[Click on pictures to enlarge them.]
Though I’m not a travel writer, I’d like to share a recent visit to a place I had previously never considered exploring, but, having read a book by a Facebook and Twitter friend and seen pictures of it on her pages, I resolved to stop and have a look at her world. I occasionally pass close to this location, but am always en route to somewhere else (Aren’t we all?), with deadlines and people to meet, and it had never before spoken to me with seductive siren tones nor even given me a glimpse of its hidden beauties and charms.
This time, I wasn’t even sure if we would manage the detour, but my husband and I started out early from Germany and covered the intervening kilometres without delay, aided by what he had always previously eschewed but which now proved absolutely essential, sat nav. Negotiating foreign cities, especially those with road systems apparently designed to doom motorists to madness, is always fraught with tension; navigating Rotterdam’s streets may be a piece of coffee and walnut to its residents, but without help or prior knowledge, the new visitor might as well be in the wilderness.
We were heading for Oude Haven, the ‘Old Port’, or the oldest harbour in the city, now home to a collection of historic Dutch barges which Valerie Poore, @vallypee, not only writes about in her books, but has lived on and restored here, for Oude Haven is a working museum with a team of enthusiastic owners, metal- and wood-working skills and the heavy gear to lift huge vessels out of the water to repair and return them to their original state.
I can tell a nightmare story of parking in Amsterdam, which perhaps I’ll relate here some other time, so we were prepared with plenty of small change to feed the greedy meters and defy the wardens, when we eventually turned into Haringvliet, which we had strolled down on Google Maps and determined as our best stopover point for the harbour; however, our research had not been thorough enough, as we discovered that the meters are not fed with money, but with prepaid cards to be got from a range of locations (however, it was a Sunday and we had no means of finding them easily). Then we discovered, by dint of guessing at the truly double Dutch meter instructions that some meters could be accessed by credit card, but we couldn’t immediately see one of those. The masts of the barges and the gorgeous array of moored boats just in front of us seemed to float off into the mists of meter mania.
Rescue came in the form of a bluff but very personable gentleman who had just been buying flowers from the stall at one end of Haringvliet, where, he said, was a credit card meter. Not only did he walk us to it, but used his own card to meet our two-hour stay and accepted our cash payment only very reluctantly. How’s that for hospitality?
The way was now open to explore, albeit quite briefly, the harbour and to locate Vereeniging, the elegant barge belonging to Valerie. The place is a marvel of architecture, considering that most of the area was flattened in WWII. Perhaps most striking is Het Witte Huis, The White House, an art-nouveau skyscraper building designed by architect Willem Molenbroek and erected in 1897-1898, which miraculously escaped destruction in 1940 and which still towers over the port, though it has long since lost its original place as the tallest multi-storey structure; the eye is then ineluctably drawn to the astonishing ‘Kubuswoningen’ or ‘Cube Houses’, the 1984 brainchild of architect Piet Blom, just along the wharf.
But we were here, as lovers of English canal boats and boating, to look at what was on the water (or, in the case of barge Luna, raised out of it to the dockside repair cradle and undergoing some heavy metal treatment – welding was well under way, if the boat wasn’t!). The barges are remarkable, with their sheer size, huge masts and characteristic leeboards (for they are sailing cargo vessels), and we should have loved to have been able to look inside them.
Vereeniging, just about the smallest of them all, nestled in her elegant green and red livery amongst the others… and I could see at a glance what had captured Valerie’s heart about her. She seemed so much more of a living presence, thanks to my reading of ‘Watery Ways’, and her character was buoyant and bubbly, with all the sprightliness and effervescence of a gig compared to the barouche landau sedateness of most of the other boats. I can’t wait to read the next instalment of her history, ‘Harbour Ways’, now in the making! An old bicycle stood to attention on the deck; theft of about eight others has made the owner chary of leaving a valuable machine on board.
We walked around the harbour, ate and drank local beer at one of the cafés (probably not the best one!) and captured a picture of Vereeniging’s stern from across the water. Strolling back along the other side of Haringvliet, we came upon the corpse of a once-yellow bicycle rescued from the muddy depths (but unlikely to be restored like the barges!) and said hello to a ship’s cat, a ginger pirate with the capacity to leap eight feet from deck to harbour steps and to take his ease in the sun.
