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.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Flashman: avoid all imitations. And consider just...listening

Drew Ratter writes:

I am a big fan of George MacDonald Fraser. Which means, give me more! The problem seems to be that there isn't any more. There is quite a lot of the authentic, top quality GMF stuff, though, and certainly you can reread that maybe once a decade. Likewise, his memoir of his World War Two service in Burma, Quartered Safe Out Here is a complete delight.  

Fraser's Flashman novels - which would be what we are talking about, as his other fiction is middling at best - have a rash of imitations. But nothing I have found even manages to come in as decent pastiche.

For a slacker like me, reading novels was, for a long time, how I got my history. More recently I have changed, and read history constantly. Why this has happened, I am not sure, but partly at least, it has been through listening rather than reading. 

An subscription to Amazon's Audible service is a fantastic bargain, if you have to spend a lot of time driving. Eight pounds a month gets you a download a month, and naturally, you want the best value for money. That tends to be very long works for history, which then show you how much you don't know.

But I still like the fiction, as well. And anyway if Baudrillard is onto anything, fact or fiction, it might make less odds than we used to think in our Anglo-Saxon ghetto. 

So these days, you pore over the Kindle store, and if it is cheap enough, you go for it.
It is fair that, having downloaded and otherwise acquired some pretty ghastly material, during the quest, I should help others to steer clear. These are a couple of GMF imitators worth dodging, however keen you might be.

Avoid anything by Patrick Mercer. Anthony Morgan is his hero, in Afghanistan, a location none of these guys can resist. But Morgan just doesn't ring true.

Likewise anything by Robert Brightwell. He has hitched his wagon firmly to the Flashman star, methodology, name and everything, just a generation back from GMF. But no good. Brightwell's 'Thomas Flashman' even sails with Thomas Cochrane, and somehow even makes him a bit two-dimensional. 

Now, Cochrane, there was an incredible man. The basis for Patrick O Brian's hero Jack Aubrey, and hence for one of the towering works of literary genius conceived in the 20th century. So making him slightly tedious is a challenge in itself!

But really, Brightwell and his Thomas Flashman! The books simply don't work. There's no magic at all.

The search for Flashman substitutes of quality and distinction of course goes on. And I will let you know!

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Why detail and accuracy matter:the ethics of detective fiction

This is a subject to return to in more depth. However, the internet search that resulted in finding the academic paper linked to here was inspired by the argument of a minority that the inaccuracies and general carelessness and stupidity in TV's Shetland 'don''t matter because it's television.' The Shetland of Shetland is not real, they argue. It's 'only' telly. You might as well say it's 'only' art.

Well, that leads us into all kinds of areas for discussion, including: how necessary is factual and historical accuracy in fiction? Is crime fiction/film an escape, or does it offer the possibility of real moral engagement?

As a beginning, this paper by Eleanor Bell on Ian Rankin and the ethics of crime fiction is a brilliant look at the very serious intent with which Rankin approaches his work. In which fastidious accuracy and respect for both sources and setting are paramount.

Monday, 11 March 2013

God help me, I watched the second episode

From comments around Shetland today on last night's episode, and on the Twittersphere, I'd say percentage-wise it's 80-20 dumbstruck at the sheer awfulness of Shetland. The 20 per cent loved it with a great and surpassingly sentimental landscapery love.

Tonight I was in the end reduced to giggles. Not at the appalling editing of the Up Helly A' sequence (day, then it's night, then it's day, a few vikings, a lot of vikings, setting fire to the boat, not setting fire to the boat, then into Promote Shetland's excellent footage of the actual winter festival. Which is vast, crazy, rather wonderful, and frankly makes what was on telly look rather silly.

No, it was the predictable bathos of the plot, and the hyper-oxygenated (in one case, via a cylinder) acting of the principals.  With the exception of the great Stephen Robertson, who was barely in it tonight. Rather too good, I fear. Don't forget he actually played Jimmy Perez, in the Radio Four adaptation of Ann Cleeves's White Nights.

I will leave you with an invitation to view tomorrow's Scottish Sun, which is devoting Page 8 to the show, and indeed to my thoughts on it. And the following quotes:

"As far as I'm concerned, this is a suspicious death."

"Just got the pathologist's report. You were right. Foul play!"

"They say, on a clear day you can see Norway...and Iceland."

But not Denmark. Where Sarah Lund sits, slowly shaking her head...her jumper's status is safe.

Most watched TV programme at 9.00pm on Sunday with 6.4 million viewers, mind you. Probably a lot less tonight. But I fear, I truly fear, they may commission a series.

