Passing Through

I am still somewhat brainless with chronic fatigue and turgid in spirit (isn’t turgid a good word?), though I don’t know what Mr Litlove’s excuse is. This is an exchange we had just the other evening:

Me: And how were your sandwiches today?

Mr Litlove: Very nice, very tasty. I do like that cheese. And the mayonnaise.

Me: That’s interesting. Considering the sandwiches I made you were ham and tomato.

Mr Litlove: (eyes darting from right to left in concentration) But there was mayonnaise in there… wasn’t there?

Me: You don’t have a clue, do you?

It’s a wonder they still let us drive. The only thing I’ve been doing with any consistency and engagement is, as usual, reading. But so many of the books that have passed through my hands lately have been for the magazine, one way or another. You’ll note the Monique Roffey in my sidebar, and the recent half-review of Archipelago I wrote. I’m actually putting together a special feature about her writing for our next edition because I think she’s an amazing author, fearless in her approach and so clever in her storytelling. She’s asking questions about power and politics, risk and catastrophe that no one else has the guts to tackle.

in love and warI’ve also just finished the new novel by Laurie Graham, who is a writer who really should be better known than she is. Several years ago now I read and loved The Importance of Being Kennedy, and since then she has produced a series of historical novels that focus on a sprawling dynasty at the height of a crisis. Only she is a wonderfully comic author who gives her characters the sort of lines that Maggie Smith would punch the air to have in Downton Abbey. This latest was a joy and my love of her continues unabated. I’m also at the start of a novel by Alex Preston set in the late 30s when a young man is sent (in disgrace) to Florence by his powerful father in order to set up a wireless station for the Faschists. It’s been wonderful so far. Honestly, if any idiot decides to proclaim the death of contemporary fiction, I shall be unrestrained in my scorn. I’ve read – and have still to read – a stream of brilliant books for the magazine.

Given my under-par nature at the moment, I’ve also been reading solidly comforting crime fiction. Last year, thanks to Danielle, I discovered Elizabeth Daly and her gentleman detective, Henry Gamadge. I read Any Shape or Form, set as usual in the grand houses and crazy families of New York in the 1940s and absolutely loved it. Gamadge is visiting his elderly Aunt Alice and obliged to visit the neighbours with her. There, two conflicted sides of a family – the stepmother and her stepchildren – are being brought together by Johnny Redfields, a friend to all concerned, in the hope of effecting a reconciliation. Before the end of the afternoon, however, the stepmother is dead. It was the sort of book that makes me think of Bertie Wooster who, when interrupting Jeeves in his reading of Spinoza, commented guiltily that he bet Jeeves’d just got to the place where they found the second body.

deadheadingI’ve also recently discovered Catherine Aird, though her books are a bit harder to get hold of. She has a hapless Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan (‘Seedy’ to his work colleagues) squashed between a boss half in love with the ill-digested propositions of whatever recent training course he’s been on, and the only reinforcement he can ever lay hands on, Constable Crosby, who no one believes will ever make a decent detective as he is so immune to the niceties of police work. They all take place in the fictional county of Calleshire and are sort of halfway between Caroline Graham with her Midsomer Murders and something a little older and gentler, Margery Allingham perhaps or Ngaio Marsh. I like ‘em.

the last asylumThere have also been a few new arrivals over the threshold, cough. I couldn’t resist historian Barbara Taylor’s memoir, The Last Asylum, about the four years she spent there recovering from a nervous breakdown. Nor The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark by Josh Cohen, which draws on psychoanalysis, literature and life to argue that we cannot lose our basic privacy because we have parts of ourselves that even we can’t access. (Mr Litlove skim-read this one weekend morning and said he found it a bit academic, but I don’t suppose I’ll mind that too much). I’ve also picked up copies of Sue Gee’s Coming Home, about colonial Brits returned from India, and D. J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction, an alternative history novel which begins with the death of Wallis Simpson. Cleopatra had her asses’ milk, I have creamy pages of vanilla-sprinkle words to bathe in; I can thoroughly recommend it as a treatment. But what do we do about Mr Litlove??

 

 

The Farm, Or It’s Not As Nice In Sweden As You’d Think

the farmA few weeks ago, Mr Litlove was under the weather and so he decided to distract himself with a book. He settled for The Farm, by Tom Rob Smith, a novel I’d given him for his birthday. He started it that morning, ‘this is very good,’ he said at lunchtime, and by the late afternoon he had finished it.

