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Archive for the ‘Crime fiction’ Category

Well, that was fun.  I enjoyed Andrew Cartmel‘s The Vinyl Detective: written in dead wax (Titan Books, 2016) a lot.  This rollercoaster romp manages to meld the humdrum existence of a laid back London-based vinyl record dealer onto a James Bond adventure fantasy occasioned by an international music industry conspiracy involving the original output of an obscure US West Coast jazz label back in the 1950s (though don’t let the jazz put you off).  We get a classic Bond villain in his lair (in the side of a mountain in Japan), a pair of highly stylised mercenary fixers, a couple of Bond (though more interesting) girls, and a two-pronged technology hit of retro valve-driven amps and accompaniments and high-end modern surveillance equipment.  Among other things.

The narrator of The Vinyl Detective is a man-with-no-name of charm, wit, and a neat combination of innocence and cynicism.  He buys and sells vinyl records for a living, had some business cards printed wittily touting his trade as ‘The Vinyl Detective’ a while back; it comes back to haunt him.  But before all this (I’m cheating a bit with the quote, but no harm is being done):

I put on my crate-diving shoes – I mean, my crate-digging shoes … hitting every charity shop, junk shop or antique shop that might be harbouring a box of records record fares, jumble sales … [record fairs and jumble sales also feature] …
in Chiswick I found it.
It was a copy of Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, on the Capitol rainbow-rimmed label – an original mono pressing instead of the fake stereo. A British copy, but immaculate. That night I flipped it on the Internet and made enough money to buy food for me and the cats for the next two weeks.

Oh yes, our man also has two cats, Fanny and Turk; they play their part well.

It’s all so nicely done.  The pursuit – the fictional rarest record in the world, emanating from a suitably obscure corner of jazz history, with a story all of its own, is well-chosen – takes him to Japan, there’s an interesting and dramatic interlude in rural Wales, while there are some vivid escapades, landscapes and meetings in the inevitable trip to America; not to mention a recognisable London as backdrop.  The world of vinyl record collecting is both gloried in and lampooned, and little cultural references add sparkle (for me at least) throughout:

I sped through immigration and customs and found myself outside a few minutes later, blinking in the warm exhaust fumes. Ree was at my side. We collected her car from the long-term parking.
It’s a 1968 Plymouth Barracuda. Arguably the fastest production car ever made in America.”
I won’t argue with you.”
[…] The muscular lines of the dark grey car made it look like a dark crouching beast. “Is it the car from
Bullitt?”
She snorted with amusement. “That was a Mustang.”
Just trying to take an interest,” I said.

That’s one girlfriend, a singer, who wonders why it’s always the electric bass players always hit on her, while “ acoustic bass players are pretty much always perfect gentlemen”.  Here’s the other, Nevada, who I imagine as looking like Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, our man giving her a disquisition on how it’s only cooked chicken bones that are a problem for cats, so:

… I’m always left with a freezer full of drumsticks. So I casserole them with olive oil and lemon and garlic.”
Oh, okay, I see,” said Nevada, getting up. “I thought it was your signature dish. Lovingly prepared especially for me. And now it turns out it’s the cats’ leftovers.”
That’s right.”

The Vinyl Detective is full of stuff like that, as well as all the action and twists.  I look forward to the two sequels already announced.

 

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Vita Brevis

vita-brevisI really enjoy Ruth Downie‘s Roman mysteries.  Right from the dramatis personae that introduce them. Vita brevis (Bloomsbury, 2016), for instance, kicks off by saying it’s a novel “in which our hero Gaius Petreius Ruso will be” variously “Accompanied by … / Commanded by … / Entertained by … / Disapproved of by … ” & so on,  with some characters appearing in more than one category.  At the end Ruth appends, “He will fail to meet the following characters whom his author devised but barely used.”

These books are fun.  Which is not in any way to denigrate the intelligence, wit, historical research, social observation and humanity – never mind the tremendous action, atmosphere and narrative drive – that they contain.  Parallels with contemporary life here and now are never far away.  Bad things happen to good people, and vice versa, set against a morality that can draw on many shades of grey in between.