Dalry's Volunteer and Masonic Arms, and the ferry from Largs to Millport, better start preparing for the tellytourists.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

'Shetland' - bloody revenge of the enraged cellphone user

The truth is, Mima (or Mina, or Meena or whoever the hell one of the only two real Shetlanders with speaking roles was playing) was killed by an enraged TV scriptwriter who, during his four hour research trip to Hjaltland and environs, couldn't get 4G, 3G or any damn G at all (save that gee-gee 3 used in their advert) to update Facebook, check his emails and Tweet about how far north he was.

So now you know.

Actually, that isn't true, just in case you were wondering. Myrna (or Marnie or Morna) was actually shot by a furious representative of the Danish national TV corporation, severely pissed off at an attempt to make a murder mystery where it is always so bloody dark, even in summer, even at midday,  my Tesco telly wouldn't show anything but weird shadows of a woman in a horned (horned?) viking helmet.

I'm lying. Not about the horns.

She was killed by members of Shetland ForWirds, the dialect campigning group, berserk with anger at the gallimaufry (Celtic, not Norse word) of accents paraded here. Northern Irish? Surely they're not going to pretend that's a Bressay lilt? No "She came here on holiday". After seeing this, it's doubtful if anyone else will, not unless they're keen on digging up skulls in surpassingly dreich weather. In Ayrshire, where most of 'Shetland' was actually filmed. Sorry, and Renfrewshire.


I have not read Red Bones, the Ann Cleeves novel 'Shetland' is based on. I have tried, but I find Cleeves' style of detective fiction, which is sort of Agatha Christie meets Patricia Cornwell, round at Colin Dexter's house, pretty alienating. I have struggled through the first Jimmy Perez book, Raven Black, and it looks like chunks of that have been lifted and chucked into the tellymix too. Because Up Helly A' is irresistible to tellyvolk, even if you do film in summer and then pretend everything goes pitch dark when the street lights go off...even though it's dark at noon, and...oh never mind. I was expecting David Kane's script to strip off a lot of the angsty wallpaper,  all the Inner Wondering About Dark Secrets Of The Past. But no. They were there, just jerkily presented in a form of televisual shorthand.  A form few, if any could make head nor tail of.

The characters were confusing. The accents were generally odd, with the exception of Sandra Voe and Stephen Robertson, who is such an outstanding actor (superb in He Kills Coppers, Red Riding and a lot more) and so obviously A Real Shetlander, that he threatened to tip the action heavily towards himself whenever he opened his mouth. Dougie Henshall, who can be very good, seems to have decided that drunken slurring is the way to a Shetland accent. He's been mixing with the wrong crowd.

I know most people won't care about the ludicrous abuse of Shetland's geography, or about the way a genuine piece of history (the Shetland Bus operation) has been traduced in the story. I know quite a lot about what happened in Shetland during World War Two. Some of it was terrible. Some of it was worse than that. There was unbelievable heroism and great tragedy. To see it reduced to a chessboard TV murder plotline is actually a bit upsetting.

'Shetland' and Red Bones both use a place, a people and a history as local colour for a sub-Taggartian, linear-with-flashbacks whodunnit. The TV treatment is dull, unimaginative, creaky and is a throwback in writing and direction to pre-digital drama. It's Softly Softly, not the Shadow Line. And most obviously not ITV's vastly superior Broadchurch, with which it goes head-to-head on Monday.

There has been a great deal of bigging-up of 'Shetland' in Shetland, not to mention tremendous enthusiasm and some of the islands' promotional tourist cash ploughed into the production. The end result felt like a betrayal.

And in fact, I know who killed Meernamornamynamoira: It was one of those native Shetlandic bagpipers. you know, the ones at the traditional Shetland 'kaylee' Dalry.

Max Allen Collins: Stakhanovite or Fordist, he's worth a read

Drew Ratter writes:

Max Allen Collins. I came across him because for a while he was a giveaway on Kindle. Gone far too dear now, regrettably.