He’d found it both gripping and clever, and since he’s quite hard to please when it comes to fiction, I was very curious about it now. So a couple of days later, I picked it up too.

Daniel has thought that his parents are enjoying a quiet retirement in Sweden, his mother’s native land, where they are running a small, remote farm. Then one day, returning to his London apartment after a trip to the supermarket, his father calls him, clearly distressed. His mother is ill, disturbed; she’s been making wild accusations and suffering from paranoia, and has been taken to a mental hospital. Daniel hardly has time to digest this shocking information and buy a plane ticket to Sweden before he gets another call, this time from his mother. ‘Everything that man has told you is a lie,’ she insists to him. ‘I’m not mad. I don’t need a doctor. I need the police.’ She is on her way to Heathrow airport where she wants him to meet her and provide her with sanctuary.

Unsurprisingly, Daniel doesn’t know what to believe. He hasn’t seen his parents for a while, not because of any rift, but because he is keeping a secret of his own. He’s gay, and doesn’t know how to tell them. His mother, he knows, had a difficult childhood and has made every possible effort to keep his happy and free from care. To Daniel, it’s not the fact of his homosexuality that will bother them, but his own reluctance to confide in them. His mother’s determined creation of a perfect upbringing has in fact disabled him in two ways: the first is that he can’t tell them anything that may blemish the smooth surface of their past, the second that if that smooth surface breaks down, he fears that all sorts of terrible things may emerge. When his mother arrives, it’s the meeting with his partner, Mark, that he worries about. But she is so strung out, so bursting to tell him her strange tale, that she barely notices anything about her surroundings.

She has with her a satchel that she tells him is packed full of ‘evidence’, and she insists on taking him through it piece by piece, convinced that it has been the scattered, disjointed nature of her narrative that has left her open to the charge of insanity in Sweden. Even so, her story treads a fine line – is she overreacting to the things that have happened? Has her troubled past finally caught up with her? Or is there really something dark and disturbing going on that involves the corruption of a small town?

Funnily enough, I found myself distracted in the opening parts of the story by the conviction that it was autobiographical in nature. It was something about the way the narrator described not being able to tell his parents about his sexuality, the urgency of those opening scenes. In fact, a quick online search revealed that the whole premise of the novel actually happened. Tom Rob Smith’s Swedish mother did turn up at his flat to tell him and his brother that she was recently released from a psychiatric institution where she had been placed against her will, after uncovering wht she thought was a conspiracy involving their father. Woah – after that sort of family drama, you probably would have to write about it. In an article in The Telegraph, he says: “with writing it’s like you can retreat from the muddle that is everything else.” Perhaps that’s one reason why the novel is brilliantly plotted.

In The Farm, the narrator, Daniel, eventually takes a trip to Sweden to find out the truth about his mother’s wild accusations, and the truth turns out to be something intriguingly twisted and different. Viewed overall, from a bit of a distance, this really is a clever novel that takes the tropes of Scandi noir thriller and makes something quite unusual out of them. It is very gripping and the mother’s tale is spookily unnerving, her recounting an uneasy mix of insight and extraordinary leaps of assumption. The way that stories generate their truths via the alliance of events and emotions, and the way coherence can be utterly misleading, is beautifully explored. But this isn’t a perfect novel. The first part, the mother’s story, takes 286 pages to tell, the resolution in Sweden a mere 80, and this imbalance has a cost, I think. The thriller element is lost along the way, Daniel’s initial sense of being torn between his parents simply fades. You still end up with a good story; but it isn’t quite the story you thought you had at the beginning.

I felt a bit mean telling Mr Litlove that I’d thought it a tad flawed here and there, after his wholehearted enthusiasm for the novel. But it may well be that this is a book best consumed in a single sitting. It’s very smooth and easy to read, so the prospect is quite do-able. And it is really clever and well written. It’s certainly left me with a strong desire to read his Moscow trilogy that began with Child 44.

