Monday, July 21, 2014

2,219: To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild

During this centenary year of the outbreak of World War One, I’ve been reading a number of books about the War and its causes.  One of these, Adam Hochschild’s To End all Wars approaches the subject of this terrible event from a slightly different angle to most.  As is clear from the following quote, Hochschild’s sympathies are clear:

“"If we were allowed to magically roll back history to the start of the 20th century and undo one – and only one – event, is there any doubt that it would be the war that broke out in 1914?

To Hochschild, an historian of a pacifist inclination, World War One was an unnecessary folly, from which no good but an inordinate amount of evil came.  His book tells this story, and the story of the War, by focusing on those who stood up to protest against the War or who refused to participate.  The book’s subtitle is “How the First World War Divided Britain” and the author attempts to demonstrate this be contrasting the stories of dissenters with those of willing participants and supporters of the War.

Fascinatingly, many of the individuals he features were linked together by ties of family or friendship.  One of the book’s villains, Sir John French, commander of the BEF was, to Hochschild’s mind, a snobbish incompetent, calmly throwing away the lives of thousands of ordinary soldiers in misconceived attacks.  Yet his sister, Charlotte Despard, a suffragette and socialist activist, was a bitter opponent of the War, forming the Women’s Peace Crusade.  What is even more amazing is that the two siblings remained close and affectionate throughout the War, only becoming estranged when French, as Commander in Chief, Home Forces, suppressed the Easter Rising, much to the disgust of Despard, a SinnFein member.

Another tortured family relationship explored by Hochschild was that of the Pankhurst sisters, all leaders in the suffragette movement.  Whereas Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst believed that the German aggression was a threat to all humanity and felt that cooperating with the Government might also help their cause after the War, Sylvia and Adela, Emmeline’s other daughters took the polar opposite view.  The family became irretrievably fractured.

But Hochschild also explores other, lesser-known dissenters, such as the bizarre story of Alice Wheeldon, a committed pacifist and second-hand clothes dealer in Derby.  A forceful anti-war campaigner and a harbourer of draft-dodgers, she, together with two other family members, was convicted of plotting to assassinate the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, an accusation that was, almost certainly, trumped up by Government agents.

Hochschild reinforces his message with the grim and, even now, nearly incomprehensible statistics of death and destruction.  To give just some examples, he points out that half of all Frenchmen aged between 20 and 32 at the outbreak of war were dead by Armistice Day in 1918, that 9 million soldiers died and 21 million were wounded (including one of my great-grandfathers) and that nearly a million soldiers from Britain and its Empire perished.  One of the most shocking comments he makes is that:

"If the British dead alone were to rise up and march 24 hours a day past a given spot, four abreast, it would take them more than two and a half days."

To End All Wars is written with a passion and, indeed, compassion, that makes it intensely moving and a pleasure to read.  As a history of the War, it must be said that it doesn’t add a huge amount to the forest of First World War histories on the market but its account of British dissent during the War is a valuable additional to the general literature.

The main issue I have with it though is that it doesn’t really reflect the truth.  Although the dissenters and objectors were impassioned and brave and, although a case can be made (albeit not a conclusive one) that they were, ultimately, correct, they didn’t truly divide Britain.

One of the standard narratives of the War, influenced probably by the ubiquity of the likes of Owen, Sassoon and Graves on British school syllabuses, is that of an initially enthusiastic country becoming more and more disillusioned and hostile to the War as the casualties mounted and the horrors of the trenches became known.  But, nevertheless, the country and the army held together until the end.  There was no serious risk of giving up; Hochschild’s sub-title simply isn’t borne out by the facts.  The dissenters may well have had a case but they had very little substantive impact.

Despite this flaw, To End All Wars is a worthwhile read.  It may give undue prominence to the anti-War movements but it reminds us of the suffering caused by War and the global tragedy of a generation cut down in its prime.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

2,220: Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes

It’s August 2011 and, on a patch of wasteland somewhere in Berlin, a disoriented Adolf Hitler is just waking up, dressed in full uniform and with his last memories being of sitting with Eva Braun in the Führerbunker and showing her his gun.  He also has an odd headache in his temple.  As the back cover of Look Who’s Back says, “He’s back…and he’s Führious.”

Look Who’s Back was a surprise bestseller for author Timur Vermes in Germany, selling 1.5 million copies.  It’s a satire on the media, both print and screen, and on contemporary German politics (although the point of the satire could be equally applied to many Western democracies).

As Hitler emerges from his 65 years or so of hibernation, he is, not unnaturally, assumed to be a Hitler impersonator and, owing to the fact that he is, actually, the real McCoy, a brilliant impersonator at that.  He quickly attracts the attention of the producers of a sketch show presented by a Turkish immigrant and is given a guest slot.  His rants, perceived to be witty commentary on modern Germany, are an instant hit and his popularity goes from strength to strength, although his insistence on remaining in character causes some unease and frustration.

Much of the comedy derives from the belief of the TV executives that Hitler’s rants about immigrants, modern Germany and his plans for the future are actually clever skewerings of those who actually do think that way.  One highly effective episode has Hitler doorstepping the HQ of a German far-right political party and, by raging at the spotty youth who works there and its corpulent and ineffectual leader, unintentionally ridiculing it.  His bosses at the TV company are delighted both at his success and at the controversy he stirs up, including some who believe he is a Jewish comedian, sending Hitler up with his bizarre perorations, in which he declaims with Messianic fervour before concluding on a truly banal note.

The venality and ingratiating nature of contemporary politicians also come in for some attention from the author.  Following a hilarious TV interview with a leading Green politician, Hitler is amused (but not surprised) to find himself being wooed by all the major German parties.  His views may be distasteful but he is popular after all.

One of the issues with Look Who’s Back is the slightly scattergun approach to its satirical targets.  Is Mr Vermes going after the media (there is a suitably bilious portrayal of Bild, the influential tabloid), the politicians, the German far-right, Hitler himself or modern German society?  It’s a little unfocused and, I believe, suffers as a result.  At times, it’s unclear who we’re supposed to be laughing at.

This problem is most acute in the depiction of Hitler himself.  Far from a monster, he comes across as a curmudgeonly and slightly loopy grandfather type, bemused by the new Germany and bewildered by the sight of women clearing up after their dogs with plastic bags and teenagers glued to their phones.  In particular, Vermes struggles with the elephant in the room in any portrayal of Hitler - the Holocaust.  He attempts to deal with this by creating a running motif of an exchange between the TV people and Hitler, using the phrase, “The Jews are no laughing matter.”  In the eyes of the TV people, this indicates that you shouldn’t joke about the Holocaust.  Hitler takes it to mean that the Jews are a serious problem.

Other than this, though, the author makes as few references to Hitler’s anti-Semitism as he feels he can get away with, thereby reducing further the evil in his character and implicitly emphasising his love of animals and the care he shows his assistants.  This underplaying of the Holocaust is uncomfortably shown in an episode where Hitler’s secretary resigns, having been told by her grandmother of how most of her family died in the camps.  On hearing this, Hitler goes to visit the old lady where, it appears, all it takes to make her change her mind about him are a few compliments. 

