Category Archives: crime blog

You Were Never Really Here

I was in Glasgow yesterday evening for an event that ran as part of the Aye, Write! literary festival and featured an interview with crime writer Nick Triplow about his recent (and excellent) biography of fellow crime writer Ted Lewis, followed by a screening of Mike Hodges’s Get Carter, the film that brought Lewis’s most famous creation to a worldwide audience. I enjoyed the event tremendously, not least for this rare opportunity to see Carter on the big screen. Michael Caine will always be Michael Caine, for good or ill, but the film’s extraordinary sense of place, its grimy textures, its evocation of a certain time remain an extraordinary achievement. Get Carter captures the seventies in a way its creators would not – could not – have been aware of at the time, the surest test of a piece of art that actually appears ageless.

I booked for this event some weeks ago, and when I realised I would also be able to fit in the matinee showing of Lynne Ramsey’s new film, You Were Never Really Here, the trip suddenly became doubly worthwhile. You Were Never Really Here is based on a 2016 novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames, a text that turned out to be short enough for me to read in its entirety during my journey to Glasgow. I was thus able to experience the movie literally within an hour of reading its source text, something I don’t think I’ve ever done before and that made seeing the film almost like a weird kind of flashback. Whether this makes for a good way of looking at and thinking about adaptation I couldn’t say, but it is certainly a powerful and discomfiting one.

The Ames novella tells the story of an ex-Marine named Joe. Beaten and abused as a boy by his violent father, Joe’s trauma is broadened and deepened by his experiences in the military. He thinks constantly of suicide, and it is only his loyalty to his eighty-year-old mother, who was equally abused by Joe’s father, that keeps him going. Joe now works as a hired ‘fixer’ with a special ability in retrieving kidnap victims from their abductors. Violence is Joe’s tool, and he is an expert in its deployment. Returning to New York after a bad experience in Cincinnati, Joe is given a new job by his handler, McCleary: a senator’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Lisa, has been kidnapped. After six months of inconclusive police investigations, Senator Votto has received an anonymous text, informing him that Lisa has been put to work in a brothel frequented by rich businessmen and politicians. Joe is to recapture Lisa and return her to her father. There will be a rich reward. There are also risks, however. Votto’s father was known to be in deep with the Mafia, and there is reason to suspect that Votto may have come under pressure to conduct his political affairs in a similar fashion…

You Were Never Really Here was an almost perfect reading experience for me. Transgressive, sometimes horribly violent but often surprising in its twists and turns, fastidious and economical in its use of language, this is a novella that chews up the rulebook on show not tell (any kind of successful rule-breaking in fiction is a pump-the-air moment for me) and streams through the consciousness in a rush of blazing streetlamps and concussive hammer thwacks. Joe is a broken man, most would argue a bad man, yet as a protagonist he refuses to be categorised in such reductive terms. As a piece of writing You Were Never Really Here is a gem, as a work of noir fiction it should be famous. If you’re not keen on physical violence on the page, I’d advise caution, but otherwise I’d recommend it wholeheartedly.

I love Lynne Ramsey’s films, and her adaptation of Ames’s novella is a great piece of work that has already won prizes and should transport anyone who sees it. For me though, almost certainly because I came to the film feeling an unusually close kinship with the original text, it became a demonstration in how often film fails to reproduce the peculiar and unique intensity of a reading experience, the particular and perhaps irreplaceable intimacy of the printed page. Lynne Ramsey’s sense of place – her film-maker’s understanding of the urban landscape – is sensational, with a darkly alluring streetscene that reminded me somewhat of Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame.  I loved the film’s composed soundtrack and its use of incidental music. And yet in spite of some standout scenes – the death of the cop in Joe’s house (a certain eighties ballad will never be the same again), the ‘funeral’ at the lake – Joaquin Phoenix was never quite ‘my’ Joe. Perhaps he just talked too much. More importantly, I found myself mystified by some of Ramsey’s choices with regard to plot changes. In the novella, much of the horror lies in our discovery of Senator Votto’s obscene betrayal of his own daughter – which in its turn mirrors the way Joe was himself betrayed by his father’s abuse. By making Votto a victim, Ramsey has stripped the story of much of its urgency and narrative drive.

I sympathised with Ramsey’s ending – her desire to give Joe a second chance – and for this reason alone I would hesitate to say that we have lost something, exactly. It is more that we have been given something different, in its own way powerful but perhaps – perhaps – less memorable. Even the violence in Ramsey’s version, though we can see it right there on the screen in front of us, feels less impactful than what we are faced with on the page.

I am sure to watch this film again at some point, and when I do, freed from the immediate influence of the text, I will almost certainly admire it more. For the moment though I am still in the world of Ames’s novella, envious and rejoicing in the power of the writer to deliver something special that cannot be replicated.

The Last Policeman

This year, the excellent people who organise the annual Bute Noir crime writing festival set a reading challenge for anyone who wants to join in: 30 crime books, 30 different categories. How many can you complete and which are your favourites? I’ve decided to give it a go, just for fun, and because I’m hoping it’ll lead me into areas of crime writing I’ve not explored before, or not explored for some time. I’m blogging some of my findings here as I go along. I’m also intending to write up the experience as a whole towards the end of the year.

The experiment is proving incredibly enjoyable and worthwhile so far. The category I’ve tackled most recently has been that of crime novel set in the future. I chose to read Ben H. Winters’s The Last Policeman firstly because I happened to have it already on my Kindle (it was going really cheap at one point, so I snapped it up) and secondly because I needed an antidote to the recent (bloody awful) BBC future-crime series Hard Sun, and a friend happened to mention that The Last Policeman utilised some of the same ideas but much better.

