Wednesday, 28 January 2009

A DOUBLE DOSE OF GRAHAM HURLEY

Graham Hurley's latest novel, No Lovelier Death, is about to be published, and my review of it appears over at Crime Time, here. It's another strong addition to the Faraday/Winter series, and Hurley strikes me as being perhaps the least appreciated of the great British police procedural writers. It's hard to understand why, because as well as being acutely sensitive to British society, in the best traditions of Martin Beck, and acute about the society of cops, like John Harvey, Faraday himself ought to appeal to fans of the Morse-style, more sensitive, detective, yet Morse was never given a Winter against whom he could be played off.

At least he's appreciated here. In fact, the musty files of Crime Time's print edition turned up the following review, which languished there ever since I wrote it just about three years ago.Blood And Honey was the sixth in the series, which has continued its annual punctuality, and marked the point where Winter's growth as a main character had become too impressive to ignore. Here's what I said, back in 2006:

Graham Hurley's Joe Faraday series, which has appeared on an amazingly regular annual schedule for six years, keeps getting better and better. Its depth and breadth have increased to the point that they are now billing it as ‘Faraday and Winter’, acknowledging the equal importance of both characters. They aren’t partnered up, as most crime double acts would be, but rather play as a sort of Pompey ying and yang, the dark sides of policing and policemen contrasting with those moments of light each offers.
Most of Faraday’s action in this one takes place on the Isle of Wight, where a headless corpse has washed up directly under prime bird-watching cliffs. As Faraday gets involved more and more with refugees from Yugoslavia, and expansion of the case into the smuggling of people, for illegal immigration and worse, Winter hopes to bring down a prominent local big wig by using a high-class call-girl in a sting. But Winter’s own state of mind is being torn apart by severe migraines, which he fears may be the symptoms of something far worse. And weakness of any sort is anathema to Winter.

The beauty of Hurley’s writing is that the crimes his detectives have to solve arise out of such varied motivations, but the biggest ones, like murder are often simply a reaction, or over-reaction, to some very different sort of pressure, often outside the normal boundaries of the criminal world itself.Those pressures are generally reflected in his detectives,and in the way they face up to and deal with the insular community of Portsmouth,in its own way a microcosm of the darker side of modern Britain. Perhaps not the brave new world of Blair, Brown and Cameron, but certainly one not yet removed from the legacies of the Thatcher years.

Blood and Honey Graham Hurley Orion 2006, £10.99 ISBN 0752851004

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

MORE ON JOHN HARVEY'S COLD IN HAND

John Harvey's excellent Resnick novel, Cold In Hand, will be hitting the shelves in paperback in February. Meanwhile, my review posted earlier this month here, has just been posted at Crime Time (you can hit it again, here). But why wait for the paperback?

I've been talking a lot about Resnick lately, because you can see the influence of Sjowall and Wahloo's Martin Beck in him, but there's a very special quality to way Harvey delineates the man's inner strength, something different from the more obsessive character of Beck or Wallander, and the way in which Harvey has always been able to reflect his wide story and Resnick's inner conflicts and personal stories, so they illuminate each other. It's one of the top police series ever, anywhere.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

WHO PUT THE 'NO' IN NORDIC? SCANDINAVIAN CRIME CREATES BRITISH CRITICAL CONUNDRUM

Seems like Open Book got in ahead of the wave (see here). Friday was a big day for Scandinavian Crime in the broadsheet arts sections, with the Independent featuring this piece by Boyd Tonkin on Stieg Larsson's success and the Guardian running 'Move Over Ian Rankin' by John Crace here.

Tonkin had already discussed the Nordic crime wave back in December (here) when he noted that 'many gifted (Scandinavian) novelists had chosen to adopt the form (crime novel) and push its boundaries'. Contrast that to the Guardian's sidebar to Crace's piece, which presented a roster of writers and informed us with some condescension that Mankell wrote 'serious plays and novels' before he 'hit it big time' with Wallender, and that Peter Hoeg 'started out as a serious writer before Miss Smilla'. It's the Guardian's 'Telegraph Crossword' theory of crime fiction rearing its head again, see here for an explantion. They also described Wallender as a 'hard-drinking...angry everyman,' ...there is a difference between heavy drinking and hard drinking (and I'm not sure Wallender qualifies on either count--Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole, now he's hard-drinking!) just as there is between angry and morose.

I doubt Crace actually wrote the sidebar, especially since he wondered, quite rightly, why Britain lagged behind Europe in appreciating Nordic crime in translation, and put it down to that 'old national weakness for effortless superiority combined with instinctive parochialism.' But it was nice to see his paper's sidebar immediately prove his point, plus they'd already trumpeted the same prejudice in their '1,000 novels everyone must read' supplements that very week (see my take here, or scroll down to the previous post on IT). The sidebar on the 'husband and wife' team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (actually, of course, wife and husband, that's Maj on the right) mentioned that their Martin Beck series is still in print, but 'almost certainly overdue a revivial'. In fact, the series has just been reissued over the past two years, in uniform editions, by Harper Collins. I wrote the introduction to Murder At The Savoy, other introductions were by the likes of Michael Connelly, Michael Ondaatje, and Val McDermid.

The key introduction was provided by Henning Mankell himself for the first novel in the series, Roseanna, and gave a good background to the whole Scandinavian crime phenomenon. It's important, because Martin Beck lies at the centre of a cross-fertilization which helps understand both where Nordic crime comes from and why it's so popular here. Mankell noted how British cozies, and their Swedish imitations, were immensely popular before, in the 1960s, influenced by Ed McBain's 87th Precinct, Sjowall and Wahloo decided to do something new, and dissect Swedish society while they were doing it. Beck's own sombre character was in marked contrast to McBain's Steve Carella, though like McBain they populated the supporting cast with colourful characters. This is the field in which Mankell, and many of the others of this new wave (Fossum and Indridasson in particular) plow.

