The impossible dead (Orion, 2011) is Ian Rankin‘s second outing for Malcolm Fox and his Complaints team – now renamed (a new cliche of crime fiction, all this reorganisation) Internal Affairs. It’s not so much that I miss Rebus (I do, but never mind that) as his DS, Siobhan. We’ve got Fox (divorced, sworn off the drink long term, quarrelling with his sister about their dad in an old people’s home) aided and abetted by Tony Kay (bawdy drinker) and young Joe Naysmith (keen, bit of a tekkie): it’s a boy’s club. It’s still a decent enough ensemble Rankin has put together and, as you’d expect, morality – personal greed, public face, political ends and means – is at the story’s core. A routine disciplinary investigation leads to the maverick Fox pursuing a successful businessman, brother to a minister in the Scottish parliament and married to a police chief, for a crime dating back to the time – how long ago it now seems – before Scottish nationalism figured as an electoral force. The security forces were involved then and the action now takes place against the background of a terrorism alert. The soundtrack that accompanied Rebus has gone – hardly a music mention, and I doubt Jackie Leven, if he were still with us, would have been writing any songs – as he did in his Jackie Leven said collaboration with Rankin – about the haunting of Malcolm Fox. Won’t stop me reading the next one, though.
I here indulge a short, picky, grumbling addendum. I get annoyed at some sentences, at unnecessary wordage. So on page 89 we get,
When she gestured for him to sit, he did as he was told, brushing his hands across the knees of his trousers.
Why does he have to do anything with his trousers. What does it signify? Indeed, what is going on? Across his knees – is he doing the hand jive? In a similar vein we get (p172):
Having finished his coffee, he pushed the plastic lid into the crushed cup.
Can’t he have just finished his coffee? Or shouldn’t he have pushed the lid in first, before crushing the cup. Unfair, this, I know (and Peter James is guilty of far worse – see later) and, on the other hand, we do get (p274),”You’re the Complaints, not some fucking Simon Schama“; to which the riposte is, “History seems to have a funny way of repeating itself.”
More impossibility – but of the phantasmagorical kind – with Angela Carter‘s brilliant Wise children (1991). As Dora Chance, the narrator says at one stage, “What larks“. Delicious, delightful and oftentimes wonderfully absurd, it all leads up to a glorious set piece at a physically injury free family apocalypse of a party.
The Hazards are a theatrical dynasty, the impoverished Nora and Dora Chance, the by-blows of the patriarch; I had to look that up – they’re bastards. Unacknowledged, by Sir Melchior Hazard, they worked the variety halls, aided through life by his brother, the magical Peregrine, who is both a literal prestidigitator and narrative conjuror (making love to Dora on his hundredth birthday is the least of it). Twins abound and the bard of Stratford’s works are never far away in the glorious bawdy narrative, delivered by the life-embracing Dora at the age of 75.
There I go again! Can’t keep a story going in a straight line, can I? Drunk in charge of a narrative.
The language, the phrase making, is a sustained feast of invention; the action, taking in the sweep of the twentieth century, is energetic and engrossing, the twists of mood beautifully paced, while the satire is prescient and, in parts, horribly precise – Angela Carter saw it all coming. The family names and the Shakespearean twins are the vehicles addressing identity, contingency, love, luck, confusion and injustice, and more pointedly, notions and perceptions of of paternity and maternity and their relation to the physical facts of the case.
Impossible not to quote liberally and with joy. How fixed for you now are the sights and sounds conjured up by, “Music from the days when men wore hats” or (Jane Austen adapters , take note) “little ladies in period cleavage“? Fiction and reality are all in the mix. John Osborne’s end of the pier comic creation Archie Rice briefly appears, while Dora’s romance with a Hollywood writer – ‘Irish’ put her through a literary education – is more than a nod to Scott and Zelda. They’re in Hollywood making a hilariously awful and doomed Midsummer night’s dream extravaganze:
You’ll find me in his famous Hollywood stories. The last flame of a burnt-out case, but, oh, it had a glorious light! I never rate more than a footnote in the biographies; they get my date of birth wrong, they mix me up with Nora, that sort of thing. And I’m bound to say my best friend wouldn’t recognise me in the far-from-loving portrait he’d penned after I’d gone. […] Such turned out to be the eternity the poet promised me, the bastard.