Overall, Look Who’s Back is an intriguing but patchy satire.  I can see why it would have been so popular and controversial in Germany where there are laws on the use of Nazi symbols and the way in which the Nazis and the Holocaust are portrayed but, to this British reader, it wasn’t shocking.  Although there are some very funny patches, the plot never really develops much beyond a series of confrontations between Hitler and people who believe he’s an impersonator and the ending is anti-climactic, trailing off limply.  In summary, it was a little bit bland and a bit frustrating.

Monday, June 16, 2014

2,221: Once Upon a Timepiece by Starr Wood

Once Upon a Timepiece, the debut novel of Starr Wood, a journalist who has written for august publications such as The Economist, features an unusual central character of a 1946 rose gold Breitling man’s watch.

At the outset, it is owned by one Conrad Sands who, in January 2012, determines to return it to the ex-girlfriend who had given it to him 20 years previously.  This sets off a loosely connected series of events over the following 12 months in which the watch gets passed from one stranger to another.  During the year, as the publisher’s blurb says:

“The watch passes through the hands of a gold-digger, a journalist, an enchantress, and a professor. It touches the lives of a rogue art collector, a domestic helper, and an environmental campaigner. It influences a reverend's apprentice, a kept wife and a self-made man. All of them are strangers, yet all are intricately linked in ways that none of them see.”

There is, of course, a debate to be had for those who are so inclined as to when a novel ceases to be a novel and becomes a collection of short stories.  Not that I’m overly interested in the distinction but it seems to me that it has a lot to do with the level of interconnectedness between the chapters or events in the book.  If push ever came to shove, I’d probably agree that Tom Rachmann’s episodic The Imperfectionists falls just on the novel side of the line whereas Once Upon a Timepiece falls just on the short story side.

Some of the stories and in particular the one concerning a self-righteous journalist getting taught a valuable lesson gave off strong whiffs of Roald Dahl’s adult short stories with their unexpected turns and themes of unpleasant individuals getting their come-uppances.  On the other hand, the importance Mr Wood gives to the twist in the tail brought Jeffrey Archer’s short stories to mind (and this is not a negative comment - regardless of the quality of his writing, Archer has an ability to tell a story that Mr Wood largely shares).

As may only to be expected in a debut, there is a certain unevenness to the book, with some of the less successful stories feeling a little strained, as if the author were reaching for a twist or link that wasn’t quite there, but, at its best, Once Upon a Timepiece offers some highly entertaining stories with clever plot twists.  I particularly enjoyed the story of the rogue art collector (even if I did guess the twist early on) and the story of the kept wife was, indeed, reminiscent of some of Dahl’s most bitter efforts.

Mr Wood’s writing style is clear and direct, as befits the journalist that he is, although this puts a lot of pressure on the plotting which, mostly, bears up well.  All in all, Once Upon a Timepiece is an entertaining debut from a promising author and I will be very interested to see where Mr Wood goes next.

I’d like to thank the publisher, BoTree Books, for sending me a copy of Once Upon a Timepiece for review.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Personal Post

You may (or, indeed, may not) have noticed that this blog has lain idle for well over a month now and I have a mountainous backlog of posts to write, including a number of books I have kindly been sent for review (and to those who’ve sent me books, I can only apologise for the delay).

This time last month, it was a sunny Sunday afternoon.  Mrs Falaise, mini-Falaise and I had been out and about in the morning and had come down to our local in the late afternoon to meet friends for a drink and then to have an early dinner.  Our food had just arrived when my mobile rang, showing my parents’ number.  I assumed it was one or other of them relying to my text asking them to babysit mini-Falaise later that week so we could go to her parents’ evening at school.

So, I answered it cheerfully only to be met by my mother’s shaking and near hysterical voice:

“Falaise.  It’s your Dad.  He’s collapsed.  He’s not breathing.  He’s turned purple.  The paramedics are working on him now.  I think he’s dead.”

Now my mother has been known to overdramatise before and so, although I was perturbed, I tried to soothe her and told her to call me when things were clearer.  I suppose I thought that he’d probably had a heart attack and that the paramedics were stabilising him before taking him to hospital.  So I carried on with my dinner, distracted and numb to its taste.

And then, a few minutes later, the phone went again and I heard her say:

“………I’m sorry, Falaise,………….he’s dead……….”

And with those words, the world changed.

The rest of that evening is a patchwork of dark impressions.  Having to tell my little sister that her beloved father, on whom she still depended for so much, was dead.  Phoning to inform my aunt that her brother was gone.  King’s Cross station in a gloomy twilight.  Trying to find a funeral director to collect his body from home.  My mother, utterly bereft.  His body, lying on his study floor, his face surprisingly relaxed, the suspicion of a smile on his face.  Covering the bloodstain on the floor where he had fallen.  Kissing his cold forehead and saying goodbye before he was taken away.  Telling him for the first time in oh so many years that I loved him, just when he could no longer hear me.

The next few days were even worse as the shock and numbness wore off to be replaced by raw grief.  There was a succession of appalling moments.  Sitting mini-Falaise down to tell her that her adored granddad was dead; knowing that I was about to break her heart and then doing it anyway.  Taking my mother to the funeral directors’ to discuss burial or cremation and types of coffin.  A whole string of people and organisations to inform, each one requiring me to have to say, “my father died on Sunday” and to reply appropriately to the routine expressions of condolence.  Watching my mother struggle against overwhelming pain and loss as over fifty years of marriage vanished overnight has been almost unbearable.

And then the funeral.  Seeing the coffin, peculiarly small for a grown man.  Forcing myself to give the tribute whilst seeing family members sitting there in tears and, worst of all, watching his coffin being lowered into the grave forever.

In short, it’s been grim.  With the additional responsibility of sorting out his affairs, I’ve had little time to sit down and deal with my own grief.  I find myself veering from acceptance to sadness, regret and occasional anger, sometimes in a matter of minutes.  I think I’m most upset that mini-Falaise and her cousins won’t get to spend more time with him and that he will miss out on the rest of their childhoods but I’m also appreciative that each of them got to know him and spend time with him.

He was 72 when he died - old enough for it not to be freakishly young, but young enough for me to feel somehow cheated.  Maybe it shouldn’t have come as such a shock; after all, he had undergone a triple bypass in the late 1990s but it was nevertheless a bolt from the blue.  However, he went painlessly and quickly whilst still sound in mind and body, sat in his study on a sunny Sunday, having just watched his football team win and he will never suffer the torments of dementia, stroke or any other debilitating illness, which he would have hated.  For this, I will be eternally grateful.

But his death has had a huge impact and in some unexpected ways.  I seem to be totally unable to concentrate for more than a short space of time.  I don’t sleep.  I can be getting on with things when a stray thought or sight can have me wanting to slump to the ground in a damp puddle of tears.  The other day, mini-Falaise asked me about his birthday.  I said that he wouldn’t be having any more birthdays but that we could think about him instead.  She replied, “that’s OK, Daddy, he can have a thinking birthday then.”  And it took every bit of strength in me not to break down in front of her.