I’ve said it before, but Ruso and his wife, Tilla, are one of the great double acts of crime or indeed any contemporary fiction.  Ruso is a military medic from Gaul who served with the Roman army in Britannia, where he met ex-slave Tilla, a native Brigantian.  A mixed marriage, then, a fruitful ground for an author to even-handedly play around with.  He the sceptic (“Perhaps he was just naturally miserable. Or perhaps the gods in whom he didn’t quite believe were getting their revenge on him“), she open to anything (“If you believe in ghosts and Christos and the normal gods and all your gods from Britannia” he chides).

In Vita brevis, at the behest of his old boss, the pair are taking their chance in Rome.  It does not go well from the start, the streets are not so much paved with gold as with a dead body in a barrel left outside their new abode, before they’ve even moved in, and subsequent events only make things worse.  They get involved with, among others, a dubious and powerful slum landlord, the local law enforcement, and, for good measure, are caught up in a dangerous romantic sub-plot for good measure.  No surprise, things work out in the end, the bad guys do not prosper … and this reader is delighted to discover they are heading back to Britannia again, hopefully for the next book.

Where I think Ruth Downie is particularly acute (cute even) is in drawing out the universality of social life over the centuries. In Rome Ruso and Tilla are seen as provincials, and Tilla, particularly annoyed at being assumed to be from Germania, struggles with the modernity of city life:

How will we ever be safe in this city? There is nobody in charge.”
There’s a chap called the urban prefect, and there are departments for -”
But it is not how a tribe should be,” she insisted. “I thought before we came … But there is no tribe called the Romans.”
There are several different -”
It is just lots of strangers all living in one place and fighting to get by.”
We’ll get used to it,” he promised, realising this was not the time for a lecture on the benefits of civilisation, literacy and the rule of law.”

The matter of the rise of the rebel Christian religion is neatly handled from many angles:

Tilla closed her eyes and leaned back against the wall. Whatever her husband might think of the followers of Christos, and no matter how much she herself might want to gag Sister Dorcas, the man with the child’s voice had been right about one thing. It was good to have friendly neighbours.

(Already) Sister Dorcas being a joyless dragon, blaming all bad luck on sin.  But with regard to a woman giving up her unwanted baby:

“I just don’t want him to go to no followers of Christos.”
Why is that?”
They meet in secret and kill babies and eat them, Ma says.”
Your ma has been misinformed,” said Tilla, because that sounded better than Your ma is an ignorant gossip.

(Our author also has a neat line in using italics in just such unspoken circumstances.)

Ruth Downie‘s prose is nicely paced, both relaxed and yet involving, and it doesn’t suffer any when it is cranked up for some action.  She handles the motif of Ruso and Tilla’s cultural differences deftly.  Tilla trying to be “a good Roman wife” but giving up, because “It was very confusing having to say one thing and mean another all the time“; as opposed to back in Britannia, where, Ruso says, “women tended to think they could get involved in whatever they liked, and where men saw the look in their eyes and tended to let them.”  But one sympathises with his reaction whenever she launches “ into one of her interminable songs about her ancestors” – a nice running joke.  There is also a lovely bit of framing of the whole narrative, too, involving a young character with no name, both unhappily literally delivering the source of our heroes’ initial problem on their arrival, and, who, having found a job that gives him some satisfaction, is there working on the boat that sets them on their journey away.

I have a suspicion that Ruth is a P.G.Wodehouse fan.  You want more evidence?

Ruso shrugged. “You know how it is.” It was a statement that he had found to be both meaningless and useful.  People rarely admitted that they didn’t know how it was.

And “Jupiter’s bollocks!” seems an entirely reasonable curse to me.

 

 

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ian-rankin-rather-be-the-devil

But it’s only the new one until the next one (why not a sticker if you must?); and thankfully it’s the same old Rebus – no remake or remodel – doing his stuff anyway.

Siobhan Clarke was in a corridor of the Royal Infirmary, phone held up to her face, when she recognised Rebus making his way towards her.
­‘You’re limping,’ she said.
‘Just to correct you, I’m actually walking like John Wayne.’
‘John Wayne had a limp?’
‘Technically it’s called “moseying”.’
‘So you didn’t hurt yourself kicking in a door?’

There is a lot of sharp dialogue in Rather be the devil, the latest installment in Ian Rankin‘s Rebus saga, and highly enjoyable it all is too.  The retired Rebus is picking over a society murder case that had frustrated him earlier in his career, while his old mate and protegé DI Siobhan Clarke is involved in a case involving an Edinburgh criminal gang boss.  An ex-cop that Rebus goes to see is murdered not long after their meeting, and to Siobhan’s chagrin that case is taken up by Police Scotland’s elite squad, where another Rebus regular Malcolm Fox is now working.

