Wednesday, 29 April 2009

“Death of a Pilgrim”, David Dickinson

Last year David Dickinson was an author I very enthusiastically indulged in, loving their wit, endearing pictures of Edwardian society, gentle nods towards art, and ultimately, at the heart, a good traditional murder to get to the bottom of. More recently however coming across a new Lord Francis Powerscourt mystery is something of a curates egg. There's still the out and out glee at spotting a new one on the shelf, and no question at all in my mind that it's immediately placed on the to be read pile (and somewhere near the top too), but sadly "Death of a Pilgrim" continues the pattern I started to discern with "Death on Holy Mountain". The pace seems to have noticably slowed, and where once they'd cheerfully be disposed of in a day or so, they now don't impose themselves at the forefront of consciousness quite enough, so much so that "Death of a Pilgrim" has occasionally been left on the bedside table and not quite made it into the briefcase.

"Death of a Pilgrim" has been described elsewhere as a traditional English country house murder mystery recast along the path of a group of pilgrims making their way to Santiago de Compostela. This is a clever narrative device, but slightly unsettling, as throughout the book there's a niggle in the back of your mind as to what works of classic detective fiction Dickinson is paying homage to and while this is not a demanding read, there are times when it is rewarding to be paying attention to what's on the page rather than mulling over other books.

In setting the mystery along the Way of St James Dickinson is given the opportunity to stretch his literary legs in - his descriptions of the wide open vistas of l'Aubrac, the warm shady twists of the Lot, and the crumbling remains of castles from the Albigensian crusade. As such, in places it's beautifully written and immersive, although one can't help thinking that coming after the previous Powerscourt books it's as though David Dickinson is having a go at metamorphosing into Brian Sewell.

So - cultural fusion aside, is it any good? The answer here has to be a partial endorsement. The central plot, that of multiple members of the extended Delaney family all gathered on a pilgrimage from Le Puy to Santiago is engaging enough, but gives rise to a certain level of confusion, multiple characters all with more or less the same name rely heavily on having distinct personalities, and while there are some attempts at granting them distinguising features (the corpulent priest, the drunkard, the lovestruck) this isn't quite enough to raise them much above the level of cardboard cutout characters. This, in addition to adding a layer of confusion to the book, means it is noticably harder to care particularly about many of the characters, whcih sadly reduces murder to something of a ho-hum affair. In some ways the identity of the perpetrator is predictable, although this is so much so that there is enjoyment in trying to build cases for other candidates, and given the peripatetic location, and the shared background of the pilgrims, there is a more than a passing resemblance to "Murder on the Orient Express".

The series is often seen as being about Lord Francis Powerscourt, but one insight I took away from "Death of a Pilgrim" was the centrality of Johnny Fitzgerald. The two spark off each other effectively, and while many of the elements featuring Fitzgerald, including a stay in Macroom and an encounter with his former fiancee feel like underdeveloped subplots, the quality and sheer fun of Fitzgerald's character really shine through, and when his path finally joins that of Powerscourt there is a palpable lift to the enjoyability of the book.

Despite this being one of the longer books in the series one can't help but wonder whether Dickinson had to leave some additional plot richness on the cutting room floor. The scenes in Ireland feel as though there should be more to them, opportunities to muddy the waters regarding the perpetrator feel as though they should have been taken, and ultimately there wasn't the overarching sense of satisfaction at the end as has been found in some of the preceeding volumes.

Finally, a niggle, nothing to do with Dickinson. Towards the end Powerscourt speculates about the Three Musketeers, and who in the investigating group could readily be identified with which musketeer. This immediately brought to mind a book I've read in the last 12 months, where children (I think( learning who the three musketeers were constituted a recurrent theme. The character I'm thinking of could readily recall D'Artagnen (like everyone else) but not the other two. Since finishing the book last night I've been wracking my brains as to what book I'm thinking of and can't for the life of me get to the bottom of it. Scrolling through previous reads on LibraryThing haven't helped, and it's the sort of question Google is hopeless at answering. If anyone can think of what it might be I'm thinking of - and I'm pretty sure it's crime fiction of some variety - answers on a metaphorical postcard please - it's annoying me sufficiently I can probably drum up a small prize for anyone who can put me out of my misery...

