Archive for the ‘Crime fiction’ Category

Bit of a book logjam here at Lillabullero (which is not being helped by this preface).  Please feel free to skip the preamble and go straight to the books.

Backstory:  I’d been keeping a reading diary for myself, literally scribbling away in notebooks (sometimes even with a fountain pen) since at least 1987 (annoyingly I can’t put my hands on the original one, though it wasn’t a big volume) so when I finally girded my loins to go online (for motivation see below) I just thought wotthehell Archie, if you’re going to wordprocess it you might as well blog it and que sera if nobody reads it.  And so I did blog it, and lo and behold, a handful of people visited, and again, internet early days and authors would ego surf and … respond, which was good for my ego, don’t you know! I even got invited to participate in a virtual book launch.  But basically, I don’t want to break the chain.

A bit more Backstory: back in c2002, in the days before Ray Davies was universally acknowledged as a ‘national treasure’ (back in the days before someone being ‘a national treasure’ was not a media cliche), I felt I wanted to give something back to the international Kinks fan community. I’d been contributing to a lively web digest and had subsequently made friends at what turned out to be the annual U.K. Official Kinks Fan Club Konvention. Hence: I wonder where they all are now: an annotated index of people named or alluded to in the songs of the Kinks, of which there are many. The title was a quote from Where are they now? a song that listed a number of ‘swinging Londoners’ and of writers dubbed ‘Angry Young Men’, from 1973’s under-rated Preservation Act 1 album. 

The webs we weave (c) DRQ: here purely to break up the text.

That was at a time when Alta Vista was the premier search engine in town – Google’s omniscience was a few years away – and Wikipedia was in its infancy, when it wasn’t as easy to pin down, say, ‘Old Mother Riley’, so it was hopefully of some service, especially to confused overseas fans, of whom there more than you might have thought and growing in number. I also used it as a vehicle to indulge myself as opportunities occurred for intrusions of reminiscence, personal opinion, sarcasm, pretention and similar all-round being-a-clever-bastard intrusions (see Winston Churchill, for example). The ever growing sister page The Kinks in Literature, chronicling mentions of the band or songs in (mostly crime) novels, kept it company. [To tell the truth, I’ve been a bit Kinked-out for a while now – I’ve known and evangelised that Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur were special for well over four decades, and I have a kind of dread at revisiting the ’80s albums  – but now’s not the time.]

For what it’s worth, the most visited pages here are a more or less systematic presentation of (as it stands) Peter Robinson’s 26-strong series of crime novels featuring detective Alan Banks, and a discussion, with numerous comments, examining an unresolved enigma (if that’s what you want to call it) concerning a child with a birthmark the shape of Africa in Kate Atkinson’s splendid Started early, took my dog – one of her Jackson Brodie novels – that it seems is near the top on Google when people consult there, trying to puzzle it out.  Oh and a couple of pictures that weren’t mine in the first place, most notably that ‘We Win’ front page headline from the opening credits to Cheers.

But things have slipped here on the bookblogging front. The delights of grandparentry, a couple of operations in the household, the draw of Channel4 quality morning television programming (Frasier even though one has the dvd box set), laxity, losing sight of the uses of brevity, and good old procrastination and even a bit of autumnal gardening have all taken their toll. Enough! On with the show! There now follows a whistle stop of months and months of reading.

Rivers of London: 2

Did Ben Aaronivitch‘s Moon over Soho (Gollancz, 2011) live up to the wit, excitement, erudition, sardonicism and compassion of its predecessor, the series-founding The rivers of London?  You bet!

Herein the Metropolitan Police’s trainee wizard (“I was still behind on my Latin vocab“), investigates murders involving Jazz vampires, a character called Vagina Dentata (the result of a human/animal hybrid experiment), and “ethically challenged magical practitioners” (previously known a ‘black’.  Like its forerunner, it gets pretty gruesome (if not without laughs in the grue), there’s a lot of jazz (We’re the jazz police), and some interesting London local history.  Oh, and the established gods and sprites of the river.

It is joyfully all over the place, while at the same time being tightly plotted à la police procedural.  Nightingale is our hero’s boss, last fully qualified survivor in his particular trade:

‘There are no short cuts in wizardry, Peter. If there were everyone would be doing it.’  Probably on Britain’s Got talent, I thought, but you don’t say these things to Nightingale because he doesn’t have a sense of humour about the art, and only used the telly for watching rugby.

Vinyl Detective: 4

Did Andrew Cartmel‘s Flip back (Titan, 2019) live up to the fun, drive and engagement of its three predecessors.  Not so much, though I daresay newcomers to the series might still find much to be entertained by here.  Convoluted they have all been for sure, but this one felt like it.  Faked website and road signage concerning tidal causeway times just for the benefit of our questing quartet.

Here the McGuffin is a long retired folk-rock band called Black Dog, who infamously literally burnt a million dollars (or did they?) on a Scottish island just before breaking up.  Yup, the old K Foundation/KLF stunt of 1994, with a touch of subsequent Zep-ish black magic practition thrown in.  For me the weakness of Flip back springs from the origins of the quest – the Vinyl Detective’s stoner honcho’s wanting it to help get a Black Dog superfan into bed – for the original super-rare with a flip-back cover 3rd album (quickly withdrawn and subsequently re-recorded without the main man).

There’s a worrying lack of character development on the soap opera front – with resort to previously met metal guitarist Erik Makeloud’s to boot – and the one-liners don’t have quite the same fizz (I didn’t make any notes); the domestic cats become a cosy annoyance, frankly.  Doesn’t mean I won’t read the next one, though.


How about this for an opening paragraph of a novel?:

The summer I sang lead for Annie it was 1999.  My father was in serious preparedness mode. Not since I was five, and the Weavers were under siege, had he been so certain that the Days of Abomination were upon us.

Except it’s Chapter 9 and Tara Westover‘s Educated (Hutchinson, 2018) is no novel, but an account for real of her escape from a harrowing existence as part of an extreme survivalist Mormon family cult in rural Idaho, USA (she’d never heard of Dr Martin Luther King Jr until late teens), to a PhD in Intellectual History in Cambridge, UK, by 2014.  That Annie was the start of a painful journey, a struggle with both internal and external pressures.

It’s an extraordinary story, an exhilarating tale of liberation from a wild and crazy mindset and a seriously rigid dysfunctional family unit (which actually manages to function very well eventually in the natural healing business), and a celebration of the difference that one individual’s intervention can have on another’s existence.  It is also a tale in which she worries about the validity of memory, wrestling with what she saw with conflicting accounts and hearsay of crucial family events.

At Cambridge she’s suffering from imposter syndrome until her intake are taken up on a college roof by their professor:

”… here you stand, upright, hands in your pockets.” He gestured towards the other students. “See how they hunch? How they cling to the wall.” […]
I raised my hand and gripped the wall.
“You don’t need to do that,” he said. “It’s not a criticism.”
He paused, as if unsure he should say more. “Everyone has undergone a change,” he said. “The other students were relaxed until we came to this height. Now they are uncomfortable, on edge.  You seem to have made the opposite journey. This is the first time I’ve seen you at home in yourself. It’s in the way you move: it’s as if you’ve been on this roof all your life.”
A gust of wind swept over the parapet and Dr Kerry teetered, clutching the wall. I stepped up onto the ridge so he could flatten himself against the buttress. He stared at me, waiting for an explanation.
“I’ve roofed my share of hay sheds,” I said finally […] “I can stand in this wind, because I’m not trying to stand in it,” I said.


And speaking of great opening lines:

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.

Michael Ondaatje‘s haunting Warlight (Cape, 2018) does not disappoint.  Nathaniel (‘Stitch’ is 14, sister Rachel (‘The Wren’) 16 when they are left in the charge of ‘the Moth’ and ‘the Darter’.  Various adventures ensue for each of them, his involving night missions in the bombsites and Thames backwaters behind London Docks (real Iain Sinclair territory), hers in theatreland, and their kidnapping.

He’s 18 when his mother dies in what turn out to be suspicious circumstances; 11 years later he moves back to the Suffolk village where that happened.  In the meantime he has been employed working with wartime archives, in which he slowly discovers exactly what his mother had doing in the war years and their immediate aftermath, and how that linked with his experiences back then (not least his first passionate affair).

There are many sublime passages – after all, Ondaatje first published as a poet – and reading Warlight it often felt like I was watching a peak-Stephen Poliakoff tv epic, as so much is revealed.  It’s been emotional.

Of late something of a sub-genre has been developing – in both fiction and non-fiction – taking as its subject the realisation of what a parent or grand-parent did in the war, especially if they were spies.  Speaking of which …

The girl from Station X

The title of Elisa Segrave‘s The girl from Station X: my mother’s unknown life (Aurum Press, 2013) is a classic exercise of band-wagon jumping, given only 44 pages out of the 355 of narrative are concerned with Anne Hamilton-Grace’s time at Bletchley Park (Enigma machine and all that) from initial interview to the leaving thereof.

