Sunday, 18 July 2010

"Tell No One"

Guillame Canet's slick 2006 thriller has been sitting on my to-be-watched pile for ages. I've had a couple of stuttering starts at watching it, but never really had the time to do it the justice I felt it deserved. All this was rectified on the Eurostar to Brussels last week.

A train heading into a Europe about to be gripped by the world's most monumental thunderstorm provided a suitably menacing backdrop to this noirish piece of cinema. I've blogged before about location - and this is again a case where surroundings matter. "Tell No One" works fine on the big HD TV at home, but somehow it was more fitting to be immersed by it on a small laptop screen whipping through Flanders as the world threatened to come to an end outside.

"Tell No One" is based on a Harlan Coben novel, originally set in New York (and which I haven't read) but translates it into something ineffably French. The world inhabited by Alexandre Beck, struggling to come to terms with the death of his wife, and then thrown the curveball of an email purportedly from her, is not the Paris you see as a tourist. This is a much more real Paris featuring the banlieue, the no go suburbs on the outskirts of the city, as well as the staggering wealth of the Parisian horsey set.

This is a dark film full of baroque violence and menace. The fleeting, often unexplained characters, including a truly evil androgenous torturer who just will not die, hint at a richness and deep wider story that works at your mind long after the final credits have rolled. There are some obvious links with "The Fugitive" - a doctor wrongly accused of murdering their wife and seeking the real killer - but these are superficial - "Tell No One" is a very different proposition, and much better for it.

Much of the film's strength lies in what's left unsaid. The enormously appealing Bruno (Gilles Lelouche) walking away from his life, son, and girlfriend is all massively understated, but given what you know he's done for Alex, is genuinely moving.

A film you want to watch and then watch again to see what you missed while you were captivated by the story, and a film you want to persuade anyone who will listen to watch with you.

An American remake is apparently in the works. One has to ask why? Okay the original novel is set in US, but somehow Canet has managed to make this a very French story, and to my mind it should remain so. Sure there might be a call for it, and it might well be a commercial success, especially given the  depressing number of comments on LoveFilm stating that it's clearly rubbish because it's not even in English. This if nothing else is a persuasive argument for leaving this as ultimate cinematic representation of this particular tale. In fact, if your French is up to it, and this is a bit of an ask, because it does explore a lot of dialogue, turn off the subtitles and enjoy the gorgeous film-making.

Among many awards "Tell No One" has won, it secured best soundtrack at the 2007 Cesar awards - and it deserves it - this is almost a film that could work on the radio with nothing done to it, and leaves tunes in your head that stay with you. Groove Armada's "Hands of Time" is more than usually effective. This is almost Michael Mannish in the linkage of music with image, and believe me, it works.

If you've got a LoveFilm subscription, it's a available to freely watch online; even if you don't you should track this film down and watch it. It will make your life better for being in it.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

"From Drawing Board to Chequered Flag", Tony Southgate

For someone who first started to be interested in motor racing in 1982 Tony Southgate was consistently present in the background of the races I watched. It helped of course that he was associated with underdogs at that stage; teams like Theodore and Osella were never going to win anything, but with the latter in particular, they were doing something  different, that appealed to me. There was also the real attraction of an attempt to do something with extraordinarily limited resources, which is an ethos that appeals to this day.

In this light Tony Southgate's autobiography has been a long time comings, and it doesn't disappoint. Told in a concise and to the point manner the true richness of Southgate's career, which has involved winning the Indianapolis 500 with Eagle, the Monaco Grand Prix with BRM, and Le Mans with Jaguar and Audi, is revealed.

This is a story that strips away a lot of the glamour that is often associated with motor racing. The red in tooth and claw nature of the sport in the 1960s and 1970s, when death was common occurrence is exposed, but so too is the gritty unrewarded hard graft that working in the industry entailed. The frankly unpleasant birth of Arrows was before my day, but this is told clearly by one of the participants, who has managed to lose a lot of the rancour with the perspective of distance. Back in the 1980s Southgate would refuse to refer to Arrows, instead calling it Arrow (the team name was built up from letters of the founders Alan Rees, Jackie Oliver, Dave Wass, and Tony Southgate), feeling he wanted nothing to do with them. Reading now of his abrupt dismissal and the borderline fraud that valued his 10% of the company at £5,000 you can understand the level of bitterness felt, especially when put in the context of the court battle with Shadow and the supreme efforts in producing a string of cars in Arrows' early years.

The core message here is that while there's a lot of money sloshing around the sport, it says something that Southgate had to work all the way to 2000 to ensure financial security. This is the story of a career where as he put it "I had always been paid well, but there is a difference between living well and having excess money to save for a rainy day" (p.170). You do however wonder if Southgate would have wanted it any different way? He's clear that the excesses of motorsport hold no appeal to him, and in being compelled to work later into his career he got the opportunity to work on some marvelous machinery and make him a figure who neatly spans the era when an individual could have an impact on every aspect of car design to the present, when the complexity of design means that the nature of the beast means cars are now inherently designed by committee.

As well as being a genuinely good read, right up there with recent classics from Vic Elford and John Horsman, "From Drawing Board to Chequered Flag" brings some real new insight for the student of motor racing. In 1982 then Osella designer, Herve Guilpin quit in disgust at the Caesar's Palace Grand Prix, being fulsome in his criticism of Enzo Osella's approach including choice words such as "The reason is always lack of money. The result is the FA1D [Osella's 1982 car] is and always has been a potential public menace" and questions about resource allocation, such as questioning the building of a test track at the Osella factory. For those who want to know more, the full story is told on page 45 in the 1982 Caesar's Palace edition of Grand Prix International magazine.

Tony Southgate brings a different perspective. When he visited the Osella facility at Volpiano to discuss the project for fitting an Alfa Romeo V12 engine to the FA1E, not long after Guilpin's outburst, he was clearly pleasantly surprised. Summing it up he states "Compared with the likes of Arrows and Shadow, Osella looked very impressive. Where teams allocate their money is always a case of individual priorities, and in Osella's case he obviously spent a lot of it on the factory." (p.126). Different observers, different perspectives, and different circumstances, but it all clearly shows how primary sources can be so contradictory.

"From Drawing Board to Chequered Flag" is beautifully put together and tells a fascinating story. It deserves to be read by anyone with a real passion and interest in motor racing in the latter part of the 20th century.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

"Payback", James Barrington

Since an idle purchase of "Foxbat" at the Eurotunnel crossing in the autumn of 2007, I've enjoyed James Barrington. It's nonsense, requires a significant suspension of disbelief, but as a fried, leafing through the first pages of "Payback" in The Rake one evening this week commented, for nonsense, it's pretty well written.

Throughout Barrington's work it is possible to discern a steady reigning in of his protagonist, Paul Richter. In "Payback" he's a more straightforward character. He's an individualistic and unorthodox intelligence officer, not necessarily anything unusual in a spy thriller, but now there's no merging in of him being a Royal Navy fighter pilot. This, on balance, is a good thing. Barrington can undeniably write both spy fiction and techno-thrillers, but when the genres were fused quite so firmly it somehow didn't quite work.