There’s no business like … Carter invents a game show, hosted by legitimate son of the Hazard line Tristram, so inane and utterly devoid of skill or knowledge that it can compete with Deal or no deal (remember she was writing 20 years agao), while his brother is a missionary:
Gareth and Tristram, the priest and the game-show presenter. Not so different, really, I suppose. Both of them in show business. Both, in their different ways, carrying on the great tradition of the Hazard family – the willing suspension of disbelief. Both of them promise a free gift if you play the game.
There is a serious side at play here – the consequences and responsibilities of fatherhood, maternity, their relation to environment, inheritance – and it is wonderfully forwarded and subverted by speculation about Mrs Lear (we know nothing of her – where did those daughters come from?). The narrative hinge is an old music hall joke, the punchline of which is, “‘Don’t worry, darlin’, ‘e’s not your father!“:
What if Horatio had whispered that to Hamlet in Act 1, Scene I?
The book’s last words: “What a joy it is to dance and sing.” What a joy it is to read. The discovery that Wise children is an A-level text, to be studied and examined on – that there is a York Notes for it – fills me with all sorts of … despair.
Which is not far from the effect, I’m afraid, that Dead like you (Macmillan, 2010), the sixth in Peter James‘s series of crime novels set in Brighton featuring detective Roy Grace, also had on me. I got about a quarter of the way through the 550 pages of it and, really, I should have trusted my instincts and parted company with it at that badly written first paragraph. Look, I know, he’d written – no, had published – nearly a score of novels when this one appeared, and I haven’t got so much as a first draft festering in the bottom of a draw somewhere, but consider this:
We all make mistakes, all of the time. Mostly trivial stuff, like forgetting to return a phone call, or to put money in a parking meter, or to pick up milk at the supermarket. But sometimes – luckily, very rarely – we make the big one.
That’s his opening. Is that not rotten, clumsy prose? This hasn’t taken me long:
We can all make mistakes, at any time. Mostly trivial stuff, like forgetting to return a phone call or put money in the parking meter, pick up milk at the supermarket. But sometimes – if we’re really unlucky – we make the big one.
I’d say that was a vast improvement, but then I’m not winning awards and topping bestseller lists. Which is why I had a go at Dead like you, to see if, given all this action, the big three of British crime – Harvey, Rankin, Robinson – had a new contender in the wings.
The narrative of Dead like you skips unnecessarily backwards and forwards between ‘1997’ and ‘Now’. Even with short chapters it’s hard to keep one’s bearings. There’s a one-off (I think, remember I’ve given up a quarter through) labelled, rather confusingly, ‘1979’, in which we see the genesis of the designer shoe fetishist rapist and murderer who features in both strands, though I suspect there are actually two shoe fetishists out there (remember I’ve only read …). This shifting backwards and forwards is a pathetic attempt to rack up the tension and terror on the first victim’s fate (she’s taken, she’s in the back of a van, she escapes the van but not the lock-up, he comes back …) – look, we know something bad happened; just get on with it and spare us the nastiness, please? Needless to say, there’s a cold case team to hand. A specialist rape interview centre is described like a PR release. And as well as all the shoe desigbers you have to put up with stuff like:
Roy Grace grinned and stared into her eyes. When colleagues, off duty, got wrecked in the bar upstairs at Brighton nick or out in pubs, and talk turned, as it always did among men, to football – something in which he had little interest – or to birds, the girls got divided fifty-fifty into those that blokes fancied because of their tits or those that blokes fancied because of their legs. But Roy Grace could honestly say that the first thing he had fancied about Sandy was her mesmerizing blue eyes.
Yeah, me too Roy – more the smile, actually – but, you know, sorry, but … pass. Disappointing.