For most of her adult life Elisa had resented her mother: “… how could I respect someone who, much of the time that I knew her, was a self-pitying escapist alcoholic?”  It was only after dementia hit hard and she found her mother’s diaries from 1930 through 1952 that she could find room for sympathy for of a woman whose crises had so intruded on her life.

As a book The girl from Station X is a bit chronologically all over the place and not especially well presented, but the actual diaries have some real sociological value as a picture of its times, both of a privileged existence (links with royalty even) and how such privilege – foreign travel taken for granted back then et al – can be the source of unhappiness and blight, and how the power then of the stigma of lesbianism can stunt a life and a family.  The only time Anne’s life takes on substance and engagement is in the war, when she has something important to do (and even then she’s a neurotic drama queen who is hard to like).  It’s a sad tale of dysfunctional relationships:

My mother had a lovely garden, with ancient walls, an old moat and two little towers, yew hedges, lavender, white and red roses, peonies and delphiniums. It [Knowle, a country house in Kent] was even used in a children’s TV film, Tom’s Midnight Garden, and I’m sure many envied it. But inside the house, the piss-stained carpets and the endless supply of alcohol were indications of my mother’s despair.

Station Eleven

Year Zero in Emily St John Mandel‘s Station Eleven (Picador, 2014) is when a virus that kills in 48 hours wipes out 99% of the world’s population.  As post-apocalyptical novels go – nothing works anymore, its just self-sufficiency or banditry – there are a couple more jokes than you’ll get from a Margaret Atwood, but it’s still pretty grim.  The virus only hits humans, though, so the wild flowers are glorious, while dangerous beasts can be a problem.

Station Eleven, which I liked  a lot, has two main linked narrative strands, which it skips about between.  It starts and ends in Year Zero with Arthur, a successful actor, who is playing the lead in King Lear, a long-held ambition, and we get a lot of his back story and that of his friends and wives, a decent novel in itself.

Just before disaster strikes he gives a child actor in the cast (Kirsten, 8-years old) two copies of an unfinished graphic novel that his first wife had drawn and written featuring a future community, called Station Eleven.  She survives, and by Year Twenty she is part of The Traveling Symphony, a touring caravan troupe of actors and musicians with a mission, moving from one isolated surviving community to another in the Great Lakes region of North America, keeping the flame of Shakespeare and classical music alive.

I particularly liked the way the author works in various popular culture references, even if Don’t stop believin’ is ‘secretly’ Arthur’s favourite song:

“All I’m saying,” Dieter said … is that quote on the lead caravan would be way more profound if we hadn’t lifted it from Star Trek.” He was talking near Kirsten and August.
Survival is insufficient. Kirsten had had those words tattooed on her left forearm at the age of fifteen and had been arguing with Dieter about it ever since.

Miranda, the graphic novelist, enthuses about Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes great newspaper strip – one of my favourites – highlighting Calvin’s Spaceman Spiff alter ego. Try: https://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/2017/10/15 for a bit of Spiff and then keep hitting the random button to get an addictive taste for the wider Calvin and Hobbes.

More catching up to follow.





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Well, I wasn’t expecting that.

There is a shocking moment in Peter Robinson’s Many rivers to cross (Hodder, 2019) that takes him, as a writer, into completely new territory.  And places his main man in all sorts of jeopardy for the next volume in this highly successful sequence of crime novels.

Many rivers to cross is the 26th in the series featuring the engaging, compassionate, dedicated, music-loving Guardian-reading detective Alan Banks that goes back to 1987’s Gallows view, which introduced him as a not-so-fresh faced Detective Chief Inspector escaping from the Met and that London to North Yorkshire, where he has stayed ever since.  Less of a maverick than he once was, he has risen but one step in rank – he wouldn’t have been interested in going any higher – to Detective Superintendent, mainly to stave off retirement.

Many rivers to cross picks up on the cliffhanger its immediate predecessor, Careless love, left us with.  It ends in another cliffhanger, but with the stakes now considerably higher.  Almost certainly we are being set up for a grande finale of what we can legitimately (if it doesn’t drag on) call the Zelda Trilogy.

Okay.  Zelda is the partner of Detective Inspector Annie Cabot’s father Ray, a lately successful painter who has decamped from an artists’ colony in Cornwall to North Yorkshire to see more of his daughter.  Annie Cabot has been on Banks’s team for some years now; they were lovers at one stage – there is a broader soap opera element to the novels with its own charms.  As it happens, Annie (less so for many a book) and Ray (on tour in the US) hardly figure in the narrative.

But Zelda: that’s not her real name, for starters.  Banks asks her if she’s chosen Zelda from literature, specifically F.Scott Fitzgerald’s troubled wife: “Tender is the night is one of my favourite books,’ Zelda said, ‘but no. It’s The Legend of Zelda. A Nintendo game I used to play in Paris when I was bored, between clients.”  Zelda has been through it: from Chisinau orphanage to trafficked child sex slave to high class Parisian whore to a free woman in London, where she met Ray.  She works part-time in London for the National Crime Agency as a super-identifier, mostly scanning surveillance photos of members of East European crime gangs; she also has a private revenge mission.  100 pages out of the 377 of the hardback of Many rivers to cross are exclusively given over to Zelda in London, with 11 more spent in Alan’s cottage (though not in his bed).  (Oops, but no, it’s never going to be on, and Ray is a mate).

One more thing about Zelda: her role model, first met in the orphanage library:

What would Modesty Blaise have done? She asked herself. Modesty Blaise wouldn’t have let herself get into that situation to start with. And if she had, Willie would have come to the rescue. But Zelda didn’t have a Willie Garvin. She had a feeling there weren’t any Willie Garvins in the real world.

Modesty Blaise was a ’60s phenomenon, a female James Bond figure.  Originally a comic strip written by Peter O’Donnell, she first appeared in the London Evening Standard in 1963, was subsequently turned into a series of novels, and made into a film in 1966 (IMDB rating 5.1 out of 10).  Not the first time, and it won’t be the last, here’s Peter Robinson doubtless acknowledging his cultural interests when young.

He does this a lot, and not just looking back to his youth, it’s a signature of the Banks novels that we get a specific soundtrack (quality old stuff, new stuff that I’ve often never heard of but none the worse for that, though considerably less jazz than usual, he goes to a Richard Thompson concert, and not forgetting landlord Cyril’s ’60s playlists in the Queens Arms).  We also catch what he’s reading and what’s on other people’s shelves, while the action is loaded with popular culture references.  Hence: He paused at the door, Columbo-style. ‘Just one more thing, Frankie.’”; when Midsomer Murders comes up in conversation Banks says “Afraid not. I’m a George Gently fan, myself.”; when some one being questioned accuses him of being “A regular Philip Marlowe“, his response is, “One of my heroes“; the scene of a particularly gruesome murder is, “A Hockney swimming pool painted by Francis Bacon.”  It works for me.

Many rivers to cross‘s North Yorkshire concerns begin with “just a skinny kid“, a 12/13 year old unidentified knife victim of Middle Easter appearance who’s been found in a wheelie bin.  It transpires he’s only just made it across Europe – the many rivers – from Aleppo, to this end.  Organised crime, the Albanian mafia, people trafficking – there’s the potential link with Zelda’s concerns – a corrupt local property developer with local gang connections, county lines drug operations, all these are considered and investigated (now I have an idea of how county lines operates).  The unexpected conclusion of that case is well delivered – a nice feint – involving a rather satisfying hit at comfortable middle class hypocrisy.  Robinson can still run a gripping narrative – tense, intriguing; even taking notes I sped through this.  Prime police procedural (with obligatory nods to police cuts and lack of resources).

And how is Alan Banks faring?  Well, one piece of big news is he’s thinking of buying himself a guitar for his birthday when, lo and behold, his son, a successful musician, buys him one: only a Martin D-28 “just about the best acoustic guitar on the market” it says here.  And he’s gone digital in the cottage, but there’s a problem: “his choices were practically unlimited, which could be a nuisance from time to time. It was surprising how often he could find absolutely nothing he wanted to listen to at any particular moment.”  Not a good sign.

In the broader state of things in his world, who knows what in store after that ending?  Maybe coincidence but the hardback jacket now simply states that Many rivers to cross is ‘An Alan Banks crime novel‘ as opposed to, previously, ‘A DCI Banks novel‘ even when he became a Detective Superintendent.  Are we being prepared for our man’s retirement?

Anyway, he’s been in better shape, creaking at the knees, getting dizzy if he gets up too quickly, he’s on blood pressure medication and statins, and he’s certainly not drinking as much (Timothy Taylor’s Landlord still a favourite, though).  But:

His mental health probably wasn’t so great. The ‘black dog’ of depression had been visiting more frequently and biting more viciously of late.  At work he often felt like Sisyphus pushing that bloody rock up the hill only to have it roll back down again. (p96)

The empathy for the victims of crime is still there, there’s no wavering of his sense of decency and his moral core, but it’s getting harder:

Banks had been feeling more world-weary himself for the past couple of years. It was getting to be that kind of world. Wearying. (p240)

At the ‘celebration’ after Samir’s killer is caught (“a sweet and sour affair, taking into account the sense of achievement in uncovering a killer, and the awareness of how many lives the revelation would ruin …), he finds himself feeling “outside it all, watching over them like a founding father. One thing was certain, he was the oldest in the group ….