Thursday, 23 April 2009

“Phoenix Squadron”, Rowland White

Sometimes it's obvious where a book has come from. Rowland White's “Phoenix Squadron” is clearly cut from the same cloth as his previous “Vulcan 607” in celebrating the extemporised innovation and heroism of British military aviators, more striking however is how much is owed to the seminal fly on the wall documentary “Sailor”, which charted HMS Ark Royal's final deployment. Both the 1970s television series and the 2009 book successfully evoke the spirit of life aboard the ship, and the manner in which the Royal Navy operated.

Like “Vulcan 607” White hangs the wider story of how an organisation functions and how the constituent personalities interact on the pillar of a particular operation. While this worked in the case of the Vulcan raid on Port Stanley for his first book, the Ark Royal's engagement in a classic late colonial exercise of gunboat diplomacy in Central America in 1972 does not quite provide enough material to really drive the book of this size. White almost admits as such in the preface, where he makes it clear that he wanted to write about Ark Royal, but that it was comparatively late in the process when the idea of looking at the deployment in support of Belize, and the sortie of 809 Squadron on 28 January 1972 came to him. This lack of central focus in the writing process does come through in the course of the book, where often it feels like a loosely connected series of vignettes about the navy, the Fleet Air Arm, and a group of people serving aboard the ship rather than a clearly constructed narrative connected to a specific issue.

The lack of sufficiently powerful central theme might have reduced the effectiveness of the book, but it testament to White's ability to capture atmosphere and personality, as well as the basic charisma of Ark Royal herself, that much like “Sailor”, the simple telling of shipboard life and how the vessel operated makes for a highly engaging read. It doesn't have pretensions to being high naval history, but is none the worse for it, and indeed this populism is interesting given the current climate.

Despite its periodic bittiness “Phoenix Squadron” remains a useful addition to the body of literature on the phenomenon of gunboat diplomacy in its coverage of the Belize/Guatemala incident. Indeed, while the dispute over British Honduras has a long history giving rise to successful British applications of purposeful force dating back at least to 1948's deployment of Sheffield and Devonshire, yet there is little narrative history on the nuts and bolts of how the Royal Navy was able to successfully shape Guatemalan policy and how limited naval force can be used for political ends.

Equally valid is viewing the work as a contribution towards Cold War naval history. Striking in this aspect are the passages concerning Ark Royal's role within NATO as part of Striking Fleet Atlantic. This makes clear that the roots of the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s, with its very aggressive use of naval aviation north of the Greenland-Iceland-Unitied Kingdom gap truly had roots stretching back into the 1970s. Descriptions of operations in Norwegian fjords and targetting of the Kola peninsula are very reminiscent of Hank Mustin's leadership of 2nd Fleet during the 1980s (related both in numerous articles in US Naval Institute Proceedings and in John Morton's 2003 family history), and show that the Nelson's dictum that a captain can do little wrong by laying their ship alongside their enemy was just as applicable in the 1970s as ever.

“Phoenix Squadron” could be seen as being a highly timely work. Just as the the intervention in Belize could be seen as the final flowering of Royal Navy big carrier gunboat diplomacy and the use of a capability that went away with the scrapping of Ark Royal, the retelling of this story, in a highly populist work, could be seen as a useful ploy in explaining why, in highly straightened economic times, the United Kingdom is seeking to re-enter the large carrier club with the two Queen Elizabeth class vessels.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

“The Associate”, John Grisham

London Heathrow Terminal 2 has almost no redeeming features, even the bookshop being something of a tawdry ill organised affair. It does however provide airport exclusives, which always have a certain appeal, and the usual two for 20 pounds deal means there's scope for a degree of adventurism in book choice. John Grisham's probably not much of an adventure, but given the patchy response to some of his recent work, picking up “The Associate” wasn't the no-brainer that other book purchases have been.

