Balthasar’s Gift

balthasar's giftThere’s a back story to this one. Once upon a time, now many years ago, a group of women writers, all friends online, came together over a feminist blog: What We Said. We were all involved with different kinds of writing; novels, short stories, nonfiction. Now one of our group has published her crime novel, Balthasar’s Gift, which is the first in a series featuring maverick journalist, Maggie Cloete.

The setting is South Africa, post-apartheid but before the turn of the millenium. Maggie is going about her normal business (chasing muggers on her motorcycle, in fact) when the call comes in: a shooting at the local AIDS mission. Maggie arrives to find a young man dying in the arms of the woman who runs the place, and it’s only when a passer-by knows the victim’s name, Balthasar Meiring, that Maggie realises she’s heard of him. A little while back he had called her on the phone, urging her to attend the court hearing of a class action against a doctor selling a fake cure for AIDS. Maggie had decided to pass the information onto her colleague at the paper who works on health issues, mostly because she was resisting the pressure Meiring seemed to want to put on her. And of course now, she regrets it.

While the general assumption is that his death is a robbery gone wrong, Maggie begins to suspect there’s a great deal more behind it. Following up on leads that she hides from her editor at the paper, she begins to believe that the two sides of Balthasar’s life have clashed: his private school friends, some of whom are now operating far too close to the limits of the law, and his work with AIDS sufferers, of whom there are escalating numbers. It’s the mid-90s and the government is reluctant to provide the drugs that could save thousands of lives, while the people react with fear and superstition. It’s a bad situation, ripe with all the urgency and exploitation that leads to murder.

Maggie is a terrific character: determined to be the alpha male in any situation, stubborn and provocative and with the subtlety of a jackhammer, but fundamentally it’s her tender side that gets her into trouble, undermining any professional distance she might try to have. She reminds me a whole lot of V. I. Warshawski.

But perhaps what I admired most in this novel is the setting of Pietermaritzburg. I’ve never been to South Africa and know very little about the country, but this story is so steeped in the atmosphere of place and time, I felt as if I’d been there. The best crime fiction doesn’t just tell a pacy, high-octane story, it also has a profound awareness of the social injustices and loopholes that create the right conditions for crime to flourish. I really admired this in Eva Dolan’s crime novel, Long Way Home, a few weeks back, and was again impressed by that same depth in Charlotte Otter’s.

I should also say that I read an early version of this novel, when Charlotte was first drafting it. It was a great read then, but now it’s amazing. Every scene is crisp, the transitions are smooth, the characterisation sharp and vivid, the story unfolds so neatly and lucidly… All too often I read books that feel a bit ragged still, as if they should have gone through another edit before reaching their readers. But this one is as slick and tough as a turbo engine. And finally, hard-boiled crime fiction has a new edge in the 21st century, led by women writers who marry uncompromising social insight with compassion. The old sisterhood would be justly proud to bits of Charlotte.

 

Thursday Reading Notes

Looking back over the past month or so I see that my reading has been all over the place, rather like the golden rose in our back garden that will suddenly shoot two or three long suckers out in random directions. There have been distinct obsessions lately and quite a lot of books read that I haven’t mentioned here.

eva dolanAs ever, once we’ve finally put an edition of Shiny out, I take a fortnight’s vacation in crime. Of several titles I read, the standout was Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. I picked it up because it was set in Peterborough, a town not far from where I live, and which does seem to have featured on the news lately as a Place Where Bad Things Happen. Eva Dolan’s novel was brilliant, focusing on the large immigrant population in Peterborough and the dangerous drudgery of their lives. Although it was a much darker book than I usually read, the writing was excellent and the situation so fresh and contemporary I almost expected to read about the crime in the local papers. Gripping and pacy, I really rated this one.

the telling errorI also read my first Sophie Hannah, The Telling Error. I’m late to this particular writer and initially I wasn’t at all sure I’d like her. The murder was committed in a ludicrous way, which I could have forgiven had her main detective not rushed in with a series of interpretations that were even more implausible. However, as the story got into its stride and the complexities of the plot unfolded and were ironed out, I was lost in the story in a wholly good way. I’m not going to say anything about this one – Mr Litlove was driving me to lunch in Saffron Walden, and I spent the entire half hour recounting the plot in a way that even confused me long before we reached our destination, and I like to think I can make a reasonable job of a synopsis. I was left with even greater respect for Sophie Hannah’s powers of narrative organisation. Heaven only knows this story was complicated, but I followed it perfectly at the time.

Interestingly enough, I was at a book event in town on Tuesday where Sophie Hannah and her mother, Adele Geras were both speaking. Sophie Hannah was talking about her new Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, and how it came into being. Apparently her agent had a brainwave that she would be the perfect person to write a continuation novel for Agatha Christie, and by strange coincidence, the estate actually felt the time was ripe for one (having shuddered at the prospect for many a year). The Christie family is apparently delighted with Sophie’s book, but I’ve only read mixed reviews of it. If you know of a good one, point me in the right direction. Amusingly, Sophie said that usually when you publish a novel, you have to brace yourself for some moaning, but the good thing about this novel was that she was inundated with complaints on twitter as soon as it was announced she’d be writing it. So the publication had been fairly uncontentious by comparison.