It doesn’t help that his love-life is non-existent, though that might be about to change – a minor cliffhanger to go along with quite possibly a whole lot more – here’s hoping for the best – in Many rivers to cross‘s successor.  Which we are looking forward to already. Alan Banks is – along with Rebus – one of the major figures in British crime fiction.  Long may he run.

Elsewhere here on Lillabullero there is a more formal record of all the books – more detailed for the last decade or so’s titles – in the saga of Alan Banks, listing the most significant mentions of music, literature, alcohol consumed, and hopefully some of each titles’ more distinguishing features among other things.  For what it’s worth this page is one of the most visited here: https://quavid.wordpress.com/about/peter-robinsons-inspector-banks-mysteries/




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No, not the Tory Brexiteers, but the police team that worked on a missing persons inquiry back in 2006 as described off-the-record by the man called upon to investigate the original handling of the case.  The case is dramatically re-opened as a murder enquiry 12 years later in In a house of lies, Ian Rankin‘s new novel (Orion, 2018), when the missing person in question turns up dead in the boot of an abandoned VW Golf found concealed in a local wood.  As it happens, the original case had been one of the last a disillusioned DI John Rebus had worked on before his retirement as a police officer, and, one way or another, he gets to tag along again.  Did Rebus really retire as a cop as long ago as 2006?  Indeed, he did.

At a certain stage late in the enquiry, Siobhan Clarke, Rebus’s protégé of old, asks him:

‘Did you at least manage to have a bit of fun, John?’
‘Playing detective again, I mean.
‘All the fun in the world, Siobhan.’  Rebus stretched out an arm. ‘It’s just one huge amusement park out there, happy families everywhere you look.’

I think Ian Rankin had fun writing this one, the twenty-second in the Rebus saga.  He’s showing his age now, of course.  ‘Still got this old thing, I see,’ observes a DC we’ve met in previous books.  ‘Are you talking to me or the car?‘ he responds.  Despite a diagnosis of COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) – from which there can be no eventual escape – he’s still managing to live in his second floor tenement flat in Edinburgh’s Old Town, albeit with a 20-a-day nicotine patch habit and whisky and strong beers no longer contributing to his diet; he’s lost 20 pounds.  He’s grown a tad ruminative too: having picked up the phrase ‘a managed decline‘ at the clinic, ‘To him, it seemed to sum up his whole life since retirement, and maybe even before.

I suspect there are still at least a couple more books in him, though, through the good graces (and hefty nudges) of the now established woman in his life, pathologist Deborah Quant, who we hardly meet this time around, even if her presence is felt.  Siobhan comes to see him:

He lifted a box of tea bags. ‘Turmeric. Guess who from?’
‘A certain pathologist?’
‘She thinks I want to live forever.’ […]
They went into the living room, where a CD was playing. Rebus turned it down a notch.
‘Is that classical?’
‘Arvo P
‘Our pathologist friend again?’
‘Music to soothe the fevered brow.’

He’s got Brian Eno in the Saab’s antiquated sound system too, “another gift from Deborah Quant to help his ‘mindfulness’ ” – a concept about which he’s not convinced.  He uses Van Morrison’s Moondance and John Martyn’s Solid air to aid a long night session with some old case files.  And that is pretty much it for the narrative soundtrack this time around.

The main plot concerns the dead body in the car and the historical rivalry between a property developer and aspirant cultural entrepreneur (and now failing independent film maker) over ‘the palatial Poretoun House‘.  At one stage in the investigation this crucially involves them watching a movie called Zombies v Bravehearts.  Two sub-plots also bubble away nicely, sometimes spilling over into the main proceedings.  We have a pair of corrupt cops working in the Anti-Corruption Unit (‘the Chuggabugs’), who are trying to nobble Siobhan, which endeavour brings into play a sordid but ultimately redemptive family drama involving a young man pleading guilty to a killing he did not commit (the ‘happy families’ from my first Rebus quote). 

Along the way Rebus’s old sparring partner, gangster ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty – Legitimate businessman, John. That’s what the judge said at the trial.’ / ‘Aye, and like you, I could hear the inverted commas’inevitably reappears and makes a significant contribution. In passing suggesting that Brexit will give up plenty of opportunities for ‘disaster capitalists’ like himself.  Elsewhere, bon malt viveur that he now is, he admits to being brought up on ‘cooking lager’, a phrase I’d not encountered before.

The twelve-year gap betwixt disappearance and the discovery of a dead body gives plenty of opportunities to comment on changes in policing and in the wider society.  As Malcolm Fox, almost a veteran himself in the Rebus saga these days, says: “My time in Professional Standards, Rebus was never far from a bollocking or a suspension.”  Our man worries to Siobhan that the Chuggabugs might still find something to compromise him from the original inquiry (there is, but never mind that): “‘John, every officer who ever worked with you has something on you.’ / ‘Fair point.’ Rebus tried for a look of contrition but failed“.  But here’s an old school colleague of his who also worked the case in 2006: ” ‘Seems the wrong word or look gets you accused of bullying. Wouldn’t have happened in our day, John.’ / ‘Might have been better if it had,’ Rebus said ruefully, draining his cup.”  Then again, the by-the-book head of the 2018 inquiry ends up admitting, “‘I sort of wish you were still on the force.’ / ‘Aye, me too,’ Rebus confessed.

He rues austerity and the demise of neighbourhood policing: “… and a dumped car with four flat tyres and a notice on it that said POLICE AWARE. Rebus smiled at that. Back in the day, there would have been a beat cop who would have known every face, able to put a name to each. Not these days, not outside the Oor Wullie cartoon in the Sunday Post Rebus had just bought at the shop.”  On the other hand, current more enlightened views on homosexuality – the mis-per was gay – would have meant the original inquiry could not have been so deeply flawed.  Then there’s the rise of social media; he’s saddened “… that so much these days happened online, with every keyboard warrior suddenly a ‘commentator’ or ‘pundit’ or ‘news-gatherer’. There was a lack of quality control“.  There are, as ever, major roadworks to contend with in Edinburgh.

I enjoyed In the house of lies immensely, not least for its character driven dialogue and humour.  Rebus, Siobhan and Malcolm make for an entertaining triple act (Steele is one of the Chuggabugs):

Steele’s going down for something, Shiv, trust me.’
She stared at him. ‘What do you know that I don’t?’
‘Well for one thing, I can name every Rolling Stones B-side from the 1960s.’
‘Would you put money on it, though?’ Fox asked.
Rebus started counting on his fingers. ‘ “
I want to be loved”, “Stoned”, “Little by little” …’
‘Don’t encourage him,’ Clarke said to Fox. ‘It’s just his way of ducking the question.’
‘She know me too well,’ Rebus agreed with a shrug in Fox’s direction.

Hell, I even guffawed at: “The room was stuffy and Dean had removed his jacket but kept his waistcoat on. It boasted a fob watch on a gold chain, just when Rebus thought he couldn’t dislike lawyers more than he already did.”  As I say, Rebus must be good for a couple more books yet, but I have every faith that Siobhan – what a great line “Rebus could sense her tired smile” is, by the way – is ready to take up the slack: “DCI Mark Mollison was seated behind the world’s tidiest desk” is one of hers.

Meanwhile, as someone else said of someone else, Roll on John.

Painting Shakey black

What, you say?  Spend a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon watching a set of excerpts from Shakespeare delivered by the Stony Stratford Theatre Society upstairs in the Temple of the local Masonic Hall?  Yes, please.  They’re such a talented band of actors and it’s such a great intimate – whites of their (and our) eyes – venue for this sort of thing.

Intimate, you say? Ginny Davies photographed in action by Andy Powell from one long side of the temple, with a chin-stroking Lillabullero in the audience on the other.

Intimate, you say?  Yup, long and thin, which means all ends and sides of the audience get an equal viewing chance, and lends a valuable variety and freshness to the simple staging; static it cannot be.

What has stayed with me was Sam Marsh’s singing Sonnet 104 (“To me, fair friend, you never can be old …“), sung faithfully to the tune of the Rolling Stones’ Paint it black.  That and Susan Whyte as a bag lady pulling along a shopping trolley (can’t remember the character, I’m afraid – bonus photo at the end here).  But it was all good.  And as broadcasters are wont to say: other playwrights are available – a little touch of John Webster and Chris Marlowe in the afternoon.  Bravo Caz!


Couple of Vaultages of note.  Or Haulage, as the autotext on my phone tried to suggest.  The astonishing Larry Stubbings only does covers, but what audacious covers! One man, one guitar.  Highlight was a stunning rendition of Led Zep’s The immigrant song, losing nothing of its power, but he kept rapt for well over half an hour, whoo-whooing to Sympathy for the devil and (even me) singing along to AC/DC’s Highway to hell. (Now there’s a thing: Caz told me the original idea for Sonnet 104 was to set it to Sympathy, but the actor decided Paint it black worked better).

