Monday, 24 November 2014

William Gibson and the debt to Banks. Plus Chris Morgan Jones and Jeremy Duns

I absolutely loved William Gibson’s so-called ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History) and have had his latest novel, The Peripheral, on Kindle pre-order for weeks. I came to it fresh from a long thrillerbinge on first Chris Morgan Jones’s Ben Webster books (Agent of Deceit and The Jackal’s Share) and then Jeremy Duns’ Paul Dark trilogy.

Chris Morgan Jones’s writing is terrific - and his take on the spy/private eye novel is strikingly new: Drawing on his own background, his hero is essentially someone who carries out due diligence checks on companies and individuals, on behalf of other companies and individuals. Russia and Iran provide the nastiness in the two (so far) Webster books, which are revelatory on the often violent and sordid world of international business. Extremely cool, with a sense of the threat, bullying  and viciousness lying behind those glossy corporate adverts you see on telly.

Jeremy Duns couldn’t be more different, and yet the Paul Dark books (Free Agent, Song of Treason, The Moscow Option) are also a breath of fresh air. Based on rigorous research and actual events ranging from World War Two to 1969, they’re crazed, tongue-in-cheek first person romps full of cars, bad sex, daft twists, ultraviolence and Bulldog Drummond-like feats of athleticism. James Bond in other words, the difference being that Dark is a Russian agent embedded in the British Secret Service. 

Initially a wee bit alienating and difficult to take with the seriousness Fleming, even at his most arch, demands, you find yourself swept along and always keen for the appendix in each book revealing the detailed historical facts that fuelled the fiction. Though by the middle of the Moscow Option, I’d kind of had enough. You could see those Åland Islands approaching 700 miles off...

Between Song of Treason and  The Moscow Option The Peripheral popped up on the Kindle, and I threw myself into it with enthusiasm. And found myself struggling in a future rural dirt-poor America portrayed in Gibson’s trademark style: You have to work at his worlds, the unfamiliar tech, the unnamed wars and disasters and political machinations that have brought these characters to their grisly pass. And then we’re 70 years in the future, and there’s some sort of gaming  connection. Suddenly it’s a time travel and drone/android/human identity book. And a love story.

The Blue Ant trilogy worked so beautifully because the strange tech was only half unfamiliar, and most of it on the verge of hitting the edges of the midstream. And the use of Gibson’s own favourite objects, ones actually available ( Buzz Rickson jackets, VW Phaetons, 3D projections, remote airships) or from history (coding machines, watches, heavy denim) left you tingling with an almost physical desire to possess some of them. (There’s even a special William Gibson edition Buzz Rickson flying jacket if you’ve got a spare £500. Nylon, of course).

The problem with The Peripheral is that the tech, indeed the central concept of ‘The Peripheral’ (an advanced humanoid inhabited at a distance by a ‘real person’) is very familiar, but from other books. Notably Iain M Banks, to whose work The Peripheral owes a very considerable  debt. Almost all Banks’s Culture novels feature the human soul/drone habitation issue, usually tackled with great wit,  and sarky Scottish charm. The odd (and I think successful) Banks combination of SF and ‘literature’ (no ‘M’ in the authorial byline) Transition is even nearer in tone and has ‘time’ travel involved too.

And I have to say that Banks, even over the course of some very long books indeed, is generally very consistent  when it comes to his internal SF logic, avoiding paradox and making the science appear plausible. Something Gibson loses his grip on in The Peripheral. I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but the central notion of ‘the stub’ - a kind of fork in the road, leading to a dead end in time and history - is completely undermined by the motivations of  one of the central ‘future’ characters. And that swarm tech is just a bit too convenient at times.

There’s lots to enjoy, some great fight scenes, a strong (typical Gibson) central female and an interesting satire on poverty-into-wealth via technology. But the ending is eye-poppingly daft and afterwards, I was left wondering why one of all those editors, writers and readers credited in the appendix with helping didn’t just say: Hey, Wullie! Scrap it. This stuff’s been done before, and better.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Kindle fatigue, Tim Winton and David Mitchell (not the one that's married to her off Only Connect)

An October week in Crete doing nothing but read, eat, drink swim and bask in the warmth without getting sunburnt. Hint: Ludicrously expensive (and dangerously so, from a skin cancer point of view) sun creams should be avoided. Go for the super-high-factor baby versions at a fraction of the price.