"Payback" is thus a tighter story, and has a tight geographic focus on Dubai. Here we can see a clear example of how real world events can undermine an author. The Dubai here is a super-rich Sheikhdom basking in opulence, and it is almost certainly an accurate representation of what it was like while Barrington was writing. Sadly by mid-2010 the financial collapse of Dubai has transformed people's perception, and somehow the idea of the Dubai government blithely paying off terrorists with billions of dollars doesn't ring quite so true. Other little niggles, such as Dubai airport's Terminal 3 being described as "soon to open" when it's been working since 2008 are more easily glossed over, but still illustrate how hard it is for an author to achieve complete veracity.

In truth though, there are some aspects of a thriller such as this where accuracy is needed. Getting the technical details wrong, or just making them up, will jar with the seasoned reader of such material, and Barrington doesn't miss a step here. Other aspects of background, such as the issues with Dubai or the riding roughshod over the finer details of intelligence process can be seen as areas where it's unfair to criticise a work for being unrealistic; the function of a book like "Payback" is not to inform, it is to entertain. The end product is a highly readable and enjoyable book. As with everything else Barrington has written, it's not great literature, but doesn't seek to be. It's summer, people will be flocking through airports, "Payback" is the sort of book to readily keep you distracted while cooped up on a long haul flight.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Furst in a hot climate

I find myself on the horns of a dilemma.

My marvellous small local bookshop in Beckenham had a copy of Alan Furst's "Spies of the Balkans" in stock on day of release. I've read the first few pages, and it's clearly a Furst; there's something about his use of place and language that as many others have said, manage to convince the reader you're in 1940s Europe - I'd always thought that this was just smoke and mirrors convincing me as a Gen-Xer that he was convincing until I gave my mother a copy of "Night Soliders". Mum is going to be 81 this year, and lived through World War II, and even though she did so as a child, the fact that she thinks Alan Furst captures what the period was like works for me.

So where's the problem? I would appear to have a new, unread, Alan Furst in my possession; why am I debating whether I should start it now?

Before answering this, let's rewind briefly. Alan Furst was introduced to me by Salon Magazine (read on AvantGo on a Conpaq Ipaq) back in 2001. Prompted by this I picked up "The World at Night" and was captivated. This was a February, and I was commuting listening to Sara Ayers (very obscure I accept) and some of her songs such as "The Waiting Room" - the combination of Furst's brilliance, wintery rain battering against old slam-door South London rolling stock, and Ms Ayre's cold ambient music made for something magical. There's even something about the covers from his works then, which were, and still are, works of art.

This defines Furst. He talks of a world at night, where moral equivalency imposes a darkness on peoples' souls, and where stinging rain slants into the faces of doomed protagonists. He does this brilliantly, and as a reader in fitting surroundings you're physically propelled into his world.


It's a hot June in the UK. I'm about to go to India for a week. It's hot.

I've tried reading Furst in a warm climate before. I got "Blood of Victory" on day of release and treasured it, saving it for a long laconic holiday we'd scheduled for late September 2002 in Umbria. A bucolic quiet surrounding should have been perfect, but it wasn't. Leaving aside that Furst is best talking about cities, it didn't quite work when sitting beside a pool in Italy's late summer warmth. I loved it as a book, but it didn't worm itself into my soul as other Fursts have.

So. I have "Spies of the Balkans" in my hands. On Sunday I do the long multi-leg flight to Chennai for a week working with my development team, and will want many books as support (quod vide) for business hotel bound nights. 

It should be a no-brainer. 

I have a new Alan Furst to read. 

...It doesn't work.

Chennai in Southern India is hot. Rain or shine next week is going to be a very hot week. I'm going to crave moments of quiet when I can savour condensation on the side of a glass to try and cool me down. This isn't Furst terrain. Even although "Spies of the Balkans" is set in Greece, it starts on a rainy winter night in Salonika. This isn't material for a hot climate.

Alan Furst is being left at home.

I'm desperate to read "Spies of the Balkans". For all that I wish he'd return to the sprawling narratives of "Night Soldiers" and "Dark Star" anything he writes is still an immediate candidate for Desert Island Book. Somehow however I know I'm missing something when the environment isn't there. "Spies of the Balkans" is going to go onto the TBR shelf and I'm going to avoid reviews of it. It's going to stay at behind when I go to Chennai and wait for us to be reacquainted in the European autumn. 

Maybe I can swing a Eurostar run to Brussels in November. Whipping through Northern France with sleet stinging against the window is when you should read Alan Furst. He paints a magnificent picture of Europe before and during the fall of man; reading him deserves an appropriate backdrop.

It's late, and I'm writing on my small sitting room netbook. I may well revisit this entry and put in some imagery and hyperlink it so that I can really set this in context, but I liked writing this, and a blog should reflect freshness of thinking.  Goodnight.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

"Divided Houses, The Hundred Years War III ", Jonathan Sumption

British QC Jonathan Sumption has been writing his monumental history of the Hundred Years War for over 20 years now, and there's still probably another couple of volumes to go, which at his current rate of writing, will see us through to 2030 or so, a writing project that will have taken almost as long as its subject matter to complete.

The first volume was a surprising gift from a friend's father in 1990 - I'd been the beneficiary of his generosity in the past, as he disbursed the books he accumulated in a career at Irish broadcaster RTE, but I remember being struck that this was a rather more impressive gift than usual. Sadly it remained largely unread through university years - somewhat ironic given the courses in medieval history I took, only picked up when working life and exigencies of a commute impelled me to raid the large unread pile that a decade in higher education can leave you with, and the publication of the 2nd volume reminded me of the first's existence.

Size makes these books daunting, but right from the start, with the lavish description of the funeral of Charles IV in 1328 you realise that this is something deserving of your time. Reading weighty hardback tomes isn't easy on South London commuter trains, especially when you're also trying to juggle a cup of coffee, but some efforts are worth it.

The work is rooted in a traditional highly narrative form of history. As such it may not be scholastic, and academics may legitimately question whether it says much that's genuinely new, but it's probably better for it. Much in the same way as I prefer Runciman's somewhat discredited history of the crusades to more modern interpretations of the Latin East, Sumption's treatment is capable of immersing the reader in the 14th century world, and sweeping you a long with the period's inherent drama.

In terms of location it reminds you that France really is very big, but also that through much of the terrain familiar to British visitors to the continent there runs a rich vein of history when France and England were inextricably linked. It's also a timely reminder that the Hundred Years War was not just a Franco-British affair but in reality a much wider European conflict dragging in the low countries, Spain, and Italy and serving to shape the continent in many ways.

It does also reinforce some key points. Medieval warfare was not perpetual combat - financial realities meant it couldn't be so, and for those whose familiarity with the period is driven by the (admittedly rather good) Medieval Total War computer game or the more elaborate battle scenes in "Kingdom of Heaven", it comes as a surprise to be reminded that warfare was not conducted with a cast of thousands, instead small handfuls of fighting men would in the main shape the course of battle - cataclysmic confrontations such as Crecy or Agincourt (the latter still far from being covered in Sumption's work) very much the exception.