I was actually there, though, for her mother. I’m interviewing Adele Geras for Shiny New Books towards the end of the month, and trying to zip through a portion of her huge back catalogue before we meet. This means unusually for me, I’m reading YA fiction – her rewrite of Greek mythology in Troy – as well as more romantic novels. Her latest, Cover Your Eyes, and one from a few years back, A Hidden Life.

TheLastAsylumMy real obsession at the moment, however, is with memoirs. I’ve been reading some utterly brilliant ones. A few weeks back I finished Barbara Taylor’s account of her psychotic breakdown in The Last Asylum, where she was put for want of anything better to do with her. Barbara Taylor writes so engagingly and so honestly about her mental collapse, I properly could not put the book down. I am never quite sure why reviewers so often praise a lack of self-pity in memoirs, when quite often those writing them have a great deal to be sorry about. But in this book, Taylor’s powerful, straightforward and lucid voice is just wonderful. Throughout this time she was seeing a psychoanalyst – indeed the implication is that therapy forced her to confront her problems without being able to prevent her lapse into psychosis – and essentially this relationship becomes the spine of the story. Taylor is mean to her therapist in an eye-watering way, but he hangs on in there for her and eventually becomes her route to sanity.

Also utterly, breathtakingly brilliant was Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up The Ghost. I’d better not say much about this other than I loved it and hope to review it properly soon.

zeno's conscienceFinally, I am plodding through Zeno’s Conscience, an Italian Modernist hit from the early part of the 20th century. I’m reading it because it has such a good story behind it. It was the third self-published novel by its author, Italo Svevo (whose real name was Ettore Schmitz), and each of his books had appeared to an indifferent critical reception before sinking without trace. He’d given up trying to publish anything for 25 years before writing his last, and he believed his best, book. When it, too, looked like it would disappear unnoticed, he sent a copy to his old friend and one-time English tutor, James Joyce. Joyce was enthusiastic and told him to send copies to prominent French critics that he knew. They took it up with excitement and the novel then catapulted Italo Svevo to brief, late fame. He absolutely loved it, all his dreams had come true, but he only lived a few more years to enjoy it. Generally I can get into any book if I make the effort, but this one is resisting me quite stubbornly. I think it’s a gender problem, as the novel is the story of a lazy, cowardly, morally dubious man who spins everything to put himself in a better light. He is the Homer Simpson of the early 20th century, a man who may not always be right, but who is never wrong. I know he’s meant to be unsympathetic, but his torturous meandering thoughts do sometimes grate upon my nerves. Still, I will plod on.

I shouldn’t really ask, but if you have recommendations for excellent memoirs, just whisper them in the comments below.

Strangers on a Train

strangers on trainToo many psychological thrillers these days think they’ve done sufficient work by placing their female heroine under multiple threats of peril. They need to have a look at the dark and twisted novels of Patricia Highsmith to see how it’s really done. Highsmith knew that no amount of external threat can rival the psychological terror we are able to inflict on ourselves. In her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), she created a story of claustrophobic menace that turned any simplistic understanding of morality upside down.

Guy Haines and Charles Bruno are chance acquaintances on a train heading south to Texas. Guy, an architect, is travelling to see his estranged wife, Miriam, whom he hopes will finally agree to a divorce. Miriam is pregnant by a new lover, and Guy feels that here, at last, is the leverage required to settle the matter, though he is sure she will continue to kick up as many obstacles as she can. Guy has become steadily more impatient as he is nominally engaged to Anne, an altogether better prospect for the wife of a man with a budding career. Anne and her moneyed, harmonious family offer Guy the sort of social status he needs, and charming, elegant Anne inspires his genuine love.

Guy is accosted on the train by Charles Bruno who thrusts his company upon him. Bruno is already three sheets to the wind when they meet, and will drink steadily through their encounter. He has the sort of entangling presence that certain unstable people wield with cunning; a genius for ingratiating himself where he is not welcome. Guy drinks more in his presence than is wise and he ends up saying a little about Miriam – more than enough for Bruno to come to some astute conclusions. And so Bruno offers him partnership in a criminal scheme he’s been brewing for a while. Bruno hates his father and longs for him to be dead. He’d kill him if he thought he’d get away with it, but his homicidal desire is too evident. What he suggests to Guy is a tit for tat. He’ll kill Miriam if Guy will kill his father, and they will never be caught because there is no motive to link them to the crimes.

Guy is horrified by this idea and by Bruno himself. He ends the conversation and hopes never to see him again. But by the time he arrives in Metcalf, Miriam has miscarried and is threatening to accompany him to his new architectural project, a commission that could make his name. He can’t help but acknowledge a few murderous impulses towards her. When Miriam is found strangled at the local fair, Guy has the sickening sensation that his unconscious enmity has killed her, even though he is sure it was in the form of the all-too corporeal Bruno.

