Sunday, 23 January 2011

“Shatter the Bones”, Stuart MacBride

I’ve long been an enthusiast of Stuart MacBride’s work. Having an Aberdeen background helps of course, but deep down his mixture of gruesome crime with slapstick policing, a wry approach to language and the cultural background that underpins a rich vein of humour add a lot to the oft trod terrain of the police procedural. Fittingly while “Shatter the Bones” has been making its way back and forth across the North Sea with me over the last couple of weeks, last night’s flight up to Aberdeen provided the ideal opportunity to indulge in MacBride’s distinct form of crime fiction.

My wife is often a bellwether regarding whether an author is likely to be of niche appeal to my particular tastes in crime or if they can break out into more widespread appeal. We listened to the audiobook of “Dying Light” one year driving through France, and the opinion of Mrs Southlondonbook was that it worked because Logan McRae wasn’t the cliched over burdened fucked up detective that appeared to invariably crop up in crime fiction. Sure, he wasn’t without an issue or two, but he wasn’t the put upon downtrodden cop that has the scope to annoy.

Sadly I’m now hesitant to suggest bodging another Stuart MacBride on during a road trip. The humour’s still there, Aberdeen’s still, well, Aberdeen, and the writing is still engaging, but somewhere along the lines, something’s snapped in the heart of the story. Logan McRae’s no longer a happy go lucky, lovable, lucky, if slightly rubbish policeman. His demons are now a lot more front and centre, and while the crime in MacBride has always been a bit on the jarring side, the character of MacRae now seems to have been captured by the bleak side of the narrative.

MacBride’s defended this in the past, seeing it as making his lead character fundamentally more interesting, which is probably fair. Detectives with no issues are unmemorable, let’s face it, even Rosemary and Thyme have baggage, but there’s a thin line to tread. In MacBride’s blog (sadly neglected - that I should have the temerity to say such a thing) cuts to the heart of it
Here's the thing though - I don't really want him to end up as a bitter lump of alcohol-soaked gristle. At least, not in the long term. OK, so he's never going to be the same naïve, bushy-tailed wee scamp he was to start with, but I don't see him turning into the classic police procedural cliché. If he does, then it'll definitely be time to kill him off.
Reading “Shatter the Bones” you can’t help thinking that MacBride may be tiring of McRae, and maybe in the back of his mind he’s thinking about an endgame, but somehow if we could find a way of conjuring him into being more of an older and wiser scamp I think we’d strike an even happier balance with. Maybe there is hope though. Will Hunter, the protagonist of MacBride’s ‘other’ book - the dystopian Halfhead, is a detective with appalling events in his history, yet he still remains a captivating character. If McRae migrates into this then perhaps there’s hope.

So, what about “Shatter the Bones” as a book? It adopts an intriguing perspective on crime, in that it opens six days after the central crime, the kidnapping of a mother-daughter star pairing on a reality TV talent show, has taken place. This is precised on the cover, and I almost wish it hadn’t been, as getting to grips with the confusion of crime and the level of pressure a police force is under while under an extreme media spotlight would have felt a lot more real if I had been scrabbling to work out what on earth was going on. Narratively it’s interesting as an approach, and I think it works. It means the obvious suspects aren’t trailed in advance, and focuses attention on the uncertainty and dilemmas faced by the investigating officers. 

It bears all the usual hallmarks of a Stuart MacBride novel. In parts it’s sickeningly violent, it has elements of a distressing absence of redemption, but it’s punctuated with laugh-out-loud humour. There is too, a level of satisfaction about the end, in that there is sense that while punishment has been meted out to more than just those deserving of it, the actual wrong doers so actually come to the right sort of sticky end.

Coming strongly throughout “Shatter the Bones” is a level of disdain for the celebrity idolism that permeates British pop culture and the manufactured fame that talent shows push into society. It’s hard to not identify with this, and while describing the book as a moral parable would be going too far, one hopes that the fact that it went straight to number 1 on the hardback best seller lists at least gives one or two readers a pause for thought.

