Thursday, 27 December 2018

STEPHEN HUNTER'S G-MAN

Unto the generations, the Swagger family continues to deliver for Stephen Hunter, who in G-Man revisits Bob Lee's grandfather Charles, who as the book opens is sheriff of Polk County, Arkansas and there at the mowing down of Bonnie and Clyde in Arcadia, Louisiana.

So when a strongbox is found in a property back home in Arkansas that Bob Lee is selling, and it contains an FBI badge, a .45 coated in Cosmolene, a gun part and a treasure map, Bob Lee is intrigued, and with the help of Nick Memphis, his old buddy at the FBI, he begins to work on the mystery of what these things are, and why they've been buried and preserved.

Charles was a hero in World War I, and like all the Swaggers to come, an expert in weapons. So through a complicated bit of internal politicking within the already-political FBI, Swagger gets assigned to the FBI bureau in Chicago, where the fight against the big-name gangsters of the era: most crucially Baby Face Nelson, who is, in his own way, just as competent a gunman as Charles Swagger.

The period story is Hunter at his best; the Thirties Gangster era is perfect for his skills, highly-armed shootouts and teams working with almost militaristic plans. Hunter's story is one of the best of many that have been part of a recent gangster revival. He's done his research and gives us a new perspective on Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, John Dillinger and their cohorts, as well as the nascent FBI, already a bureaucratic nightmare ruled by the authoritarian J Edgar Hoover. Charles Swagger is not a fit in there, and his ethos as the lone gunman hero is closer in many ways to his adversaries than to Hoover's G Men, though of course Swagger is on the side of good, though he considers himself flawed in serious ways.

The modern story is less convincing—as Swagger and Memphis piece together the puzzle from small clues, helped by a good bit of coincidence. And they are unaware, at first, that their investigation is being tracked. The resolution in the present is, of course, limited by the resolution of the past, but it is intriguing in another way. There is a secret lurking in Charles Swagger's life, one that informs the flaws in his character, which drives his drinking, his brooding violence. The secret is revealed, but I suspect we have not heard the last of it, because we also learn that when Charles Swagger is killed, years later, the reasons remain unexplained, and Hunter may have laid the foundations for Bob Lee to solve that crime next.

G-Man by Stephen Hunter
GP Putnam's Sons, US $9.99 ISBN 9780399574610

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

RAGNAR JONASSON'S THE DARKNESS: THE SHOTS INTERVIEW

This is the interview that ran in Shots magazine. I posted a link to that on 29 October, if you'd like to scroll back to IT for that day you can read my introduction to it. I also reviewed the book back in March, and you can link to that review here. Otherwise, here's my first version of the Shots interview (there were a few small changes in the web version....

Ragnar Jonasson's most recent novel, The Darkness, was so impressive that I worked on arranging an interview from the moment I knew I was visiting Iceland. We met at his office, in a handsome but unimposing house just off the centre of Reykjavik. Inside, it's been converted into a slick modern headquarters for an international investment firm, for whom Jonasson is a lawyer in his day job. This was a pleasant Icelandic summer day in August, some sunshine, temperature in the high teens celsius. It had been a bit colder wetter and more rainy that morning, when my son and I went out of Reykjavik harbour on a whale watch, to which the whales themselves were not as accommodating as the crime writer.

Of course in Iceland when you have a day job, the days are very long in summer and very short in winter. Which is why my first question was how he managed to balance his high-powered day job with his steady output of novels. The interview has been edited slightly to avoid spoilers, given that the finish of The Darkness is so powerful.

RJ: I write every night in the winter, which gives me enough time to finish a novel. It's like a hobby, like some people go hiking, or watch TV. I plan one book a year, and in Iceland the big publishing date falls before Christmas, because books are a traditional Christmas present here. Sometimes I'm tempted to do more, but I really like being a lawyer, and if I did have more time free, much of it would likely be spent marketing my books, not necessarily writing more.

MC: You started writing professionally at a very young age, translating Agatha Christie. How did that come about?

RJ: I needed a job for the summer! Christie had been well-translated into Iceland, but I discovered there were quite a few works still out there, and I liked them. I starting translating short stories for magazines, and did it for 10-15 years, again like a hobby. Then the crime-writers who came before me started to make Icelandic crime a lively genre and proved it could be done. So Icelandic readers learned to like crime fiction, but it needed to be a believable story when you're set in a small country where there aren't as many crimes.

MC: Indridason, for example?

RJ: Yes, of course, and it was very interesting how he began by using a situation which depends on Iceland's being an unusual country.

MC: What drew you to Christie specifically? Because your 'Dark Iceland' series is very much in the Christie tradition.

RJ: I love the classic set-up, a limited number of suspects, but you have to do something with it—it would look awkward if you copied the settings and characters.

MC: But there are similarities in the societies, from what I've seen.

RJ: Iceland is a very closed and stratified society, which is more obvious in small communities, which is part of why I set the series in the north. It's about a close community, nature and the landscape, and the weather. I'm blessed with having this strange country to work with.

MC: Having just looked at the old law site at Pingvellur, I wonder if it's a judgemental society too?