Through 2005 I went through my first real Grisham phase, raiding charity shops across South London in search of battered copies, and accepting their basic formulaic nature, predominantly found it a rewarding enough way to while away a few hours. “The Associate” in no way is a departure from the common basic theme that has served Grisham well in the past, the tale of the idealistic young lawyer, corrupted by law's misapplication, leading to ultimate redemption, surrendering the trappings of richness for a more wholesome approach to life.

A small area of differentiation in “The Associate” is that the protagonist, Kyle McAvoy, is a flawed character to start with and initially it is hard to warm to him – the skeletons in his closet aren't particularly pleasant, and his protestations that he wants to go and earnestly work on behalf of immigrants in Virginia rings a touch false. These flaws in his character make plausible the hook whereby he is blackmailed and pushed into the Wall St corporate law he claims to be trying to avoid.

The hidden manipulators pulling McAvoy's strings are more faceless than usual, and this actually adds a lot to the book. The murkiness of their motive, and the fact that many elements with them are left unresolved avoids the book being too pat. Grisham performs at his best building a sense of menace surrounding 'Bennie' and his ability to reach into people's lives, and by leaving much unwritten, allows the reader the readily fill in the blanks quite possibly more effectively than a more detailed description might allow for.

Where Grisham falls down a touch is in his description of the central legal case that drives the plot. While in actual fact this is largely inconsequential, the complex defence contract giving rise to the enormous controversial lawsuit of interest to 'Bennie' doesn't ring true and has the feel of an author out of their depth and struggling to explain it. This is in direct contrast to the aplomb with which Grisham has handled subjects like tobacco and firearms in previous works.

Reading John Grisham seldom offers much encouragement towards a legal career, and “The Associate”, more than usual, paints a very bleak picture of the profession. The reality of legal life beyond the large salaries and luxurious public facing rooms is shown to be tawdry, venal, and thoroughly unappealing.

“The Associate” has been likened Grisham's breakthrough work, “The Firm”, and particularly feels like a filmscript in waiting. McAvoy should be easy to cast, there are clear acts and scenes that could readily transition to screen, and critically the book is brief enough to not have to be cut to shreds to fit it into a two hour window offered by Hollywood.

Written with possibly more than half an eye on the screen adaptation, “The Associate” isn't a great book. It's very linear, the majority of the characters are shallow and undeveloped, and the plot fairly simple. While I'm firmly of the opinion that 'twists' are not obligatory in fiction, the absence of one here is felt. To a reader familiar with Grisham this is a very predictable work and few surprises are encountered on the way. That said, while it lasts it's an engaging read. Started as the plane pushed back at Frankfurt airport on Friday, it was well on its way by the time Heathrow was reached, and readily completed by the end of the weekend. This doesn't however mask the fact that ultimately “The Associate” is a forgettable book. I am under no illusions that it will quickly be recycled back to a charity shop, and in a few months time it will be a struggle to differentiate it from most of Grisham's other work. Having recently read Gimenenz's “Common Lawyer” one can't help thinking that the position of pre-eminent legal thriller writer might have shifted.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

“Go”, Simon Lewis

Are book reviews a lot like the mix tapes of old (or perhaps playlists now) where one really shouldn’t put two songs by the same artist next to each other? If that’s the case then I must plead guilty to driving a cart and horses through this rule by immediately following Simon Lewis’ “Bad Traffic” with a review of his first work, 1998’s “Go”.

There are some undeniable benefits to running the two books together. On several levels they’re very different, and “Go” is clearly the output of a much younger author. Set in the late 1990s it’s suffused with some of the exuberance that swept New Labour to power, while exposing the innate corruption and decay of Britain that society only seems able to paper over for brief moments. There are common themes between the two books, the most clear being the multiple point of view approach to the same events, an association with China, and, oddly, his periodic penchant for referring to bodily fluids as “goo”. 

