Sunday, January 29, 2012

2,503: The Contract by David Levien

The Contract (published in the US as 13 Million Dollar Pop) is, apparently, David Levien’s third novel featuring ex-cop and PI Frank Behr. Levien is a leading Hollywood screenwriter, with an impressive list of credits and nominations for Edgar, Hammett and Shamus awards for his writing so, when I was sent a copy for review by Transworld, I was happy to give it a try.

In this instalment, Behr is newly-employed at Caro, a prestigious Indianapolis investigation firm and is about to become a father again.  Finding himself acting as a stand-in bodyguard for a wealthy local businessman, he ends up saving his client’s life from a hitman in an underground garage.

Despite being hailed as a hero at work, Frank is surprised when the police investigation appears to be given a very low priority, especially as his client has just been nominated to take over a Senate seat vacated by its incumbent.  As this is a thriller, Frank ignores the wishes of his employer and heavy hints from the police and begins to investigate, ignoring his official case load.

What Frank doesn’t know is that the attempted assassination has been arranged by Waddy Dwyer, a sociopathic Welsh hitman and former special forces soldier.  Dwyer will stop at nothing to clean up the mess and, in particular, collect more money from the man who asked for the hit to be made.  The two are set on a collision course that will lead to an explosive climax, leaving corpses and broken dreams along the way.

The first thing to say about The Contract is that it pretty much does what it says on the tin.  It’s a solid, workaday thriller, with some good set pieces and tense moments and a couple of satisfyingly nasty villains.  Levien throws in a couple of interesting sub-plots and, to counterpoint Frank’s maverick and dangerous investigation, we get to follow his partner, Susan, her pregnancy and her desire for a more stable and normal life with Frank.  Anyone who likes action thrillers can pick this off the shelves in the bookshop and know that they won’t be disappointed.

But that’s about where it ends.  The flip side to The Contract being a solid, workaday thriller is, I’m afraid just that.  There’s nothing that really lifts it out of the ordinary.  I found it difficult to engage with Frank Behr as a conflicted hero, which is the way he is drawn, as he himself seemed a bit too unemotional.  Maybe I’m missing something because I’m not familiar with the backstory and haven’t followed him through the first two books in the series but, although he appeared to be aware of the consequences of disobeying his boss and running up against the police investigation, he didn’t seem to feel any more than a fleeting hesitation in doing so. I just didn’t get the sense that he was all that torn.  In fact, at times, he comes across as being a bit selfish in failing to take Susan’s needs into consideration.  There is definite potential in the set-up but Levien doesn’t quite hit the mark.  Suffice it to say that during the climax to the book, I actually wasn’t really bothered whether Frank lived or died, which is not a good way to feel about the hero.

The other issue I had with The Contract relates to the two villains, Waddy Dwyer and his sidekick Ricky Powell, an English former soldier.  Although they are suitably scary and psychotic and, in that sense, decent bad guys for this kind of novel, Levien hasn’t quite got the hang of how British people speak or, indeed, the differences between how the English and Welsh speak.  There are some awkward and clumsy efforts at dealing with this but the characters end up sounding like a mash-up of British and American speech patterns, mixed in with some references that feel like they’ve been grabbed from a hasty trawl through a thesaurus to create an impression of Britishness.  For example, at one point, one of them makes a comment that another character is like a “National Peace Scout”, whereas anyone from the UK would refer to a “Boy Scout”.  I appreciate that this is a minor quibble but it detracted from two otherwise decent characters.

Overall, though, this is a decent, but not an excellent, action thriller which would definitely help a thriller fan while away a few hours.  I’m not sure, however, that it would tempt a non-fan into the genre and I can’t say that I will be rushing to buy any of David Levien’s other books.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

2,504: Catch Me by Lisa Gardner

I should probably preface this post by confessing that, had I not been kindly sent a review copy of Catch Me by Lisa Gardner by its publisher, Headline, I would not have bought or read this book.  Although I read a lot of crime fiction, I tend to be rather picky in my selections – not in terms of quality, I hasten to add, but more in the kind of books in the genre that pique my interest – and  police procedurals (even ones with a strong suspense element such as this) set in the modern day just don’t tend to jump off the shelf for me.  Nevertheless, as part of the point of this blog is to encourage me to break out of my self-imposed reading habits, I decided to give it a go.

