Category Archives: crime blog

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.

Crime blog #7

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ngeverything.ng

If there’s one sub-section within the crime genre that I have a particular fondness for, it’s crime novels in which no actual crime takes place. Ng’s novel opens not with a death, but with the knowledge of a death – Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. A family sit together having breakfast, filled with their own concerns and immersed in routines so familiar they perform them on autopilot with no idea that these moments of normality are about to end. This feels so familiar, the opening of so many crime novels and TV series. A body will be discovered, the family, devastated, will be plunged into a new routine of suspicion and counter-suspicion, dark secrets will be uncovered as we, along with them, seek insight into the identity of the murderer.

This novel is different, however. Ng selects an omniscient third person point of view to tell her story, a choice that is not only unusual these days, but – to my mind at least – the most difficult to engineer successfully. I felt discomfited by it at first – multiple viewpoints in a single paragraph, I thought, ugh – but it wasn’t long before I was entirely seduced by Ng’s storytelling. Her writing has an honest, unfettered quality that is compelling. She tells instead of shows whenever she damn well feels like it, and I was cheering her on. It would seem that what matters most to Ng is not to appear clever, to demonstrate virtuosity or fireworks or how much she knows about how to write, but to tell this story about these five (six, if you count Jack, which you should) characters, to allow us access to the hidden corners of their lives.

Other readers have spoken about this book as a social novel, a novel about racism, about women’s emancipation, about the 1970s, about family. It is all of those things. The feminist and race issues are sensitively handled – one experiences sympathy for both Marilyn and James as a dull ache, an echo of their own isolations and anxieties – and I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel about family that so wonderfully evokes the tangled skein of relationships and resentments, fears and conflicting loyalties that exist between people who have become estranged but who nonetheless are bound together, indivisibly, by love. But there’s more than that here, and there’s nothing even remotely ‘worthy’ about this novel, which is, fundamentally, a story about individual people struggling to find their way.

It’s a book about mistakes, and regret, and accommodation. There are moments of pure linguistic wonder, observations and feelings so perfectly, so effortlessly caught, it’s like watching a film.

the fever. abbottWhile I was reading I couldn’t help comparing this novel with The Fever, by Megan Abbott, another ‘odd’ crime novel (my favourite kind) that I read last month. Abbott’s mastery of the teenage mind is amazing – I’ve not read so accurate a transcription of the madness and malice and vulnerability of schoolgirls in a long time – and her use of language is superb. I’d say that The Fever is ‘better written’ than Everything You Never Told Me – Abbott’s turns of phrase are sublime, disturbing, and difficult to ignore – but that it is Ng’s book you will best remember, and enjoy, and recommend to others. In spite of everything, it ends well, it ends beautifully. A quietly resounding success.

Crime blog #6

Tony and Susan by Austin Wright tony&susan.cover

Susan Morrow, comfortable if not entirely content in her marriage to hospital consultant Arnold, is contacted out of the blue by her first husband Edward. Edward always wanted to be a writer – indeed, his decision to abandon his law studies in pursuit of what Susan privately considered to be a hopeless dream was at least part of what led to the breakdown of their marriage. Now it seems that dream wasn’t so hopeless after all – Edward’s letter accompanies the manuscript of his first novel, Nocturnal Animals, which he wants Susan to read. ‘You always were my best critic’, he reminds her. Will she take a look at what he has written, and let him know what she thinks of it?

Of course Susan can’t resist. Was she right to dismiss Edward’s ambitions all those years ago, or does her ex have a genuine talent? Besides, with Arnold away at a conference, possibly with an old flame, Susan needs something to divert her. She begins reading more or less straight away – and finds herself propelled back into the past with disconcerting speed.

I honestly don’t know what I think of this book. I loved the concept, the way the book alternates between Susan-reading and what Susan is reading, i.e the story of Tony Hastings in Edward’s novel, Nocturnal Animals. Susan’s sections are both a commentary on that novel, and a story in their own right – the story of her marriage to Edward and her current suspicions about her second husband, the arrogant, unimaginative and rather blokish doctor Arnold.  The first chapters of Nocturnal Animals, in which Tony Hastings has his life torn apart while en route with his wife and daughter to their summer place in Maine, are without a doubt the most compelling part of the whole. At this point I felt a genuine sympathy for Tony, as well as a driving compulsion to discover what happened next. I admired the style of the narrative, pared down and terse yet still fascinatingly introspective. Susan’s sections worked brilliantly with the Tony chapters, providing an effective contrast and an intriguing counterpoint with the shocking events as they unfolded in Nocturnal Animals.