Inevitably – this is crime fiction, after all – the cases are intriguingly discovered to be tangentially linked, not to forget an East-European connection, and the plotting provides ample room for Rebus putting his oar in and generally getting in the way, and for inter-police re-organisation rivalries to be played out on various levels, down to an entertaining sub-plot as to who gets the milk and provides the biscuits.  Old rival old school gang boss Big Gerry Cafferty – still a player – ends up figuring significantly and the tantalising prospect is held out at the close of proceedings that the next book will indeed be, in current tv terms, a spectacular series finale involving a final conflict between our man and Big Ger.

I get the impression Rankin really enjoyed doing this one.  Don’t get me wrong, Rather be the devil rattles along as effectively as ever, Rankin the plot-juggler still more than adept at keeping the balls in the air and the tension up, but the writing seems at times to take on a more relaxed feel.  Rebus has health worries – a “Hank Marvin”, a shadow on his lung – and is drinking low alcohol beers, chewing nicotine gum; he is also (hurray!) in a stable relationship with a woman.  Even though Rebus’s cold case involves a rock musician, the explicit musical references – becoming something of a genre cliché in certain circles – are thankfully more restrained.  The book’s title is still taken from a track on John Martyn’s Solid air album, though …

john-martin-solid-airstaring out at the night. Then he had walked to the record deck. Solid air was still there from the evening Deborah Quant had stayed over. It was an album that had always been there for him, no matter the troubles in his life. And Hadn’t John Martyn been troubled too? Johnny Too Bad – hitting the booze, falling out and brawling with friends and lovers. One leg hacked off in the operating theatre. But barreling on through life, singing and playing until the end.

… and without giving anything away there’s Over the hill, another Solid air track playing in the background in the restaurant in the final pages.  Rory Gallagher is really the only other featured artist.  Rebus is on a long drive with Malcolm Fox:

… I need to do a bit of thinking, which necessitates muting you – sorry about that.’
‘Muting me?’
Rebus reached for the stereo, pushing a button. Music burst from the speakers, filling the car as Rebus pressed his foot against the accelerator. Had Fox been any kind of music buff, he might have recognised the guitar sound, Rory Gallagher, ‘Kickback City’.

Ah, Malcolm Fox.  I salute you, Ian Rankin, for keeping faith with the man you created in your writer’s holiday from Rebus, and I realise you’re trying here, with Rebus off-handedly tutoring him in the ways of becoming a ‘real’ detective, in his heroism, but he’s condemned in his own words: “nobody paid him any heed.  He remembered that he was good at this – blending in, becoming invisible. He’d always enjoyed stakeouts and tailing suspects“; I’m afraid he remains anonymous, I can’t visualise him.  Siobhan deserves better as a beau (which seems to be the way the wind’s blowing).

Ah, Siobhan.  Calls for a bit of a diversion beyond teh printed page.  The original Rebus TV series, with John Hannah in the lead part, didn’t really work; Hannah was too young, too handsome.  I seem to recall that Rankin – apart from a Hitchcockian appearance as an extra – said he wasn’t getting involved in the production or script side of things at all.  Not even wanting to watch the finished product.  Something about Colin Dexter’s Morse, how in Dexter’s later books Morse morphed into the character actor John Thaw was playing, that the author allowed himself to lose control of his creation.

rebus_7078788Subsequent series of Rebus, with Ken Stott’s Rebus the living breathing character straight off the page, have fared much better in reflecting the books.  I’ve been watching them again recently and they strike me as being one of the best cop shows out there.  What I do wonder is whether Ian Rankin has been watching; although the character in the book has not changed, the dialogue here is sharper and wittier and I can’t help but, when reading, see it coming out of Ken Stott’s mouth.

But Siobhan … how great is Claire Price’s portrayal of Siobhan?  Impossible, I’d say, to replicate her reactions in prose: the half-smile, her muted grimaces, the odd gentle smirk – sometimes all at the same time –  her whole facial repertoire of affection, amusement, appalled admiration and suppressed surprise; but they all had to be hinted there in the text for her to pick so fully up on.  Worth a mention too is Jennifer Black’s performances as DCI Gill Templar, Rebus’s boss and former lover; the scene where Siobhan Clarke discovers that past liaison is a joy to behold.  Tremendous performances that I don’t think get the credit they deserve, and fully born of the books.