Of course open mics can be very hit and miss, but when you’ve got something like Vaultage picking up a head of steam, very interesting things can happen.  Hence Kevin, who lives in Turkey, but was spending a few days in Newport Pagnell, coming along and delivering a sinuous jazz tinged Sunshine of your love that gave the song room to breathe and for my money easily trumped the original.  Another turn-up for the books: two Crowded House songs in one night – such melody!  Good Time Jazz, experienced and accomplished musicians all, did what is says on the tin: Summertime,  Bye Bye Blackbird, Oh when the Saints and more from the repertoire done justice to.  Great to hear a saxophone for a change.


I’ve been looking forward to the latest “bit of Shardlake” (“I like a bit of Shardlake” © an esteemed nephew of mine) but I’m sorry to say I’m giving the one that’s finally arrived – the first since 2014 – I’m giving it a miss until a period of as yet unscheduled enforced convalescence crops up in my life.  For why?  Because C.J.Sansom‘s new addition to the canon, Tombland (Mantle, 2018) is – in shape and weight – a brick, 801 pages long and then some, with a historical essay, Re-imagining Ketts’ rebellion, and bibliographical apparatus, bringing the total to 866.  And the to-be-read pile is high.

Here are the people introduced on just the opening page of Tombland:

  • I (Matthew Shardlake)
  • messenger from Master Parry
  • Master Perry, Lady Elizabeth’s comptroller
  • Lady Elizabeth
  • Catherine Parr
  • The old king (Henry VIII)
  • Lord Protector Somerset
  • Lady Mary, Henry’s eldest daughter
  • Young King Edward
  • Holy Roman Emperor Charles, Mary’s cousin
  • Thomas Seymour (the Protector’s brother), married to CP

All this, for all 866 pages, without hint of a Dramatis Personae for future reference.  Hell, I need a Dramatis Personae to keep up these days.  

And to finish, here, as promised, the STTS, doing Shakespeare. Photo © Andy Powell



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November 22 sees the fiftieth anniversary of the first release of The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, my third favourite Kinks album, though the critical consensus these days seems to be that this is Ray Davies‘s masterpiece.  (Muswell hillbillies and Arthur, if you’re asking.)  It was released in the same fortnight in 1968 as the Beatles’ White Album and the Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s banquet, so it never really stood much chance of getting onto people’s turntables back then; I myself didn’t discover it until the early ’70s.  It has aged well and I still love it.  Naturally, this year, as is the custom these days, it is celebrated by the release of a £100+ box set with vinyl etc, remastered again (was that Special Deluxe Edition really issued fourteen years ago? OK … ) and with a new song, Time, from a couple of years later, released meaninglessly as a trailer ‘single’ a few weeks earlier.  Truth be told, Time makes me cringe in its tweeness and passivity; it should have stayed on the cutting room floor.  Nevertheless, as a tribute to this fine album, I am now going to try and clear the backlog of five books here at Lillabullero with reference to it, or at least as close as I can get.

The age of innocence

Edith Wharton‘s The age of innocence (1920) was September’s Reading Group book and it was only to keep faith with the Group that I persisted.  But once I got that it was actually a historical novel, and a narrative emerged, I rather warmed to it.

The age of innocence is a novel that documents a crucial period of social change in America.  It shares, I’d say – in its own way – the philosophy of The Village Green Preservation Society‘s “Preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways for me and for you” – no simple exercise in nostalgia – even if the balance here is a bit skewed.  Because, bloody hell, the exponents of those old ways – early 1870s ‘Old New York’ aristocracy – sure are tedious and stiflingly convention-bound.  Edith Wharton skillfully fleshes out an anthropological analysis of the tribes, with an eye to tracing, as one of the characters does, “each new crack in the surface, and all the strange weeds pushing up between the ordered rows of social vegetables“.

The man in the middle is Newland Archer, who conventionally marries but is in love with another.  Head or heart, duty or desire?  ‘Society’ wins (a narratively strategic pregnancy helps the decision).  Interestingly the overwhelmingly female Reading Group saw a strength and guile in wife Mary that I’d skipped over.  I found it odd that it’s a woman writer who gives it to Newland, who she has put at the heart of the book, to say (wild oats had been sown), “ ‘Women ought to be free – as free as we are’ “; though in the saying of which, she slyly adds, he’s “making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.”

The final passages of the novel have Newland looking back over his marriage after his wife’s death – three children, all grown, making their own way – and thinking on balance it had been worth it, sticking with what was respectably expected of him (despite “the taste of the usual” being “like cinders in his mouth“), but acknowledging some aspects of change.  Given the chance of meeting up again with his heart’s desire in Paris, he chickens out at the last minute, preferring the keep the memory shiningly alive.  Given that only moments previously he had been sitting the Louvre, and “Suddenly, before an effulgent Titian, he found himself saying: ‘But I’m only fifty-seven …’ ” this refusal at the last hurdle came as both a huge disappointment to the romantic in me … and, I guess, a recognition that physically, age 57, a century ago, was so much older then.

Edith Wharton has a delicious way with nuance; much pleasure is to be had from it.  Bohemia is acknowledged: “Beyond the small and slippery pyramid which composed Mrs. Archer’s world lay the almost unmapped quarter inhabited by artists, musicians and “people who wrote’ ” – not the only appearance of that ‘people who wrote’ – never mind Old New York’s incomprehension of the “eccentricities of a husband of a husband who filled the house with long-haired men and short-haired women” (plus ca change?).  The prospect of a genuine American culture (opera was big in Old New York society) is celebrated with:

“It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country.” She smiled across the table. “Do you suppose Christopher Columbus should have taken all that trouble just to go to the Opera with the Selfridge Merrys?”

Then there are the people.  Here’s Newland: “If he had probed the bottom of his vanity (as he sometimes nearly did)…”; one of the women in social action: “Symptoms of a lumbering coquetry became visible in her …“; and Newland’s poor unmarried sister, “who still looked so exactly as she used to in her elderly youth …“.  Could Dickens have bettered the matriarch?:

The immense accretion of flesh that had descended upon her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon.

Why Dylan matters

You could say John F. Harvey‘s Why Dylan matters (William Collins, 2017) is here under false pretences as far as making dubious connections with the Village Green Preservation Society go.  Bob Dylan is obviously a contemporary of Ray Davies, though 1968 was the only year in the decade since he set out in 1962 that he didn’t release a record, but he did use the Kinks’ Party line and Sunny afternoon on his celebrated Theme Time Radio Hour programmes.  Davies himself has said (in his X-Ray: the unauthorised autobiography), “I had always distrusted Bob Dylan as a songwriter, in the same way at college I had distrusted Pablo Picasso as a painter.”  Callow youth mellowed though, and “The only thing I had against him was that he had changed his name – but then I guess that was his privilege“.  However, Lillabullero has a backlog to clear and it’s staying in here.  They both admire Hank Williams.

Why Dylan matters is the most original Dylan book I have read in a long time, and I have read a few, and then some.  Richard F.Thomas moved to the US from New Zealand in 1974 to pursue an academic career:

For the past 40 years, as a classics professor, I have been living in the worlds of the Greek and Roman poets, reading them, writing about them, and teaching them to students in their original languages and in English translation. I have for even longer been living in the world of Bob Dylan songs, and in my mind Dylan long ago joined the company of those ancient poets.

He had a Eureka! moment when he was listening to Lonesome day blues on the Love and theft album of 2001 and, “I heard Virgil, loud and clear in the tenth verse“.

Dylan’s songs have been part of my song memory since my mid-teens, but it would be decades before they became more fully aligned in my mind with the Greek and Roman poets I was beginning to read back then. And it was chiefly in the twenty-first century that Dylan started to reference, borrow from, and “creatively reuse” their work in his own songs.

Since 2004 Thomas has been running a seminar programme for freshmen at Harvard.  This book is a distillation of that course, looking at Bob Dylan’s songwriting and recordings from the folk period through to the Sinatra covers phase.  It’s a revelation.  He goes back afresh to the Hibbing High School Yearbook of 1959.  Where most haven’t looked further than the prophetic ‘Little Richard’ aspiration, he finds Dylan was an active member of Latin Club, which he joined in 1956, and takes it from there, putting a unique spin on proceedings.

Fully aware of the irony of the Desolation Row citation, he riffs to great effect on T.S.Eliot – “fighting in the captain’s tower” – and his take on plagiarism from an essay in his The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism of 1920: “Immature poets borrow; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”  And, among other things touched on in Why Dylan matters, his Nobel Prize ‘speech’ makes a whole lot more sense now.

This is … a book about how Dylan’s genius has long been informed by the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome, and why the classics of those days matter to him and should matter to all of us interested in the humanities.

