Sunday, 8 December 2013

Rabb, Rosa Luxembourg and some wee anachronisms...

Drew Ratter on another chronicler of the inter-war years...

Jonathan Rabb

Jonathan Rabb is American,but doesn't really feel it, any more than does Alan Furst or Philip Kerr, respectively American too, and Scottish, respectively. They appear to be sort of international initiates in some arcane brotherhood of the interwar years, more specifically the sept which psychically exists in Germany and Eastern Europe.

Rabb is the least prolific of the three, all young men. He is also formally the most academic. Both his parents and most of his grandparents were historians, so it seems, and he gravitated naturally to Yale and Columbia.

His early life as a historian imbues his Berlin trilogy. The immediate post war period is meticulously delineated, and Kriminal Kommissar Hofner works out of the Alex; very familiar to friends of Kerr's Bernie Gunther (who, as a character lives much more strongly in my head, by the way).

The Rosa of the title is the murdered socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg, who so tragically overestimated the internationalism of the industrial proletariat. Other historical figures flit in an out, mingled with the fictional players, Karl Liebknecht naturally, as a corpse, but lesser known socialists and heroes of the Spartacus League like Leo Jogiches flit about, half seen, in the wings. Jogiches then turns out to be crucial.

As well as the heroes, of which there are but few, there are villains. Many villains, easily available, as we are well aware given the era, and the fact that by the early 1930s, a mere decade later, evil had comprehensively triumphed in Germany. Included are not only members of the Freikorps, who were the backbone of the SS, but also the natural foe of the Kripo, the criminal police, the Polpo, the political police. Thereafter, this latter organisation became the basis for the Gestapo
The hook is the fact that there have been constant doubts expressed about whether the shot and bludgeoned corpse examined following its discovery was really that of Luxemburg. DNA analysis in 2009 did not, as anticipated, clear up the whole mystery.

A good read, overall, with  a strange and worrying lace-obsessed murderer with perhaps a slight hint of Jean Baptiste Grenouille? But then, he doesn't turn out to be so central after all.

And so it redoubles and redoubles. The final verdict? Vastly learned, but rather longwinded. And the anachronisms..............even up to and including "So we're good here"

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

When Rebus met Bond: The Nine Quid Tesco Showdown

So I'm in Tesco (Big Huge version) in Glasgow's Maryhill, shopping, as ever during visits to the various offspring and grand-offspring, for cheap socks and to see if there's a discount on Duvel Golden Ale.

Now I know it's morally wrong to buy books in supermarkets. You should buy them in quaint independent stores where the charmingly irascible owner sits knitting, you get bad free instant coffee and the shelves are collapsible climbing hazards for toddlers. And a new lump of hardback fiction costs £18.99.
But the Rankin and the Boyd (and it's very much a Boyd) under consideration here were £9 apiece in the Big T. Less than half RRP. I'm sorry, but that's paperback pricing and, for an itinerant bibliophile suffering a late allergic reaction to Kindles of all shades, irresistible. So, no cheap Duvel, but I exited with hosiery and fictive skulduggery.

Boyd first, and Solo is the latest in the Fleming Estate's commissions of fresh Bondage by established contemporary authors. Step forward with a riddy, Sebastian Faulks. It is by some considerable distance the best post-Fleming Bond, and is arguably better than some of Fleming's own efforts. Faultless, no, but a splendid read nevertheless. And I admit that I was biased, in that Boyd's Any Human Heart is among my favourite novels of the past two decades and his Restless one of the slickest lit-thrillers I've read.

We find Bond in 1969, ageing but still indulging himself in booze, cars, fags and sex to a mordantly entertaining degree. At first I thought he was going to die of throat cancer by the last chapter. But no, that's just one of Boyd's little teases. He has Fleming's approach to Literary (not filmic) Bondworld nailed down with the exactitude of the real fan - all the brand names, gun-tech, anal-retentive car love and curiously coy randiness. But while it comes close to pastiche, this is no tedious tribute. Boyd's own deep affection for and knowledge of Africa provides the main setting and a degree of political insight which is both relevant to today and truly tough-minded. This Bond is much more socially engaged than Fleming's ever was, sympathetic and merciful, concerned and generous. And strangely vulnerable, even weak on occasion. Yes, the book has a truly horrible supervillain, and two women offering varieties of voluptuous charm. Bond has a form of very violent revenge but his triumph is questionable.

It's a compulsive read, but it's cool, not cold as Fleming's near-psychopathic creature was. It's on reflection after completion that the little references and resonances surface: The Jensen FF/Interceptor conundrum – a fly nod to Simon Dutton in The Saint and Robert Vaughan's The Protectors, and the car Bond never drove either on the page or in a movie. The eerie non-assassination's hints of both Deeley Plaza and (curiously out of print) The Day of theJackal. The CIA agent called Brigham, the wee tip of the hat to Puppet on a Chain by the great Alistair Maclean, and others I will leave you to find for yourself. Plot is where it falls down slightly, the explanation at the end by Felix Leiter just a bit too clunky to be meant ironically. But Solo is very good, bibulous company.

And so to Edinburgh, where Bond was of course educated (and there's loads of Caledonian references in Solo) and a somewhat earthier approach to drink. Ian Rankin's Saints of the Shadow Bible uses a Jackie Leven quote as its title, as opposed to a misheard Leven lyric as the name of Rebus's previous outing, Standing In Another Man's Grave.

I thought SIAMG was a great read, and seemed looser and more playful than previous Rankins, with its whimsical road movie/whisky tour elements. It shared with his other books, though, one of Rankin's major strengths, which is more than an ability to evoke a sense of place. His books are properly located, not just in their excellent capturing of geography - the sights, smells, sounds and people – but in time, too. Saints of the Shadow Bible is set in today's Scotland, and both police reorganisation and the referendum debate inform and enliven the plot, giving it depth and edge.