The two strangest feelings I have though are of liberation and adulthood.  My father was very much the patriarch of the family.  He wanted me to have a very conventional professional career and I suppose I’ve also always sought his approval.  So, now he’s no longer here, I feel a strange sense of freedom - that I can be more of my own man, that the only approval and acceptance I need now is mine and those of Mrs F and mini-Falaise.  Above all, though, is a feeling that I have now really grown up.  It may seem strange - after all, I’m a 44 year old with a family of my own and a responsible job - but I guess I must have always had a feeling of comfort in the back of my mind that he would be there if anything went wrong.  He’s no longer there and this new feeling of adulthood has given the lie to my previous belief that I was all grown up.

I miss my father immensely but I know that things will work themselves out.  I’m not depressed - I’m sad but for a perfectly sound reason and thing will get better with the fullness of time and I have the consolations of a host of happy memories of him to comfort me and the knowledge that he lived a full and satisfying life.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

2,223: The Gift of Darkness by V.M. Giambanco

If ever I receive a free copy of a book (whether solicited or unsolicited), I’m pretty scrupulous about disclosing the fact in my review of it but I don’t necessarily make a point of disclosing right at the beginning of the post.  I do feel, however, that with The Gift of Darkness, V.M. Giambanco’s debut thriller, I should be very open about the fact that Mrs Falaise knows the author, that the author and I have been known to communicate on Twitter and that my copy of the book was given to me by her. 

Given this, I was actually half-hoping that there would be some flaw in it that would enable me to hand down some righteous constructive criticism and, thereafter, point to it to demonstrate my simon-pure character.  Unfortunately Ms Giambanco has signally failed to oblige and has delivered an excellent police procedural which promises to be the first of many.

Detective Alice Madison has only been on the Seattle Police Department Homicide squad for five weeks when she and her partner, Sergeant Brown, are called to a crime scene.  It’s not pleasant.  Inside, an entire family has been murdered, the father being forced to watch his wife and two young children being shot.  Each of them has been blindfolded and a cross drawn on their foreheads in blood.  The words, “Thirteen Days”, have been scrawled on the wall of the bedroom, also in blood.

The father, James Sinclair, is also a survivor of the Hoh River kidnapping 25 years earlier, in which he and two other boys had been kidnapped.  Only two of them survived – Sinclair and John Cameron, a man now wanted for numerous murders.  There are sufficient clues at the scene to make it a seemingly open and shut case but Madison and Brown soon begin to have doubts.
It does need to be acknowledged that The Gift of Darkness is a doorstopper of a book, clocking in at a touch over 500 pages and around 143,000 words.  It is sufficiently heavy to have made it an uncomfortable read on the Tube but the length allows Ms Giambanco to fill in the back stories of the main characters and to set the plot up in detail.

Arguably, the first half or so of the book could have been pruned a little as Ms Giambanco gives highly detailed scene descriptions, probably due to her background in the film industry - but which could have left more to the reader’s imagination – and the nature of the police procedural sub-genre.  Having said that, I quite enjoy seeing a satisfying plot reveal itself little by little and it certainly allows for a steady increase in tempo as the story builds to its climax as well as a gradual ratcheting up of the tension.

Many of the tropes of the genre appear in The Gift of Darkness and it’s much to Ms Giambanco’s credit that she stops well short of falling into cliché territory – in fact at one point I groaned as she dangled a classic genre plot device that made me (a lifelong half-wit at guessing the identity of the killer) think both that I’d spotted the murderer very early on and that the book was about to become quite dull.  Foolish me, as it became apparent shortly after that my guess couldn’t possibly have been correct.  What the reader actually does get is some interesting twists on the tropes she uses and a story that flows naturally from whodunit into whydunit and keeps firm hold of the reader’s interest by some ingenious plot devices and hooks.

Aside from the plotting, Ms Giambanco’s main strength appears to be in characterisation.  The central protagonists all have rich back stories and are satisfyingly nuanced – there are no cardboard cut-outs or characteristics dressed as characters here – although I would say that Ms Giambanco is better at bad guys – they tend to the cold and creepy and John Cameron, in particular, is one of the more intriguing villains I’ve come across recently.

It’s also noteworthy that the large cast of detectives, crime scene technicians and prosecutors are also drawn so as to give them individuality and the promise of development into a real ensemble in the future.  Holding it all together is Madison, a gutsy and determined cop, and her relationship with her partner and mentor, Brown.

I don’t suppose The Gift of Darkness will convert non-crime fiction fans but it’s a highly accomplished debut that I thoroughly enjoyed and would unhesitatingly recommend (unless you’re a fan of “cozies” who struggles with anything darker.

Madison and Brown have all the hallmarks of series protagonists and there is a pretty elephantine unresolved issue at the end of The Gift of Darkness that practically screams for at least one sequel and probably more so I hope that Ms Giambanco’s publishers do the decent thing and sign her up for more – I for one will happily blow the cobwebs from my wallet and shell out for more of this.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

2,224: Moranthology by Caitlin Moran

I feel as if I should open this post with a caveat, as a sort of health warning for anyone who may feel an inexplicable urge to treat my opinion as something worth paying attention to.  If you remember, in July 2010, The Times, Caitlin Moran’s employer, decided to erect a paywall to prevent non-subscribers (such as me) from accessing its online coverage.  I was outraged and swore an oath of utmost fearsomeness that I would never, ever be prepared to pay to read a newspaper online and that henceforth The Times would be a stranger to me (unless I found a copy on the Tube or in the loo at work).

Well, that lasted all of a fortnight or so before I grumbling input my debit card details and signed up for an online subscription.  It wasn’t for the news; after all I can get that anywhere.  No, it was for the columnists and the features and, if I’m being totally honest, for Simon Barnes and Caitlin Moran.  Put simply, I valued the enjoyment I get from reading their pieces enough to plonk down cash on a regular basis.

And so, it will come as no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed Moranthology which, as its name suggests is a collection of some of her Times columns.  In fact, I enjoyed it more than I expected as I would have already read most of the pieces when they first appeared in the paper.

The collection is a positive cornucopia of Moran’s thoughts on subjects as diverse as Sherlock, Dr Who, Downton Abbey, Gay Moon Landings, austerity, libraries, Aberystwyth, Paul McCartney, Boris Johnson, trolling, the Eurozone crisis, drug abuse, the Royal Wedding and Pollock.

My favourite Moran columns tend to be those that deal with popular culture where she takes a subject and then riffs on it in a deceptively effortless and hilarious fashion.  I’m also a big fan of her imagined late night conversations with her long-suffering husband, rock critic Peter Paphides (himself a highly talented journalist).

Indeed, if that was her limit, that would be sufficient but, in addition she is an excellent interviewer as shown in this collection in pieces about Keith Richards and a manically wonderful trip to a sex club with Lady Gaga.  These pieces are almost worth the price of the book on their own.

