Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Delicious Death: Some Quickfire Crime Reviews

First, some links to my latest reviews for The Bookbag:

Desolation Island by Adolfo Garcia Ortega (short answer: very very good)

The Story of English by Joseph Piercy (short answer: very very mixed)

Now I don't know if you've heard, but I like crime. Theoretically, of course. This blog does not endorse wrongdoing in any way, shape or form, and in fact would encourage you all to be nice to other people and not kill them.

Nonetheless, in the abstract, crime soothes me. Here is a round-up of my latest toothsome murder selections.

Sovereign by C. J. Sansom.

I've said before that I like Sansom's books a lot. Not only does he have a very good, very full-blooded line in historical recreation, he's becoming a technically better writer as he goes along. Sovereign is the third in his series of novels about a crime-solving hunchbacked lawyer struggling to stay alive among the political intrigue of Henry VIII's court. It's set in 1541 and concerns two of the aging Henry's more disastrous decisions: his marriage to hot young thing Catherine Howard (the second beheaded, according to the rhyme) and his royal Progress around a very tetchy and still rebellious North of England.

Matthew Shardlake and his sexy assistant Jack Barak are sent to York on a mission to look after the safety of a political prisoner. Of course, Shardlake gets royally mixed up in Henry's progress and ends up uncovering a plot to destabilise the entire Tudor succession. As you do. It's all a bit ridiculous (although based on real events and real intrigue, like all the best fiction) but thoroughly fun, and the story carrys you along at a breathless pace all the way to the end. It's a 650 page book that reads like a 250 page novella.

Poor old Shardlake is a good man in a bad world. He doesn't know when to leave well enough alone and who has a lot of trouble remembering that most people are a lot nastier than he is. Each book sees him sinking further into his pit of emotional despair, and each culminates with the inevitable announcement that this will be ABSOLUTELY HIS VERY LAST CASE. Since I know that Sansom has written at least two more Shardlake novels I can smell the lie and be very grateful for it. This series ticks both my crime nerd and  history nerd boxes, and long may it last.

I see I originally gave the Shardlake books 3 stars. I must have been feeling mean that day. For this outing, I'm revising upwards to

4 stars.

The Affair of the Mutilated Mink by James Anderson

Before I actually read it, I had suspicions that The Affair of the Mutilated Mink might be a silly book. Imagine my joy when I realised that it is precisely that. Its pages give off gusts of the purest, most exquisite Golden Age foolery (in case you are wondering, this rare substance smells like leather-bound books, pearls, rolling acres and gunshot wounds, and Agatha Christie used to spray herself all over with it every morning).

The second in Anderson's series of pastiche Golden Age detective novels (my library didn't have the first), its English upper class characters bray and blether delightfully, its American characters say HOWDY and chew cigars and everyone has utterly creative secret backgrounds involving JEWELS and MISTAKEN IDENTITIES and TRAGIC DEATHS. The dippy set-up (American producer wants to shoot movie on location at the film-mad Earl of Burford's scenic pile) is an excuse to drag a motley cast of movie star types, aristocracy, long-lost relatives and the obligatory troubled artist together for a country-house weekend party that ends (surprise surprise) with MURDER MOST FOUL.

The Affair of the Mutilated Mink never makes the mistake of taking itself seriously. Even the characters know they're being ridiculous, and there's an extremely meta joke-that-knows-it's-a-joke atmosphere to the whole thing that reminded me a lot of P. G. Wodehouse. Fans of Golden Age detective fiction will have their hearts melted by throwaway references to Ariadne Oliver and Inspector Alleyn (who, in this world, are real people), as well as spot-on recreations of stock characters like the officious Scotland Yard man (complete with trusty valet), the prima donna actress and the American movie producer extraordinaire. At the same time, though, Anderson's doing something quite intelligent with the familiar tropes. The man sent from Scotland Yard turns out to be too smart for his own good and the mystery is actually solved by Wilkins, one of those adorably modest country detective who are always totally snubbed in Christie and Sayers novels. The leading girl is not only suitably plucky and resourceful but also quite a rounded human being, the Earl's bluffness is all for show... and so on, and so on. It's a really witty variation on a well-known theme that feels new and old at the same time - which, coincidentally, was what all those Golden Age crime novels were trying to do in the first place.

