Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Review - Darkness Rising

So, the Booker Prize shortlist for this year has been announced. And there it is. It's a shortlist. Unmistakably a list, and a short one at that.


I'm really struggling to muster any emotion about this one. I feel... whelmed. Distinctly whelmed (because I am in Europe, and I can be). The Sisters Brothers has the best cover, and Sense of an Ending is, er, the thinnest (can you tell I haven't read any of these, or really been moved to?). If I had to pick a winner, though, I'd go for Pigeon English, since it's the only title that seemed to be generating any sort of low-level person-to-person buzz before it was nominated. I mean, I worked in a fairly literary, well-read bookshop for most of this year and I don't think I even sold a copy of any of the rest of them. I'm going to try to read some of them, and we shall see, but... hmm.

Anyway, review.

I spent most of last Wednesday sitting in a hospital waiting room. Which turned out very well for all concerned, so don't worry, but at the time was not exactly restful. We happened to be sitting next to a woman who kept calling people up and saying awful things like, "and then his lung collapsed, and then his OTHER lung collapsed, and then he lost sensation in his legs, and then his SPLEEN burst," while her child ran around in circles screaming "MUM I'm BORED I'm SICK THERE'S A STICKER MISSING FROM MY COLOURING BOOK!"

I had sort of guessed it might not be a place for my MA reading, and so I brought along a book that would be exceedingly restful. And then I read the whole thing. That day had a lot of time in it. I think they might have been slowing down the clocks. But Darkness Rising kept me calm, because there are two things that soothe me more than anything else in the world and those things are CAKES and MURDER. And that is all Frank Tallis's books are ever about.

There is an amazing amount of pastry in a Frank Tallis murder mystery. His excuse, I think, is that they are set in Vienna, where cake is a form of religion (I have been there. I know. French pastry wishes it was that delicious), but even so, his characters' relationship to pudding borders on the obsessional. You could make a very profitable Frank-Tallis-spot-the-foodstuff drinking game, and the last time my boyfriend read one I got a stream of delighted texts all along the lines of CAKE! CAKE SPOTTED IN CHAPTER FOURTEEN!

And this is not just any cake, either. These cakes all have mysterious and delicious names, like guglhupf and punschkrapfen, and whenever a character bites into one you are treated to an intricate and borderline erotic description of the taste sensations they are experiencing:
At once his mouth was suffused with a melee of flavours. The coolness of the shell contrasted with the warmth of the alcoholic sponge inside, and he was overwhelmed by an almost dizzying sweetness. After he had swallowed, his taste buds were still tingling with flavours: marzipan, nuts and jam.
I mean. Take off all your clothes, Frank Tallis is writing about food again.

Frank Tallis's background is nearly as bizarre as Anne Holt's. He's a practicing clinical psychologist who happens to write historical murder mysteries on the side - and, of course, because he's a clinical psychologist his chosen bit of history is Vienna at the turn of the last century, when Freud was getting everyone het up about children sucking their thumbs and people dreaming about wolves in a wardrobe. His main character, Dr Max Liebermann, is a disciple of Freud, and all the murders he investigates are conveniently to do with unconscious desires and sex mania. We also get treated to hilarious b-plot side cases as Dr Liebermann treats his patients - in Darkness Rising, for example, we get the case of a man who thinks he's pregnant. Which is totally brilliant.

What Frank Tallis is not, though, is a technically excellent writer. His policy seems to be that he knows a lot of words, and by god he is going to use all of them. People aren't unconscious, they're insensate, a carving of bears becomes eponymous ursine relief work, and image of someone's boobs in a low-cut dress is described as
She was wearing a tight silk dress, the intrepid neckline of which descended steeply, revealing a plenitude of bulging flesh.
You guys, she was stacked.

But all the same, it's not the sort of language-abusing writing that makes me want to tear out my hair in a rage. It's just gently silly, and the result is an awful lot of fun.

Darkness Rising's plot, such as it is, concerns a series of mysterious murders of notable anti-Semites, who all turn up beneath plague monuments with their heads ripped off. If you know your Jewish folklore you're going to get to the answer quite a bit before Liebermann and his policeman sidekick Inspector Rheinhardt do, but the point of this book is not cunning trickery. The point of this book is cakes and psychoanalysis. And the cakes are good.

I nearly forgot I was in a hospital waiting room.

3.5 stars.

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