And there’s yet more.  Over the years, Ms Moran has become more confident and vocal about speaking out on social issues, often linking them back to her own childhood in the West Midlands.  In this book, there are serious pieces on benefits cuts, the closure of libraries and the nature of poverty.  I can’t say that I always agree with her views but they are expressed here clearly, cogently and persuasively.

I believe that good humorous writing comes across as apparently effortless but needs huge skill from the author and I’d hold Ms Moran’s serious pieces up as evidence of her talent.  As well as the columns I’ve mentioned above, her obituaries of Elizabeth Taylor and Amy Winehouse are poignant and deeply moving and demonstrate real quality.

Although I’m not entirely sure that Caitlin Moran would approve of me, I’m a huge fan as you may have guessed by now.  In summary, she’s funny, bright and a deceptively serious social critic and I can do no better than to urge you to go out and buy this book (or borrow it from the library!).  You really won’t regret it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

2,225: By Its Cover by Donna Leon

When I come across a crime series I enjoy, there’s a certain pattern to my reading.  At first, I devour instalments one after another until I’ve eventually caught up with the author.  After that, there’s usually one or possibly two instalments that are due out shortly after I’ve caught up and then, finally, I slip into a tormented pattern of longing for the next one to be published and cursing any diversion by the author into writing books that don’t form part of the series.

And so it has been for a long time with Donna Leon’s Brunetti series.  I eagerly anticipate each new book and pre-order them so as to get my grubby mitts on them as soon as possible.  Recently, however, I’ve noticed a certain unevenness in the series, with some episodes seeming a little lacklustre.

I would guess that part of this is down to the sheer longevity of the series.  With a central cast that rarely changes (the rise in prominence of officers Pucetti and Griffoni being the only additions of recent note), there’s a limit as to how fresh the books can be and, if truth be told, I do appreciate the familiarity that long acquaintance brings.  One of Leon’s hallmarks is the centrality of Brunetti’s family life to the stories and so the regular passages set around the dinner table or in their living room are very much like settling into an old pair of slippers - comforting and to be luxuriated in.

The other “Leon factor” if you like is her concern with the social and political issues Italy, and Venice in particular, is faced with.  At her best, Leon brings these out and debates them by means of plot elements, subtle dialogue and background cameo scenes.  At her worst (and, I suspect, most enraged) they end up being either a little bit ranty or thumpingly didactic.

By Its Cover, the 23rd Brunetti novel, sits somewhere towards the better end of the Leon range.  At its beginning, Comissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice police is contemplating the onset of spring whilst dealing with an altercation between two water tax drivers.  He is interrupted by a phone call requesting his presence at the Biblioteca Merula, where it soon becomes clear that a thief has been at work, stealing valuable works and even cutting pages out of other rare volumes.  Suspicion soon falls on an American researcher who has been working at the library, although Brunetti is also intrigued by the library’s other regular, a former priest known as Tertullian for his apparent love for the writings of the fathers of the Church.

Inspired by the ongoing Italian problem with art theft and by the massive theft of books from the Girolamini Library in Naples by its own director in 2012, By Its Cover is likely to engage any book lover, as well as crime fiction fans.  Leon uses the novel to explore not only her customary themes of Italian bureaucracy and institutional corruption but more esoteric issues that will probably only engage book lovers, such as whether books are valuable for themselves as objects or for the texts that they carry.  For the record, I, like Guido, am on Team Text - although a particular book may have an extrinsic value through its production or its historicity, ultimately, the book only exists as a means to transport the text to the reader.

Over the years, Leon’s books have moved from pure detective stories to explorations of social issues using the form of the detective story as the structure within which to do so.  She has also given the city of Venice itself and the personal lives of Brunetti and his circle increased prominence to the extent that there is no murder (and, like it or not, murder is the overwhelming raison d’etre of almost all crime fiction) until halfway through the book.

It’s mainly for this reason that I would recommend new readers to begin at the beginning with Death at La Fenice and carry on through.  The existing fan can be assured that this is an excellent entry in the Brunetti series, albeit one with a lightly abrupt and unusually loose ending.  There are few detectives with whom I enjoy spending time more and I must now endure the long wait for Leon’s next book.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

2,226: A Man Without Breath by Philip Kerr

A Man Without Breath is the ninth outing for Philip Kerr’s stained white knight, Bernie Gunther, and is closer in spirit to the darker, more morally ambiguous Field Grey than to the enjoyable but lighter detective story of Prague Fatale.

The story opens a few short months after the German disaster at Stalingrad and, yet again, Bernie has got himself a new job.  This time, although retaining his rank in the SD (the security branch of the SS), he is working for the War Crimes Bureau of the Wehrmacht which is, in essence, a German effort to portray itself in a better light by investigating alleged Allied war crimes.  Staffed by former Prussian judges, it is a small anti-Nazi enclave within the German armed forces and a place where Bernie first comes into contact with a small group of aristocratic army officers plotting to assassinate Hitler.

Being at a loose end following the collapse of his investigation into the alleged British sinking of a German hospital ship, as a result of the principal witness dying in an RAF air raid on Berlin, Bernie finds himself packed off to Smolensk in Russia to investigate claims that a large number of Polish army officers had been killed by the Russians in a nearby forest; a place called Katyn.  If such a thing could be proved, not only would it be a boon for German propaganda, but it could also be used to drive a wedge between the Soviet Union and its Western allies.  As such, Bernie finds himself uncomfortably backed by Josef Goebbels himself.

Unfortunately for Bernie, he finds himself stuck in Smolensk at the end of winter and the ground is too hard to begin digging at the suspected mass grave.  Indeed, it’s doubly unfortunate both because Russia in 1943 is a pretty unsafe place for a German but also because he happens to be the nearest thing to a detective available when two members of a German signals regiment are found with their throats slit.  For Bernie, life becomes more uncomfortable still as his own inimitable brand of investigation soon garners him a number of enemies, including Field Marshall Günther von Kluge, the local German commander who wields almost unfettered power in his theatre of operations.

If one were to group together books like Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series, Sam Eastland’s Inspector Pekkala books, William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev stories and Rebecca Pawel’s Carlos Tejada works, there appears to be identifiable a sub-genre of detective stories featuring honest detectives trying to do their best to seek justice against the background of repressive and corrupt regimes.  Gunther is typical of this, ideologically opposed to the Nazis but forced to operate within the state’s machinery, trying to remain as uncompromised as possible in an environment that corrupts or breaks all whom it touches.

Kerr is adept at drawing out some of the insanities of the Nazi outlook.  At one point, Bernie notes the lunacy of investigating and hanging two German soldiers for rape and murder of two Russian peasants when only a few miles away, an SS einsatzgruppen has just murdered 25,000 Russian Jews.  He also doubts whether publicising the Katyn massacre of 4,000 Poles is really going to deflect attention from the mass killings of Jews in Eastern Europe by the German forces.

As always, Kerr’s knowledge of the period and its personalities is exemplary.  One of the joys of a Bernie Gunther novel is the appearance of actual politicians and soldiers of the time, in this instance ranging from Josef Goebbels to July Plotters General von Tresckow, Hans von Dohnanyi, Fabian von Schlabrendorff, Wilhelm Canaris and Rudolf von Gersdorff.  Kerr’s historical notes at the end of each Gunther novel are also fascinating, revealing the fates of the individuals he introduces as characters.