But time had sadly run out for further sightseeing. We had avoided the parking police, thank goodness, and sailed away to Europoort with the powerful sensation of having travelled to somewhere very special indeed. The homeward ferry was a terribly disappointing contrast to what we had just been seeing.
He is a loafer and a bandit, sauntering along the lanes and woodland rides, nonchalantly taking his ease amongst the shadows. Nothing of the soldier in him: he is not on patrol, nor does he work with comrades, though he might consort with them. He’s a poser in aviator shades – lazy, handsome in a dark way, always with an eye to the main chance and single-minded in his conquests. Though his tastes swing either way, he much prefers women: he adores their scented hair, their soft and fragrant flesh. Men can’t compete for sweetness; they are coarser-skinned, sourer to the taste and less aromatic, but he’s not too fussy – if one comes along, legs provocatively bared to the knee against the heat, he’ll rise to meet him. Not head on, though. Never that. He is a guerrilla, with tactics to match.
At first he introduces himself as a companion, humming softly at the ear, a wayfarer travelling in the same direction. He slouches along sloppily, dipping and swooping around the head and shoulders of his prey, weaving ever closer to the skin, seeking perhaps an undone button or an untucked shirt rippling in the breeze. He annoys, perhaps is flapped away, but he is droopily persistent. The more he’s repelled, the more assiduously attentive he becomes, though still languid in manner. Not for him the spitfire menace of the wasp or the swiftly suicidal sting of the honey-bee. His passion becomes a frenzy of desire as he smells sweat rising from skin, imagines the blood beneath. He penetrates, spiking the flesh and wounding, then flitting out of range, drunk now with the luscious red fluid that he has extracted. He’s swapped it for some of his poison. But he’s not finished yet: dizzily inebriated, he lusts for more. Half in ecstasy, he swirls and dips in taunting arrogance, whisking himself beyond the reach of now flailing, panic-stricken arms; he may distance himself for a while, waiting for the flapping to falter , but still he is there, riding the air, pacing himself, moving as one with his victim, ready for his chance. When it comes, he dives in again, landing so softly he can pierce and suck unnoticed, until he is so glutted that he is forced to let go.
If quick enough and not too distraught with pain, that innocent victim now has a fleeting chance for revenge. The attacker, bloated and engorged, is sluggish now, eyes drooping with sleep. A lucky handslap or dexterous swat with a stick may pitch him, whirling, into oblivion.
Self-defence, m’lud, but come too late: the great red poisonous weals that he has inflicted will impose their own sentence of many days.
[Footnote: In fact, it is the female of the species which bites and sucks blood, but I’m a fiction writer… 😉 ]
The Feast of Artemis is the seventh novel that Anne Zouroudi has written about her mysterious amateur detective Hermes Diaktoros. It’s only the second of the series that I’ve read – I completed The Messenger of Athens last year, shortly after hearing Zouroudi speak at a crime writers’ evening held at the offices of Bloomsbury, her publisher – so I now have the very great pleasure of being able to look forward to devouring the other five. I shall buy them as soon as I can.
I find the quality of Zouroudi’s writing almost haunting. It is classic in that it belongs to the oldest European literary tradition of all, that which has Homer himself sitting at its head. I’ve written elsewhere about how Zouroudi’s intensely poetical yet austerely precise descriptions of the Greek landscape remind me of Homer’s own accounts of the Greek islands in The Odyssey, which, more than two millennia after they were conceived, still amaze with their freshness. The Feast of Artemis also contains such evocative passages, but Zouroudi – always reinventing herself within the universe that she has created – in this novel focuses especially on describing food. The clue, though, is in the title: as the reader is aware, Artemis is the feisty goddess of hunting; in Greek mythology, she at various times exacts retribution, and in the novel terrible things are done in her name, some with unforeseen and unintended consequences.
Just as beneath this glittering, sun-drenched paradise lives the peasant community of Dendra, whose members are tarnished with all the human vices, so concealed within their sumptuous festive meals lurk danger and destruction. Food is both the bringer of life and the harbinger of death in this novel. The finely-drawn characters, whilst naturally displaying none of the urbanity of Diaktoros himself, show both cunning and a taste for revenge that matches that of the gods of old.