There are clever TV references as well as the usual musical ones (the late Rory Gallagher's Sinner Boy at one point, providing synergy with the Rankin/Gallagher project Kickback City). Life on Mars is 'a documentary' when it comes to 70s policing. Rebus seems to be heading for an alcohol crisis (but when wasn't he?), and there are hints that healthy living may be staring him in his broken-veined face: Soda water and lime? Jings! Am I detecting a wee wink at Psycho, too? To say more would give too much away.

The book has one of the best-engineered plots of recent Rankins, and the bringing together of Rebus with Fox, his in-house adversary and main protagonist of the Complaints books, works brilliantly, paving the way I'd guess for future collaborations between the two. But as with Boyd's Bond, the use of branded detail is note-perfect (particularly good on using cars to define characters: eg a wonderfully awful white Range Rover Evoque) and there are some very funny moments.

Some people swear that Black and Blue is Rankin at the top of his form, but I prefer the assured delicacy of touch, complexity, humour and casual verve you find here. By now we know all the central characters – Rebus, Fox, Clarke – their quirks, foibles and annoying tics. And crucially, we care what happens to them.

Enough to pay nine quid for the next hardback...

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Duet in Beirut, by Mishka Ben-David: when authenticity is more than illusion

The question of authenticity hovers over all spy thrillers and crime fiction. But it's not reality we crave, it's the sense of it. The illusion of reality, if you like, so long as it's believable.

An author creates a world. We inhabit it, temporarily, accepting, if the writer is good at his or her job, its rules, regulations, the needs, wants, desires and motivations of the characters who live there. Because what we want is a story. A story that takes us away from our everyday concerns and absorbs us in other, more exciting ones.

So the novelist is essentially playing a trick.  On us, and sometimes on him- or herself too. I'm always slightly amused by the furrowed-brow method-acting 'research' which leads the creators of some, essentially lightweight entertainments to give themselves over to weeks and months of taking notes rather than writing. In a lot of cases, I'm sure it's (a) a tax-allowable excuse for hanging out with interesting folk, sometimes in glamorous foreign locations, eating and drinking extremely well; (b) a way of avoiding actually writing and (c) a method of getting out of the house. The craving of some readers, particularly in hardware-obsessed, anally-retentive macho fiction, for details of armaments, map references and cars, and in other fields for nit-picking restaurant menus and recipes (I count myself vulnerable on all counts here) allows writers to shortcut to believability through apparent knowledge of catalogue detail. Or sometimes, effective Googling.

What of the writers, though, who actually have personal experience of the extreme activities they write about? Frankly, it doesn't mean two empty chambers in a Walther PPK if they can't write. If they can't convince. 'The myth of experience' one screenwriter of my acquaintance calls it. The notion that just because you know something happened, if you were actually there, the reader/viewer has to believe your story.

John Le Carre is often cited as someone whose secret service career informs his writing, lends it a sheen of respect. Maybe, in his early books. But what carries you through a good Le Carre (and there are some duds) is the literary skill and verve, the atmosphere, the insight into characters, the moral stance which in latter years has become outrage. Stella Rimington, on the other hand, former head of Mi5, writes slight, workmanlike thrillers that never transcend the evident verisimilitude of some sequences. They're basically dull.

Among the dozens of former CIA officers who have turned their skills in dissembling to fiction, Charles McCarry is perhaps the most interesting, paralleling Le Carre (even in name) and in his prescient 1979 novel The Better Angels, predicting Islamic terrorism and passenger aircraft attacks similar to 9/11. With a recent book, The Shanghai Factor, centred on China's use of multinational companies for intelligence purposes, his contemporary relevance remains. But as he says, what he does is produce 'stories...largely imagined, but not entirely so.' McCarry has a mordant gift for taking real events and twisting them into very odd shapes indeed, notably the Kennedy assassinations in The Tears of Autumn.

All of which takes me to the recent publication, for the first time in English, of Mishka Ben-David's superb Duet in Beirut. Ben-David was a Mossad officer for 12 years, and Duet in Beirut was written as a screenplay not long after he left the Israeli secret service (which the book indicates is more like a cross between Mi6 and the SAS, with planned undercover military actions a big part of its remit).

Brilliantly translated from the original Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg, the book deals with a rogue agent who tries to make amends for a previous failure by assassinating, without permission, a senior Hezbollah figure in Beirut. His former mentor goes after him, followed by a hastily-assembled undercover team, but the book's amazing insider detail is matched by beautifully (re)created characters, families and locations, plus an utterly convincing portrayal of the inner wranglings of a secret service, and the political context in which it operates.

There are odd plot echoes of The Bourne Identity movie and  you can pick up  resonances from other films too, especially Syriana and of course Munich, but the book's building of tension and pace until the almost unbearable finale is exemplary, cool and very accomplished. Some may find the quite explicit and sentimental Zionism of at least one character difficult, but in the end, this is among the very best and most revealing spy novels I've read. And it works because a gifted author has harnessed his experience to tell a great tale very well indeed.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Dominique Manotti: Rough Trade

Dominique Manotti is a pseudonym, which sort of sets the tone for, the book, where rough trade equally defines a child prostitution ring, and the garment trade in Paris, 1980, where the workers are Turkish, and illegal. The book is available on Kindle and in paperback.

The police are corrupt and brutal, yet somehow maintain a moral compass of some kind, in the bigger issues, if not the small. Can we say beating, and even occasionally raping suspects are small things? Moral analysis must be tackled by the reader. It does not seem to be something the author spends much time on.

The people the police are up against are pretty terrifying, remember. In the late 1970s-mid 1980s, the Grey Wolves, fascist and ultra nationalist, unofficial militant arm of the Nationalist Movement Party in Turkey were active, murdering and torturing in their own country, but also in a lot of European states. Outstandingly bad people, and still cropping up to this day.

It seems it is always a bad idea taking on Turks. They fight, as many groups do, but they seem to have a predilection for organising, which many don't. The British and Commonwealth armies found that out in 1915 and 1916. Another interesting note. During the Korean War, a significant number of British and American prisoners failed under the tremendous pressure, and became informers and fellow travellers. Turks? Not a single one.