This book is wonderful. It affectionately embraces all the flaws of its parent genre, pokes gentle fun at its worst excesses and on top of that manages to put together a fairly tidy and inventive murder mystery. The reveal may not blow your mind, although there are some great twists in the tale, but the joy of any good Golden Age murder mystery is the silly, over-the-top journey to that final denouement, and this journey is ridiculously fun.

Another 4 stars.

Image from banisbooks.blogspot.com
Scales of Justice by Ngaio Marsh

By the way, in case you're wondering, I did not mistakenly smash my fingers against my keyboard to come up with that first name. Marsh was from New Zealand, so her parents gave her a name that's the Maori word for a kind of tree. The G is silent so it's pronounced like Naio. There you go, that's your fascinating trivia for the day. You're welcome.

Before I actually discuss the content of this book, I would like to direct your attention to the FANTASTIC cover of my edition. It is purest essence of the 1970s, when publishers had just discovered photography but were not yet conversant with realism. This image has it all: fake plastic trout, puzzled dog, daub of red paint where the blood should be. It is so ugly that I can't stop staring at it.

Unfortunately, though, it turns out that the best thing about Scales of Justice is that cover. A lot of Golden Age writers (apart from Dorothy Sayers, who got bored and turned to translating Dante instead) carried on relentlessly beating the dead horse of the 1930s setting well into the 1960s, and this book, published in 1955, contains themes so stale that they're practically suppurating.

The female characters wear twinsets with their tweeds and the male characters talk about Nazis, but apart from that you'd never guess that the year was no longer 1935. Retired colonels and dusty earls still perambulate around their small English country town, huntin' and shootin' and fishin' and sleepin' with each other. The murder itself is an example of the worst excesses of the clue puzzle format, which states that if the killer does not do the deed while balanced on one leg, wearing a swimming costume and a lion mask and wielding a melon borer the writer is NOT TRYING HARD ENOUGH.

Marsh is trying hard, all right, but the effect is of insanity and extreme hideboundness rather than any kind of real invention. Add to that the tiresome upper-class honour displayed by all the characters, which pointlessly derails the investigation for 100 pages, and you have a murder mystery so idiotic that I could barely finish it. And when I did, the reveal was stupid. Nul points, Marsh. Nul points.

2 stars.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

1001 Books review: David Copperfield

My experience with David Copperfield is a pretty excellent example of my theory that there is no such thing as an objectively good book. I picked it up for the first time when I was thirteen, as part of my efforts to be a Serious, Grown-Up Reader.

Internet, I hated it. As I remember, I got about three chapters in and gave up in impotent fury.

I started David Copperfield again last week. I am absolutely certain not a single word of it has changed (I know this because I was reading the exact same copy that I had when I was thirteen), but somehow this time I wasn't offended by them at all. Just like capers and things that taste like marzipan, it turns out that the adult version of me really likes David Copperfield.

I always try to be a bit sulky hipster about Dickens. He's so famous, and so beloved, that I feel like there must be a catch somewhere. But every time I stop whining and actually read a Dickens novel, I realise why he's lasted so well. Yes, he's mawkishly sentimental, yes, he has a thing for golden-haired angels and crossing-sweepers dying tragically in debtors' prisons, but he's also an excellent plotter with a total genius for creating instantly memorable and entirely unforgettable characters.  

David Copperfield is obviously just one novel, but it's given the world sickening snake-villain Uriah Heep, exuberant and permanently insolvent Mr Micawber, and secretly good-hearted donkey-hater Betsey Trotwood. And then there's Peggotty, who bursts all the buttons off her dresses whenever she gets emotional, and Mr Murdstone, so evil that he can kill his wives with just the power of his mind. And so on, and so on....

