Monthly Archives: July 2013

My criminal bloggage

I don’t know the crime genre nearly well enough, and that has started to bug me. I’ve never read Henning Mankell, for example, or David Peace, Joseph Wambaugh or Kerstin Ekman, George Pelecanos or Karin Alvtegen. Crime fiction has presented us with some of literature’s most instantly compelling stories and many of its most enduring characters, but these are not the only reasons why I personally find it fascinating. What I love most about the idea of crime fiction is its forensic nature – the presentation and unravelling, in whatever form or style the writer chooses to present this, of a number of clues, or happenings, or incidents, and the way a story will arise almost inevitably out of this arrangement of disparate pieces. Every crime novel is, to a greater or lesser extent, an essay in the uncovering of something hidden, a key factor that has been deliberately concealed from the reader, often in plain sight, a mystery that the reader, for maximum enjoyment, feels compelled to solve.

I think it’s likely that a good part of the reason crime fiction is so popular lies precisely in this work of joint imagining, the way the writer invites the reader inside, to work with them, almost, in a work of joint creation.

I read all of Dorothy L. Sayers while I was at university, at least in part because of Harriet Vane’s Oxford connection. I continued to read a fair amount of crime fiction into my twenties, and there are a number of authors whose work I know pretty well. I devoured every book Ruth Rendell wrote as Barbara Vine (The Brimstone Wedding remains my favourite), and I read a lot of ‘core’ Rendells too, though I’ve always tended to prefer her non-Wexfords, wonderful books like Lake of Darkness, Going Wrong, A Judgement in Stone (turned into a marvellous movie by Claude Chabrol, La Ceremonie – go, go rent it now!) and my personal favourite The Bridesmaid (Chabrol made a movie of that, too – it’s pretty good, but not as good as the book) to the series novels. I read most of PD James (her standalone non-Dalgliesh book, Innocent Blood, was far and away my favourite) I developed an enduring obsession with the fiction of Patricia Highsmith. What I loved most about her work was the way you’d frequently get a crime novel without a murder in it, or else the murder plot would be subverted somehow, or take a completely unexpected turning. Her characters were nuanced, compelling and above all weird, and it is the effortless weirdness of her storytelling that continues to amaze me. Her ‘how to’ book on writing suspense fiction is a genuine treat.

I suppose that given the emotional ambiguity of a lot of my own fiction, it’s hardly surprising that the crime stories I tend to prefer are those that shirk the business of solving the mystery at their heart. Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel is a standout novel, a wonderful, joyously dark read that gives more with each subsequent reading at least partly because we never discover if Rachel ‘did it’ or not. The way du Maurier manages to get away with this inconclusive ending whilst at the same time making the novel a thrilling experience for the reader is a masterclass in genius-level storytelling.

More recently I’ve loved Roberto Bolano’s The Third Reich, in which Bolano subverts the generic crime novel beautifully by having the central action of the story – a character’s disappearance in mysterious circumstances – play itself out just beyond the main thrust of the narrative as it is presented to us, and also Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child, firstly for its incredible London writing and secondly for its obstinate refusal to tell a traditional crime story at all. I was struck especially by something Ridgway said in an e-interview with John Self about the problem of the conclusive narrative:

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.

These words sum up my own problem with the more conventional type of thriller pretty much exactly. (The same is true of way too many horror novels also – an amazing setup ruined by a downhill gallop towards a denouement that seems so stuffed full with cliches it’s enough to make you want to kill everyone involved in it.) Perhaps this is even why I seemed to fall out of love with the genre at some point. I feel now that I’ve been missing out, and that rejecting a genre because I don’t care for its bland centre ground would be the same as refusing to read science fiction because I no longer care for the work of Isaac Asimov. The trick – as with SF, as with horror – is to seek out the work at the edges, novels and writers whose concerns extend beyond the merely generic and into the personal exploration of defining obsessions.