Catch Me follows two separate investigations by Boston Sergeant Detective D.D. Warren and her unit.  The first involves a young woman, Charlene Grant, who was a victim of appalling abuse by her mother as a child, which has left her deeply damaged.  On January 21st in each of the previous two years, one of Charlene’s two closest childhood friends has been murdered in their own homes, with no signs of forced entry and no signs of a struggle.  It is now 17th January and Charlene approaches D.D.  to explain that she believes that she only has four days left to live.  In the interim, Charlene has trained herself to fight and to survive.

D.D. is intrigued by the young woman and begins to dig into her past, uncovering Charlene’s secrets.  Soon it becomes apparent that Charlene may be more than a potential victim as she becomes the prime suspect in D.D’s second investigation, that of a series of murders of paedophiles in Boston.

Given that this isn’t my usual type of crime novel, I initially became even more doubtful as the book opened with a description of Charlene’s childhood abuse, followed immediately by the introduction of the paedophilia theme.  I may well be a bit of a wuss but ever since the birth of mini-Falaise, I have found those kinds of theme upsetting in literature.

Slowly but surely, though, the story began to grip me until I was totally hooked and it turned into one of those books I both wanted to end so I could discover the identity of the murderer but also didn’t want to end as I was enjoying it so much.

Gardner’s great strength is her ability to create a sense of suspense and build it up through the book, using some clever twists and plot devices to keep the reader off balance and heighten the uncertainty.  She also very cleverly dangled a number of plausible solutions before (and please excuse the mixed imagery here) pulling the rug from under the reader and supplying a wholly-unexpected, yet totally logical explanation.

I’d also highlight the sub-plot involving the Internet grooming of Jesse, the young son of a single mother, by a paedophile.  Not only did it have me mentally screaming, “NO! Don’t do it!” on several occasions but it also had me seriously contemplating getting rid of every Internet-enabled item in the Falaise household to try and keep mini-Falaise completely wrapped up in cotton wool.

This is Gardner’s fourteenth novel, five of which feature D.D. Warren.  Nevertheless, it never felt anything other than a complete, stand-alone novel even though there were scenes focusing on Warren’s personal life and new motherhood and the relationships between her and the members of the unit which were clearly the development of the character arc from earlier in the series.

Fans of this kind of combo procedural and suspense thriller will thoroughly enjoy this story and it was gripping enough to keep a more casual reader of this type of book engaged with it.  From being just another name on the shelves of the crime section of the bookshop, Lisa Gardner is now someone definitely on my radar for further investigation.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

2,505: The Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi

The battered body of a young, married woman lies dead at the foot of a cliff on the Greek holiday island of Thiminos. The corrupt local Chief of Police has taken a bribe to determine the death an accident and to sweep it under the carpet as quickly as possible. And there, matters might have rested save for the arrival on a ferry from the mainland of Hermes Diaktoros, Anne Zouroudi’s Greek Detective.

 Hermes announces his intention to investigate the death of Irini, making vague comments about the authority under which he is acting. Soon he begins to strip away the veneer of the local populace and to discover a web of petty intrigues, infidelities and deceptions that pervades the island and has led to misery, family breakdown and, ultimately, murder. Using methods that are unconventional to say the least, Hermes imposes his own brand of justice, meting out punishment to those he holds responsible for Irini’s death, as well as the actual killer.

The Messenger of Athens is one of the most unusual crime novels I have read in recent years. Readers looking for a conventional
whodunit that follows the rules of detective fiction and challenges them to solve the puzzle may be disappointed. This is emphatically not one of those types of detective story. Instead, it inhabits a space somewhere in between crime writing and literary fiction. By interweaving two narrative threads, separated in time and by using multiple points of view, Zouroudi focuses as much, if not more, on the corrosive and misogynistic social beliefs of the islanders and the tough lives that they lead once the summer sun fades and the tourists go home, as she does on the process by which Hermes uncovers the murderer.

Hermes himself does not fit the profile of your typical fictional detective. Admittedly he has the requisite quirky habits (in Hermes’ case, this entails wearing white tennis shoes with an expensive suit, continually whiting out marks on said shoes and smoking old-fashioned cigarettes) but these didn’t really work for me. His character and motivation are kept deliberately vague and his near omniscience and unclear status makes him almost like a deus ex machina, which impression is only heightened by the unorthodox retribution he metes out to those he deems guilty. Unlike detectives like Poirot (of whom there are some faint echoes in Hermes), he sets himself out as judge, jury and executioner as well as investigator. Nevertheless, he is a sympathetic character who shows real kindness to those who have suffered and the lack of clarity around his character only makes me more curious and interested in him.

