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Archive for the ‘Mystery Fiction’ Category

I didn’t know until I read some of the obituaries of Gore Vidal that he had ever written crime stories. It seems that the publication in 1948 of his third novel, The City and the Pillar, caused a scandal because of its frank depiction of homosexuality, so he decided to write crime stories for a time under a pseudonym. Thus Edgar Box was born. There are three Edgar Box stories, published in 1952,’53 and ’54, and apparently they did very well. So just out of curiosity, I read the first one.

The structure of the plot is conventional. Peter Cutler Sargeant is a brash young New York public relations man who is employed by a ballet company to deal with any bad publicity arising from the fact that the United Veterans Committee is accusing the resident choreographer of being a Communist. They are picketing the theatre. But any adverse publicity generated by this is quickly overwhelmed by the murder on stage of one of the leading dancers. Peter quickly establishes another interest by starting an affair with one of the corps de ballet, none other than the understudy of the dead ballerina. But there are a number of possible suspects with a motive for murder. As the bodies pile up, Peter tries to work out who dunnit. It’s not too hard for aficionados of the genre to pick who did.

The characterisation is conventional too; it’s pretty easy to stereotype members of a ballet company. There is the wily impresario, the aging Russian prima ballerina, the gay leading man and the tortured conductor. Peter, the narrator, is the most interesting of the characters; his asides, strangely enough, sound just like a young Gore Vidal. Early in the story, he finds himself feeling sorry for the person he suspects of murder, ‘which shows something or other about mid-twentieth-century morality: I mean we seem to be less and less aroused by such things as private murders in an age when public murder is so much admired.’ Vidal plays Sargeant for laughs: ‘I thought of those eighteen century prints of Rowlandson and Gilray and Hogarth, all the drunken mothers and ghastly children wallowing in gin in the alleys … it makes you stop and think. I thought longingly for several seconds of a gin and tonic.’ He regrets he has so little time alone ‘to figure just where I stood on any number of assorted topics like television, Joyce, deism, marionettes, buggery and Handel’s Messiah.’ Vidal clearly had a lot of fun writing this story. But he was possibly being serious when he wrote of the police: ‘There is something about the state putting the power to bully into the hands of a group of subnormal, sadistic apes that makes my blood boil.’ Vidal was always a liberal on issues of state coercion.

It may be that what seems now a rather slight work carried a bit more weight at the time of writing because of its cheeky irreverence on subjects dear to the hearts of many Americans then, including Communism and homosexuality (‘Anyway, it may all be a matter of diet’). Senator Joe McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American activities was still riding high and people in America’s artistic community were regularly attacked as Communists.  Homosexuality was still a crime. Vidal ultimately plays it safe on both these issues in this story, but it probably seemed quite daring at the time. I get the impression that Vidal – that self- described ‘gentleman bitch’ – is treating the whole thing as a joke, but he may have had a more serious purpose as well.

Two trivial points.  One is that the journalist that Sargeant outsmarts is called Elmer Bush. I wonder if Vidal remembered his early creation when he called George W. Bush ‘the stupidest man in the United States’. The other concerns the ballet; the company seems able to perform Swan Lake, Sheherazade and an (imaginary) modern ballet all in one program. It must have been a long night.

Gore Vidal was one of the best contemporary commentators on American society and politics, and his incisive views and wit will be sadly missed. You can read some of his more controversial comments here. And you can read one of his many obituaries here.

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I was recently reading about what journalist and academic Jay Rosen calls ‘wicked’ problems. These are issues that are so complex and so difficult to define adequately that they are almost impossible to solve. Climate change was his major example, but a number of others, such as the plight of refugees, the dominance of the 1%, and the power of the media come to mind. So it’s interesting that one young writer has had a look at all of these wicked problems in her new book Conspire.

I have to declare an interest here. Victoria Rollison is my daughter and I had a fair bit of input into the book. Stop reading right now if you think that disqualifies me from writing about it. But how many other writers have you read recently that take serious world issues and present them in a way that is exciting and interesting for readers who might otherwise take no interest in such wicked problems?

Alex North is a rookie journalist looking for her first big story. She has been sent to Prague to cover a meeting of the secretive and exclusive Bilderberg Group – she’s a last minute replacement for a more senior colleague who has had a stroke. What did he know about the Bilderbergers that she doesn’t? Once in Prague, things happen fast. She meets an engaging young American who says he can give her the low-down on the Bilderberg meeting if only she will accompany him to a site in Estonia, a car bomb explodes in the city, and Alex is convinced that someone is after her with evil intent. Most of the story is told from Alex’s perspective, but the reader also hears from the Bilderbergers, members of a Pakistani terrorist group, Alex’s editor and assorted other interested parties. The narrative is driven by a classic hunt chase scenario, in which Alex gets involved in a race to locate a rogue nuclear weapon. But all is not as it seems. Who can she trust? Has she recklessly put not just herself, but world peace in danger?

Conspire is intended to be a page- turner, following Robert Harris’s advice ‘to get three things happening every two pages.’ Because the focus is on action, characterisation is merely sufficient for the role each character plays. There are a number of twists and turns in the plot, which means individual motivation can’t in any case be explored at length without spoiling what is meant to be unexpected. Intended for a mass market, it is written in fairly stark prose, without much elaboration. It is literate, without being literary. What I like most about it is that as well as being fast-moving, the plot is also very carefully crafted; there are surprises, but no deus ex machina. Readers may be initially misled, but as much by their own expectations of the genre as by what Rollison has written.

The issue at the heart of the story is conspiracy. Is conspiracy always a bad thing, as Julian Assange would argue? Or are there circumstances where secrecy about important decisions can be justified? This is where some of those wicked problems come in. What Rollison suggests by way of solutions may be unrealistic, but this is a thriller, and thrillers don’t by their nature stick to real world outcomes. I think it’s refreshing to find a thriller writer who has ideas about contemporary issues of great importance, and is prepared to use a popular genre to raise them. Maybe there’s a bit of preaching going on here, but it doesn’t spoil a good story. Most thrillers carry ideological freight of some kind – most often the ‘CIA saves the world’ variety – and it’s good to see one that’s a bit different.

This is Victoria’s second novel. The first, Times of Trouble, is a completely different sort of book, about a young woman’s attempt to save her sister from the deadly consequences of a secret she has stumbled on. After getting thirty thousand downloads for Times of Trouble, Victoria decided that self-publishing an e-book was the way to go with this one. You can access Conspire for $3 here for Kindle and here for iPad and on desktops or laptops.

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It is just coincidence that I read The Séance (2008) directly after Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (2005) – see my last post.  Both deal with aspects of what Freud called ‘the black tide of mud of occultism’, and both got me thinking about how enthusiastically the Victorians embraced the irrational, despite (or even because of?) their faith in science and material progress.

The Séance is written in the form of a nineteenth century novel, made up of a series of narratives, a structure popularised by Wilkie Collins: see my posts on The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868). In the first narrative Constance Langton tells how her mother has never recovered from the death of her daughter Alma, and how Constance tries her own séance in the hope of comforting her. She then takes her to professional séances. Constance knows that what happens there is fraudulent, but can’t help feeling a frisson when Alma appears to her mother. Does she have psychic powers herself? The second narrative, written some twenty years earlier, gives a family lawyer’s account of ‘the strange and terrible events at Wraxford Hall’, which Constance has inherited. Can people really vanish into thin air? A further narrative tells how ten years before that, Eleanor Unwin came to marry Dr Magnus Wraxford, well known mesmerist and owner of the sinister Wraxford Hall. Eleanor is subject to visitations which seem to foretell disaster. Is she crazy? If not, how can these manifestations be explained? Subsequent narratives link the earlier ones, and tell an intricately crafted and compelling story. For, unlike in Wilkie Collins, not all narratives are to be trusted, and can confuse as well as inform. I found the book hard to put down.