He is fantastically prolific, and hopefully made a reasonable bag of cash from Road to Perdition, which was a pretty good gangster film, excellent Tom Hanks, weak Jude Law, and a brilliant late performance by Paul Newman. It was a graphic novel, by the way, which makes Collins more and more like a renaissance man(he did another version after the release of the movie, a tie in novel; indeed there's a whole series of 'Road to...' books) 

God knows how many tie-ins he's written. One other is American Gangster, which I have not read. It isn't a very comprehensible thing to do, really. Dr Who novelisations, anyone?
An excellent movie though, with real people, like Bumpy Johnson, and his successor in the heroin business, the brilliant Frank Lucas. His innovation was bringing in pure heroin in (or under, depending on which story you believe) coffins returning from Vietnam. Entrepreneurial or what?
The Nathan Heller novels are what I devoured one after the other in Inverness, with which there is no other connection. They're good, likewise built with real historical figures, from Ma Barker and Baby Face Nelson to Amelia Earhart, in Flying Blind, to the Kingfish, Huey Long, himself, in Blood and Thunder. You can see the point, strong characters and easy research. Speed!

Among Heller's close friends he numbers Frank Nitti, a notorious gangland figure, and among his lovers, the aforesaid Amelia Earhart and Sally Rand. The latter was most famous for her bubble dance.

Collins is one of the kind of American writing industries that produce  the kind of world beating TV we all love. Individual talent and Stakhanovism just can't produce this kind of mass and volume. We have to look for Fordism, and the kind of techniques which build a Liberty Ship in nine days.

With the amount of material by Collins on the market, there is bound to be chaff, as well as real wheat. Anybody wanting to have a go should stick with the Nathan Heller novels. That's enough commitment, I think. But, as I say, they're good! 

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Robert Harris, Jeffrey Archer, and how we got spy novels instead of a computer industry

Drew Ratter writes:

We better not leave Robert Harris out of the field of excellence, I think. He gets packaged a bit in the blockbuster category, but he is extremely bright, did excellent research long before he could afford to buy so much of it, and writes very well.

I didn't read him for quite a while because of a category error. I thought he was like Jeffrey Archer, a truly terrible writer. Don't know why. No excuses, a heartfelt apology.

So, Enigma. The story of Bletchley Park is pretty marvellous as documentary, and I wondered what fictionalising would add.

Quite a bit, actually. Harris is pretty comfortable in the period, and handles it well. The chilly damp of war time Britain, the diverse and unorthodox code breakers, the absolutely vital nature of the work on Naval Enigma. It's all handled very intelligently and with depth.

It isn't the place to stop, though. Your experience will be much enriched by getting a bit deeper into the real residents of Bletchley Park. Try The Secret Life of Bletchley Park, by Sinclair McKay. I was interested to note that the Honourable Sarah Baring's obituary was in the Times only last month.

One reason for reading Enigma, and in pursuing an interest in the period is, of course, our standard British puzzlement at lost opportunities. The developments and innovations made atBletchley certainly rank high there. There was, through work by Alan Turing, young Jericho's boss in Enigma, and the now much less known (he was working class) genius Tommy Flowers, the basis for a world leading computer industry.

So what happened? The establishment ordered the destruction of Colossus, the highest peak of Bletchley computing, and swore everybody to secrecy for the duration of the Cold War.

Which becomes the focus of our ongoing interest in spies and their secret world, probably much more competent and intellectually satisfying in fiction than in fact.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Malcolm Mackay's The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. Beyond pulp

'Pulp' has become a fashionable term, fuelled partly by the similarities of e-publishing to the cheap'n'cheerful form of piling out downmarket fiction in the USA from the 1930s to the 1950s. The parallels are striking: short wordcounts, brutal, sometimes near-parody noir subject matter, low prices, fast production, and writing furiously for money. Pricing is another thing. The current technique of using KDP Select, to offer books free for a limited period, then hike the price and hope for spillover sales, reflects in some ways the cheap magazine-to-book punting of the past. Tony Black mines this approach to what appears to be great success, though it looks like a tremendous amount of work.

I've downloaded and abandoned books that were being punted in this way on Amazon's Deal of the Day - notably Helen Fitzgerald's The Devil's Staircase and Chris Ewan's Safe House, both of which I suffered a severe allergic reaction to after five pages (brutalised chicklit and clunky supermarket psychosis, respectively). And that's the risk for publishers. Taste and try? Yeah, but if it makes you spit...

From the pulp point of view, Doug Johnstone, whose early work - Tombstoning, The Ossians - I  adored (and both available at £1.65 each on Amazon UK for K), has embraced the form fully since Hit and Run, which I'm afraid I just couldn't get on with. Too much Shallow Grave. But hey,what do I know?  It's been optioned for TV. The earlier Smokeheads - much better -  was a kind of transition into what seems to be a highly stylised, compressed kind of writing. I'll see what the new one, Gone Again, is like.

Which brings me to Malcolm Mackay. The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter (loving that pun) is the first in a trilogy of novels about Glasgow gunman Calum Maclean. The second, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, is coming soon.