If I’m being perfectly honest, most of the other characters (with the honourable exceptions of Nikos, Sofia and Lukas) are as grubby a bunch of spiteful, bigoted and small-minded individuals as you could hope to find and, despite its extra-legal nature, Hermes’ justice seemed appropriate and highlighted the difference between legal and natural justice.

Zouroudi’s real strength, though, is in the sense of place and the atmosphere she creates. I was reminded of Little Infamies by Panos Karnezis, a wonderful collection of short stories about life in a Greek village, in the portrait Zouroudi draws of a fundamentally isolated and inward looking community and the perasive gossip and everyday deceit that permeates the island. Her pacing is leisurely, enabling her carefully to tease out the individual stories that make up the plot and slowly pulling us to its conclusion and I can’t help but think that there is some similarity between Zouroudi and Georges Simenon when it comes to creating atmosphere.

I suspect that if you come to The Messenger of Athens expecting a classic detective story, you may end up being disappointed but, if you look at it as a novel that happens to have a detective and a crime at its centre, it is excellent and well worth your time. I have already downloaded the sequel, The Taint of Midas, to my Kindle and I am looking forward to getting better acquainted with Hermes Diaktoros.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Just Write Some More, Already!

For my first Top Ten Tuesday of 2012, as brought to us by the Broke and the Bookish, I present to you a list of ten authors whom I wish would write another book.  Some of them are just bone idle, some are just too damned good and can’t be blamed for failing to keep up with my insatiable appetite for their work and some have, quite selfishly, died.  Which is a little problematic from the perspective of wanting them to pick up their pen again.

Anyway, without further ado, here is my list:

1.         Charles Dickens.  I suppose this is stretching the theme a little bit because I’m not overly fussed about him coming back to write a new book.  What I’d really like is for him to come back and finish off The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  Preferably with the murderer being a ninja-trained hit squad comprising Tiny Tim, the Artful Dodger and Pip.  Or maybe a vampire Little Nell.  No-one would see that one coming, would they?

2.         J.K. Rowling.  With due respect to all the great children’s authors out there, both past and present, Rowling’s sequence of novels featuring some chap called Harry Potter changed the face of children’s publishing and gave children of that time a magical (no pun intended) reading experience.  Mini-Falaise, now three, has a few years to go before she gets to the right point but I would love her to get some of the excitement and even sense of community that the Harry Potter novels and films produced.  I know there are other writers but why change a winning formula?  So, Ms Rowling, please dust down the notebooks and get cracking.  Mini-Falaise and her cohort are waiting.

3.         Paul Theroux.  To be fair to Mr Theroux, he does have a pretty regular output.  Unfortunately for me, not all of his output concerns railway journeys and I need more.

4.         P.G. Wodehouse.  I want more Jeeves, I want more Blandings, I want more of the Oldest Member and Ukridge and Mr Mulliner and Psmith and I just want more.  His world is the cozy, happy place I go to when times are tough and things go dark and I think we could all do with a little more Wodehousian sunshine in our troubled times.

5.         Iain Pears.  Another author who is still in regular production so maybe I shouldn’t berate him like this but he’s stopped writing his art theft detective stories featuring Jonathan Argyll and Flavia di Stefano and I want some more please.

6.         Lawrence Sanders.  He wrote only two books featuring Timothy Cone, a scruffy private investigator working for a corporate intelligence firm.  I just love those stories and I wish he had done more with the character.

7.         Bram Stoker. I’m not sure I actually do wish he had written more but I bet he’s looking down at Anne Rice, Stephanie Meyer and the nameless host of authors of vampire stories and thinking, “Damn, wish I’d written those Dracula sequels after all.”

8.         Sir John Mortimer.  Creator of one of the immortal literary characters, Horace Rumpole, I was truly saddened when I read of his death.  I have all of the Rumpole books and I would probably even sell a portion of my soul for there to be some more.  Maybe there are a couple of stray manuscripts hiding out in his papers.  I do hope so.  The Old Bailey needs his humanity and wit.