The Beck novels had a huge influence in both American and British crime fiction; it's evident in John Harvey, Ian Rankin, Connelly and many others, crucially, it provided a way for British writers in particular to move into a more hard-boiled territory without adopting American-style private dick heroes. If Inspector Morse indicated a breaching of the cozy puzzle by the police procedural (Morse of course is both hard drinking and angry when he's not listening to opera), Rebus, Resnick, Mark Bellingham's Tom Thorne and Graham Hurley's Joe Faraday all reflected with a keen eye on British society and it made all of them as morose as Beck.

Tonkin noted that where Larsson follows Mankell (and Beck) is in starting with the idea that the 'welfare state has been corrupted from the top'. But it's surprising that he then asks 'where are the native stars of crime who might expose the broken parts of this society and convert them into electrifying entertainment? Let's hope, and search, for a home-grown Larsson'. It's an interesting question, because in answer to the first part, there are, as noted, many British writers dissecting their society with the same sort of acuity as Mankell. But it's the second part of the equation, the 'electrifying entertainment', where Larsson is slightly different, and more difficult to follow, in two ways.

First is the unique interplay of his two heroes. One is a cynical, but not disillusioned journalist, whom you might argue is based as much on Per Wahloo as on Larsson himself. The other is a young woman almost completely disaffected and at odds with Swedish society, abused by it, yet able to manipulate it in ways the older, powerful generation can't quite imagine. Sarah Weinman perceptively suggested (here) Martyn Waites as a British writer who's done something similar, and Waites' books do feature a cynical ex-journo, diaffected youngsters, and hackers, though his scope might be more limited than Larssons, not least because of the Newcastle setting (though that's as close to Scandinavia as England gets!).

But the other thing Larsson does is work with narrative space, in multiple points of view; I compared him to Dumas in this essay. His books may be over-long, but his talent resembles someone like Richard North Patterson, whose approach to issues is somewhat more simplistic, but who within the omnisicient narration manages to assume multiple viewpoints, and keep his characters and story moving at great and involving length. This is something which is not uncommon in the 'mainstream', or what the Guardian might call 'serious' writers, and its the ability to draw the big picture without inflicting authorial taste on the audience that is Larsson's real gift. His authorial aims sneak in while his characters move in their own worlds.

The question of translation in general is an interesting one. Of course one reason so many fewer translations are published here is that the English-language market is so large, and books written by Americans don't require extensive translation. The predominance of Scandinavian crime is partly because Mankell is so good, partly because Scandinavian society has many of the same reserves and divisions as British, and partly because Scandinavian prose translates so well into English. Remember too that there are lots of good writers because the Nordic countries are the world's great readers: proportionately selling many times what books sell here, and keeping far more newspapers and magazines alive.

The current wave is a case of follow the leader, without Mankell, no Larsson (or Fossum, or Indridasson, or Theorin, or Jungstedt) and Larsson's success has made publishers search twice as hard for the next marketable Nordic. In this, the market has changed in 40 years; Martin Beck's success led to publication in English for the Dane, Anders Bodelsen, but I can't think of many others, and the most popular and critically successful Swedish crime books, the spy novels of Jan Guillou, remain strangely under-published here. Harvill, over the years, have been an outstanding publisher of fiction (not just crime) in translation, and in the crime fiction, smaller publishers like Bitter Lemon and Gallic struggle to make an impact, even in the same review sections that wonder why we don't read more foreign fiction.

It's great to see such good fiction being translated into English, and ever better that it is attracting so much attention. But it remains puzzling to me why, when contemporary British crime writers have done so much to move their genre into more challenging territory, it takes two Swedes to get British critics to notice.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

STOP, YOU'RE KILLING ME! GUARDIAN/OBSERVER 1000 NOVELS EVERYONE MUST READ: CRIME

The second chapter in the Guardian/Observer's '1000 Novels Everyone Must Read' was titled 'Crime', but anyone looking for a coherent best of the genre would be disappointed. Of course such lists exist to attract attention, if not controversy, and this one was specifically designed to rise above the usual suspects, such as the 50 best crime novels chosen by the Times back in April (see it here) or the Telegraph's last February (here). It's somewhat harder to pick apart than those were (see, for example, Mike Stotter at Shots here on how difficult it is to know where to start) but there are some egregious omissions--and inclusions-- by any standards.

Having said that, it is important to note that the list was introduced with a tortured attempt to define their goals, a Mission Statement which, using prose George Bush might envy, detailed an attempt 'to reflect as much of the spectrum as possible, as well as the regularity with which literary novelists have made evildoers their theme. The difference? The latter break genre rules, typically eliminating the hero who solves or prevents crime. And they usually write more stylishly; but the recent rise of the literary crime fiction epitomised by PD James has made that distinction less clear.'

Oh really.

This at least explains why Carrie O'Grady is such a treasured crime reviewer for the paper; her review of Fred Vargas, which was so amazingly wrong-headed it prompted an entire essay: 'The Guardian's Telegraph Crossword Theory of Crime Fiction', which you can find linked in the 'Bullseyes' section at the right, or here, made exactly the same sort of myopic distinction, with same sort of celebration of the epitome of 'literary' crime fiction ignoring some seven decades of writing. O'Grady features prominently in writing the entries here; you might not share her sense of the importance of Michael Innes's 'impish glee', but it helps explain why Anthony Berkley is a 'master of the genre' and Donald Westlake doesn't appear, in any of his guises, as if Richard Stark's writing didn't mark a revolution of crime style.

