Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Super Sleuths

I wasn’t sure what genre to choose for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday from the Broke and the Bookish, which requires us to list ten favourite characters from a chosen genre but, in the end, I plumped for detective fiction as I am quite partial to a good mystery.

So, eyes down and here we go………….

1.         Sherlock Holmes.  Even more “Da Man” than Tiger Woods, Holmes is an icon, the archetype master detective who bestrides the genre like a colossus.  Can you tell that I like him?

2.         Hercule Poirot.  I’ve been a fan of the dapper Belgian and his legendary little grey cells ever since I was a young boy, devouring Agatha Christie novels as quickly as I could get hold of them.

3.         Father Brown.  Another classic detective, although the stories focus more on the human condition and issues of personal morality than on the “whodunit” element.

4.         Lord Peter Wimsey.  He may be a bit posh but he’s another classic.  If truth be told, as with many of the classic detectives, I actually tend to prefer the short stories over the novels (with the exception of Gaudy Night).

5.         Commissario Guido Brunetti.  The Venice-set novels of Donna Leon are a treat and especially so for the foodie bits and the relationships between the recurring characters.  Some of the more recent ones have been a little hit-and-miss as Leon has occasionally focused more on the themes she wants to explore and less on the storytelling.  Nevertheless, one of my favourites and one of the few authors whose books I always pre-order.

6.         Bruno, Chef de Police.  Bruno, the village policeman of St Denis, in La France Profonde, is a relatively new discovery for me but a real joy.  Martin Walker’s novels are gentle and ooze with local atmosphere.  He is also very good on food descriptions (which, as you can tell, is a subject close to my heart) and on the relationships between the series regulars.  If you haven’t read anything by Walker and you like detective stories, you should try one.

7.         Dr Siri Paiboun.  A 60-something ex-Laotian revolutionary and Laos’ sole coroner in the era immediately following the communist overthrow of the French and royalist regimes, the hero of Colin Cotterill’s series is disreputable, unruly, inhabited by the spirit of a 1000 year old shaman and very, very enjoyable.  An easy read, the novels make for excellent light reading.

8.         Inspector Roderick Alleyn.  Despite the 1990s TV adaptation with the excellent Patrick Malahide, Ngaio Marsh’s aristocratic copper remains out of fashion and, in my opinion, unfairly ignored.

9.         Dave Robicheaux.  Recovering alcoholic and good old boy from the Louisiana bayou, Robicheaux is the star of James Lee Burke’s phenomenally good series, set in and around New Orleans.  They are dark, occasionally violent and absolutely drip with local colour and atmosphere.

10.       Tim Cone.  Cone is the hero of two books by Lawrence Sanders, set in 1980s.  Cone is a scruffy, rough-edged PI who investigates financial crimes in New York.  He’s a little unusual but a great character of whom I wish Lawrence had written more.

Argh, this is terrible.  I’ve had my ten and haven’t even scratched the surface of my favourite detectives.  No room here for the likes of Tintin, Jonathan Argyll and Flavia di Stefano, Hawk and Fisher, Inspector Singh, Hemes Diaktoros, Cadfael, Morse or any of a hundred others.  Can we do this again sometime, please?

Monday, February 18, 2013

2,466: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Nominally, The Imperfectionists is a novel set in a failing international newspaper, based in Rome but staffed mainly by expat Americans.  Owned by a wealthy but, in the main, absent or dilettante-ish, family, the paper has been allowed to meander its own sweet way through the second half of the 20th Century, starved of proper investment and singularly failing to adapt to the digital world.

In reality, though, it’s the story of a dysfunctional family, filled with failures, has-beens and eccentrics, held together by the apparently fragile but actually strong bond of the newspaper.  Tom Rachman’s excellent first novel gives us eleven slices of the newspaper’s life, held together by a narrative of the paper’s history.  It’s funny, sad and a vein of acid runs through it.