I’ve read a fair amount of very good True Crime recently – Richard Lloyd Parry’s scintillating People Who Eat Darkness, Janet Malcolm’s excellent Iphigenia in Forest Hills, John Follain’s flawed but fascinating Death in Perugia, and Gordon Burn’s Capote-inspired Happy Like Murderers. (Burn is an achingly good writer, his premature death a genuine loss to literature.) Once again, what I’ve loved most about these books has been the construction of story through the examination of facts, the painstaking exhumation of salient details. I’ve seen more than one critic point to an obsession with detail as a defining characteristic of my own stories, so it seems likely that my excited response to this in the work of others is wholly to be expected.

I haven’t written much crime fiction myself, mainly because I’m terrified of cocking it up, but I have written some. My linked pieces ‘Wilkolak’ (first published in Crimewave #11 and reprinted in Maxim Jakobowski’s Mammoth Book of Best British Crime #10) and ‘The Tiger’ (published earlier this summer in Paul Finch’s anthology for Gray Friar, Terror Tales of London) are both psychological crime stories with a slight supernatural element. More recently, my novella Vivian Guppy and the Brighton Belle, my contribution to Eibonvale Press’s railway anthology Rustblind and Silverbright, makes a feature of precisely the investigative, forensic style of writing I’ve been talking about here. It’s not a crime story so much as a mystery – a ‘where is it’ rather than a ‘whodunit’. The story’s protagonist, Marian, could definitely be described as a detective – though it’s not criminals she’s trying to unearth but model trains. When I delivered this story I said to David Rix of Eibonvale that what defined Vivian Guppy for me most of all was what tremendous fun it was to write (and believe me when I say that this is not always a given), and I was recently surprised and very delighted to see Des Lewis describe the story in his real-time review of Rustblind as ‘a veritable page-turner’.

I’ve always felt immensely attracted though somewhat daunted by the prospect of trying to write a crime novel, but something Joel Lane said to me recently, that crime fiction ‘is just a matter of finding a crime or a criminal to write about’, clarified matters for me enormously. In placing the emphasis firmly on description, on the forensic examination of a given situation, rather than on the mechanical kind of plotting that led me to shy away from crime fiction in the first place, he gave me a means to analyse what matters to me most in this kind of writing, and the sense that I might even be able to produce some.

In the meantime though, I’ve decided it’s high time I got to know the genre a little better. To this end I’m going to try and prioritize crime fiction in my reading over the coming months, and blog about each novel I read, sharing my thoughts and findings and my conclusions at this blog. Hopefully I’ll start to build my own personal canon of crime writing as we go. So, with no further ado…

Nina’s Crime Blog #1: The False Inspector Dew, by Peter Lovesey (1972)

This might seem an odd place for me to start. Peter Lovesey writes crime fiction in the ‘golden age’ tradition: intricately worked mysteries with surprising plot twists and often within an historical setting. Classic detective fiction has few equals for sheer readability when it is done well, but the emphasis lies first and foremost with the building of a firm overall structure in which every happening is created expressly to move the plot forward. There is little room for digression in this type of story, and the characters tend to adhere fairly rigidly to their role as plot dictates it, rather than wandering off all over the place or messing things up with their complex psychologies. The False Inspector Dew is no exception to this. But what lifts it above the average and makes it a delight is Lovesey’s clear love for and knowledge of his chosen strand of detective fiction, a love that articulates itself in the blissful and knowing ironies that make The False Inspector Dew so funny as well as so clever.

It’s 1921 and Walter Baranov has a problem. He’s a dentist, and he likes being a dentist – but his wife Lydia, a failing actress, has other plans for him. She wants them to sail for America in the hope of making it big in motion pictures. Walter sees only disaster ahead – but unfortunately for him it’s Lydia who has control of the purse strings, and she’s threatening to sell his dental practice to finance their voyage. Help arrives in the form of Alma, a patient of Walter’s whose passion for him is such that she’s prepared for them to try anything – even murder – to be rid of Lydia and free to pursue a life together. Things seem to go well for them at first – but an unforseen calamity soon reverses the tide of their fortunes, and Walter finds himself in the unenviable position of acting as detective to solve the crime he himself would seem to have committed…