Before we leave Edinburgh here’s a snippet, a taste and feel of the lightness among the mayhem in Rather be the devil:

The solitary barman was entertaining the only two drinkers in the place to a sullen silence, the new arrivals doing nothing except darken his mood.
‘Help ye?’ he snapped.
‘Bottle of your best champagne, please,’ Rebus said.
‘If ye want fizz, we’ve got cider and lager.’
‘Both of them fine substitutes.’ Rebus held out the two photos. ‘Care to take a look?’

… dialogue  the likes of which you are unlikely to find many examples in the works of Alice Munro, where the odd wry smile is more the order of the day among much else of emotional import and the forensic examination is mostly taking place in the particular region of the heart.  Come to think of it, Siobhan might have escaped from one of her stories.

alice-munro-dear-lifeNobel Prize for Literature winner Alice Munro has been on my check-her-out list for at least a couple of decades, so thanks to the Book Group I can tick her off that list and transfer her onto the almost-certainly-read-some-more one.  (These are not real lists).  Shame of it is I left the reading of Dear Life (2012) late for the Book Group meeting and so had to zip through it when really I should have been savouring every word.

Hers is not a flashy prose, but it sings, takes you straight into how her people feel the changes in their lives; she documents social change in communities – post-war rural church-going, small town Canada through to the ’70s – through the events in women’s and men’s lives.  Intense, insightful, poignant, painful, melancholic, nuanced, rarely but oh so sweetly celebratory.  Loves lost, love foiled, found or never had.  Hopes extinguished, held on to, or newly discovered through the shifting sands of contingency, coincidence, happenstance.  And growing old.  That title – Dear Life – puts it so nicely.

Dear Life, published when she was 81, so probably her last collection, consists of 10 short stories and a Finale of 4 “not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life.”  These ‘not quite’ stories are fascinating, covering her childhood and early youth: the moment she failed to believe her socially aspiring mother; her father seeing her through a scary unhappiness, and various other events, described so vividly:

I think that if I was writing fiction instead of remembering something that happened, I would never have given her that dress. A kind of advertisement she didn’t need. [from Voices]

You would think that this was just too much. The business gone, my mother’s health going, it wouldn’t do in fiction. But the strange thing is that I don’t remember that time as unhappy. There wasn’t a particularly despairing mood around the house. [from Dear Life]

There’s enough in the ten stories for at least half of them to justify novels of their own.  Dolly, which starts with an old couple, the man a poet once celebrated for his first book of love poems, looking for the perfect place to end their lives together, before they become too decrepit (spoiler alert: they don’t) takes on some wondrous and distressing turns in the twenty or thirty odd pages as the story unfolds.  Haven, a multi-layered family tale of disastrous good intentions involving a cellist and sibling indifference, builds to a stunning climax at a big church funeral, and along the way contains a deliciously strident (what we could now call anti-metropolotitan elite) rant:

“Now tell me,” my uncle is saying, addressing me as if nobody else were there, “tell me, do your parents go in for this sort of thing? What I mean is, this kind of music? Concerts and the like? They ever pay money to sit down for a couple of hours and wear their bottoms out listening to something they wouldn’t recognize half a day later? Pay money simply to perpetrate a fraud? You ever know them to do that?”

Funnily enough, at Book Group, most of us loved Dear Life, save the youngest member and a Jungian therapist.  But I’ll be reading more.

 

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a strip of fly paper,” says the sage in the first book I mumble about here, “Every thought, however fleeting and inconsequential, sticks to it.”  But later for that.

Languor, laxity (spell-check suggests laxative), and a lack of discipline in the powerful face of television narratives – yea, even unto Lovejoy and Pie in the sky, the unique qualities of which were hidden from me first time around – those things and a tendency for procrastination, combined with the regular practice of grand-parentry, all these things cry out for a timely return to the brevity that once existed here on Lillabullero.  Well, that’s the intention anyway.

garden-of-evening-mistsThe Garden of Evening Mists

Tan Twang Eng‘s novel The garden of evening mists (2012) was last month’s Book Group book.  In as much as we probably talked more about this book – without going off at tangents – than any other, it certainly engaged most of us, but I wasn’t the only one who concluded after all the discussion that my mixed feelings and confusion about it remained un-un-mixed, albeit with amendments therein.  And life is too short for a clarifying re-read.