On many levels “Go” reminds the reader of Jake Arnott – crime novels where law enforcement is not at the centre of the story, where the protagonists exist on a moral plane unfamiliar to most of us, and the episodic immersion in different characters as their world is described. In this light it’s striking that “Go” predates Arnott’s breakthrough debut, “The Long Firm”, going to show a lot about what innovation really means in the publishing world and the power of positioning to really make an author.

“Go” is an immersive book. Goan heat and the cascading rain of Hong Kong during 1997’s handover are communicated effectively, as are temporal references such as an Austin Montego and a Sony Walkman. Most telling however is the sense of desperate alienation suffered by the ingenue abroad – a theme that will be highly familiar to readers of “Bad Traffic”; the scene of Vix trying to buy a train ticket to Beijing really encapsulates the difficulty of trying to do anything when you don’t speak the language, don’t understand the way things are supposed to work, or the protocol of where you’re supposed to queue.

This isn’t a crime novel in the true sense. There isn’t a single central crime being investigated. It’s certainly not a police procedural, but criminality and life beyond the normal mores of society are what this book is about, and as a such it really is rather good. Of course you can nitpick. My jaded editorial eye wondered why, after Sol cheerfully drinks a whisky with Chinese gangster Li in his hotel on a rainy afternoon, he describes the beer he drinks a few hours later as his first alcohol in weeks. Sometimes continuity errors like this grate, and make me rail against a publishing system that allows editors to be browbeaten, but in this case, it doesn’t bother at all.

Don’t read this book expecting it to be like “Bad Traffic”. They’re clearly by the same author, but “Go” has a much rougher edge to it, which paradoxically helps it along and effectively locates in the 1990s. Having been able to compare the two at close quarters, “Go” is perhaps the more thought provoking. None of the characters involved are flawless at all, indeed all of them are complicit, to one extent or another in profound criminality, but I could readily identify with them, feel happiness at the fulfilment that some find, and wistful sadness at the end that some of the less admirable characters meet.

“Go” was hard to track down. My local library had to get it out of storage, it seems to be out of print, and its resale price on Amazon is practically zero. The perception of what it’s about is also hugely misunderstood, with a trusted reader telling me they didn’t think Lewis’ first novel was a crime work. All of this is a shame. “Go” is a genuinely good and underrated first novel much deserving of a wider readership. If you get a chance, you really should read it.

Monday, 6 April 2009

“Bad Traffic”, Simon Lewis

Simon Lewis' second book, coming after a long interval, is a highly innovative work. Undeniably a crime novel, whose central protagonist is a policeman, but "Bad Traffic" is enormously divorced from the traditional concept of the police procedural. "Bad Traffic" in fact at times feels much more akin to a chase novel, such as John Buchan's "39 Steps".

As the author of a number of guidebooks to China, including "The Rough Guide to China", Lewis is well placed to portray Chinese characters. My knowledge of China is pretty fleeting, based on a slightly hectic week there in 2008, but the characters rings true, and the brief scenes set in China itself are also identifiably Chinese.

"Bad Traffic" is not just about one man's search for his missing daughter, this central tenet is used as a supporting beam off of which many, often brief, side stories paining a rich picture of the Chinese in Britain are hung. The incomprehension with which Chinese look at common or garden features of British life combine with the grinding depressing racism permeating so much of society are neatly portrayed in brief vignettes punctuating the novel.

The protagonist, Inspector Jian is a deeply flawed character. He is not a 'good' policeman, fond of bribes, a serial womaniser, and quick to resort to sickening violence, and "Bad Traffic" is largely a story about his quest for redemption. This however is not an easy passage, and by the end of the work there are still questions as to whether Jian has been 'saved' by his experience in the UK. Indeed throughout one is reminded, perhaps fittingly, of the Confucian proverb, that before setting out to seek vengeance, you should dig two graves. This sense of fatalism pervades the novel, consistently trying to prepare the reader for bad news, which is perhaps even more powerful than delivering it.