The novel takes place in the very near future, An asteroid is on a certain collision course with Earth. It will bring about a worldwide environmental catastrophe of extinction-level proportions. Society hovers on the brink of collapse. With basic infrastructure beginning to crumble, and a wave of suicides reaching epidemic proportions, the police have begun to turn their attention away from solving crimes and towards the more urgent business of enforcing order. In the city of Concord, New Hampshire, police patrolman Henry Palace has just realised the dream of a lifetime: he’s been made detective, early, and he intends to live that dream, asteroid or no asteroid. When the police are called to investigate a death at a local McDonald’s, Hank’s fellow officers are inclined to dismiss it as yet another ‘hanger’. Hank is not so sure. He believes Paul Zell has been murdered, and is determined to prove it.

This book surprised me in all sorts of ways, most of all in Winters’s skilled and original use of science fiction. If I was expecting anything at all, it was a rather clumsy, Armageddon-like action thriller. Instead, I was given a subtle, claustrophobic, believable pre-apocalypse that swapped deliberately ramped-up tension for genuine emotion, a slowly accumulating, all-pervasive dread that infects the reader’s system as the novel progresses. It infected this reader’s system, anyway – maybe it’s just Brexit.

But the true success of Winters’s approach lies in his ability to keep his science fiction at one remove. Palace’s obsessive temperament, his tendency towards isolation, his dogged sense of morality ensure that it is the murder investigation, and not the asteroid strike, that dominates the narrative. What we get is a detailed – detailed to a level that only Hank could provide – account of a crime in progress, a portrait of a town that Henry knows like the back of his hand. That Henry and the murdered man seem so alike is another piece of weirdness – and also fortunate in that it allows Henry privileged access to the mind of the victim. The plot is deftly worked and – unlike so many generic thriller plots – it does not degenerate into senseless melodrama towards the end.

The Last Policeman is a beautifully executed, intellectually satisfying police procedural. It is a novel of craft and assurance, in which a close-focus, personal account is played off against a world-changing political story arc to devastating effect. The writing – like the story itself – is understated and powerfully resonant. As science fiction. Winters’s novel worked better for me than anything I read for last year’s Sharke. As crime fiction, it is equally bold, introducing us to a detective we admire for his persistence rather than his brilliance. We understand his turn of mind – or maybe that’s just me…

In either case, I’ll definitely be reading the rest of the trilogy. The Last Policeman is a treat, albeit a bitter one. Recommended.

Guérillères

“He has enslaved you by trickery, you who were great strong valiant. He has stolen your wisdom from you, he has closed your memory to what you were, he has made of you that which is not, which does not speak, which does not possess, which does not write. He has made you a vile and fallen creature. He has gagged abused and betrayed you by means of stratagems, he has stultified your understanding, he has woven around you a long list of defects that he declared essential to your well being, to your nature.”

(Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères 1969)

This week saw the launch of the Staunch book prize, an award for the best crime novel or thriller ‘in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered’. Its founder, the screenwriter Bridget Lawless, has stated that the idea for the prize was born out of her increasing discomfort with the level of violence – and routine violence at that – meted out to women in crime thrillers, be they on TV, in film or in novels. ‘[Books] are a source for so much material,’ Lawless says, ‘and if I can have a tiny bit of influence there, it will help’.

In the kingdom of crime fiction there are many mansions, and plenty worth exploring. Personally, I enjoy crime fiction because I enjoy mysteries, and the description of painstaking forensic work that is frequently involved in solving those mysteries. I enjoy the close focus on particular individuals, their histories and motivations. I enjoy the way such close focus can often be used to reveal wider truths about our society and ways of seeing. All of this and more is the stuff of crime fiction, which is why I read a lot of it. It would be wrong of me not to concede also that crime stories can be thrilling, that the adversarial nature of the set-up, that ancient and timeless conflict between protagonist and antagonist – however you may wish to cast them – provides a story scenario so compelling it is hard to resist, no matter how many times you might have encountered it before.

One subgenre of crime fiction I tend to avoid, however, is the serial killer thriller. There will be notable exceptions of course, but most serial killer thrillers are for me the novelistic equivalent of the slasher film in horror: formulaic and unutterably pointless. these films and books are not so much frightening as tedious, the product of dull imaginations and brain-wearying in the extreme. In recent years, I have started to find these kind of crime novels not just boring but actively offensive. As Lawless suggests in her rationale for the Staunch prize, women in serial killer thrillers are all too often simply cannon fodder, not so much characters as tropes, an excuse for the depiction of, well, more violence against women. Now, whenever I see a book blurb describe ‘a series of brutal murders, all young women’, I know that nine times out of ten the book in question will be a lazy book, a book whose hackneyed plot I have encountered too many times before, a book that will waste my time and test my patience.

Perhaps the worst aspect of such ‘thrillers’ is how often they try and masquerade as paeans to social justice: ‘Gee, we’ve got to catch this monster before he kills again!’

On the other hand, when confronted with something like the Staunch prize, I find myself instinctively reacting against any kind of prescription for what writers should or should not be choosing as their subject matter. For me, Lawless’s contention that ‘how we see women depicted and treated in fiction does spread out to the wider world and how women are treated there’ treads perilously close to Mary Whitehouse territory, the scares about what video nasties were supposedly doing to youth in the 1970s, the City of Westminster banning Cronenberg’s innocuous adaptation of Ballard’s Crash back in 1996.

Fiction is surely a reflection of what is going on in the real world, not the other way around, and the point with subject matter is not what that subject matter is, but how it is used. When asked her opinion of the Staunch prize, the crime writer Val McDermid maintained that it is ‘entirely possible to write about [violence against women] without being exploitative or gratuitous… My take on writing [about this] is that it’s my anger at that very thing that fires much of my work. As long as men commit appalling acts of misogyny and violence against women, I will write about it so that it does not go unnoticed’.