The plot is beautifully worked – Ruth Rendell herself defied anyone to predict the outcome and I duly found myself outwitted at each new turn. But it’s Lovesey’s prose that makes all this happen in such fine style. His writing is of the kind that is so fit for purpose it is invisible – elegant, correct, unadorned, created solely for the pleasure of telling its story in the deftest manner possible, this is what I’d call Just Good English, and it would be well if more of Lovesey’s would-be imitators were to take a lesson from him in how to write as well as what kind of stories to tell. Each character is drawn with economy and great clarity. The humour is wonderful – the kind of sardonic wit that is either part of a writer’s God-given armoury or it is not.

I chose The False Inspector Dew to kick off my crime blog mainly because this novel has always been a favourite of Chris’s and I was curious to see how I liked it. What strikes me most about it is that it’s a whodunit in the proper old-school sense of the word. The crimes against good plotting in contemporary TV cop dramas are legion and tiresome. We recently caught up with ITV’s Broadchurch, for example, and although we enjoyed ourselves watching it, and were able to work out who the killer was through a process of elimination, we felt cheated in that there was nothing in the script to prefigure motive, nothing whatsoever. For a screenwriter to rely on a shock revelation – ‘ooh, X is a secret paedophile!’ – that occurs less than twenty minutes from the end of an eight-hour drama is lazy writing, simple as that, and to be deplored, especially when you have great actors like Olivia Colman and David Tennant working for you, who deserve better.

Lovesey takes no such shortcuts. Everything is there on the page, right from the beginning. The reader can either choose to try and solve the mystery independently as s/he goes, or simply sit back and enjoy the feeling of being confounded.

What all this adds up to is traditional detective fiction of the highest order. I probably wouldn’t choose to read this particular stripe of crime fiction terribly often, if only because it is so far from my own style and species of ability that it leaves me little room to be directly inspired. But do I admire it? Yes I do. And did I enjoy it? Yes I did – and plenty.

Next up: The Kills, by Richard House (I may be some time… )

Booker longlist announced

Well, that was interesting. Of the thirteen guesses I made, only one of them, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, turned out to be correct, and perhaps the best thing that can be said about this year’s Booker longlist is that it will have similarly confounded a lot of people’s expectations. A majority of the books here are by established writers – but not by writers whose names you’ll necessarily hear every day. This means that those who feel like making an educated guess about the shortlist and final result will all have something new to discover. Which can only be a good thing.

If there’s one huge area of disappointment it’s that there are no works of speculative fiction on this list. If you’re into statistics at all, you’ll see that actually makes it less progressive than last year’s list, which featured Sam Thompson’s amazing Communion Town and Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident, both of which made fascinating and varied use of speculative ideas. If you felt like stretching the point you might also include Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse in that tally, as it has a distinctly slipstream vibe.

There’s nothing like that this year. I suppose you could include Jim Crace’s Harvest, sort of – the fact that I’ve never found myself particularly excited by Crace’s brand of fabulation is most likely my fault and not his.

I’m flabbergasted not to see Nick Royle’s First Novel make an appearance. All in all, I feel curiously deflated by this list, which feels more conservative to me in terms of subject and form than it might seem at first sight.

The novel I’m far and away most excited about here is Richard House’s The Kills. I’d heard of this vaguely prior to seeing it longlisted, but didn’t know much about it. On reading the synopsis – it’s a novel in four novels, a crime story within a crime story within a crime story – my first thought was ‘wow, it sounds as if Richard House has read Roberto Bolano!’ I was delighted, on reading an interview with House, to discover that this is indeed the case and that The Kills was inspired, among many other things, by House’s reading of 2666. I ordered the book straight away and can’t wait to read it.

I’ll also be looking forward to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal, did amazing things with what on the face of it sounded like a conventional idea based around a high school teacher-pupil affair scandal, Reading it was a genuine surprise, one of those fabulous moments in a reading life where you find your own expectations subverted utterly, and all you can do is bounce around in your seat thinking ‘bravo!’ The Luminaries looks like being similarly ambitious, and I feel certain that I’ll love it, just from the incisive and ironical self awareness of Catton’s writing.