I really like the way Harwood writes. He seems so at home in the nineteenth century that description and dialogue, attitudes and manners, all seem completely authentic to the period. I’m perhaps having a bit of a double standard here; I was critical of Kostova’s failure to differentiate the voices of her narrators, but do not feel the same concern about Harwood’s, even though they are not sharply differentiated by voice either. I guess it is because each voice – educated Victorian – is so true to its circumstances that I don’t need further differentiation.

Reading this, I was reminded of A.S. Byatt’s treatment of spiritualism in Possession, where it is an acceptable social practice, particularly among middle class women.  Many people believed in the possibility of a spirit world, separated from this world by only a thin and sometimes permeable barrier. Spiritualism thrived on disasters like the loss of a loved one, giving consolation that was not so much an alternative to religion as an extension of it. As Constance says, ‘for those like my mother, who are simply crushed by the weight of grief, why deprive them of the comfort a séance can bring?’ But those said to have, or claiming psychic powers tread a narrow line between fraud and self delusion possibly amounting to madness. The asylum is what Eleanor fears.

Though they both deal with the occult, the approach to it in Kostova’s and Harwood’s books is quite different. With vampires at large in the present day in The Historian, you have to suspend disbelief. The spiritualism in The Séance is mostly presented with the genuine scepticism of the time, as expressed for example by members of the Society for Psychical Research, which plays an important part in the plot. Even for the member of the Society whose job it is to expose frauds, ‘the verdict is not yet in’. Credulity and superstition are, however, also important to the story, and I think the power of myth-making about the supernatural is as central as whether or not there is any truth in spiritualism.

It was coincidence that I read them close together, but perhaps not coincidence that two books about subjects that fall within Kostova’s ‘subtext of the ordinary narrative of history’ should appear close together. There have been a number of pastiche Victorian novels written recently, and it’s not surprising that writers looking for a new approach turn to ‘the black tide of mud’ that ran beneath conventional nineteenth century society. It is perhaps more pertinent to ask why we are so keen to read about it? I am, anyway. I can’t wait for Harwood’s next book.

You can read my post on Harwood’s first book, The Ghost Writer (2004), here. As I noted in that post, there’s not much about Harwood on the internet, but you can read a review of The Séance here, and see him talking about the book here.

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The Historian was published in 2005, with a good deal of hype. Its publisher had paid an unusually high advance for a first novel, probably in the hope that its mixture of thrills and history would replicate the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.  It’s a much better book than Brown’s, but I don’t think it deserved all the excitement, any more than The Da Vinci Code did.

In a note to the reader at the beginning of the story, the unnamed narrator, an historian, explains that she is writing about ‘the most troubling episodes of her life’, when she searched out her father’s past. She presents this search as documented history, based on interviews, letters and papers to which she has access to supplement personal recollection. She admits that she has also had recourse to ‘the imagination’, but only when ‘informed speculation can set these documents into their proper context’. But the epigraph to part one of the novel gives the show away (if you weren’t already suspicious). It is a quote from Bram Stoker, claiming that his story, too, is ‘history’ based on contemporary sources. And what are both these stories about? Vampires. In particular, Dracula.

Kostova suggests that Vlad III, ruler of Wallachia (now part of Romania) for three periods during the 1440s to 1470s, was the source of the Dracula legend. Vlad, often known as ‘the Impaler’ because of his cruel practice of impaling his enemies on stakes, was actually named Vlad Dracula – that is, son of Vlad Dracul. Dracul means dragon and his father was so called because he was a member of the Order of the Dragon, formed to protect Christianity in Europe from the advances of the Ottoman Empire. There have been myths about vampires in folklore since time immemorial, but it seems that Bram Stoker was the first to link the name Dracula to vampires. There is however no suggestion in Dracula (1897) that the evil count is in fact an un-dead Vlad III. This premise has been left for Kostova to explore.  

It is an interesting idea, if you can suspend disbelief long enough to accept that there may be vampires in our midst. And this certainly isn’t Twilight territory. There are some thoughtful reflections on the nature of history and the role of the historian. One character sees the topic of vampires as a ‘subtext of the ordinary narrative of history’ – a manifestation of the unconscious which history so often ignores. ‘It is a fact’, he says, ‘that we historians are interested in what is partly a reflection of ourselves, perhaps a part of ourselves we would rather not examine except through the medium of scholarship.’ It is open to interpretation who the historian of the title actually is. Indeed himself Dracula says: ‘I became an historian in order to preserve my own history forever.’ The temptation he offers to historians is that ‘history will be reality to you.’ What can be learnt about the past, and what remains hidden, is a major theme of the novel.

Kostova writes well; her descriptions of the various locations visited are terrific. My problem with the book is its structure. The original female narrator introduces first person accounts told to her by her father, and letters he has written to her. There are also first person letters written by another character. There is quite a bit of jumping around between these which can get very confusing, the more so because none of the first person narrators has a particularly distinctive voice. The father’s Peace and Democracy Foundation – perhaps a modern version of older orders mentioned in the story – and his diplomatic travels in Eastern Europe in the 1950s don’t strike me as particularly authentic, given the iciness of the Cold War at the time. The story is a bit silly too, but what can you expect from vampires?

For all that, I find much of the history the book covers fascinating. The Europe I studied when young didn’t include the Balkans at all; I missed out entirely on the interplay between Ottoman and Byzantine civilisations, and the effect of the Ottomans on Eastern Europe. Any novel that helps make up for this is most welcome.

You can read more about Elizabeth Kostova here, about Vlad III here, and about Dracula here.

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Based on the subject matter, this is not a book I would expect to like. One of the main threads running through it is a computer game called T’Rain , which is a ‘massively multiplayer online role-playing game’ (MMORPG) something like the World of Warcraft – which I had never heard of until I read this book. A number of its characters are part of America’s gun culture – something else I’m not keen on. Also, it’s a great brick of a book – over 1000 pages. But it’s by Neal Stephenson, and as far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t put a foot wrong.

After years as a draft dodger and smuggler of marijuana across the US Canadian boarder, Richard Forthrast, known to his friends as Dodge, has developed a computer game which has grown into a multi million dollar enterprise with players all around the world. But a group of hackers – who could be located anywhere – have created a virus called Reamde that captures players’ files and holds them to ransom. This is an annoyance rather than a disaster until some information that belongs to Russian mobsters is inadvertently captured. This sets off a chain of events that draws in a cast of characters who find themselves in a wild adventure even more dangerous than tangling with the Russians.

The story is clever and intricate. Stephenson draws together his cast, disperses them to various distant locations, then brings them back together for the grand finale. Part of the length of the book arises from the detail devoted to the adventures of several people or groups of people, and such is the complexity of the story, it is hard to see that it could have been made any shorter. There is perhaps more about the game than I really need, though it plays an important part in the story, and there are nice parallels between the role playing and the real world. (At one point, Richard even compares his situation to that of his T’Rain character, the powerful but currently adrift wizard Egdod.) But others who know about such games will doubtless find it fascinating. Is he just being self indulgent? I rather think that Stephenson now has enough faithful readers that he can write at any length, and not put them off. And when he can present a plot twist that take’s one’s breathe away, as he does here, I’m not going to be put off either.