RJ: Certainly in the old days. I'm not so sure it's still like that, because people do try to stick together.

MC: You see some tension in your characters, the way Ari Thor is relatively simple and straightforward, somewhat traditional, where his girlfriend Kristin is more modern in many ways.

RJ: Ari is a bit shy, with a sort of closed-off life and personality, like many Icelanders are,
so his personal life can have problems. But the crimes he investigates are the kinds where that personality allows him some leeway in getting to the solutions.

The Darkness features a new detective for Jonasson, Hulda Hermansdottir. She is a dedicated, hard-working, old-fashioned kind of cop, who has been passed over for promotions partly because she is a woman and partly because that doggedness doesn't always fit in, when she won't play the office political game. Now she is being pressed into unwanted early retirement, and to get her out of the way, she's offered one last cold case to choose to investigate. It involves the death of a young Russian woman, found on the coast, and ruled suicide. But that doesn't sound right to Hulda...

MC: I heard you interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Front Row (full disclosure: a programme to which I am an occasional contributor) a few months ago after The Darkness was published in hardback, and although it was an interesting discussion of reading and publishing in Iceland, I was shocked because they never once asked you about your novel!

RJ: Well, I was very happy to talk about my country, and we are a very literate society. But yes, to talk about my book would have been nice.

MC: I thought The Darkness was one of the very best novels crime novels I read this year, and what I particularly liked was the way it ends. I had the same sort of 'you can't do THAT!” reaction I had when I read Joe Gores' Interface: you've played with the genre's conventions brilliantly.

RJ: Thank you! That was both deliberate but also how the story itself grew. I had an idea I could work backwards, because I knew from the start it was the only way I could end the book. I know the ending may come as a surprise, in fact I expected it, but it was really the only logical way it could end. It was so powerful. The reaction in Iceland wasn't so risky, because you can do more because the crime-writing tradition has been going only a short time. But outside Iceland it was more of a challenge to break the rules, so to speak, but it was a challenge I had to take.

MC: Especially because your earlier books are so relatively traditional?

RJ: You really do want to challenge the form. You know the rules, and you want to break them in your own way. That was always my intention.

MC: And it is somewhat judgemental.

RJ: Yes, there is a price to pay in the end. You cannot go back. Back in the early centuries of this state there was no police. Which sometimes means individuals feel they have no choice but to act.

MC: You establish a great deal of sympathy for Hulda.

RJ: Which made many readers almost angry at the way the story progressed. They liked her, and I loved that reaction. But I'm working on two more novels featuring Hulda, which go back into her early career.

MC: How do you work The Darkness into that?

RJ: They won't give away the twists of The Darkness, but I think to those who've read the first book, it will provide added value to understand that. A deeper meaning, if you will. And I've started the next Dark Iceland novel. I already knew the plot for that one.

MC: It will keep you busy.

RJ: I wouldn't feel comfortable any other way!

Ragnar needed to get back to work, as calls were literally lining up while we spoke in the conference room, but before he did I told him I particularly loved the very last scene of The Darkness, a coda of sorts which is seeped in a kind of polite authoritarian hypocrisy, but also reminds us of how, even in a small, closed society, we may know very little about each other. He thanked me, and I thanked him for his time. Two days later, as my plane left Iceland I looked back at the island and thought just how powerfully and subtly Jonasson had interpreted his society. And how unexpectedly.

The Darkness, translated by Victoria Cribb, is out in paperback from Michael Joseph.

AN IRRESISTIBLE TARGETS CHRISTMAS UPDATE

I should have wished you all Merry Christmas a couple of days ago, but I was, as you will see, distracted. So let me hoe you've had a very Merry Christmas, Happy Boxing Day, a fine St Stephen's Day and whatever else the year's final week offers.

It's been almost a month since I last posted here, and what was originally supposed to be a blog but has looked more like a website featuring reviews and essays and interviews. The kind of stuff I am supposed to be writing for a living, which is part of the reason why there hasn't been anything forthcoming. Not that I have increased my output of writing for payment, indeed, that has decreased steadily, in these days of print contraction. So I have concentrated on my work in American football, on TV radio podcast and online writing, and also offered a weekly column on Patreon (patreon.com/mikecarlsonfmte , hoping to attract enough subscribers to at least earn as much as I did from writing the same column (but in far less depth) for the nfluk's website the previous 13 years.

That has been a lot of work, but the requisite subscriber base did not materialise, and worse, did not increase as the season went on, as I had naively assumed it might. So I face two questions in the New Year: first what do I do with this blog site and second what do I do with the patreon column.

I am going to resume writing for IT for the time being: a few things this week and then try to catch up on some of the material I meant to do but didn't in the past few months--"no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money" said Dr Johnson, and I haven't counted but there must be close to a million unpaid words on this site. Then I'll decide where to go with this--maybe to a full-scale website.

The Patreon column I will likely put into abeyance for the offseason, though my plan was to carry on with something every two weeks, just to keep people on board. Again, we shall see, because I am committed to continue through the Super Bowl in February. Decisions, decisions. Your responses and input are valued, but I am thinking the key idea is how to reach more readers directly. And make it a Happy New Year!