Yet even within their own parameters, the G/O can't achieve any consistency; not least because rather than reflect as much of the spectrum as possible, they tended, by choosing multiple books by favoured writers, to narrow that spectrum considerably. For example, five books by Ruth Rendell, none by, say, Margaret Millar, or Kate Wilhelm, or Laura Lippman's Every Secret Thing, if they want something recent. Colin Dexter has two books included, one because, according to Ms. O'Grady 'the Jag, the jokes, the crosswords...it's all here' (the crosswords?!) but where is John Harvey? Michael Dibdin gets his own section written by Mark Lawson, in which four books are chosen, perhaps these were the books Mark must read before he dies. Guardian reviewer Matthew Lewin gets to provide a sidebar on 'modern hardboiled crime', but the selections are only two of James Lee Burke southern gothics, and two by James Ellroy: yes, LA Confidential is a must, but why The Big Nowhere rather than the more crucial Black Dahlia or the more manic White Jazz? Why not the amazing American Tabloid, the start of the still unfinished American Underworld trilogy? Indeed why not a Lloyd Hopkins novel or even Ellroy's startling debut, Brown's Requiem? And in modern hardboiled crime, where is Michael Connelly?

Or, for that matter, Joe Gores, whose DKA novels are the most real of non-police procedurals, whose Hammett became a film (see below) and opened a sub-genre for writers as detectives, and whose Interface is the most serious bending of the hard-boiled detective hero that anyone has done before or since (you can find my essay on it here).

The selections also seem overly influenced by film (or TV) adaptations, and not just because they need art to decorate the section, and they must believe film stills work better than book covers, but also because films are a short cut to a writer's work (and reputation). Even so, is 'Get Shorty' really the Elmore Leonard you'd feel everyone 'must' read? Why The Manchurian Candidate and not Winter Kills? On the other hand, Jim Thompson gives you The Grifters and Coup de Torchon, as well as Peckinpah's excellent The Getaway (and its insipid remake). And yes, in this case, a still of a soaked Ali MacGraw may well make a better illo than the cover of Thompson's book.

In spy fiction are 'Tinker, Tailor' and 'Constant Gardener' really more essential reads than 'The Honourable Schoolboy'? Those two are listed among the choices, while the more crucial 'The Spy Who Came In From The Cold' is included as part of an essay, The Best Spy Fiction, by Henry Porter (at least one of whose books, Empire State, deserves mention) which includes only two other candidates, both by Eric Ambler. On the main list are three James Bonds (all by Ian Fleming; I'm amazed they could resist including Kingsley Amis or Sebastian Faulks) but none of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helms. And is there really no place at all for the spy fiction of Robert Littell, Charles McCarry, Alan Furst, Paul Hennisart, or, indeed, Norman Mailer?

Mailer? Well, I say this because the list also includes two of Thomas Pynchon's novels. The Crying Of Lot 49 was a clever choice, but V, which was my favourite book when I was 17, and still is one of them now, is more of a stretch. John Dugdale does point out that, in V Pynchon pardies the John Buchan/Erskine Childers--both included in the Guardian's list-- thriller, but V is a novel filled with literary parody, not a crime novel itself.

Mailer wrote a huge spy novel, Harlot's Ghost which holds up very well, and to which the promised sequel remains unwritten. He also wrote a parody hardboiled, Tough Guys Don't Dance. There's murder at the heart of An American Dream, my own favourite of his novels, and of course there's The Executioner's Song, probably his best book, which is a non-fiction novel and certainly more rewarding for you to read than most of the books on this list.

I mention Mailer also because a very erratic group of 'literary' works are shoe-horned in, the likes of Ian McEwan, Patrick Susskind, Sarah Waters, Brett Easton Ellis, and Donna Tartt (someone must've loved that Bennington/Manhattan circle 15 years ago!). These are the literary lights who 'with regularity make evildoers their theme', yet nothing included by any of them holds a candle to An American Dream, much less American Tabloid.

There are also a lot of classic novels, including Zola's Therese Raquin and Dumas' The Count Of Monte Cristo. I love the latter, (who doesn't) and I guess it has crime (perjury) at its core (as well as a great prison break), but its inclusion really opens the door to any number of adventure novels, and might best have been put into a supplement of books you have to read before you hit puberty. Genre seems to create some major stumbling blocks for the Guardian. Peter Carey's Kelly Gang is surely a western, even if it is set in the southern hemisphere, while both the Michael Crichton novels included are surely sf. Why them and not any other sf classics that involve crime, like Philip Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep (not that it's Dick's best, but it does have a detective, and it was made into a famous film by a British director). If you've got The Three Musketeers, why not Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination? Why not Crichton's Eaters Of The Dead?

The whys and why-nots were the decisions of a 'panel of experts' but the write-ups for the entries chosen were apparently then assigned elsewhere, so we can't blame those who wrote the entries. For example, I doubt anyone 'must read' James Hadley Chase's No Orchids For Miss Blandish but I'll concede it does have some historical value here in Britain. As John Sutherland writes, Chase had studied Warner Bros. gangster movies, but perhaps he wasn't aware that the 'experts' had also chosen for this list William Faulkner's Sanctuary, which would make it worth his pointing out that Chase evidently studied Faulkner's book far more closely than any movie.

One can quibble too choices of books for the authors who were included; I'm not sure who'd choose Lush Life as the only Richard Price novel, or Sidetracked for Henning Mankell, but those quibbles aren't as important as asking why two Sara Paretsky and no David Goodis, two John Grishams and no Ross MacDonald, or why Jonathan Lethem but not Michael Chabon.

There are some positives. Nice to see George V Higgins, who surely qualifies for such a list even were it reduced to a dozen. Yes, Eddie Coyle was the one made into a movie, but it is still one of Higgins' very best. Good to see Sjowall and Wahloo remembered, even if one suspects they chose The Laughing Policeman because they don't know there's also a movie of The Man On The Roof! There's Friedrich Duerrenmatt's The Pledge, recognition of his place within the pantheon. Among the literary choices is Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red, for which John Mullan makes a good case. All of Hammett's four great novels are in, though someone (I'm assuming it wasn't Maxim Jakubowski, who wrote the entry, but one of the sub editors 'correcting' him) felt compelled to Anglicise it, transforming Red Harvest's setting of Personville (aka Poisonville) to Pentonville (!) Even the Continental Op might be amused by that one.