Despite this, it's probably not popular history - it's far too weighty for that, and this is a real shame. History such as this, talking about Kings, Queens, and battles, isn't trendy today, but it's the sort of story that can get people interested and excited. The French to their credit have grasped this with the magnificent visitor centre now at Azincourt, one can only wish that more of this would percolate through in Britain.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

“A Deadly Trade”, Michael Stanley

Crime writing set in Africa can take a number of forms. Robert Wilson's quartet of novels set in Benin paint pictures of West Africa that actively convince you that you would pay a lot of money to never go there. By contrast, the Botswana depicted in Michael Stanley's Detective Kubu novels is an altogether more appealing prospect.

This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise; in contrast to its neighbours, Botswana largely avoided the post-colonial political chaos endured by the likes of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Angola, and unusually also managed to do something sensible with its mineral wealth. Obviously it's not without its issues, in particular rampant HIV infection rates, but in the main it feels like somewhere that could be a credible destination and indeed one with no small appeal. In this light, the centrality of tourist camps in the bush to the plot of “A Deadly Trade” is firmly within the bounds of plausability.

The core premise of multiple murders at the remote Jackalberry lodge camp, builds what ultimately feels like a somewhat overcomplicated plotline. It transpires that everyone at the camp on the night in question has some form of suspicious background and possible motivation. As narrative devices go this ends up feeling a little tired and redolent of the worst excesses of Agatha Christie, and in this case you're left with the distinct impression that there would have been a benefit to at least one of the plot's thread being unpicked in the editorial process.

What more than saves the work however is the persona of Detective Kubu. Here we find a marvellously appealing central character. The rotund detective, enormously food oriented, manages to strike just the right balance between crime fiction's obligatory level of insubordination and a credible level of effectiveness. At times too, he displays a reassuring level of 'crapness' that succeeds, in a very endearing way, of making him very human. In short, he's the sort of policeman you really wouldn't object to having as a neighbour.

My initial reaction was to be sceptical of “A Deadly Trade”, and it took its time to work its way to the head of the 'to-be-read' pile, but a combination of a well executed opening scene and an extremely accomplished sense of place managed to capture attention. For all the exasperation at some of the plot devices, it does engender a distinct curiousity about what's actually going to happen, and it passes the 'does it keep you up at night' test with flying colours. Great literature it probably isn't, but it's well worth a read.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book as a review copy from Hodder Headline

Friday, 14 May 2010

"In Office Hours", Lucy Kellaway

Through ten odd years of my current working incarnation, when most of the time I'm supposed to be responsible adult doing grown up things, Lucy Kellaway, through her FT column, has done her bit to keep me sane and sensible.

She came into her own when the subversive in me delighted in goading my then training and development manager with her challenge for companies to concede that the sole reason to go open plan was to squeeze more desks in, one of many points in her writing on business nonsense that was all too applicable to modern working life.

It's impossible too to separate Lucy Kellaway from her wonderfully ridiculous yet true-to-life creation, Martin Lukes, who consistently succeeds in removing the cork from the excesses of C-Suite absurdity that most of us are painfully aware of.

For someone used to Kellaway's general no-nonsense and deeply humorous approach, "In Office Hours" will feel arrestingly different. Telling the story of two corporate women who embark on self destructive affairs within the company they work for, this bears scant relation to the levity that otherwise characterises Kellaway's writing.

Make no mistake however, this doesn't mean that this isn't a good book; it is. In fact, it teeters on the brink of brilliance. It's well observed, feels real, and it is impossible not to be moved by the raw tearing emotion felt by the characters. The fact that the relationships that lie at the heart of the book are doomed is clear from the start, just like any dispassionate observer to an illicit liaison can see the folly of the participants, but as in reality, there is a grim compulsion to seeing the car wreck unfold in front of us.

"In Office Hours" is not a happy book. There is a conspicuous absence of joie de vivre, with the initial exuberence Stella and Bella feel when corresponding with their ... what's the right word, men? boyfriends?  counterparts? ... rapidly subsumed by the feeling of being trapped by an illicit relationship, which comes across as being no fun whatsoever. Doomed love does nonetheless make for affecting reading, in this way Kellaway is following in the steps of Faulks' "On Green Dolphin Street" or Hollinghurst's "The Line of Beauty" in writing something that I suspect will stay with you for a while.

An old friend of mine used to say of office romances that one should never piss on one's own doorstep. He's now happily married to a woman he met at work. Indeed Lucy Kellaway herself makes no bones about the fact that she met her husband at work. This however doesn't alter the core message of "In Office Hours", that our colleagues are people that understand us, and that we have a huge amount in common with, but ultimately crossing the line from friendship to intimacy is a step that isn't likely to make us happy in the long term.

"In Office Hours" is a very good, possibly brilliant, book. Having finished it I'm pretty sure I won't read it again; one read through is enough. It will make me read Lucy's column in Monday morning's FT with an awful lot more respect though. I always knew she was good, reading this I now know she's really good.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

"Accused", Mark Gimenez

As mentioned previously on this blog, I picked up Mark Gimenez's latest legal thriller when passing through Heathrow a couple of weeks ago. There's something fitting about this, I first encountered Gimenez at the same location, at Terminal 5, two years ago, when a touch frustrated at not being able to find an airport edition of Stuart MacBride's "Flesh House", I instead made do with "The Perk", so beginning my engagement with his own brand of Texan legal fiction.

Oft derided as being derivative of John Grisham, there are undeniable similarities between the two authors. They both deal with lawyers, they both predominantly write about the Southern United States, and deep down they're telling stories that are courtroom dramas. That said, I've recently found myself lacking some enthusiasm for Grisham, while "Accused", just like "The Perk" two years ago, was started on the short flight out, and finished by the time the BA Airbus pushed back for the flight home the following day.

Somehow Gimenez paints a picture that feels deeper than that we get with Grisham. The characters are more appealing, the locations spark more questions, and critically I find the stories grip me more. That this is more a reflection of a certain jadedness with Grisham and the relative newness of Gimenez is possible, but right now a new Gimenez has me reaching for the shelf much more than a Grisham does.

So, what's "Accused" really like? Set predominantly in Galveston it revisits the career of Gimenez's first protagonist, A. Scott Fenney from 2006's "The Colour of Law", tackling the intriguing prospect of defending his estranged wife for the murder of the professional golfer she left him for. It's a convoluted premise, and results in a convoluted plot, but it's told with aplomb, and really importantly holds its nerve and retains its ability to surprise.

One key historic area of weakness is his writing has been addressed. Children always feature strongly in Gimenez's writing and "Accused" is no different, however this time around he's managed to write them appropriately. They still have opinions, but these now are those that are credible for their age rather than strangely offering advice and opinion a long way beyond their years. This is a small point, but important, in a book like this you need to be carried along by the pace of the story and any moment where a character jars can lose critical momentum; in previous works the questions raised by the preternaturally mature children broke this flow, now they sit much more fittingly within the novel.