The action in Rough Trade takes place over a single month in 1980, with a great deal of cinematic jump cutting. The focal point is police headquarters, the evocatively named Passage de Desire.

One problem early on is keeping track. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, multiple strands. Second, it is difficult distinguishing the policemen, who don't have much in the way of distinctive features. Apart from Daiquin, senior, and the central character, who is gay, and who initially coerces a Turkish militant, and then falls in love with him.

By the middle of the book, the confusion has abated, and the action compels. There are more of these Manottis, but translation has not caught up yet. Worth watching out for.

Drew Ratter

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Where the Dead Men Go: Liam McIlvanney

Just got round to reading this,  second in what is being dubbed, breezily, 'Conway Trilogy 2', after an almost-quite-good-value £5 Kindle download. Just dear enough to annoy, just cheap enough to tempt. £12.99 reduced to nine quid for the paperback seems expensive too...

Anyway. I very much enjoyed All The Colours of The Town (see Thrillfilters passim) McIlvanney's debut thriller (Conway Trilogy 1) and wanted to find out what happened to Gerry Conway, ace Glasgow newshound and failing, guilt-ridden father. He's now getting another shot at fatherhood, with a new baby and a new New Zealandic bidie-in. He has, miraculously, become a PR man and then returned to what is clearly The Daily Record masquerading as The Herald. The book is nailed to 2011, oddly, and you would imagine from the negativity towards the medium of print that both those (real life) organs would be dead and buried by now. They're not, though McIlvanney's pessimisim regarding the future of newspapers, and his cynicism about their present, seems well founded, to me at least. Though if the Record and The Herald were to merge and become The Tribune, well...who knows?

What can I tell you about the plot? Jings. Murder, polis! Two rival gangland bigwigs fighting for supremacy. Corrupt council land deals and dodgy local politicians (hope McIlvanney had this properly legalled under Scots Law; there's some ready and uncomfortable identifiability with living local colour). A dead crime hack, Roma gangs in Govanhill. Paedophile prostitution. Grown-up prostitution. Assassins, Ulster terrorism and lashings of crisps and ginger beer! Actually, I meant malt whisky, wine and proper beer, old-school juicehead scribbler pubs, blues CDs and nice restaurants.

There is some brilliant descriptive writing but there's just a bit too much unlikely neon Taggartesque nonsense; things get cluttered and unconvincing towards the end. And the obsession with parenthood, lost children and fathers, inheritance and the visiting of second generation sins, becomes both distracting and in the end, a bit overwhelming. One minor detail: why is Glasgow and all its locii described with such loving, indeed moving accuracy, whereas Ayrshire's towns, coastal and inland, masquerade under pseudonyms?

I read this book a mere chucked brick from '27 Clouston Street', Gerry Conway's flat, loving the sense of place, the assured familiarity. I know present-day Govanhill a bit and I fear it was pantomimed slightly, the Roma issue somewhat caricatured. Kilmarnock and Prestwick were more than recognisable. Maybe Glasgow vibrates rather too colourfully throughout, and that is possibly a product of McIllvanney's southern hemisphere exile. Or Gerry Conway's prodigious appetite for booze, and nefarious habit of driving while well over the limit.

In conclusion: fascinating, not without its faults but addictive, stylish and just a wee bit too clever for its own good.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Glasgow - in monochrome and colour

I really enjoyed Malcolm Mackay's The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter.  Its sheer, uncompromising oddness (enormous list of characters, with descriptions, before you could start; absolute refusal to deal with Glasgow's vernacular or geography; brutally cut-back prose. The cold, semi-autistic protagonist, Calum Maclean, up and coming gunman in Glasgow's divided crime scene.

It's part of a trilogy, and I was keen to read the sequel, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, featuring more about Calum's ageing mentor, Frank Macleod. There's the same long cast list at the start, now feeling even odder and somewhat ponderous, almost amateurish. And while the influences on Mackay are again obvious (Charles Willeford, James M Cain, Hammett, Derek Raymond) the book's velocity is slower than its predecessor's.

It's still a very good read, once you're committed to the stylistic quirks. But some of the more intimate situations described stretch credulity too far, and that rigid, laconic austerity in terms of location gives way to a sudden, throwaway pin-pointing of places. Renfrew. The South Side. The West End. The descriptions are over-long and tension is built too slowly. Only in the last section of the book do you become utterly locked in to Frank's fate and Calum's role in determining it.

Getting the sequels out quickly was obviously paramount in the publisher's mind. I can understand that they had a pulp pattern to follow and the third book is already being advertised in billboards on the Glasgow Subway. But How a Gunman Says Goodbye gives every indication of too much haste, and less-than-ruthless editing. Still weird and very readable though.

Liam McIlvanney's All the Colours of the Town was published two years ago and is also a thriller set in Glasgow. It too is part of a trilogy, I now discover, following the adventures of its central character, a journalist called Conway. The sequel, Where the Dead Men Go, is out in a couple of weeks.

McIlvanney is a very different writer from Mackay. He's an academic, a professor of Scottish literature in New Zealand. He has either a major family literary heritage to draw upon, or a big bad monkey on his back (or both) due to the fact that his old man is the godfather of tartan noir, William McIlvanney. And he loves, rejoices in, absolutely wallows in the glorious, sprawling detail of Glasgow. I suppose New Zealand would do that to a guy.

I loved All the Colours of the Town (only £1.19 for Kindle now. Just buy it!). It's convincing on internal newspaper politics, made me achingly homesick for the west end of Glasgow, and is one of the very few crime novels to tackle - and it does so with an impressive sense of history - west of Scotland sectarianism and its links to Northern Irish terrorism. While some of the writing is a tad florid and there is some Martin Amis-like verbal obscurantism, there are set pieces here that will stay with you forever: Trapped in a  car during an Orange Walk in Larkhall; the various sounds of a tenement close when you're unexpectedly left at home on a weekday.

Only the bad-dad-who-never-sees-his-wean aspect of Conway's life feels like genre furniture. The rest is very assured, extremely gripping and non-formulaic. As for the sequel, well. We shall see, shortly.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Glasgow part one: Field of Blood.