The announcement of the Staunch prize this week happened to coincide with my reading of Cara Hoffman’s astounding 2011 debut So Much Pretty. Someone recommended Hoffman to me a couple of years ago, and now I’ve finally got round to reading her, my main feeling is one of frustration that she’s not better known. Hoffman based So Much Pretty on a real-life abduction case that she investigated while working as a journalist. The resulting novel is one of the most compelling and best executed crime novels I have read in recent years. It is also one of the most chilling. So Much Pretty is essentially the story of three women – a journalist, a gifted high school student, a waitress in a local diner – and the way their histories interweave. The novel is set in upstate New York, in a small and supposedly close-knit farming community that hides bitter social division and personal tensions. As much as anything, So Much Pretty is a characterisation of that community. Hoffman tells her story through a series of interviews, essays and personal accounts that build a detailed and intimate portrait of small town life and politics, the often arbitrary nature of the most horrific crimes, the habits of denial that allow such crimes to be perpetrated, the way such denial continues to shape and to define the social milieu in which we exist.

Although Hoffman chooses to depict very little violence on the page, the violence we glimpse between the lines is devastating. That anyone could come away from this book without sensing Hoffman’s anger at the violence – daily, routinely – done to women would beggar belief. As a polemic, So Much Pretty is excoriating. As a book – as a way of telling a story – it is brilliant. As a crime novel it is important. This is a book that needed to be written, a book people – and I’ll go one further here and say men especially – need to read. I would also say we need more novels of this calibre, that show this level of skill and bravery in tackling their difficult subject matter, not fewer.

I am not ‘against’ the Staunch prize, quite the opposite. As a book prize, it’s not trying to ban anything, but to draw attention to something. If it can draw attention to books that find new ways of telling crime stories – new ways of seeing, as Lawless hopes – then the endeavour will have been worthwhile.

For the writer though, the only duty is to tell the story they are drawn to telling as well as they can. To think about the subject matter they have chosen, and before they take that leap, to perhaps ask themselves why exactly they have chosen it.

Experiments in crime

There was a piece by Tim Lott in the Guardian recently in which he argued that in Britain at least ‘the form of storytelling and literary novel writing has become largely divorced’. How needlessly reductive can you get?  His argument seemed to me like a variation on the often rehearsed and entirely fake battle between genre fiction and so-called litfic, a ridiculous distraction from the job of proper criticism.

Writing is a peculiar business, and one aspect of writing that is rarely acknowledged is the fact that most writers have little control over what kind of writer they are. You are pulled inexorably, often mercilessly, in a certain direction. The writer of ‘literary fiction’ is no more necessarily an Oxbridge snob than the writer of popular spy thrillers is a money-hoovering philistine. The most successful bestsellers are written because the author loves and understands the form and wants to communicate their excitement to readers. Those writers who find themselves more drawn to exploring language are no different from the painters who, in the 1890s, began exploring the possibilities of paint itself – the medium, not the message. The work of Monet and even Cezanne hardly seems revolutionary to us now – we have absorbed it into our iconography, our collective understanding of what representational art can reach for and achieve. Fifty years later Krasner and Pollock, Frankenthaler and Motherwell would stretch the point further, doing away with representation almost entirely. Similarly, the paintings that outraged a generation of critics now adorn our coffee mugs and supper trays. We get it.

Writers write what they can and what they must. To insist that writing – arguably the most malleable of art forms – should universally strive for the ideals upheld by work that was no longer new even a century ago is just so much bunkum, just as it is bunkum to suggest that British literary fiction has ‘lost the plot’. Lott rightly cites Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (American, you see) as one of those works that appeal equally across supposed literary and commercial divides. I would raise him Barbara Vine’s Asta’s Book, Catriona Ward’s Rawblood, Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl, Ali Smith’s The Accidental, Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project.  Some of these titles you will recognise from recent Booker shortlists. Many of them use elements of the thriller, detective fiction, horror fiction, science fiction to achieve their effects. All have propulsive plot lines. All reward a second, even a third reading.

Books, books, books. So much to read, so little time to waste arguing over what, exactly, writers should be writing. Lott would surely concede that the most interesting and rewarding works are to be found precisely at the margins of genre, where our expectations can be subverted and yet where – yes – we can continue enjoying the ideas and tropes of those stories and narrative archetypes that resonate with us most strongly. Yes, we are all still campfire dwellers. That does not mean we don’t enjoy it when the bard from another village wanders across to inform us we don’t know jack, that it’s really this story we should be listening to and so sit the hell down…

More interesting by far than Lott’s boringly prescriptive essay is Tony White’s choice of his Top Ten Experimental Thrillers, a piece that delves deep into why it is that we enjoy thrillers (I reckon Gertrude Stein for one would act pretty swiftly in calling out those who accuse crime writers of slumming it), as well as the ways in which detective fiction – perhaps the most enduringly popular of all literary genres – can still surprise us. Of course, any future ‘top ten’ list of postmodern crime fiction would have to include White’s own new novel, The Fountain in the Forest, which exemplifies his thesis pretty much perfectly, as well as killing Lott’s theory about British literary writing’s plotlessness stone dead.

By Lott’s reckoning, White’s interest in and practice of OULIPO techniques would place him firmly in the discredited ‘literary’ camp – read confusingly esoteric non-narrative with a snobbish insistence on obscurity – yet The Fountain in the Forest can be read with all the pleasure you might expect from a knotty police procedural, a knowledgeably detailed, intriguing and compelling police procedural at that. The story drives ever forward, even when it takes you backwards in time to take a look at the roots of the crime in question. Even when it flip-flops between two distinct time-streams and character identities within the space of a single sentence, the sense throughout is of a steady and satisfying accretion of significant information, i.e clues – exactly what you’d hope for from any good thriller.

The OULIPO stuff – elaborated upon in detail by White in his Afterword – is as significant to the narrative as you want to make it. You could read the novel with no knowledge of OULIPO and enjoy it just as well. Yet for those who feel like delving deeper, an examination of White’s methods and motives will reveal new layers, extra nuances and a background atmosphere that lends the novel an added eeriness and potency.

Anyone who enjoyed Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child or Nicholas Royle’s First Novel will love this book. Anyone who is into Ian Rankin or Denise Mina will love it, too.