For Bruno turns out to be a man of queer passions. He loves his mother a little too much, and he has fallen into an idealistic veneration for Guy. This is a murder committed primarily out of twisted love – partly because he has been longing to reveal his own capabilities to himself, partly because he wants to offer it like a gift, a homage, to Guy. When Guy reacts with hostility to his actions, Bruno is deeply wounded. But not diverted from his determination to make Guy keep up his end of a bargain he never agreed to.

I won’t give away any more of the plot, but if you’ve seen the Hitchcock adaptation, you should know that from here on in, movie and book diverge. Hitchcock, with a mainstream cinema audience to please, keeps Guy riveted to his ‘good man’ persona, whereas in the book, Guy knows his integrity is lost from the moment he wishes Miriam dead, a moment that isn’t even articulated, but is no less potent for all that: we know he did because of the guilt he feels when she dies. From now on, the story of Guy will be a study in guilt and what it can make us do. Guy will find himself pushed to the extreme because the guilt he feels is so intolerable he will do anything – even compound his crimes – in the crazy desire to be free of it. I was writing last week about Patrick Modiano and his ability to create characters who are guilty until proven guilty. Guy is another in this mode. It’s a very common part of the human condition, and it makes a mockery of this idea that we have control over our lives to the extent that we can choose to be good or bad. We’re human and so, under duress, we do good things and we do bad things, and sometimes doing nothing is the most damning thing we do of all.

If Guy is the good man forced to the bad, then Bruno is the bad man who forces us to feel pity. Sure, he’s a fledgling psychopath, but it’s the love that’s inside him we cannot deny, however horrifying its manifestations may be. His descent into the worst terrors of alcoholism are car-crash mesmerising, and we wait on tenterhooks for the moment when he can no longer contain all his messed-up emotions – worship for Guy, pride in his cleverness, terror at his own steady disintegration. We know Bruno can’t be all bad, despite appearances, because Guy becomes bonded to him, in an act of brotherly recognition:

Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved.’

This is not a pleasant book but it’s a gripping one. The claustrophobia that Highsmith builds up is brilliant and sickening. Although much of the book is about people doing dreadful things, its centre is the tragedy of our longing to be pure. Guy shows how nothing that has value in life – love, success, money – is worth a fig when set against the horror of feeling besmirched in our own sense of self-worth. Guilt dominates, and almost nothing can appease it at the height of its power. The kind of novel that sends a genuine chill down the spine.

Death of an Avid Reader

9780349400570As we near the publication date of our next full edition of Shiny New Books, you might reasonably fear that the title of this post referred to me. But no! It is in fact the most recent addition to the series of crime novels by Frances Brody featuring her 1920s lady detective, Kate Shackleton. I confess I just love this sort of reproduction vintage crime. I’m a fan of the traditional cozy whodunnit, and ready to cheer when – for example – Kate’s stalwart housekeeper, Mrs Sugden, brings in the tea and hot buttered muffins as Kate sheds her coat and muffler after a long day of tough sleuthing out in foggy Leeds. Bring on the comforting period detail! This novel provided me with a weekend’s perfect relaxation.

So it’s autumn 1925 and Kate has received a letter regarding a new private investigation. The venerable Lady Coulton charges her with finding the daughter she gave up for adoption many years ago. With only an old photo and a last-known address to guide her, Kate sets to work with her trusty ex-policeman assistant, Jim Sykes. But it isn’t very long before her attention is distracted, first by the discovery of a Capuchin monkey in the back of her car, property of the local organ-grinder who seems to have gone missing (Mrs Sugden is disapproving but scarcely ruffled, you’ll be glad to know, by a monkey as a house guest), and then by a distinctly odd story of ghosts in her local library. As a member of the board, she agrees to witness an exorcism in order to settle the fragile nerves of the ladies who work there. But instead the evening ends with the discovery of a real body, that of Dr Horatio Potter, a learned local man who is deeply involved with the library’s business. And lying not far from him, in a state of collapse, is the organ-grinder.

Kate finds herself dragged into this case in order to prevent the crime from being thoughtlessly attributed to a poor old sick man. But when it seems that the missing daughter she seeks might well have been a former employee at the library, and that the library is riven with quarrels over a proposed move into new buildings, her cases merge and become more complicated.

There’s a lot going on in this novel and the plotting is masterful. There are plenty of revelations and twists and turns, a colourful cast of characters and the atmosphere of 1920s Leeds is beautifully recreated. I thought this was consistently well-written and Kate Shackleton is a fine creation. Left widowed by the war but far from helpless, she puts her VAD nursing skills to good use along with her able intelligence. She never oversteps the boundaries of what a lady of her class could do in that era, but you do feel that she actually works her puzzles out, rather than relying on some stroke of luck or anachronistic act of derring-do. She’s often been compared to Jacqueline Winspeare’s Maisie Dobbs, and there is a circumstancial resemblance to her, but there’s more detecting going on in these books, less historical detail. I don’t mind that as I can sometimes get a bit bogged down with Maisie. And on an entirely superficial note, the covers are fab. If you like your cosy crime intelligent but restful, then I’d warmly recommend her.

As for this avid reader, I am aware of being horribly behind yet again in my blog reading. I’ve kept all your posts on my feed reader and hope to start getting to them very soon. Many apologies – hopefully the new edition of SNB will more than make up for my absence!