Mackay is from Stornoway, aged 31, and he is part of no literary clique. No university education, partly home-educated due to illness and he has rarely left the island of Lewis. Initially I suspected he was an English teacher engaged in some affectionate literary tributes to influences like Hammett and Thompson, but no, he worked only sporadically in call centres and being published - by Pan, in hardback - is like the greatest adventure on earth, according to this excellent interview by Jackie McGlone. Hates research, which really struck a chord with me. So many writers are obsessed with research and background details to the detriment of their work. Has only been to Glasgow three or four times...

That means that despite being Glasgow-set, there is nothing to give The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter the 'Glasgow noir' flavour pioneered by the great William McIlvanney in Laidlaw. Which, almost inconceivably in this digital age, appears to be out of print and unKindled.

No streets are named by Mackay. His could be any big city, really. Anywhere in the world, as the language is devoid of Scottish patois, slang or dialect. It's very far from a whodunnit. You know from the word go what's happening, what's going to happen. But this book captures better than any Scottish crime novel I've read (save Louise Welsh's stunning The Cutting Room) the sheer pathological  blankness of true evil.

And it's written with a cool, understated, present-tense clarity that is, yes, hugely influenced by the classic US noir writers like Willeford and Thompson, but comes without the sense of self-conscious imitation, of mediation, you get in others who have adopted the pulp model. It's laconic, threatening, full of dread and brutality. Calum is an amazing character, so sympathetic, so dangerous, so appalling. So...measured.

It's a fantastically powerful  piece of work. Can't wait for the next instalment. Very expensive, though, for the moment - £6.60 on Kindle, last time I looked, and no paperback until June. Ironic. But then this is l'haute pulpe!

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Drinking John Rebus under the table while listening to some pretty good records

The link at the end is to a wee piece I wrote for the Caledonian Mercury online newspaper, one of my Malt and Barley Review whisky columns, which appear there weekly, usually on a Monday. I thoroughly enjoyed Ian Rankin's most recent book, the 'return of John Rebus' Standing in Another Man's Grave, and not just because in it Rebus listens to my radio show and quotes an old Scotsman column. There's a real sense of affection and relaxation in Rankin's writing here. The many references to music (from the title onwards) and whisky fit seamlessly with the road-movie elements of the several trips up and down the A9.

It's as if Rankin really decided to indulge himself, and just enjoy the ride. It's looser, less glum than some of his other work.

Rankin is on record as saying that he and Rebus wouldn't get on, that they're very different people. They'd spend a few minutes chatting about Edinburgh pubs and music, and then go their separate ways. A few minutes? When they clearly have the same record collections and their drinks cabinets contain the same liquids?

So, here's a chance (spoiler alert - best if you've read the book, which is still ludicrously overpriced on Kindle) to indulge in the Great John Rebus Standing In Another Man's Grave Rock'n'Roll Drinking Game. Preferably with friends. And not while driving.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Manuel Vazquez Montalban: difficult, difficult, paella difficult

Some people absolutely hate Manuel Vazquez Montalban's Pepe Carvalho books, and I can understand why. They're not easy. They're tricksy, full of in-jokes, intellectual flights of fancy, extended tributes to and parodies of various philosophical, political and culinary belief systems. You can sometimes feel the translator about to explode as he tussles with Catalan and Spanish puns. The plots can appear simplistic and clumsy, but they're really not the point. Murder in the Central Committee is the best book about the failure of socialism I've ever read. All of them are sumptuously, brilliantly detailed on food and sex, to the extend that it can all be a bit...upsetting. They're very funny. And deadly serious.

At first you think that Pepe's habit of lighting fires at home with books from his shelves - all ones he's read, incidentally - is a running gag. It's not. This is a writer who was imprisoned under Franco. A post-Marxist whose hero is disillusioned but still, rampantly passionate about politics, really. Pepe is both dissolute and highly moral, with a heart of golden truffle. And he knows the one true way to make paella.

Maybe you're thinking, wait a minute: is this Montalbano in another guise? Well, no, but there is a connection. Andrea Camilleri's Sicilian Inspector was named in tribute to Manuel Vazquez Montalban, and they share an obsession with food, sex and the ugliness of illicit power. Camilleri's politics are close to his late Spanish colleague's too. 'Late', as alas, Montalban died in 2003, in - and I'm sure he would have appreciated this - Bangkok, on his way back to Barcelona from Australia.

