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.