I had loaded the Kindle (Paperwhite) with what I hadn't read of Robert Littell's Cold War oeuvre - Legends, now a TV series starring Sean Bean is brilliant and The Company epic in a Charles McCarry kinda way. However, I stalled on The October Circle and then gave up on Young Philby. Too many repeated motifs and too much overt parading of the same historical detail. You can somehow bear this kind of 'atmosphere surfeit'  with Alan Furst but I've had enough of the Lubyanka dungeons for the moment.

Where we were staying (Artemis Apartments, Stavros, highly recommended, laid back, informal,) had excellent wifi, so, slightly stymied, I downloaded David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks having half remembered one of my sons recommending it. Which, in point of fact, he hadn't. Still, I'd loved Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks is even bettter, ranging across time and genre, emerging into full-on Harry Potter-meets-The-Matrix via the funniest (and probably most bitter) parody of Martin Amis and the Cult of Book Festivals you'll ever read. Brilliant stuff. I then (due to a technical glitch) zappped the same author's Black Swan Green onto the IPad (Kindle app) and enjoyed that (loads more references, from Angela Carter to Salinger and (credited) Stewart Maconie. It brilliantly conjures up that early 80s awfulness and the horrible frustrations of an adolescent summmer.

Reading on the iPad was OK, and I found I preferred it to the Kindle Paperwhite, which frankly I've become rather sick of. It's slow, clunky and to be hhonest, I miss books. I miss paper, the sheer bulk of a book. Also, some works just don't work electronically, I think. When I downloaded Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I found that being unable to feel the actual size of what I'd waded through made me lose heart. Because this a long, long book, and frankly it almost sapped the will to live out of me. Certainly, I lost the desire to keep reading, even though there are fascinating preliminaries to The Bone Clocks in the plot. The endless descriptions of 18th Century Dutch trading practices and Japanese etiquette gradually wore me down, until abandonment ensued. Maybe I was pixellated out of love for it, but I frankly cannot understand the many five star reviews this book has accrued. It seems an awful example of an author's obsessive interest in a place and period overwhelming style, plot and narrative drive.

Kindled and iPaded out, I resorted to the pile of paperbacks left in the Akrotiri bar by previous guests. I'd read Tim Winton's marvellous 'coastal memoir' Land's Edge after hearing it  on BBC Radio Four, but hadn't tackled anything else. The Riders, which is something of a phenomenon in his native Australia, having been turned into an opera, no less, absolutely blew me away. And it was all the better for being on saltwater-soaked, much-thumbed paper.

It's,, on the face of it, a classic thriller plot: Scully, is an Aussie expat drifter/builder/preparing a new life in Ireland for his pregnant wife and young daughter, who are wrapping up their old life  down under and due to join him just before Christmas. The trio have spent the past year travelling throughout Europe - living and working in Greece, Paris, Amsterdam and London. He goes to Shannon  Airport to collect them. Only the daughter is on the flight, and she cannot speak.

Scully and his daughter embark on  a desperate search for the missing wife and mother, revisiting their former European haunts. Nothing is what it seems, old friends turn out to be obscurely treacherous, loved places threatening and as Scully, a tower of physical strength and emotional simplicity, falls apart, his daughter Billie gradually emerges as...

Och, you'll have to read it. It subverts thriller modes to become something much more resonant, and I would say important. The writing at first seems florid and earthily 'literary', but gradually it overwhelms you with its sheer power. It's very disturbing, particularly for a father and husband. I don't want to be pretentious, but it's also a novel about Australia and Europe, really. I loved it. there are scenes in it you will never be able to forget.

