Wednesday, November 20, 2013

2,335: The 500 by Matthew Quirk

Mike Ford, the hero of The 500, journalist Mathew Quirk's debut novel, has a troubled family history - his father’s in jail for burglary and his mother’s dead.  But Mike has drive, ambition and brains so he’s managed to work his way through Harvard Law School and he’s landed an extraordinary job in a strategic consulting firm in Washington DC.  It pays well, his every need is catered for and all he has to do is to keep churning out the 90 hour weeks.

There’s only a couple of slight snags - his two bosses, immediate supervisor William Marcus and founder of the firm, Henry Davies, are a little mysterious, a bit cloak and dagger and some of the things the firm gets up to seem just a little close to the edge.  And as Mike begins to stick his nose into things he has been expressly warned off, it soon begins clear that the Davies Group is not just sailing close to the wind, it is involved in some very nasty and very illegal activities.

Now, at this point, I would be amazed if any thriller readers over the age of about 30 amongst you are not screaming “It’s just like The Firm”.  And, indeed you’d be correct.  For much of The 500, the plotting similarities between this and John Grisham’s genre classic are so apparent that they come very close to spoiling the book - especially as one of the blurbs (by James Patterson, no less) on the front cover expressly refers to Grisham’s book.

Personally, I think this is a slightly risky strategy, given the success, both critical and financial, of The Firm.  It invites comparison and sets a tough benchmark for The 500, which it doesn’t quite meet.

It’s a gripping read, nicely paced and with plenty of action.  I whipped through it in pretty short order and it held my attention until the last page.  Mike comes from a criminal background and is, himself, a reformed thief.  Quirk uses this background well, giving convincing descriptions of the craft and skills of the burglar and con-man.  There’s also an authentic feel to the scenes in which Davies Group staff use their leverage to influence politicians and other influential Washingtonians and, although I’ve only visited DC once, The 500 has a strong sense of place.

On the downside, Quirk ends up relying too much on Mike’s history and criminal skills to get him out of trouble, which becomes slightly repetitive at times; it’s almost as if he’s got all this knowledge and really wants to share it which is all well and good, but, sometimes, less is more.

There is also a little too much coincidence and convenience in the plotting - at one point, Mike breaks into a storage unit he had previously broken into years earlier and finds that the owner is still using it to store the same burglary tools.  The revelation of key pieces of information is also a little heavy-handedly planned out, with characters knowing just the right kind and amount of information for that point in the narrative.

These flaws don’t make The 500 a bad book - it’s a well-written, enjoyable thriller and much better than the average genre novel.  What they do result in, however, is a thriller that doesn’t quite match up to The Firm, a classic of its type.  Which isn't a bad result at all.

I'd like to thank Headline for sending me a review copy of The 500........and apologise for the inordinate amount of time it's taken for me to get round to reading and reviewing it!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

2,337-2,336: Two Books on Psychiatry and War Crimes Trials

Two things first opened my mind as a teenager to the possibility of becoming a lawyer: the incomparable Rumpole of the Bailey, John Mortimer’s Falstaffian defender of freedom, lost causes and the Timson clan and the Nuremberg war trials, which formed the subject of my History O-level project.

The Nuremberg trials, as well as being fascinating from a legal point of view, given the novelty of both the idea of such a trial and some of the charges with which the defendants were charged, were a crystallising moment in history, a period where the crimes of Hitler’s Germany were first brought to the attention of the world and were documented in forensic detail.  To those of us now accustomed to seeing archive footage of the concentration camps and other atrocities, it may be difficult to grasp the shock and impact of this but the showing of film of the camps at the trial formed one of its most dramatic events – a moment where some of the chief architects of Nazi Germany were confronted with their most obscene ‘achievements’.

Douglas Kelley was a US Army psychiatrist assigned the task of maintaining the mental health of the defendants before and during the trial.  A driven achiever with a complex family background, he also assigned himself the task of analysing the defendants to try and determine whether the leading Nazis were mentally abnormal, implying that the Nazi regime was a unique historical phenomenon, or whether they were, in fact, normal, raising the chilling conclusion that, given the correct conditions, regimes similar to Nazi Germany could arise almost anywhere.