Thinking about "Accused" with the benefit of what hindsight a couple of weeks post reading grants me, I'm coming round to the idea that this might be his best book to date. "The Perk" may have had a more complete plotline and somehow more appealing setting, but there are times when "Accused" teeters on the brink of almost being "12 Angry Men". It's absorbing, not ridiculously far fetched, and by the end does leave you nodding sagely in almost grudging admiration at having been played.

It's probably telling that I enjoyMark  Gimenez's books most when I'm on the road. 'Airport novel' has become a pejorative term, but they serve a purpose that I for one am really grateful for, and I think "Accused" transgresses this classification into something a good bit more thought provoking.

Yes, I'd still choose him over Grisham when presented with the two of them on the shelf.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Revisiting Steven Levy's "Hackers"

Wired magazine, this month, marks 25 years since the publication of Steven Levy's "Hackers" with the author revisiting some of the themes and characters that 'starred' in his book, and reflecting on how culture and the industry have changed, with computing moving from the geekish territory of the school outcast to being all pervasive in our lives.

I first read "Hackers" over 10 years ago, and found it an engaging book, talking a lot to the time when I started tinkering with technology and being a pleasing tale of wonder about creative people. It's not a perfect book, The New York Times, reviewing it in 1984 see it as starting brightly, then running out of steam, and they've probably got it on the money. The latter half of the book doesn't have the creative flame burning quite as brightly, there's a sense of ennui and hubris setting in, perhaps connected with people Levy chose to look at, perhaps a reflection that the mid-80s weren't as creative a time computing wise.

This doesn't alter the fact that "Hackers" is a deeply informative book, and perhaps more relevant now, when the roots of the way computing worms its way into everyday life are perhaps a lot less familiar to the population now. Starting to understand where things like the semantic web and Vannevar Bush's idea of linking information came from all help to drive understanding of what goes on under the hood of our machines, and were that more pervasive it might help recapture some of the 'hacker spirit' that Levy celebrated.

Steven Levy's also capable of writing some wonderful prose. His "Insanely Great" on the development of the Mac is a fascinating read, and "The Perfect Thing", on Apple's iPod still sits on my bookshelf at work as a study in how to develop and manage a product in the 21st century.

Not least, "Hackers" is worth a read because it's so superficially misunderstood. Okay that's probably because the word has been appropriated with more criminal connotations, but it's still entertaining when you see that Bromley libraries file it under "crime", a case study if ever one was needed for the use of faceted navigation in library catalogues.

Even if you're not moved to read the book, have a look at the Wired article, and if you're not familiar with Levy, give him a try, he has a knack for making a potentially very dry subject human and attractive, and that's something that really should be encouraged.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

"Moscow Sting", Alex Dryden

In "The Usual Suspects" Kevin Spacey claims that the best trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.

I've often thought that in many ways the best trick the Russian Federation pulled was convincing the West that it won the Cold War.

Alex Dryden's "Moscow Sting" starts during the Russo-Georgian conflict of 2008, pitting disparate state and civilian intelligence organisations in the search for 'Anna', an on-the-run Russian agent, and the quest for revenge against the Russian sponsored murder of a British agent.  

It's a setting I find particularly interesting from a personal perspective. In the summer of 2008 I did a lot of work in Nizhnyy Novgorod, a city without the tourist cachet of Moscow or St Petersburg, but nonetheless an urbane cosmopolitan place at the confluence of the Oka and Volga rivers. Nizhnyy Novgorod is a lovely city, and I still have many friends there, but it was nonetheless an odd experience being there then, as the conflict between Russia and Georgia flared and aspects of international politics over which I had no control started to have an impact on ordinary work.

In many ways "Moscow Sting" tries to capture the froideur of that period, yet somehow there's something that doesn't feel right.

I started reading spy fiction back in the early 1980s and "Moscow Sting" reads and feels almost exactly like something from there. Despite some nods to notions of Russian oligarchs and private security companies, this deep down is a story about Russian versus Western intelligence agencies.

Some parts of the book work better than others. The European settings are convincing, in the way the US ones are less so. The plot doesn’t completely hang together, and there are elements that either need to be expanded or cut out, and the ending feels profoundly rushed.

There are some obvious nods to the death of Alexander Litvinenko throughout the book, but it’s not until late on that he’s mentioned by name. Tying him in earlier would have served to reinforce the overall real world believability of the book. This element of veracity is something that’s critical in a spy thriller, and too often Dryden misses what should be an open goal in establishing this. Right at the outset 'Adrian' or 'C' flies to Helsinki on a routine RAF flight in a twin-engined turbo prop. This just doesn't seem likely - what plane is this? and why is there a routine RAF flight to Helsinki? Had Dryden just left it as the scheduled BA flight then the purpose would have been served, and doubts wouldn't have been introduced to the reader's mind.

Another area where the writing jars is in its endless anachronistic references to the KGB. It’s not as though Dryden is unaware of the changed structure of the Russian intelligence community, he makes reference to the FSB and SVR, but it’s almost as though there’s an assumption that the reader can’t cope with the new complexities. This ushers in one of the most troubling aspects of the book,  the impression that this was a decent enough book written in the 1980s, and dusted off with a bit of polishing for a 21st century audience.

There's scope for a brilliant book to be written about 2008, the seeming renewal of the Cold War and the frost that entered Russo-Western relations, and the economic collapse, and for a while I thought this might be it. Sadly it's not. It's a workable spy thriller, but most of the time bumps along in a way that's all too clearly inferior to the admittedly stellar standard set by the likes of le Carre, only sometimes rising above the ordinary.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book as a review copy from Hodder Headline

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Heathrow Terminal 5 and Mark Gimenez

Current travels see me in Heathrow T5 en route to Oslo and today's impulse book buy was Mark Gimenez's "Accused".

I generally like what Gimenez has to say for himself so there's a degree of optimism about this and the Mark Billingham currently tucked in the bag will probably have to wait a bit.

One question though - us the central character, A Scott Fenney one that's previously appeared in one of his novels? My gut feel is yes - the unusual first name being a clincher I think, but which one of his books?


Postscript: I really enjoyed "Accused" and have blogged about it more fully in a separate post.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

"American Devil", Oliver Stark

"American Devil" is overtly and unashamedly a hard boiled American cop thriller. If Quintin Jardine's "Blood Red" was metaphorically a little like "Rosemary and Thyme" Oliver Stark's debut novel is much more in the gritty space occupied by "Criminal Minds" and "Messiah". Make no mistake, this isn't 'nice' crime we're dealing with here, this is something a lot darker.

Stark's debut novel treads the well worn path of noirish American serial killer novels. There's the familiar in the troubled renegade detective, pugilist bird watcher Tom Harper, and in the deeply psychological nature of the crime and its investigation. There's a lot of violence, related using what is often arresting language. Homage is paid in particular to Thomas Harris, with a West Virginian origin to the plot, and a set piece involving a pig farm.