Stephenson says he wanted to write an adventure story that has interesting characters. He has gone about making them interesting in part by giving them a diverse range of backgrounds and circumstances. In addition to Richard, others include Zula, an Eritrean orphan adopted by Richard’s sister; Csongor, a Hungarian computer expert; Sokolov, a Russian security consultant; Yuxia, a Chinese Big Foot woman; Olivia, a British intelligence analyst and Abdallah Jones, a Welsh born jihadist. But it is also how these characters think and feel and react that makes them interesting. Jihadists, Sokolov reflects, have the advantage of being fatalists who believed God was on their side. ‘Russians, on the other hand, were fatalists of a somewhat different kind, believing, or at least strongly suspecting, that they were fucked no matter what’. Or, thinking about jihadists, Zula muses that ‘once they had left common notions of decency in the dust – once they had abandoned all sense of proportionality – then it turned into a sort of competition to see who could outdo all the rest in that. Beyond there it was all comedy, if only you could turn a blind eye to the consequences’. I really like the way Stephenson looks at the world through his characters. And I really like his ironic turn of phrase.

Stephenson certainly likes his games and his guns, and I don’t understand or relate to either. Clearly I wouldn’t enjoy the book if that was all there was to it. But fortunately it isn’t. On the other hand, I recognise that 1000 pages is a big ask if you aren’t already a convert. But if you’re prepared to try, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

You can listen to Stephenson talking about the book on his website here. And you can read my earlier posts on his books Cryptonomicon here and on Anathem here.

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This is a very good thriller, though it’s strong South Australian focus may not appeal to everyone. I can’t remember reading another thriller so intent on giving so much detail about the geography and sociology of the setting – down not just to the suburbs, but to the very streets the characters drive on. A rich background, or too much trivia? I like it, but then I’m a South Australian.

Steve West – Westie, naturally – is a former professional footballer who retired injured and is now a mining engineer working at an outback mine. On a trip to Adelaide for a week off, he is stopped at a police road block and learns that protesters have breached the fences of the Woomera Detention Centre, allowing a number of the asylum seekers interned there to escape into the desert. He is initially unconcerned, but is then persuaded by Kara, one of the protesters, to help Saira, a beautiful young Afghan detainee, to flee to Adelaide.  Soon the police, ASIO and some of the detention centre guards are after them. Why is Saira so important?

This is a traditional hunt/chase thriller where the hero has both to evade capture and turn the tables on the pursuers. Sarre does a good job of raising the tension through an escalating level of menacing incidents, building to a final confrontation. I always like a plot where the hero manages to find a way of counterbalancing the threats against him (or her), and Sarre has done this quite cleverly. I also like the way he deals at the end of the story with the love interest.

West is an ordinary person who gets involved more or less by accident. I am always interested in the capacity of an ordinary person to deal mentally and physically with the trials they face in thrillers. What motivates them to go on? I don’t expect a complete psychological analysis, but I do like motivation and physical prowess to be credible. Sarre is just inside the bounds here. West takes more physical punishment than is completely credible, and just happens to know a professional burglar who provides him with a crucial piece of evidence. His motivation is not openly discussed; it is more a function of the sort of person he is, and as such, is reasonably convincing.

West’s character is revealed through his actions, but the reader believes in him because of the way he thinks and talks. Sarre has a good ear for dialogue. West is laconic and down to earth, as in: ‘Geologically speaking, we’re driving through a boring-as-bat-shit dust bowl’.  He can also verbally quick and clever. ‘Where would you rank me now,’ he asks Kara. ‘Above garden slug, below rat?’ No,’ she says. ‘ Higher. Chimpanzee perhaps.’ Who can’t like him? Sarre’s irreverent writing style reminds me of Peter Temple’s laid back way of saying important things in a droll and sometimes crude way.

I am much more doubtful about West’s friend Baz. His motivation is much less convincing, and his function in the plot remains unclear to me, unless it is simply to prove that ‘plenty of nice people do evil things’ and that power corrupts.

Sarre is clearly interested in the politics of the asylum seeker debate. Kara wants to expose abuses in the Woomera detention centre, and her view is treated sympathetically. Characters who denigrate or mistreat refugees are portrayed as ignorant and brutal. West shows himself to be on Kara’s side more by actions than words, but this carries the message more strongly than words can do.  ‘Maybe you have to fight terror with terror,’ West muses. ‘Or maybe if you do you end up with something that is no long worth fighting for.’ While hardly a profound truth, it is one that seems often forgotten in the war on terror.

Overall I like the story and the way it is written. Given that Steve West played for the Crows – the Adelaide Football Club – and I barrack for their arch rivals – the Port Adelaide Football Club, I think I am being remarkably generous. Sarre is less charitable. Talking about Port Adelaide, West says ‘Mosquitoes were no longer the most annoying creatures there; that honour belonged to supporters of the Port Adelaide Football Club.’ Thanks Alastair. And speaking of being South Australian-centric, calling a dog Warren is purely an Adelaide joke.

There is not a lot about Alastair Sarre on the internet, but you can read a little about him here, and a short interview with him about writing the book here.

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‘A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story … A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price’.

The Angel’s Game (2008) is a gothic melodrama. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does.

The story is set in Barcelona in the 1920s. David Martin is a writer who is recounting the story of his life from a vantage point of fifteen years after the principle events he describes. As he tells it, he becomes a writer against the odds, being the only child of a drunken and illiterate father. With the support of a kindly bookseller and a rich patron, he begins writing stories for a newspaper under the general title Mysteries of Barcelona, and then is employed to write ‘penny dreadfuls’ under the general title City of the Damned.  After the real novel he has written is unfairly undermined by his publisher and the city’s literary critics, and the woman he loves marries his rich patron, he is told he has a brain tumour and only a short time to live. He then receives a mysterious offer from another publisher to spend a year writing a book which will ‘create a religion’. ‘Are you not tempted,’ asks the publisher, ‘to create a story for which men and women would live and die, for which they would be capable of killing and allowing themselves to be killed, of sacrificing and condemning themselves, of handing over their souls? What greater challenge for your career than to create a story so powerful that is transcends fiction and becomes a revealed truth?’ In despair, he accepts, and is immediately healed. He starts work on a story with an ‘iconography of death and flags and shields’. But is he directing the project, or is it directing him? And is he the first person to undertake this task? Murder and mystery await.

Looking back, Martin says that ‘uncertainty has been my only recollection’. His version of events is very different from that offered by the police Inspector investigating the crimes which seem to surround the writer. He is venial, and we have no reason to believe him. But can we believe Martin? By his account, the publisher can only be Lucifer; in a nice touch, he admits that what he wanted to be when he grew up was God. Martin has entered into a Faustian pact. The ‘religion’ he has created is obviously fascism: ‘the inferno promised in the pages I wrote … that has taken on a life of its own’. Martin has a number of strange experiences, but if they are illusion, what else is he deluded about? If they are ‘real’, then it is the reality of magical realism. By the end of the story, some events are given a concrete basis, but others are not. It’s a case of suspending disbelief.

I’m willing to do this partly because I like the way the book is written. I’m not sure whether any of this is due to the translation, which is by Lucia Graves (2009). She’s the daughter of Robert Graves, and has presumably been around good literature all her life. Although it is set in the 1920s, conversation in particular has a modern ring to it. The writing is lush, as befits a melodrama. The descriptions of Barcelona in particular are a joy. There are the slums of the dark old town, the mansions of the rich in the hills above the city, the lanes and squares, the churches and cemeteries and the crumbling houses, like the tower house Martin lives in. And in addition to the real Barcelona of the 1920s, we have such delights of the imagination as the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a labyrinth of stairs and tunnels in an old necropolis that houses ‘the sum of centuries of books that have been lost or forgotten, books condemned to be destroyed and silenced forever, books that preserve the memory and the soul of times and marvels that no one remembers anymore’. Those lucky enough to be initiates may choose one book to take away, but must protect it from harm. It is often said that the book chooses the reader, rather than the other way round. (Bit like a wand in Harry Potter.) All this is great fun, and compelling reading. But I’m still a bit confused.