Dickens's heroes and heroines tend to be his weakest creations, dull and dinkily foolish respectively, but everyone else is stellar, and everyone else is the reason why Dickens is still so beloved. He is quite simply the best ever at creating his bit-parts.

Having said that thing about Dickens making up boring heroes, I actually found David Copperfield's hero quite interesting. This is largely because I can now appreciate that he is essentially just Dickens in disguise. David Copperfield is Dickens's autobiography. Consider the facts: like Dickens, David spends time as a child labourer in a London warehouse, he has a really bumptious small-time fraudster father figure in Mr Micawber, he grows up to become a famous writer and he has a very youthful marriage to a woman so helpless and daft that she is functionally a child. I'd say that was all pretty conclusive.

This woman. How I hate her.
That fictionalised portrait of his marriage, of course, interested me the most of all. I've somehow managed to get really involved in the Dickens relationship, but until now what I've read about it has been from the point of view of Mrs. I was all ready to blame Mr for everything - until I heard his views on the matter.

David's wife (the Catherine Dickens substitute) is called Dora, and on the strength of his description of her character, MAN do I now feel for Charles. I am a pathetically non-violent person. I can't even kill zombies in video games because I worry about their feelings. And yet while I was reading David Copperfield I had to struggle with vivid fantasties about taking Dora out and just SHOOTING HER IN HER STUPID CHILDISH FACE.

Lord have mercy, that idiot woman. She weeps because David points out that all their servants cheat him and he hasn't actually eaten dinner in weeks. She begs him to call her, and I quote, Child-wife, so that he will never forget how stupid and useless she is. (I am not kidding. She SERIOUSLY SAYS THIS.) I hate her. Yes, Dickens gives us an over-dramatic, highly biased version of events, but I can imagine that it would be pretty awful to be as smart and worldly as he was and married to someone with not an ounce of practicality in her fleecy little brain. Even Dickens/Copperfield has fantasies about her 'becoming an angel' (ie DYING). Beautifully, of course. So then she could be a hot fantasy object in his mind AND he could finally get the servants to bring his dinner on time. Dickens really was quite emotionally weird.

I do think Dickens has some serious issues about women and sexual relationships. I'd love to believe that the 'Child-wife' concept is presented as a bad thing and he understands the values of equal parnership in a marriage ... and yet. Quite aside from Dora, another character's beautiful emotional conclusion comes when she calls the man she married 'my husband and father'. Oh, and a lot of characters who are siblings (though admittedly not genetic ones) fall in love. We are meant to find this adorable. My brother and sister are adopted. I don't.

This kind of thing is so widespread in all Dickens novels, though, that protesting against it feels like trying to throw Boris Johnson over the Eiffel Tower. I've pretty much decided to ignore it and focus on the stuff that Dickens does do well. Like death. Dickens gives great death, doesn't he? I know all that Victorian hyper-emotionalism is a bit past its best, but you can't beat a good bit of tragedy, especially when everyone weeps and reconciles with their enemies just before they breathe their last. Without giving away the end of David Copperfield, I will say that the bodies mount up in a satisfying heap. And then everyone who doesn't die gets hitched. In fact, it all rounds up in a distinctly satisfactory (although totally not postmodern) way.

Second time round, I ended up having a great time following the ridiculous trials and tribulations of young David Copperfield. I found David Copperfield charming, silly and fun, if a bit morally dodgy in places. You know what? I've given up fighting Dickens. I've realised that if you want a big blockbuster Victorian novel with lots of charming, slightly crazy characters and a fat serendipitous plot, you just can't do better than him. I hate to admit it, but Dickens is great.

4 stars.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Delicious Death: Andrew Taylor Again

First, announcements: I've got a new gig reviewing books for The Bookbag. Isn't that nice! My first review (if you know me at all, you should not be surprised that I chose this one out of many) is of The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper. Go, read!