But I’m not sorry to have given the book its reading time, though.  Those critics’ words on the cover certainly apply some of the time (though Reading Group members didn’t necessarily agree to which parts).  Rich and indeed over-rich similes abound (you can judge for yourself later on here).  It’s set in Malaya, and one gets to feel and learn a lot about the place, its history, and the times.  Senses are mobilised: the garden, the tea plantation, the mountains, the rain forest.

There are three time-lines running for Yun Ling, a recently retired Cambridge educated judge suffering from the early stages of aphasia, who is the narrative centre of the book.  It has to be said for a long time I had to keep reminding myself she’s a woman; the author is a man.  It’s a curiously detached voice a lot of the time.  Anyway, (mid-1980s?) she returns to the place in the country where many years previously she had spent time with the remarkable Arimoto, a Japanese gardener who is introduced with the book’s humdinger opening line: “On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan.”  In order to counter her aphasia she chronicles her time spent as his apprentice during the anti-Communist emergency in the 1950s.  Both time streams hark back to her earlier traumatic experiences as a teenager in a Japanese slave camp in World War 2, with various characters, and/or their friends or relatives tangling relationships over all three.  I’m abdicating on the actual plot details.

Quite where Arimoto fits in with the grand historical narrative of Japan’s war effort – what one Book group member rather harshly described as “the descent into Dan Brown territory” – is ambiguous, but his is the remarkable presence that dominates the book.  He’s a master gardener in the classic Japanese tradition – loads of fascinating detail about shakkei, or “borrowed scenery” and the like –  who ritually starts the day with a bit of zen in the art of archery (but is also taking blood pressure tablets).  He and Yun Ling become lovers but of that side of their life nothing is revealed.  Having spoken of the philosophy of Lao Tzu he just one day – the garden is finished? – makes a Lao Tzu-like disappearance and Yun Ling returns to Kuala Lumpar until when the novel starts.  His sketches (oh yeah, he did that pretty well too) play a big part in the final action.

It’s a novel of increasing moral complexity, a bit of a thriller, a spiritual fable and a consideration of the notion of memory, detached and yet in its setting sumptuous, a haunting sequence of tableaux running back and forth.  Along the way you get a look at the small details of imperialism and colonialism, and racial and community tensions in Malaya: a ‘banana’? – a Chinese who was yellow on the outside, white inside.  The conduct of the British in the Boer War is thrown into the mix, and I was ignorant about the Malayan Emergency of the ’50s, when the Brits (yup, us again) reined in the (British trained) Communist brigades who had been, in Malaya, the ones who successfully fought against the Japanese on the ground.  There is an extraordinary tale within a tale of a Japanese flying instructor falling in love with the young man who was scheduled to fly the last kamikaze mission of the war; and of the proud aircraft designer angry about the sloppy production values that were allowed in the making of the planes that the kamikaze pilots flew.  All sorts of details like these make for a fascinating, if at times frustrating book.  And I haven’t even mentioned horimono, the Japanese art of whole body tattoos.

I mentioned the language, the similes, earlier.  Fine writing, sheer poetry, or, oh give it a rest, won’t you?  Just three of my responses to stuff like this:

In the shallows, a grey heron cocked its head at me, one leg poised in the air, like the hand of a pianist who had forgotten the notes to his music.

He skims a large magnifying glass over the first print, distorting the shapes and colours beneath like the lights of a city skyline seen through a rain-splattered window.

he pointed to the barbed wire strung around the fence. ‘A weed that is strangling the country. It seems to have sprouted everywhere.’

talking-to-the-deadTalking to the dead

So much for the brevity of which I spoke.  Which means the second book here gets short shrift where normally I might have given it more time and sprayed choice quotes all over the place.  But Harry Bingham‘s Talking to the dead (Orion, 2012) is the first of a sequence and there’s a fair chance I shall be returning to the young peppermint tea drinking Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths’ professional and social life soonish.