In combining historical fiction with a hard-boiled detective theme, Kerr takes the Bernie Gunther stories to a deeply satisfying level.  Morally complex and ambiguous, entertaining yet melancholy and revealing both the resilience of the human spirit and the depths to which humans can sink, they are amongst my very favourite crime novels.  Best read in order, they are “must reads” for any crime fiction or, indeed, historical fiction enthusiast and, although his most recent books are not Bernie Gunther stories, I am counting the slowly passing days until the return of Bernie, a deeply flawed but attractive hero.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

2,227: Bryant and May and the Bleeding Heart by Christopher Fowler

Bryant and May and the Bleeding Heart is the eleventh outing for one of the oddest detective duos in literature.  Since the last instalment, Bryant and May and the Invisible Code, Arthur Bryant and John May, together with the other members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, have been moved from the Met to the City of London Police, a force more accustomed to solving financial crime.  A fresh start?

Or maybe not, as their new, PR-savvy boss, Orion Banks sees the PCU as a potentially embarrassing anachronism and OAP detectives Bryant and May as being ripe for retirement.  On top of this, the first crime they begin to investigate is definitely not the kind of thing Orion thinks proper.

Two teenagers have, apparently, seen a dead man rising from a grave in a London graveyard, something which doesn’t look much like a real crime, even when one of the teenagers is killed in a hit and run accident a few days later.  Nevertheless, the interest of the PCU has been aroused and Bryant’s curiosity is even more piqued when it transpires that the dead youth’s shirt has been swapped between the moment he was last seen alive and the moment his body is discovered.
Frustratingly for Bryant, he is banned from investigating this situation and is, instead tasked with finding out who has stolen the ravens from the Tower of London, something which leads him to cross paths again with Mr Merry, a kind of Welsh Aleister Crowley.

Of course, the two crimes are destined to connect with each other and our two detectives end up getting involved with some 21st Century bodysnatchers, a dodgy waste disposal company and trying to figure out what the secret of Bleeding Heart Yard has to do with things, whilst Bryant is forced to confront his fear of being buried alive.

For various reasons, I’ve been picking up the Bryant and May books piecemeal and in no particular order, which is a shame as they do benefit from being read in order.  I have promised myself to go back and read (or, in some cases, reread) them from the beginning as I have become a little addicted to them, with this new episode being the best I’ve read so far.

The interplay between the members of the PCU is entertaining and often amusing and there is a real life to the characters, centring on Bryant and May themselves whose different but complementary personalities have created a distinctive and engaging partnership.  They are, in essence, old-fashioned detectives who would fit perfectly into a Golden Age novel but who are forced to deal with the modern world, with varying degrees of success, as Bryant’s tendency to destroy technology demonstrates.

On top of this, Christopher Fowler enriches the stories by steeping them in the arcana of London’s thousand year history.  The books almost scream London and I have rarely read books that have such a strong sense of place and of belonging.

All this only goes so far though and Fowler’s master trick is to underpin the eccentricity, the arcana and the whiff of the occult that suffuses the Bryant and May books with a solid police procedural and a proper investigation.  This grounds the novels and stops the other elements from turning them into implausible fantasy tales.

Bryant and May and the Bleeding Heart is an excellent detective novel.  It is, like the detectives themselves quirky but solid.  Superior stuff.

I would like to thank Random House (UK) for allowing me to read this via Netgalley.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

2,228: The Watchers by Jon Steele

In trying to organise my thoughts on The Watcher for this post, I did a cursory scan of a few other reviews and was fascinated by the number of authors, genres and books that have been referenced.  Dan Brown, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, detective noir, Jason Bourne, Neil Gaiman, magic realism, Paradise Lost, John Connolly, the list goes on.  And, paradoxically, whilst the genre-bending nature of the book makes it fresh and interesting, the sheer volume of Jon Steele’s ideas end up weakening the narrative.

There’s a quote from Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters that strikes as quite apt here:

“Particles of raw inspiration sleet through the universe all the time. Every once in a while one of them hits a receptive mind, which then invents DNA or the flute sonata form or a way of making light bulbs wear out in half the time. But most of them miss. Most people go through their lives without being hit by even one.
Some people are even more unfortunate. They get them all.”

It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed in a number of debut novels - the author has a whole bunch of brilliant ideas and really wants to share them, leading either to a messy narrative or, as in the final third of The Watchers, a seeming rush to get everything in and wrapped up.

The first two-thirds (or there or thereabouts - I don’t count pages) is fantastic.  Steele expertly weaves together three narratives, each focusing on one of our trio of protagonists - Jay Harper, an amnesiac detective straight out of Chandler (see, even I’m doing the reference thing now), Marc Rochat, the physically and mentally damaged guet (or watcher) of the cathedral of Lausanne, and Katherine Taylor, a high end escort, seeking sanctuary from the US tax authorities in Switzerland.

Steele slowly, almost languorously, begins to reveal the plot, dropping in subtle clues and pieces of information as he goes along, drawing the reader in.  Although the initial pace is leisurely, it is a real page turner.  We discover that Rochat believes that his life’s purpose is to rescue an angel in distress and that he has identified Taylor, somewhat improbably, as that angel.

For her part, Taylor, who is thoroughly enjoying a life of luxury as an escort to members of the exclusive Two Hundred Club of rich and powerful men, is about to find out that her gilded life comes at a price.  Harper, who finds himself working for the IOC as a security consultant with no memory of his previous life, is investigating a possible new and dangerous drug which gradually leads him to cross paths with both Taylor and Rochat as the plot begins to become clear.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot here as much of the joy of the book lies in experiencing the plot unfold.  So let’s leave it that the plot has some supernatural and biblical elements to it.  As these supernatural themes and plot elements become more apparent though, the book begins to lose some of its subtlety and ambiguity and becomes a more straightforward and more action-based narrative, which makes it less gripping.

At the same time, Steele throws in a whole load of ideas and details which, to be fair, he couldn’t really have done before but which don’t get the treatment they probably merit.  This gives the climax a slightly rushed and skimpy feel and doesn’t live up to the quality of the first part of the book.

Overall, I’d recommend The Watchers.  Steele’s writing is rich and subtle and the characterisation has real substance (with the exception, oddly, of Katherine Taylor, who is a bit wooden).  There are some excellent ideas in the book and his prologue, set in the trenches of World War One, is a truly fine piece of writing.  It's the first in a trilogy, of which the second is definitely on my TBR.

I was sent a copy of The Watchers for review by Transworld, for which I am very grateful.

Monday, January 27, 2014

2,229: Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock

If you read any of my series of posts on my favourite childhood books, you will appreciate how important Roald Dahl’s stories were to me as a child.  I’m also delighted that mini-Falaise appears to be equally as taken with books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach and Fantastic Mr Fox.  Her absolute favourite, though, is Matilda.  Book, film and musical versions have all been a massive hit with her, although I was surprised that I had never come across it as a boy.