For me, The Fountain in the Forest has been made especially enjoyable through a web of strange coincidences that seem none the less prescient for that: my own concerns over the gentrification of London, obscure parts of Exeter that I happen to know well, a string of places in the south of France that mark significant childhood memories, even salt-glazed ceramics – it’s all stuff from my own life, stuff I recognise and might write about. To find it turning up randomly and all together in someone else’s novel is a delightful surprise. And weird.

Above all, there is the joy inherent in a book well made: language expertly deployed, place wonderfully evoked, ideas, characters, memories, theories, political subtext brought vibrantly to life, a good story well told. The Fountain in the Forest would be a worthy contender for the CWA Gold Dagger. It is equally the kind of book that might win the Goldsmiths Prize. Read, and enjoy.

Hardy of the Highlands

his bloody project gmbCrime blog: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Anyone who’s read a Hardy novel will know how his stories pan out: a fundamentally decent human being makes a mistake. This error might be rooted in a secret past, it might be an action forced upon them by adverse circumstance. Whatever it is, it snowballs. Far from being allowed to forget their youthful transgressions, our unfortunate protagonist sees their life sliding further and further beyond their control, resulting finally in a tragic denouement which, for Hardy fans, is all part of the painful pleasure of reading him. We know, almost from the first page, that things will not end well. What draws us on is Hardy’s evident sympathy for his characters, his passionate involvement in the human condition. He’s a good plotter, too – a characteristic of his fiction that isn’t mentioned enough.

And it was Thomas Hardy that kept coming to mind as I read Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Booker-longlisted novel His Bloody Project. Hardy’s first extant novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, was published in 1872, just a couple of years after the action of Macrae’s novel ostensibly takes place, but it’s not the books’ historical cousinage that draws the comparison so much as the doomed nature of things.

Macrae presents his narrative as a series of documents pertaining to a crime carried out in the Highland settlement of Culduie. The bulk of the text consists of a testament, written from prison by seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae, charged with the murder of Lachlan ‘Broad’ Mackenzie, the town constable, along with two other members of his family. Roddy does not deny his crimes – indeed, he turns himself in almost as soon as the butchery is over – but he has agreed, at his advocate’s suggestion, to put his case in writing: how did he come to commit these murders, and why?

Over the course of some hundred and fifty pages, Roddy Macrae tells the story of how his family fell deeper into debt and near destitution, small misunderstandings leading to grievous misfortune, all presided over by the hulking figure of Lachlan Broad, a man who seems bent on the destruction of the Macrae clan, and all for reasons unknown. What else is Roddy to do to save his father and siblings? What else can he do? As in all of Hardy’s great novels, the outcome seems inevitable, inexorable. But where Hardy chooses to tie up his narratives pretty firmly, securing his loose ends in traditional nineteenth century fashion, Macrae Burnet seats us, as readers, on the bench alongside the jury at Roddy’s trial. Just how accurate, how truthful, is the murderer’s testimony? The end of Roddy’s story is plain to see, yet the impulse that brought him to that end is not so certain.

Nature, or nurture? Choice, or circumstance? Was Roddy mad, or simply bad, and dangerous to know?

His Bloody Project is a tightly worked novel, beautifully crafted and compulsively readable. The language – understated, idiomatic, stark and elegant – is one-hundred percent fit for purpose. As well as the mystery surrounding the murders, the novel also has much to say about the social inequalities and class divides that characterised life in the Highlands at the time, many of them stemming directly from the Highland Clearances. The very real poverty and hardship sustained by ordinary crofters and working people is portrayed in a forthright, unsentimental manner that imparts a wealth of information without ever becoming overtly didactic, revealing great skill on the part of the author in and of itself.

All that being said, I have to admit to not fully understanding the novel’s selection for the Booker longlist. When I compare it with Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, for example, shortlisted for the Booker in 1996 and with a narrative roughly equatable with His Bloody Project, I would be forced to conclude that in terms of its depth, breadth and stylistic innovation, Alias Grace far outdoes His Bloody Project in terms of its reach and literary ambition. Whilst Macrae Burnet does provide us with a measure of dramatic irony, contemporary metafictionality and a fascinatingly unreliable narrator, I would ideally have liked to see all these aspects writ larger, deeper. Whilst wishing Macrae Burnet all the luck in the world – it’s fantastic to see a relatively new author published by a Scottish independent press making his mark in this way – I would have liked His Bloody Project to be bolder and more out there in its commitment to postmodernity.

Saying these things makes me feel somewhat churlish, however, because they are somehow beside the point. What gets on any award long- or shortlist is down to the judges, and should not take away from the fact that what Macrae Burnet has produced here is a good novel, sound in wind and limb, a shifting-sands kind of narrative that is never quite what you think it is. For anyone interested in crime writing, in Scottish writing, in a damn fine story, I would recommend His Bloody Project unreservedly.

Crime blog #11

Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates

To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
burning
(T. S. Eliot The Waste Land)

carthage oatesIt still amazes me, how critics still seem not to ‘get’ Joyce Carol Oates, how often her prodigious talent is spoken of dismissively, in belittling terms – ‘oh, Joyce Carol Oates, there’s just so much of it!’ – as if her very prodigiousness, the prolific expression of her talent could be a reason to reject it as something freakish and therefore unworthy in some way. 

‘She writes so much – is any of it any good?’

I’ve heard this said, seen it written. It often crosses my mind, and seems increasingly clear to me, that were Joyce Carol Oates a man her position as a ‘great American novelist’ would be assured. The broadsheets and the book blogs would all have been arguing over Carthage this summer instead of Purity. I wish they were. I wish they would. I think Oates is one of the greatest writers currently working, and I think that all the more because her books are not perfect. To me, each new novel (and I’ve probably read about half her output) feels like the next chapter, the next essay in an ongoing experiment, an ongoing project to discover the possibilities of the modern novel.

Some of these chapters are ragged, some are too long, some are just astounding. All are meant, involved, and acutely intelligent, the most complete expression of her intent the writer could manage at the time. All are worth reading, and all will stay with you, a quality which, surely, is one of the defining factors of great literature.