Most of the Carvalho novels use Barcelona, Catalonia, and greater Spain as settings for examinations of political and moral meltdown, often in the run-up to the Barcelona Olympics, as Carvalho's beloved city is exploited, demolished and corrupted in the name of progress. But the masterpiece, as far as I'm concerned, is The Buenos Aires Quintet, a single novel in five section, in which Carvalho goes to Argentina, ostensibly to find a missing person.

What Montalban does is use the change in setting to examine the issues of dictatorship, revolution,  terrorism and resistance, as well as war and mass murder, in a way his personal involvement with Spanish history made impossible in his native land. In other words, it's a book as much about Spain as it is about Argentina. It's also about sex, the tango, beef, agriculture and, yes, cooking, with one of the best,  most spectacularly gruesome and viciously hilarious meals in literary history at its climax. It's a real, cry-your-eyes out tragedy too. There's an extended take-off of Borges and some Gabriel Garcia Marquez just to keep you on your toes.

The only post-Buenos Aries Quintet book I can find in English is The Man of My Life, which as a Scot  facing a referendum vote on independence I found extraordinarily interesting. It deals with attempts to set up a secret intelligence service for an independent Catalonia, long before such an entity has any hope of existing. Everything ends up mired in rampant corruption, bloodshed and death. And food, obviously.

Of course, it could never happen here...

The books can be difficult to find in translation, only a few are still in print, and there is a huge hinterland of writing in Spanish, including cookery and politics, that I'll never tackle. But the Carvalho books, in English, are like nothing else on earth.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Edward Wilson - call The Envoy!

My first encounter with Edward Wilson's work was The Envoy, approached via Amazon's algorithm on the basis of some frenzied searching for Alan Furst equivalents. I have downloaded some stinkers as a consequence of that activity. Everybody and his cocker spaniel is writing pre- and post-World War Two nostalgiaporn now, and while the Kanons and Downings aren't bad, nobody holds much of a candle to Furst himself and of course his great inspirations, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. Philip Kerr seems to be playing it rather cursorily and superficially these days, though the original Berlin Noir trilogy featuring Bernie Gunther was absolutely wonderful.

So,  Edward Wilson. He is pretty good, and his credentials are interesting, to say the least: US special forces in Vietnam, obscure activities in central Europe, moves to England, works as a teacher, becomes UK citizen, trade union activist and then late on, starts writing books. I imagine he knows how to kill you in about a dozen different ways. Using a pencil.

I haven't read his Vietnam novel A River in May, but The Envoy is the first of three 50s-and-60s set spy thrillers which interweave real political events and some (sometimes coyly anonymous) historical figures with the adventures of his main protagonists Fournier from the CIA, Catesby and Bone from MI6. You really need to read The Envoy first too, as its two successors (The Darkling Spy and The Midnight Swimmer) are difficult, plot-wise, without knowing all about Kit Fournier and his many troubles. It is alas, the worst of the three books too, its tricksiness too obvious, prose too lumpy and the real-life events clunkily inserted. But persevere!

There's a great deal of emotional angst, some splendidly atmospheric landscapery (mostly along the Suffolk coast) lots of detailed tradecraft and rather lip-smacking ultra-violence in all three volumes. The characters are interesting, though they can be a bit The Art of Coarse Le Carre (Catesby is the working class Lowestoft boy among MI6's Old Etonians, Bone an art-obsessed gay sailor and mountaineer). No-one here is wholly pleasant company. They're like theatrical figures you're happy to leave behind on the stage. Grotesque, unappealling, occasionally sympathetic. They all lie, all the time.

What is truly brilliant about the books, though, is the fresh take on relations between the various intelligence agencies. And the depiction of how much the Americans and the British hated and distrusted each other during the era of Burgess, McLean and Philby. There's real insight here, and a genuine sense of unease and paranoia.

And Wilson gets better and better. By the time The Darkling Spy hits Budapest in 1956, you really are gripped, you're actually there; so that the confusion about who's who and why Bone really hates The Butterfly...who's working for, err, dunno...or maybe not...stops mattering. The Midnight Swimmer is the best of the lot, though I had to keep referring back to The Envoy to work out why Kit's cousin was...oh well. Never mind.

As a series, this is genuinely worth reading. Imagine a  slightly cartoony Deighton and Le Carre, with walk-on parts for the likes of Harold Macmillan and Anthony Blunt. Grimness abounds. All the cars are terrible. And one of the great ignored spies-who-write, Charles McCarry, must be smiling sardonically. His hero Paul Christopher knows this territory inside out.