Most of my postings involve books I've read recently, reflecting my response to a book at its most visceral and critically when the plot and characterisation is fresh in my mind.
This is a departure from that principle and is not really a book review.
I picked up David Hewson's first Nic Costa novel back in February 2008, the result of a Saturday morning's stroll refamiliarising myself with Aberystwyth. “A Season for the Dead” formed part of a three-for-two offer in the local bookshop, along with Mark Mill's “Savage Garden” and John Niven's “Kill your Friends” (actually quite an unpleasant book, in a strangely compelling way, as things transpired). I'm hard pressed to remember which one was the 'free' book in this package, but memory whispers to me that it probably wasn't the Hewson, I'd just come back from Rome, and full of the prospect of more work there, the prospect of a rich Italian mystery really appealed.
Bringing things to the present day, late on Thursday night, coping with an oppressively hot Bologna night, I came across a recent spat concerning Hewson and his response to negative reviews, bringing up an array of topics including, among many others, cyber-bullying, fair use of copyright material, and libel. Ill tempered discussion such as this, which periodically flare up on the internet, often show the shortcomings of blogging, where there's too much reliance on literal communication and it's all too easy to post in haste and repent at leisure, however this did serve to make me, with the benefit of distant hindsight, think about what I've thought about David Hewson's books.
I read “A Season for the Dead” and while finishing it, being driven with a sense of curiousity about how the plot panned out, an interest in the core characters, and a real sense of enjoyment about the location, something about it left me feeling a touch disappointed. There was a palpable lack of redemption about the book. To take the persona of Nic Costa as an example, there's no shortage of troubled detectives with a surfeit of 'issues' in crime fiction, however I found a certain sense of frustration with him, and struggled to identify with him. Equally, while crime in reality is almost never elegant, much of plot represented humanity at its most tawdry, and left me feeling somewhat stained.
That said, my response to my first exposure to Hewson clearly wasn't completely negative. I clearly remember frustration at my local library not stocking the earlier books in the Costa series, and at some point last year I bought the third book, “The Sacred Cut”, probably at an airport, but it never really grabbed me, and despite a few attempts at starting, ultimately it fell victim to the demands of limited shelf space in a South London semi, and went to the charity shop unread with my feeling that for whatever reason I didn't really get on with Hewson/Costa and I didn't see myself reading it anytime soon.
There ended my engagement with David Hewson, probably concluding that while they were perfectly good crime novels of a particular type, they weren't necessarily for me, but that's just a case of horses for courses.
Reading about the spat referred to above raised some interesting questions in my mind though. I haven't seen the negative review penned by Norm, so I can't comment on whether it was or was not libellous. Raising the issue of libel is however something that does make my blood run cold. I've worked in publishing for many years, and still clearly recall the horror of receiving a phone call from the BBC asking if I was aware that a writ for libel was forthcoming from a third party. I was lucky enough then to be working for a big publisher, with the sort of editorial processes that gave us confidence in our story, and a wider support structure in terms of administration and legal help that cushioned the blow. Blogging is undeniably publishing, and libel is libel, but thinking back to my understanding of the laws surrounding such things, looking at reputational damage in the eyes of the right thinking person on the Clapham ominbus, one does have to wonder what purpose is served by taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
What I do find positive, having over the past couple of days revisited some of the controversial correspondence, is that David Hewson is reading and responding to writings about his work. Engaging in a dialogue, within reason, about its merits, is so much more healthy than leaving things in the hands of lawyers. Clay Shirky among others makes the point that the one thing the internet does is lower the barrier to publication, this has the effect that there is a blurring of lines between the old traditional 'book review' of the Saturday supplement and the impassioned conversation between friends previously the reserved preserve of small groups. From my perspective as a reader this has been vastly positive, introducing me to so many books I wouldn't otherwise have found, however there has to be a process of understanding that maybe principles arrived at for the long established print world do not work as well in a world where everyone can publish and accordingly have their 15 megabytes of fame.
There are going to be good and bad aspects to this, but perhaps it's worth revisiting the basic lessons of libel I was taught many years ago – as an author, would you want this written about you? And as a plaintif, once you enter into litigation gloves will come off and you lose control over what is said.
Restraint is usually the best way forward.