Fans of speculative fiction and horror in particular will be familiar with Oates’s interest in the gothic. Her most recent essay in the horror genre, 2013’s The Accursed, was a masterpiece of ambition and reach, spanning an American century, examining the guilt and tarnish at the heart of American privilege. I’ve written about the ‘Lovecraft chapter’ in The Accursed before, and it remains a shining memory.  I don’t think I’ve yet mentioned the book’s sharp and canny mirroring of a perhaps-best-forgotten yet nonetheless fascinating horror novel of the 1970s, John Farris’s All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By, turning the embarrassingly misused tropes of that novel against each other, like wild dogs.

But Oates is just as interested in crime fiction as she is in horror, and it’s precisely novels like Carthage – ambiguous, labyrinthine, incautious, imprecise – that I’m forever bemoaning the scarcity of in the genre.

Some of those who care to examine Carthage as a work of crime fiction might be tempted to define it as one of those (always intriguing) works – Patricia Highsmith made a speciality of them – which pose as crime fiction but lack its defining element: that is, a crime. This is one way of looking at the book, but I would counter that Carthage is a story about a murder – just not the murder that is foregrounded.

The crime is fully described. A person is arrested and imprisoned. These two events are not connected in the way that they should be.

Carthage tells the story of Cressida Mayfield, a precocious and alienated nineteen-year-old who goes missing from her home in Carthage, upstate New York. We learn of the desperate search for this lost young woman, of the violence that appears to have precipitated her disappearance, the parents, the sister, the suspect (who happens to have been engaged to the sister), the half-truths and evasions, the blank spaces in memory and chronology that form the core material of such addictive mysteries. Fans of Oates will instantly be catapulted back to her earlier examination of this subject – the devastating impact of violent crime upon a previously stable and contented household – in her 1996 masterpiece We Were the Mulvaneys.

This first section of the novel is then cut off in mid-stream, with no resolution in sight. We tun the page and the jolt of unexpected revelation is physically palpable. What follows is strange, and much less easy to define: hundreds of pages of back-and-forth story. Gradually we learn everything, and perhaps more than we felt we needed to know, about Cressida Mayfield and what happened to her. The last people to find out what we have come to accept as the facts of the case are those most directly affected: those whose lives these facts have ripped apart.

I loved this book, even when I wasn’t loving it, even when I was wishing Oates would get to – or rather get back to – the point. I loved it because it is the kind of text that reminds readers that literature can aspire to be more than simply a pastime, an entertainment. That it should ask questions to which the answers are not always knowable or uncontested. That it should present itself in forms that can appear unfinished, as if the writer were still working on the manuscript up until the point where it needed to be delivered, still enmeshed in the world of those characters and the moral and psychological problems they represent.

Texts like these – where the writer’s engagement with the subject remains visible to the reader – I find to be amongst the most rewarding and significant.

I also found it odd, reading Carthage. There’s some stuff in it that overlaps, quite a bit, with what I’ve been writing myself these past eighteen months. I’ll never be Oates, of course, and the backgrounds of our work – American, British – are so very different. But I can’t help but feel that pulse of an interest simultaneously shared, a synchronicity that is disconcerting as much as it is satisfying.

Mainly though, I’m just left wanting to read more Oates.

Crime blog #10

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

The_Killer_Inside_Me.large_In lots of books I read, the writer seems to go haywire every time he reaches a high point. He’ll start leaving out punctuation and running his words together and babble about stars flashing and sinking into a deep dreamless sea. And you can’t figure out whether the hero’s laying his girl or a cornerstone. I guess that kind of crap is supposed to be pretty deep stuff – a lot of the book reviewers eat it up, I notice. But the way I see it is, the writer is just too goddam lazy to do his job. And I’m not lazy, whatever else I am. I’ll tell you everything. (TKIM p161)

And tell you he does. Thompson’s relentless first person perspective forces us into a deadly proximity with his ‘hero’, Lou Ford, a small-town deputy sheriff with justice – and its dispensation – very much on his mind.

If Lou sees himself as lawgiver, the man he has cast as recipient is Chester Conway, local bigshot and all-purpose asshole, a man who, Ford informs us, is an each-man-for-himself kind of guy and no matter the cost:

Conway had been the big man in town before the oil boom. He’d always been able to deal with others on his own terms. He’d gone without opposition for so many years that, by this time, he hardly knew it when he saw it. I believe I could have cussed him out in church and he wouldn’t have turned a hair. He’d just have figured his ears were playing tricks on him.

It had never been hard for me to believe he’d arranged [my brother’s] murder. The fact that he did it would automatically make it all right. (TKIM pp 33-4)

The time has come for a reckoning, and Lou has a plan. It goes wrong almost from the start, and Lou finds himself having to take ever more brutal steps to cover his tracks. By the time we reach the end, Central City’s population statistics will need to be adjusted, and Lou? Well, he’s not one for easy apologies, either:

Just because I’d been around when a few people got killed. Just because I happened to be around… (TKIM p175)

This novel’s reputation is already assured, and not without reason. It’s tautly written, smart, tense, economical as they come and with moments of genuine horror. Thompson’s language showcases the very best of the pulp/noir tradition. You won’t find any extraneous detail here, no dwelling on weather or landscape or family history. But there’s real poetry in these pages, an instinctive feel for the rhythms of speech and thought that would put many more verbose writers in the shade. Thompson’s talent – and Ford’s, I guess – is to tell it how it is, and with no words wasted.

Nor is Lou Ford any kind of ordinary psycho. He’s an intelligent, canny, thinking man, a man who reads and observes and understands human motivations and behaviour on an intellectual as well as a gut level. It ain’t his fault he’s got the sickness now, is it? If I have any criticism at all of The Killer Inside Me, it’s that Ford’s true nature is revealed too early. His murderous assault on Joyce Lakeland is so appalling, so totally beyond the pale, that it’s impossible – at least for this reader – to ever feel the empathy for him that Thompson is clearly tempting us towards. I can see Thompson’s reasoning – he doesn’t want to trick us, he wants us to know that Lou is a killer and still go along for the ride, and it’s very nicely done – but I think for me the book might have worked even better if he’d held off just a little longer.

