Thursday, 13 November 2008

Not exactly thrilled

Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood (although when I bought it I thought I was); maybe it was watching the excellent BBC series, The State Within, at the same time as reading; maybe it was coming to the book straight after Agatha Christie’s masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – but Frederick Forsyth’s ‘thriller’, The Afghan proved to be more a damp squib than pyrotechnic display.

All the constituent parts were in place – action man hero, terrorist bad guys, secret service intrigue and obligatory cock-up and miss-timings; suitable locations were exploited; enough people, including the obligatory innocent, were killed – but nothing stood out, nothing gripped – it was just like sitting in a cooling bath – warm enough to keep you in, but almost cold enough to force you to move: Inertia is a significant factor in the choices people make.

In previous Forsyth reads I’ve never been so unexcited – or uninterested.

Key to my disappointment is this feeling of detachment – I quite frankly didn’t care about any of the participants. It is in the nature of the genre that character is not greatly developed, but there is a need for a sharpness of outline, some individuation, telling details to hook on to. Mike Martin, the hero, is far too obvious to be real – there is no way I want a Colonel in the SAS to have Lawrence of Arabia as his favourite film – or to think in terms of tatty emotional-knee-jerk poetry: This is dumbing-down in an obvious way. The Afghan himself – prisoner in Guantanamo - despite showing flickers of life, especially in his youth, turns into the ‘justified’ terrorist; Forsyth’s attempts to humanise sounding more like wishy-washy liberal, coffee-table sociology than solid realities.

So too with the locations. In Forsyth’s Icon I could recognise Russia – the Moscow of post Soviet collapse – and that despite knowing factually it was not quite right in several places (I was living in Moscow at the time I read it); what it captured was one of the senses of psychological place that were potentially post Yeltsin Moscva.

Not one location in The Afghan gave me anything other than a feeling of umbrella-stand to hang a piece of plot on. Whether it was the seriously spectacular mountains of Afghanistan, the luscious blues of the Arabian gulf, the dripping mosquito heat of the tropics or the cold chill rounding the southern tip of Africa late in winter – none appeared in my inner mind as I read of events taking place ostensibly in a globalised terrorists-free-to-wander world.

Strangely, at times, I had a suspicion that Forsyth was thinking in terms of film – sketching in plot and focus points which the actual location will screen fill, the sound effects and music-track excite, the quick cutting and camera close-up thrill. There was no stronger incident in the book than the Russian helicopter rising into the air and coming into the attack – it would make a stunning sequence – on the page it was reduced to events.

I will watch the film when it comes out – it should be a good action movie (although the basic terrorist plot did stretch believability I’m afraid). The book, however, is destined for the reject pile.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

The Ultimate Deception

Agatha Christie’s job, as a writer of Detective Novels, was, paradoxically, to hide the criminal – much like a spiv with the card game, Hide the Lady. Even though the punter aims to find the card – and makes wild guesses (based, of course, on superior talents) the side-show spiv will win every time – maybe it’s just a trick, a slight of hand, but we come back again and again in the vain hope of putting one over on the expert.

Not much hope, I’m afraid!

‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ has to be Ms Christie’s ultimate deception – it certainly had me fooled right ‘til the end. No matter where I looked, the Lady was hidden.

Up pop all the usual suspects – and with a Christie you know if someone is accused, it isn’t them. One by one she knocks out everyone – and I do mean everyone! Surely she hasn’t had a total stranger do the murder?

No, the wrist works it’s magic: Poirot, shows you the superiority of his little grey cells and you loose again.

And I can’t tell you the secret – I won’t spoil the thrill.

What I will say is it is beautifully done.

Agatha Christie manages here to exploit the genre ‘Detective Novel’ in a way which relies on the reader’s knowledge of all the usual tricks, of lulling them into a false sense of security and then flipping them onto their backs. It is a book to be read rather than a story to be told – and despite the amazing craftsmanship of Granada television’s version with David Suchet, it fails precisely because this is not only a story but an exploration of the relationship between reader and writer.

Poirot has gone into retirement – Hastings is away in Argentina, Scotland Yard is not involved. A local rich man is the victim of murder (the only one, incidentally in the story – the TV version needed to double the number, bring Inspector Japp in where he wasn’t wanted and simplify the plot by removing a couple of key characters). There is blackmail and love, lost wedding rings and phone calls in the night.