The Angel’s Game is a loose prequel to Ruiz Zafon’s earlier book The Shadow of the Wind (2001, trans. 2004). This story, set in post–Spanish Civil War Barcelona, also turns on a visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

You can find out more about Carlos Ruiz Zafon here.

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The Sunday Philosophy Club (2004) is the first in a series of mystery stories featuring Isabel Dalhousie, citizen of Edinburgh and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics. I heard McCall Smith speak at the Sydney Festival of Dangerous Ideas – not, as he noted, that his ideas were particularly dangerous – and he seemed a thoroughly nice man. This is just the sort of book such a person would write. If you are after thrills, look elsewhere.

Isabel is interested in moral philosophy. She can afford to indulge her taste – she is forty-two and single and lives comfortably in a large house with a house keeper in one of the better suburbs of Edinburgh. She is interested in art, particularly in Scottish artists, and in literature and music. One evening at a concert she sees a young man falling from the highest tier of seats to his death below. It’s not just curiosity that makes her want to know what happened. She thinks that she was probably the last person he saw, and that this ‘creates a moral bond’ between them. So she sets out to find out about him, and how and why he died.

The story is slight by any standards. Isabel meets various people who were connected to the young man or to the firm he worked for, but though she has various theories about what might have happened, she finds little proof of any of them. There is some suspense, but it is more of the ‘when is something going to happen’ kind than the page turning kind. The truth is revealed more or less by chance.  I guess intricate and fast moving plots are not what McCall Smith’s legion of readers are looking for.

Despite her feeling of ‘moral involvement’, Isabel does not use philosophical reasoning to solve the mystery.  She ponders questions of truth telling, the morality of lying, hypocrisy and trust, but when she finally decides what to do, ‘the decision was really quite simple, and she did not need to be a moral philosopher to take it’. There is also a sub plot in which she is concerned about the faithfulness of her niece’s boy friend; morally, she knows she should remain silent. But here too her concern about what she should do is overtaken by what she does:  ‘she had not meant to say it – she knew it was wrong – and yet it had come out’. This doesn’t invalidate her musings, but it does bear out her conclusion that ‘All the great issues were reducible to the simple facts of everyday human life’.

I haven’t made this sound very promising, yet I found it a very pleasant book to read. McCall Smith is interested here in the same issue as he spoke on at the Sydney Festival – the loss of ‘moral compass’ in modern society.  Isabel may not always live up to her philosophical ideals, but she is deeply concerned about moral issues and tries to live a moral life. She is kind and thoughtful, she respects other people’s feelings and she is completely trustworthy. She may be fighting a loosing battle against the modern tide – ‘the word conscience was not one which one heard very much anymore’ – but McCall Smith makes her an attractive character with whom most readers can identity.

McCall Smith also writes very fondly of Edinburgh, home of the Scottish Enlightenment, but also of ‘rigid hierarchies and the deep convictions of Scottish Presbyterianism’, of outward respectability and hidden vice – ‘The story of Jekyll and Hyde was conceived in Edinburgh, of course, and it made perfect sense there’.

 This book wasn’t greeted with the universal praise that McCall Smith received for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective series. Some critics though they were being lectured, and that Isabel lacked the force and energy of Precious Ramotswe. The New York Times concluded that the novel is ‘the literary equivalent of herbal tea and a cozy fire’. But what’s so wrong with that?

PS.  I have no idea why this book is called ‘The Sunday Philosophy Club’. The club is mentioned, but doesn’t meet. Perhaps all readers are members of the club?

You can read more about Alexander McCall Smith and his books here.

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Arturo Perez-Reverte is a well known Spanish author who mainly writes historical novels; he has a series about a swashbuckling seventeenth century hero, Captain Alatriste. This is an early book (1990, translated 1994), and one of the few set in modern times, though it still involves the evocation of the past.

Beautiful young Julia restores paintings and other objects d’art. She has been asked to work on a fifteenth century painting – the Flanders panel – that is being put up for sale. The painting shows two men playing chess, and a woman reading. She is excited to find that an X-ray of the painting reveals a hidden inscription: Who killed the knight? What does it mean and why was it hidden? The value of the painting would be much increased if this puzzle can be solved. But the first person she consults, a Professor of art history and a former lover, soon ends up dead. An expert chess player helps her work out the riddle posed by the picture. But is the chess game somehow continuing in Julia’s life, and does taking a chess piece in the course of play equate to killing a person?

I can see that Perez-Reverte would write good historical novels; he clearly has a feel for creating times past. The painting, and the life it depicts, are beautifully rendered, and the writer creates a whole imaginary geopolitical landscape in which to set its characters. I even went to Google to check whether the painting and its Flemish artist, Pieter van Huys, really existed. They don’t, of course, though the work as described is similar to that of the Dutch masters Pieter de Hooch and Jan Vermeer. (They are seventeenth century painters, not fifteenth century ones. My historical sensibilities were also offended by the suggestion that van Huys was a bourgeois painter – that concept didn’t exist in the fifteenth century.) But none of this matters when you are reading about it; what he creates seems quite real.

Chess is a major part of the story, and it probably helps if you know at least the basic moves. The ones that are important in the story are shown in several diagrams. There’s also a certain amount of musing on the relationship of chess to love and war, and this is relevant, which is just as well because otherwise it would be a bit turgid. The mystery is solved by seeing what is happening in real life as if it were a game of chess. The chess master applies Sherlock Holmes’s observation – that when you have eliminated all that is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth – to the task of finding the identity of the unknown player who seems to be controlling Julia’s life. This turns out to be a quite a clever application of the ‘least likely’ suspect convention.

As with all mystery stories where the protagonist is an ordinary person, I’m interested in the motivation that makes that person follow the dangerous path necessary to solve the crime. Julia is frightened, but her fear is ‘percolated by an intense curiosity, in which there was a strong dash of personal pride and defiance. It was like a dangerous, exciting game’. I don’t find this entirely convincing. And she really doesn’t grow up at all during the book, though the story line gives her an opportunity to do so.  I’m also interested in the motivation of the baddie; unfortunately this is revealed in my least favourite way – the villain explains it at the end. But I may just be a bit obsessive about plot. I could see greater coherence looking back on it than there seemed to be when reading it, so maybe it is just an matter of taste whether you prefer to see the building blocks of the plot being put in place as you go, or are happy to have all revealed at the end.

Overall, I wouldn’t go out of my way to read this book. But with his talent for historical description, I think Perez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste books might be quite fun. (Think Viggo Mortensen in the title role of the 2006 movie Alatriste). Pirates of the Levant (2010) is his most recent book.

You can find out more about Arturo Perez-Reverte here.

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The Ghost Writer (2004) is a clever title, because this novel is not only about ghost stories – it is also about the scripting of someone’s life in a way that is at least analogous to ghosting an autobiography. I’m not going to say any more than that, because this is a mystery story, and I don’t want to spoil it.

Gerard Freeman lives in the fictional town of Mawson (Adelaide?) in South Australia. When he is young, Gerard knows little about his family history, except that his English great grandmother, Violet Hatherley, wrote ghost stories. His excessively protective mother also talks sometimes about her childhood memories of a country house set in an idyllic English countryside. When he finds a photograph of a beautiful young woman hidden in her bedroom, and even more when he begins writing to an English penfriend, his mother stops saying anything about her past, and becomes even more apprehensive about some nebulous danger that threatens the family.

As Gerard grows up, his main solace is his correspondence with his penfriend, Alice Jessell, who becomes his ‘invisible lover’. He tells her about his mother’s paradise lost, and how he would like to recover it. She tells him that the accident that killed her parents has left her unable to walk, but that she is in hope of a cure, and until then, wants only to write to him, ruling out visits or phone calls. The relationship is so important to him that he abides by these rules all through his years at school and university, and even on a brief visit to London after graduation. But when his mother dies, Gerard, now aged thirty-five, resolves to go back to England to find out more about his family history, and to find Alice. Both prove easier said than done.