9.         Ian Fleming.  However many authors add to the James Bond canon, none of them can hold a candle to Fleming.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a couple more ‘original’ Bond novels.  Especially if they had the kind of gambling scenes he wrote in Casino Royale and Moonraker.

10.       J.R.R. Tolkien.  Because we could all do with some more hobbits.

Monday, January 9, 2012

2,506: The Shakespeare Thefts by Eric Rasmussen

The First Folio was the original “Complete Works of Shakespeare”.  It was compiled by two of Shakespeare’s actor colleagues, John Hemminges and Henry Condell and includes all of the plays today recognised as belonging to Shakespeare other than Pericles, The Two Noble Kinsmen and the two “lost” plays, Cardenio and Love’s Labours Won. It is generally believed that approximately 750 copies were originally published and, although there is some argument as to whether the publication was a financial success or failure, the First Folio rapidly became a most sought after book.

Today, it has, of course, assumed iconic status as a direct line from the modern reader to the mind of Shakespeare and it remains the sole source of 18 of his plays, including the perennial favourites The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar and, most dear to me, Macbeth.  Many theatre people believe that the First Folio, with its particular formatting and structure provides the best guide to how Shakespeare intended the lines to be read.  (For a great description of this, you should check out Ben Crystal’s Shakespeare on Toast).

Of the original 750 or so copies, 228 are known to still exist, according to the most recent census.  The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, has the highest number and the second largest collection resides in a specially constructed room at Meisei University in Tokyo.

Eric Rasmussen is a noted Shakespeare scholar and led the team that carried out the most recent First Folio census, following on from a census taken by Sir Sidney Lee in 1902, which identified 160 copies.  This team went on an obsessive journey around the world, tracking down and examining every copy of the First Folio to which they could get access.  The fruits of their labour can be found in The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue, which describes in detail the physical condition of each copy as well as details of any marginalia found therein.

As this volume is both dryly academic and would set the reader back around £225, it is likely that most people will find The Shakespeare Thefts more to their taste.  This slim volume is a combination of anecdotes about the First Folio, memoir of the taking of the census and discursion on extreme book collecting.

Rasmussen’s hook is that, of the 160 copies of the First Folio identified by Lee, 14 of them have since gone missing, mostly through theft.  Some of these thefts are discussed in the book, including Durham University’s copy, which turned up in the possession of a self-proclaimed millionaire who actually lived with his old mum in a North-East terraced cottage and an American copy stolen so that it wouldn’t end up in the hands of Hitler.

The slight snag, however, is that most of the book is about copies that weren’t actually stolen but just have interesting stories attached to them, such as the RSC’s copy that was accidentally purloined by the Pope or the Meisei copy that has a bullet hole in it or…I could go on but that would start to spoil it for you.

One of the most fascinating nuggets of First Folio lore recorded by Rasmussen is the fact that there are missing copies that were once owned by the Herbert brothers, the dedicatees of the First Folio and William Beeston, son of Christopher Beeston, a member for a while of Shakespeare’s acting company.  As so many of the First Folios contain marginalia by their owners, who knows what may have been written into these copies.  Notes on Shakespeare’s stage directions?  Emphasis marks on the “To be or not to be” line in Hamlet?  Although they may well have been lost forever, there is still the tantalising possibility that they lie, undiscovered, in an English attic, abiding their time.

The Shakespeare Thefts is a gossipy, light, easy read about the First Folio and bibliomania in general.  That is both its strength and weakness.  I would have liked more meat in it and less froth.  Many of the stories are skipped through more rapidly than they deserve and there is almost an air of this being a set of magazine articles or notes for an as yet unfinished book about it.  There is also a little too much unnatural levering in of stories about Rasmussen and his team which I felt distracted from the book as a whole (and that is no disrespect to the amazing work they have done).  Nevertheless, the cast of reprobates, eccentrics, bibliomaniacs and historical figures who parade through this book make it an entertaining read for anyone with an interest in Shakespeare or book collecting.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

2,507: Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño

There are very few people who can claim to have lived twice.  Indeed, only Jesus, Lazarus and, at least according to Fleming’s title, James Bond spring to mind.  But in a literary sense, it would appear that Roberto Bolaño could be added to that list, having emerged into the consciousness of Anglophone readers only after his death in 2003.