The heart of the story concerns Chinese organised crime in the UK, and specifically the exploitation of the immigrant community and the real horror of people trafficking. The casual disregard human life is held in is powerfully displayed, and the naïve desperation of the people seeking a new life on the 'golden mountain' (as they refer to Britain) is made painfully clear. The loyalty migrant worker Ding Ming shows to his English gangmaster, an appalling human being called Kevin, despite the vileness of his treatment, fascinates and horrifies at the same time. The fact that we all know illegal immigration happens, and that migrant workers are treated truly dreadfully, makes "Bad Traffic" feel all too real in its bleakness.

Every book has its flaws. One that I still can't quite grasp and keep having to revisit to check and make sure I've got it straight is the setting of the plot in both Leeds, where Jian's daughter goes to university, and where much of the story is set, and Liverpool, where the gangster Black Fort is based. I know they're closer than you sometimes think, but it jarred somewhat to think about the casual way in which characters flit between the two. A lot of the impact of the book is tied up in its perpetual motion, but this leg struck me as being unnecessary and, in its seeming unlikeliness, needlessly distracted. If, of course, someone knows better, and actually Lewis is on the money describing a Leeds-Liverpool crime axis then I am perfectly happy to eat humble pie!

This is a really good book about the Chinese in the UK. Charles Cumming's "Typhoon" worked very well as a thriller set in China, and as works like Misha Glenny's brilliant "McMafia" show, there's a rich vein of crime to explore in China. Bearing this in mind I was struck by Robert Wilson's recent comment that there was significant reader opposition to setting a novel in China. Yes it's absolutely an alien place, but the juxtaposition between the ultramodern and the atmospheric rambling hutongs you find in downtown Beijing strikes me as a magnificent backdrop for crime related fiction. One can only hope that writers like Simon Lewis, who combine a level of country and cultural knowledge with a clear aptitude for writing crime fiction can exploit this setting, which is being left deliberately bare by other authors.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

“The Ultimate Mixer Cookbook”, Kay Halsey

Okay, this qualifies as an odd one. There are a lot of cookery books around our house, some fantastic standbys whose quality can be judged by the amount of use they get, some initially promise much, but spend a lot of time on the shelf, and probably wouldn't be missed if they went to the great library in the sky.

"The Ultimate Mixer Cookbook" has a slightly unusual provenance. Last Christmas the household gained a fetching red Kitchen Aid mixer. Terribly middle class, this is a work of art in itself, unambiguously wearing its industrial credentials on its sleeve, and having the sort of solidity that leads you to trust it absolutely. The fact that it makes cake making a doddle is also appreciated, both around the house and at work, where the arrival of cake is rightly regarded as a considerable boost to morale.

Being a significant investment, we decided that instead of chucking out the buyer registration card, which is standard operating practice, we'd fill it in and post it off to Belgium (why Belgium?), and as an added bonus, we would apparently be sent a mixer cookbook.

I had zero expectations about what sort of form this cookbook would take. Generally free gifts such as this more resemble booklets, with low production values, and little in the way of useful content. So, when this morning we received a jumbo batch of post and I spied the postman leaving something in the porch – a clear indicator of parcel excitement, there was considerable surprise when the Kitchen Aid logo was spotted on the sturdy cardboard packaging. Unwrapping revealed the absolute antithesis of the cheap throwaway free recipe books I had in mind.

Just as a Kitchen Aid is a thing of beauty, "The Ultimate Mixer Cookbook" is a beautiful book. Large, sturdy, and beautifully illustrated it conveys the levels of quality that Kitchen Aid presumably want to be associated with. In 176 pages Kitchen Aid have managed to get a brand extension exercise absolutely right. Presentation is critical in a cookery book, and the right note is struck here. Its large format means it stays open on the worktop, the ingredients are clearly spelled out, and the recipes themselves straightforward. In short, this is a cookery book that impresses.

Time will tell how often it gets used, and we'll see whether it acquires the patina of use that indicate a cookery book that fundamentally works. As a functional exercise in promoting Kitchen Aid however it's superb right out of the box. In a time when it could be seen as perfectly justifiable to cut costs and rein in lavish marketing gestures like this, it's delightful that Kitchen Aid are still so focused on making their customers feel liked and appreciated. Why can't more companies be like Kitchen Aid.