The central plot concerns a generations-long feud between two olive-growing families. A cycle of vengeance and retaliation results in the death of the patriarch of one of these families and the mutilation by fire of a youth from the other. One of the book’s many masterly touches consists of a kind of tightening of the screw as the plot unfolds: we are told early on that the youth has been burnt, but the full significance of this is not revealed until the closing stages. The small clouds that hover over the sunny landscape right from the beginning grow darker as the novel progresses and the effects of evil are revealed.
Yet such is the author’s subtlety that none of the characters in The Feast of Artemis is evil through and through. The publisher has placed it within the crime genre, probably correctly, but it belongs to that relatively small group of distinguished crime novels that can be read on more than one level. Fundamentally, it is a book about the human condition. Although Hermes was the messenger of the gods, and Hermes Diaktoros, in his guise as moral arbiter, shares some of his namesake’s characteristics, he is also a modern-day Zeus, swooping down, not in anger, but with a kind of sadly humorous wisdom, as he conducts his inexorable quest to get at the truth and show the perpetrators of the crimes the errors of their ways. That he himself has foibles is a stroke of genius: in a place where life and death are governed by food, he is continually tempted by delicacies that threaten his own well-being because he is already overweight. It also emerges that he is brave to eat some of the food that he is offered, knowing as he already does that those providing it are guilty of introducing poison to their seemingly delicious comestibles. Yet he is nimble on his tennis-shoe-clad feet and has a brain of quicksilver. That he is not perfect lends authority to his perspicacity and ensures that it is not marred by overt moralising. Another fine touch is the introduction of his brother Dino, who is as much a slave to wine as Hermes is to food: Dino – the echo of the name is surely intentional – plays Dionysius to his Zeus. (I’m not sure whether Dino also appears in some of the five novels that I haven’t yet read: my guess is that this is not his first appearance in Zouroudi’s oeuvre.)
At the end of the book, resolution is achieved, but at a price. Peace is brought to the community of Dendra, but it is made clear that its inhabitants will continue to bear the scars – and in some cases, to pay custodial penalties – for their wrongdoing. Hermes Diaktoros himself, having arranged to pay for the best plastic surgery that money can buy for the damaged youth from his own seemingly bottomless yet inexplicably acquired funds, simply melts away. God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world – until, we hope, the next time that his intervention is required.
If you haven’t yet read Anne Zouroudi, you should; you will find her compelling command of the Greek ‘idyll’ as stuffed with flavour and irony as the roasted lamb from the fire pits of her opening chapters in this book.
I should say straightaway that I have long admired Henning Mankell and consider him to be the most distinguished of that very select group of Scandinavian crime writers that has continued to intrigue and amaze us over the last ten or fifteen years. I’m saying this now, because I found The Man from Beijing a very disappointing novel indeed.
It starts brilliantly, with the graphic but not unduly sensational description of the brutal massacre of almost the whole population of a remote Swedish village. Only one of the victims, a young boy, is not a resident of the village. The murder case is led by Vivi Sundberg, a brusque, unimaginative policewoman who is not meant to appeal to the reader. Instead, our sympathies are evoked by Birgitta Roslin, a middle-aged judge whose health is not good and whose marriage appears to have entered a state of gentle decline which she finds depressing. Birgitta is a complex and well-drawn character, one of Mankell’s best, and is, in fact, the only fully-rounded character in the whole book. She gets unofficially involved in the case because she realises that two of the murder victims are the very elderly step-parents of her own mother.
So far, so good. But then, through a chain of unlikely and unconvincing circumstances, Birgitta’s private investigation takes her to China. She happens to have a friend who is a Sinologist who happens to be speaking at a conference there. Both Birgitta and her friend were ardent supporters of Chairman Mao in their youth.
At this point, the novel separates into two strands. One of these, by far the weaker, continues with what are obviously going to be Birgitta’s fruitless efforts to get to the bottom of the mystery of the massacre. It is spiced up by the ever-present suggestion that her life is in danger. The other strand, which goes on for many pages – at least half of a book that totals 550 pages – is a political diatribe thinly disguised as fiction. Ostensibly, it is about the corruption of power and how far modern China has deviated from Mao’s ideals – themselves always false, which is made clear – while still paying lip-service to them; it is a political warning against the present-day colonisation of Africa by the Chinese government.