As I said, these lists exist to stir debate, prompt rants, and sell papers. But also, in this case, to educate the audience. And it is so heartening to learn that, thanks to PD James, crime fiction may someday attempt to rise to the literary heights of Perfume, Fingersmith, American Psycho, or The Secret History. Mission Accomplished!

POSTSCRIPT (24/1): It turned out that the Crime supplement was actually far more sensible than those that followed, whose categories, after Comedy (where the choices made Crime's look rational and comprehensive), grew increasingly more bizarre, like the oxymoronic Family and Self, State Of The Nation, and my favourite, War and Travel. The beauty of that one was that it allowed them to include Black Beauty, South Wind, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance (which isn't a novel, and if we're including non ficton where's Dispatches?) and even The Mark Of Zorro (what, no Fu Manchu?), while excluding War And Peace. Think about it. The outre categories meant inclusion for most of Pynchon, which was a good thing, but among all the fashionable moderns and Guardian contributors, they found no room for anything by Richard Powers, in my mind the very best 'younger' novelist writing in English. And how CAN anyone discuss the self or the nation without reference to Philip K Dick?.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

UP ON THE TIN ROOF: JAMES LEE BURKE'S TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN

This somewhat-dissenting view on The Tin Roof Blowdown never appeared in Crime Time's now-defunct print edition, and I've rewritten it somewhat after having visiting New Orleans last fall, which reinforced my original feelings about the book....

When it appeared, The Tin Roof Blowdown was greeted as perhaps Burke’s ‘best-ever’, and you can see why: the most poetic of crime writers takes on the greatest natural and man-made disaster of the new century, Hurricane Katrina. Dave Robichaux investigates the shooting of looters in the nicer sections of New Orleans during the big storm, and the disappearance of a junkie-priest from the darker side of the Big Easy. Given that Dave is prone to long internal monologues and musings, and that his life seems dedicated to re-visiting the miseries of the Vietnam War, the rest of his personal history, and the dark past of the American South, and given that a hurricane tends to throw up lots of debris, one could anticipate that this might prove a daunting task for Dave. And in the end it does for Burke as well.

The title, with its allusion to Tennessee Williams, suggests a certain decadence, a certain amount of decay, of impotence in the face of reality. But the novel stops short of examining these hard questions. Partly because there is too much about this book that not only recalls Dave’s previous speculations, but also his old criminal nemeses. Not content with the immediate crime, the shooting of looters, which forms the moral core of the story, nor with the bigger questions of nature's destruction and the political malfeasance which helped it on its way, Burke again draw on the appearance of a figure whose almost supernatural evil appears to exist primarily to taunt Dave with temptation. Perhaps he figures he has to do this again in order to have a villain of Robicheaux-worthy proportions, but really, you'd think George Bush and his feeble FEMA guys were evil enough for that. And that really is a shame, because the novel, at heart, wants to be the story of the hard-working man, apparently trying to defend his home, finding himself unexpectedly and unwarrantedly threatened by nature itself, and that is the dilemma which would make it most compelling. That and a little subtle insight into the social politics of race. Instead, most of what we get is a trip through familiar Louisiana Robicheaux territory, with the usual familiar Clete Purcell sideshow.

If I sound harsh, it is the harshness of disappointment, because I did indeed expect much more from Burke, whose previous Robicheaux, Pegasus Descending was one of his best (see my review in Crime Time 50). But here the material, threatening to overwhelm him, seems to have gotten subsumed into some of Dave’s obsessions, and he wanted Dave's obsessions to rise to the fore. Thus every time he begins to vent against the politics which left New Orleans more than usually unprotected against the storm, or slowed aid to the largely black, poor, and Democrat-voting city, he quickly directs the vented steam into Dave's more personal, directions. And when he gets into the most compelling of Dave's own stories, he again veers away, into the kind of spooky violence that has marked late Robichaux, venturing almost into John Connolly territory. There are large parts of the novel that are, in fact, McGuffins, and the reality is a hurricane is simply too big and too strong to be relegated to acting as a McGuffin.

The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke,
Orion, 2007, £12.99, ISBN 9780752889160

Thursday, 15 January 2009

GEORGE CHESBRO: ABOUT MY GUARDIAN OBIT

My obituary of George Chesbro appears in today's Guardian, just follow this link. I had the sense that he was one of those true American originals, and that, had he lived a generation earlier, he'd have been a tremendous success writing for the terror pulps, and maybe for John Campbell's Unknown. It was impressive the way he'd turned his life around and self-published, and the way in which he was prescient; in an interview I read with him, he spoke of the mid-list author as an endangered species, and sure enough, that process has been exacerbated lately, with 'mid-list' publishers seeming endangered too. Apache River, the press he and his wife ran, not only put his books back in print but , in 2001, published both the very interesting Prism: A Memoir in Fiction, and The Keeper, whose ex-Navy Intelligence officer hero is a Palestinian American.

Chesbro satirised the religious right, and had an irreverence about American institutions which was particularly appreciated in France, something I'd noted when I wrote the obit, but was cut from the piece as it appears. But it helps explain what the obit does mention, that his 15th Mongo book, the brilliantly-titled Lord Of Ice And Loneliness was published in France, but not in the US.

There's a little bit of Philip Dick in Chesbro, not something you can often say about crime writers. But he was sui generis, and deserves to be remembered as something more than a mid-list writer. I like the title 'Dream Of A Falling Eagle' too; it seems appropriate for his life.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

IN THE FRONT ROW OF BRITISH CRIME WRITING

On Radio 4's Front Row tonight, Mark Lawson discussed British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia, with Barry Forshaw (its estimable editor) and the novelist Martyn Waites, who's one of the entries. You can find the talk at this link, at least for the next week. When Lawson asked Waites how he liked his own entry (which I happen to have written), Martyn name-checked me, and allowed as how he was pleased with it, very pleased in fact.