I finished “Shatter the Bones” late last night, staying up longer than intended because there really is that level of compulsion to it. I finished it a little shell shocked. It’s MacBride, therefore there’s plenty in there to shock, but the ending, and I’m not going to spoil it for anyone, is profoundly affecting and bleak. It’s still a really good read, and it reinforces the fact that while MacBride really isn’t for everyone, it works for me. This morning I got up, and ambled through to the spare room and dug out “Blind Eye” to be re-read, sometimes you need that extra bit of Aberdeen in your life.

Friday, 7 January 2011

"Atlantic", Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester is one of the authors who, without making a big splash, somehow manages to place his prolific output on my bookshelves without me really noticing. Thus, when I returned from Norway to an impromptu gift of his new “Atlantic” it prompted me to quickly take stock. From the at times derided “Pacific Nightmare” (which still remains as the book I think most scathingly reviewed by the Economist) through “The Map the Changed the World” and “A Crack in the Edge of the World”, among many others, it's clear he's written a lot, and there seems to be a disproportionate amount of it in my library.

Perhaps the reason for this is that Winchester manages to fuse geography, history, and personal anecdote in a genuinely engaging way. His wide ranging 'biography' of the Atlantic Ocean defies classification, but is an absorbing and genuinely fun read, peppered with the sort of material that you want to file away for use in witty and intelligent conversation, or perhaps even better, spurs you read more widely and explore the world hinted at within the confines of Winchester's text.

The subtitle of “A vast ocean of a million stories” hints at the truth of the book - it's not history, biography, geography, or economics, it's an Atlantic miscellany that will not make you an expert on any of these subjects, and as such commenting on specifics of the book becomes difficult. It’s the sort of work that I want to say rewards dipping into, but it doesn’t, it probably does need to be read in a linear fashion, that way the stream of anecdote sinks in, engages, and makes you smile.

A lot of the book requires you to already be pretty au fait with the subjects Winchester is talking about. If you’re unaware of the finer points of Norwegian cuisine (aside, working for a Norwegian company and thus spending a lot of time in that part of the world I perhaps have an unfair advantage) the comment that Amerigo Vespucci is still held by Americans to be the ‘discoverer’ of the New World largely down to pizza being more popular than lutefisk may pass you by.

Throughout the tone is entertaining, opinionated, and wearing its heart on its sleeve hints at the tremendous fun that must have been had in researching the book. Vignettes pop up and make you want to yearn for a post-it note to mark the position, or, in a 21st century way I would send myself emails with cryptic text such as “entertaining anecdote Russian seascape painting p.167” (go on, look it up). Thus, for all that there are times when you may disagree with Winchester, such as with his scathing view of the simultaneous ugliness of contemporary container ships and Le Corbusier’s modernist architecture, you can’t really begrudge him.

Having introduced modernism, let’s talk a little about intextuality. Winchester talks about the Atlantic’s impact on culture through the centuries, but in not quite bringing it up to date I sense a missed opportunity. Covering the ocean’s impact on music, Gilbert and Sullivan is about as pop culture as it gets. This misses the chance to talk about Rod Stewart and 1975’s “Atlantic Crossing” (which of course concludes with the rather apposite “Sailing”) or indeed the magnificently overblown British indie band British Sea Power, who must win prizes for having “Scapa Flow” in a song lyric and managing to put together a monumentally conceptual instrumental soundtrack inspired by life on the Aran Islands. This isn’t however a criticism, more a reflection that Simon Winchester and I have different cultural stimuli, and I suspect that every reader will be able to find points where they wish more had been talked about.

There probably aren’t a million stories contained in “Atlantic”, and truth be told there probably are rather more than a million that could be told. Nobody should worry about this, nobody should buy this hoping that it will be an encyclopaedic exploration of everything to do with the Atlantic Ocean (perhaps along the lines of Braudel’s work on the Mediterranean), but anyone aspiring to have an enhanced repertoire of dinner party anecdotes should absolutely read it.