Three of Violet Hatherley’s ghost stories form part of the novel. The young Gerard finds one in his mother’s room, reads another on his first visit to London, and then finds part of a third story in their house after his mother’s death. These stories are written in the vein of Henry James, where ghosts are an extensions of everyday reality—‘the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy’ as he put it. All three stories deal with obsession, betrayal and death. What if the third story has somehow come true?

Some readers may think that Gerard goes into all this with his eyes wide shut, and certainly his acceptance of Alice’s conditions over so many years seems a bit far fetched. Harwood merely sketches in Gerard’s isolation, his dependence on his relationship with Alice and his virtual obsession with his lost past; we know nothing else about him. But this is a mystery story, not a psychological profile, and my doubts weren’t sufficient to derail my enjoyment of the story. And there are some hints for the reader that all is not as it seems: can it be coincidence that Alice’s name is Jessell, and that Miss Jessel is the predatory ghost in James’s The Turn of the Screw? And wasn’t there another book where someone had great expectations?

While critics rightly note that this is a remarkably assured first novel, it is not the work of a young writer. John Harwood, who is the son of the well known Australian poet Gwen Harwood, is a literary critic and academic of many years standing. His familiarity with Victorian literature has enabled him to produce faux-Victorian ghost stories which sound wonderfully authentic. They are, futhermore, presented in a different voice from that of the narrator Gerard. The writing is simple and direct, though not without telling description. I liked, for example, his picture of London in winter: ‘Half frozen but rabidly adhesive dogshit lurked beneath the slush. The chaffinches had all mutated into scrofulous pigeons’. And if at the end, I did question the central premise of the story, mystery and suspense certainly kept me turning the pages, and that’s the aim of a ghost thriller, isn’t it?

There isn’t much about Harwood on the web, but you can read a review of The Ghost Writer here. His second book, The Séance, came out in 2008, and I will definitely be reading it.

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The Moonstone (1868) has been called ‘the first … and greatest of English detective novels’ by no less a critic than T.S. Eliot. In fact it wasn’t the first – that honour going to The Notting Hill Mystery (1862-3) by ‘Charles Felix’ – but it was certainly the first really popular story about crime and its detection. Some of the devices Collins invented for this tale have been used by later detective writers, and there is a detective in the book. However I wouldn’t really call it a detective novel. I think of it as a mystery, and see it as the starting place for stories where someone who is not a detective finds the solution.

The Moonstone is an Indian diamond, stolen during the British assault on Serringapatam, and brought secretly toEnglandby Colonel Herncastle, who leaves it to his niece, Rachael Verinder – possibly as an act of malice, since the jewel seems to bring bad luck. The very day she receives it, it disappears. Has it been taken by one of the family? Or one of the servants? Or by the Indian jugglers who have been hanging round the house? After the local police prove useless, Sergeant Cuff from Scotland Yard is called in. He makes some discoveries, but is unable to find the diamond. As he later says, ‘It’s only in books that the officers of the detective force are superior to the weakness of making a mistake’. Franklin Blake, a guest in the house when the diamond disappeared, has a particular reason for wanting to know what happened, and sets about finding out. But there are nasty surprises and apparent dead ends in store for him in his quest.

The story is told as a series of witness accounts, with each narrator telling only the events of which he or she has personal knowledge. This helps make the story convincing. Narrators include Gabriel Betteredge, steward in the Verinder household, Drusilla Clack, an evangelical spinster, Mr Bruff, the family lawyer, and Franklin Blake himself. (He has asked for these accounts to be collected, by which we know there has to be a happy ending.) One of Collins’s foremost achievements is to give each of the major narrators a different voice. Betteredge is loquacious, opinionated but kindly; he is a self confessed sufferer from the disease of ‘detective-fever’. Clack keeps a diary to ‘discipline the fallen nature we all inherit from Adam’, and is pious with an underlying spite. Bruff is judicious and measured and Blake the educated nineteenth century gentleman. There is a good deal of quiet humour in all this, a useful antidote to such elements of melodrama in the writing as ‘she started up – the noble creature! – and followed me across the outer room …’ There is also real tragedy, and at times a real sense of menace, generated by the unlucky diamond.

Collins very cleverly poses what seems to be an insoluble riddle, and then shows just how to make sense of it. He subtitled the story ‘a romance’, by which he meant an adventure story – or as John Buchan later wrote, a story ‘where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible’ – rather than a love story, though it is that too. The events which are the key to the mystery do rather defy the probabilities, but probably can’t be dismissed as completely unrealistic. And the pieces of the mystery all fit together brilliantly; whether or not it is strictly a detective novel, Eliot is certainly right that it is one of the great crime stories.

You can read more about The Moonstone here. And you can read my earlier post on Collins’s other masterpiece, The Woman in White, here.

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The description of this book on its cover as a page-turner is quite correct, for once.

Lee Child is an author new to me, and this is the only one of his 15 books that I have read. However I suspect that the others follow much the same pattern as Tripwire. His hero is Jack Reacher, an ex military policeman, who becomes more or less inadvertently involved in crime and mystery. He is a loner who shies away from the suburban dream of home and family, a drifter, but with a strong code of honour that makes him want to right wrongs. It helps that he has retained the skills of detection, including an aptitude for both analysis and violence, and is big and strong. His ancestors in popular culture are the lone cowboys who bring justice to the oppressed, then ride off into the sunset.

Child (the pseudonym of Jim Grant) is British by birth, but lives in America and sets his books there. He previously worked as a TV writer and director, and this shows in his prose. His sentences are short and basic. There is just enough description to give the reader a sense of the setting. (Some of it takes place in the World Trade Centre – this book was published in 1999, when it was still standing.) There is a minimum of characterisation; the reader is rarely told in any depth what is going on inside anyone’s head. Some of the characters, particularly the baddies, are mere stereotypes. Quite a lot of the dialogue isn’t particularly convincing.

So what is there to keep the pages turning? You want to find out what happens! Child has come up with a well developed plot, and presents it a way that delivers maximum suspense. In structure, it is a modified version of the hunt/chase scenario. Reacher gets involved in trying to find out what happened to a young soldier who thirty years before went missing in action in Vietnam. The baddies are working to stop him finding out. The action cuts between them in such a way that the reader is kept wondering how Reacher will evade them, and at the same time find out what he needs to know. There is both violence and sex, but Child does not linger over them. There is also a side story that adds to the tension and is integral to the resolution. As a thriller, it works well.

A character that stands outside social structures and who administers rough justice, often without reference to the law, has a certain appeal, if a slightly guilty one. Who has not at some time wished for a Jack Reacher to deal with villains, without recourse to the intricacies and expense of the legal system? Yet few of us would really want Reacher’s drifting existence, its lack of human warmth or commitment, and in most moods we value the civil society and the rule of law that regulate human interaction. This is the sort of book you might read on a long plane journey, or over a wet weekend. It is pure escapism, which is fun sometimes.

You can find out more about Lee Child and Jack Reacher here. Child’s most recent book is Worth Dying For (2010).

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This is the third of the Jackson Brodie stories, published in 2008. It’s better to read the other two first. It is sub-titled A Novel, whereas the previous book was ironically sub-titled A Jolly Murder Mystery. This is perhaps an indication that, even though it is a story about crime, its motives and its results, Atkinson doesn’t think of her work as ‘crime fiction’. If so, I think she is right.

As in the other Jackson Brodie books, there are several stories woven together to make a whole. This time Jackson’s story comes third behind those of Reggie Chase, and Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe, a character from the previous book. Neither Jackson, nor for that matter Louise, does much detecting. It is sixteen year old Reggie who pursues the truth more diligently than anyone else, and in doing so, ties the stories together.

