Month: December 2012

Raffles (E.W. Hornung)


I’ve been reading Raffles, by E. W. Hornung, as part of my occasional project of getting to know some of the prototypes of modern crime fiction.  I began this endeavour in October with The Riddle of the Sands, which was the subject of an earlier post.

Raffles is one of those books that enjoys the glamour of cult status.  I finally read it after discovering a copy at the discount bookshop opposite the British Library in Euston Road.  (If you don’t already know this bookshop, I recommend it: it has saved me from many a dull train journey back to Yorkshire after a day working in London, having made a last-minute decision to abandon my good intention of working on the return as well as the outward trip.)

As with The Riddle of the Sands, it is the apparent modernity of Raffles which first impresses.  The novel was written two years before the death of Queen Victoria and obviously long before the murder of Franz Ferdinand, let alone Hitler’s invasion of Poland.  Yet Raffles and Bunny, the narrator, strike the reader as characters who would be able to cope if they were suddenly fast-forwarded into the twenty-first century.  This is partly owing to Hornung’s acute ear for dialogue.  He captures the rhythms of his characters’ speech with vivid precision, as if they might still be hatching their plots in the next room.  It is surprising, too, how many colloquialisms of the time survive in modern slang – the use of ‘stuff’ for possessions, for example.

Less successful is the way in which the speech of the lower class characters is presented.  Most of them are made to talk in a kind of pastiche Dickens, with plenty of aspirates dropped where they should occur and added where they shouldn’t.  I’d guess that the woodenness of these characters reflects the author’s lack of first-hand knowledge of people who occupied the social strata below what used to be called ‘upper middle class’.

Raffles and Bunny belong to an élite cadre of privileged young men and, accordingly, show a pronounced preoccupation with cricket and gentlemen’s clubs, luxurious dinners, whiskies and sodas and, above all, the sense of ‘because I’m worth it’.  This could have turned the novel into a period piece, were it not for its single most defining attribute: the amorality of the two protagonists.  At a time when Thomas Hardy was still over-egging the moral cake and  E. M. Forster had yet to write powerfully about life as a series of shifting ethical dilemmas, E. W. Hornung was racing ahead of the curve by creating the first proper crime fiction anti-hero.  Because of this, Raffles is an enduring classic in its own right and Raffles himself the engaging forerunner of a distinguished line of compelling but morally-dubious twentieth-century characters, which perhaps reaches its apogee with John Le Carré’s portrait of the perennially-compromised George Smiley.

Oh, by the way, I wish you a very enjoyable New Year and happy reading in 2013.  Thank you for dropping in!

Bond: My take on Skyfall

Skyfall ticket

Skyfall showed to a packed audience at the Leeds Showcase yesterday evening, despite the fact that it had already been part of that cinema’s programme for several weeks.  It was a very mixed audience, too: it included groups of teenagers, canoodling couples, families with children, pensioners and singletons, indicating, I suppose, that MGM knows how to draw support from across the whole demographic spectrum (as it exists in Leeds, anyway).

It’s a film impossible to critique sensibly; it contains an example of just about every pulse-raising set-piece from all the thrillers ever made: the car chase, the train chase, the helicopter chase (even something of Apocalypse Now here), the chase along subterranean passages, the fight in a tall building, the fight in a casino complete with man-eating dragons, the fight in a deserted city, the denouement in a spooky old ancestral mansion which is blown up in the process.  The smaller cameos are equally classic: there is Bond’s walk along an exotic beach while he recovers from his wounds, his effortless entry into M’s high-security flat where he waits to surprise her with a visit, his uneasy relationship with the geek who acts as his ‘quartermaster’, his dalliance with two beautiful women (though the sex scenes are kept to a minimum – probably to secure the 12A rating), one of whom – she turns out to be Miss Moneypenny – even shaves him with a cut-throat razor; and all the time Ralph Fiennes is hovering in the background, waiting to take over from Judi Dench.

Traditional Bond bons mots and motifs are scattered throughout, though subtly: ‘The name’s Bond, James Bond’ etc.  He never actually says ‘shaken, not stirred’, but looks on approvingly as this action is taking place.  The good old Aston Martin puts in an immaculate appearance, though sadly (I’m sure it was ‘only a model’!) is finally destroyed by the villain – who can smile and smile and be a villain if ever actor could.  I should have liked a little more irony here – the opportunity was ripe for it – but perhaps this was expecting too much.