There is actually an easy and obvious answer to this, of course.  It was first published in 1988, when I was at university and it would probably have been a little odd had I been rushing to Blackwells to pick up a copy (and given the minor disagreement I was having with them at the time over the size of my unpaid account, they probably wouldn’t have sold me a copy anyway!).  In my own childishly self-centred way, I had always seen Dahl as being a figure of my own youth, a writer who must, surely, have stopped writing at about the time I stopped reading him!

So, when I came across Donald Sturrock’s biography of Dahl, Storyteller, I was curious to learn more about the author who has given two generations of my family so much pleasure.
It’s a bit of a cliché (or truism?) to note that those whose lives make the best biographies tend to be the more complex characters and that the most complex characters aren’t always the most likeable and so it proved with Dahl.

Sturrock was a friend of Dahl (and, given the difference in ages between the two, a bit of an acolyte as well) and was appointed to write this biography by Ophelia, one of Dahl’s daughters.  Consequently, with this being as near to an authorised biography as one can get of a dead man, one has to suspect that Sturrock is likely to be sympathetic to his subject.  If so, Dahl really must have been a prize shit at times.

Even without his mass of conflicting virtues and vices, Dahl’s life would have been fascinating.  A Norwegian immigrant, his father died when Dahl was just seven.  After an unhappy schooling at Repton and a short spell working for Shell in Africa, he became an RAF pilot in World War II.  Having crashed on his first operational flight and having suffered a serious back injury, he was posted to Washington as a member of a British intelligence unit.  There he began his writing career and also enjoyed the US capital’s social scene.

One of the revelations of Storyteller was how, after initial success, Dahl tried and failed to become an adult novelist, ending up writing dark (and sometimes distasteful) short stories for American magazines.  Indeed, it wasn’t until the end of the ‘50s that he turned his hand properly to children’s fiction (and even then supplemented it with partially successful script-writing for Hollywood).
One of the key motifs of Dahl’s life was his habit of falling out with people, especially agents, editors and publishers.  He seems to have been hideously egocentric and ungrateful to people such as Sheila St Laurence, his American agent and the person who persuaded him to try children’s fiction.  Sturrock reports how, when he ended his relationship with Random House, staff in their New York office stood on their desks cheering with relief.  When added to the fact that many of the key literary figures in his life contributed much, much more to the detail of his books than he ever gave them credit for, it adds up to a not-very-pretty picture.

He actively portrayed himself as a secluded writing genius, sitting in the shed at the end of his garden in Buckinghamshire to produce his books, something that was far from the truth.  This self-mythologising was also evident in his “creative” retelling of his childhood and RAF experiences in Boy and Going Solo.  In particular, Sturrock doesn’t shy away from examining Dahl’s near-fictionalisation of his wartime plane crash (although does theorise on the medical consequences in a way that probably gives Dahl more credit that he was due).

As well as a rich and turbulent professional life, Dahl’s personal life was also packed with incident and tragedy.  His son, Theo, was left brain damaged after a road accident in New York at the age of four.  Worse still, his eldest daughter, Olivia, died of encephalitis when she was just seven and his first wife, the actress Patricia Neal suffered a major stroke at the age of 39 that had doctors writing her off as a vegetable.

And this is where the more heroic side of Dahl comes in.  Frustrated by the inadequacy of the shunt that was needed to drain fluid from Theo’s brain, Dahl drove the development of a more efficient device that is said to have saved the lives of several thousand children (including the child of one of his editors).  After Neal’s stroke, Dahl pushed her to an almost miraculous recovery, following which she was able to resume her career (and outlive him by 13 years).

But, just when one begins to admire him again, Sturrock suggests that Dahl was actually quite relishing the sense of no longer being in his Hollywood star wife’s shadow and the sense of control he had over her.  And, in the end, while she was still in a vulnerable state, he was to leave her for his second wife, Felicity Crosland, with whom he had been having a decade-long affair.  Here Sturrock, in my view, tends to gloss over the devastation that the affair must have caused Neal and Dahl’s children, with most of whom he had a difficult relationship.  In fact, Tessa ended up burning her school down to get his attention.

On the whole, Sturrock does a good job of treading a line between offending the Dahl family that had given him the mandate to write Storyteller and whitewashing the dark and unpleasant side of Dahl’s character.  Even more impressively, he manages to fit in some decent analysis of Dahl’s writing and its influences in between telling the story of Dahl’s life.

Something I hadn’t realised at all was the level of hostile criticism that was directed at Dahl’s children’s fiction.  In truth, he was transformative in giving a voice to the dark and wild impulses that lie within children and of writing stories that would appeal to them rather than stories written from an adult’s perspective extolling appropriate behaviours and morals.  All sorts of critics and organisations (including the American Library Association) lined up to criticise this approach which, despite Dahl’s irascibility and argumentative nature often being his own worst enemy, seem ludicrous today.  Sturrock faithfully chronicles this fascinating argument, including a particularly poisonous comment from Ursula LeGuin.

Generous, loving (at least to Felicity), argumentative, possibly anti-Semitic, womanising and thoroughly difficult, I found it hard to warm to Dahl the man but remain in love with his books and unable to deny the profound changes he wrought in children’s literature which have transformed the genre for the better.

Sturrock ends this excellent biography by noting how strange it is that Dahl only won one major award for children’s literature in his lifetime and by quoting a comment that Dahl made shortly before his death:

“Sometimes it gives me a funny feeling that my writing arm is about six thousand miles long and that the hand that holds the pencil is reaching all the way across the world to faraway houses and classrooms where children live and go to school.  That’s a thrill all right.”

Quite so.

Friday, January 24, 2014

2,330: The Classics Club - The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan

I can remember the first time I read The Thirty Nine Steps.  I was thirteen and was immediately hooked.  Over the course of a single weekend, I devoured all five of the novels that featured Richard Hannay.  As part of my Classics Club list, I’ve recently re-read it to see if my views have changed.

Written in 1915 and set on the eve of the First World War, The Thirty Nine Steps was the first of John Buchan’s novels to feature Hannay, a Rhodesian mining engineer who has returned to the old country having made some money.  Having become somewhat bored with the London scene, Hannay gets involved with a peculiar, self-professed spy, Scudder, who claims to have secret information about a nefarious plot to assassinate a Greek politician, Karolides, in London and cast Europe into war.  Hannay gives Scudder shelter in his flat, only to find him murdered there some days later.  Driven both to avoid being arrested for Scudder’s murder and to stymie the plot, Hannay escapes to the Highlands, pursued by police and plotters. 

There ensues a hectically paced series of chases, captures and escapes, featuring stereotyped Scottish labourers, politicians and one of the genre’s classic gang of villains, the Black Stone, and its leader:

“As he spoke his eyelids seemed to tremble and to fall a little over his keen grey eyes. In a flash the phrase of Scudder's came back to me, when he had described the man he most dreaded in the world. He had said that he 'could hood his eyes like a hawk'.”