The best 'Glasgow noir' books are, in my humble opinion: William McIlvanney's The Papers of Tony Veitch (just shading the same author's Laidlaw). Louise Welsh's The Cutting Room, and Frederic Lindsay's Brond. Only the last has been televised, and in an absolutely superb version directed by Michael Caton-Jones in the mid-1980s. There's a brief and not very dramatic clip on YouTube. 

But over the past few weeks I've found myself walking on the noir side of Glasgow courtesy of more recent tomes. And, having just returned to the Zetlandics after a brief sojourn back in my home city, watching BBC Scotland's Field of Blood took me back once more to the mean streets of the Dear Green Place.

Field of Blood was an odd experience. Its first outing (why are the BBC commissioning these compressed two-parters? The lamentable Shetland was another piece of televisual booksqueezing) passed me by completely, and for whatever reason I'd failed to realise it was set not just in Glasgow, but in the world of Glasgow newspapers in the 1980s. Not unfamiliar territory for me. The central character, Paddy Meehan, originates in the books of Denise Mina, of which I've read just the one, her first, Garnethill. I enjoyed it but never read anything else by her, and I'm not sure why. I've interviewed her for radio about music, and she was an absolute delight. But like Val McDermid and Alex Gray - I've read one novel each by them, too - the world of her prose was a place to which I didn't want to return.

Anyway, Field of Blood. I caught a trailer which was jaw-droppingly bizarre. It was like River City meets Life on Mars. Ford Kiernan! David Hayman! And, for goodness' sake, the great David Morrissey. All in the murky half-light of miner's strike Glasgow newsrooms, clubs and back alleys. I iPlayered the first episode and after wrestling with the self-consciously 'banteresque' dialogue at first, I began to enjoy it.

The plot was nonsensically, at times hilariously derivative, an amalgam of Bleasdale's GBH, the original State of Play (also featuring Morrissey) and (choose any episode) Taggart. But the look of the show was great, owing much to the TV adaptation of David Peace's Red Riding Quartet (featuring, ahem, David Morrissey) and the aforementioned Life on Mars (Season two, the Audi years). The cars were just about perfect (Citroen CX! Austin Princess 'Wedge'! Rover SD1!) and there was fastidious attention to detail in set design, from the Tunnock's Teacakes and early Macintosh computers to the ties, lapels and moustaches. The newsroom, though, was way too small.

There was a cartoonish element to the acting, but some of it was leeringly great, especially David Hayman as McDade, the miner's union boss. Katherine Kelley was marvellously OTT as the Armani-clad Rebecca Brooks from hell, and Morrissey reliably wide-lapelled. Ford Kiernan was all snappy one-liners hiding his  Great Inner Heartache and Vulnerability, but I warmed to his tanktops too.

Interestingly, this was written and directed by David Kane, who scripted the dismal pilot for (inexplicably recommissioned) Shetland. He's obviously far more at home on the mean streets of 80s Glasgow and in the sarcastic bastardin' verbals of the city too. The lack of time to develop character and foreboding, as in the magnificently sprawling Broadchurch, is a problem. But the seductive setting and full-on acting kind of compensate.

I liked it. In the end, it was no Red Riding or Shadow Line, and certainly no Brond, which was a strange, at times distressing and always disturbing take on the nature of evil-in-Glasgow, actually made in the era Field of Blood was set in, and paralleling its political plot in some ways. It isn't available to watch these days, though Lindsay's book, and its terrifying sequel Jill Rips (made into a movie starring, wait for it, Dolph Lundgren) are deservedly still in print.

Right, that's enough. I'll talk in due course about my other Glaswegian adventures, courtesy of Liam McIlvanney (son of) and Malcolm Mackay. But for now, have a look at Field of Blood on iPlayer while it's still available.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

A Whisky in Monsterville

Tom Morton,author of this book, is, to be open and fair, the other contributor to Thrillfilter. He did not write this review

I HAVE a considerable experience of Loch Ness and environs, and although Tom Morton in A Whisky in Monsterville exaggerates the area's essential weirdness and overall eccentricity, he only does so to a certain extent. The dangerous nature of the road up the north side, he exaggerates not at all. I can personally vouch for dangerous overtaking on the way back from many a Crofters Commission hearing, at the wheel of many an unfamiliar self drive. You know the definition of a self drive? It's a car which can go places your own never could.

Hippies settled in the environs of the loch from the sixties and on. And long before that, people who would have been called drop outs, had the term been invented. Aleister Crowley was just the most famous dafty with piercing eyes.

We already met Morton's hero, Murricane in previous novel, Serpentine. He is special forces, and vastly experienced in situations involving mayhem. But good hearted, and endlessly,hoping for a quiet life. Such a life is not available, and you have to wonder if he really wants it. 

In any event it certainly isn't available to a man of principal who finds himself in a situation involving a loathsome American evangelist with creationism on his mind, a truly terrifying psycopath called,Jenks with appropriate, tidy, killing, and collecting on his, and his employer, an American billionaire, with a mind like a sewer, and a desire for some precious rare earths, which are under Loch Ness.

Not to mention a great deal of whisky, where Murricane, like the author himself, is an expert. In fact, each chapter of the book has an accompanying whisky or whiskey. As to what drinking them, chapter by chapter would be like, I can't help you to a view. Whisky, as understood today, was not invented when I quit the booze, 20 years ago.

It looks like pretty good stuff, but in my day, the whisky strap line was "Burny. Makes you drunk". Which was good enough for us, though we really preferred very treacly rum. We were, you understand, just one generation away from merchant seamen, and learned our drinking from them.

However, getting back from the highways and byways of sentimental reminisce, A Whisky in Monsterville. How does it rate. Highly, I think.

Unlike many of those who tread the best seller trail, Tom Morton is genuinely erudite, with an enviable breadth of knowledge covering music, literature, and a lot more of what makes  life worth living so all sorts of stuff crops up to lighten and enliven the narrative. To put it another way, the skeleton of the narrative is fairly standard. How could it be otherwise?