It is also a book which made me succumb and buy Triplicate, the 3 CD addition to the previous two albums of Frank Sinatra ‘covers’, which Thomas contextualises.  I swore I would never buy Triplicate after the first two, but it proves to be a plaintive and genuine collection, relaxed, regretful, and restful.

Normal people

I liked Sally Rooney‘s Normal people (Faber, 2018) so much I read it again.  I’ve seen it described as a Romeo and Juliet type romance, but there aren’t any clans as such.

Kinks connection: Connell Waldron is David Watts personified: “Lead the school team to victory / And take my exams and pass the lot.”  It’s a song from Something else by The Kinks, the album that preceded Village Green Preservation Society.  “And all the girls in the neighbourhood / Try to go out with David Watts“.  The neighbourhood is a small town in the west of Ireland.  Whereas Marianne Sheldon “exercises an open contempt for people in school. She has no friends and spends her lunchtimes alone reading novels. A lot of people really hate her.”

Both are from one-parent households, but Connell’s mum cleans for Marianne’s soul-less bitch of a mother in the big house, where she lives with an arsehole of an elder brother; Marianne is known to have had mental problems.  They’re compatico intellectually, the sharpest of their year, and they start sleeping together, but it’s a secret (he doesn’t want his mates to know).  They are not ‘a couple’, and continue to not be one for a lot of Normal lives, which follows their relationships, separations and personal crises through university – Trinity College, Dublin, where she‘s in her element socially and he isn’t – and post-grad.  Other parallel reversals in their fortunes follow as things progress.

The book has eighteen sections, or episodes, covering four years: the first is entitled January 2011, and is followed by Three weeks later (February 2011) and so on to February 2015.  The largest gap is seven months, the smallest 5 minutes.  It’s brilliantly handled, the personal focus being swapped between them.  Immediacy is achieved by the stark use of the present tense, whereby the smallest detail reverberates, while within that the narrative falls back into an explanatory but still right there past tense making sense of their misunderstandings, absences, difficulties and misdeeds.  There’s a lot of dialogue which, as in her previous novel, is executed without the help of speech marks; it works.  The prose delivers clarity, crystal moments; manages to be forensic and it sings:

  • Early in their relationship: “Connell, as usual, did not speak or even look at her. She watched him across classrooms as he conjugated verbs, chewing on the end of his pen.”
  • After another quarrel she gets out the car on a garage forecourt: “A crow on the forecourt picks at a discarded crisp packet.” [talk about seeing through his eyes!]
  • Marianne is taking a sip of coffee when he says this, and she seems to pause for a moment with the cup at her lips. He can’t tell how he identifies this pause as distinct from the natural motion of her drinking, but he sees it.”
  • Her boyfriend at in Dublin: “Jamie’s dad was one of the people who had caused the financial crisis – not figuratively, one of the actual people involved.” [!!]
  • ” … her breath rises in a fine mist and the snow keeps falling, like a ceaseless repetition of the same infinitely small mistake.”
  • Connell, depressed, goes to see a student counsellor: “Now he looks up at Yvonne, the person assigned by the university to listen to his problems for money.” [But she helps]

Sally Rooney is only 27 and has already published two astonishingly accomplished novels.  There’s a passage two fifths of the way in which captures the young person’s absolute fantasy of the marriage of intellect and sex hoped for at university happening (“he has the sensation that he and Marianne are like figure-skaters“) and, futile though it is, one cannot help but speculate how much of herself is in which characters.  There is also a discussion of the futility of author readings, questioning the literary industry function, of books being merely “status symbols“, which nevertheless is the occasion that lifts Connell out of his doldrums.

I have seldom cared so much about two people in a novel, nor wanted so much for them not to be unhappy.  It’s left hanging, of course, but there are grounds for hope.

Body & Soul

It was a nice surprise to see a new John Harvey novel sitting on the shelves in the local library – I’d thought he’d given up –  and Body & soul (Heinemann, 2018) has not been a disappointment.

Kinks connections are minimal: the murdered man is an artist who has a studio in the Old Piano Factory in Kentish Town, just down the road from the Boston pub in Tufnell Park, where the Official Kinks Fan Club has its annual Konvention; John Harvey has an entry in the Kinks in literature page here at Lillabullero for a brief allusion to Waterloo Sunset in In a true light, the first of his post-Resnick novels.

I was fond of Charlie Resnick, who lasted for ten finely crafted novels, but his successors never quite hit the spot for me.  Body & soul is the fourth and last in the series featuring ex-Detective Frank Elder, and it again calls into play his daughter, Katherine, who had such an awful time of it in the first, Flesh and blood.  (There was a time when it was highly dangerous to be a fictional detective’s daughter – as both Banks and Rebus can concur).  Here’s Elder’s back story; Harvey, who also publishes poetry, is good on character:

Faced with probable disciplinary action and his wife’s flaunting infidelity, a teenage daughter he no longer seemed to recognise, never mind understand, Elder had done the sensible adult thing. Thrown his toys out the pram. Handed in his resignation and … hastened himself as far away as he could without leaving the country entirely.

Body & soul is a police procedural that roams the land: Kentish Town, trendy Hackney, Cornwell, Nottingham, somewhere on the north-east coast; the trains run smoothly.  There are two narratives at play with Katherine as the link.  The art milieu of the murdered man is nicely done (“Art, Elder said as if it were an infection, it gets bloody everywhere.”), and the solution to his murder comes late in the investigation after a few red herrings and the dead man’s first wife has returned from holiday.  The detective leading the case is an interesting woman, a lesbian, with a wry unconventional partner for a copper, who suffers the usual slings of the copper’s wife:

When she had first been stationed at Holmes Road as a young detective constable, about the best you could have hoped for would have been instant coffee from a greasy spoon. Now there were three chain outlets and four independent coffee shops within easy walking distance. The high street was otherwise dominated by charity shops and estate agents. Maybe that was how the world was now divided: those who’d happily fork out close to three pounds for a flat white and those who could not. The yin and yang of capitalism, as Rachel liked to put it.

At the climax of the second narrative strand, we are in deep police procedural territory, an area most don’t reach:

Bastard,’ the lead officer said quietly and shook his head. Already he was thinking about the debrief with the Chief Superintendent, the written reports his team would have to make, the photographs, the video, the inevitable investigation by the IPCC. And for what?


More than once in Kate Atkinson‘s Transcription someone says, or mutters, “This England“.  And despite the fact that ” Countryside’ was more of a concept for Juliet than a reality“, one of those Englands is that addressed in The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society.  The lyric of the title song has the line “God save little shops, china cups and virginity“, and a purloined Sèvres porcelain cup plays a minor part in showing us that our heroine is not without taint.  But by 1950, Juliet Armstrong is working in BBC Schools, where they are recording a programme called Singing Together:

Singing Together, Juliet thought. Schools seemed to be fixated on an Old England of sea shanties and ballads and folk songs. And maidens, lots of maidens. […] They were reinventing England, or perhaps inventing it. […]

      ‘This England – is it worth fighting for?’ [a.n.other asking] It depended on whose side you were on, she supposed.

And so, my love affair with Kate Atkinson continues.  Things were getting a bit shaky early on – the bastard child of Victoria Wood and Graham Greene? – but for me it all suddenly kicked into gear when we return to 1950 – page 177 in the hardback, to be exact.  And near the end (p315 of 327) I’m metaphorically punching the air in jubilation, when at the bottom of the page, in the course of an interrogation, Juliet is warned: “Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong“.  I love the games she plays.

Transcription is a spy novel with bells on, deadly serious, but also a lot of fun, with the usual entertaining collection of characters as supporting cast.  We start briefly with a (what proves to be fatal) road accident in London, in 1981; Juliet back in England for the first time in thirty years.  1950 and she’s not having much fun at the BBC, but suddenly reminded, haunted by what she did in the war.  1940 and she’s a spy, part of an MI5 sting operation scuppering a potential enemy Fifth Column; something bad had happened too.  Back in 1950 we find she still provides the odd overnight safe house venue for the security service.  We see what had been on her conscience back in 1940 again, and then, back in 1950 and … HUGE TWIST (for me, anyway).

Well I certainly didn’t see it coming.  Though, looking back, there’s a whacking great clue right there on the opening page.  Never mind the flamingo on the cover.  I shall read Transcription again some time soon – I always do with Kate – and doubtless I shall discover a couple more.  There are some useful pages at the back of the book where she talks about her research and sources.

Along the way, the Atkinson signature quirks and tangents.  Juliet will often momentarily drift off in a conversation with a “Rhymes with …”  to herself.  “Reader, I didn’t marry him,” she reports; not the first time that one’s been used, I’m sure, but it still gets me every time.  She struggles with the men in the ‘office’: “A girl could die of old age, following a metaphor like this, Juliet thought. ‘Very nicely put, sir,’ she said.”  Being briefed for an undercover appearance at a posh pro-Nazi soirée, “Juliet felt rather ashamed, as her mind had been on what dress to wear this evening rather than bottomless pits of evil.”