Impressively Stark succeeds in keeping tension high with the slow unveiling of the killer's identity, and the numerous decision points, where they could have been stopped, and is not. This combines with the effective ploy of revealing the killer's identity towards the middle of the book,

Often with serial killer fiction, the multitude of victims lessens the impact - you don't learn enough about the background to the victims to identify with them, and thus their death is not as affecting, akin to the argument that as the bodycount goes up the shock value goes down. When taken to absurd degrees it enters the realm of slapstick slasher horror, and care needs to be taken to avoid this fate. Thankfully Stark has enough tools in his repertoire to avoid this pitfall in most (if not quite all) cases; just enough hints are given about the victims for you to start to care a little, and the manner in which narrowly escape, then fall back into the killer's clutches plays with the reader and for all that it probably is predictable, it still works on a sufficiently consistent basis to keep the pages turning.

The book's not completely flawless. The killer's psychological issues don't always feel completely convincing, and most of the victims, by their nature, are highly one dimensional. It's dark, it's disturbing, but it's not quite Elmore Leonard. There are moments too where dialogue is a little stilted, in particular there are times when the killer announces that he is the 'American Devil', somehow there's almost too many syllables involved, and it's a struggle to feel that the conversation is real.

Stark is a self-confessed fan of American pulp crime fiction, and sometimes you get the impression that he might be trying ever so slightly too hard to write in this vein. Language such as - "these were top dogs of the detective bureau and they were already shitting nickels" - conjures up a latter day Dashiel Hammett and Sam Spade, which in a world of "The Wire", or even "NYPD Blue", seems strangely anachronistic - as though this is a 1950s detective story forced through a time machine into the 21st century.

Bearing these mild issues in mind, the book is ideal travel fodder (or, alternatively given volcanic ash is doing its best to return us to a pre-aviation eta, ideal for sitting around waiting to travel). The combination of a fast paced storyline and short chapters make it a quick and easy read, and engaging in terms of driving the reader to find out what happens. Don't look to this as great literature, instead see it as a good story that manages to pull strings regarding elemental fears about intruders in your home. For those of nervous disposition, it's probably not one to read alone at night either.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book as a review copy from Hodder Headline

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Butchery is not for the Squeamish

If you read a reasonable amount of crime fiction you’ll be aware that the concept of ‘body parts’ is one that pretty frequently crops up. Corpses are often dismembered, and plotlines involving identifying a particular piece are, let’s face it, not unheard of.

Sometimes an author will refer to the difficulty of actually performing the act, at times there will be a link to the profile of the criminal by looking at their expertise or otherwise in the area. What is however the reality of this? Is it simply a case of having a sharp enough knife or is there really a ‘skill’ involved?

Last night, in a much delayed Christmas present from my mother (dating from 2008 just to be clear, so really delayed) my wife and I went to a pig butchery class run by The Ginger Pig, realistic claimants to the title of best butcher in London.

Being confronted by a pig’s carcass right at the start is enough to make you stop and think. Lifting the half pig from the hook onto the block, hefting the 60 or so kilos, watching for the swinging trotter, and moving the dead weight isn’t a trivial task. You’re then presented with a vista of very fresh meat. We often think of pork as being light brown, almost grey when it’s huddled underneath its plastic packaging when presented in serried ranks in the supermarket. Believe me, the reality is quite different.

Vegetarianism holds little or no appeal to me, and I’ve never had a problem with knowing where my meat came from, but when you’re presented with the sheer size and quantity of a pig in front of you there is a moment where the mouth becomes a little dry, and you find yourself reaching for water. This is when it’s about to get real.

A butchery class is not for the squeamish. Immediately following a frank introduction to Ginger Pig’s farming methods (free range not organic) and a crash course in the various cuts, it’s straight into a very close range encounter with the animal, in a very nose to tail manner. You’re encouraged to touch, to become familiar with handling the carcass, and see that just about all of the animal can be effectively used for food, from the obvious areas of loin and belly, through to the slightly unexpected but still logical (trotters, tail), and eventually to the less expected, how a pig’s head can make a brawn, or the cheeks smoked, and even the (strikingly small in size) brain is edible (if not to everyone’s taste, the taste is apparently somewhat fishy).

Butchery involves all the senses, and in particular it’s audible. Several attendees commented that their first hearing of saw on bone was going to lurk in their ‘dreams’ for a while to come. One was heard to refer to the tearing out of skirt fat as his ‘Dexter’ moment. It’s also, perhaps disturbingly, something you rapidly just get used to. If nothing else, you learn that a human’s sense are very attuned, but equally we are rapidly desensitised.

As you get further involved in butchering the animal, you start to understand that this is indeed a very complex affair, easy if you do it right, but a complete fool’s errand if you get even a little bit wrong. It doesn’t matter how sharp your knife or big your cleaver, if you’re not doing it right, you’re not going to be cutting anything up. In short, there’s no question, skill is involved.

Let’s link this back to writing. Butchers are everywhere when you start to think about it. I seem to remember reading about the butcher of Raveloe in George Eliot’s “Silas Marner” as a teenager and thinking he should be recast as a serial killer (perhaps one for the creators of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”). Likewise, and I’m again relying on distant memory here, I think Michael Freyn in “Spies” referred to the local butcher as a “familiar bloodstained comedian”.

In “Dark Hearts of Chicago”, Helen Rapoport and William Horwood’s 2007 novel about crime, journalism, and the Chicago World Fair, there is a section about how attendees were captivated by the speed with which Chicago stockmen would ‘dress’ a carcass, breaking it down into constituent parts. Having now seen this with a pig I can now see what they’re talking about. Around the room we had a quick straw poll on how long we thought it would take to perform the butchery – given that we, as a group, had just spent over an hour going through the process. Most of us reckoned in the two to five minute mark…

And astonishingly this is apparently quite a way slower than the Ginger Pig record…

The clearest butchery and crime fiction link in mind at the moment though is with Stuart MacBride’s “Flesh House”. To his credit MacBride went to the effort of learning about the operations of an abattoir in researching his book, and while he writes and speaks about it entertainingly (including a reference to being kicked in the head by a cow’s carcass) there’s a real degree of honesty about how understanding where your food comes and how it’s produced should really be present in the minds of everyone who eats. This is something that comes across loud and clear from the Ginger Pig. They’re passionate about what they do, and part of that is highly connected with the welfare of their animals, and respect for what they ‘produce’. The fact that they are at pains to point out how to spot signs of stress in the pork you buy (red spots, if you see that, then please don’t buy that piece of meat) and highlight that they work to avoid this ever happening at their farms speaks volumes about their value system.

It’s almost certainly not for everyone, and it’s not cheap, but a butchery night at Ginger Pig in Marylebone is a wonderful and eye opening experience. You leave, having met some fantastic people, learnt a lot about food and how to handle it, rounded off with a jaw droppingly good meal and a glass of wine, with a renewed appreciation for food and butchery.

A word of warning though... butchery can be habit forming. Flush with the excitement of the pig experience, a tweet from @GingerPigLtd announcing a 20% discount on this Friday's beef course was enough to inspire us to reach for the phone and book...

I've now linked this post to the Ginger Pig Pork Class entry on Edible Experiences.

Edible Experiences

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

"Blood Red", Quintin Jardine

Straddling the line between light hearted murder romp and something a little more gritty "Blood Red" is a highly readable piece of crime writing. With British crime fiction set in Spain there's always a mild worry that what you're going to get is somehow going to be a mix between "El Dorado" and an overseas episode of "Rosemary and Thyme". This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but there's a hint of trepidation there nonetheless. Indeed, while Primavera Blackstone is introduced as someone slightly hard bitten in a Martina Cole sort of vein, quite rapidly she becomes an inherently much happier personality.