That narrative carries you professionally along. But meanwhile the book holds you in a way most in the genre don't, through well drawn characters, humour, and yes, erudition.  

Friday, 31 May 2013

The brilliance, appetite and humanity of Inspector Montalbano

Camilleri could be perhaps described best as a maker of artefacts. Especially fine ones, which make you smile and smile.

Inspector Montalbano is really something. Humane, clever, tolerant up to a point, which of course, you would have to be to be a Sicilian police officer. And hilarious. He is also, throughout many volumes, the lover of the superb Livia, from Genoa. From where, as  I seem to recall Christopher Columbus hailed.

A serious gourmet, he maintains relationships of mutual respect with a selection of wonderful cooks. In parenthesis, here, Sicily may well be home to the finest food in Italy. A risky thing to say, but I recall a Tuscan friend of mine saying that in Tuscany, they had peasant food, but here in Sicily, ah! King's food.

In The Scent of the Night, Montalbano sets out to track out the sponsor of a Ponzi scheme, who has done the necessary runner with all clients money. Or so it appears to everybody, even to the Inspector, for a fair segment of the book. Camilerri does not write long novels, just wonderfully crafted ones.
A clue here as to why it turns out he hasn't. A spoiler I am afraid, for Faulkner aficionados. The Scent of the Night openly cites William Faulkner's great story  A Rose for Emily.

Naturally, Fazio, whose loyalty to Montalbano is absolute, and which loyalty, in an uncharacteristic twist for the genre, is completely supported by Fazio's excellent wife, plays his part, entirely unmoved if the Inspector has to do something slightly illegal to do the right thing. Likewise Cateralla, whose grasp of language is tangential, and who passes on more and more absurd excuses for Montalbano's absence to the Commissioner.

This is number six in a series of Montalbano novels which reached its 20th in 2012, when Camilerri reached the age of 87. Apparently while also being a lifelong, heavy smoker. 

When you want something immaculate to cleanse the pallet, if you enjoy your perfection with humour and solid morality, reach for one of these books.   

Drew Ratter

NOTE: Camilleri chose the name Montalbano as a tribute to his friend and fellow Marxist crimewriter/gourmand, the Catalonian Manuel Vazquez Montalban

My sacrifice: I read this so you don't have to

I thought I should read this because it is to be filmed, and we Shetlanders are endlessly fascinated by portrayals of our archipelago. Some of us - though not me - because, of course, every writer makes errors, whether in language or geography, and some of us - not me - cannot bear it, fascinated and indignant concerning bloopers.

Me, I like  ingenious plotting, great characters, and splendid writing. For contrast, take the recent dramatisation of Shetland, from Ann Cleeves, and STV's Broadchurch. The former had terrible plotting, hopeless characters, and dismal writing. It also did a complex round of the islands, regularly and inconsistently, to get from the north end of Bressay to the ferry. Which would not have mattered at all. If not for the aforementioned plotting, characters, writing etc.

Broadchurch was not adapted from a novel, had one principal writer, and gripped from beginning to end. It was great, with excellent actors as well. 

So. You will note that I have got this far in without really making much of SJ Bolton's Sacrifice at all. So 
no sacrifices by me so far.  But it won't do. It is truly terrible. A small but telling detail. What, for God's sake is a "soft, sweet, eastcoast accent"? One such is possessed by a WPC, where it proves that she doesn't come 
from Shetland? Peterhead? Peterheid?

Anyway. Women are dug from the peat. They might be ancient, due to the  curative properties of the moor. But as it turns out, they aren't. It's all about a sort of Shetlandic sub-species of trow. Full sized, and very clever, and born out of women who get sacrificed (hence the title), and a massive conspiracy which manages to include pretty well the whole workforce at the local hospital, and so on.

I think that covers it, though I was speedreading towards the end. Well, after, say, page 23. 

I have read it (well,sort of) so you don't have to. And because I can't really be bothered with 
the supernatural, I probably won't trouble with the movie. Or definitely.

Drew Ratter

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Hacks, heroes and hopefully avoiding legal action: the journalist as novelist and protagonist

Anyone who has ever been involved with the Scottish newspaper industry should undoubtedly beg, borrow, steal or otherwise obtain a copy of Matt Bendoris's first novel Killing with Confidence. I can promise that they will read it with tremendous enjoyment.

Unless - or maybe especially if -  they happen, lightly or heavily disguised, to be in it.

And striding colourfully through the book they may imagine they can identify more than the models for Bendoris's array of  hacks, former editors, editors, news editors, editorial secretaries, union reps and human resources managers. Cops, therapists, celebrities, businessmen and women, gangsters and restaurateurs - the full panoply of West Central Scotland tabloidism is here, some individuals more recognisable than others.

I trust that Bendoris's nose for a 'legal' - he is chief features writer for the Scottish Sun - will keep him out of trouble in the courts over this highly entertaining book - I certainly hope so. Some of the 'originals' are dead and as for others, well. I will say nothing more, other than I expect a few tweaks before the paperback version comes out in the summer. That's the great thing about Kindle releases: the editing process can be continuous.

There are some brilliant tropes in what is often reminiscent of Colin Bateman's early Ulster black farces (before he became just 'Bateman' and too easily confused with the protagonist of American Psycho): The serial killer Osiris, fuelled by American self-help CDs. The Jekyll and Hyde detective with Tourette's. The hilarious central character April Lavender and the Bendoris stand-in Connor 'Elvis' Presley.

 It feels slightly unfinished - the ending is rushed and the sense of scores being settled may be a little too strong for some. It's perhaps a stringent edit and a couple of more drafts away from being properly done and dusted. But as it stands, it's a great read, and less than three quid on your Kindle.

There are some great illustrations of pre- (and probably post-) Leveson tabloid tactics, and probably the best swearing and deep-fried food consumption I have experienced outside of John Niven's  wonderful The Amateurs.