The locale is a recognisable Cardiff and surrounds (where my wife comes from).  Fiona – Fi – tells her tale in the present tense, and there’s a nice taste of the Philip Marlowe at the back of her.  If you like the sound of:

I got a note this evening. Through my letterbox. It said, WE KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE.’
That’s a bit of a cliché, isn’t it?’
I wasn’t asking for literary criticism.’

or this, arising from a text from a suspect on a phone she shouldn’t be using professionally:

I love everything about that message. I like the fact that it’s properly spelled and punctuated. I like the repetition of ‘fuck off’. Not elegant, but pithy, and you can give me pith over elegance every day of the week.

then I’m guessing you’re open to her crime fighting tales, stretching the bounds of credibility as the plot and action do at various points (like her escape of disciplinaries for starters – “I don’t think the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed DC Griffiths would thank me for fessing up to her evil twin, the house-breaking, phone-stealing, bad DC Griffiths“) as the story unfolds.

So yes, she’s – that inevitable word for a fictional female cop – feisty; and sassy with it too.  But also vulnerable, because her main ‘thing’ – fictional detectives have to have a ‘thing’ – is that for two of her teenage years she suffered from Cotard’s Syndrome, an extreme manifestation of depersonalisation, a feeling that you don’t exist, that you are dead.  In Talking to the dead she spends an extraordinary clandestine night in the room in the mortuary where two victims in the case’s bodies are being kept, but there is reassuringly no hint of the supernatural.  Fi’s struggles with the experience of living on what she calls ‘Planet Normal’ are nicely done.  Her other two ‘things’ are a secret buddy and guru – Lev, ex-Israeli secret service martial arts expert she met at Cambridge while getting her philosophy degree (not that you’d notice) – and her close family, including a dad, whose current success and local helpful influence was not exactly achieved by legitimate lawful means (but we don’t talk about that), and a cod Welsh mum.

The crimes are unpleasant – people smuggling, sex trade, high-level gangsterism – but related with candour and compassion.  As a police procedural it struck me as refreshing – “I have no musical taste at all” – effective and fun.

Musical adventures

scribal-oct-2016vaultage-mid-oct-2016Before the proceedings kicked off at the October Scribal I think I saw spoken word artist Rob Auton taking a close-up of the mic on his phone, begging the question, among many, of the existence of some sort of archive.  Wednesday’s Wolves – all two of them – scored with some great harmonies on original material and showed how a cajon can be a musical instrument, more than just percussion, in its own right.  Rob started with a more frenetic version of his delightfully exercise in logical absurdity Heaven food than the one on YouTube.  With Rob you’re never quite sure where (or if) the stage persona ends.  He wandered away from the mic at times.  He said about how his nephew had learnt the word ‘orange’ since he’d last seen him, and wondered to himself: What have you done in that time?  Which hit home vis-a-vis the grandparenting.  He finished with A letter from Father Christmas, a long piece from his Sleep show; after the entertainment a brave and vulnerable work-out way beyond self-help book territory: “As a gift to me I would like you to attempt to become as comfortable within yourself when you are awake as you are when you are asleep.”

At the mid-October Vaultage John Howarth managed to be both suitably raw and skillfully accomplished in a set taking in blues, township and more sophisticated African musics – nice one.  (Co-headliner on the poster was a no-show).  Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize announcement earlier that day was celebrated by the performance of his When the ship comes in at dirge-like speed; anonymity to protect the guilty, but it wasn’t Pat.

ss-shak-400willie-the-shakeSweeter than Roses one Saturday at York House saw the welcome return of Mr Simpson’s Little Consort to York House, featuring a programme of music and readings from Shakespeare and others.  This evening mostly as a consort of viols (small, medium and large; treble, tenor and a couple of bass viols, one with a pleasing figurehead of piratical appearance) and featuring soprano Cate McKee.  Entertainment, a touch of education, and much charm.  A couple of numbers – described as “mad music” – featured the bass viols up against one another.  A sort of Tudor Duelling banjos.

A week later, same venue, someone had to do the actual Duelling banjos in a very different musical landscape.  The fifth and broader flavoured Stony Breakdown featured five bands coming at Americana refreshingly from a variety directions of country and bluegrass.  Standouts for me were a couple of the guitarists – some classic country picking from he of the Jackson Creek Band (all the way from Cambridge) and stylings taking in Django Reinhart and country swing from John Lee (who I’d only known before leading a jazz group from the keyboards) with Oakland County.  It all blurs a bit in the memory, but hard to forget Stained Glass Blue Grass’s fine bluegrassification of Neil Sedaka’s Breaking up is hard to do; of course we joined in.  Take a bow, too, the Rocky Road Pilgrims and the Band of Brothers.  And that pint of Bucks Star’s Magnovinium 45, a dark ale, went down a treat.