Nazi Literature in the Americas was, in fact, one of his earlier works, although Chris Andrews’ wonderful translation appeared after the translations of several of his later and more well-known works.  It is actually the first piece by Bolaño that I have read and I have a sneaky suspicion that I would have been better off attempting either The Savage Detectives or 2666 first so as to be able to set this in better context.

I’m not even sure whether it is correct or fair to describe Nazi Literature of the Americas as a novel as it consists of around 30 mini-biographies of fictional American literary figures, all of whom are linked by extreme right-wing beliefs.  The book is structured as a mock-academic literary gazetteer, complete with a glossary of minor figures referred to in the text and a bibliography of the works of his fictional subjects.

On the surface, then, this all looks like a clever literary joke or game.  The individual entries are written in a seemingly disinterested manner by a narrator with a dry, waspish sense of humour.  The counterpointing of straightforward biographical narrative with almost throwaway comments about the bizarre and often repellent ideas or character traits of his subjects serves to highlight both their outlandish personal and political beliefs – “ [he] advocated, among other things, the re-establishment of the Inquisition; corporal punishment in public; a permanent war against the Chileans” – and some of the self-referential and pretentious views on writing and art that can be held by avant-garde or minor literary figures.

Bolaño is highly inventive in the characteristics he gives to his fictional writers.  They vary from leaders of Buenos Aires football gangs to Chilean military pilots and junta killers and from a Haitian journalist who plagiarises French poets to a science fiction writer who was “the creator of the Gunther O’Connell saga, of the Fourth Reich saga, and of the saga of Gunther O’Connell and the Fourth Reich, in which the previous two sagas fuse into one.”   They range from talentless individuals to figures of real genius and stretch over different geographies, times and social classes, linked only by a certain world view and an obsession with writing and, in particular, poetry.  There is a pleasing whiff of the Daily Telegraph obituary column about it, with its collection of oddball characters and the sometimes euphemistic, sometimes gently mocking tone of the narrator.

If this were all there was to Nazi Literature in the Americas, however, it would be a joke dragged out too far, and one with an odd coda, as the last story – of Carlos Ramirez Hoffmann, a Chilean pilot and serial killer who becomes one of Pinochet’s death squad killers – has a very different tone and even a change of narrative point of view.  Indeed, Alberto Mangel’s review in the Guardian dismisses it as such and he is generally scathing about the book and of much of Bolaño’s other work.

Bolaño, however, has other ideas.  As well as teasing the Latin American literary world for its pretensions and self-importance, he also makes us address questions relating to the link between literature and political philosophy.  Some of the characters he creates are actually likeable or sympathetic until we recall their views.  Some of them are drawn as genuinely talented.  Can we divorce our enjoyment of a writer’s work from his or her political views?  Can we divide a writer’s character from their books?
Looking from the other side of the glass, he also brings to our attention the willingness of many authors to turn a blind eye to repression, to co-habit with it to avoid suppression or even to embrace it enthusiastically.  And, make no mistake.  Bolaño may use the Right as his vehicle but change “right” for “left” or “fascist” for “socialist” and the same would hold true. Their may be particular resonance for this viewpoint in the context of Latin America in the late 20th Century but it is also a general point.

And Bolaño is not setting himself up as an occupant of the moral high ground here.  There are plenty of instances in the book of empathy and even sympathy from the narrator for his subject.  His creations persist with their lunatic theories and deranged books even when times have moved on and they are reduced to voices crying out in the wilderness.  I think Bolaño can understand the lure of complicity and the compulsion to write in his characters.

I prefer this reading of the book to Mangel’s dismissal of it, although his critical function is considerably greater than mine!  As I wrote above, however, this is my first Bolaño and it may be that I would view this differently if I were more familiar with him and his work.

One final point: there are numerous references to real literary personages and, in particular, Latin American figures.  I’m pretty ignorant on this and so I would imagine that if you have a working knowledge of the Latin American literary scene, you may well get much more of Bolaño’s wit.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Clearing the Backlog for the New Year

As alluded to in my post yesterday, I have a long list of books I read last year but never got round to reviewing.  There are about fifteen or so that I feel I actually do want to post about in due course but there are a number where I could write something but have no great desire to do so and, therefore, in the spirit of starting the year with a fairly clear review slate, here they are:

2,521: Origins of World War II by A.J.P. Taylor.  Fascinating and beautifully written account of the run-up to the outbreak of war in September 1939. This is one of the classic accounts and is a “must read” for anyone interested in the period.