Just beware, though if you have a Paperwhite: My version loaded the book to start four chapters from the end. Which kind of spoilt the whodunnit element when I finally realised and started at the beginning...

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Reykjavik! Reykjavik!

....which is a seriously obscure Scottish punk rock quotation, from the wonderful single Radio Iceland, released in, oh, 1980-odd by Inverness band Those Intrinsic Intellectuals. How I wish I still owned it...but I don't need to, as it's on YouTube! Hooray!

But that's not important right now. I wish to delve into the world of Icelandic crime fiction, sub-set as it is of what we must call Scandic Noir. I nearly  gave up on Arnaldur Indridason's The Draining Lake as I couldn't make head nor tail of bits of it. Especially on the first page, which has one of the most confusing first paragraphs in crime fiction history:

"She stood motionless for a long time, staring at the bones as if it should not be possible for them to be there. Any more than for her."

Sorry. Don't understand. Maybe it's just me. Maybe it's a translation thing.

Now, I'd read a couple of Indridason's books in the past - Jar City, which became a much-praised movie, and its much inferior sequel Silence of the Grave - and quite liked them, although I felt they owed an uncomfortably large debt to the awesome Martin Beck, the Laidlaw of Scandic Noir, as written by the husband and wife duo of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I plan to read that entire series again soon. It's a cliche to say that without Beck there would be no Wallander, no Girl With Dragon Tattoo, no Killing. But it's true. And none of Wahloo and Sjowall's inheritors come close to being as good.

Indridason for me worked as much lesser Scandic crime does - unfamiliar, absorbing setting, predictable procedural plot - but I have to say that I'm glad I persevered with The Draining Lake. I was drawn into the doomy, obsessive world of Detective Erlendur, with his various, very Icelandic interests - family history, abandoned children, missing persons, history, Halldor Laxness - and the Cold War elements of Iceland's political past were both enlightening and fascinating.

Anyway, it was only two quid from the Red Cross, as was his early novel Operation Napoleon, which I'm going to read next. Or at least try.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Iain Banks: one or two thoughts

I used to think that the Iain-and-Iain-M-Banks phenomenon was as if somebody, say Kazuo Ishiguro or Ian McEwen, roughly his contemporaries, wrote twice as fast, twice as much, twice as wittily and with double the range too. Don't forget Banks began his career as the enfant terrible of literary fiction, with The Wasp Factory  , Walking on Glass and The Bridge. How were we readers to know he was actually a frustrated sci-fi author, with several completed, unpublished books already under his belt? Well, Walking on Glass should have clued us in, I suppose.

Late last year I finished his latest 'M Book', The Hydrogen Sonata - a real return to top form, I thought, after the not completely satisfying Surface Detail. I felt seduced once more by The Culture, Banks's near-utopian civilisation where death is essentially optional and technology unlimited, and decided to re-read the entire series, becoming satisfyingly stuck after Excession. I would, I thought, return to the brilliant wit of the ship minds in due course.

Stonemouth, the last 'M-less' book, I wasn't sure about. An unaccustomed looseness of plotting was eased by the assurance and ease of the writing, but there was a nagging sense that we'd been here before. Transition, on the other hand, the 2009 book that crossed the division between 'M' and 'M-less', I loved in every way. Bracing and brimful of ideas, slippery and full of pungent fun, trenchant questions.

It will be apparent that I am a Banks fan. I have read the entire canon, much of it twice, in one instance - Raw Spirit -  with a degree of irritation. I have interviewed him, never face-to-face, on several occasions, always enjoying encounters with a man of great good humour and insight, but who I always felt, even in a full-on Stark Talk encounter with Edi Stark, gave a lot away to avoid giving away too much. Maybe kind of shy, I don't know. He's responsible for the only daytime play ever on BBC Radio Scotland of a Frank Zappa tune.

And now this. Now this foul and appalling news, two days after April Fool's (doubtless a quirk of timing that appeals). Bravely and humorously faced. No way out but the worst.

Things can happen. It's not over yet. Like thousands of others, I wish Iain and his wife Adele the best during the difficult months ahead. I look forward to the new book, which like all the others I could afford to, I'll buy in hardback.

"There's an old Sysan saying that the soup of life is salty enough without adding tears to it."
Iain M Banks, Look to Windward.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Martin Amis's Other People: A Mystery Story.

It’s not that the bookfields on which I normally graze don’t provide pleasure, stimulation and the alleviation of boredom. It’s just that sometimes you’re made to realise that they’re full of crap. And you’d stopped noticing.

Such has been my experience over the last few days as I’ve read Martin Amis’s 1981  novel Other People. It’s subtitled ‘A Mystery Story’, which drew my eye to it, in the British Heart Foundation charity shop described below. But the mystery, or mysteries it delves into are a great deal more metaphysical than in the run-of-the-word-processor thrillers I’ve been used to of late. Other People is a long way from pulp fiction.

Using a very formal circular, or elliptical, or double-helix structure, Amis tells the story of  an amnesiac woman called (by herself) Mary Lamb, whose descent into a hell of ‘other people’ is recounted in prose of such breathtaking brilliance you smell, see, hear and feel her every newly-discovered sensation.
Part Kafka, part Amis’s beloved Nabokov - there’s a quote from Lolita towards the end - this is a transitional book, the bridge from early work like The Rachel Papers and Success to the great London trilogy - Money, London Fields, The Information. The immersion in London’s underworld, the grotesque characters, the physicality and griminess of the later books are all here. But this is essentially a book of ideas. Identity, gender, time, perception, good and evil. It’s also very funny, and may be the best ever novel about drunkenness.

It’s tricksy, but not in the way a generic detective novel is. Amis’s literary skills and intellectual firepower are, as usual, fully on display. In no way is he slumming it, as many downmarketing academics playing with crime fiction are . He’s not ‘using the form’. It’s a complex, difficult book.