Crime blog #9

In the Woods by Tana French

in the woods frenchThis is very much a book of three halves.

For the first fifty or so pages, I thought I’d discovered that holy grail I seem to spend a fair amount of my reading life searching for: the crime novel that works equally well as literary fiction. A lot of Patricia Highsmith’s oeuvre is up there, of course, as are a generous handful of Barbara Vine’s, James Ellroy’s, David Peace’s. All too often though, genre crime novels tend to exhibit the same core flaw that plagues genre horror fiction: amazing set-up, shit denouement. The biggest problem with In the Woods isn’t so much its denouement (although it is kind of shit) as the complete-arse status of its narrator-protagonist, Rob Ryan.

As readers of this blog will already know, I have no problem with arsehole protagonists – indeed I rather enjoy them. My problem with Ryan is that it is not sufficiently clear from the text whether French knows him as the dick he is, intends him to be a dick in fact, or whether it’s more ‘ooh, poor Rob, his tortured past, his damaged feeeelings’.

There’s just not enough definition here. And that lack of focus, for me, made the book very disappointing indeed, all the more so because In the Woods begins so promisingly.

Rob Ryan was once Adam Ryan, whose childhood was defined first by his friendship with Peter and Jamie, who grew up alongside him on a Dublin estate, and then by Peter and Jamie’s disappearance in nearby woods when the kids were twelve. Rob is recovered alive but traumatised, and with no memory of what happened to his friends. Rob’s parents moved away to England, and Rob went to boarding school and then to university. After bumming around London for a couple of years, he realises that his vocation lies with the Dublin Murder Squad. He makes a success of his chosen career, and is happy in his work. Our story opens as Rob is chosen to head up an investigation into the murder of another pre-teen, Katy Devlin, who grew up on that same Knocknaree estate where Ryan, Peter and Jamie once lived and played.

French’s set-up is not just intriguing but beautifully written. This opening segment of the novel contains so many insights, so many wry and clever observations, so many passages of lovely prose  that I frequently found myself smiling with pleasure at the fluency and sagacity of French’s invention. The first instances of Rob’s sexism came as a bit of a shock because I’d been enjoying the story, the writing and, let me add, Rob’s narration so much I just wasn’t expecting him to be that guy. That was the point where the narrative lost some of its shine for me. Instead of being marvellous, it settled down into what was a perfectly acceptable police thriller with above average writing. I was still enjoying myself – it was just that I had to readjust my expectations.

But things kept getting worse. I tried to convince myself that French was making some kind of statement about sexism in the police force and in murder investigation units in particular. Not a bad idea at all – I’m sure there’s plenty of sexism in the police force (!) and what more absorbing and intricate task for a writer to set herself than to create a protagonist who is a very good detective but so flawed in his attitudes that he eventually misses out on solving a case because of them? That’s a book I’d make a grab for. But Rob isn’t complex enough for that. He’s just a sexist who doesn’t realise he is one (almost the worst kind) who treats his (investigations) partner appallingly (I honestly cannot bring myself to find one mitigating clause in Rob’s behaviour towards Cassie) and who has this pig-annoying habit of searching for princesses to rescue. I suppose one could argue that the princess-rescuing thing does turn out to be the main reason Rob doesn’t spot the criminal mastermind on his first throw of the dice (and why he makes even more of an idiot of himself than he has done already) but it’s not enough, it’s too loose. Rob’s thoughts and actions remain insufficiently interrogated by the text itself.

And while we’re on the subject of the criminal mastermind, I’m bound to say that [-] was one of the most unconvincing – nay, downright ridiculous – pieces of characterisation I’ve ever found amongst the pages of a novel by someone who can obviously write. Who can write rather well, in fact – which makes the lousy, stupid portrayal of [-] even more unforgivable and baffling.

I mean, that whole sequence where Cassie is wearing the wire and [-] does their ‘I will kill you, Mr Bond, but first let me explain exactly how and why I decided to bring about your eternal damnation’ spiel. Just. No.

The entire final quarter of the novel is irrevocably marred by this lazy reliance on tropes, the kind of imaginative failure that ruins many a genre novel, and most Hollywood movies. And I just don’t get why a writer would do this to themselves. An intricately plotted crime novel is a skilful thing, a beautiful thing that takes time to invent and accomplish. So why not go that extra mile and invent a plausible antagonist and motive, rather than settle for having the thing play out like an indifferent TV cop drama?

I love crime novels. For pure reading pleasure, it would be a crime novel for me every time. Which is why I want them to be not just OK but great. Keith Ridgway gets this point better than anyone:

I do read crime fiction. Usually in binges. I enjoy crime fiction a great deal. Or two thirds of it. By which I mean the first two thirds of each book. The last third of a crime book usually pisses me off. I love the exposition, getting everything set up and into position, and then the cranking out of the mechanics that are going to get the thing to dance. But in the last third it seems to always end up in a sort of badly choreographed dogfight and the pacing goes haywire and there’s so much chasing after loose ends that it ceases to have anything to do with our experienced world and becomes more a sort of fantasy of resolution, a kind of neurotic tidying of life’s mess, like sport.

(I think I may have pointed up this interview before but the points Ridgway makes here are just so spot on.)

Ridgway gets around this beautifully by refusing to write a conventional crime novel and I applaud him for it. But wouldn’t it be great if, every now and again, one could find a ‘real’ crime novel that didn’t spiral downwards into lunacy?

The thing is though, I will probably be giving Tana French another chance, 1) because in spite of everything I say above I still enjoyed the hell out of reading this and 2) I think she has it in her to produce a crime story that is properly special. I’m tempted to try the second in the Dublin Murder Squad series, because I know it’s about Cassie (even though we only ever get to see her through Rob’s self-pitying male gaze, it is abundantly clear that Cassie is by far the best character in In the Woods) but I may leap forward to the most recent book in the series first, just to see if French has learned from her mistakes. Here’s hoping.

