to beat the author to the revelation or resolution of the plot. This is perfectly embodied by the stories of Agatha Christie, the author responsible for attracting me to the genre in the first place. It started with the ‘ABC Murders’ and has lasted and grown for nearly 30 years to encompass almost all styles of story written under this category, except maybe the most gruesome, once the violence becomes more than incidental to the crime I become uninterested in the story. Oh and of course there are those that are just badly written, see what I have to say about Sam Bourne’s ‘Righteous Men’ later in this post!
So I now read every style I can, ‘who dunnit’, ‘police procedural’, ‘hard-boiled’, ‘private eye’, ‘psychological’, ‘historical’ and ‘humorous’ plus every combination of and sub-category in-between these ‘pigeon-holes’.
All of which brings me to Skinny Dip by Carl Hiassen a cross between a hard-boiled and humorous novel, a style he has become famous for, to which he adds his crusade against big business/money and politics which is systematically ruining Florida. Plus a background in journalism which gives him a great eye for the stranger-than-fiction stories that come out of everyday human behaviour.
In this case he is highlighting corruption within services designed to monitor and protect the Everglades, where big money can tempt those in positions of trust to put their own short term gratification before the future of the ecosystems being destroyed. What Hiassen is so good at is making this serious stuff rip along a great pace and humour, and scaring you into believing that such extreme characters and their extreme behaviour may be far more real than it is comfortable to contemplate.
Another serious theme is dealt with in A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby, not a crime story, this novel focuses on four people meeting in the most extreme circumstances, whilst contemplating suicide on a rooftop on New Year’s Eve. For various reasons, not least of which is that they all get in one another’s way, none of these four jump. Instead they form an uneasy and uncomfortable alliance whilst coping with their respective problems. None of this is planned or positive, so much as it is caused by the friction and anger, sympathy and understanding of four people desperate enough to have considered ending their lives. There is much humour here, the circumstances they find themselves in are amusingly extreme, their failure to find instant solutions or nice neat ways to turn their lives around is both believable and sensitively written. It has to be said that this is not my favourite of Honby’s novels, he has written books I have loved and treasure, and thereby set himself a standard which he cannot always expect to match or exceed.
Mr Paradise by Elmore Leonard is another crime novel. Leonard may be America’s greatest living crime author, being renowned in particular for his flair for dialogue. His characters speak in a style that every script writer must envy. Natural and often with great economy the dialogue conveys every mood and turn in his stories, meaning his books move along at a pace tied to the lives and actions of the speakers rather than dictated by the prose of description and retelling of action pieces. He has written greater books than this, but even on less than his best form he far outstrips his contemporaries and imitators.
I decided to read The Righteous Men by Sam Bourne because I had seen and read several things suggesting it was not only successor to ‘The Da Vinci Code’ in terms of conspiracies, twists and interesting religious speculation but that it was better written. Interestingly whilst I agree with many that Dan Brown is an uninspiring author, he certainly produced a book which was ‘unputdownable’ and had a non-stop narrative. What Sam Bourne has attempted to do in writing a Jewish version of ‘The Da Vinci Code’ is create a fast-paced thriller with exciting twists and turns. Unfortunately I found his writing style so turgid that I could not stick with the story far enough to start enjoying the conspiracies! Where Brown wrote one non-stop action sequence punctuated by stunning revelations, and unexpected turns, Bourne has written a plodding character heavy piece which feels like exactly what it is, a first novel. Bourne demonstrates no skill in pacing, he is unable to distinguish between fleshing out a character or describing a location and writing at tedious length about every thought in his character’s head and at length about every aspect of every situation he finds himself in. I am sure that comparisons with Brown’s mega-selling novel are inevitable, but the ‘religion’ theme aside, I can’t see any reason for picking up Bourne’s debut. Stick with the poor quality Brown over the tedium of the wanna-be Bourne.
A much better written book was the remedy for the previous disappointment. I chose something from a series I knew I could rely on. Wednesday’s Child by Peter Robinson is an Inspector Banks story in the ‘police procedural’ style. This is another enjoyable novel by Robinson. He has his pacing and plots well developed. His characters have the benefit of growing over a long story-arc. Six books into the series of ‘Banks’ novels his lead is well formed and easy to understand. Motivations and reactions are well thought through and the supporting characters multi-dimensional. Another good read, with enough suspense to keep you gripped and although lacking a mystery over the identity of a villain, there is no certainty about the outcome until the last pages and at least one small twist likely to fool most readers.