I enjoyed the way the separate stories, each capable of their own existence, were entwined with each other through the medium of the characters’ relationship to the paper and to each other - although each story has its own lead character, they appear and reappear through the pages, interfering in or observing the lives of others on the staff.

Rachman’s stories extend beyond the world of the paper into the secret lives and dreams of the protagonists.  We see the break-down of marriages, the deaths of careers and the realisation of failure but, underlying all of these, the near addiction of the journalists and editors to their craft, an art that is slowly being killed by the explosion of the internet and the rise of the citizen journalist and blogger.

To give you a flavour of the stories without spoiling the twists in the tale that most of them have, Rachman tells us about the washed up news hack living in Paris, cuckolded by his wife but endlessly chasing that one big scoop that will turn his life around.  We meet the American ingénue, wandering around Cairo like a lost lamb auditioning for a minor job with the paper.  The paper’s business writer is so desperate to keep hold of her boyfriend that she puts up with him stealing from her.  A junior sub-editor is so starved of affection that she ends up stalking a man who kissed her once.

At times, The Imperfectionists reads almost like an elegy for a lost era of journalism.  There’s a gentle melancholy that pervades its pages and colours the lives of its protagonists.  It’s prevented from slipping into a kind of maudlin “had one too many drinks” tone, however, by a pleasing touch of acid in the twists that accompany each story.  I had almost finished it when I suddenly realised why there was an air of familiarity about it.  Have you ever read Roald Dahl’s adult short stories such as Switch Bitch and Tales of the Unexpected?  Each of those has the same kind of acid and the same kind of twist as The Imperfectionists.  I can think of few greater accolades for Rachman than to say that he shows a similar finesse to Dahl in the way he avoids descending into cruelty to his characters for the sake of it - there’s a lovely balance between humour, humanity and sharpness.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Imperfectionists and would recommend it unreservedly.

If you’d like to see what other book bloggers thought of it, try these:  Book Diva's Book Reviews & NewsLara's Book ClubRhapsody in BooksLeeswammes' BlogAvid Reader's MusingsLiterary Lindsay and The Sleepless Reader.

If you have also posted on The Imperfectionists and would like me to link you here, please let me know.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

2,467: A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

For the benefit of those of you outside the UK, January saw two new adaptations of favourite authors of mine hit the nation’s TV screens, courtesy of the BBC.  One of them, Blandings, based on the P.G. Wodehouse Blandings Castle stories was, I’m afraid to say, simply execrable and only served to reaffirm my belief that Wodehouse is almost impossible to capture authentically on screen, with only Fry and Laurie’s Jeeves and Wooster having come close.

The other, however, an adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, was actually quite watchable and drove me to dip into the original stories again to see how faithful the TV series had been (answer: not very, but just about enough).  Sitting next to my copy of The Complete Father Brown on my Kindle was my copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes and, my memory having been jogged, I’ve begun to re-read the Holmes canon, starting at the very beginning with A Study in Scarlet.

The first time I read it, getting on for 30 years ago now, I’d struggled with it, finding it awkward and heavy going and, although it seemed an easier read now (maybe because I read the second half in the middle of the night during a bout of insomnia), I still don’t think it’s the best introduction to the great detective as a novel, save that the actual introduction of Holmes to both Watson and the reader is a classic moment in literature.

I can’t help but see a similarity between A Study in Scarlet and “origin” stories in superhero films and comics or introductory episodes in TV series.  Although I have no idea of whether Conan Doyle intended at the time that Holmes would be a recurring hero, the book’s main purpose seems (at least in retrospect) to establish Holmes and Watson and to create the tropes of Holmes’s persona.  As well as the first glimpses of his extraordinary powers of observation and deduction (including the legendary first meeting of the pair), there is a lengthy internal discussion by Watson of Holmes’s character traits and areas of knowledge.  As a detective novel, however, even allowing for the infancy of the genre and accepting that A Study in Scarlet is more influence on the genre than influenced by it, it is, frankly, not great.