The political sub-plot – which after a short while almost completely eclipses the main plot – depends on two things: the literary device of using an omniscient narrator to describe certain atrocities carried out against a particular Chinese family during the nineteenth century, and the vicious manoeuvrings, even against each other, of a high-status Chinese political family in the present. It is suggested, but never made clear, that the latter are the descendants of one of the former, and that the wheel of human exploitation and misery has turned full circle. The modern Chinese characters are sketchily drawn – only two of them, Hong Qiu and her brother Ya Ru – have any distinguishing attributes, and the reader senses that these have been bolted on only in order to oil the creaking mechanism of the plot.
At the end of the novel, after several more deaths along the way, the mystery of the identity of the original murderer is solved, but unconvincingly. Several clues scattered at the beginning of the book remain unaccounted for. I’m not suggesting that this is in itself a fault (as I’ve made clear elsewhere, I dislike crime novels in which every ‘i’ is dotted and every ‘t’ crossed), but these clues are so extraordinary that I feel that we are owed some kind of explanation for them.
Most of all, however, the novel is dissatisfying because the reader feels bamboozled. I am aware that Henning Mankell is an expert on Africa and that he has written eloquently about its woes on many occasions. Even so, it just isn’t fair to place two or three hundred pages of what is at times a rambling political exegesis between the covers of what is meant to be a work of crime fiction. I read the book to the end in homage to the many hours of unalloyed pleasure that Mankell’s work has given to me. I suspect that some of its other readers will have lost patience long before they get there.
As a child I always visited the circuses and funfairs that came to Spalding, because my great-uncle, who kept a shop, was given free tickets or tokens for rides in return for placing advertising posters in the shop windows. I was never very keen on circuses – the captured animals forced to perform tricks, their eyes sad and defeated, troubled me even then. But I loved the funfairs! Yesterday, I stumbled upon one completely unexpectedly when stopping to walk in a small picturesque village when out for a drive.
I hadn’t been to a funfair for many years. The last time that I can recall was during a holiday in France, when my family and I were passing through the handsome old Roman town of Saintes and saw that it was en fête. The main street of the town, which is shady because of the plane trees lining it on either side, had been cordoned off and a modern funfair set up adjacent to the ancient manège (roundabout) that always seems to be there when we visit. I remember that fair especially for its mingled scents of hot metal, warm sugar and cooking meats.
Yesterday’s fair presented me with a similar surge of aromas. The heated metal and candyfloss smells were particularly pervasive in the warm sunshine. What also fascinated was the very dated appearance of the rides – dodgems, cakewalks, giant rocking-boats, one of those terrifying cylindrical rides that depends on centrifugal force not to tip its occupants onto the tarmac as it bends and tilts and, for the younger children, bobbing yellow plastic ducks to ‘catch’ with magnetised canes as they swim endlessly round tiny artificial rivers and a small roundabout of aeroplanes fitted with joysticks for their infant pilots to manipulate them up and down – all standard fairground machinery, perhaps, but, extraordinarily, existing as if in a 1950s time-warp. Each piece was painted and decorated in the same way as those of the fairs that I remember in Spalding as a very small child: there were pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Laurel and Hardy; the cylindrical ride was even topped with a figurine of Elvis Presley.
What transported me back into the past yet more vividly was the wonderful carnival atmosphere that the fair brought with it. Whole families had gathered and were chatting, happy and relaxed, in the streets. Children danced giddily off the rides and played next to them with their friends or tugged at their parents for the cash to buy another go. Fathers pushed buggies and women congregated in groups, sipping coffee or nibbling ice-creams. A local café was selling half-pizzas. Hot dogs, hamburgers, candyfloss and giant sweets proclaiming ‘I love you’ together gave off their distinctive mingled scents. There wasn’t a mobile phone or an iPad in sight. For a couple of hours, it seemed as if I had stepped through the looking-glass into an era of lost innocence and almost forgotten leisure, when it was OK to while away the afternoon doing not much in the company of others doing the same.
Of course, being a crime novelist with more than my fair (!) share of cynicism, I still had my eyes open to the possibility that the opportunity for some nefarious deed might be lurking below the holiday surface. The killing of a young girl on a fairground ride featured in a televised crime programme not so long ago; though she apparently just fell from the ride, she had in fact been stabbed. My eyes turned to the giant fan-belts that powered the more terrifying of the machines; they, too, belonged to a bygone age, an age that depended on a mechanical rather than an electronic infrastructure. What if they had not been inspected with sufficient rigour when the fair was erected? What if a madman were to interfere with them and bring horror to the happy scene? Please don’t worry about me; it’s all just a bit of internal fiction… and I did have a wonderfully nostalgic time!