Jack El-Hai’s The Nazi and the Psychiatrist deals admirably with this argument, whilst also containing a biography of Kelley who, in an eerie echo, was to commit suicide by cyanide, the same method as his chief patient at Nuremberg, Hermann Goering, had used to cheat the gallows.
Given that Kelley’s personal background and life was so full and complex, and that his tenure at Nuremberg and interactions with the Nazis could itself have filled a book, it should come as no surprise that The Nazi and the Psychiatrist is, whilst an excellent read, slightly unsatisfying, falling somewhere between a number of stools, being part-biography, part reportage and part analysis.

Everyone who reads The Nazi and the Psychiatrist will find something of interest, whether in Kelley’s life, his relationships with Goering and Hess or the conclusions he draws.  I was less interested in Kelley’s personal life than in an objective account of his work at Nuremberg.  In particular, having read both his account of his time there and the account written by his colleague and rival, Gustave Gilbert, I was most interested in the account of their rivalry and the different conclusions they reached about the defendants.  Gilbert viewed the chief Nazis as psychotic and abnormal, giving a comforting message to America that Nazi Germany was unique.  Kelley concluded the opposite and spent much time lecturing and speaking on how similar things could happen in America and elsewhere.  El-Hai’s synopsis of the controversy and its development over the years is excellent.

By contrast, A Curious Madness, sticks more closely to the personal.  Its author, Eric Jaffe, is the grandson of US Army neuropsychiatrist, Daniel Jaffe.  After having served in Germany during the final months of WWII, Jaffe was posted to Tokyo, where he was asked to determine whether Okawa Shumei, a leading Japanese nationalist thinker, was mentally fit to stand trial at the Tokyo war crimes trial, the ‘other Nuremberg’ about which we in the UK at any rate, know far less.  Although initially indicted, Shumei’s behaviour in custody had been erratic and, when, during the first days of the trial, he slapped former Prime Minister Tojo on the head, the President of the Court ordered a psychiatric evaluation.

Jaffe determined that Okawa was unfit to stand trial and he was transferred to hospital, where he completed a Japanese translation of the Koran and made a seemingly miraculous recovery.  Re-examined by two psychiatrists who came to different views on his mental state, there has always been a school of thought that believes Okawa was feigning madness and fooled Jaffe.

The starting point of the book is Jaffe’s attempt both to find out more about his grandfather and finally to answer the question of whether his grandfather’s assessment had been correct.  A Curious Madness develops into the interwoven biographies of both Daniel Jaffe and Okawa Shumei and touches on many broader and fascinating subjects such as the early days of psychiatric engagement by the US military and its theories on the treatment of combat fatigue and the development of Japanese conservative nationalist thought in the period up to WWII.  Jaffe’s focus is clearly on his grandfather which enables him to maintain the balance of A Curious Madness towards the biographical.

If I’m perfectly honest, I preferred The Nazi and Psychiatrist to A Curious Madness (although both are well worth reading).  In part this is because I am so much more familiar with the Nuremberg trials and the personalities of the former – I may have enjoyed the latter more had I read more on the Tokyo war crimes trial first.  I was also less interested in the personal biographies of the psychiatrists and more interested in their work and conclusions – readers with more of a biographical bent may have a different view.  Consequently, although I believe Eric Jaffe does a better job of focusing his story, I found El-Hai’s book more to my taste.

For those interested in World War Two or the development of criminal psychiatry, these books are well worth reading and thoroughly recommended.  For the more general reader, they may be a little specialised and off-beat, although they are still good reads and should also appeal to the general lover of biographies.