2,520: Vendetta by Michael Dibdin.  Second in the Aurelio Zen detective series, this instalment sees Zen sent to Sardinia to investigate the murder of a politically connected businessman.  High quality detective fiction, majoring on the deceit and corrupt nature of Italian politics.

2,519:  Cabal by Michael Dibdin.  In this Zen novel, Aurelio has to get to grips with the intrigues and conspiracies of the Vatican.  Another top class outing for one of my favourite fictional detectives.

2,518:  Moral Combat by Michael Burleigh.  Highly readable and authoritative history of the Second World War from a moral standpoint.  The book does, therefore, present a different narrative arc than most general histories of the war with some major events dealt with briefly and more attention given to other aspects of the war with more moral complexity or ambiguity.  Burleigh is particularly good in his refutation of moral equivalency arguments.

2,517:  Three Nights in August by Buzz Bissinger.  Through the prism of a single three day mid-season series between the Chicago Cubs and the St Louis Cardinals, Bissinger analyses the mind of manager Tony La Russa and baseball in general.  Not as good as Bissinger’s classic Friday Night Lights but well worth a read for any baseball fan.

2,516:  Dead Lagoon by Michael Dibdin.  In Zen’s fourth outing, he goes home to Venice, ostensibly to investigate the disappearance of an American resident of the city, but, in reality, to get away from issues in his personal life in Rome.  He ends up having to deal with his past in a book that marks a shift in Dibdin’s coverage of deceit and hypocrisy in Italian life from the institutional to the personal.

2,515: Zoo Station by David Downing.   Above-average spy novel set in 1939 Germany and featuring an English journalist resident in Berlin who is forced to become a spy both for the Soviet Union and for Britain.  Not as good as either Philip Kerr or Alan Furst, it is OK but the loose ends were tied up a little too easily and there was not as much tension as I would have liked.

2,514:  The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605 by Antonia Fraser. This narrative history of the events leading up to the Plot and the aftermath was informative and readable. Fraser examines the extent to which Robert Cecil, King James’s First Minister, knew of the Plot beforehand and the roles played by the individual conspirators and their families.  I hadn’t realised how minor a figure Guy Fawkes really was, compared to Catesby.  Fraser is also very interesting on the role of women in Anglo-Catholic families of the time.

2,513:  First Into Action by Duncan Falconer.  Colourful account of one man’s life as a trooper in the SBS.  Interesting if you are into military stuff, otherwise not worth the time.

2,512:  Indemnity Only by Sara Paretsky.  The first in her detective series featuring wise-cracking, feisty PI Victoria “VI” Warshawski, this one sees VI investigating the murder of the son of a prominent Chicago banker and the disappearance of the daughter of a union leader.  Warshawski is one of the fictional feminist detectives of the 1980s and Paretsky is sometimes a little heavy-handed about discussing feminist issues through the storyline but it’s good stuff anyway.

2,511:  Deadlock by Sara Paretsky.  In this instalment, VI investigates the death of her cousin, former ice hockey star, “Boom Boom” Warshawski, who had been working in the grain shipping industry on the Great Lakes.  Good stuff.

2,510:  Killing Orders by Sara Paretsky.  For good or ill, the Catholic Church is always a good setting for a thriller or detective story and Paretsky makes good use of it by linking theft and forgery in a Chicago priory to a local gang boss.

2,509: Bitter Medicine by Sara Paretsky.  In this episode in the Warshawski series, Paretsky uses her detective to discuss the politics of abortion in 1980s America and the consequences of a private healthcare system.  Fortunately, Paretsky is skilled enough to let the story take precedence over the politics and social commentary.

2,508:  Decline and Fall by Chris Mullin.  The second of three volumes of diaries by former Sunderland MP, Chris Mullin, this instalment deals with the end times of the Blair-Brown governments.  As with his previous volume, this is full of sharp character sketches, witty commentary, warmth and generosity of spirit and should be read by anyone with an interest in British politics even if you don’t agree with all his views.  Highly enjoyable.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

2,522: Mr Dick or The Tenth Book by Jean-Pierre Ohl

When Charles Dickens died in June 1870, he left behind him the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood (or the MED, as fans are, apparently prone to refer to it).  Ever since then, frequent attempts to uncover the murderer of the mysterious disappeared title character have been made, both by contemporaries or near-contemporaries of Dickens or by more modern authors either in scholarly papers or in novel form.