Crime blog #8

What She Left by T. R. Richmondwhat she left.richmond

The books that annoy me most are usually those I feel most let down by. When I first heard about What She Left I couldn’t wait to read it. The novel was billed as a crime story with a difference, an account of a death and the solution to a mystery, pieced together from emails, letters, diary extracts, online forums and newspaper reports. I like found documents, I like mosaic novels, I like non-linear narratives. I was expecting to like this novel very much. In fact, the experience of reading it was like watching Broadchurch or Missing. You know that point about half way through the series when you know you’ve been duped into thinking this would be good (less pointless, more strongly characterised and better written than all the other crime dramas you’ve become unwillingly addicted to over the years) when it patently isn’t, when you wish you had the willpower to end your relationship with the programme right now but you can’t quite do it? Reading What She Left feels just like that.

The plot is pretty simple: on an icy February morning in 2012, the body of a young journalist, Alice Salmon, is found floating in a river in Southampton. Alice, who completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Southampton some eight years before, was by all accounts a lovely person: adored by her friends, admired by her colleagues, cherished by her family and boyfriend. Who could possibly have wanted to kill Alice? And surely her life had too much going for it for her to consider suicide? Her death must have been an accident – she was drunk, the bridge was icy, she slipped and fell… But of course there are secrets in Alice’s past, as there are in everyone’s. Enter Professor Jeremy Cooke, a TV anthropologist, lecturer at Southampton University, ex-mentor of Alice. We soon learn that Cooke was once intimately acquainted with Alice’s mother, Liz, and has more than a passing interest in the case. Newly diagnosed with prostate cancer, he sees it as his final mission to discover what really happened to Alice, to set the truth on record in the form of a written account. The book he eventually publishes, compiled from the various documents Cooke has gathered together and its conclusions a secret until now, is ostensibly the book that you are holding in your hands.

Which would all be great, if only, well, so many things. If only Richmond had taken more care in the creation of his various found documents, for a start. As it is, we have letters and diary entries that read pretty much like standard narrative prose, complete with conventionally formatted dialogue and extended flashbacks. Of course it would be OK for the writer to take some liberties here, it would be impossible not to, but no one writes letters like this, it just doesn’t happen. It’s as if Richmond enjoyed the idea of constructing an epistolary novel, then found out how difficult it would be to convey a whole story in that way and decided that no one would notice if he cheated. The blog entries and emails are, if anything, worse. The blog posts are nothing like the kind of blog posts anyone would actually publish. Richmond tries to get around this problem by having the point of view character (in this case Alice’s best friend Megan) make self deprecating remarks along the lines of ‘only six people read this blog anyway, so who cares what I write here?’ which do nothing to mitigate the unfitness of said entries for stated purpose. Indeed, Richmond’s conception of ‘internet language’ is a problem generally. The novel contains numerous self conscious instances of young people making jokes about the cluelessness of old people on the internet, couched in language that already sounds like old people on the internet. Does anyone use the term ‘bestie’ except ironically? Did they ever? When employed by those writers with a decent ear for it, the language of the internet (like any other spoken or written language variant) can take on the characteristics of poetry. In What She Left it is tepid at best and more often a matter for squirming embarrassment. This book was already dated before the publisher hit ‘print’.

But there are other problems, too. If you’re writing a thriller, you need either an amazing plot or compelling characters. Ideally you’ll have both, but all writers have their different strengths and if you skew more naturally towards one of these key ingredients that need not matter. If you write your favoured key ingredient well enough, your reader may well not notice that the other is lacking. But they are certainly going to notice if you people your completely banal standard-issue yuppie thriller plot with completely banal standard-issue yuppies. Professor Cooke is your typical kind of lecherous middle-aged lecturer, still ogling his students, still looking back nostalgically to the days when his ogling actually got him somewhere, still regretting that he was never as brilliant as his (off-page) brilliant best friend. He reminisces about roaring around the Hampshire lanes in his TR7. (Who ever heard of a university lecturer driving a TR7? A beat-up Fiat Uno was more par for the course when I was at uni.)  He’s a dick, in other words, but he doesn’t even have the consideration to be a dick in an interesting way. His narrative is egregious, self-serving, and above all dull. The character of Alice fares no better in Richmond’s hands. She too is dull, and Richmond gives us no reason to care about her or be interested in her, save for the fact that she is dead. Her narrative voice veers excitably all over the dial from too-young to too-old, she’s meant to be into hard-line vigilante crime journalism but her portions of the narrative – the unconvincing diary entries, mostly – give us no sense of this other than her feeling sorry for old ladies on the tube or whatever. Her much-vaunted interest in Sylvia Plath is a clichéd not to say lazy touch, put there for the sole purpose of advancing the plot (in a really corny way – but you’ll get to that).

It should also be noted that the novel is sexist in a dozen unthinking, low-level, predictably depressing ways. Alice is there to be ogled and stalked, Megan is there to be treacherous and crazy, Liz is there to be alcoholic and unbalanced. Professor Cock, sorry Cooke is there to analyse these scintillating facts for us, to patronise literally every single woman who walks into the narrative and to normalise the ogling and objectification. I don’t automatically go around checking whether works of fiction pass the Bechdel test, but does this one? No, of course it doesn’t.

Do I even need to add that the eventual denouement is preposterous?