So where did it all go wrong? For me, I think Tony and Susan began to come unstuck as Nocturnal Animals began to turn from tragedy to farce. Tony-the-victim is a pitiable figure. One feels for his initial predicament – indeed one suspects that one might not have behaved much better in similar circumstances – and the horror of the immediate aftermath of that predicament is brilliantly described. Yet Tony-the-avenging-angel is ridiculous, annoying and frustratingly gullible. His acquiescence in what happens next – a crime almost as repulsive and wrong-headed as the crime that led him there – proves the final nail in the coffin of credibility. I’d be fine with all this if I were convinced Austin Wright meant us to feel this way, if Nocturnal Animals were intended as some kind of Dostoevskian comment on the criminal-as-us, but I’m not convinced this is the case. The whole thing feels clumsily handled, as if Wright – and through him, Edward – wasn’t entirely sure what he meant us to think of Tony, and by extension the novel as a whole.

And in the end, Susan’s own story isn’t interesting enough to compete with Tony’s. I’d be the last reader to demand melodrama, but I was left wanting more here, and not in a good way.

I would definitely recommend Tony and Susan, because in spite of the novel’s flaws, there’s a lot to enjoy.  There’s the form, for a start, so full of the potential to fascinate, which for a lot of the time it absolutely does. And whatever you think of the ending, or the characters for that matter, I absolutely guarantee you won’t be bored. You’ll keep on reading, turning those pages just like Susan, both excited and afraid of what you might find.

Nina’s Crime Blog #5

The Lighthouse by P.D. James

I’ve just returned from a long weekend in Cornwall, visiting my mother and doing the kind of things I always look forward to during those visits – touring around the Lizard and Penwith peninsulas, checking out the latest art exhibitions. We were lucky with the weather and it was an invigorating, inspiring few days all round. Something else I look forward to when I visit Cornwall is the train journey. It takes eight hours, pretty much, door to door, which makes it a bit of a long haul. The upside, of course, is that there’s nothing else to do during those hours but read.

I took two new SF novels with me. Both have been enthusiastically received, both look set to feature on awards shortlists in 2014. I found myself crushingly disappointed with both. I’ll have more specific things to say around Clarke time, no doubt, but for now I’ll summarize by saying that I found the first of these novels to be an accomplished and committed piece of work but not nearly as original as it thought it was. In the end, for me, it proved too shallow for its subject matter, all shiny surfaces and no characterisation. The second, whilst straining hard for Le Guinian reach and strength of purpose, struggled to come even close to Le Guin’s achievement, stylistically or intellectually. Reading it felt to me like being trapped inside one of the more interminable episodes of original Star Trek. One long infodump, once again zero characterisation, and tedious with it.

Have we lived and fought in vain, I grumbled to myself as The Cornishman finally pulled into Truro station. But the horror was not over. I looked forward to selecting something more inspiring to read from my mother’s shelves, but here also I would find myself thwarted. My mother is an eclectic and avid reader, but unlike me she is a convert to the Kindle. As she now does most of her novel-reading onscreen, the space given over to fiction on her bookshelves is decreasing. I couldn’t face Anita Brookner and I’d read all the E. M. Forsters, and so it was that I ended up choosing a 2005 novel by P. D. James, The Lighthouse. I could cover it for my crime blog, I thought, and by happy coincidence it turned out to be set in Cornwall.

I read a lot of P. D. James in my twenties, and enjoyed her a lot. In my memory, those novels of hers I liked best – Devices and Desires, The Black Tower, A Taste for Death, The Skull Beneath the Skin and especially the non-series Innocent Blood – had been meaty psychological studies tending towards weirdness and satisfyingly heavy on sense of place. I was curious to see how I might find her now. It had been well over a decade since I last picked up a PDJ, and I read differently now in any case. Everything I read, I read as a writer. I am looking for different things. I am definitely more critical, less easily satisfied.

The God of Bad Books clearly had it in for me this weekend, because reading The Lighthouse was not an edifying experience. The story, as in all country house murder mysteries and their many variants, is a simple one and none the worse for that: a famous writer, Nathan Oliver, goes missing on the exclusive Cornish island-retreat of Combe. Shortly afterwards he is found dead. Is it suicide, or murder? Inspector Adam Dalgleish and two more junior officers are summoned to find out. The small cast of suspects are introduced and questioned in the traditional way. More trouble ensues as old eminities are uncovered and the case is further complicated when Dalgleish suddenly goes down with SARS. This plot development in particular comes across as contrived and banal – three guesses which ‘superbug’ was hitting the headlines when James was writing this one. Rifling current news stories is always a risk for a writer – one wrong move and your book will appear catastrophically dated almost before it is published. P. D. James’s SARS subplot falls harder than a lead balloon. Sadly this is not the only problem with this novel.