Poirot, after throwing marrows around, one of which lands in his neighbour’s garden and smashes open at the feet of the doctor, is brought in on the sidelines – he hardly features in fact. There is a chair out of place, a man arrested in Liverpool, and the delicate feelings of the local constabulary all to be taken into consideration.

And a lot of consideration is being done by a local tribe of Miss Marples. Nosey old women pop up in profusion – and references to the greatest detective of all times can’t be avoided: The story is retold by the Doctor whose shoes were splattered – a Watson to Poirot’s Holmes.

As you would expect, it is the twist and turns of the plot that matter rather than deep characterisation, but to suggest the book is shallow as a result would be to deny the profound insight Ms Christie shows into the psychology of her readership.

The term masterpiece has been justifiably applied to the book – and I fully concur.

Just make sure you read the book before you see the film!

Friday, 31 October 2008

A Debt of Gratitude

Even though Graham Greene lived and worked well into the ending of the 20th century, I was a little surprised when I saw the date of publication of ‘The Human Factor’: 1978, the year I graduated from university: For some reason I had associated it with the 1950s and an earlier generation.

As I’ve mentioned before, Greene had had an early influence on me - but reading Greene from this end of my allotted time is a very different experience. The realisation that he is dealing in my lifetime gives a sharpness, if not bitterness, and reflecting on Greene’s observations is a more personal undertaking than initially presumed. Time present is to be found in time past.

This is a spy story – in the way that King Lear is a story about retirement or Waiting for Godot a play about a missed appointment. The title is appropriate – if 007 is all action, and Smiley not really much deeper than your average detective, Castle, the central character here, and Davis, his co-worker in the Security Service are not only fleshed out and rounded physically, but psychologically believable. The guilts and gratitudes, the anxieties and loves Mr Greene weaves into their tale are not mere excuses for action, they are the subject of the story – The Human Factor.

Through a debt of honour Castle feels bound to reveal what amount to trivial secrets to the ideological enemies of his nation – enemies who acted with more humanity and goodwill than supposed allies and friends. No guilt arises from the treachery, if anything it is a re-affirmation of the love he feels for his wife (the root cause of the debt) and a genuine attempt to relieve the suffering of her ‘people’ under the vicious Apartheid system both the British and American governments are working with covertly (and not so covertly) in an attempt to stop the threat of Africa turning ‘red’.

What we get is the clash of an individual with systems – the resulting crushing of the human by the state and its apparatus is quite desolating. The world has turned upside down – the doctor seeks ways to kill, the policeman attempts to justify and excuse crime; the Catholic church is anything but catholic and even the guard dog fawns on strangers.

Accidents happen in this ‘we’re not totalitarian’ state – the wrong man is executed (how else can we prevent bad publicity) – much as in the ‘regrettable’ accident of the killing of the innocent Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes.

Fictional though Mr Greene’s world is, it is a fiction based on a mental reality – that of a security service more frightened of the enemy within than a real threat without: I can only compare it to the human immune system turning against the cells of its own body.

Relevant to all of us in the present climate of ‘wars’ against terror which produce far more shocking tortures and crimes against humanity on behalf of the good guys than the bad guys could dream up (or afford).

Sunday, 24 August 2008

A Nation's Frailty

Fortunately, Alan Bennett has already declined a knighthood - meeting England's sword wielding Queen after publishing The Uncommon Reader might be a little, shall we say, 'ambiquous'.

But then again, Alan Bennett has a charm and humour which might, if the present monarch does actually read, disarm even the most, "We are not amused!"

The story is simple; England's Queen suddenly develops a passion for reading which humanises her. It does not, however, result in any final satisfaction and at the end of the book we are left with a twist that seems to be setting Mrs Windsor off on a whole new adventure.

In such stark outline it is a piece of amusing trivia ... and I've read several reviews which don't seem to have moved beyond this level of comprehension: That is to greatly underestimate both Mr Bennett and his understanding of the character of the British Monarchy. It is also to reduce what is an interesting essay into the relationship between reader and writer to mere amusement.

Bennett is superb with 'odd' characters - his Talking Heads series takes individuals and exposes both the bleakness and the richness of their humanity.

He does a similar job here on 'The Queen'. But to mistake the character for the real thing is to mistake Mr Bennett's purpose ...