Earlier, Lawson has mentioned his surprise that Iain Sinclair was included, and quoted Sinclair's entry which began by assuming people might be surprised. And guess who wrote that one?

Later, Martyn was asked if he'd found his favourites in the book, and he said that after himself the first name he looked for was William McIlvanney, and that he thought the entry on him was satisfying as well. And would you guess who wrote that one too?

So to recap, although I wrote only six entries in the two-volume book (though I do wish I'd been given John Harvey's to write too), three of them wound up being discussed in a five-minute or so segment on a half-million word book. That's not a bad batting average.....

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

STIEG LARSSON'S THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE

Following on from my appearance on Open Book to discuss Scandinavian crime writers, as posted here, this review was written for Crime Time, and is already on its website, here.

This is the second of Larsson's posthumously-published epic Millennium trilogy, and near its end the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, while searching the secret apartment kept by Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous girl, realises that she was 'the woman who hated men who hated women'. This epiphany is actually a very specific reference, which would be recognised by Swedish readers, to the title of the trilogy's first book, but was lost when it was retitled in English as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The new title was admittedly more attractive, and the best-selling success of the book certainly proved the point, but the reference was a sign of the fine balance which Larsson constructed between his two main characters, Blomkvist and Salander, and, more importantly, the way he constructed the trilogy, so concerns hinted at in the first book become magnified and play into both the plotting of the second, and into our understanding of Salander herself.

The book brings Salander to the fore. When it opens she has left Sweden, cutting herself off from Blomkvist, and despite her return home, albeit to an existence under all radar, the book turns quickly to Blomkvist's radical magazine Millennium. They have decided to publish an expose of Sweden's trafficking of young women, and the involvement of prominent Swedes in it. But when the journalist writing the piece, and his wife, whose doctoral dissertation has provided its core, are murdered, Salander becomes the prime suspect, in part because her legal guardian, and abuser, with whom she dealt in the first book, is killed with the same weapon. Salander becomes the object of a nationwide manhunt, and Blomkvist, trusting her innocence, begins his own investigation. Blomkvist's and Salander's stories remain separate; in fact, Blomkvist tells a good portion of the tale twice, from each character's point of view. Rather than being redundant, it is exceptionally effective, because there are always angles we cannot see where Salander is concerned, and we are just as befuddled as Blomkvist by her.

Larsson has created an interesting trope on the most popular style of Swedish crime books, that established by Sjowall and Wahloo's Martin Beck and taken on by Mankell's Wallender. These books are valued for their perceptions about Swedish society, and their depressive cops are always about to be overwhelmed by the seamy realities underneath what is supposed to be a state devised rationally for the benefit of all citizens. Larsson's Blomkvist is more of a Per Wahloo figure (as a left-wing journalist) than a Martin Beck; Blomkvist is a socially well-adjusted journalist committed to righting the wrongs he investigates within that society, where Salander is, on the surface, exactly the kind of person with whom Swedish society cannot cope. This novel reveals much of Salander's back-story, and with it the roots of her anti-social personality. But as the plot is uncovered, and we, the readers, get deeper into what she already knows but never tells, and what others are trying desperately to either uncover or keep hidden, we discover that not only has she been let down by those who should protect her, but that her abuse has been deliberate, and condoned by powerful forces who control the Swedish state. Thus Larsson raises the basic question, one which had become more and more important in this country, of the dangers of a 'welfare' state turning into a nanny state, especially when, rather than working for the benefit of its citizens, a nanny state is easily manipulated for the benefit of the powerful few, and their apparatchicks, who would prefer it morph into an Orwellian security state.

Not that Larsson is didactic, at least not about those bigger themes. He can be woefully obsessive about the details of people's meals, or grocery purchases (Billy's Pan Pizzas may signify something deeper than a dish in Swedish society, but I have no idea what, and I got tired very quickly of reading about them), or how they eat (we don't need to be told that a bottle cap is removed before beer is drunk from the bottle). At one point Lisbeth herself says 'what you were drinking isn't important', and you feel sometimes that, had Larsson lived, he might have done some copy editing which would make the book flow more swiftly. One character, a champion boxer, seems to be introduced primarily as a plot device, but seeing the expert way Larsson wove material from the first novel into this one, I'm confident he will play a better role in the final volume of the trilogy, and accordingly I am willing to allow him his occasional longeurs. I'm impressed with Larsson's skill at plotting: he reveals the killer's identity much sooner than expected, perhaps removing some of the story's razor-edged ambiguity, but he still manages to keep the suspense going. He also can reference small items, like Salander's mother, whose condition in the first book is explained in the second, which also suggested the books are better read in order. This one contains story-lines, and characters, not least Salander's twin sister, which will obviously be continued, and hopefully resolved, in the trilogy's final volume. They also include the novel's most chilling villain, a psychologist whose role is only minor, but who has been set up carefully for a fall.

The other key element of Scandinavian crime fiction is the isolated nature of individuals within the societies, the personal space which they give each other, and to which an intrusive government seems intrinsically contrary. Hidden pasts play a huge part of this story, as they often do in crime fiction, but there are also things which the characters are hiding from each other, like Blomkvist's publishing partner, and lover, who is taking a job with a newspaper but can't bring herself to tell him. The relationship of Salander and Blomkvist plays on that, with the roles reversed from what one's expectations might be, and Blomkvist's egalitarian modern man irritates Salander, who proves far more traditional in her feelings that even she would expect.