Mr Dick or The Tenth Book is French debut author Jean-Pierre Ohl’s contribution to Droodiana and was awarded a number of French literary prizes before being translated into English by Christine Donougher.

Ohl’s main narrator is François Daumal, a Frenchman who, following the collapse of his parents’ marriage goes to live with his mother and maternal grandmother in a small French town.  One day he discovers the key to the attic of the house and enters the room in which his late grandfather had become a recluse before his death.  Daumal finds that the room is filled with badly bound books that his grandfather had collected and, whilst browsing, comes across a copy of Dickens’ David Copperfield which captivates him.

Daumal quickly develops an obsession with Dickens which leads him to become friend and then bitter rival with Michel Mangematin, a fellow student at the university in Bordeaux.  The two are fascinated by the unfinished MED and the lust to uncover the true conclusion drives both their lives in very different directions until the truth is revealed and lives and even identities are broken.

In truth, the very generalised synopsis I’ve just written (which is deliberately vague so as not to spoil the book for any of you who wish to read it) could equally lend itself to a run-of-the-mill pot-boiler. Instead, Ohl’s book is a very post-modern construct, in which the lines of reality and fantasy are blurred and which contains some marvellous mock scholarship.  The ending, in particular, featuring a party at a replica of Gad’s Hill Place, at which the attendees dress as characters from Dickens' novels and which Daumal describes whilst in a drunken state, verges on the surreal.  A standard "who killed Edwin Drood?" novel this ain't.  

There’s a Russian doll feel to Mr Dick as Ohl uses the technique of intertextuality to gradually draw together the various plot strands to the climax of the story.  At the core is the narrative of Daumal but this is interwoven with the journal of one Évariste Borel, supposedly a former protégé of George Sand, who tells of his visit to Dickens at Gad’s Hill Place shortly before the latter’s death, and an account by Arthur Conan Doyle (yes, that one) of his first attendance at a séance, at which the participants try to discover Dickens’ intentions for the MED.

Ohl also gives the book undertones of Dickens’ writing, despite the plot being set in the 20th Century.  Many of the characters are as baroque and unusual as those of Dickens, like Daumal’s sadistic grandmother, Sitting-Pretty, and the strange bookseller, Krook, who sits almost at the centre of Ohl’s narrative web in a Bordeaux bookshop that is hugely redolent of a Dickensian location.  There is even an echo of a key Dickens theme in the impoverished childhood of Daumal and his struggles to make a way for himself in life.

The book also takes a few swipes at the French literary preference for elegance and form over the cruder, bawdier but, arguably more vivid approach taken by Dickens.  Ohl has said in interviews that Dickens is viewed in France as little more than a children’s author by comparison to French figures such as Flaubert – a view Ohl himself disagrees with.

Mr Dick is a novel that requires the reader to concentrate and to think.  It is uneven in parts and the final few chapters seem a little rushed and confused but it is a rewarding and entertaining read.  I suspect that readers with some knowledge of Dickens will get more out of it than someone with no knowledge (although I will admit to not having read the MED) and, if post-modernism aggravates you, this may not be to your taste but otherwise, I would recommend it, especially in this bicentenary of Dickens’ birth.  It has piqued my interest in the MED  and its derivative sub-culture.

And the winner is....................

In my last Top Ten Tuesday post of 2011, I offered a prize of one of the books from my list of the ten books I'd like to give as Christmas presents.  The random number generator picked out Broche E.B. Fabian who said she'd like either Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries or Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar.

Broche - if you email your address to, I will arrange for your prize to be delivered to you, with my best wishes for a Happy New Year.

Goodbye 2011, Hello 2012

Well, it’s all over for another year.  The Christmas decorations are down, the presents have been put away, the chocolates, cheese and alcohol has been converted into excess weight and I am back at work.  It’s all a bit deflating really.  Falaise Towers looks bare without the tree, cards and baubles and, given the overwhelmingly negative and gloomy predictions, I am not exactly jumping for joy at the advent of 2012, despite it being the year of the London Olympics and Dickens' bicentenary.