For a start, it singularly fails to comply with the accepted rules of classic detective fiction, especially rule number one of S.S. van Dine’s celebrated exposition of those rules:

“1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.”

Not the case here - indeed, the reader is not even introduced to the murderer until Holmes captures him and the religious background that creates the motive for the murders isn't revealed until after the unmasking of the perpetrator.

Now, I don’t actually ever consciously attempt to solve the crimes in the detective novels I read; I much prefer to follow the detective’s journey than to make my own.  So, I can forgive this solecism, especially as A Study in Scarlet was written at the beginnings of the genre.

What I find much more annoying, however, is the sudden switch from Watson’s first person narrative to the all-seeing third person narrative of the second part, a transition that also sees Conan Doyle adopt a slower, more descriptive and, let’s face it, duller style when describing the events in the American West that formed the genesis of the murders in England.
Leaving aside the virulently hostile treatment of the Mormon church, this section weighs the book down and acts as a brake on its momentum.  It’s interesting to note that if this section were removed and the pertinent facts somehow incorporated into the remaining text, we’d be left with something more like an extended short story or a novella than a full-fledged novel which I would cite as support for my view that Conan Doyle and Holmes are usually more comfortable within the structure and length of a short story than they are in the four full-length Holmes novels.

I was, however, glad to be reminded that Watson is nothing like the dull-witted but loyal friend he has often been depicted as in screen adaptations.  Indeed, he is actually portrayed as being an intelligent individual as well as being courageous and decent.  It may be that directors and screenwriters are over-zealous in drawing both Holmes and Watson as distinct characters and creating easy identifiers for viewers, but the truth is that both are more subtle than we tend to give them credit for.

Overall, A Study in Scarlet is notable for the first meeting of detective fiction’s leading partnership and for its standing as an influential early detective story but it is somewhat flawed and, I would contend, far from the best of Holmes and Watson.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

2,468: Ghostman by Roger Hobbs

“There are maybe thirty people on earth who know I exist, and I am not sure if all of them believe I’m still alive.”

I’m not an envious person by nature. I don’t tend to covet things or feel jealous of the success of others or their lifestyle.  I am, however, just the teensiest bit jealous of Roger Hobbs, who has produced an absolutely first-class thriller as his debut novel, at the tender age of 24.  I would love to have a distinctive and mature writing voice like him.  I’d really love to have his originality and sense of structure.  And I’d really, really love to have come up with the concept of Ghostman by Roger Hobbs, which was kindly sent to me by Transworld and which will be published in the UK by Bantam Press on 14th February.

Ghostman (for we never learn his real name) is a bank robber by trade.  His particular speciality is becoming invisible by adopting different characters and personas.  In fact, he is so invisible that no one really knows who he is.  Once the job is done, he vanishes, leaving no traces.  No one knows his name, where he lives or even what he really looks like.  For much of Ghostman he is known as Jack so we’ll stick with that for now.

The story begins with an Atlantic City casino robbery gone wrong and the robbers either dead or seriously wounded.  The brains behind the robbery (known as the “jugmaker”) is a man to whom Jack owes a favour and so he is despatched to find out what went wrong and to clean things up so the robbery can’t be traced back to its planner.  But, arriving in Atlantic City, he immediately finds himself watched by the FBI and caught between two crime lords, one of whom is chillingly ruthless.

I’m not going to say any more than that about the plot as I don’t want to risk spoiling it for those of you who are going to read it, which should be any of you who enjoy heist thrillers.

Hobbs has come up with a nice twist in having a “bad guy” as his hero.  Jack is a career criminal who is perfectly capable of wounding and killing if necessary.  Although he won’t kill unless he has to, he is not some kind of rough diamond or criminal with a heart of gold.  He’s cold and amoral - it’s just that his enemies are much worse.  One of the reasons this is such a good book is that despite all this, we end up rooting for Jack to win through.