The setting too is suitably bucolic. The Catalan village at the heart of the story is exactly the sort of place most readers would want to end up in, and the dilettante existence Primavera lives has a lot of appealing points. The sojourn in Granada adds more appeal to its Spanish setting, tantalising a reader in a bleak UK with the prospect of canas, tapas, and fantastic food.

Underneath the almost chick-lit storyline of planning the village wine fair lies an entertainingly tortuous murder mystery. The storyline contorts sufficiently to confound any attempts to predict who the ultimate villain is. This does, however, go too far at times; the cast of characters is possibly one or two people too large. There were points where I found myself flicking back pages, clarifying who precisely a particular character was, and almost itching to sketch out a who's who of St Marti d'Empuries.

There are a couple of points where stylistically it doesn't quite work. Somehow when you have a male author writing a female protagonist in the first person, it feels almost prurient to have in depth descriptions of, err, 'intimate grooming' cropping up...

"Blood Red" is a pleasing sort of murder mystery with engaging characters, an appealing setting, and a style of writing, with short chapters and a steadily moving pace, that keeps your attention. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and in a clear hallmark of a book I'm enjoying ended up being annoyed by interruptions as I ran into the final pages.

In the real world, one of my staff's father lives in Gullane and is a passing acquaintance of Quintin Jardine. In this light he's been on my list of authors to be read for quite some time, and it's good to get off the starting blocks with him. He's an entertaining author well worth the time of day. Gratifyingly there's a goodly sized back catalogue to get to grips with, equally pleasingly Bromley libraries have lots of them. Pleasing times ahead.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book as a review copy from Hodder Headline

Thursday, 15 April 2010

What would a 21st century Gene Hunt drive?

No, this isn't a post about books, and it isn't really a post about the crime fiction of "Ashes to Ashes" either.

Recently the Labour Party portrayed David Cameron as Gene Hunt, posed on the bonnet of an Audi Quattro, imploring the jaded electorate not to let him bring back the 1980s. Personally I like to think the 1980s weren't bad, but leaving pointless UK electoral politics aside, it has raised the question about what a latter day Gene Hunt would drive were he with us now?

Looking at his previous car choices, a Ford Capri in "Life on Mars" followed by the Quattro, there's a distinct track record to live up to.

The basic criteria drawn from the Ford Capri and Audi Quattro are

  • it should have sporting credentials (Capris in 1970s German sportscars, think lairy Zakspeed turbo cars, and the Quattro as a rally icon)
  • it should be reasonably rapid
  • it should be affordable - but only just about
  • It should be somewhat 'hairy chested'

With the sporting pedigree this is difficult. Back in the 1980s there were some reasonably upmarket cars doing rallying (e.g. Lancia Stratos and Beta Montecarlo) as well as the more common or garden Fords and Fiats, now it's pretty much the exclusive preserve of the 'cheaper' cars e.g. Ford Focus / Citroen C4. The only real contender from this area might be something like a Subaru Impreza. Circuit racing doesn't really offer us much these days, today's motorsport is all about either dedicated racing machinery (Formula 1, Le Mans type machinery, supercars like Ferraris) or actually quite common or garden fodder you'll see in British Touring Cars. Personally I can't really see Gene Hunt in a Chevrolet Cruze or Seat Leon.

Reasonably quick gives us lots of options, most of which are ruled out by other criteria. So, Ferraris are quick, but too expensive, a Ford Focus ST is quick, but a bit too downmarket. The important thing here is it should be comfortably faster than the stock editions of common of garden police cars, making it justifiable for a Hunt character to eschew the police car, and take the Quattro replacement instead.

With affordability, a lot of the fast cars are perhaps too cheap for this criteria. Here we're looking for something along the lines of affordable exclusivity, so we're not talking hot hatch like Ford Focus ST or Audi S3. It also can't be that mass market, so a BMW M3 might sound like a contender, but somehow I just don't see it working. Equally you might just be able to see him with a Porsche Boxster, but I'm not sure it's quite 'hairy chested' enough. I would imagine the cost should be somewhere in the £25-50k mark.

Hairy chested. This means it has to have a bit of a 'mean' edge to it. So, it probably has to be rear wheel drive, have a bigger engine than is perhaps strictly necessary, and a mild belief that when a passenger is in it there's a real risk of dying. This rules out a few cars like the Audi TT, which otherwise might have a claim to being the spiritual successor to the Quattro. Indeed I can just hear Philip Glenister sneering at something he would undoubtedly denounce as a 'hairdressers car'.

Based on that my quick scribblings came up with the following contenders

  • Subaru Impreza - with gold wheels etc, obviously
  • Nissan 350Z - possibly chavved up
  • Audi S5 - with a silly V8 engine

Office banter added to this the Vauxhall VX220 and the Chrysler Crossfire, neither of which I'm entirely convinced by, but at least display a bit of thought.

Any advances?

I've always been quite deeply skeptical about the whole concept of memes, and I worry that this post could teeter dangerously on the brink of being one, but hey, why not live dangerously? I didn't get the point of blogging until I tried it, maybe meme like things are exactly the same.

Just for the record, I drive a Toyota Prius, but aspire to a Porsche Cayman.

Friday, 9 April 2010

"Stettin Station", David Downing

I've long wanted to write about David Downing. I like the 2nd World War period in history, and as such he's a natural fit for my reading tastes; more substantively he's one of the very few authors set in the period who can legitimately hold a candle to Alan Furst.

They're both fantastic, immersive writers, yet somehow from a reader's perspective properly locating Downing alongside Furst isn't an entirely easy process, and I make no claim to have having done so here.

With Downing the city of Berlin is at the core of the writing, like Paris is in Furst, but here Berlin is so central to the story that the city almost becomes a character, and because time moves in the city, it never becomes stale. The Adlon in Downing evolves, in contrast to the way that Furst's Paris with its Brasserie Heininger seems almost stuck in entropy.

I have strong feelings about Furst at his best. "Dark Star" is a real contender for my Desert Island Book, and Downing's "Station" series in general, but "Stettin Station" in particular, remind me of this. The characters are trapped, closed in by a world evolving against them, and betrayed by plans that should have worked.

"Stettin Station" feels like an ending. By the time of its setting in 1941 the world could really be seen as closing in, and as such it's fitting that the most time I've spent thinking about this book, since finishing it, has focused on the final third or so of it.

There are many things abundantly worth writing about this book, and this series. Not least someone sometime should take the time to take about really how railways function as metaphor. The series emphatically works this, and in here they're more powerful than usual, a metaphor for war entering its darkest times - empty troop trains, passenger services, prisoner trains, and the cattle cars of the nascent holocaust all criss-crossing.