And now for something completely the same: I read another crime novel. After really liking The Anatomy of Ghosts a few weeks ago I've been trying to have an Andrew Taylor binge. Sadly for me (I blame the government), my local library has exactly... one more novel by him. So it wasn't much of a binge. But at least I tried.

Call the Dying is (of course it would be) not even the first, but the seventh in a series Taylor has written about the fictional Anglo-Welsh town of Lydmouth. This means that by reading it I have probably spectacularly spoilt myself for all the plot twists in the previous six books.

Luckily, though, Taylor has done a fairly nifty job of making this book operate under its own logic. Call the Dying is quite obviously part of a series, but at the same time it stands alone. It's actually a pretty good lesson in how to reintroduce longstanding characters and situations in a way that clicks with repeat readers but makes sense to the random punter who's just wandered in off the (metaphorical) street. Call the Dying would quite obviously have meant more to me had I read the previous six Lydmouth novels, but at the same time I felt like I was allowed to get to know Lydmouth's inhabitants while being shown enough of their baggage to stop me spending the whole novel wondering Who are YOU? And who is HE? And what is SHE and WHERE ARE WE AND WHAT IS THIS OH MY GOD.

The Lydmouth novels are set in the 1950s, which inevitably makes reviewers (or at least the ones quoted on Call the Dying's cover) compare them to later Agatha Christie. Well, technically, yes, but this is a very different kind of thing. Christie never quite disengaged mentally from large houses in the 1930s, so her '50s' novels are really set in the 30s but with different hair. She also believed very firmly that anyone who was not a member of the professional or landed classes was fundamentally not worth bothering about. The lower classes are sometimes in evidence, but always as bit-parts, usually called Gladys and often with more than a hint of mental deficiency and/or adenoids. No matter what her apparent theme, there's always something a bit big about Agatha Christie novels. They aspire.

Call the Dying, on the other hand, is all about littleness. It depicts a mean and menial post-war world where everyone is tired and weak and struggling to get by. Fog, both metaphoric and actual, smothers the whole novel, enclosing Lydmouth in an atmosphere of claustrophobic small-time nastiness. Taylor is very good at creating emotion in his reader - to me, the whole book felt grey - but it doesn't give off that tiresome smugger-than-thou world-weariness of a P. D. James novel. Taylor's characters don't pretentiously bewail their fate, they just get on with living their lives in a vaguely dissatisfied way.

The plot is as follows: journalist Jill Francis returns to Lydmouth to help out a sick friend and re-encounters unhappily married DCI Richard Thornhill, with whom she obviously has a lot of hot illegal history. Then a TV salesman disappears and the local doctor is found dead, nibbled by rats, and - well, you know. They solve crime.

No, I wasn't kidding about the rats. Taylor's got a creatively nasty streak to his imagination. I noticed it in The Anatomy of Ghosts, but he really lets it out here. Apart from Doctor Bayswater, who likes to feed his garden rats bread and milk and watch them as they play, there's a mysterious man who keeps weeing in letterboxes at the dead of night and someone else who desecrates graves. It's all very nearly horror, creepy in a way that most murder mysteries aren't.

Actually, the murder part of it isn't Call the Dying's strongest point. I'm not sure the final reveal is particularly well-executed. So much attention is given to B-plots about the life of Lydmouth town that the central mystery doesn't have quite time to play out. I was confused rather than enlightened by most of the explanation, and there wasn't enough trailing of the solution for most readers to be able to follow along, let alone guess the twist. But, just like The Anatomy of Ghosts, I think Taylor's charm lies in his set-up rather than his plotting. In terms both of their humanity and their time period Lydmouth's inhabitants feel believable (if slightly distorted, like lifelike caricatures), and Lydmouth itself is eerily fascinating.

I'm coming to the conclusion that I really like Andrew Taylor's novels. They're not quite like any other crime I've read - or not quite like crime novels, full stop - but they're engrossing, weird and imaginative. When I read one, I want more, and that's surely a good sign. As of today, I am haunting my local second-hand bookshops on the look-out for my next fix.

3.5 stars.