Another brevity fail, then …

 

 

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Peter Robinson - When the music's overMemo to whoever signs off the book jackets: Alan Banks has been promoted (he had to choose at the end of the last book – it was either that or retirement) and is now a Detective Superintendent – a DSI.

Last Book Group meeting we had an Ian Rankin Rebus and a couple of the women who watched crime on TV but didn’t read crime fiction opined for a detective who didn’t have problems of his own to anguish over.  In Peter Robinson‘s When the music’s over (Hodder, 2016), the 23rd novel in the sequence, Alan Banks, single and not particularly bothered, seems to have reached that plateau in his personal life, and, following the trend of the last book, DI Annie Cabbot takes on both more of the foot work and some of the angst.

At the end of the day, once Peter Robinson‘s customary narrative drive kicks in and picks up the pace – after a tedious conversational trudge through an idiot’s guide to the ins and outs and why and wherefore of historical celebrity sex abuse cases – When the music’s over can be said to be a another successful outing.  Even after we have to go through the same educational exercise concerning sexual grooming gangs (Rotherham et al) and multiracial policing in general.  It has to be said the enterprise is creaking somewhat as Robinson seeks relevance with, not for the first time, the 1960s looming large in the background.  But the bad guys get their deserts, one way or another.

So there are two major crime strands, and the two featured victims are the most interesting characters in the book; Banks is on the backburner.  There’s Linda Palmer – unorthodox survivor of childhood rape, award-winning poet Banks’ age; her memoir of the rape – five episodes covering 23 pages in a sans serif font placed at intervals as the investigation unfolds –  contains the best writing in the book, and she comes alive in conversation with Banks; indeed Robinson dangles out the prospect of romance at the end.  It’s a quote from her at the head of this piece.  And then there’s the unfolding back story of Mimosa Moffat, the 14-year-old whose dead naked body is found on an isolated Dale at the start of the book, which is sensitively handled (with Annie to the fore) within a standard lumpenproletariat setting.   Danny Saxton, the accused in the first case, is an amalgam of Savile et al; his first wife’s and his unwillingly complicit assistant’s stories add texture to that side of the case.

So what of the regular features that make the Banks books so interesting to some of us?  The geographical range is tighter: Yorkshire Dales mostly, of course, but also the North-East and, historically, Blackpool.  Banks is drinking less – no whisky other than anecdotally – even the odd Coke when he’s driving.  He’s (as it happens) working his way through a chronologically arranged anthology of English poetry that he bought in a second-hand bookshop; there’s a lot of poetry name dropping.  The burgeoning music, and indeed books references, are increasingly used as signifiers for other characters as well as Banks, and his tastes continue to be eclectic with no over-riding theme, though he has got me worried when he admits to listening to Elvis movie soundtracks ‘now and then’ (where does he find the time?).   Longtime work buddy Annie Cabbot, now in her early-40s, still frustrates; as the child of a Cornish artistic bohemian community, I’m afraid if she’s to figure larger in the future I expect more from her than talking about ‘fit blokes’ and having a bare-chested Daniel Craig as a cultural touchstone – after teenage reaction to your upbringing surely you backtrack a little?  She’s struggling with the move from police force to police service, worrying about having to be ‘delicate’.

Overall I’m intrigued what can happen next with the soap opera aspects of the whole Banks saga.  The books are increasingly too long, padded out by hackneyed description of, for instance, walkers in the Market Square, or superfluous meal listings.  Robinson’s juggling of two cases at once still drives a good story once he gets going, and there are still some decent plot turns.  But I can’t really see Banks in a New Tricks role (the show gets the nod seemingly obligatory in every British crime novel I read) and retirement (though not actually mentioned) still looms.  As does, with him as a Detective Superintendent, a vacuum.  We are left with mutterings of a potential disciplinary hearing, even though this time he played it by the book.  The two potential civilian women in Banks’s life – the folksinger from previous books pops up again near the end – are much more interesting as characters than the three women in his team, none of whom have really been developed; Annie might be going backwards.  The dialogue is sharper the shorter the sentences, the longer ones often bearing the weight of narrative or background explication of one sort or another.  If I picked up When the music’s over as my first Banks novel would I pursue him further back, explore the earlier books?  I can’t realistically say, but I shall still definitely be looking out for the next one.