This novel made me want to weep for the opportunities lost. It doesn’t have to be this way, I wanted to say. Take the time to make this book how you imagined it would be, I wanted to say. I suppose what this all boils down to is that characters in thrillers are people too, and the thriller writer should take the trouble to reveal them as such. To give them interests and passions and character traits rather than spurious motives and annoying quirks. To portray them in language that reveals a hinterland and not just a surface. Give them something to say, in other words. It gives me no pleasure to state this, but this book had nothing to say.

dirty weekend.zahaviFor a crime novel with plenty to say and some to spare, might I suggest you turn instead to Dirty Weekend, by Helen Zahavi. This novel, first published in 1992, caused something of a stir in its day. The Observer called it ‘more offensive than pornography’. Salman Rushdie, writing for the Independent on Sunday, called Dirty Weekend a ‘hideous, kinky little revenge-novel of violence done to men’. Unfortunately the book came out just before the days of universal internet archiving, and so I haven’t been able to source Rushdie’s review in its entirety. Which is a shame, because I’d have liked to have pulled it apart more. As it is, I feel confident in saying that his words reveal far more about Rushdie and his attitudes than about Helen Zahavi’s barnstorming debut.

This is the story of Bella, who woke up one morning and realised she’d had enough.

She’s no one special. England’s full of wounded people. Quietly choking. Shrieking softly so the neighbours won’t hear. You must have seen them. You’ve probably passed them. You’ve certainly stepped on them. Too many people have had enough. It’s nothing new. It’s what you do about it that really counts.

Thus the novel’s opening lines encapsulate the entirety of what is to come. To put it simply, Bella goes on a killing spree. Her targets are not random. We as readers are made a party to everything that happens. I should warn you that this book is violent. It’s right out there. What it is not is gratuitous, pointless, exploitative, hideous or kinky. It is dark, powerful, angry, brutal, piercingly intelligent and brilliant. Most of all, there is the language. Helen Zahavi writes with such thrilling assurance it leaves you breathless. Being trapped inside Dirty Weekend is like being on a roller coaster – you scream as you laugh, laugh as you scream. The rhythmic potency of Zahavi’s language – like rap, like hip-hop – had me wanting to read whole pages aloud. Her dialogue is exceptional, and hilarious. Kathy Acker puts it best:

Above all Dirty Weekend is a novel composed of language so gorgeous, so precise and witty, that I found myself laughing and thought, I should be crying instead.  Nothing pleases me more than to be surprised into consciousness.

Dirty Weekend made me laugh out loud on numerous occasions. It also had me wanting to hide my face from what was going on on the page. A novel like this does not come along every day. What it says about the world we live in needs to be read. What it does in terms of language and structure needs to be shouted about. It also has a brilliant sense of place – this is Brighton after lights out, make no mistake. It’s a tough book but absolutely worth your time. I would also recommend you read Helen Zahavi’s essay, written for The Guardian, on answering the critics.

 

Ruth Rendell 1930 – 2015

I was first introduced to Ruth Rendell’s work in 1985 by Dr Lindsey Hughes, later to become Professor of Russian History at SSEES, then head of the soon-to-be defunct Russian department at the University of Reading. Lindsey was a great woman, a brilliant scholar, and a lasting inspiration. She died of cancer in 2007 and as I have just discovered I still find it difficult to talk or write about her without becoming upset at the ridiculously early age of her passing away. Lindsey first told me about Rendell in the front living room of her house in Donnington Road, the unofficial hub of Reading’s small but vibrant Russianist community and the site of many a late-night election debate (over vodka, of course) or folk singing session. “You have to read her,” she said to me of Rendell. “Her books are completely addictive.” She was certainly right about that, as she was about many things. I remember a couple of years afterwards, thanking Lindsey for her recommendation and enthusing over The Bridesmaid, Rendell’s then most recent novel and for me at least a continuing favourite. I must have listened to the 1995 Radio 4 adaptation a dozen times and more. I enjoyed Claude Chabrol’s 2004 film of the same book, but for me it lacked an essential something, that quality of eccentricity that made Rendell’s work such a vital and permanent cornerstone of the English crime canon.

I loved Rendell because I found her unputdownable but also enduring. Her keen literary sensibility, combined with her clear and obvious passion for telling stories, made many of her books classics even as they appeared.  I’ve raced through many Rendells two pages at a time on first reading in a fever of longing to know what happens, only to savour the novel at a more leisurely pace on a second or even third reading, discovering new details and – and just remind yourself at this point how rare this is with crime thrillers – a pleasure that is absolutely equal with that first enthralled encounter with the plot.

Among my favourites of Rendell’s work would have to be the Barbara Vine novels. “Nobody in their senses is going to call me a first-class writer”, Rendell said of her own talent. Like PD James, I would have to disagree. In the superb Asta’s Book (1993), No Night is Too Long (1994) and The Brimstone Wedding (1995) Rendell did things with character, psychology and sense of place that make many contemporaneous so-called literary novels appear pallid and insubstantial by comparison. Her underappreciated 1987 novella Heartstones is a classic of the form. Her short stories are masterclasses of concision and suspense. I hope Rendell knew that her work will still be being read and enjoyed a hundred years from now, and counting.

Her legacy is evident equally in the inspiration she offered to other artists. I find it especially interesting that the most eloquent and startling film adaptations of Rendell’s work have come not from British but from European directors. I think Chabrol’s 1995 film La Ceremonie, an unnerving and visually stunning adaptation of A Judgement in Stone, is even better than his adaptation of The Bridesmaid. Almodovar’s 1997 movie Live Flesh is as idiosyncratic and watchable and brilliant as anything he’s done. Claude Miller’s Betty Fisher and Other Stories (2001), a free adaptation of Rendell’s 1984 novel The Tree of Hands, is so good it’s a crime (ha!) that it’s not better known.  It’s strange that thus far British directors haven’t responded to Rendell’s oeuvre with anything approaching the same levels of originality and depth. The small-screen adaptations of the Wexford novels, whilst deservedly popular, do not offer anything beyond the usual run-of-the-mill TV entertainment, and I can only hope that in time, one of our many talented British film makers – Andrea Arnold or Ben Wheatley, for example, I could see doing great things – will take a look at the treasure trove of material Rendell has laid in store for them and make some magic of their own.

Whatever happens though, we have her books. Thank you, Ruth Rendell, for the perennial thrill we find in discovering and then rereading them.