I returned to another reliable series with Sharpe’s Eagle by Bernard Cornwell. Interestingly this was the first novel Cornwell wrote and my paperback copy has a fascinating introduction in which he talks about how he came to write it and admits that he has never had the courage to re-read it for fear of finding it lacking in qualities he now takes for granted. However I found this to be as much fun and as ‘educational’ as all of his Sharpe stories. I mean let’s face it they are never going to be great literature, that is not their aim or purpose. Cornwell makes a ‘ripping yarn’ with the fascination that the basic facts of the military campaigns in which his characters are embroiled are true. There is action from which you learn at least that the horrors of war change only in the scale of the carnage throughout history. There is tension between the classes, men and officers, the poor and the moneyed. The educated and the ignorant. There is a hero and there are his values in an age where chivalry and glory on the battlefield are qualities many held in high esteem.
My second great reading passion is Science Fiction, although unlike crime it is much harder to cross the differing styles and still enjoy the writing. I can read the hardcore science of spaceships, time travel and alien life forms and I can read the sword and sorcery of alternative worlds and magical creatures. But the authors who can get it right every time are fewer and farther in between. And even the acknowledged ‘greats’ can have a style that does not agree with my personal tastes.
However Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny is a fantastic novel which very successfully crosses the genres and includes an enormous dose of religion to further enhance the mix. Taking as it’s premise the lives and actions of a group of individuals who may be gods from the Hindu and Buddhist pantheon it is in reality about the struggle of an advanced race to determine, influence and control the development of a less advanced one by both their actions and in-actions, and of course by their very presence. These ‘gods’ seem to be interstellar travellers with technology surpassing our own on a planet, maybe Earth, which is in an age entirely pre-dating technology or even gunpowder. They have ‘adopted’ persona’s with attributes that when exercised give them control over things beyond our understanding. And they struggle amongst themselves to decide how much to reveal to the people who worship them as gods. They battle amongst themselves over ‘accelerationism’ which would have things like sewer systems and the bicycle revealed to their people sooner rather than later. Difficult as this is to explain, it is both easy and immensely enjoyable to read. Some argue this is Zelazny’s greatest book, I would not disagree with this having found even more in it on this second reading some 10 years after the first. Learn something about the nature of ‘godhood’ and power and about the nature of man’s superiority over man.
I re-read Monkey’s Raincoat by Robert Crais for I don’t know maybe the fifth or sixth time. I wanted something quick to read (it’s both slim and a real page-turner) and yet of very high quality. This book introduces his two heroes ‘Elvis Cole’ and ‘Joe Pike’, characters who start strongly and become greater as the books progress. These are iconic characters, powerful, compassionate, right and strong in their beliefs. But humanised by being flawed, emotional, stubborn and sometimes too set in their ways to do the best thing. This is hard-boiled crime writing in the style of Raymond Chandler and Robert B Parker and there are few to compare with these three at their best.
So what to say about Mr Vertigo by Paul Auster? Well I certainly found it a different reading experience from ‘Oracle Night’. The narrative is more straightforward, there is little ambiguity about the story, although some of the subject matter is incredible and warrants some discussion. But it feels like a story, you can sense much of the form of the book, by virtue of it’s main character being the narrator recalling his life. This immediately tells you something about what may or may not happen to this character from the beginning. And there is much that is strange here, which interestingly, and reminiscent of ‘Oracle Night’, Auster makes no attempt to demystify. So here Walt defies gravity with no explanation and no sense that there is anything so out of the ordinary about this, just as Sidney Orr manages to temporarily ‘disappear’ from his study whilst engrossed in his writing, with no explanation ever offered. I found other parallels between these two reading experiences. In both cases I did not identify with or particularly like the main character, the narrator. And in both cases I was left with a sense of having an incomplete experience, as if something had been missing, particularly from the ending (although of course this is exactly where emotionally you are anticipating resolution). There was another thing which kept coming back to me while reading this and that was a sense that it reminded me of stories from another author. It probably took me two thirds of the book to conclude that I was reminded of Robertson Davies, particularly his ‘Salterton Trilogy’ and ‘Deptford Trilogy’, and the middle book of his ‘Cornish Trilogy’ – ‘What’s Bred in the Bone’. I haven’t written about him here, because I haven’t re-read anything of his recently (he died in 1995). Interestingly reading this Auster book made me want to go back to Davies, so I was plainly enjoying aspects of the story. In conclusion I am left still wanting to read more by Auster. Now I have more idea what pattern his novels may follow I suppose I will approach them differently, whether this will change the reading I cannot anticipate.