Of course, after a string of exciting escapades, Hannay solves the mystery, thwarts the plot and saves the day, enabling Great Britain to enter the First World War still in possession of its military secrets.

On a re-reading, I could immediately see why I loved it so much as a child.  It’s incredibly fast-paced with plenty of action and a series of mini-cliff-hangers.  Hannay is drawn as an uncomplicated and old-fashioned sort of hero, thoroughly decent, dashing and brave, with a stiff upper lip and a willingness to “play the game”.  By contrast, the Black Stone are evil and deceitful, the worst kind of baddies.

On top of all that, Buchan adds a liberal dose of conspiracy theory and international intrigue.  Scudder describes his discovery of the plot in suitably melodramatic terms:

“I got the first hint in an inn on the Achensee in Tyrol. That set me inquiring, and I collected my other clues in a fur-shop in the Galician quarter of Buda, in a Strangers' Club in Vienna, and in a little bookshop off the Racknitzstrasse in Leipsic. I completed my evidence ten days ago in Paris. I can't tell you the details now, for it's something of a history. When I was quite sure in my own mind I judged it my business to disappear, and I reached this city by a mighty queer circuit.

I left Paris a dandified young French-American, and I sailed from Hamburg a Jew diamond merchant. In Norway I was an English student of Ibsen collecting materials for lectures, but when I left Bergen I was a cinema-man with special ski films. And I came here from Leith with a lot of pulp-wood propositions in my pocket to put before the London newspapers. Till yesterday I thought I had muddied my trail some, and was feeling pretty happy. Then—“

Now it may be thirty years since I first read it, but I haven’t really changed all that much.  I still like a good adventure story, still love the idea of the amateur spy lurking in dark and exotic corners of the world and remain partial to the atmosphere and style of pre-WW1 Europe.  So I should still have enjoyed The Thirty Nine Steps.

And I sort of did.  But not totally.  In fact, I felt quite uncomfortable at times.  Buchan was a product of the Victorian age, an Establishment figure, having served as an MP in Great Britain and, later, as Governor General of Canada.  He therefore was imbued with the attitudes and beliefs of Empire, including views on racial issues that are, fortunately, totally unacceptable and reprehensible today.  By way of example, Scudder describes the forces behind the political unrest in Europe thus:

“The capitalists would rake in the shekels, and make fortunes by buying up wreckage. Capital, he said, had no conscience and no fatherland. Besides, the Jew was behind it, and the Jew hated Russia worse than hell.

'Do you wonder?' he cried. 'For three hundred years they have been persecuted, and this is the return match for the pogroms. The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English. But he cuts no ice. If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog. He is the German business man that gives your English papers the shakes. But if you're on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.’”

Now there are some commentators who claim that Buchan is just reflecting the views of Scudder, who is pretty disreputable and discredited figure.  But the general tone of contempt for other races and nationalities is continued elsewhere in the book.  Hannay comments upon the planned assassination of the Greek Prime Minister:

“The fifteenth day of June was going to be a day of destiny, a bigger destiny than the killing of a Dago.”

And so on and so on.

I’ve commented in the past about seeing distasteful and outdated views in literature in the context of the time the relevant book was written but, for some reason, the appearance of overt and casual racism in The Thirty Nine Steps gave me a far stronger emotional reaction than equally abhorrent views in books that I liked less.  Maybe it is that juxtaposition of an old favourite novel with views with which I disagree so strongly.

In any event, The Thirty Nine Steps remains a classic adventure story that I found still enjoyable but far less so than it was thirty years ago.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

2,331: Whatever happened to Billy Parks? by Gareth Roberts

Billy Parks, the titular hero of Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? is a washed-up ex-footballer from the ‘70s who threw his talent and career away into a sea of booze.  Now, he’s a broken alcoholic, divorced and estranged from his daughter and grand-son and reduced to telling old stories for drinks in pubs.

But, what if it could be different?  What if there was one thing that, if it could be changed, would make everything OK again?  What if there could be redemption for Billy Parks?  And, in Whatever Happened to Billy Parks?, there might just be something.

So, let me take you back to 17 October 1973.  To Wembley Stadium.  To England’s final qualifying match for the 1974 World Cup.  To a match that has haunted England fans for 40 years.

England needed to beat Poland to qualify, whilst a win or a draw would work for Poland.  In a now infamous quote, Brian Clough had described the Polish goalkeeper, Jan Tomaszewski, as a “clown”, a comment that would come back and bite England.  As the match progressed, England were dominating possession but couldn’t score, being repeatedly denied by an inspired Tomaszewski.  Against the run of play, the Poles then took the lead on a counter-attack, leaving England two goals to the bad.  A dubious Alan Clarke penalty saw England pull level with 30 minutes left on the clock but Sir Alf Ramsay, in what would turn out to be his last game in charge, dithered over a substitution, leaving it to the 88th minute before bringing on Derby County’s Kevin Hector.  With only seconds to go, Hector had a certain goal cleared off the line and England were out of the World Cup, sending the nation into trauma.

But, what if?  What if, instead of Hector, Sir Alf had brought on a different striker?  In fact, what might have happened if his finger had pointed at Billy instead?  How would life have been different?

On that awful, awful night for English football, the unpredictable genius of Billy Parks was left on the bench but now the Council of Football Immortals is offering Billy the opportunity to go back in time, take Kevin Hector’s place and score the goal that would make everything right.  The catch?  Well, the Council has to choose between Billy and Kevin Keegan and to be chosen, Billy will have to justify his life to the Council.

Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? is one of those rare beasts, a truly good novel about sport.  It manages this by being, first and foremost, a fine story about how people cope with fame and success, the nature of genius, alcoholism and, ultimately, the power of not only redemption but also the mere hope of redemption.

On top of this, Gareth Roberts layers an almost historical story of football in the ‘70s with a cast of the greats and not-so-greats of English football of the time.  Bobby Moore, George Best, Sir matt Busby and Brian Clough all pass through the pages of the book as Mr Roberts paints a picture of the era.

There are relatively few really top notch sports novels that spring to mind:  This Sporting Life, The Damned United, Chess (if you allow chess as a sport), The Master of Go (which really stretches the definition of sport) and that’s about all that come to mind, so it’s a real pleasure to come across another one.  The concept is highly original and, with the caveat that the supernatural or fantastical elements to it may make it difficult for potential readers or booksellers to categorise, it will, hopefully, do very well.

Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? is nostalgic, melancholy, full of footballing atmosphere and, if you want to know whether Billy finds redemption, I recommend you buy a copy now.

I'd like to thank the publisher, The Friday Project, for allowing me to read Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? via Netgalley.

Monday, January 6, 2014

2,332: Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly

Eh bien, mes amis, could this really be a new Agatha Christie?  Could this really be a lost Hercule Poirot story, published for the first time by Witness Impulse, HarperCollins’ digital mystery imprint?

Well, yes and no.  For, in truth, the story goes something like this.  Back in 1954, Ms Christie agreed to write a story, the proceeds of which would be donated towards the purchase of new stained glass windows for her local church. Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly, a novella featuring the great Belgian himself was the result.  So, why is it only now being published, I hear you cry.  Well, dearly beloved, this may come as a shock but, what with it being that awkward beast, a novella, neither short story fish nor novel fowl, not even Agatha herself could get anyone to publish it.