The Queen of England (Elizabeth II - she doesn't even have a real family name!) represents in a way which is unique in the modern world, a nation. That nation is not even England ... it is the United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or UK. The poor woman has even got the extra burden of several other states and nations tucked around her.

As such, any individuality or personality has been subsumed under the mantel of duty ...and that is Mr Bennett's starting point. Through her passion for reading, the character of the Queen undergoes an education which releases her individuality and causes her to reject that lifetime of duty.

This is, of course, a manifesto and a metaphor ... if the Queen is representative of the UK then it is as duty bound as she and there is a need for the liberating effect of reading.

But it goes beyond being a simple cry for more education, it is a call for the appreciation of the creative in us all.

As the Queen, tentatively at first, makes her way through the world of literature she absorbs everything from high to low. It causes her to ask embarrassing questions about Jean Genet of the French President; to force old paperback copies of Hardy's poetry on the Prime Minister; to eventually send her private secretary back home to the bleakness of the southern hemisphere.

The early journey is supported by the dish-washing homosexual 'Norman' - too ugly to make it as page. His promotion upstairs leads to resentment and his eventual removal whilst the Queen is away both fortunate and unfortunate.

Prince Philip trots around like one of 'the dogs' and several un-named grandchildren flit in and out. So too do a remarkable list of authors, all given a little pungent assessment - which is one of the delights of the book.

Politicians are given short shrift ... but not the main character herself. There is an affection in the writing which belies the suggestion that Mr Bennett is taking a swipe at the monarchy. He's too good a writer for that.

Oh, by the way - it is very, very witty!

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Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Damned Silly!

“One is tempted to say,” said the white wine and soda, “it was a positive wolf in the grass slothing lambs wool mittens!”

The tea with milk, no sugar, agreed.

With a clear and unambiguous title, Blandings Castle emblazoned on the dust cover, one is not expecting trips to Hollywood, even with the inestimable Mr. Mulliner and his ubiquitous family.

Sneakily slipped inside is the full title, ‘Blandings Castle and Elsewhere’. Damned cheek I’d call it – especially as I’d settled in to my summer holiday read and, like England, was expecting …

In two clear parts with and entr'acte of mixed pedigree, this collection of short stories takes you through an early phase of Lord Emsworth’s passions (strictly horticultural at first but moving swinewards), deals with the suicidal American publisher and comes to rest in the US of A’s bitter world of celluloid sweat-shop.

Emsworth here seems to be a bit stronger - to be able to offer resistance to that most formidable of avenging hosts, his sister and even takes to refusing his Glaswegian sourpuss Head Gardener – but only with the helping hand of a London waif.

These are tales which wag with all the drunken puppy-dog vigour you would expect from Blandings and don’t disappoint. The young characters are chumps, the older characters either fighting against the encroaching idiocies of youth, or rich enough to indulge them. Sailing through it all is Emsworth, concerned only with the important things of life – watching his marrow grow or fattening his pig to Shropshire Show prize winning proportions. His son is more concerned with selling dog biscuits.

This ends all too quickly – at page 160 of a 300 page book.

Mr Potter, publisher, gets dragged down to a very Blandings-inferior country residence for the between acts entertainment marking a sort of obvious transition – an American in England before we hit the English in America. What he is doing sneaking out of a punt and into the moat I’ll leave it to you to find out – but star (or rather Lady Wickham’s celebrated willpower) crossed love is involved, and furniture piled against the door.

Mr Mulliner then, as is his want, engages in a bit of storytelling in the local pub to assembled drinks. All are of related Mulliners, their blighted loves and interactions in the jungle we know as the film industry.

Mr. Wodehouse seems to have a wormwood like inflection towards the Californian dream factory and one wonders if personal experience hasn’t coloured his attitude.

Monstrous moguls, scheming starlets and writing prisons all feature in this most deceptive of environments – and the bland drift of English youth towards it is reminiscent of Pacific flotsam.

Amusing but cautionary, the moral high ground is scaled, whilst in the cellar the police are locked out of the illicit liquor store.

Good tales – but not what I wanted on the hot summer riverbank as I lazily watch the local hookers attempting to land the indolent carp.