As I recall it was PDJ herself who compared the country house murder mystery with the poetic form of the sonnet: far from being restrictive, having to adhere to a recognised plot structure is actually freeing and no bar to originality, no matter how many other writers have been there before you. I have no problem with that idea – you only have to consider the infinite possible variations of a 12-bar blues to see the truth in it.

But when a writer gets lazy, problems begin. James does not so much create a variation upon a theme as present us with another tired repetition of that theme,  using masses of extraneous detail as a mask for clunky writing. We go along with it because we love the idea of the story and because we want to know what happens. Even when PDJ presented me with a completely redundant 30-page prologue (in which Dalgleish and his officers are (re)introduced and the scene set, all information I would encounter again in the following pages) I still wanted to know what happened. Two hundred pages and many needless repetitions, embarrassing passages of dialogue and teeth-grittingly out-of-touch social observations later I felt angry with and embarrassed for the writer and desperate to get the whole thing over with as soon as possible.

I had a similar experience recently when reading Barbara Vine’s The Minotaur, coincidentally also first published in 2005. I love Vine’s earlier novels – they’re richly observed, compelling, suspenseful, enviably fine work. But this one just seemed… half cock. The crises seemed false, the characters misjudged, and the moral climate inextricably and inappropriately immured in the 1950s. Thus in The Lighthouse we have PDJ attempting to bring her narrative up to date in small and largely insignificant ways – Dalgleish writes his reports on a laptop, people communicate using mobile phones – whilst failing utterly in terms of the overall ambience. Characters make reference to contemporary novels and television programmes, the author is not shy of dating her narrative specifically in the early 2000s – and yet this is still a world of butlers, boarding schools and housekeepers, of burning shame over illegitimate parentage, of adult offspring unconvincingly in thrall to despotic fathers. James speaks of ‘the race warriors’ and ‘the animal rights people’ in bland and occasionally offensive terms of received opinion rather than personal passion and one cannot escape the feeling that these were subjects she thought she ‘ought’ to include rather than issues she actually wanted to write about. I don’t even want to talk about her cringe-inducing characterisation of Emma Lavenham’s (lesbian) college friend, and I found her attempts to convey street vernacular particularly horrible. Here’s eighteen-year-old Millie, a runaway from Peckham who is treated by the rest of the assembled cast as if she were still in nappies, vehemently countering insinuations that the murder victim might have been interested in her sexually:

“That’s disgusting. Course he didn’t. He’s old. He’s older than Mr Maycroft. It’s gross. It wasn’t like that. He never touched me. You saying he was a perv or something? You saying he was a paedo?” (p235)

This might not be so bad, were it not for the fact that Millie alone is presumed to speak in this way, while everyone else, regardless of age or gender, continues to hold forth in the same pompous brand of BBC English like characters from Brief Encounter. Dalgleish’s deputy Kate Miskin is not that much older than Millie, yet her dialogue makes her sound like the headmistress of a pre-war girls’ grammar school:

“The vestments when finished must be heavy and valuable. How do you get them to the recipients?” (p312)

I don’t think I’d be alone in finding something of a credibility gap here.

There is a perfectly good story hidden at the heart of The Lighthouse, but the novel as it stands is not it. It’s careless, misjudged, cumbersome, and stuffed with unnecessary padding. It’s awful to see James struggling to make her work appear more socially ‘relevant’. Literary ventriloquism of this kind is invariably a mistake – James would do far better taking the time and trouble to write in her own voice, on subjects and about characters that genuinely inspire her.

It’s disturbing to note that if this were a first novel by an unknown writer, such bum notes would see it laughed out of court. (See Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo for a still more egregious example of unearned approbation.) No writer should rest on her laurels, no matter how verdant. I admire P. D. James greatly for the determination she demonstrated in becoming a writer in the first place, for her tenacity and commitment, for the continuing pleasure she clearly takes in what she does. I only wish I could admire her actual writing more than I do.

The Bowl of Cthulhu, by Monica Allan

Cottages, St Just

The Pier, Porthleven

Buildings, St Keverne

Nina’s Crime Blog #4

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton


Devlin came closer. He felt overcome – though by what kind of sentiment, he did not exactly know. George Shepard’s whisky had warmed his chest and stomach – there was a blurry tightness in his skull, a blurry heat behind his eyes – but the gaoler’s story had made him feel wretched, even chilled. Perhaps he was about to weep. It would feel good to weep. What a day it had been. His heart was heavy, his limbs exhausted. He looked down at Anna and Emery, their mirrored bodies, facing in. They were breathing in tandem.