I would like to thank Scribner and Perseus Book Group for allowing me to read A Curious Madness and The Nazi and the Psychiatrist respectively via NetGalley.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

2,338: Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is the result of the commissioning of Sebastian Faulks by P.G. Wodehouse’s literary estate to write a new official Jeeves and Wooster novel.  To be fair to Mr Faulks, a fine author when using his own voice, it’s a pretty tall order to try and follow one of the greatest stylists of English literature.  Does he carry it off?  Well, in this Wodehouse fan’s opinion, not quite.  Does this make it a bad book?  Not at all.  It’s just that it’s not Wodehouse.

It opens with Bertie carrying out (or rather trying to carry out) a most unusual task – making a cup of tea, a turn of events that becomes even stranger when it transpires that he is taking said cuppa to Jeeves, who is in bed of all places.  We gradually find out that Bertie and Jeeves are at Melbury Hall, the country pile belonging to Sir Henry Hackwood, an impoverished baronet hoping to save himself by marrying his ward, Georgiana, off to a wealthy (but dull) man.

But things aren’t as they should be.  For Jeeves is pretending to be Lord Etringham and Bertie is masquerading as Wilberforce Berkeley, his Lordship’s valet in an attempt to save another set of impending nuptials – those of Amelia Hackwood, Sir Henry’s daughter, and Beeching P., a childhood friend of Bertie’s.

As can be guessed even from the brief lead-in I’ve given, plenty of Wodehousean hi-jinks ensue.  We get impersonations, break-ins, a village cricket match and fete, romantic mix-ups and the ghastly presence of two of Aunt Agatha’s old school-friends.

There is plenty to enjoy in Jeeves and the Wedding Bells both in terms of plotting, set pieces and language.  Mr Faulks adopts many of Wodehouse’s stylistic tricks with some success and, all in all, it’s a pleasant and easy read.

On the other hand, the pacing isn’t quite right.  The first part of the book was sluggish in comparison to Wodehouse but warms up in the second part, which has a much lighter and sparkly feel to it and it is more a reflection on the genius of Wodehouse than anything else to say that Mr Faulk’s imitation of Wodehouse’s style seems slightly laboured by comparison.

One of the interesting features of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is that the main characters are imbued with more psychological depth than in the original novels.  We see far more of both Jeeves and Wooster’s inner lives than we ever did in Wodehouse’s stories and, indeed, there is almost a slightly sombre feel to parts of the book, with both Bertie and Georgiana referring to the deaths of their parents on occasion and Jeeves telling the story of his (real life) namesake, a cricketer who dies in the First World War.  This is not the only reference to the war, as Georgiana’s parents turn out to have died on the Lusitania, sunk by a U-boat.  It’s a different approach to Wodehouse’s world – not necessarily a criticism but certainly a real point of difference.

The most jarring moment for me, and I accept that, in matters Wodehouse, I am a near-fundamentalist, comes at the end of the book.  As usual, I am trying to avoid spoilers and so can’t expand on this cryptic comment save to say that Mr Faulks goes where Wodehouse would never have trodden with Bertie and Jeeves.

Mr Faulks is a self-confessed Wodehouse aficionado and bills Jeeves and the Wedding Bells as an homage to Wodehouse.  He makes the good point that he wanted to avoid parodying the master or just writing a pale imitation and he has achieved that.  His differentiation may not always work for me but I can appreciate what he is doing.  I also want to reiterate – this is a good book; I enjoyed it greatly but probably had invested too much hope in it for it ever to satisfy me fully.

Interestingly, Mr Faulks says that the Wodehouse estate want the book to attract a new generation of Wodehouse fans.  Hopefully, the publicity surrounding the new book will achieve this.  I can’t help feeling though that new readers would do far better to grab a copy of, say, The Mating Season or The Code of the Woosters.  I actually believe it is the old lags who will find Jeeves and the Wedding Bells most interesting.

Consequently, having thanked Random House for allowing me to read this via Netgalley, I’d like to end by recommending it as an interesting read to those familiar with the original, whilst strongly encouraging the curious neophyte to go straight to the fons et origo of Jeeves and Wooster before returning to Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.