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.