 

The Cuckoo’s Calling

CuckooCallingI really felt for J. K. Rowling when she was outed as the author of this, the first in a new crime series under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. She could have lived off the Harry Potter novels for the rest of her life, but her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, showed that she was keen to keep writing. The assumption of a pseudonym showed that she wanted some objective assessment of her work. As professional critics have made clear time and again, their response to her writing is profoundly influenced by their emotions about her wealth and fame. For the most part, whenever she publishes something new the knives are out, because there’s a quota for how much good press a person gets, and it’s a pretty small one.

And it is hard to read anything by J. K. Rowling without Harry Potter’s shadow looming over the story. My son grew up with Harry Potter; I read the first five novels out loud to him, which made me inspect Rowling’s prose far closer than was probably good for either of us. I think she is a fantastic storyteller, and The Prisoner of Azkaban should rightly take a place in the pantheon of great classic childrens’ books. After that, I felt she was sorely in need of a courageous editor to cut out the padding and the occasional infelicities in her prose. I had no interest in The Casual Vacancy, because I felt it would always be Rowling’s own reaction to having written Harry Potter – it’s no coincidence that the book is so relentlessly grim. But I was intrigued to see what she could do with crime fiction. Plotting was always one of her strongest points.

When a supermodel falls from her apartment window in a lush Mayfair residence, press and police are quick to assume that it’s suicide. Lula Landry appears to be the one of the usual celebrity crowd, spoilt and narcissistic, dating a seriously messed-up actor in an on-again off-again relationship, superficial, flighty and probably neurotic. Her brother, the lawyer John Bristow, refuses to accept the verdict, and calls in private detective, Cormoran Strike, to re-open the enquiry. Strike is an intriguing and endearing gumshoe; a wounded war veteran now running to fat, who has his own relationship issues. He is the son of a famous rock musician (who he never knew) and a super-groupie, hippy mother, who dragged him and his sister around in a peripatetic, shiftless sort of existence. Cormoran is too much of an alpha male to be damaged by all of this, but he is faintly embarrassed by it. The new case represents a vital upturn in his fortunes, as he’s on the verge of bankruptcy. And by sheer chance, fate does him a fine service by landing a temporary secretary on his doorstep who will turn out to be an unexpected asset.

Cormoran gradually finds a number of loose ends in the case that refuse to tie up. What was Lula Landry writing on a piece of blue paper in the back of her chauffered car that people seem so keen to insist was a shopping list (now missing)? What happened when she visited her sick mother that left her in a state of unusual distress? Why did one of the main witnesses insist she heard a man in Lula’s appartment when it’s obvious she could have heard nothing at all from where she was standing? And why did Lula arrange to have lunch with her gold-digging friend, Rochelle, and then only stay with her for fifteen minutes?

This was an immensely readable book, compelling, well organised and peopled with a cast of vividly-drawn, if mostly unpleasant, characters. I really enjoyed it. J. K. Rowling uses the talent she had already shown with HP for cherry-picking some of the most intriguing elements of both crime and contemporary culture and bringing them together in a satisfying way. It was a stroke of genius to give Cormoran a secretary who is secretly longing to become a detective. The relationship between Cormoran and Robin becomes one of the most gripping parts of the book, and there’s no romance in it whatsoever. No, we’re talking Watson to Sherlock Holmes, or perhaps more aptly, Della Street to Perry Mason. But perhaps most of all, we’re talking Hermione Granger to Harry Potter. Cormoran is smart, determined and limited; he needs a female foil with insight and sensitivity to effect some last minute rescues from situations he plunges into without sufficient forethought.

As a huge, hairy ex-military policeman who’s not afraid of a fight, Cormoran has shades of Jack Reacher. And Lula Landry’s relationship with Evan Duffield was strongly reminiscent of Kate Moss and the awful Pete Doherty. The resolution of the case was pure Agatha Christie. But all of this added up for me, at any rate, into a fine murder mystery. It’s not about to win a Nobel prize, but it certainly kept me entertained for a couple of days. It’s not what she does, it’s the way that she does it.

 

Mwah-ha-ha To You, Too

night filmThis isn’t the kind of book I’d normally read, but lately I’ve been drawn to stories with a horrific or extreme edge to them. I fear I’ve finally turned into the kind of person who reads about situations worse than their own for comfort. The ethical jury in my mind is still out on this; I’ll get back to you when the verdict comes in.