Though a number of crimes are committed, and some are resolved, the story is really about loss and love, particularly parental love. What are the rules if a child is lost or in danger? Jackson thinks: ‘If someone he loved was lost, he would stalk the world forever looking for them’. Louise thinks: ‘A mother and her child, wasn’t that the bond at the heart of everything?’ Reggie, an orphan, misses her mother, but now gives all her devotion to Dr Hunter and her baby. But Joanna Hunter says ‘there are no rules’.

A number of grim things happen in the story, (perhaps one too many in my view, though I’m not going to say which one). But the bad is balanced by the good. ‘”It’s always bad news”’, says Louise. ‘”Not always”’, replies her Detective Constable. ‘”Everyone’s dead”’, says Reggie. ‘”I’m not”’, Jackson says. ‘”You’re not”’. There is good news sometimes, though often bought at a huge cost.

Atkinson writes well enough for the nastiest bits to be very nasty. But she also has humour, a lightness of touch and a matter-of-fact style that undercut the horror. She often uses parenthesis to achieve this. ‘Ms MacDonald had “got” religion (goodness knows where from) after her tumor was diagnosed.’ ‘If he’d had time for a considered decision, this wasn’t the person he would have chosen to save (babies, children, women, animals, in that order, was [Jackson’s] preferred roster).’ Or ‘”Shouldn’t you have stayed on at school, Reggie?” Dr Hunter asked, a little frown worrying her pretty features. Reggie imagined this was how she was with her patients (“You really have to lose some weight, Mrs McTavish.”).’

Kate Atkinson’s web site says that a six-part series adapted from Case Histories, One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News?, produced for the BBC, will be coming to TV screens in 2011. It will be called Case Histories. I will be really interested to see how such complex stories, with such subtle links, written in such engaging prose will translate to the screen. I hope the series doesn’t over-emphasise Jackson Brodie as a detective, because the books are so much more than crime fiction. This is not to denigrate crime fiction, merely to observe that the interest of these books is as much in the character and actions of the people in the stories as it is in finding the solution to a crime.

You can find more about Kate Atkinson here .

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A new Dan Brown book, The Lost Symbol, came out in 2009. It went immediately to the top of the best seller lists and remained there for several months. But I don’t care how popular it is. I’m not going to read it.

Ok, I read The Da Vinci Code, and Angels and Demons. I thought The Da Vinci Code was an interesting example of the hunt/chase thriller of which John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps remains the best example. The hero inadvertently becomes involved in a hunt for someone or something, and is pursued by both the police and the baddies. The hero is helped by some of the people he meets on the way and is obstructed by others, and has to break a code to reach his goal. Brown came up with a gripping conspiracy theory with real appeal: has the Roman Catholic Church been hiding the truth about Jesus for centuries? It was a much better draw-card than the Angels and Demons Illuminati conspiracy, which didn’t make waves when it was first published, and only piggy-backed on the later book’s popularity.

Descriptions of The Lost Symbol make it sound remarkably like the two previous Robert Langdon stories. This time it’s a Masonic conspiracy he’s called in to deal with, set in Washington DC (no need for all those foreign film locations). How many times can you recycle the same structure and character in a different setting?

But it’s not just because of the apparent plot similarities that I’m not going to read it. It’s because of the terrible prose.

Some people have called me a snob for objecting to the way Brown writes. After all, he’s obviously hugely popular; what can be wrong with how he writes?

I’m indebted to a post about Brown’s prose style on a blog called Language Log for what follows. It takes lines from the opening chapter of The Da Vinci Code and dissects them. For example:

A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”

On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.

Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils.

The blogger points out that a voice doesn’t speak, a person does. If the curator is frozen, how can his head be turning? How can a silhouette stare? If all the curator can see is a silhouette, how does he know that the attacker’s skin is ghost pale or that his eyes are pink with dark red pupils? If this is just a description for the reader, not something the curator can see, what is the point of him turning his (frozen) head?

In addition to such mangled descriptions, almost every page yields a crop of clichés. In Angels and Demons, Kohler’s eyes sharpen, Langdon feels a wave of apprehension, he fights a wave of nausea and his eyes are riveted on the body, just to take a few random examples. There is nothing wrong with any of these taken alone, but they are Brown’s stock in trade; there is never anything else.

Certainly thrillers need to be fast paced, and the prose style is less important than the story. But does this mean it is OK for them to be badly written? I don’t think so.

The Telegraph came up with Dan Brown’s 20 worst sentences and some of these are pretty funny; check them out here.

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This is the story of a life pieced together from fragments: the beginnings of a memoir, dairy entries, letters and excerpts from newspapers. But there are gaps – lacunae. And not merely his missing diary. The narrator says that ‘the most important part of any story is the missing piece’, and here, there is much that readers have to fill in for themselves.

The life is that of Harrison Shepherd, who observes and reports on dramatic events but is himself quiet and shy to the point of self-abnegation. In the late 1930s he works as a cook, then secretary, in the household of the Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and then as secretary to Lev Trotsky who is in exile in Mexico. Shepherd, who has a Mexican mother and American father, later becomes a popular novelist in America, writing colourful stories about Mexican history.

The piecing together of the written record of his life is undertaken by Violet Brown, who works as his secretary when he lives in America. Shepherd refers to his notes and diaries as ‘trivial stuff’ and wants them burned, but Violet keeps it all, and presents it as a coherent narrative. ‘If God speaks for the man who keeps quiet, then Violet Brown may be his instrument’, she says.

The fact that Shepherd describes real people and real events gives a particular tenor to the story because in some things, many readers already know what is going to happen. I read Shepherd’s day-to-day details of the life of the household when Trotsky is living there with a growing sense of dread because I knew the date of his assassination. The pursuit of Shepherd by the House Committee for Un-American Activities similarly filled me with unease, because the tactics they used and the harm they did are well known. For me, this juxtaposition of the ordinary with the extremely nasty is one of the strengths of the book. But I suspect the writing is good enough that a similar tension would be felt by a reader who didn’t know the details of Trotsky’s death, or the operations of the Dies Committee.

There are some wonderfully subtle touches in the story, where comparisons suggest themselves, or relationships echo other relationships. Did Shepherd really mean to draw a comparison between the weapon the hero of one of his stories receives from the gods and the atomic bomb? Is his relationship with Violet Brown the reflex of his relationship with Frida Kahlo? Are Violet’s feelings for Shepherd similar to Shepherd’s for Van – and does his indifference to her feelings echo Van’s for his? And above all, is Shepherd’s view of his own unimportance really justified, as compared to Violet’s faith in him? Nothing is ever said; it is up to the reader to decide.

Even the end of the story is uncertain, because Shepherd didn’t write about what he intended to do – a huge lacuna, or missing piece, in his story. But it seems lacuna has an additional meaning in Mexico; it refers to the mouth of a cave in a cliff from which an underwater tunnel leads to an inland lake. It is left to Violet to fill in some of the blanks, but remember; the most important part of the story is the missing piece. Could she be right in her speculation about ‘the happy ending, as he called it’?

The section dealing with the investigation of Shepherd for un-American activities is perhaps a bit drawn out. And the gap Violet has to fill in is perhaps too great. But overall, this is a wonderful book. And since I’ve been talking about prizes in recent posts, I note that The Lacuna won the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction over Wolf Hall, last year’s Man Booker winner by Hilary Mantel. The Orange Prize is for excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world.

There is plenty of information available on the internet about Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Lev Trotsky and many of the events mentioned in the story. Do have a look at some of the paintings. Information about the Orange Prize can be found here.