So they are lovers, he thought looking down at them. So they are lovers, after all. He knew it from the way that they were sleeping. (The Luminaries, p622)

“It is complex in its design, yet accessible in its narrative and prose. Its plot is engrossing in own right, but an awareness of the structure working behind it deepens one’s pleasure and absorption. As a satisfying murder mystery, it wears its colours proudly, yet it is not afraid to subvert and critique the traditions and conventions of its genre. Best of all, while maintaining a wry self-awareness about its borrowings and constructions, it is never a cynical novel. At times, it can be unapologetically romantic, in both its narrative content and its attitude towards the literary tradition it emulates. It is a novel that can be appreciated on many different levels, but which builds into a consistent and harmonious whole.” (Julian Novitz in the Sydney Review of Books. A superb review – read it.)

A man walks into a bar. His name is Walter Moody and he has just arrived in the New Zealand goldmining town of Hokitika. He’s seeking rest, sustenance and a little peace and quiet after a harrowing sea voyage. The first two are what The Crown hotel’s business is all about, the third seems less immediately attainable as Moody is pitched almost at once into a mystery that will take some months and not a little bloodshed to be fully resolved. And even then there are some mysteries that even the most adroit of detectives – for everyone in this novel is to some extent his or her own detective – cannot fully explain.

The twelve men previously gathered in the bar of The Crown elect Moody as their confidante. He is newly arrived, he knows none of them, any advice or worldly wisdom he might have to offer must surely be objective. But Moody himself has a story to tell, a tale of terror that will finally reveal him to be connected to the men in the bar in ways that could never have been remotely guessed at when first he happened to enter upon the stage.

You won’t see The Luminaries advertised as a crime novel. But at its most basic level that’s precisely what it is: a rollicking great belter of a murder mystery that will keep you entertained and in suspense until the final page. In its massive story arc, its picture perfect character studies, its punctilious and awe inspiring attention to detail, it does in many ways bear kinship with the best of the ‘box set’ TV series Catton has said she admires.

I’ve thought a great deal about how to describe the experience of reading this book, and the best I can come up with is to liken it to completing one of those maddeningly complex 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles your gran used to keep on top of her wardrobe: at first there seem to be so many disparate elements you despair at ever making sense of it, but the more you stick with it, nibbling away at the edges, the more pieces fit into place until suddenly, there you are, whacking those odd-shaped little chunks of wood into their spaces as if they were pixels, flowing seamlessly together to make a lustrous, singular and inexorable whole.

I find myself utterly bemused by those critics who have dismissed this novel as Victorian pastiche. As with Catton’s debut The Rehearsal, I have seldom come across a book more self-aware, more clearly and keenly intent on its purpose. That Catton is able to sing her way into the rhythms and cadences of nineteenth century realism with such adroit and pleasing technical accomplishment is just one of the many talents this writer has put on display. In her use of irony – social, literary, historical – and her delightfully dextrous (for she wears her huge ability so lightly) manipulation of her subject matter I can think of few to better her and in a second novel even fewer. Catton has blown the curse of the ‘difficult second novel’ out of the water.

When this year’s Booker longlist was announced, the two novels that immediately interested me the most were Richard House’s The Kills (because I loved the idea of it from the outset) and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (because I thought her first novel was outstanding and I was eager to find out what she’d done next). Now that I’ve read both, I can say with confidence that they are equally worth your time. As crime novels they are both vast in ambition, superlative in achievement, and bloody exciting into the bargain. As contributions to the ongoing project of The Novel, they are both brave, inspiring and yes, bloody exciting. They are also both so wonderfully different from each other. Although my first instinct would have declared The Kills to be more immediately relevant, more  harrowing, more gripping even, as I waded deeper and deeper into The Luminaries I found myself obliged to reconsider. Catton’s novel is equally gripping and harrowing (when I discovered the truth about how Anna came to be in the situation in which we find her at the beginning of the novel I experienced a depth of rage as potent as any I felt while reading The Kills, not least because much the same thing is happening to vulnerable young women on the streets of our cities at this very moment) – it just has a different way of speaking.

You will need stamina to read The Luminaries. You will need to invest both your time and your patience as you pick your way through the intricate pathways of the novel’s long and complex opening section. But it will be a wise investment with a significant return, as you glean from it the truest and best pleasure that reading has to offer: the sense of personal discovery and growth that is almost invariably the product of intimate and prolonged contact with a diverse, original and practised imagination.

I loved this book. Bravo.