And then, as it was a proper book, I gave it to my wife to read, and we talked about it for hours. She brought it back to Scotland, and handed it on to a friend. It will become more and more scuffed, worn and torn, and its power and brilliance will only increase.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Location, location....scenery! Putting TV thrillers in their place

I have neglected the Thrillfilter site over the past few months, which is not to say I’ve abandoned the crime and espionage genres. I have been guilty of obsessive Kindling, unable to resist the attractions of cheaper-than-the-hardback serials. Not to mention total immersion TV.

Netflix, of course, gave us the second season of House of Cards, which was terrific, but my big (re)discovery in telly terms has been the writing of the late Alan Plater. I bought the 20th anniversary DVD box set of The Beiderbecke Trilogy off eBay, which remains absolutely superb. Two teachers (woodwork and English) do not solve crimes, but explore the world of Thatcherite repression with heartbreaking wit and warmth. It sent me in the direction of Plater’s jazz autobiography (the unfortunately named Doggin' Around) and the recorded works of Bix Beiderbecke and Sidney Bechet.

Plater’s book of Oliver’s Travels  is far better than the TV series (Beiderbecke hits the road), in which a terribly miscast Alan Bates flounders floridly in a part written for Tom Courtenay. Bill Patterson is great, though. And so is Orkney. Then there’s Plater’s screenwriting for the Olivia Manning series of World War Two books Fortunes of War, starring the young Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh.  This wonderful tale of  eccentric British Council teachers and stragglers caught up in World War Two retains all its style, wit and power. And the acting is brilliant throughout. Available very cheaply on DVD.

There has been a huge upsurge of crime-related, location-defined TV drama recently. For the sake of peacekeeping I’ll not say anything much about Shetland, the adaptations of Anne Cleeves’ crime novels. Other than this: It’s getting better, and will improve further once the next series abandons the book plots. I live in those locations, though, and so have to overcome what our family calls ‘Green and Orange Bus Syndrome’, after a comment my wife made to one of the executives responsible for Taggart, thus cutting short my brief STV career (“The only reason people watch this rubbish is for the green and orange buses”). Hinterland is very much a Welsh Broadchurch-meets-Taggart and very well shot. I abandoned ship though, halfway through the second episode.  It creaks, if stylishly. No buses, but a dodgy caravan in a ridiculous setting, and loads of Welsh landscape. The Broadchurch II plot/backstory is pushing it, though.

Then there’s Fargo. I was puzzled, initially, by the whole concept of adapting the tone and location of the great Coen Brothers movie, while using aspects of the main film characters to ‘inspire’ what are essentially new ones. Yet it works well.  Martin Freeman at last transfers that weird cock-of-the-head mannerism into something utterly  un-Office, anti-Hobbit. Billy Bob Thornton is magnificently charming, funny and brutally sinister, and the infusion of David Lynchian Blue Velvet surrealism is an effortless fit with the cold humour of the Coens.

There’s nothing cold about Happy Valley. I have avoided the Sally Wainwright ouevre for no reason other than laziness and suspicions over someone working in what appeared to be Plater territory. But the first episode of Happy Valley completely captivated me. The Fargo references are overt and knowing, but the central female cop character, played by the amazing Sarah Lancashire, goes from initially funny through pathos to a kind of threatening, vengeful, simmering rage, all in the first 50 minutes. It has a rare narrative momentum (the polar opposite of Hinterland, for example) and the attention to detail is what raises it head and shoulders, I think, above the other ‘thrillers’ I’ve mentioned. Including Fargo, the (movie) plot of which is knowingly referenced. The grandchild’s behavioural problems, the affair with the ex-husband, the weird Corrie-in-the-country vibe of Hebden Bridge, nastified for the occasion; those sly, breathtaking wee scenes like the BMW Estate with mountain bike rack, and the appearance of Sylvia Plath’s actual grave at one point. I absolutely loved it.

And of course, the influence of Alan Plater is everywhere. The magnificent George Costigan (from The Beiderbecke Tapes) as Nevison may even be a nod in that direction. It’s more brutal and may turn bloodier than Plater could ever be, but it has wit, style and, most importantly, warmth. This is flesh and blood drama, anchored in more than just a location, more than scenery, but in a sense of real, beating human hearts.