Juliet has an eye for a simile, too: “She had fierce eyebrows and seemed mournfully Russian, sighing in the tragic way of a woman whose cherry orchard had been chopped down …“, while in describing a struggle, “She was made of steel. It was like dealing with Rasputin, not a middle-aged woman from Wolverhampton“; called Dolly.

She gets to discussing existentialism at work one day:

‘We have all walked in the valley of the shadow of death. Do you despair, Miss Armstrong?’
Hardly ever. Occasionally. Quite often. ‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘And anyway, if everything is pointless, then so is despair, isn’t it?’

Meanwhile (sorry about the ad) …





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The Spy Game

Some books take you by surprise.  Georgina Harding‘s The spy game (Bloomsbury, 2009) was the Book Group’s August selection and I probably wouldn’t have considered reading it otherwise.  It got to me; I read it twice, and not just to catch any nuances I might have missed.  There’s a piano teacher struggling to engage her young pupil – Anna Wyatt, the narrator of The spy game – by introducing her to Erik Satie’s piano music.  Didn’t work for her, but it gave me an urgent need to fill that gap in my collection: no Gnossiennes or Gymnopédies? How did that happen?  The spy game is not a genre novel.

The tragic piano teacher is one to weep for.  Here she is playing some Bach, at what would prove to be Anna’s last lesson:

The music was like fountains, crystalline, rising, falling, controlled. If only it was all like that, no words to anything. If you listened, closed your eyes, then opened them again and looked about, you saw the room more richly than before, the polish of the furniture, the glow of the lamps, of the glass on the shelves, the vividness of its lit colour. The woman at the piano was suddenly vivid again too, as if some veil, some dull greyness which had seemed only an extension of the greyness of the day, of the protracted late winter, had dropped away.

Saturday, January 7, 1961, news breaks of the unmasking of a Soviet spy ring – a seemingly ordinary well-liked suburban couple, the Krogers, at the heart of it.  Two days later, 8-year old Anna’s mother dies in a car accident.  Her elder brother, Peter, just old enough to be aware of current affairs, becomes obsessed with the idea that their mother was a sleeper agent who had been recalled to Moscow to preserve the spy network.  After all, their English father had first met her in the Russian section of post-war Berlin, and they were kept away from the funeral.  Peter’s obsession – he involves her in what she sees as a game, becomes a bit of a spy himself – leads to a series of incidents, and for him, a breakdown, all of which is related by Anna, as she remembers what she saw and thought as a young girl.

Life moves on for her.  We are told nothing of what has happened in between – a narrative gap that works well, I think – save that her daughter has gone off to university and her husband is saying, Go on – why not go for it!  The experiences of her childhood have never quite left Anna, and she’s still intrigued by how little she ever knew about her mother’s life before she met her father.

Anna has researched the Portland Spy Ring (a fascination in itself), and moves on from the British Library’s newspaper out-station in North London to archives in Berlin and the remote Baltic outpost of what is now Kaliningrad (in what is now Russia), all small adventures in themselves, briefly meeting new people, helping or helped by, on the way.  What she discovers about her mother’s, and the piano teacher’s uneasy pre-war and war-time lives is extraordinary, humbling; her re-imaging of her parents’ courtship glorious.  The even tone that Georgina Harding maintains as one’s emotions soar and plunge is remarkable.  One is in Stephen Poliakoff and Andreii Makine territory – great company, I’d say.  A lovely uncomfortable book, one that sings.

A couple of other things before we leave Georgina Harding.  She doesn’t overdo the period touches, but when she does … well, I’m showing my age here: Dixon of Dock Green on the telly, the National Anthem when the days’ programming was over; pink candlewick bedspreads; “The telephone was for information still in those days … and was kept in the hall without even a chair beside it“; the crunch night of 1962’s Cuban missile crisis, the Big Freeze of 1963; sweet cigarettes!  I guess boys still labour over plastic construction kits to this day, but brother Peter’s aircraft models were like a Proustian madeleine for me:

His eyes were shiny so that I did not look into them. He was almost crying. I looked at his fingers instead, how they were white with the pressure. They held the wing of the plane so tight that I was afraid he might break it and then he would cry for sure. […]
Peter was collected now, more his usual self. He put the wing down. He began to peel the dried glue off his fingertips, stripping it off like skin and laying it on the spread newspaper on the table.

That at a moment of high drama.  I’d say that was a fine piece of writing.  She’s great on small details.  Finally, here’s Anna has just emptied her father’s kitchen, clearing the house for sale after his death.  There’s one special find:

I drove back home and did not have the strength to get the box out of the car. I would get it in the morning and sort everything then, tins of tomatoes, stale coffee, outdated herbs, half-used bags of sugar and flour that would hang about and sadden the larder for months. I took only the diary in.

The punishment she deserves

The punishment she deserves is the 20th of Elizabeth George‘s Inspector Lynley novels, but the first I’ve read.  I’m familiar with the television series and quite liked it once his awful wife became an ex-wife (don’t know if she was so toe-curdling in the books); star of the show is always Sharon Small, cheeky smile and all, as his DS Barbara Havers.  I had friends who read the series as they came out, but it was the length that put me off, that and not being able to get my head fully around an American writing about a quintessential Englishman (he’s a real Lord, don’t you know?).

Anyway, I get the nod that The punishment she deserves deserves a place in the Kinks in Literature pages here at Lillabullero, so there was no escape, the time had come.  At just over 600 pages it’s too long, way too long.

Because I was only familiar with the TV shows, I had to catch up on the soap opera aspects of the book series.  So it was a shock to discover Lynley with a boss who has a chronic alcohol problem and is going through a bad divorce and is involved in a fierce custody battle for the children.  This sub-plot added greatly to the page count, slowed the actual investigation down, and did nothing much for me; aficionados of the series may demur, of course.

Once Lynley and Havers get going The punishment she deserved has its moments – they’re a class double act – but as a police procedural it has a major flaw right from the start.  The Met officers are in Ludlow to look into the initial handling of a suspicious death in custody and the subsequent IPCC investigation which cleared the local police force: it was a suicide, they agreed.  No way, says the dead man’s rich dad, who can pull strings and is threatening the Home Office with legal action.  No mention whatever of a Coroner’s inquest – mandatory in the circumstances – which could well have, indeed should have, brought some pertinent facts out into the open much earlier. And killed the book, which does eventually have some interesting twists and turns fuelled by misunderstandings, maladjustment, and malevolence. 

There is a theme behind the whole shenanigans, involving parents and the contrasting nature of the aspirations, support, protection and freedom they give their teenage children.  How that all works out for the four students at the local college (probably a sixth form college) who share a house in which there seems to be an inordinate amount of casual sex going on, is fertile ground for red herrings and ethical questioning as things unfold.  Can’t say I found the local cast and a lot else that convincing.

But first the music.  The Kinks reference turns out to be a sticker in the back window of an old car (which by the sound of it would never have passed its MOT).  Soundtrack for the big end of term bash at the dodgy pub favoured by Ludlow’s young – is it really going to be the BeeGees and Abba?  I doubt it.  And while we’re in the pub, how about this revelation:

Music was shaking the floor-boards. This was meant to promote thirst which was meant to promote the purchase of lager, ale, cider, cocktails, and the like. [my italics] Deng had to struggle to get through the great glomerations of kids who were gyrating to the music, texting, or taking selfies …

And while we’re still here, the annoying things start to mount up.  ‘Ale’ is consistently through the book, never ‘beer’ or ‘bitter’.  And that word ‘conglomeration’; other bon mots heard at the pub are “Fabbo-licious” and “Gorgeosity in the extreme“.  One of the participants seated at that table is one Finnegan Freeman:

He wore his hair in a style that featured dreadlocks on the right and a shaved skull on the left. The latter allowed the display of a disturbing tattoo showing a wild-looking woman screaming, complete with uvula displayed as well as overlong canines, one of which dripped blood.

Yeah, right.  And he’s just the teenage son of the Assistant Chief Constable of the West Mercia Police Service, who, incidentally, uses sex games to keep her ex-addict husband in the dark about stuff and is probably the least convincing ACC to be found anywhere near a police procedural crime novel.

Annoyances abound.  PCSO Gaz’s hair “was cut short, but not in the fashion of a football hooligan” (which is, these days?); one evening we have “pub goers looking in on their nightly establishments“; a front garden on a new estate “grew lawns“.  Then there are speech abbreviations, the likes of which I’ve not encountered before; are ‘F you say so / c’n / cops’re / ‘nspector / sh’ll et al genuine local colour?  And Gaz is obviously conflicted:

Gaz set his coffee on the table and dumped milk into it. He stirred it carefully, as if with concern that he might slosh the brew out of the cup should he apply the spoon too energetically.

Meanwhile, cigarettes are never smoked.  It’s usually Havers, seeking somewhere “she could suck down another fag“.