Is the rest of it all a bit trad Booker though or is that just that my own particular literary interests don’t jibe with the judges’?

Perhaps I’ll change my mind in the coming days.

 

Get to know the Booker longlist here.

And do read this excellent interview with Richard House here.

 

Guessing the Booker longlist

I saw an amazing photo online yesterday. Posted by the Man Booker Prize at their Facebook page, it’s an image of all this year’s Booker subs, stacked deliberately in such a way that we can’t see what they are. I suppose it might theoretically be possible to work it out from what is visible, but I wouldn’t fancy trying. It did occur to me though that, surprising though it may seem, I’ve never tried to call the Booker longlist before, and so I thought it might be fun to try that instead.

When last year’s longlist was first announced I thought it was great. Looking back on it now it just seems weird. Some odd inclusions, and the usual kind of disparate air to the whole thing that makes you feel faintly deflated. More interesting than 2011’s, sure, but still not totally amazing, and when the eventual shortlist was published what I mostly felt was disappointment and a kind of rage that Nicola Barker wasn’t on it. Oh well. All this is pretty much par for the course with the Booker, and as with all literary prizes, the point, so far as I’m concerned at least, lies not in who wins or even what gets shortlisted, but in the discussion about books the prize provokes: the passion, the evangelism, and most of all the disagreements. That the Man Booker Prize gives readers one possible starting point for looking at the year in books – that’s enough to justify its existence in itself.

And so we come to 2013. One notable fact about this year’s eligibles is that many of the usual suspects aren’t among them. There’s no new Amis this year, no McEwan, Swift, Boyd, Smith (Zadie or Ali), Enright or Mantel. There’s Coetzee, and he’s a writer I love, but I’m just not fancying The Childhood of Jesus for the line-up. There’s Atwood, but her new book is the third in a series, and unless it turns out to be totally amazing – which we won’t know for another month as it’s not out until August – I can’t see Maddaddam making the cut either. This temporary shortage of ‘big beasts’ can only be a good thing, so far as I can see, because it opens things up a bit, and the presence – or lack of presence – of starry names on the longlist won’t immediately dominate the discussion around it.

So – who will get longlisted? Your guess is as good as mine, and I hope we will see some more guesses going up in the five days that remain before the Booker judges make their announcement at midday on Tuesday July 23rd. But here we go with my own attempt at predicting it. In alphabetical order then:

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This still forms part of the TBR pile on my bedside table (along with Lanark and Traveller of the Century) but from what I’ve sampled of it so far this is an amazing book, far reaching and provocative and, like everything Adichie has produced, just superbly written. I think it’s a cert for the longlist – and deservedly so.

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson. I love Atkinson’s writing. She’s sensitive and perceptive and obviously cares a great deal about the craft. There’s been a lot of discussion about how well the speculative elements of this novel succeed – some have enjoyed the subtlety of it, others have felt the book doesn’t go far enough in tackling its central idea – but I think it’s great to see Atkinson trying a new direction and perhaps the good press she’s received for Life After Life will encourage her to be bolder next time around. In any case, she’s a thoughtful and committed writer who should be on this list.

Idiopathy – Sam Byers. I read the extended extract from this when it was published in Granta and was hugely impressed by it. Amazing writing, and the tone of the thing – darkly ironic, with a kind of surly rage bubbling away underneath – really got to me. The word on the street says that the novel as a whole more than lives up to that Granta extract, so on it goes. I’m going to have a sneaky extra punt here and say that Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles is most likely running neck and neck with Idiopathy for this year’s bravura debut spot, and that either or indeed both of them might make it through.

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton. Still not out yet, so I haven’t read it, but I loved, loved, loved Catton’s first novel The Rehearsal – boldly original and one of the most brilliantly written debuts I’ve read in ages. I can’t see The Luminaries being anything less than equally fascinating, and the advance press has been very positive. Catton is surely a contender.