"Stettin Station" is a little different from previous works in series. Sure they all have had a serious tone, but here there isn't much of a happy ending. In fact it ends with an overpowering sense of menace that colours the rest of your day. This is fitting giving the subject matter, and is done in a way that leads you to read furtively at your desk, stretching the definition of your lunch hour, but nonetheless is profoundly affecting; James and Effi have done plenty to embed themselves in our consciousness over three books for us to care about them deeply.

The fourth volume in this series, "Potsdam Station" is due for release in July. I know this because a few hours after finishing "Stettin Station" I went straight to Amazon and searched for David Downing. There are mixed feelings involved here. On the upside I'm delighted there's more to be read about Downing's portrayal of Europe in darkness, yet there's almost a wistfulness that the utter ambiguity of the end of "Stettin Station" won't linger as a perpetual question in the mind of the reader. The Furst that paradoxically has stayed with me the most has been "The Polish Officer", where you're left fulfilled knowing the characters are safe, yet knowing the armageddon of the Warsaw Rising is yet to come. "Stettin Station" ends with this sort feeling, and while it's uncomfortable, it makes us better people for being uncomfortable.

It's a relief "Stettin Station" is not an ending, but this shouldn't divert from the central message of the book. December 1941 was an ending, as Churchill put it, it was the end of the beginning, but it was also an ending for too many lives, succumbing to the still incomprehensible crime of the 20th century.

I first read Downing in January 2009, and I still don't think I've done him justice in writing about him. Sure there are flaws, sure there are areas where he could at times fire on more cylinders, but to complain feels like carping. You don't have to have read the previous works, but it will help. If you like emotive fiction and have an interest in the middle part of the 20th century go and read this book.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

"The Book of Spam Meals Snacks 'n' Party Ideas", Cheryl Baker

Over the 18 months or so that this blog's been in existence it's been a pretty sleepy place.

This isn't a bad thing. Sleepy places, as my cat will attest, are one of the best things imaginable.

I'm thus surprised that recently posts, despite the text captcha human-check, spam comments, pointing at an array of what, from the URLs, look a lot like porn sites (being at work I have no intention of following these links at all) have become absurdly prevalent.

Spam's one of those interesting phenomenon that's evolved over time. Back in the innocence of the 1990s, when the web was new and email addresses a cause for profound confusion, the periodic appearance of unsolicited mail could be readily dealt with through a simple "you have sent me unsolicited mail. Please don't do this again" reply, with reasonable assurance that you were responding to a human. If that didn't work then a quick email to the ISP admin would usually do the trick.

Oh innocent days of naivity...

We then entered the period where spam was everywhere, where your emailbox was endlessly clogged with people peddling impotence cures, soliciting assistance in getting countless millions out of West Africa, offering you the chance to boost your educational credentials, or, my particular favourite, giving me the chance to become a priest (which among other things, meant I could visit prisons and marry relatives...).

And then it stopped. In the main software companies employ clever people. As of this morning my Gmail account had 334 spam messages in it, and my inbox had been troubled by virtually none of them. Spam email has receded from consciousness to the extent that when I read Richard Parker's largely enjoyable "Stop Me" the one area I struggled with was how a chain email could enter the public consciousness to the extent he posits.

So spam's elsewhere now. It's in the pornographic followers who try to follow you on twitter, and it's comments on blogs.

Twitter's easy to fix. It's easy to block the unwelcome, and in any case I'm not sure a spammer who's elected to recieve broadcasts from me has really grasped the prinicples of profitable direct marketing (maybe this is spam engaging in a groundswell dialogue, but that sounds a bit unlikely doesn't it?). Spammers commenting on my blog is a different story. This is a return to the halcyon days when email felt private and spam was unwelcome. It's still easy to deal with (so "毛衣" and "book", your rather ungermane comments on Paul Kilduff's "The Frontrunner" have been duly excised) but nonetheless annoying.

So, let's see if Spam is worth reappropriating, and what better way than to look at what fun things one can make with Spam? I did fear I was going to have to leave this post in draft for quite a while, we're currently renovating, and all the cookery related books are in a big unwieldy pile in the study rather than being readily accessible, but thankfully this gem could be found towards the top.

Published in 1992 this presumably was Spam's attempt to recapture the mainstream and encourage more people to eat it. On the upside, it's possibly a good way of getting people into the kitchen and doing things other than poking a plastic box into the microwave, but really, that's clutching at straws.

More fundamentally, food is about the most difficult thing on the planet to photograph well. For a cookery book to work it needs to either eschew photography completely and let the writer's descriptions convince you, or it needs to pay a photographer quite a lot of money. Nigella Lawson's publishers tend to get it right. Downmarket restaurants often get it wrong.

Which is it here? Is this the product of a photographer not quite grasping light, colour, exposure? Or does Spam when cooked really look like this?

I can't conceive of how awful Spam based Cantonese Stir Fry must be. I think its appearance at the dinner table might be even less appealing than an piece of unsolicited mail. Is that possible?

Sunday, 14 February 2010

"The Frontrunner", Paul Kilduff

Reading this in early 2010 one is struck by how topical Kilduff's 2001 financial thriller is. Telling the story of collapsing hedge funds, global economic crisis, and massive governmental intervention in financial markets, Kilduff could in many ways be describing the last few years, rather than a thoroughly fictional early century crisis stemming from the assassination of the Chinese premier in Hong Kong. Swap Lehman Brothers for Alpha Beta Capital and "The Frontrunner" could readily fit into contemporary events.

Paul Kilduff's financial thrillers do tend to follow a familiar, almost formulaic, path. There's the misunderstood and manipulated central character, the bad guys indulge in profoundly deviant sexual practices, the glamorous (and not so glamorous) locations where finance takes place are depicted, and ultimately there's a wrapped up happy ending. In this light, his output isn't quite as satisfyingly varied as Michael Ridpath, but it's still telling that Kilduff has an appeal that kept me up to the small hours last night and there was an urge to finish off "The Frontrunner" this morning.

Enjoyably the writing makes complicated financial instruments readily accessible and the lifestyle of working in finance is exposed as being tiring, tawdry, and unromantic. Most tellingly Kilduff is damning of consultancy work, accurately boiling it down to it being a case of borrowing a client's watch to tell them the time, and then sending them a large bill.

Sadly having read "The Frontrunner" I've exhausted the stock of Kilduff's financial thrillers. I've enjoyed them a lot and as with any author whose output I've exhausted, there's a sense of wistfulness involved. I'd like to have known more about Mitchell Leonberg continued through the decade, and in particular how they'd cope with the cataclysm of the last few years. Does the widespread ire at bankers make financial thrillers more appealing to publishers? One can only hope so.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

“Gunner Kelly”, Anthony Price

Through his Audley/Mitchell series of novels Anthony Price typically carved a niche out hanging a political thriller plot over an often obscure historical series of events. Generally speaking the history would often be more engaging than the core plot, giving the impression that Price had managed to come up with a really interesting historic tale he wanted to tell, and put all his effort into this, only as an afterthought shoehorning a contemporary plotline into the mix.