So Night Film by Marisha Pessl is a whopper of a book, almost six hundred pages interspersed with mock pages from internet sites and magazines like Rolling Stone that must have had the collective knickers of the publisher’s Right’s Department in a twist, so genuine do they appear. Already we can begin to spots the signs of a postmodern imagination at work, yet the narrative also draws heavily on the old-fashioned hardboiled thriller. That same slightly awkward juxtaposition will be at work in the content too, which reaches for the outermost edge of contemporary horror film making, whilst falling unashamedly into the tropes of the scary ol’ ‘B’ movie.

The story begins with the ‘accidental’ death of young, beautiful and talented Ashley Cordova, whose body is found at the bottom of a lift shaft in an abandoned Manhatten warehouse. She was the daughter of the notorious and reclusive film director, Stanislas Cordova, whose eccentric life is legendary. The family occupied a huge and isolated estate, surrounded by a twenty foot high perimeter fence, in whose extensive grounds Cordova shot his fifteen films. Those films are only screened in select underground viewings – in the dead of night, in pitch darkness and often in condemned buildings. You can see where we’re going with this, and I hope you can hear the tremulous chords of the electric organ playing something portentous… Cordova’s films have spawned an impressive cult following, and his fan club hold their website on the onion, a black market version of the internet (is this for real?). The films are supposed to provoke the most terrifying viewing experience that has ever been created, and Cordova has been celebrated as a genius and reviled as a madman possessed of an evil, sick mind.

Enter stage right investigative journalist Scott McGrath. McGrath was researching a book about Cordova when he received a clandestine call from a man claiming to be the family’s ex-chauffeur, and suggesting that Cordova was involved in child abuse. This so rattled McGrath that when he appeared later that evening on a television interview program, he went so far as to suggest that ‘someone needs to terminate [Cordova] with extreme prejudice. The lawyers of the great man were instantly galvanised into action and McGrath has for some time now been a disgraced investigative journalist, unable to retain his credibility. Naturally the death of Cordova’s daughter awakens all his instincts, and he doubts the verdict of suicide. He also begins to believe that he saw Ashley shortly before she died. He was jogging around Central Park late at night when a ghostly vision in a red coat appeared to him in the shadows, and seemed to flit about the park following him at a supernatural speed.

Scott becomes engrossed in an unofficial investigation that soon brings him two young side-kicks, Nora Halliday, a would-be actress working as a coat-check girl in a restaurant, and the handsome young Hopper, a druggie with surprising capabilities. Together they start to patch together a timetable of Ashley’s final days, starting with her break out of a mental institution, and ending with her fall from the roof of the warehouse. Everywhere they turn they uncover more and more disturbing accounts of Ashley’s behaviour, that seem to indicate some kind of demonic possession. And the deeper they delve into the Cordova family’s murky past, the more dangerous their investigation becomes.

This is such a mixed bag of a book. The first 250 pages had me absolutely gripped, and then, when I reached the 400 mark, my interest began to flag. This could be me – I struggle with big books and this one did not do anything to dissuade me that anything over 500 pages has at least 200 pages of padding in it. But then it picked up a lot at the end, which is remarkably clever and inventive and finds Scott being chased through a series of old film sets on the Cordova estate, beset by the nightmareish visions they awaken, and by the menacing loss of distinction between fantasy and reality. In parts, the writing is excellent and wonderfully creative; for example, an image I loved of birds on a telegraph wire: ‘seven tiny black notes on an otherwise empty piece of sheet music, the lines and bars sagging.’ But the reader must contend with Marisha Pessl’s obsession with italicising words and snippets of phrases, two or three per page. This can become quite the irritant. Much about the plotting and the general idea of the book is extremely innovative; the characters of Scott and Nora and Hopper run the perpetual risk of dissolving into cliché.

The reason for this is due, I think, to the awkward juxtapositions I spoke about earlier. This is a book that can’t quite decide what it wants to be: a jolly, spooky romp of a thriller, a kind of adult version of Scooby-Doo, or a serious, postmodern story about the merger of fantasy and reality. Pessl has a game stab at making it both. I enjoyed it and admired it and sometimes rolled my eyes at it, but I’m glad I read it. One final thought: if you really do like the sort of filmmaking that Cordova is supposed to specialise in, give this book a wide berth. Its edges are too soft to be satisfying. But if you like horror-lite, and thrillers, and the idea of mismatched teams brought together through force of circumstances, there’s every chance you’ll love it.