So, am I describing a giant cliché?  Surprisingly, the answer is no.  The film succeeds in putting all this thriller stock-in-trade together in such a way that it impresses, if not with its originality, then with its superb virtuosity.  It is a film that achieves perfection down to the last detail, from the quality of the acting (smiling villain notwithstanding) to the impeccably-choreographed fight scenes and the eye-popping special effects.  However, it is because of the latter that I don’t think it will stand the test of time to become a great classic.  Special effects improve constantly, with the result that what impresses today tends to seem hopelessly jejune tomorrow – think of Jurassic Park or Titanic.  However, if what you’re looking for is a thrilling night out with the bonus of keeping your deeper thoughts well off-limits, this is your film.

As a footnote, may I conjecture that I must be the only woman in the country who doesn’t find Daniel Craig attractive.  (I’ve never fancied Colin Firth, either!)

For the muddy-minded!

A boot-sucking quagmire

A boot-sucking quagmire

It is now official that 2012 has been the wettest year in my part of the world since records began (and in most other parts of England – it is apparently only because Scotland and Northern Ireland have been drier that this dubious distinction has not been earned by the UK as a whole).  As I look back on it, I remember it less as a year of rain than a year of mud: mud squelching underfoot every day on the dog walk; the banks of streams reduced to treacherous muddy jellies after continually being breached by waters in spate; mud topped by thick blankets of leaves plastered together like papier mâché, creating involuntary ski runs down the hillside for the unwary; mud-caked wellies, mud-spattered trousers and trails of mud every day on the kitchen floor as boots and paws traverse it;  even mud on my handbag once, as I carelessly rested it in the footwell, having already clambered into the car with mud on my boots.  Mud, mud, mud.

I’m always on the look-out for new experiences and situations to write about, but, until yesterday, mud seemed an unpromising material for a crime-writer to work with.  Bodies are often hidden under snow, lie obscured by drifts of crisp chestnut-coloured leaves or are tossed into miraculously-dry ravines to dry for years so that they become mummified.  But mud?  Only a manic or very foolish murderer would try to dig in sodden mud to conceal a body: there would be tell-tale boot-prints everywhere; the hole would keep on filling with water; the whole business would be a muddle!

Then, yesterday, as I was toiling back up the hill, my feet slipping and sliding on a path made smooth by running water and wading through patches of boot-sucking quagmire, my heart leapt as the grinning visage of a skull confronted me.  It was re-emerging from the mud, its head turned towards me, the teeth grimacing, the backbones arching clear of the water.  It took me a moment to realise that it had belonged to a sheep, presumably one that had got caught in the blackthorn hedge last summer or even the summer before that, and died.

So mud could hold copy for a crime-writer, because inexorably, over time, it might yield up its grisly secrets.

Hour of the Wolf (Håkan Nesser)

Hour of the Wolf

I bought Hour of the Wolf, by Håkan Nesser, as a spur-of-the moment purchase when I was at Bookmark in Spalding, because I had not come across this author before.  The novel was first published in 1999 in Sweden, but was first translated into English in 2012.  Despite this thirteen-year gap, it has not dated at all.

Though it is in some respects a typical Scandinavian crime thriller (i.e., full of unrelieved gloom throughout – as my son once said, you only have to go there in the winter to see why they write such depressing books!), there are also some unusual qualities about this novel.  One of them is the identity of the killer, which the reader gets to know about two-thirds of the way through.  I won’t spoil it by identifying him myself, but suffice it to say that, as the novel begins, he is a pillar of society.  I don’t mean that he is one of those establishment figures who frequently appear in fiction, who use their position to conceal acts of violence and depravity.  He really is a ‘good’ man, but with a fatal flaw which causes him to kill one person accidentally and then embark upon a terrifying murder spree in order to cover this up when he falls victim to a blackmailer.   Nesser’s message, if not ‘there but for the grace of God …’, certainly seems to suggest that calculated blackmail is as heinous an offence as murders committed as a result of panic.

Without having read the original (not having the understanding of Swedish that would allow me to do this), I can still see that there are some shortcomings in the translation.  Almost every character says ‘Why the hell…?’ or ‘What the hell?’ every other sentence.  Sometimes this expression just seems unsuitable; on other occasions it bores with its predictability.  In the original, it would appear to be a commonplace Swedish colloquialism that would have benefited from being translated by a more varied range of equivalent English idioms.  However, the power of the writing mostly comes through by dint of the author’s skill: the short but graphic portrait of the first death – we are told several times that the ‘blood dripped into his [the dead boy’s] hood’ – instils more sense of horror than a longer account would achieve and the description of the murderer’s sister’s casual duplicity also hits home.

Hour of the Wolf is an enjoyable read that just about held my attention throughout.  However, I found that my interest began to wane towards the end, when it became apparent that the murderer had (as I had assumed all along) killed the blackmailer as his fourth victim and then fled the country.  I had been half-anticipating some further twist of the plot – say, that the blackmailer had killed the murderer and then impersonated him in order to escape.  Perhaps I’ve read too much crime to be satisfied with the entirely plausible plot that Nesser creates; or perhaps this ending was just a little too predictable.