Although there’s plenty of high quality action - car chases, shootouts and the like, all of which are well-paced and judged, the real pleasure is the attention given to the mechanics and tradecraft that Jack employs as a ghostman, both in Atlantic City and in his backstory, which is told in flashback and is cleverly split up through the narrative.

As I mentioned above, Hobbs is a 24 year old college graduate and this makes the believability of the novel even more remarkable.  The level of detail and apparent background knowledge would lead one to believe that Hobbs had done some pretty in depth research.  Whether he has or not, I totally bought into it.
For those of you who are interested in that kind of thing, the film rights have already been acquired by Warner Bros for almost a million dollars and I can see why - this will make a storming film provided they cast Jack right (i.e. NOT Tom Cruise, for the love of God!)

I haven’t felt so enthusiastic about a thriller in ages - this is absolutely first class and if you read thrillers and don’t buy this, you will really be missing out.  Hard-hitting, clever and wildly original, I think we will hear a lot more from Roger Hobbs in the future.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: Shhhh, I'm having a moment

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, brought to us by the Broke and the Bookish, requires us to list ten of our top bookish moments. So, in no particular order……….

1.         Christmas with Orwell.  I’ve posted about this before here, but one of my fondest childhood bookish moments was waking up in the early hours of Christmas morning to find that Santa Claus had left a stocking containing not only a copy of Animal Farm but also a torch.  The combination of surreptitious reading under the covers and discovering Orwell for the first time is difficult to beat.  Thanks, Santa.

2.         A Day at the beach with Agatha.  From the ages of about 10 to 13, I was hooked on Agatha Christie and I can remember one particular summer holiday, in Cornwall, during a particularly “English” summer.  My parents bought me a copy of Poirot’s Early Cases (the one with the Affair of the Victory Ball) and I absolutely devoured it while huddling on a chilly beach or sitting in the car on interminable journeys around the South West.  I have very fond memories of that holiday and a Christie book still transports me back to a lovely time in my childhood.

3.         Other people read Tolkien too.  Having loved The Hobbit as a child and then having discovered The Lord of the Rings by half-inching (stealing, for all you non-Brits) The Fellowship of the Rings from my parents’ book cabinet, I soon was completely obsessed with Middle Earth.  And then, I went on a prep school trip to Switzerland for a two-week intensive French course.  The group from one of the other participating prep schools included a few kids who were into Dungeons and Dragons, which I had never even heard of at the time, and I wound up in a massive argument with one of them about the physical appearance of orcs during the course of which I discovered that he and the others in the group had all read LotR too.  I was amazed.  Other people read Tolkien?  It had never crossed my mind that he could be anything other than my own personal secret.  I was half-delighted and half-appalled but the feeling of revelation has stuck in my mind.  Rereading this, I must have been a complete nerd.  Oh well.

4.         Chewing the fat with Hunter.  Up until 2006, Charing Cross Road was the home to one of London’s best bookshops.  Actually, it was, and is still, home to several of London’s best bookshops but the one I’m thinking of was Sportspages, which did exactly what the tin said and specialised in books about sport and exercise.  For me, one of its main attractions was its collection of books and magazines on US sports (of which I am a big fan - Celtics, Dolphins, Red Sox and Bruins if you’re interested).  Anyway, one afternoon, I was in there and noticed that Hunter Davies was talking to one of the assistants whom I knew slightly.  For those of you who haven’t heard of him, Hunter Davies is, in my opinion, one of the best British generalist journalists and authors of the late 20th Century.  As well as writing the only authorised biography of the Beatles, he wrote one of the most acclaimed books about English football, The Glory Game, and for many years was a brilliant columnist for Punch (which is where I first came across him).  I shamelessly inserted myself into the conversation and spent a splendid ten minutes chatting about the then soon-to-be-published autobiography of Paul Gascoigne, which he had ghost-written.  Great writer, lovely man, nice memory.