A half-tunnel of hedgerow shades the path from the sun; new bramble tentacles rear up and across the way, reaching for light, their tips still soft, but their stems already clutching at clothing; rabbits are nervous tics at the edge of vision, ready to bolt. This is a lonely, little-used link between roads, though at one end, in the undergrowth under the hazels, illicit, smutty relationships are consummated and discarded with their condoms; the entrance by the field gate, where cars can pull in, is a drift of fast food bags, cartons and fly-tipped debris. Ah, the beauty of rural England!
It is, in fact, part of a favourite walk for us and, especially, the dog, since pheasant and partridge are here in numbers; he will hold a point for over half an hour, which would, were we shooters, make a twelve bore superfluous – a butterfly net would make better sport. As I climb over the stile into the field, where a small herd of bonny brown cows and calves grazes the bank, I encounter a neat heap of dark feathers. The Python team would call this a late blackbird, too late in its take-off to escape the trademark kill of the sparrowhawk. Foxes and cats dispatch their prey untidily, scattering feathers far and wide and often leaving other debris as well. The sparrowhawk, by contrast, is the most thrifty and purposeful of murderers. He calculates. He acts with intent, each action precise and pre-meditated. He uses the terrain, hedges being particularly appropriate for his silent up-and-over surprise attack. Small birds may just flit into the dense hedgerow in time, but his yellow-rimmed eyes are burning with bloodlust and his whole being utters supremacy. He extracts nourishment gram by methodical gram from his hapless quarry, gorging on blood, flesh and bone until there is nothing left except that pathetic heap of feathers, dropped straight down from the branch on which he sits as he feasts.
Imagine that you are the sparrow or the blackbird, caught in those dread talons even as you realise the danger, so swift is the arrowed form. At least your exit is quick.
I’d heard a lot about Ann Cleeves; I had followed her on Twitter, to a kind reciprocation; the reading groups that I joined at Wakefield One had heaped glowing praise upon her work. Yet I had never read her – it was therefore high time that I rectified matters.
I bought two of her books from Rickaro: The Crow Trap, which is set in the Pennines, and Red Bones, one of her Shetland Isles stories (I know that these have been televised, but I haven’t seen any of the programmes). I chose novels set in two different locations, because, as I’ve said before, topography is important to me. I know that Ann Cleeves has a reputation for creating fine atmospheric settings – as one of the reading group members said, Shetland ‘almost becomes a person’ in the books set there – and I wanted to see how she achieved it.
I’m not, however, going to write here about her use of setting, because, although I endorse everything that has been said about it by others, I have nothing new to add. What I’d like to focus on especially, therefore, is her skill at character portrayal, particularly of women. I find her female characters fascinating, not only because of the way she draws them, but because she captures with subtle and skilful nuances some of the ways by which women are still exploited by men – though she is by no means a militant feminist and the male characters in her novels suffer from certain injustices, too. Some of her women characters find their own ways of fighting back: Anne Preece in The Crow Trap tries to make use of both her husband and Godfrey Waugh to provide her with the lifestyle that she craves, although both in their turn exploit her as part of the chess-like game of shifting relationships that forms a fine sub-plot to this novel; and Jimmy Perez, the policeman hero of Red Bones, is continually kept guessing about the depth of feeling that his vivacious, unconventional girlfriend Fran entertains for him.
I enjoyed both of these novels immensely. Ann Cleeves writes quite unlike any other crime novelist whose work I know. If I had to choose between them, I’d say that The Crow Trap has the edge on Red Bones, mainly because, although both are set in remote areas, the Shetland novel offers less scope for variety in characterisation. Both are rural variants of the country house murder convention, each with its own subtle twists that bring new life to this sub-genre. However, Red Bones has a strong archaeological theme, which was of special interest to me because when I read it I had just completed Almost Love, which is in part about the disappearance of a famous female archaeologist and set against the activities of the members of a famous archaeological society.
I see that Ann Cleeves is a prolific writer who has written many books. I can therefore look forward to many more hours of happy reading in her company.