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This is the third book that I remember fondly from childhood for my personal tribute to Children’s Book Week. It is probably a book for teenagers, being about a young man finding his way in the world, rather than a story about children. However Sutcliff herself once commented that she wrote ‘for children of all ages from nine to ninety’, making the classification ‘children’s book’ satisfyingly elastic.

Sutcliff was born in 1920, and The Eagle of the Ninth was published in 1954. Set in Roman Britain in the first century AD, it is the first of a loosely linked series of books that deal with the British descendents of the Roman Marcus Aquila over several hundred years. She also wrote a number of novels set in other periods of English history; for example, my second favourite after Eagle of the Ninth is Simon, a story of two friends who find themselves on different sides in the English Civil War.

This story is about Marcus Aquila, a young Roman cohort commander who comes to Britain to take charge of a garrison in the south west of the Roman province of Britain. Apart from wanting to make a career in the Legions, Marcus would like to find out what happened to his father’s Legion, which disappeared some years before in the north of Britain. His hopes are dashed, however, when he is badly injured in an attack on his garrison; what can he now do with his life? Sutcliff is above all a good story teller, and Marcus’s story is full of interest, danger and suspense. She writes with great feeling about the countryside, the seasons and the weather; it is no surprise that Marcus eventually decides to make his home in Britain. Sutcliff also deals with the relationships between Romans and the British, and through the personal experience of Marcus, throws light on the broader experience of conquest from both sides. As her Wikipedia entry notes:’Although primarily a children’s author, the quality and depth of her writing also appeals to adults’.

As far as I can tell, Sutcliff does a great job with the historical detail in the story. She never parades her historical knowledge – it’s just there is a very convincing way, whether it is the particulars of military life, Roman architecture or tribal ritual. Furthermore, the story of The Eagle of the Ninth does have some basis in fact. The Ninth Roman legion certainly disappeared sometime in the first century AD, presumably defeated in battle, and was never re-formed. At the time Sutcliff wrote, it was believed that in about 117 AD, the Ninth was sent to deal with an uprising of tribes in what is now Scotland. But the 4000 men who marched north simply vanished, no word of their fate ever returning. Some historians now question whether the Ninth was destroyed in Britain, or survived this particular clash only to be overwhelmed in some other part of the Empire. But either way, it makes a good story. Sutcliff also knew that a wingless Roman Eagle was dug up by archaeologists in a field near Silchester, and that gave her the other part of the story (though in fact it wasn’t the eagle of a Legion.)

I’m not the only one who admires this book. Film director Kevin Macdonald says it was one of his childhood favourites; his movie, The Eagle, based on the book will be released early in 2011. It will star Channing Tatum as Marcus. In the meantime, details can be found here. Further information about Rosemary Sutcliff can be found at here.

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I noticed that Ian McEwan’s most recent book, the critically well received Solar, didn’t make the long list for the Mann Booker Prize this year. This is a little surprising, as his earlier books Atonement and Saturday both reached the short list, and Amsterdam won the prize in 1998. There’s also a devastating attack on McEwan’s work in a new book by the novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici. He says that McEwan’s books (and those of other writers such as Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis) left him ‘feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world’. With this in mind, I decided to take another look at the prize winner, Amsterdam.

Two old friends, Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday, meet at the funeral of Molly Lane; both had at one time been her lover. They are now eminent men; Clive is Britain’s most successful modern composer; Vernon is editor of a quality newspaper. Molly’s sudden decline into dementia and death frightens them, and they make a pact to assist each other to do away with themselves if something similar were to happen to them. Then Clive gets on with trying to complete his Millennium Symphony, and Vernon gets on with trying to improve the declining circulation of his paper.  But both find themselves having to make difficult moral decisions, and each thinks the other has made the wrong one. Then their pact comes back to haunt them.

There is no question that the quality of the writing is high – clear, direct and simple. But in McEwan’s own assessment, it is the plot that is the dominant factor and thus what the book should be judged on. He uses the metaphor of a building: ‘I think of novels in architectural terms’ he says. ‘You have to enter at the gate, and this gate must be constructed in such a way that the reader has immediate confidence in the strength of the building’. The reader certainly sees all the scaffolding and knows what is being built. Clive’s situation is balanced exactly with Vernon’s; first one feels low, then the other, then each sees he can attain what he desires, but each has to make a decision about the morality of their means of achieving it. First one disapproves of those means, then the other. And having risen, both fall. 

McEwan clearly liked writing the story; ‘I wrote in a state of glee’ he says. This wicked glee comes through in the way he presents the moral dilemmas, the falling out of the friends and the crazy denouement. There are some straightforwardly funny moments, but mostly it is black humour. There are hints about the way the story will end throughout, and these come back to the reader with grim irony at the end.

But in so carefully constructing the plot, has the author demeaned his characters by making all their choices for them? I think this is the ‘terrible constriction’ that worries Josipovici. This sense of inevitability arises from the very ‘architectural’ nature of the story. Clive and Vernon are pawns in a game whose outcome is already decided. If everything has to balance, if for every rise there has to be a fall, then Clive and Vernon are not given a real choice in the moral dilemmas they are faced with. Thus the irony doesn’t grow out of the story; it is the very condition McEwan imposes from the start. It’s clever, but cynical, and I can see what Josipovici is getting at.

Here is the article that publicised his comments.

Naturally other critics haven’t agreed, and suggest he is being controversial to sell his book, to which the comments about McEwan et al are only a footnote. See what you think.

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Published in 2007, this is the sixth of Maloney’s Murray Whelan series, so I’m not following my normal practice of suggesting you read the first in the series first (though do so by all means – they are all still in print). If you have read any of the earlier ones, you’ll know that Murray Whelan is now a member of the Victorian Legislative Council, one of a small band of Labor members in Opposition to a Liberal government with a Premier, Kenneth Geoffries, who sounds strangely familiar.

The story is set in 1998. Labor looks like being in permanent opposition unless it can find a new leader, and doesn’t need the bad publicity that could arise if the drowning of a union official twenty years ago now turns out not to have been an accident after all. There is a pre-selection battle for a safe Labor seat. Murray’s son Red is learning to drive. And can Murray find someone to take to the grand opening of the Casino?

This mixture of politics, personal life and skulduggery is the typical fare of the Murray Whelan novels. But what if you’re not interested in politics? I’m not interested in horse racing, but I still enjoy the stories of Dick Francis. Maloney uses politics in the same way Francis uses racing: as an environment where crooked deals can be done and colourful characters flourish. And as in most of Dick Francis’s stories, the hero inadvertently gets mixed up in murky business. Murray has to find a way to deal with the murk as befits his role as an MP – or at least that won’t get into the press. In Sucked In, not all of the issues are neatly resolved, but Murray is a fixer, not a crime fighter, so this doesn’t leave the story feeling incomplete.

But it’s not for clever plots that people love Shane Maloney’s books. It is for his sardonic take on life and the language in which he describes it. I, and many others, find it laugh-out-loud funny. For example, in a fore note to the book, he tells the reader that: ‘The author of this book, its setting and characters, are entirely fictitious. There is no such place as Melbourne. The Australian Labor Party exists only in the imagination of its members. The process by which it selects its candidates for public office is a source of ongoing bafflement’. Operating from the Brunswick Institute, conveniently located in the shed in his back yard, he is totally irreverent about government, politics, the media, academia and the world in general.