On a brighter note, the Falaise Christmas was thoroughly enjoyable.  Santa Claus did his best to single-handedly revive the UK retail sector, my cooking seemed to go down well (even if I do say so myself) and the proverbial good time was had by all.  As for mini-Falaise, well she is in for a big shock this week as things get back to normal.  She has consumed her bodyweight in chocolate, received enough presents to transform her playroom into a Hamley’s warehouse and been treated to numerous theatre, panto and other outings.  She has also become a “face” at our local gastro-pub, where her stock order of sausages and chips, followed by strawberry ice-cream with a pot of sprinkles on the side with apple juice (and a separate cup of ice) gets punched into the order terminal as soon as she bundles her way over the threshold.  And woe betide the hapless server who gets any of it wrong, as mini-Falaise has developed a hard stare of which Paddington would be proud.

But enough about her great holiday season, let’s talk about me, me, me.  The Big Man in Red did me proud by leaving an iPad under the tree and it is fantastic.  He also managed to arrange for a cover and a wireless keyboard which will make my luggage on business trips much lighter as my chunky laptop can now stay home.  He also brought clothes, after-shave, kitchen gadgets and the complete Poirot on DVD.  It’s a sign of how sedate and middle-aged I have become that my first thought was how much I would enjoy watching them tucked up in bed at night.  How rock and roll am I?  Not very much at all.

Of more interest to you all, though, I am sure, is the literary booty that came my way.  And, in no particular order, my Christmas haul comprised:

1.         The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje.  Although I have a slightly ambivalent attitude to Ondaatje, the idea of the long passenger ship journey from Ceylon to England as seen through a boy’s eyes appeals to me very much.

2.         Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño.  I’m intrigued by this one as it has a very odd structure, being a fictional encyclopaedia of Latin American right-wing writers with Nazi sympathies or affiliations.

3.         The Shakespeare Thefts by Eric Rasmussen.  Of the known 160 Shakespeare First Folios catalogued in a 1902 census, 14 were subsequently stolen, of which only two have been recovered.  Rasmussen, a Shakespeare scholar, has written of the journey he has taken around the world to try and find out about the stolen copies.  Hopefully, this should be fun.

4.         The Myth of the Eastern Front by Ronald Smelser and Edward Davies II.  This one should be interesting but probably not fun.  It is a study of the way the Eastern Front of World War II was portrayed in American popular culture after the war and, in particular, the Cold War and German efforts encouraged a mistaken view that the Wehrmacht had fought a mostly “clean” war in the Soviet Union.

5.         Leith’s Vegetable Bible.  In an attempt to eat more healthily and to set mini-Falaise a better example, Mrs F and I are going to be trying to eat more veg this year and, in particular, be meat and fish-free three days per week.  Mrs F bought me this so I can get some more exciting ideas on how to make this interesting and tasty for us, as we are big meat eaters by choice.

6.         Vegetarian Dishes from the Middle East by Arto Der Haroutunian.  Does what the title suggests.  For reason, see 5 above.

In addition, I have been taking full advantage of Amazon’s Kindle daily deal and the 12 days of Kindle Christmas to fill up my Kindle with interesting looking books.  I have been trying to exercise restraint but, at between 99p and £1.99 per book, I am fairly easily persuaded not to do so.

I’ve give up with the whole New Year resolution thing.  Over the years, I’ve moved from classic resolutions to more limited goal setting to vague intentions but, having looked back at this time last year and, in particular, my stated reading and blogging intentions and aims, it is clear that I am absolutely hopeless at sticking to them.  So, rather than holding out hostages to fortune, I am simply not making or saying anything about this kind of thing in 2012.

I will, however, be doing a bit of mental spring cleaning to draw a line under 2011.  I have around 30 or so books that I read last year but didn’t post about.  Whatever my intentions may be, I am being realistic and accepting that I will never catch up with these properly so, with the exception of ten or so for which I have a specific idea, I will be putting up a post in the next few days, listing them so that they get included as part of my 2,606 books but will not bother writing a full post on any of them, thereby leaving me with a largely blank slate for this year.

I hope you too had a wonderful holiday season, that you received some good books and that you also managed to fit in some reading time around the festivities.  I’d also like to thank you for reading this blog in 2011 and to wish you all health, happiness and success in 2012.