Joan Miró at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Joan Miró

Yesterday I visited the Joan Miró exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  I was captivated by his fascination with people and things and how they interact.  There is a recurring theme of motherhood and its trappings in the sculptures exhibited – and not all the mothers seem to be benign, which also resonated with me.  Most of all, I was amazed by the sheer technical virtuosity of his work; in particular, his ability to use one material to represent another – for example, one bronze sculpture bears creases as if it has been constructed from a sheet of paper.

Some of the pieces seemed to me to have an Aztec-like quality and therefore to reach back deep into our artistic heritage.  Literature, of course, has a much shorter history than art and I can think of no work in words that could be described as being ‘perfect’ in the same way that the finest paintings and sculptures can be.  It may be because of the relative youth of the written word that technical perfection still eludes the writer, but I don’t think that this is the true reason.  I believe that the explanation may be that a painting or a sculpture captures one moment or temporary state and freezes it in that act of being.  The greatest artists therefore succeed in encapsulating timelessly some core element as the world moves inexorably on; writers, on the other hand, work with a fluid canvas and have to keep on wrestling with multiple imperfect states of change.

Perhaps you have an example of the written word that you regard as perfect?

The magic of Christmas, in wordsales…


I looked in disbelief at the BBC online news article about the queues for the sales at the Oxford Street Selfridges, as shoppers waited to buy, by their own admission, anything that might be a bargain.  Forgive me for being a Philistine about sales, as they seem to me to be artificially created to appeal to that quite basic instinct, greed, in the consumer.   I’m not unhappy about a bargain, when one crops up by chance, but to devote sometimes hours to the pursuit of only a possibility seems absurd.

Of course, there are amazing book bargains to be had online for pence, trumpeted on Twitter and, for me, a worrying debasing of the real value of the works concerned.  There seems to be something terribly ironic in pursuing a Kindle top rating by selling at incredible knock-down rates.  I feel that a novel one has ‘bust a gut’ over deserves better treatment and more respect than this.  Does the reader of a cut-cut-cut-price book have a sense of what has gone into it, or care?

I’m inclined not to tout for business in this way and, though I have metaphorically compared Twitter to a busy market where one may rub shoulders and converse with friends and strangers alike, I don’t see it as a place for selling my wares.  I’m much more interested in the exchange of ideas and humour and in meeting people I’d never otherwise have a chance of engaging in conversation.   Some of them might, as a result, buy my work, but because they have a sense of the person I am, not because my book is cheap.

The power of a ferret!

Flicker, son's ferret, 1995

Flicker, son’s ferret, 1995

We all have our favourite stories, from childhood onwards, and some of them have an almost religious significance in our memories, their words ringing in our minds like learned responses in church, that meant little to us as children, but had a resonance and a magic that almost overpowered literal meaning.  One such for me is Sredni Vashtar, by Saki (H.H. Munro), the tale of a boy, his polecat ferret and revenge.  Saki’s storytelling is legendary; it has the power to touch the imagination.  In this story, it is the imagination of the ten-year-old Conradin which enables him to challenge the overbearing and unloving supervision of his cousin-guardian, Mrs. De Ropp.   The boy is weak and not expected to live for more than five years, but he devises a way of eliminating her from his imagination, which is sacred and clean territory, and ultimately from his life.  In a shed hidden away from Mrs. De Ropp’s prying eyes, he keeps a hen and a ferret, both of which he loves, but the latter in particular becomes, in his own created religion, a god with appropriate powers of authority.  His guardian, noticing his fascination with the shed, aims to thwart him by disposing of the hen (not noticing the ferret hutch in the darkness at the back), the severity of which loss he silently turns into vengeance, appealing to Sredni Vashtar to do ‘one thing’ for him.

As a school pupil reading this story for the first time, I was utterly convinced of the power of Sredni Vashtar, who represented for me the reality of justice for suffered wrongs and the way by which a child could deal with unpleasantly dictatorial adults!  Much more influential, however, was the strong focus of the tale upon imagination, which I understood implicitly and which has always underpinned my writing.  When my son started keeping a huge hob ferret, which went out with him, sat upon his shoulder and eyed strangers with steady suspicion, I never worried for his safety!  I still love the story.

(The Project Gutenberg text of the story is available online.)