One thing, and this applies to all current police dramas: We know cops have to wear disposable rubber gloves and weird wee bootees at a crime scene. But please, stop dwelling on it as if it’s an absolute indicator of verisimilitude and accuracy.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Seven Days in South Africa

Deon Meyer 7 Days Drew ratter writes: THERE'S been a fair gap since my last Thrillfilter review. I have not stopped reading the stuff, of course. For instance, I consumed the whole of Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series (they are cheap on Kindle). Once I started, I could not stop. I find that character driven material of that kind appeals particularly to me. I can live with limited plotting if the writing is good, the imagined world is vivid, and the chief character has character. The next writer I picked up was a sort of accident. Looking at recently returned books at the library, I picked up 7 Days, by Deon Meyer. Meyer lives in Durban, in South Africa, and writes in Afrikaans. He's the first South African police procedural writer I have sampled, and so far 7 Days is the only book by him I have come across. He's good though. His hero is Benny Griessel, recovering alcoholic, completely lacking in self confidence, and with a tendency to swearing at inappropriate moments, and then being wiped out by embarrassment. His love interest, Alexa Barnard, is likewise recovering, and driven by a complete loss of belief in her music career. The book is by no means a one man band. Apart from Benny, one vivid and believable character after another crosses the scene, all interacting, fluent, and well defined. The narrative is well judged and propulsive. The background, that is South Africa recreating itself after the end of Apartheid is well realised. It's good to come across something worth recommending!

Norwegian by Night

Derek B Miller Norwegian by Night Drew Ratter writes: Derek B. Miller is the director of The Policy Lab and a senior fellow with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. He has a PHD in international relations from the University of Geneva, among numerous other academic distinctions. He is also the author of rather a marvellous novel, a thriller certainly, but a very unusual one. His hero, and a hero he is, is an old Jew. Eighty-two years old, and recently widowed, Sheldon Horowitz has grudgingly moved to Oslo, with his grand-daughter and her Norwegian husband. They are lovely, but Sheldon is unsure, and grouchy. In New York, he was a watch repairer, with friends, and a relationship with his dead son. He was a marine in Korea. He may be slipping into senility (especially given his conversations with his son and his old friend 4000 miles away in New York. Both dead). He may have been a sniper, or he may have been a cook's helper. When he takes on, without the slightest hesitation, the child of a murdered woman, to save him from his monstrous Albanian father; the murderer of his mother, we begin to accept that his marine training and career were serious, and he is, without qualification, wonderful. Norwegian by Night is full of wonder, rather a marvellous piece of work. I certainly hope this fine and deeply humane writer produces more work.

The Hitman's Guide to housecleaning

Hallgrimur Helgason The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning Drew Ratter writes I wonder if the cult of the Scandi thriller is receding, as everything does, sooner or later. I might be mistaken, but there seems little new blood lately, and being honest, some of those who rode the wave were middling, at best. Shan't name them here, but if you want bad writing....well, as I said,not now. Helgason, though, is great fun, and this is only book written in English. His principal is most definitely an anti hero, Tomislav Bokæsiâc, with accents, who moved to New York, became Tom Boksic, without, and then Toxic Thus into the only occupation which can use his skills effectively. A massively effective contract killer working for a horrible Eastern European mafia. It goes wrong, though, and he has to run. Dodging the law on his way through an airport heading for Zagreb, he ends up murdering a fundamentalist preacher, stealing his identity, documents, and air tickets to Reykavik; a destination he has never even heard of. The remainder of the book is about the life he makes among the evangelist community on that island, as the Reverend Friendly. It is very entertaining indeed. Among other things, his phonetic rendering of Icelandic names is excellent. Goodmoondoor, Sickreader, the evangelists. Gunholder, their daughter, who fairly quickly becomes his lover. And so on, though not to the point of tiresomeness. It's written in the first person, something of which I think there is rather too much these days. But still.