"Gunner Kelly", published in 1982, so constituting one of Price's later works, is subtly different. Yes, there's some history - discussions of World War II armoured warfare and the Roman presence in Britain, but by no means is this at the heart of the story. Nor are the usual protagonists David Audley and Paul Mitchell at the heart of the work, instead the story comes very largely from the perspective of German intelligence office Benedikt Schneider. As such it's strongly reminiscent of Le Carre's "The Honourable Schoolboy", and is very nearly as good.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the work is the transformation of Schneider from being someone who you inherently oppose, to realising that he's the hero of the piece. Schneider's a thoroughly believable character, professional but not perfect, and with a background that supports what he does over the course of the book. Audley too, while more peripheral in the narrative, is as likable as ever and brings a wry insight to proceedings.

A final word, almost an aside should go to the choice of pull quotes, The Observer's "whorls of mystification" and "the plot moves as sinuously as a frogman through the reeds" from The Telegraph are both magnificent. Newspaper's aren't what they used to be are they?

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Aquascutum and the Death of a Brand

This post doesn't have much if anything to do with books, but it's an example of how my intertextuality, driven by what I've read, affects how I want to live my life.

For my sins I wear a suit every day, The company I work for is very much of the suit wearing persuasion, and when you're in front of a customer, it's worth trying to look your best. As such, about 10 years ago, I decided it was worth paying money for a good suit.

A suit says a lot about you. It's a way of associating yourself with a set of values in a pleasingly understated sort of way, and when it works it's one of the most comfortable items of clothing you can own. Ten years ago I bought my first Aquascutum suit, I still own it, it's no longer in its first flush of use, and doesn't fit quite as well as it did, but it's still perfectly serviceable and gets worn. Others have been worn out, and throughout they stood as a hallmark to good British tailoring, I'm British, I like being British, and wearing an Aquascutum suit conformed fundamentally to my own brand values,

All that changed today.

I need a new suit, and in trying to buy one Aquascutum's flagship store on Regent Street should be an entirely logical place to buy one. You expect a shop like that to match what Aquascutum as a brand says. It should be polished, refined, provide impeccable service and convey the sort of confidence that wearing one of their suits should impart. The store should encapsulate the best of British - dinner at the Savoy Grill, flying BA Club class, driving an Aston Martin through the Cotswolds. It's expensive, probably can't be done every day, but everything about it should be worth it.

Aquascutum's Regent Street presence doesn't work like that. The lights are too bright, the clothing rails feel cheap and temporary, the music is too loud, the bright red 'sale' signs too prevalent and garish, and the staff too conspicuous by their absence. Shopping there should make you feel valued, to be blunt, spending that sort of amount on tailoring should be valued and you should be made to feel that way. Standing for 10 minutes without any sign of staff to pay attention didn't feel quintessentially British, it felt like T K Maxx.

I didn't buy a suit from Aquascutum today. I walked out, and not too far up the road found Brooks Brothers, who have always made fantastic shirts, and who get service and quality. Today they were everything Aquascutum should have been, and sold me a suit in a way that makes me want to go back.

Sorry to say, but Brooks Brothers have shown that in this case Americans are now better at being British than we are. Others have worked this out already; Stephen Fry shops at Brooks Brothers.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

"The Disappeared", M. R. Hall

Fittingly, a book purchased at Gatwick on way out to Dubai has been read and finished completely within the UK after coming back. It's been a pleasing companion, if nothing else, quite fittingly passing the time in Lewisham Hospital's A&E department.

More than usually this is a curates egg of a book. For one that's gripped throughout and been a thoroughly enjoyable read M. R. Hall's second novel still leaves one or two many niggles to get the ringing endorsement I might otherwise be pleased to give it.

The story rattles along engagingly, the universe created is engaging, and the persona of the coroner, Jenny Cooper is one who it's easy to care about. While reading the pace of the plot readily papers over a lot of the cracks in the book that further reflection starts to reveal.

Ultimately I suspect that like many other crime writers, Hall, in weaving a terrorism / espionage plot together is trying something that stretches outside their comfort zone, and the overall result is one that doesn't quite work. Her first work, "The Coroner" skated on the edge of plausibility, sadly "The Disappeared" just ends up on the wrong side of that boundary. In particular the denouement feels rushed and ultimately confused and is possibly the least satisfying element of the book.

There are further problems in characterisation. Roguish lawyer Alec MacEvoy simply isn't credible and far too much is left entirely unexplained about him. In attempting to give him complex hidden depths Hall has really ended up creating a comic book style character whose role appears to be to introduce critical clues along the way and keep the plot moving along. Continuing in this vein, there are too many characters in the cast to readily keep track of, tidying up who did what to whom would have been a highly worthwhile exercise.

Ultimately however the real problem with "The Disappeared" is in fact a problem with the UK coroner system. Coroners should be impartial judges facilitating a process whereby cause of death is established. In the UK they have become politicised, having an agenda of their own, and blurring the line between investigator and judge. Judges should be conspicuous in their impartiality and when they stop problems arise - as shown by the excesses of Mr Justice Eady in applying the laws of libel. The world provided by M. R. Hall is one where this is seen as a virtue, where Jenny Cooper is styled as single handedly providing a bulwark against the conspiracies of the state. Is it really credible that a lone coroner is able to see what the multitude of established intelligence and policing functions can't?

Perhaps it would have been better to read this on an aircraft. It's a highly readable book and in an environment where you're not moved to deconstruct it too much it functions well. To reiterate, the personal story of Jenny Cooper is engaging, and the concluding sentence is comfortably enough to make you want to read the next instalment. This series is almost brilliant, if the status of 'coroner' could be reined in ever so slightly it might get there.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Gatwick Airport and Kurt Wallander

I should know better. I've been in enough airports in general, and been to Gatwick in particular often enough, but every time I think the airport experience is going to be nice, a Cinzano drinking 'jet-set' sort of way. It's not, I know, but it doesn't stop me travelling in hope.

Tonight, with a seven hour period of fitful dozing en route to Dubai to look forward to, I'm ruing the loss of the BA silver card more than usual, and wondering at the pettiness of the Wetherspoons in blanking off all the power sockets. Surely the price of an indifferent meal and couple of even less memorable beers should cover the minimal electricity my small laptop would use?

More encouragingly, the WH Smiths had reasonable pickings in the 2 for 1 on airport exclusives. M R Hall's “The Disappeared” and Mark Billingham's “Bloodline” have duly been hoovered up, and there was probably a decent enough selection to justify the 4 for 3 offer – although how that would tally with a hand baggage only approach I'm not so sure.

Interestingly though I don't think I'm going to read either tonight. Reading prospects are dominated by Henning Mankell's “The Man Who Smiled”. It's one of the Mankell's I think I've only read once, and quite a long time ago too. The BBC adaptation was broadcast last Sunday, and unlike previous ones I genuinely couldn't remember how it panned out when it started. The broadcasts benefit a lot from rewatching (indeed thanks to the miracle of the iPlayer it's on my hard drive even now) but after finishing watching on Sunday evening I was genuinely curious about what I'd thought of the book.

In that light I was genuinely pleased to manage to find my copy when packing this morning. Is it as bleak as the BBC version? Was there a reason I haven't returned to it?

A window seat, lots of suitable music on the Zune to keep me company, and a long flight to somewhere warmer might well help me find out.