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Thursday, 24 July 2008

Greedy Appetites

Crime Fiction tends to rely on the glutton rather than the epicure – the criminals always seem to want insatiably - wealth, power, wo/men; the detectives want more and more, almost with a ferociousness, the next clue; and the readers stuff themselves to bursting with the newest publication. Tabloid details are piled high on the table and quickly consumed.

Death in the Truffle Wood is, unashamedly, Crime Fiction.

It does, however, nod in the direction of better cooking in that it titillates the appetite – usually with a dark humour. And there are a couple of good descriptions of the sort of food that gives the French the moral high ground over the English when it comes to ‘measuring’ cuisines.

Commissaire Laviolette, is the detective Poirot might have been if Agatha Crusty had been a French intellectual instead of English ‘madam’: He likes good food, he smokes roll-ups with the class only the intelligent seem to manage, he chases women whilst he’s chasing murderers and he is, according to his bosses, none-descript – he’s given the case of the disappearing hippies because no one will notice him.

He, like his author, Pierre Magnan, is Provencal – The Province – the one that gives its inhabitants the necessary passport to condescend to town dwellers everywhere, and puts the urbane in urban.

Laviolette understands the countryside and country people in a way streetwise Phillip Marlowes in their brick and tarmac jungles will never grasp. There is almost an organic telepathy, an osmosis of thought and feeling flowing between the detective and the community. Clues are a concentration of flavours and scents rather than solid facts … animals play a key role in searching out these essentials – just as Roseline, the truffle hunting pig, searches and earns her keep rooting for what is essentially a parasitic fungus sucking away at the roots of healthy oak trees.

Those truffles, however, feature strongly in both the cooking and the plot – and act as a metaphor for the whole genre – what, after all, is it we are searching for but the rotten feeding off the strong? What is the detective in fiction but a glorified truffle pig?

That is the kind of rhetorical question you end up asking as you read – and points to an element in this book which is missing in the average pot-boiler – intellectualism.

Now, I am of Anglo-Saxon stock, and, even though I’ve denied my father and changed … I haven’t gone so far as to feel comfortable with ‘intellectualism’. Intelligence I can cope with – as long as it does the occasional prat-fall and keeps itself suitably coy – but showy intellectualism is a bit ‘continental’.

All I can say is, “Here it works,” – it is an integral part of the book and gives a dimension to the read which is refreshing to the jaded palate. I am not convinced though that the majority of Morse (who is only intelligent, despite his opera playing) and Barnaby (who is decidedly English Bumbling) fans will take much pleasure from the story.

Of the characters that people the pages there is a real French tart – not the English sticky, sweet, ‘Queen of Hearts’, jam type, but a goat cheese, onion and truffle baked Banon original; a small, lost dachshund befriended by the pig; several braces of warring brothers; and a lightening struck old cow who terrifies all around her and gets the toughest of toughs to open doors, politely, for her. There is also mention but, infuriatingly. no development of a partnership between the local baker and the local priest.

I picked up the book as an intentional anti-dote to the heavy English cooking of ‘On Chesil Beach’ – and have to say, instead of a sorbet, I got something a little more substantial – but equally invigorating.

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Sunday, 20 July 2008

A visit to the bookshop

After the emotional thumping of 'On Chesil Beach' I thought I needed something a bit lighter.

I duly wandered into a couple of the local bookshops and did a browse.
I like browsing.
I end up buying a lot online - I live, after all, in a provincial town in an none-English speaking country: The fact that there are several bookshops in the town with a range of books in English is itself something of a miracle.

Don't try ordering though - the Romanian system can't cope with ordering.

Amazon (the UK one) saves my bacon regularly, even though the postage is unreasonable, almost punitive.

I wasn't sure what I wanted - i just knew it was to be lighter - possibly a Crusty (Agatha), possibly sci-fi; maybe something foreign - as long as it wasn't too intense.

There are some good Chinese and Japanese novels - the publisher Vintage seems to be making inroads into lesser explored territories; and sci-fi is over represented - too much in fact to go through, and the girl stocktaking in front of them restricted my enthusiasm somewhat.

Then two clear choices popped up - a classic, 'Memories of My Melancholy Whores', a García Márquez. I thought that was a good choice after all that sexual frustration of the McEwan.

And 'Death in the Truffle Wood' - whose blurb promises not only good crime fiction, but loving descriptions of French food.

After the early 60's English of the last novel, the French won hands down.

So, expect some delicious crime and good pig fodder next up!