He wasn’t elated to see me. I won’t lie. There were harsh words and gunplay.
Thus Andrew Yancey, Florida detective busted down to restaurant inspector (‘on roach patrol‘; it’s put him right off his food) telling of his unofficial pursuit of a crime, hoping it will help him get his proper job back, in Carl Hiaasen‘s Bad monkey (Sphere, 2013). The monkey in question is a failed show business Capuchin called Driggs whose dad was Marcel, Ross’s pet monkey in Friends, but who misbehaved as stand-in to Johnny Depp’s monkey in Pirates of the Caribbean. He’s a bit of a catalyst rather than a central character.
I love reading Carl Hiaasen. His books are full of grotesques – quite often including the good guys – and the bad guys (invariably involved one way or another with property developers or corrupt politicians intent on destroying the natural habitat of the Everglades and the Florida Keys) always end up getting theirs righteously and hideously in some of the finest displays of poetic justice to be found in crime fiction. This one starts with an arm being caught by a rube tourist fisherman and ends – without giving anything away – with:
… a karmic symmetry you’ve got to appreciate. Not quite Shakespeare, but close.
That’s Yancey’s conclusion at the denouement of this tangled and finely woven tale in which he suffers mightily – but not without the consolations of a good woman – and the reader has a lot of fun. The comic episodes just pile up, all told in beautifully easy flowing prose (even if you might have to look up an American brand name or two). Hiaasen’s also got a decent ear for music too:
She ordered him to be quiet while she sewed up his gnawed butt cheek. To take his mind off the intimate unpleasantries, Yancey told the story of how he was conceived during side one of Abbey Road.
“You mean side two,” Rosa said. “The medley.”
“No, side one. According to my mom, the big moment happened during ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.’ “
“It’s all starting to make sense,” said Rosa.
Is resistance possible?
A decent interval
Somewhat less frenetic, but nonetheless absorbing in its own way, is Simon Brett‘s 18th Charles Paris novel, A decent interval (Severn House, 2013). I picked up on this through the happy chance of hitting a treatment of an earlier volume when I turned on the car radio a few months back; with Bill Nighy in the lead role it was infectious and I shall be interested to see, when I get my hands on some of the earlier titles, whether that has affected Brett’s writing – à la Dexter and Morse – because I certainly couldn’t not imagine Nighy in my reading of A decent interval. I don’t know whether the success of the radio series is what prompted Simon Brett to feature Paris again – he has had his Fethering series on the go since 2000 – but it has been 16 years – a decent interval no less – since the last Charles Paris. During which time, given the considerable quantity of Bells’ whisky his hero consumes here, one is amazed his liver has held out.
Charles Paris is a jobbing actor who has, over the years, found himself an unwilling sleuth in the cases of various theatrical fatalities. He is one of those who “never hitting the heights, never getting the big break,” whose “default setting was the anticipation of bad news” and for whom the reply to the question, “Any work?” was usually a “No” that was “instinctive. But also accurate.” Of the old school, he’s still struggling not to call actresses ‘actresses’ and A decent interval is peppered with quotes from previous provincial newspaper reviews like “With Charles Paris as Julius Caesar, I was surprised Brutus and his cronies didn’t take action earlier.”
He’s in a (maybe pre-West End) touring production of Hamlet, doubling as the ghost and first gravedigger. The stage design is a representation of Hamlet’s skull, Hamlet is last year’s winner of a tv talent contest who has a record coming out, while the part of Ophelia was cast from a talent show created specifically for that purpose, both shows the mastermind of the same svengali. Paris’s normal “Carapace of cynicism” is severely challenged in its adequacy as the drama is thus played out against a backdrop of ‘fame’ culture and an uncouth mammon clashing with theatrical tradition, with a side order of the rise of new acting generations – tweeting, physically fit and healthy graduates – and he ends in despair, his on/off living apart marriage now off for good, “more desolate than he had at any time in his life.” Indeed, one worries for him. Is there a way back for a man who chooses to drink in a pub he dubs The Pessimist’s Arms? (Many -me included – will need there to be another book for a happier closure; for all his faults, he deserves it.)
On the way, though, there is still much to enjoy. The solution of the mystery of Ophelia’s death is a shifting one, its denouement surprisingly compassionate, while the broad-brush satire and scorn about the current state of the entertainment business, alongside some neat little cameos from Paris’s fellow cast members backstage, in rehearsal and performance – not forgetting Charles’s self-deprecation – are a source of much delight, even if tinged with a sadness at the passing of something from English life (which I suspect Brett might be feeling about publishing too). I’m still sticking with the original description of ‘comic crime’ but feel the chill of this – we’ve met its subject at the start of the book in a demistifying sequence about filming inserts for a tv history documentary:
One day, a few months after Hamlet closed in Newcastle, Charles Paris opened his Times to see a photograph of Tibor Pincus looking out at him from the obituary page. The text was lavish in its praise for the director’s groundbreaking work in the early days of television drama. There were fulsome tributes to his talent and skill in radio and television, many of them from the very broadcasting executives who had failed to give him any work for the final two decades of his life, or even to answer his calls.
MK Calling at MK Gallery
Before I go, just a brief word about Milton Keynes Gallery’s continuing and welcome efforts to become more involved in MK rather than just an outpost of the Art world. This summer sees a whole series of events involving local artists, film makers, cake makers, musicians and poets. And there’s an interesting exhibition in the main gallery curated from an open call for work from artists with any sort of connection with MK. I’ve spent time there twice now; lots of paintings, drawings and photos hung on the walls, which is nice. My best in show has to be Boyd & Evans big, beautiful and haunting Cannock Chase – trees in daylight with just a hint of mystery – a direct photo print on dibond. There’s much to admire in the exhibition (more than specifically mentioned here) but I’ll not go on too long – I know my limitations. Not a dog person, me, but I liked Karen Parker‘s dog photos, the ultrachrome prints reeking of those old Dutch oil dark interiors, while Lance Fennell‘s oil on wood including the frames, landscapes of MK grid roads (one with swans in flight, the other featuring the V6 aqueduct), looked good (and not just because I’m a sucker for painting on frames á la Howard Hodgkin). Keelertornero‘s John Wayne of the stag beetles hit a certain spot, which is not to say I’d have it on a wall of mine, but I’d happily house their large pencil on paper Bird tree, which has an awful lot going on; at first glance a variety of birds – large in proportion – sitting on a bare tree’s branches, they become wittier, more disturbing, more intriguing the longer you are drawn in.