Meeting the English – Kate Clanchy. I love her short stories – quietly considered and perfectly crafted, they make every word count. A first novel from a mature writer is always an interesting prospect and I feel certain that Clanchy can more than hold her own here. I think we’re going to see her on the list.

The Hired Man – Aminatta Forna. Again, I love her short stories. She’s a wonderful writer, sensitive and wide ranging and able to pack a lot of emotional punch into a very few lines. I love the premise of The Hired Man and I want to read it soon. I have the distinct feeling that the judges will have been impressed by what Forna has produced here.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia – Mohsin Hamid. I’ve not read The Reluctant Fundamentalist yet, but I started reading Hamid’s new one the other day and was completely and utterly hooked in less than a paragraph. This book feels so powerfully essential I can’t see it being overlooked. I absolutely love and envy this kind of writing – both informal and impassioned, yet still poetic and so masterfully put together, it conveys its anger through a searing brand of humour that this writer is making his own. I wish I could write like this but I know I can’t and never could. Go for it, Mohsin.

Perfect – Rachel Joyce. Joyce’s debut made the Booker longlist last year and attracted a lot of positive attention, but I must admit I’m liking the premise of her follow-up a whole lot more. I love the idea of basing the central conceit of a book around the two seconds that were added to time in 1972 – that’s pure slipstream. This novel has a good feeling about it, and from what people are saying it’s a neat step forward in terms of technical achievement from Harold Fry.

Questions of Travel – Michelle de Kretser. I loved The Lost Dog, and the opening of de Kretser’s new novel is just beautiful. De Kretser is so accomplished as a writer it’s scary. The book’s receiving some wonderful press and I’m sure it’ll longlist.

The Adjacent – Christopher Priest. Yup, I am so biased. But there have been calls for some years now to see a genuine contender step forward from SF to turn the Booker on its head, and following the abject failure of last year’s judges to list M. John Harrison’s Empty Space, surely The Adjacent has to be it.  It’s a book packed with ideas, surprise, wonderful mysteries and allusive writing. It’s unlike anythng else that has been published this year and plays games with form few writers dare even to attempt. It’s arguably Priest’s most ambitious book to date and most importantly you don’t need to have read a single word of science fiction to be able to understand, love and appreciate it. I’m hoping that the judges will have rightfully been enthralled.

The Professor of Truth – James Robertson. I love Robertson – I think he’s a wonderful writer, sincere and boundlessly imaginative and just what we need. The Testament of Gideon Mack was one of my favourites of the year it came out, and the premise of The Professor of Truth grabs me very hard indeed. More people need to discover Robertson and I hope that this year they will.

First Novel – Nicholas Royle. I love this book. It was one of the first things I read this year, and I’m having a really hard job finding any new novels that match it in terms of excellence. If it doesn’t get longlisted, the judges are mad. Simple as that.

All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld. Wyld’s first novel made a considerable splash and it’s not hard to see why. Like de Kretser, she writes amazing sentences. Also like de Kretser, she has a way of packing emotion into those sentences that is hard to emulate. Her accomplishment in considerable. I think this book, like the Adichie, is a cert.

So there’s my Booker dozen. Before I leave you to go and get on with making your own predictions, I’d like to add two footnotes:

Five books I would love to see on the longlist but think won’t quite make the cut

(OK, so these are just five extra punts, basically)

The Secret Knowledge – Andrew Crumey
The Falling Sky – Pippa Goldschmidt
The Machine – James Smythe
Strange Bodies – Marcel Theroux
Secrecy – Rupert Thomson

Five books that should be on there but won’t be because they’re by yanks

(The Americans have their own prizes, sure. That’s the official argument for not letting them in on the Booker – but are we just afraid to let them in, because we secretly think they’ll kick our arses?)

The Round House – Louise Erdrich
The Woman Upstairs – Claire Messud
The Accursed – Joyce Carol Oates
Big Brother – Lionel Shriver
Sisterland – Curtis Sittenfeld

So – there we go. Roll on July 23rd, and let the games commence!