I found it enormously rewarding. And disturbing. Because it made me appreciate the self-imposed banality of much of the stuff I’ve been reading. The thick-ear, masturbatory stupidity churned out by highly-educated writers who should know better. Who’re after cheap thrills, cash and public impact, with maybe one dumb moral point sticking out like a hammered thumb: Newspapers are dodgy; greed is bad; people do bad things; gosh, even good people sometimes do bad things. Duh.

These are the kind of people who hate Amis because he makes them feel inadequate. He makes their prose look turgid and their ambitions small.

This book was written 32 years ago. It is as visceral, shocking, formally brilliant and verbally pyrotechnical as it was on publication. It's a short book. It makes a lot of thicker tomes seem shrivelled.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

If you happen to be in Aberdeen...

...then have a gander at the British Heart Foundation charity shop in Union Street. Not the specialised 'furniture and electrical' one. The run-of-the-mill auld-claes-books-and-Nana-Mouskouri-CDs one.

Huge selection of new and nearly-new crime fiction, proper litrachoor and thrillers for £2.00 a pop. I bought the following:

Tony Hillerman - a special friend

Drew Ratter writes:

There are 18 Leaphorn/Chee novels, written between 1970 and 2006. Hillerman wrote a lot of other books, including a delightful memoir, Seldom Disappointed, which covers, among other things, his experiences as a Marine during World War Two

After the war, he settled in New Mexico, working as a journalist, and then as a full time novelist and teacher. Every word he wrote demonstrated the most immense respect and affection for the Native American people of the region, principally the Navajo.

As I said, there are 18 books featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. It is not pitching it to strongly to say I love them. They qualify as one of the world's great roman-fleuve, so it is important to read them in order. At one point, when I was travelling a lot, I read them all, one after the other, and I was vexed when I finished.

Leaphorn is a sceptical voice, dubious of the value of some traditions, though recognising the impact that beliefs can have on flesh and blood. Chee, the younger man, is heavily involved in traditional ways of living and being. Both are absolutely believable, as are the multitude of others who appear, disappear, and reappear over the years.

The quality and depth of Hillerman's research into, and the immense lightly worn knowledge of, not just Navajo, but a wide range of traditional societies across the United States is likewise matchless.  

His commitment was appreciated by the Navajo people, who named him a special friend of the Dineh, the people. This delighted him, and he would refer to it as the greatest honour he ever received. 

It is that commitment which shines through all of Hillerman's work. A depth of feeling which must approach love, and which is by no means elegiac. He considers the Navajo as a very successful culture, with a rich future as well as a past. Interestingly, he put down as his major influence, Arthur Upfield, a pre-war Australian writer of detective fiction, whose hero was a half Aboriginal detective called Napoleon Bonaparte.  One to check out?

I may well do,  it for the mean time, once I get the better of my current book mountain, I expect I will go back to Leaphorn and Chee. That will be quite soon, I hope!

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Just the 900 pages, then: Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games

Drew Ratter writes:

Most things about India are remarkable. Its history, vast and almost eternal, its size, its great number of peoples, cultures and religions, which have all lived together remarkably well, albeit with incidents. Some of them major.

Another remarkable feature is the fact that British people seem to be perfectly welcome there, which either means that the history is not as frightful as revisionists may suggest. Or the Indian people possess a lot more forbearance than, say, the British on the evidence of the current UK government and the depressing UKIP. Or God help us, the current Scottish 'Yes' campaign, which has some pretty stabby outriders!

Anyway. Something else pretty astounding out of India, which I came across a year or two ago. Is Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra. At 946 pages in paperback, it either had to be an epic masterpiece, or overwritten hellery. It isn't the latter.
Ganesh Gaitonde is a Don in the complex and labyrinthine world of Indian gangs. Inspector Sartaj Singh is a policeman who does not seem to have got as rich as his opportunities might have permitted. 

We follow in detail the rise of the first, and become aware that the second is held very slightly in contempt for not taking proper advantage of this opportunities.
There are a lot of really impressive ideas in this book. I particularly like the Indian words not having italics let alone translations. That would have been harder pre Google, mind you.

Likewise, Suleiman Isa, Gaitonde's Muslim rival in the Capo game, watches the Godfather trilogy endlessly. We, of course, know that Godfather 2 is the eternal masterpiece. This kind of judgement is not made in Sacred Games.
Really, its too big and awe-inspiring, this book, for me to do much more with in this telegraphic forum. And of course, it has been a world best seller, and has been put out in multiple translations.

There must, though, be some of you who have not read it. You will remedy that, if you have any commitment at all, and you have a huge treat waiting for you.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Carlo Lucarelli's Carte Blanche: Close, but no cigarillo

Drew Ratter writes:

I started this hoping not to be disappointed. After all, the end of the war in Italy is an incredibly interesting period. Fascism lasted much longer in Italy than it did in Germany, though it ended sooner. Mussolini, of course, after the Italian surrender, was "rescued" by German paratroopers and Otto Skorzeny, and stunk up the place for a while longer, leading the Republic of Salo till the Allies finally got the place tidied up.

This coincided with serious partisan activity, Nazi atrocities, and all sorts of score-settling. And the same police force took on different personae throughout.
It is also a fairly little known and studied period, at least in this country. So wonderful terrain for a really excellent writer of the kind of WW2 shoulder-season fiction we like. 

Carlo Lucarelli was a new author to me, but well recommended. 
So far, I have read the first book in his De Luca trilogy,  Carte Blanche, and I think he is a good writer. That's important. Being a good hand at structure and narrative is essential, but it is kind of wasted if you deal in clunkers and cliches. Pity that 'Carte Blanche' is also the name of Jeffrey Deaver's modern take on the James Bond franchise.

Lucarelli's book is, as per the impression I have tried to give, a fair piece of work. Decently written, and well translated by Michael Reynolds. It is not, however, that for which I had hoped. There is not enough stuff in it.

This really is an utterly fascinating period, not for its great historical importance, because Italy never made any great historical contribution to World War 2, or its aftermath. It is in a way fascinating because of that, because of the dynamic of the invasion of Italy, and Von Kesselring's strategically brilliant defensive retreat, because of the activities of the partisans, because of the Italian Social Republic, because of the role of the Mafia.