Although they are not a Swedish Nick and Nora Charles, indeed, Larsson can keep them apart for virtually an entire novel, these books are very much about the relationship between the two. But as the titles suggest, Larsson's key character, his unique creation, is Salander. In fact, it struck me part way through this volume, that Salander, with her manipulation of computers, her hidden resources, her mysterious networks, and her awareness of things her enemies don't believe she could know, and her desire to redress old wrongs done to her by corrupt authority, resembles a classic figure of literature: The Count Of Monte Cristo, Edmond Dantes. And with that realisation, I recognised that Larsson's omniscient narration, his changes of point of view, his pace, are all very much in the Dumas tradition. And that I read this novel, and its predecessor, with much the same enthusiasm and involvement as I did when I first encountered Monte Cristo as a boy. That is not something one can say about many classics of modern crime writing, but it's why I don't hesitate to think of it as a classic.

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson
Maclehose Press/Quercus £16.99 ISBN 9781847245564

AN OPEN BOOK: DISCUSSING SCANDINAVIAN CRIME ON BBC RADIO FOUR

Sunday (11 Jan), I appeared on BBC Radio 4's programme Open Book, interviewed by host Mariella Frostrup (pictured right) about Scandinavian crime writers, in light of the BBC adaptations of Henning Mankell's Wallender stories, starring Kenneth Branagh (interesting choice, as Swedes tend to have lips, which Branagh doesn't--I'll write more about the shows when the DVD is released), and the publication of Stieg Larsson's Girl Who Played With Fire, and Yrsa Sigurdarsdottir's Last Rituals. You can find the programme online here.

It was a very busy show, so our ten minutes was edited down a bit, and the specific discussion of Larsson's book was what was lost, but we did pack in a lot of background on crime writing in the north, its roots in both British and American fiction, and the important influence of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Martin Beck novels. And Mariella managed to query about specific Norwegians, so Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbo got name-checks.

It's a good listen, and our discussion goes well with Granta editor John Freeman talking about US Presidents and their reading: I once sold a review of Stephen Hunter to the Telegraph based on Bill Clinton being pictured with the book as Air Force One arrived in Britain. JFK, of course, put the James Bond novels on the map (and probably thought his CIA was just like that until he learned better) but they never mentioned that Ike's favourite reading was Zane Grey.

And before you ask, no, that's not me in the photo with Mariella.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

OJ REDUX: REVISITING CHRIS DARDEN IN CONTEMPT

With OJ Simpson beginning the Obama era in a Nevada prison, it seemed like a good moment to revisit what was one of the many 'trials of the century' in America. One of the low moments of the millennium past for me had to be being asked to review Christopher Darden's memoir of the trial. Darden has gone on to 'write' other books, including at least one with the LA crime writer and critic Dick Lochte. Without prejudging those, here, with a few updates, is what I wrote then.....

The morning after OJ Simpson's police "chase" mesmerized America, DA Christopher Darden says his regular aerobics class was empty. Watching the white Bronco on TV had left the would-be exercisers "too drained to come to class." Darden sees no irony in this, but then, Darden is a lawyer in Los Angeles.

The failure of British viewers to succumb to the hypnotic allure of the Simpson trial may be the result of perceiving it as an exercise in jurisprudence, when in American reality it was a daily soap opera called LOS ANGELES, directed by Judge Lance Ito. If it were not as successful as DALLAS, it may be because OJ is no JR, while Darden and Marcia Clark will never be mistaken for Bobby and Pammie. The Simpson trial was a portrait of lifestyle as culture so far removed from ours as to be unrecognisable, images from a satellite probe to another galaxy where creatures like Kato Kaelin exist in almost-human form.

This book was Darden's last and only chance to win the case. OJ's "Dream Team" may have made Chris and Marcia look like Richard and Judy, but as an author Chris, like OJ the defendant, cannot be cross-examined. Darden provides few new revelations, just a lot of the hearsay which fuelled the tabloids and talk shows. But the simplicity of the factual presentation here makes one wonder why the same approach wouldn't have worked on the jury. The bottom line is, it might've (though Vincent Bugliosi made the convincing case the that the trial was already lost in jury selection) except Darden and Clark failed totally as prosecutors. Instead of examining that failure, Darden blames sloppy police work, hints that OJ's cop friends may have deliberately helped him, and cites bungling testimony by police forensics experts. He dumps considerable and deserved blame on Ito, who turned the role of judge into game-show host. But Darden sees nothing wrong in that; he blames Itoh only for letting the other side be the featured contestants.

Despite his years in LA, at heart Darden remains a product of San Jose State, and he still misses the point of LaLa Land. He not only accepted, but revelled, in the Hollywood ground rules Itoh set, then somehow expected the case should be decided as if Itoh and his jury had just found the way to San Jose after all. "I didn't screw around," says Darden as he prepares to deal with the issue of Mark Fuhrman and the "N-word". If euphemism isn't screwing around (and "screwing around" not euphemism) then what is? Johnnie Cochrane played the race card, and it was the Ace of Spades. He got away with it because Darden didn't trust his own case enough to see beyond appearances. By trying to bleep out the word "nigger", he accepted Cochrane's exegesis,and helped give the word the power, and Fuhrman’s use of it the overtones, which Cochrane needed it to have. Johnnie understood instinctively this would cement race as the case's only issue. Darden, mired in Hollywood fantasies, thought like a network VP of standards and practices, trying to decide how many times you can say ’crap’ in prime time.

When the Fuhrman tapes revealed Ito's wife,an LA police captain, to be a liar, Darden could have pressed for Ito's recusal, but he chickened out. Instead, he satisfied justice by accepting Ito's statement that his feelings were "hurt". When Darden received an award from a local black leaders, he could have used the platform to denounce Cochrane face to face. He didn't. He wouldn’t risk tarnishing his award, as you'd expect from any self-absorbed Angelino, picking up his self-congratulatory version of the Oscar, and flushing justice into the Pacific.