She liked the story though and turned it into a full-length novel, Dead Man’s Folly, with the church receiving the proceeds of Greenshaw’s Folly, a Miss Marple story in its place.  And that’s the rub for, although technically a new story, Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly will be immediately recognisable to anyone who has read (or seen) Dead Man’s Folly.

For those who haven’t, the story opens with M. Poirot receiving an urgent cry for help from his friend, the mystery writer Ariadne Oliver.  Rushing down to the titular Greenshore House, he finds that Mrs Oliver is engaged in devising a murder mystery for the village fete and that the most serious thing that has actually happened is that she has had a premonition.  Of course, the premonition is borne out when the lady of the house goes missing and the fake corpse in the murder mystery turns out to be very dead indeed.  Cue Poirot and cue a classic Christie mystery.

Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly has all the ingredients of a Christie mystery: an English country house, lots of red herrings, some nicely antiquated snobbery, caricature suspects and, of course, Poirot himself.  There is also some amusement to be had from Ariadne Oliver, a thinly-disguised parody of Christie herself, and her musings on the detective story process.  Christie uses Oliver and her fictional detective, the Finn Sven Hjerson (a clear allusion to Poirot) to poke fun at herself and to vent her frustrations at Poirot whom she had grown to dislike - she once described him as a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.”

Although it’s only half-true to describe it as a lost work, Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly is a thoroughly enjoyable short read that will appeal to lovers of Golden Age detective novels as well as to Christie fans.  Just make sure you haven’t read or watched Dead Man’s Folly recently.

I’d like to thank Witness Impulse for allowing me to read this via Edelweiss.

Friday, January 3, 2014

2,333: The Rules of Acting by Michael Simkins

Michael Simkins is one of those actors whose face you’d recognise but whose name may well elude you.  Since leaving RADA in the late 1970s (he was a contemporary of the wonderful Timothy Spall), he has had a varied theatre, film and TV career, appearing in the likes of Mamma Mia!, Chicago, Richard III, Yes Prime Minister, Foyle’s War, East Enders, A Touch of Cloth, V for Vendetta and The Iron Lady.  In addition, he writes regularly for a number of newspapers and has carved out a little niche in gently humorous, often self-deprecating, books.

The latest of these, The Rules of Acting, is ostensibly a guide to aspiring actors, designed to help them through the various stages of a jobbing actor’s life, from drama school onwards.  Drawing on his own experiences, he dispenses advice on all aspects of the thespian life, such as learning lines, firing an agent, attending the Oscars and, most importantly, why failing to read a script to the end can result in horrendous consequences, like having to simulate sex with a pig.

In reality, it is much more of a ramble through his own career and much the better for it.  Although dispensing some sound advice, it is all tempered with a wealth of anecdotes, some of which are wry and others belly-laugh-inducing.  As an actor who has worked with almost everyone who is anyone in showbusiness (from Meryl Streep to Kelly Osbourne!), there are plenty of tales to tell.

Of course, Simkins is an outlier in the theatrical profession in having built a successful and prolific career.  As he points out, acting is a profession with an unemployment rate at any given time of some 92%.  Indeed, Simkins himself has had to supplement his acting work with presenting safety training workshops for sewage workers and working as a crate smasher in a car factory.  His first piece of advice for aspiring actors is actually to find another career and towards the end of the book, there is a salutary account of Simkins’ search for the members of his class at RADA.  Other than the aforementioned Spall and Sinkins himself, virtually none of his other contemporaries had managed an acting career of any note and most were out of the industry altogether.

Reading The Rules of Acting feels like spending an evening in the pub with SImkins whilst he regales one with theatrical tales.  It’s great fun as well as being understatedly instructive for aspiring actors and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in showbusiness.  If your interests tend more towards sport, Simkins’ account of his obsession with cricket, Fatty Batter, is also simply wonderful and I would recommend this too.

I’d like to thank Random House’s Ebury Publishing for allowing me to read The Rules of Acting via Netgalley.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2,334: Poirot and Me by David Suchet

This may sound rather silly but I’ve still not been able to watch it.  It sat on my Sky+ box for weeks before being replaced by a DVD version just before Christmas and now rests on the DVD shelves awaiting the call but, for some reason, I’m just not ready for it.

I’m talking about Curtain, of course, the last ever episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, with David Suchet as everyone’s favourite Belgian.  It started nearly 25 years ago in January 1989 with The Adventure of the Clapham Cook and ran for 70 episodes, covering every Poirot novel and virtually all of the short stories.  It’s a great achievement as the main characters remained constant throughout the whole run and Suchet’s Poirot is, surely, now the definitive Poirot, standing head and shoulders above other cinematic Poirots, including those of Peter Ustinov and Albert Finney.

As well as this, it has been one of my personal favourite series, having started whilst I was at university and having been an on-and-off companion throughout my adulthood.  There is something peculiarly comforting about Suchet’s humane and affectionate portrait of Poirot and, even now, if I’ve had a tiresome day, I will slip an episode into the DVD player after Mrs F has fallen asleep and allow it to soothe me like a nice mug of hot chocolate.

Oddly enough, though, I had completely missed just how loved the series was by the general public and had, for some strange reason, thought it was just another TV detective show that I happened to have developed a peculiar fondness for.  Not so.  Not by a country mile as, come last November, in the run-up to the final episode, there was a blizzard of media coverage of the event, David Suchet became a staple of the interviewer’s sofa and the man himself published Poirot and Me, a memoir of his time as the great detective.

It’s a very engaging read and Suchet comes across as a serious character actor who ended up identifying with Poirot maybe a little too much and becoming driven to complete the cycle and to portray the character in the way he felt would realise Christie’s vision of Poirot.    Incidentally, he also appears to be a genuinely nice man, with the merest touch of thespian vanity.

The book opens with Suchet’s account of how he came to get the role, including a meeting with Christie’s daughter the (now late) Rosalind Hicks in which she admonished him not to mess it up and the advice he received from his brother, the ITV newsreader John Suchet – don’t touch it with a bargepole!

Fortunately, David ignored this well-intentioned fraternal advice and prepared for the role by listing 93 character traits of Poirot that he needed to reflect, which is actually reproduced as an illustration in the book.

As well as containing reflections from Suchet on pretty much every episode he appeared in, Poirot and Me is stuffed with fascinating anecdotes, on and off the set.  We hear about disagreements between star and directors, changes in production team, his fellow actors and actresses and the struggles in achieving the full cycle.

Although obviously focussing on Poirot, the book is also an interesting account of the life of a character actor and it is immensely to Suchet’s credit that, despite becoming so closely identified with Poirot, he managed to maintain a flourishing career away from the series and has become one of Britain’s best character actors.

All in all, if you loved the series or have an interest in TV or the stage, I am sure you will enjoy Poirot and Me.  And frankly, it’s worth the purchase price just for the story of Suchet, the mango and the Royal……….