Then there’s the sex.  As I said before, there’s lot of it.  It’s not graphic but it’s constant.  There’s Deng, who has been shagging pretty much anybody since age 14 because, it is pointlessly revealed, she discovered her dad, dead from auto-eroticism, in the stately home her mum is still trying to make a go of.  Deng has cultivated a friendship with determined virgin Missa.  And there’s sexually active, Francie, also living in a stately home that her parents are letting crumble, due to their global “ethno-cultural-whatever” commitments.  A key plot event has been Missa being “sodomised” in a drunken slumber, that word’s repeated use invoking memories of old style Tory dinosaurs speaking in early parliamentary debates on gay rights (or that DUP Ulster brogue!).  You could say the students’ back stories deserved some space, but it’s all a bit hysterical.  And goes on too long.

There are saving graces, which have probably kept the series going.  The main one, of course being the double act that is post Thomas Lynley and working-class Barbara Havers, the source of a rich vein of humour (if you ignore the ‘sucking’ of cigarettes).  Here Lynley is introducing himself to West Mercia’s unenthused by the meeting Chief Constable:

Oooh, Barbara thought. He was using the Voice. He rarely did that because he knew that when it came to being a fish out of water, he was the fish, and it didn’t make any sense to emphasise that. But every so often, such emphasis was necessary and the Voice was required. Upon hearing it the other paused in surprise. It was the pause that Lynley sought. […] Barbara took careful note of the nature of this pissing contest.

Good old Barbara, who had “long ago set her mobile’s alarm to play the final moments of the 1812 Overture at a casual suggestion some time ago from DI Lynley.”  Whose musical knowledge runs to “If Buddy Holly didn’t sing it, I’m clueless”; who breakfasts on Pop-Tarts.  There’s a nice running joke about ‘Judi-with-an-I’ back at Scotland Yard, whose boss at one stage, “had gone to Marylebone, meeting a nameless political powerbroker for a discussion about broking political power.”  A bit more of that and a bit less of the likes of, in the midst of a dramatic blue-lights flashing car chase to stop a glider take-off, “It was clear why the Long Mynd was a desired site for launching gliders.  To the west Shropshire gave way to rolling hills, some comprising quartzite and some consisting of volcanic debris [my italics]”

Doubtful I’ll be reading another one.

PS.  Inevitably technological changes and economic shifts can compromise older books’ accuracy, but I’m not sure there’s any excuse for a book published this year to rhetorically proclaim:  “Since they were on the Bromfield Road, they drove from Flora Bevans’ house into Bromfield itself, where a secondary road near the post office took them to what one could reliably find in any village in the country: a pub.”  If you’re lucky.

Musical adventures

Things have got a bit out of control here at Lillabullero, and the chronicling of worthy local musical outing … all within walking distance here in Stony Stratford … has got chronically behind.  Indeed, we have to go back all the way to July 14 and the joyful early evening that was the full Innocent Hare at the sadly soon to be no more Beer Bear – from medieval to heavy metal (an unlikely working of Iron Maiden’s Fear of the dark).  The wooden floor perfect for a touch of clog, too.  An evening also memorable for my introduction to the delightful Mad Squirrel’s De La Nut hazelnut milk stout (thank you, Andrew).

Vaultage has been on a roll the past couple of months:
I’ve seen The Plucky Haggis almost from his first open mic performance at least half a decade ago (before he was hairy, even), and he’s developed into a colourful performer of some aplomb.  Then one of those magic moments that can suddenly happen at an open mic: Porcelain Hill, who normally boast a classic guitar/bass/drums trio line-up, with rock-soul-blues-funk-punk et al in the mix, they had a proper gig down the road the next day and gave us an

Porcelain Hill at Vaultage – Photo (c) Pat Nicholson

acoustic set of the same with two guitars and cajon, that blew everyone away with their tightness, togetherness and good vibes.  From California, he said: “Whereabouts?” someone shouted.  “Ontario”.  General disbelief.  “No, look it up.  It’s even got its own airport.”  Indeed it does – you learn something everyday.) Here’s a link to their website: http://porcelainhill.com/

The Hatstand Band (or the two of ’em on the left on the night) performed as if joined at the hip.  Lovely stuff, a wide range of Americana, sweet harmonies and swing.  Simon Loake, relaxed broad humour and anecdotage from a long musical career, accomplished folk guitar and such a deep voice, used on some interesting material.  Andy Powell played Streets of London, Stairway to heaven and Duelling Banjos.  And got away with it – an entertainer.  Stairway to heaven done with the help of two ESL signers from the Carabosse theatre team was an experience: the stairway!  After drifting a bit, the quality of the open mic-ers lately has been great too.  Chrissy and Mike’s Born under a bad sign – flute and folk guitar – remains an earworm since last Thursday.  Nice work, Pat Nicholson & Andy Bongos!

Couple of real goodies at York House too.  Don Adam Perera, a classical guitarist of distinction, talked about the versatility of the guitar and demonstrated it.  Spanish, romantic, tango, Spanish, Latin American, he can do ’em all.  Two sets, the first from nineteenth century composers, then more contemporary stuff.  Dazzling, emotional.  See: http://www.donadamperera.com/

Evie Laden & Keith Terry are no strangers to York House, and their skills and entertainment value does not pall.  Americana richly employing banjo (claw hammer style), double bass, guitar, fine voices, ‘body music’, clog, charm.  See: http://www.evieladin.com/bio/

Almost forgetting … an absorbing mix of storytellers, bards and two thirds of Innocent Hare in the Library, for the Magdalen Tower show.

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Damn you, Peter Robinson.  That was a dirty trick.  Come on, man: this is meant to be prime police procedural.  It’s a novel, not a goddamn TV series Finale.  We need closure, but what you do is just keep me hanging on.  This is the second time it’s happened lately (I’m looking at you, Colin Bateman, with your Paper cuts) and, outside of fantasy fiction, where it’s endemic, it better not be turning into a publishing trend.

With Careless love (Hodder, 2018), Peter Robinson hits the quarter century of full-length novels featuring thoughtful, music loving, left-leaning decent bloke detective, Alan Banks.  He’s been a bestseller for a long while now, so as such you wouldn’t expect the number of typos that have crept through, Mr Hodder.

Careless love opens with a young woman in an evening dress found dead in a car parked in a layby on the Yorkshire Moors with a Police Aware sticker in the window.  Not long after, an older expensively dressed man is found at the bottom of a ravine not far away.  Are they linked?  They usually are: Robinson is skilled in handling such seemingly parallel investigations within Banks’s team.  And when another young woman is found murdered on Alan’s mate Ken’s patch in Leeds, links begin to emerge.

It’s a decent enough police procedural, the upshot being [mild spoiler alert] something that started as a sequence of certainly dodgy, but unlucky events, and a cover-up that turned sinister thereafter.  More mundane, even, though no less tragic, than usual in a Banks novel, but one which the man finds troublingly, ethically grey.

Into all this, in a subplot involving a character we’re driven to have a lot of sympathy for, is thrown a spectre from the past, a character from the 14th Banks novel, 2010’s Playing with fire – an evil geezer called Phil Keane, who had seduced Annie Cabbot (main long-term member of Banks’s team (and then some)) and nearly burnt down Banks’s idyllic cottage with him in it, a man with links to East European and Russian crime gangs.  As far as the bodies on the moors investigation goes this is a [spoiler alert] red herring – he remains a spectre – but it sets up the cliffhanger ending that I was complaining about at the start.  Novel 26 in the Banks series promises to be explosive indeed.

It’s all quiet on the soap opera and bit-of-a-rebel fronts.  Banks is ruminative, thinking over – even listing for us – past loves and possibilities, but “He didn’t feel sad, just lonely sometimes.  But it was true that much of the time he enjoyed being alone“.  His bosses hardly figure.  Musical, literary and film references – many obscure – abound (some would say, clutter) almost beyond parody – how about a live Berlin Philharmonic concert screening? “The lure of seeing Patricia Kopatchinskaja dancing barefoot around Simon Rattle as she played the Ligeti violin concerto was almost too hard to resist“.  But with Annie’s artist father Ray now living in Yorkshire, Banks has a fellow sixties music aficionado to joust with, and he’s still got the poetry bug.

Our man is in charge of an all female team – a situation that gets no special attention – with the continuing enigma that is Annie Cabbot° well to the fore in the action; I’d venture that the interviews conducted by her with newest team member Gerry owe something to recent British TV cop shows, and are none the worse for it; Gerry is developing well as a character of dry wit (turning as she leaves a room: ‘Sorry to do a Columbo on you sir,’ she said, ‘but I’m curious about …’).

Banks is feeling his age a bit, moderately imbibing wine and beer, not the happiest of bunnies, but still good enough company for this reader.  He hasn’t got much time for Jeremy Corbyn, but ‘It was easy to be cynical about the naivety of the young, but without it nothing would ever change very much‘.

Peter Robinson is not top of my tree, but the systematic treatment I’ve been giving to each novel here on Lillabullero, detailing musical and literary references, alcohol consumed, Banks’s love life etc. is probably the most visited part of the whole website, so I’m committed to him.  Here’s a link:  Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks Mysteries.