Naturally, these views are shared by Murray Whelan. On pre-selection he notes: ‘By long established custom, the ALP is loath to pass up any opportunity to erupt into a full-fledged public brawl’. It’s not that he has a particular problem with Labor – he is after all a Labor member; the other side ‘will be even worse bastards than us’. Confronted with the Liberal slogan ‘Victoria – On the Move’, his response is: ‘On the take, more likely’. On the Docklands development: ‘The docks were destined for transformation into luxury apartments, high-rise mortgages with water views. Surprise, surprise.’ Brunswick Street was ‘coming alive with dreadlocks, pierced appendages and ravenous vegans’. And on the national Parliament House: ‘Part-boomerang, part-bunker, all modern conveniences, it tunnels into the heart of the nation like a glorified rabbit burrow. A pharaonic tumulus crowned with a metallic flagstaff of such monumental banality as to make a rotary clothesline look like the Eiffel Tower.’

The first three books are available as The Murray Whelan Trilogy, and the next three, including Sucked In, as The Next Murray Whelan Trilogy. Maloney says the trilogy makes an excellent door stop or wheel-chocks for a Sopwith Camel.

If you would like to join the Brunswick Institute, go to this link and find out what it doesn’t do.

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If you enjoyed Michael Cox’s first book, the sequel is a must.

The Glass of Time (2008) follows on twenty years later from events in The Meaning of Night. There is enough background provided that the book stands alone, but it is probably better to start with the first volume of the saga. The story is again presented as if it were a manuscript edited by a modern scholar. This manuscript is subtitled: The Secret Life of Miss Esperanza Gorst Narrated by Herself, though the editor notes that ‘it is firmly novelistic in character and should be read first and foremost as a work of fiction, or at least a highly fictionalized autobiography’. So the writer is setting himself the task of convincing the reader – who knows the story is fiction – that it could actually be autobiography – and as with the earlier book, Cox succeeds wonderfully well.

This book presents the next instalment of the history of the Duport family, with some of the same characters and some new ones, including Esperanza. The story is less melodramatic than the earlier one – though it still has melodrama – and some readers may find it less exciting. Most of the violence happens off stage, and there is less opportunity for the opium dens and prostitutes of the earlier book; these, after all, are the recollections of a young lady.

The story begins when the young and beautiful orphan Esperanza is sent on a mysterious ‘Great Task’ by her guardian, Madame de l’Orme. This involves her going to Evenwood as a lady’s maid to the Baroness Tansor. Her guardian promises in due course to explain what lies behind this, and gradually reveals to Esperanza – and the reader – how this quest is an extension of Edward Glyver’s attempt in the previous book to re-instate the rightful heir at Evenwood. No prizes for guessing who the rightful heir is, but Cox manages to insert enough tangles and false leads to keep the reader going quite happily. I for one read it compulsively to find out what would happen next.

One of the issues of writing a story as an autobiography is that the voice and circumstances of the narrator dominate it. A major achievement of this novel is that Cox gives the narrator a voice that is totally appropriate to the young Esperanza, and totally different to the voice of Edward Glyver in the previous book. However as he is writing within the conventions of Victorian diary writing, the voice is sometimes a bit mannered, as in the aside: ‘(I had this information from Mr Pocock, the butler, and, as is my habit, wishing always to improve myself and extend my knowledge, wrote it down as soon as I could in one of the note-books I keep constantly about me.)’. This idiom is intentional, but can be annoying. The reader is addressed – as in the opening sentence – in the present tense: ‘I wish you, first of all, to imagine you are standing beside me, peeping over the rail of an arched and curtained gallery …’. But other sections are told, from Esperanza’s point of view, in the past tense. There doesn’t really seem to be a reason for this, and it can be distracting.

As in the earlier book, the story has typically Victorian themes – the importance of blood and heredity, duty and sacrifice, the effects of guilty secrets and a romantic apprehension of life as expressed through poets and poetry. Esperanza loves reading novels, so there is also reference to Victorian writers such as ‘Miss Braddon’ – who’s best known novel Lady Audley’s Secret shares some themes with Cox’s work – and Wilkie Collins. The story uses some of the plot devices found in Collins’s novels, such as the introduction of the police detective, who is clever, but not always right in his deductions.

I also find echoes of other Victorian fiction, particularly that of Dickens, in this story. The Baroness Tansor reminds me strongly of Lady Dedlock from Bleak House in her dedication to a dead lover and her sadness and ennui – the shadow of past failings falling on them both. And the lawyer Mr Vyse, whose Dickensian name is well bestowed, resembles the unpleasant lawyer, Tulkinghorn, from the same story. Other readers may find other similarities. It is to be presumed that Cox is not so much stealing from Victorian novels as making reference in tribute to them, as is the post modern literary convention.

I tend to be picky about the history in historical novels. There is one I can think of where the writer clearly has no idea how much labour it took to run a large country house, and has the same servant quite unrealistically doing everything. (Ask me, and I’ll tell you which book it is.) But Cox seems to do a pretty good job of the upstairs downstairs situation. Esperanza consults Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) to get herself up to speed as a lady’s maid, and seems to manage the role pretty well. From the beginning she is, of course, fairly exceptional for a lady’s maid, so the degree of freedom she has is perhaps reasonable, though in most large houses even the upper servants wouldn’t have had the privileges she enjoys. Oh well. As I said, I’m picky.

But neither this, nor the fact that you can guess the outcome fairly early in the book, in any way spoilt it for me. It is indeed a shame that there won’t be a third in the series.

The book has an interesting website.

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If you like the stories of Wilkie Collins, why not try another Victorian ‘sensation’ novel, this time by Michael Cox. His book ,The Meaning of Night, shares with Collins the melodrama, the mood, the themes and the measured language of a Victorian novel – only Cox’s book was first published in 2005.

Michael Cox had always wanted to write a Victorian style ‘sensation’ novel. Over thirty years, he made a number of starts, but it was only when he became seriously ill with cancer that he managed to do it. He threw out what he had already written, but found a way to connect as a narrative all the ideas he had been thinking about for so long. He completed the book 2005. It was immediately popular.

Cox adopted a number of Victorian techniques and conventions in this huge and sprawling novel. It is presented as a text discovered by a modern scholar of Victorian literature – such pretence being itself a Victorian device. There are a number of footnotes referencing places and events of the time, which is around the 1850s. There are standard Victorian themes such as revenge and obsession and the role of fate. It is written in a consciously Victorian style, with long descriptive sentences. The grammar, syntax and word choice are all what you would find in Dickens or Collins, as in the following, where Glyver first becomes aware of the puzzle he has to unravel:

Gradually, a story began to emerge from the shadows; or, rather, the fragmentary and incomplete elements of a story. As if extracting broken shards for the imprisoning earth, I painstakingly gathered the fragments together, and laid them out, piece by piece, seeking the linking pattern, the design that would bring the whole into view.

There are also wonderful evocations of dirty, smelly, fog-ridden London, as well as the magical picture of the great house, Evenwood, a house full of secrets.

The story, which is subtitled ‘A Confession’, is written from the point of view of Edward Glyver. He tells the ‘unknown reader’ the story of his life, the wrong done to him and his connection with the Duport family of Evenwood, starting from a point of crisis and then explaining how he arrived at this extreme. The opening sentence has rightly become quite famous: ‘After killing the red haired man I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.’ But this murder is only a trial run for the deed Glyver feels he is fated to undertake, and after he brings the reader up to date on the reasons behind this act, he then tells how he attempts to fulfil what he sees as the destiny imposed on him. Although Glyver has been wronged, his actions are indefensible, yet he remains a sympathetic character – which is a considerable achievement on the author’s part. I won’t tell you what happens, only noting that the outcome is more morally ambiguous than that found in most genuinely Victorian novels.

Cox published a sequel to The Meaning of Night, called The Glass of Time, in 2008. He had hoped to write a third in the series, bringing the story of Evenwood into the twentieth century, but died in 2009 before he could achieve this. This is a great pity, as these are two of the most engaging historical novels I have read recently. Purists will rightly say they are pastiche, but that doesn’t make them any less enjoyable.

The book has an interesting website: There is even a map of Evenwood.

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