The significance of trees

Book tree redIn Norway, they do Christmas trees rather well.  One of these comes every year to Trafalgar Square as a gift from the people of Oslo to express their nation’s gratitude for Britain’s support during WWII.  The tree is obviously symbolic and reminds me of other trees with mythological associations, such as Yggdrasil, the great holy ash tree of Norse myth, and the yew and the oak, with their capacity to live for centuries and to link peoples and places with their ancestral roots.

I was delighted to come across two pictures posted on the Facebook page of a friend, a librarian in the Norwegian city of Tromsø, who has given me permission to use them.  She tells me that these trees are very useful, since they do not shed needles and, as a bonus, people with allergic reactions to real spruce trees can come fearlessly into the library!  As I admired the efforts of the tree-makers, it occurred to me that books, being Book treemade of paper, were an appropriate material for turning into trees!  That thought led to another, that it might be a trifle tricky to make a Christmas tree out of Kindles and that, in spite of the obvious advantages of the latter (especially when travelling), I still love the look and feel of a ‘proper’ book when I am reading.  Our household collection of real books has the power of myth for us: the books are touched with memories and associations which could never be replicated by anything electronic.  We are lucky to be able to take advantage of both real and e books; lucky that our literary ancestry is happily available in both.  The symbolic significance of books is undeniable.

I hope that your Christmas book wish list is fulfilled!  Have a lovely day tomorrow!

Before and beyond the grave…

GravesYesterday, I learned belatedly of the death of someone to whom I was once close.  Although I had not seen him for many years, I felt sad about the conversations that will now never take place and the questions that will now never be asked or answered.

Death is one of the stocks-in-trade of crime writers.  Do we write about it carelessly or frivolously?  I don’t think so.  Murder stories tend to begin with one or more innocent deaths that have to be avenged – usually, but not always, according to the law – in order to restore the moral balance and demonstrate to the reader that all is right with the world again.  Often the perpetrator dies or is killed; a good writer will shape this death into a kind of catharsis, so that the survivors can ‘move on’.

Real life is messier.  Humans are creatures governed by memory.  An individual’s ‘life’ therefore neither begins with his or her birth, nor ends with his or her death.

When I was a child, I listened to a radio programme in which was interviewed a very old lady whose great aunt had once met Jane Austen.  The great aunt had recounted to her the conversation that had taken place and she was repeating it for the benefit of listeners in the 1960s.  It had therefore been passed on at just one remove from an author whose life had ended in 1817.  Why are we fascinated by such things?  I think it is because we like to believe that we are part of a continuum that is greater than one person.  It is more modest than a quest for immortality, but contains a strong element of the desire to survive for some time in memory.

As a baby, I was held by each of my great-grandmothers, both of whom were born in the 1870s.  Both died before I started school, but I have hazy memories of them.  I hope that, in my turn, I shall be remembered by my as-yet-unborn grandchildren, who, by the law of averages, are likely to live into the twenty-second century.  This represents almost a quarter of a millennium of ‘immortality’.  Can we ask for more?

Rest in peace, John.

The Garden of Evil (David Hewson)

The Garden of EvilYesterday I finished reading The Garden of Evil, by David Hewson.  I’d say that I 90% liked it!  Like the novels of Michael Dibdin and Donna Leon, both writers whom I admire, it is set in Italy and, like them, David Hewson succeeds in creating a rich and complex portrait of the country.  It would be ungenerous to say that it is Italy itself that unleashes the power of these authors, but all the same I’d love to be able to spend six months there in order to see what effect it might have on my own writing!  David Hewson is also clearly an expert on art and manages to write about it extensively in the book without ramming his virtuosity down the reader’s throat, something that is hard to do and which I admire greatly in writers who manage to pull it off.  Indeed, Caravaggio is almost the anti-hero of this novel – the artist and his work both cast a long shadow over the intervening centuries and are made to exert a profound effect on the present-day characters.

So why would I give the novel only nine marks out of ten?

Well, the protagonist is a detective (called Costa) whose wife is murdered at the beginning of the novel.  Despite the fact that Costa is supposed to be driven by his grief to capture her killer (who is also the killer of several other young women), the depiction of his anguish never really seems to work.  In fact, he seems instead to be almost inappropriately concerned about Sister Agata, an other-worldly religious woman who sets out to help him (and whose character is drawn with a considerable degree of brilliance).  Sustaining the reader’s belief in the strong emotion felt by a character for the length of an entire book is difficult, of course, but I can think of crime writers who have succeeded.  There is, for example, Elizabeth George’s portrayal of Inspector Lynley in the novels that follow the murder of his wife; or the way in which John Le Carré manages to convince us that Smiley’s habitual lugubriousness is owing to infidelities committed by his wife many years before.

I think that The Garden of Evil is a good novel and I much enjoyed reading it, but I still feel that it falls short in this respect.

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