One way or another, I think the next book is going to be spectacular.

°When I say Annie is enigmatic, I don’t mean that she’s a Mona Lisa – more’s the pity – but that there are inconsistencies over the various books (see the notes on Book 24 on the page cited above for starters).  But she certainly has her moments:

A proper little fucking Miss Marple, aren’t you?’
‘And here’s me thinking the site of your father’s body would stop you behaving like a complete arse.’





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There’s a passage near the end of Wendy Jones‘ novel The thoughts and happenings of Wilfred Price, purveyor of superior funerals (Corsair, 2012) where one of the characters – Wilfred himself, no less – comes to the conclusion that his notion of reading the dictionary from cover to cover as a way of bettering himself is not helping:

The words he wanted were so simple, any child could speak them. They were simple words to write and spell. Big words, clever words – all those words beginning with A – were rather grand, too grand really, and unnecessary. When would he ever need the word avocado in Narberth?

How times change.  These days, the Guardian says (says Wikipedia), that Narberth, in Pembrokeshire, is “a gastronomic hub for west Wales”, lively and full of galleries and antique shops.  A decade or three ago we used to regularly stay nearby with family, and Narberth was a name often seen on road signs that we never thought to follow.  Back in 1924 (I do not doubt the novel), it was the sort of repressive place (“a town that pretended innocence and only allowed for innocence”) that had me dredging up words from the days when I was ‘reading’ (as they say on University Challenge) sociology – fine words like gemeinschaft and gessellschaft, that spectrum from community to society – and saying three cheers for modernity.

Is The thoughts and happenings of Wilfred Price, purveyor of superior funerals as bad as its title might suggest?  It was only keeping faith with the Book Group that kept me going.  Come the meeting it became apparent that mine was a minority report, though in discussion I had to acknowledge some credit where it was due – for the powerful dignity and integrity of the three main characters as things direly progress.  Wilfred gets himself into a situation “because of a yellow dress … with a low waistband and a square neck that was slightly too low, perhaps only by half an inch” and rather than keep mildly lecherous thought to himself blurts out a proposal of marriage to the wearer of said dress.  Yeah, right.  

The trouble is, it’s not sure what it wants to be.  It starts out as a vaguely comic candidate for the Sunday 9 o’clock Candleford slot on telly, with lots of cod Welshness (how I tired of the sing-song reference back to “his apprentice master, Mr Ogmore Auden”) and then turns into something really quite dark and bleak.  It ends like a box set pleading for a second series, or at the very least a spin-off following the one departing to that London.  But then I have to admit that I ended up caring about Grace, Wilf (as he’s never called) and young war widow Flora.  Other saving graces: odd incidentals about undertaking, photography, and beekeeping.  Even the cheerleaders at Book Group found those quotes on the cover of the paperback – “Gently glorious”, “Magical and bewitching” – missing the point.

The best of Adam Sharp

Graeme Simsion‘s The best of Adam Sharp (Michael Joseph, 2016) is a midlife crisis/great lost love novel.  He, Adam, is a successful database architect, who manages to fit in three pub quizzes a week in Norwich, married to a software developer whose start-up is being bought up for big bucks on condition she moves to the States, and she’s not bothered if he comes or not – his choice.  She, Angelina, is a lawyer, a Commissioner for Equalities in Australia, married to Charlie, an older ‘deal-maker’.  They‘d first met 22 years ago when he was 26, working to a contract in Oz and playing the piano in a bar (“not a pub, a bar” he insists) in the evenings, and she was young and famous, one of the leads in a TV cop-soap, in an unhappy marriage; he leaves when the job demands he move to another place and they both get on with their lives.

Out of the blue he gets an email, just saying ‘Hi.’  What follows is a tale, narrated by the Adam of the title, of jealousy and infidelity, trust-testing and sex games, coming to a climax (if you’ll excuse the expression) in a French Villa where Angelina and Charlie are staying, and have invited Adam.  There are various cliffhangers, comings and goings and changes of mind; I’m not giving anything away.  It has its moments and there are some decent scenes, along with consideration of the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, all sorts of specific wine nonsense, the Kübler-Ross grief model, and BATNA, or ‘Best alternative to a negotiated settlement’, a concept from negotiation theory; this is a fine romance.

The paperback cover, and a move to tape cassette!

To tell the truth I only carried on with it from early on (“I was back home in Norwich, reading up on Pete Best, the Beatles’ forgotten first drummer, when the email popped up …” ) to keep faith with my Kinks in Literature feature here on Lillabullero.  I knew there was a reference in there somewhere because the author has helpfully supplied a 2½ page ‘Playlist’ of what was probably his dad’s record collection, and Lola features (it’s a pretty good sequence about Adam learning to play the piano, which I’ll expand on elsewhere).  Indeed, our narrator can’t stop using music (and the odd book, like Love in a time of cholera) as metaphor, simile and sieve through which to view his life: “If my life prior to 15 February 2012 had been a song, it might have been Hey Jude … ” (not a bad musical analysis, as it happens).  But he also courts obscurities that had me hitting Google furiously: “I sang Walking in Memphis and found I was enjoying myself … I did the Dylan-Springs obscurity Walk out in the rain and got another cheer for the line about sore feet”.  Nope, not the Boss, but Helen Springs; Dylan never recorded it, Eric Clapton did a maudlin version of it, but this, from the Del McCoury Band, is a pretty joyful take that I feel the urge to share:

Then there’s this:

      Long ago, I listened to Billie Holiday singing Summertime – not once but many times – and I thought it was as close to a perfect rendition as could be imagined: Lady Day laying out the melody in all its languid easy-living elegance, the restraint of her delivery only accentuating the feeling behind it.

      Years later, I listened to Janis Joplin’s live performance. It’s a screaming primal blues, the melody no more than a point of departure, but still, unmistakably, the same song. My familiarity with Billie Holiday’s version only made Joplin’s reinterpretation more powerful and in turn opened my mind to nuances I had missed in the original. Having experienced both versions, I knew the song in a way I could never have if I had heard only one.

      Making love to Angelina felt different and familiar at the same time.

Never been a great Joplin fan, and personally I think she murders it.  I have always had a lot of time for Billy Stewart‘s funkily energetic assault on the song though:

But I indulge myself.  Time to move on.

Behind her eyes

I’m not going to say much about Sarah Pinborough‘s highly successful Behind her eyes (HarperCollins, 2017) because I could say too much and give the game away.  It’s a page turner all right.  There are plenty of twists on the way – not least in the reader’s perception of who the good guys are – but the shift at the end is dazzling in its audacity.  Mind-blowing is a phrase not much-used these days …

Single mother Louise has a drunken snog with David, a married bloke, the first bloke she’s fancied in ages.  Goes to work next day only to discover he’s her new boss; ok, I’ll give away that an affair ensues.  Louise also bumps into and befriends his seemingly vulnerable wife, Claire; they become new BFs, with Louise being drawn into her problems.  Seems neither Claire or David know that Louise knows the other, and she aint telling (and she’s the decent one).  He’s a psychiatrist and there’s a big, slowly revealed – and duly revised – back story to the marriage, with its probably criminal roots, one way or another, in a fatal fire at her parents’ country house when they were much younger.

In a library it has to be shelved in Crime fiction, but to say any more might give too much away; I will say psychological thriller as sub-genre along the way.  There’s a necessary suspension of belief involved, but I was so skillfully drawn in.  It’s crisply written, with the narrative mainly shared between Louise and Claire, with ‘Then’, ‘Later’, and ‘Now’ passages to help it along.  The final reveal … Wow!  Good job …

A meal and a show in that London

Family-gifted celebratory treats: a mixed experience.

Apparently over 7 million theatregoers have already seen The woman in black in the West End over the last 28 ‘terrifying’ years.  Which may explain why we seemed to be the oldest couple in the difficult to find tucked away Fortune Theatre – a cramped trip back into the past in itself – on a Saturday night.  Indeed, I thought we’d seen it before in MK (wasn’t our choice) but it soon became apparent I was mistaken.  Wasn’t convinced by the framing mechanism for the narrative – worried man seeks actor to help up his presentation skills in telling his terrible tale.  It’s a two-hander and as such a feat for the actors, but I wasn’t really drawn in.

Of course there’s always a problem with ghost stories if you don’t believe in ghosts, and I found the effects were either corny – not easy to do effectively, I’d guess, in such an old theatre – or relied more on volume and surprise than anything else for their shock value.  Most chilling moment – and chilling it was, I’ll grant – was right at the end, when it became apparent that the curse had not been lifted.

Earlier, a meal in a ££££-er on TripAdvisor, at Frog by Adam Handling in Covent Garden (website).  That was a real treat.  We had the 5-course vegetarian taster menu; the chefs come out and tell you what’s going on the plates, of which there was a splendid variety of shapes and materials.  The place was buzzing but the service was right on the ball.  Most interesting tastes that have hit this palate in a long time, only challenged years past by a couple of specialist veggie gaffs in Brighton and Lyme Regis.





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