5.         Lying for Asterix.  I love Asterix and Obelix.  Always have done.  In book form, album form and film form.  Tintin comes a close second but Asterix is my favourite comic strip character.  Unfortunately, my parents, being quiet strict on that kind of thing did not approve of comics.  I was allowed an educational magazine called Look and Learn (which had one sneaky little comic strip in the middle) and football magazines but no comics.  Not the Beano or Whizzer and Chips.  Not Spiderman or Superman.  Not even Commando or Dandy.  But Asterix nevertheless gave me two great moments.  The first was on a shopping trip when my Mum offered to buy me a book.  The shop had some Asterix books.  Not the usual large album format but in a paperback book format, compact and with the illustrations in black and white.  I picked up Asterix at the Olympic Games and accompanied Mum to the till, taking care to keep hold of the book until it was time to hands it over to the assistant.  And then, dear Reader, unlike George Washington I told a lie.  On questioning from the female parent, I successfully claimed that it wasn’t a comic strip but a written Asterix story.  Who says crime doesn’t pay?

6.         Sneaking off with Arthur Dent.  I went to a prep school in a small village with plenty of countryside around it.  There was a local drag hunt (no foxes involved!) that sometimes used to ask the school for a couple of volunteers to follow the hunt to make sure that none of the hounds got separated from the pack and lost.  One Sunday, a friend and I volunteered and duly set off.  After an hour or so (it was a cold autumn day), we decided we’d had enough so we bunked off.  Fortunately, my friend lived close by and so we went back to his farmhouse, where, after getting hold of tea and biscuits, he put on a tape recording of some the BBC radio adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  It was a wonderful afternoon and my first introduction to Arthur, Zaphod and Marvin.

7.         Getting wrecked with the Inklings.  Well not the Inklings themselves, obviously, but with their shades at any rate.  The Eagle and Child (or Baby and Bird as it was, ever so wittily, known to us students) on St Giles in Oxford was the pub where Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and friends would convene for beer and the reading of their manuscripts.  I used to go there occasionally during my student days and, just occasionally, would get a little thrilled feeling at sitting in the same place where the great men had sat 40 years earlier.

8.         Can I bend the rules a little for Lord Peter?  I think I’m stretching the topic a little far with this one but here goes.  During those same student days, I read all of Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books.  Gaudy Night was a particular favourite, set as it was in Oxford and Edward Petherbridge, a wonderful actor, had only recently played Wimsey in a TV adaptation of that novel.  I had decided to attend a Hallowe’en party in the guise of Dracula and wanted to do it properly so I hired a heavy black cape from a local theatrical dress shop to go with the evening wear, make-up and fangs.  On the evening, I was about to put it on when I caught a quick glimpse of the label inside.  On it was written the word, “Petherbridge”.  Not a common name, I suspect and so I think I was not acting unreasonably to believe it was the cloak worn in the programme.  I have to confess, this really did chuff me and I’m still quite tickled by it now.  Odd really.

9.         A new family tradition.  This is actually a few moments wrapped into one.  Every Christmas Eve since she was born, I have sat mini-Falaise on my lap on the rocking chair in our living room and solemnly read her The Night Before Christmas.  Although she enjoys it, I suspect I enjoy it more, just the feeling of my over-excited and still innocent daughter snuggled up with me on the eve of Christmas.  Very special and I am not looking forward to the time when she decides she’s too old for it.

10.       The dawn of a new age.  Recently, I decided to see if mini-Falaise was at a stage where she was prepared to start having a longer book as her bedtime story, spread over a number of days.  I chose Roald Dahl’s Matilda as my experimental book as she loves the story and is obsessed with the character.  Well, it’s been working and I got all choked up the other day when I came home and she demanded “more pages of Matilda” with some force.  We’ve nearly finished and she has already decided she wants Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, one of my childhood favourites, next.