70 years young

“We know him as a supporter of young writers, a stern critic of sloppy card tricks and cheap deceits. Just as we can never be certain when we are caught in his tricks, we can be certain of the man.”

(Which were just a few of Simon Spanton’s words to us after dinner.)

Today is Chris’s birthday, and on Friday evening a group of our wonderful friends and colleagues came together in a London pub to celebrate the occasion. We gathered at The Porcupine on Charing Cross Road, a venue we love for its friendliness, its great lunches, and its close proximity to some excellent bookshops and the Curzon cinema. It was a marvellous occasion – Chris deemed it easily his best birthday ever – and it was just fantastic to have so many of those who are most special to us all together in one very cheerful, very talkative throng. Simon Spanton and Al Reynolds made excellent and beautifully contrasting speeches, and when you realise that 2013 marks not just Chris’s 70th birthday, but also his fiftieth year as a writer and the publication of his thirteenth novel (fourteenth if you count The Dream Archipelago) it certainly seemed like there was much to celebrate. For Chris of course, but also for everyone who writes, works, reads, discusses and argues to make SFF the unique and uniquely stimulating literary landscape that it is. Once again, we’d like to offer our heartfelt thanks to those who turned out – some from quite some distance – to make the evening so hugely enjoyable and such a resounding success. It will live long in our memory. Our only regret is that we didn’t take more photos – but we were too busy talking!

Gerald and Georgie McMorrow

Helen and Ian Whates, Scott Bradfield, Paul McAuley, Al Reynolds

Erik Arthur, Paul Kincaid, Simon Spanton

John Berlyne, Marcus Gipps, Bella Pagan and a tiny bit of Emma Swift

Scott Bradfield, Judith Clute, Paul McAuley and I think that's the back of Maureen Mincaid Speller's head

Paul McAuley, Al Reynolds

Me, and of those not already mentioned, Simon Ings (foreground) and Sam Thompson (far end)

Essex magic

We spent the weekend in rural Essex, attending an evening of Magic at the Barn organized by Oliver Tabor and revisiting the compelling and luminous landscapes of the Blackwater Estuary.

Bradwell Waterside

The magic was pretty amazing. It was wonderful to see Oliver again, and I defy anyone not to be enchanted by a theatre masquerading as a 17th century red brick barn (or is it the other way around..?) – but for me there’s magic in the landscape itself. a unique kind of stillness, of apartness, intensified and redoubled when you realise how untouched this part of the country still is, in spite of its proximity to London and the ever-expanding suburban sprawl that is thrown up, like a concrete worm cast, in the wake of the M25.

On the days we were there, the land was all mirror-brightness, all strange solitude. I can’t be in that place without thinking about ‘The Muse of Copenhagen’, which is set on the Blackwater, about Johnny, and Southshore, those lucent, spellbound summers you want never to end.

We drove also to Leigh-on-Sea, to visit the birthplace of John Fowles in Fillibrook Avenue, which immediately made me want to read all of Fowles again. We had coffee in Old Leigh, where we were lucky enough to visit the studio of Sheila Appleton, an artist now in her eighties who has been painting Leigh and its environs since she was seventeen years old. Sheila’s paintings and drawings are striking, full of force, and replete with an intense and personal understanding of their subject matter. It was an immense privilege to see her workplace, to listen to her talk about the landscape that has provided her lifetime’s inspiration.

I absolutely intend to set another story here.

Leigh-on-Sea, by Sheila Appleton

Launched!

We had a phenonmenal turnout for our joint PS/Eibonvale/Chomu launch last night. It was wonderful to see so many people, some of them writers I have known almost since the days of my first short story publications in Dark Horizons. Thanks to everyone who turned out – I know some of you travelled quite some distance  and it was thrilling to have you there – and thanks especially to Evie Wyld and her crew at the Review bookshop in Peckham, who provided such brilliant support and of course the excellent venue without which none of this would have been possible. You were amazing.