Wednesday, 25 March 2009

“The Ignorance of Blood”, Robert Wilson

Let's get the obvious statements out of the way right at the start. Robert Wilson's "The Ignorance of Blood" is a fantastic novel of the type that really is of the stay-up-late, ignore what's on the television, read through meals variety. It's also at times a little flawed and, almost certainly, the wrong place to start if you're new to Wilson.

I should also take the opportunity to thank Crimeficreader from the It's a Crime (Or Mystery) blog who was most kind in sending me her review copy of this book, which made for a marvelous postal delivery at the end of last week.

Concluding a quartet of books set in Seville, "The Ignorance of Blood" follows in close sequence to the previous Falcon novel, "The Hidden Assassins", and herein lies the core problem with it as a book. The last novel in a sequence like this will always rely on traits developed in previous volumes, but it's striking how reliant "Ignorance of Blood" is on what has gone before - to the extent that if you remove the context of "Hidden Assassins" it really doesn't make a tremendous amount of sense. This isn't a particular problem in and of itself, but as someone who has read all the Falcon books at time of release, and as it's been a while since 2006 a lot of the details from the previous book were a little fuzzy, and strangely, as Spain seems to lend itself to terrorism related espionage thrillers I found the plotlines between this, Charles Cumming's "Spanish Game", and even, slightly shamefacedly, Charles Ingram's "The Network" all a touch blurred. In retrospect, the release of the conclusion to the quarter should act as a prompt to revisit all three previous books and read them as a continuum. As it stands there are still nagging questions in the back of my mind that make me want to return to the previous books and make sure all the threads have been picked up, and this actually points to the underlying strength of Wilson's prose.

Wilson's mastery of the English language has always shone through his writing, and sometimes it takes exposure to a writer firing on all cylinders to make it clear how good they really are and the level of daylight between them and the ordinariness of the common or garden potboilers we often regard as acceptable. Another reviewer has described his writing as being like that of a fine chocolatier compared to the more usual Galaxy bar we so often encounter, and that probably gets right to the heart of it. Hot climates are written very well by Wilson. In his sense of place and location the reader is truly captivated by the heat of the Spanish night during which so much of the story takes place. This is an appealing world where references to heavy air and sussurating leaves accompanied by beer in a frosted glass tempt you in, and yet the frank violence and the bleak stoicism of victims appalls. While through this Wilson is essentially capturing a duality inherent in terrible crimes committed in beautiful surroundings (the 'serpent in paradise' metaphor), he is not guilty of over romanticising his setting. For every postcard like view of Seville, there is a portrayal of the much more tawdry aspect, the slums that few if any tourists will see, and the despair of those doomed to live there.

There are some arresting passages, and while many will focus on the shocking violence that at times surfaces in the novel, it is the more reflective pieces that for me really highlight the book's underlying darkness. The quiet resigned death of a Russian gangster among the pines is shaded by the comment that "[t]he sight of young girls being defiled always made Ramirez uncomfortable", which strikingly illustrates the level to which evil attains a banality among the inherently good characters exposed to horror all too regularly.

If one of the book's flaws is the level to which the reader has to have read preceding volumes, the other is the slightly uneasy way in which the Russian mafia story intertwines with the Islamist terrorism plot; both are perfectly good storylines and have real levels of interest, however the interaction between the two, and the way a narrative twist is set up involving them, somehow doesn't quite flow. By the same token the final act in Morocco feels rushed and lacks the richness the rest of the story holds. Here too, credibility is a touch stretched, with the level to which Falcon is assisted by the organs of state. Wilson, after "The Company of Strangers", said he was unlikely to write another espionage based novel, and one can't help feeling that he may have been very self aware in coming to this conclusion - the various Spanish, British, and American intelligence agencies in "The Ignorance of Blood" seem a little wooden and their role in advancing the plot feels somewhat contrived.

This shouldn't stand in the way of the fact that "The Ignorance of Blood" really is very good. Part police procedural, part espionage thriller, it is a complete human tragedy. If you've yet to encounter Javier Falcon start at the beginning and work your way through all four, if he's familiar to you, reacquaint yourself with the full suite and then really enjoy the final work. Yes, this approach will mean you take longer to find how all the threads come together, but this time, it's really worth waiting for.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the mention. Glad you enjoyed the book. I think this could turn into a bumper reading year as there's a lot excellent crime fiction coming.