Darden wants to have it all ways. Mixing autobiography into the Simpson trial merely leaves us wondering how this hot-headed and short-sided guy could win any argument. "Asshole" is his and Marcia's private name for Simpson. Bet that bothered OJ as he walked free. Darden talks about wanting to beat Simpson up. Wimp to the end, he settled for hurting his feelings. Oddly, every time Darden tries to point out the differences between himself and OJ, he makes the two of them seem more similar. Chris doesn't beat women, but he did abandon the mother of his child. He abhors celebrity but wants you to know he thinks he looks like the actor Louis Gosset. OJ "dated" (another LA euphemism Darden revels in) only white women, and lucky for Darden he did, since, until Paula Barbieri's The Other Woman came out, Darden's was by far the dumbest of OJ 'literature'. Elevating himself over Simpson, Darden takes pain to explain he will "date" anyone. And best of all, he doesn't "date" and tell. He may have the gracelessness to compare Marcia Clark metaphorically to a hamster on a treadmill, but he's too much of a gentleman to "compromise" her any further, nudge nudge, wink wink.

The closing acknowledgements are the strangest part of this strange book. "The last thing I wanted to do is write a book," Chris tells his ghostwriter to write, after thanking his agents at William Morris; agents he hired, presumably, to stop him from ‘writing‘. Think about it: he didn’t want to write the book he hired someone else to write for him—so in that sense I suppose he was telling the truth about not wanting to write. Now all he needs to do is stop reading and he could become a movie producer.

"We did it our way--with dignity and class," he says, posing for a photo beside his Mercedes, while pointing out it was bought second-hand. A used Mercedes is what passes for asceticism in LA. Then come the thank-yous. 'He' writes: "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia! Keep running. You deserve the best life has to offer." (Keep running? Remember the hamster in the cage?) Others get similar bon mots: "You are the best". "We were meant to be together.""You've given me a wonderful gift". These bulletins, sentiments stolen from heart-shaped Valentine sweets, bear an eerie resemblance in tone and content to the bleatings in the "suicide" note written by OJ Simpson, before he began his famous "chase". Call it Chris's career-suicide note, and wait for the car chase in his second-hand Merc.

IN CONTEMPT, Christopher Darden with Jess Walter,
Regan Books/HarperCollins, £16.99

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

JOHN HARVEY'S COLD IN HAND

Charlie Resnick is nearing retirement age, not that he hasn’t been out of step with the policing times for years. But he’s settled into a comfortable relationship with his colleague Lynn Kellogg, and although a happy smile is something that would find great difficulty establishing itself on Resnick’s face; he’s content. Then Lynn gets shot, caught in a Nottingham gang-style shooting, and Resnick’s happy interlude is shattered. It gets worse when Lynn’s massage-parlour murder case, involving Eastern Europeans and forced prostitution, starts to take on deeper implications within the police force which Resnick of course cannot let lie.

John Harvey always writes well about the conflicts within the police: not necessarily blatant corruption, but the sort of injustices which adherence to bureaucratic priorities and politics produces, and of which Resnick, of course, remains contemptuous. But his books are also usually about more than the crimes and the way the police solve them; Cold In Hand is, at heart, a study of aging, of the way times change and the world becomes unfamiliar, and the way age and loss, while going hand in hand, often appear to us as a disconnect, in unexpected ways. There’s a deep sensitivity in Harvey’s prose, one that is sometimes hidden behind the macho bravado of the police world, and disguised by the details of Resnick’s life, the food, the music, the cats. If Resnick was, in many ways, an English Martin Beck, Harvey’s eye has always been turned more sharply toward the personal than the societal, and his Resnick has always had a more sympathetic, if no less solitary, private world.

Cold In Hand is also a fine, pacy novel that brings its crime down to the local level, and whose cops are first and foremost working people, with all the limitations that implies. There’s never been a detective less super-human than Charlie Resnick, and there’s never been one who’s more human either. He may be Harvey’s best creation, and this book certainly does both of them justice.

COLD IN HAND by John Harvey, William Heinemann, £12.99, ISBN 9780434016945

Saturday, 3 January 2009

DONALD WESTLAKE: IN MEMORY OF A CON MAN

Note: You can also find this essay at Shotsmag Confidential, here. Shots (www.shotsmag.co uk), is where I write a monthly American Eye column. 

Most obituaries of Donald Westlake concentrated, rightly, on his prolific output, more than 100 novels and an equal number of short stories, as well as some exceptional screenplays. Westlake was one of the last of a dying breed, the generation which followed the great pulp magazine writers, and made their livings pounding out paperback originals on manual typewriters. For Westlake, the habit was so ingrained he never gave up his typewriters; he once explained to me that, although he stockpiled old machines to cannibalize for parts, the real difficulty was finding ribbons, which he went through at a prodigious rate.

