Sunday, 24 March 2013

"The City of Shadows", Michael Russell

"We learn slash and burn is the method to use, set it flame, burn it new", Tolerance, 10,000 Maniacs.
I grew up in Ireland, and still have a real affinity for the country. I learned to read there, and having the opportunity to revisit it through literature is something I genuinely appreciate. The likes of Declan Hughes, Benjamin Black, and now Michael Russell, provide a ready window into the country, and reinforce the point that Ireland is not Britain with some engaging local colour, but in fact is somewhere that despite the similarities that come from so much shared history, there is something very distinctive and different about it.

Michael Russell's d├ębut novel is a polished and highly enjoyable crime thriller that captures the profound challenges that faced Irish society as the Free State evolved towards the Republic during the 1930s. We're consistently reminded of distinct direction that Ireland under De Valera tried to take - ploughing a lonely furrow with avowed levels of independence and autarky which had the effect of creating a society that in struggling with the legacy of the Civil War and Church vs State tensions becomes a place when viewed from a contemporary perspective feels unappetising.

The concept of 'otherness' and intolerance is central to the book. It captures the rarities in a Catholic dominated society, not taking the easy route of talking about the remnants of the Anglo-Irish ascendency, but looking at the rarer Jewish, gay, and immigrant communities, and the levels of both tacit and overt intolerance to which they were exposed. This is fitting though, because as is accurately pointed out, "[a]bsence was in Jewish blood the same way it was in the blood of the Irish" (p.114).

Much in a similar vein to Alan Furst and John Lawton "The City of Shadows" captures the small human elements in the emerging tragedy of the mid-20th century, individuals striving to find some light in surroundings that can often feel almost overwhelmingly dark.

As is pointed out in the text, "In Ireland history never quite goes away" (p.211). From this perspective this is a novel that should make anyone with an affinity with Ireland rightly ashamed and angry, but at the same time a sense of pride can be derived from the fact that the nation did not take what could have been an easy path towards a fascist theocracy, but instead emerged to be the vibrant society it is today.

"The City of Shadows" was an almost accidental discovery last week, it deserves to succeed.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Book Launch, "Dead Men Should Know Better", Dominic Canty

My local bookstore, the wonderful Beckenham Bookshop is one of these places that defies the usual pessimism about high street retail through a combination of fantastic service, being really friendly, and having the creativity to get out there and understand that there's a lot more to selling books than simply having them on the shelf and providing a check-out function.

In this light I'm really pleased to see they're holding a book launch evening for a local author next Tuesday. It's the sort of thing that very much should be encouraged - I'm going to try and be there, and if you're in South London, like books, and think an independent approach to business, publishing, and literature in general should be encouraged, you should try to get along too.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

"Uncommon Enemy", Alan Judd

As an author, Alan Judd has sporadically accompanied me through a lot of my adult reading life. As a teenager "The Noonday Devil" served to keep my enthusiasm for a university education high, even if the reality was no more like that described by Judd than using Evelyn Waugh as a guide would have been.

At a similar time I encountered Charles Thoroughgood. His appearance in "A Breed of Heroes" provided a counterpoint to the swashbuckling military figures to be found in the thriller authors that had been my standard reading material to that point. Pronouncedly different, "A Breed of Heroes" was not an especially easy read in such a context, but over 20 years later remains memorable.

The Thoroughgood trilogy, written over such a span of time, encompassing the British Army in Northern Ireland, 1980s Cold War espionage, and now, the murky ambiguities of the war on terror, by nature has to be made up individual works that can stand on their own - reliance on distant memories of previous works is dangerous - the second volume, 2001's "Legacy" is after all 10 years ago, and unlike "A Breed of Heroes", was only read by me once. This does make the introduction to "Uncommon Enemy" a slightly difficult process, as memory scrabbles to see if there are threads to be picked up, and intertextuality challenges too - with linkages in particular to Adam Thorpe's "Flight" being felt.

Perseverance rewards; "Uncommon Enemy" is a rich and rewarding work. Book ending Thoroughgood's professional life, the story draws from his university days, the latter part of his spy's life in the 1990s and early 2000s, with the main narrative set in the contemporary period, where now retired, he is recalled to track down an asset, "Gladiator", with whom he shares an deep and extensive personal history. This tale of relationships subsumes what we initially assume to be the core premise - the attempt to use "Gladiator" to track down an Al Qaeda plot in the UK - remember - this is no traditional linear spy thriller.

Judd is easily locatable in the espionage literature universe alongside Charles Cumming and the obvious John Le Carre. Here he is perhaps most reminiscent of Le Carre's 1995 "Our Game", where a similar feel of tiredness and lost certainties can be found. Here too is an ambiguity in ending; there is closure to "Uncommon Enemy", there's a feeling that something akin to 'the right result' has been found, but there are still questions, still a suspicion that the whole story has not been told, and the book is very much better for it.

My old paperback copy of "Legacy" has now come off the bookshelf to be revisited - perhaps the most real endorsement of how enjoyable "Uncommon Enemy" is.