All of that must be fodder for a series of works by a really remarkable writer, who can write, but can weave in period atmosphere and history through character. Lucarelli is not that writer, De Luca is almost the protagonist, and the De Luca trilogy is not that work. I may read the other two. Later.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Pierre Lemaitre's Alex: A panic attack on every page

If you've watched any Spiral you'll already have a grounding in the French legal system, and you'll know all about investigating magistrates and just how they can complicate a police procedural. You'll also be aware that the French appear to specialise in combinations of straight policier with grim and gory horror, mixed with mordant wit.

But that won't prepare you for Alex by Pierre Lemaitre.

It's been kind of touted as a French Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but that's very unfair. It's vastly superior and satisfyingly shorter. It's properly written. And it has a plot so twisted and yet so inexorably logical that you can only sit back when it's finished, wrung out and totally, horribly impressed. Oh, and Frank Wynne, translator, has done a wonderful job, I think.

It is full of horror and violence. And there's an already infamous section involving rats. Nine of them. But the real briliance of the book is the way characters are drawn to ensnare your sympathies, only for that to be well and truly undermined. Perhaps.The rats sequence recalls both 1984 and Derek Raymond's jaw-droppingly disturbing I Was Dora Suarez. A book which caused its publisher's reader to vomit at his desk and an appalled Secker and Warburg to dump the author. The French, though, loved it.

The plot? A girl called Alex is kidnapped from a Parisian street, imprisoned and tortured. But why? The police, led by tiny (four foot eleven) and irascible detective Camille Verhoeven investigate. And frankly I don't want to say any more. Except that all is not necessarily as it seems. This is a great deal more than the sadistic kidnap/chase it might at first appear.

This is the first Lemaitre book to be translated into English, I think, and Maclehose promise 'more Verhoeven in spring 2014' at the end of the paperback edition. But when you go to as ordered, there's nothing but a rather tawdry piece of puffery for Alex (you're redirected to .  Oddly, Alex is the middle book in the Verhoeven trilogy, so it'll be interesting to see what emerges. I'm hoping it's the first volume, which may explain what the hell happened with Camille's wife Irene...

Wikipedia indicated William McIlvanney as an influence, and there are some similarities with Jean-Christophe Grange (referenced with tip-of-the-hat minor character names twice) although the lurid over-egging of plot you find in things like Flight of the Storks is exchanged here for something much, much better engineered. Excellent stuff.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

For St Patrick's Day: Entering the very very violent world of Adrian McKinty. For 89 pence!

Tom Morton writes:

I'm not going to spend a lot of time reviewing this just now, as I have the other two books in the 'Dead' series by Adrian McKinty loaded and ready to go on the Kindle. And I can't wait to get started on them.

But seeing as it's St Paddy's Day I thought an Irish dimension to Thrillfilter wouldn't go amiss. And this, McKinty's first book, is currently available for just 89p as a Kindle download.

Dead I Well May Be is strong stuff, though. Extremely violent in an occasionally self-conscious James Ellroy manner, and featuring a central character who has a tendency to quote poetry and the classics, as well as meander through the horrors and happiness of his Ulster past. While killing and maiming sometimes relatively innocent people in the most awful way. You will discover, if you didn't already know, what a 'Belfast six-pack' is. And it's most decidedly nothing attractive.

The plot? A classic (and full of classical references) revenge thriller, featuring Michael, on the run from benefit fraud in Belfast. And that's the least of his problems. Now working for an Irish crime syndicate in New York as an enforcer. Things do not go well. And then they get worse.

Huge pace and energy, some wonderfully crazed meditative moments, A great picture (from McKinty's own experience) of the 90s Irish underground in NYC. I absolutely loved it. On to the next! Oh, and McKinty, who now lives in Australia, has an excellent blog.

Women writers, eh? Madeline Miller's the Song of Achilles: An unworthy Orange Prize winner?

Drew Ratter writes:

I think a reasonable question to ask is: Why? 

I just finished reading The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller. It took me quite a while, because I was reading a lot of other stuff while I picked it up and put it down. I always read like that, of course, three or four books at a time, and sometimes there will be one which gets forgotten and lost completely, and never finished. 

Actually, that happens more with the Kindle than it does with physical books. You never trip over the mislaid volume, it just gets further and further from the front of the device.
So the 'why?' can be asked for a number of reasons. Why did I finish it? It was quite early on that I realised that it was a rather overblown, vulgar piece of work. That the characters were quite two dimensional. 

And then: Why did the author think that the best way to resolve every situation she got her characters into was to bring on the supernatural? It is pretty well never the right thing, and an active scrap between Achilles and Scamander, the river god with his mighty bludgeon is, in addition, absurd.
His mother, of course, is a sea-nymph, and hence divine. And she doesn't like Patroclus, his love, in life, and eventually in death.

No answer comes. Supernatural solutions are just an easy way to resolution, without all the bother of actually solving the situation through, well, either straightforward narrative development. Or indeed some of the more tricksy kind. The gods did it.

The other 'why?' might be: 

Why did this fairly mediocre piece of work win the 2012 Orange Prize (for fiction written by a woman)? How does that reflect on the Orange Prize? Kathryn Hughes, biographer of the immensely great George Eliot, said she was sure Eliot would never have allowed on of her  books into a gender specific competition. Neither Nadime Gordimer nor A S Byatt allow their works to be put forward.

At the same time, the most utterly remarkable of contemporary English novelists, Hilary Mantel, is up for this year's Women's Prize for Fiction, privately sponsored this year and no longer Orange, and if she wins it will not only be deserved but an enormous vote of confidence in the awards.. Of course, she wins pretty well anything and everything she is entered for at present, after years of being paid little attention to. 

Maybe that says more about prizes, fads, fashions and judges than it does about writers. And given how many writers with real ability don't get either recognition or money, I suppose, the more the merrier.

But I can't see that the winner of 2012's Orange Prize remotely represents the best fiction written by a woman in that year.  Or a man.