I met Westlake a couple of times; the last was a wonderful lunch thrown by Quercus at Chez Elena in Charlotte Street, where Don and Abby were literally the life of the party. I started thinking how Donald Westlake was the antithesis of his Richard Stark alter ego, in much the same way that the Dortmunder books are a reflection in a fun house mirror of the Parker novels, and then it occurred to me that a central theme of Westlake's work has always been human frailty. His characters are done in, or nearly so, by their weaknesses, their foibles, and in his plots, which he basically made up as he went along, he lets his characters find their own ways through situations which usually have arisen from those flaws. They generally run up against people with more serious flaws, most commonly greed, and things accelerate from there. 'You never really know what you're doing,' he explained, and I think that applies to most of his characters too.
Even Parker, who wants to know, and control, everything. In fact, Parker is a successful professional thief precisely because he has none of those human failings, the reason for that being he has very little in the way of human feeling, especially in the first series (Parker redux is a somewhat kinder, gentler sociopath), and he takes advantage of, or takes revenge on, those who do have them.
Like many great comic writers, Westlake's humour had dark roots. The best comedians see the world as a noirish place, and find it funny. Westlake described the Parker books as growing out of an image he had of a man walking across the George Washington Bridge, the feeling of being an outsider he'd experienced himself coming to New York during a peripatetic youth. When he said that, it reminded me of the somewhat lost hero of Up Your Banners, a straightforward comic novel he wrote around the student protest movement in the late 1960s, and Westlake loved my reminding him of that. He made the connection to Parker himself, saying he'd introduced Grofield, the actor and part-time thief, to the Parker novels in order to have a little comic relief. Grofield spun off into a few books of his own, and at about the same time Westlake, as Tucker Coe, wrote five novels about the ex-cop Mitch Tobin, whose existential angst in expressed by his working on a wall in his backyard. It was as if Tobin were the antithesis of Grofield. Remember too that the opening of the Grofield novel Blackbird, with its failed armored car robbery, was used as the opening of the Parker novel Slayground which was also made into a British movie starring Peter Coyote, Robbie Coltrane, and Billie Whitelaw, Beckett's favorite actress.
It's tempting to concentrate on the playfulness of Westlake's writing: how he and Joe Gores inserted their characters into each other's books, how Grofield pops up in The Hot Rock (still one of the great heist movies, and one of Robert Redford's best roles, with Ron Liebman and Zero Mostel stealing every scene they can from him) or how in Jimmy The Kid the Dortmunder gang use a fictional Parker novel, Child Heist, as the blueprint for their own kidnapping. It was while contemplating exactly how I was able to write the words 'fictional Parker novel' with a straight face that it finally occurred to me that what Donald Westlake actually was, what made him such a treasure as a writer. Westlake was a con man, a first-class con man, and we readers were the marks.
This is no great revelation. Go to Westlake's website and you're greeted with a quote 'I believe my subject is bewilderment' and then another one 'but I could be wrong'. He even wrote a novel called God Save The Mark, which won the first of his three Edgars. When he wrote an Arthur Hailey-parody paperback original, Comfort Station, as J. Morgan Cunningham, the book appeared with a blurb saying 'I wish I had written this book'. Signed Donald E Westlake!
Think about it. Westlake started out working for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, writing critiques of manuscripts sent in, with a fee, by hopeful would-be writers from across America. Meredith found some great wordsmiths there. Evan Hunter, of course, like Westlake, would establish a second identity for a different sort of book. Lawrence Block would, like Westlake, move between hard-boiled and comic crime. This crowd included Brian Garfield and John Jakes, who would become best-sellers. All of them would write to order under multiple pseudonyms. Some, like Robert Silverberg, could turn out perfectly-typed one-draft manuscripts as quickly as they could type. These guys would play poker every week, and practice their con games. They even wrote one novel as a joint enterprise to help one of them out, one player sitting out and writing as chapter while the rest played on, then another sitting out, and so on.
Meredith, as their agent, would get them bulk contracts for paperback originals and contract the work out. This included a huge number of adult novels, of which Westlake claimed to have written 28, though others put the number at 39, or more. He used the name Alan Marshall (or Marsh) for most of them, wrote some with Block who was writing as Sheldon Lord, but also let other writers use the name to sell books published under imprints like Bedside, Nightstand, and the probably unintentionally punning Midwood. It was the same publisher who printed Jim Thompson's later novels, including The Grifters, for which screenplay Westlake won another Edgar, and an Oscar nomination. He described writing these books by doing exactly one chapter, fifteen pages a day, for ten days, and figured out that at $900 a pop, he was earning $22.50 an hour. In the Dortmunder novel Bank Shot (filmed with George C Scott lisping for reasons best-known to him) Kelp hits a car whose trunk is filled with adult novels, and all the titles Westlake lists as being visible are ones he wrote.
Westlake then wrote a very funny novel, Adios Scheherazade, about a man who writes porn, cashing in one more time on that genre which is probably the biggest con of all, when you think of con-men as giving the mark what he thinks he wants. I wonder if one of the reasons Westlake wasn't more successful in Hollywood was that those guys, the Hollywood machers, never really know what it is they want. At least not what they want from the people they now call 'content providers'. But you look at Westlake's best work, like the screenplay of The Grifters, or the original screenplay for The Stepfather, or his adaptation of his own novel Cops & Robbers, or the Hammett adaptation Fly Paper (despite some odd casting) for Showtime's Fallen Angels series, and you know that he knew what he wanted from a film, from a story. Or maybe it was because he simply liked sitting at the typewriter and being the master of his own destiny.
But I can't escape this sense of Westlake carrying on the con as the reader turns the pages, and I think that's why the Parker books are so special, and may remain the focus of critical attention on Westlake's career. Critics tend to value seriousness over humour, and Richard Stark's books were written with such a taut prose, especially considering the early Sixties milieu in which they first appeared, that they jumped out at you. He was performing that same con, keeping your attention focused, but with such economy that the story-telling was subsumed totally in the force of the story. I remember being transfixed by them when I discovered them, somewhat bizarrely, in the library at Dickinson College, where I found myself teaching. I've written at length for both Shots and Crime Time on the film adaptations of the Parker books; although Point Blank remains a classic film, and was Westlake's own favourite, I remain exceptionally fond of John Flynn's The Outfit, with Robert Duvall the screen's best Parker (though, as in all the many adaptations, he was not called Parker). It is a small and perfectly formed crime film that deserves a higher reputation.
Westlake's reputation, on the other hand, has probably never been higher. The early Parker books are being reprinted by the University of Chicago, which says something about American academe as well as the quality of Westlake's writing. Those fabulously entertaining Sixties novels are re-appearing, and as for the early adult stuff, well, let's say university presses need not worry.
But anyone who knew Donald Westlake, even casually, was aware of how full of life he was. You imagine someone who writes seven days a week as being an introvert, but he was anything but. He died on New Year's Eve, as he and Abby were about to go out, and although that is tragic, I see something touching in the thought that he lived his life at a full pace until he just suddenly stopped.
Writers never die, of course, as long as they are being read. And I believe Donald Westlake will go on being read for a very long time. Readers love being conned, after all, and who could do it better?