An awful lot of the traffic here at Lillabullero comes because of the increasingly systematic treatment given to the DCI Banks sequence of novels here.  (Click on the underlined words for a link to the whole sequence).

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Briefly, catching up, top of the pile has to be:

  • The artist saying a few words amid her creation,

    The artist saying a few words amid her creation,

    Anna Berry‘s wonderful 2-hour pop-up guerilla art installation Fake plastic trees: a memorial to the Midsummer oak.  It felt good to be a part of this critical celebration of place, and of friendship.  The grand old oak was

    A l;ittle bit of magic in the wet early evening

    A little bit of magic in the wet early evening

    engulfed by the Shopping Centre extension – the bit that MK dwellers still call ‘the new bit’ despite its having had two official names so far – the extension, as I was saying, to the original Grade II listed building (oh yes), and though the tree was retained as a feature, over the years it died a slow – painful to watch – death.  Anna created “a magical forest of memories” in an underpass, but let her tell you all about it (and see some better photos than mine) at: http://www.annaberry.co.uk/3-2/installation-pieces/fake-plastic-trees/

  • Stan and NanSarah Lippett‘s graphic novel Stan and Nan (Cape, 2016) is a lovely piece of work – poignant, illuminating and profound.  I struggle to find the words to describe the artwork – far from crude, certainly not childlike, maybe outsider (yet it started as an art school project) – and will have to settle for economic and stylised.  While she can be quite busy when it helps, Stan and Nan is a prime example of
    Taken from the Guardian's review.

    Taken from the Guardian’s review.

    the less-is-more principle of storytelling.  The spare use of muted colours is at times dazzling; in no other form can you quite get spectacle, the delight and surprise, of simply turning the page and getting a glimpse into something bigger.  Stan and Nan tells with a deceptively light touch the story of Sarah‘s Nan and her man Stan.  The first half gives us their courtship and life together until his sudden death, with a glimpse of his artistic talents; the second starts with her funeral and unfolds with the tales told and the story of her days without Stan, including her close contact with Sarah.  Here are unsung superheroes, living out the days of quietly momentous lives.  It was an interview in the Guardian about how it evolved that led me to the book; go there to get more examples of how it works its magic: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jul/09/who-was-the-creepy-man-in-the-family-photo.

  • Rankin - Naming of the deadInteresting Book Group for July: Ian Rankin‘s The naming of the dead (2006).  A re-reading for me.  That’s the Rebus one taking place during the fateful early days of July 20015, with the GB meeting at Gleneagles, the Make Poverty History mobilisation and concert in Edinburgh, and the 7/7 bombings in London; it stands up well as a social document.  John Rebus’s take on the grander stuff? – “All he could do was lock up a few bad people now and then. Results which didn’t seem to change the bigger picture.”  Several of the Book Group don’t normally read genre fiction; one, disappointed that, as cream of the crop, Rankin wasn’t a better writer, had to be re-assured how bad some of his successful contemporaries are at putting a sentence together.  Another made a really good point when she said, disregarding the somewhat convoluted if intriguing plot (maybe serial killer mixed with maybe military-industrial complex skullduggery and more), that it was basically a novel about relationships.  Yes, there are indeed plenty of those, familial and professional, with, classically, Rebus and younger colleague Siobhan at its heart (and in this example also a prime example of Rankin’s most annoying stylistic habit, of unnecessary adverbial qualification or thesaurus haunting in the matter of speech):

‘ … your mum says she’s not bothered who whacked her. Nobody seems worried about Ben Webster’s death. And yet here we both are.’  He lifted his face towards her and gave a tired smile.
‘It’s what we do,’ she replied quietly.
‘My point exactly. No matter what anyone thinks or says. I just worry that you’ve learned all the wrong lessons from me.’
‘Credit me with a bit of sense,’ she chided him, putting the car into gear.

  • Couldn't manage a decent photo of the Burne-Jones window but the unstained glass offered up instant Monet

    Couldn’t manage a decent photo of the Burne-Jones window but the unstained glass offered up instant Monet

    A day trip to Cromer, the weather just right – hot enough, sweet breeze.  Nice lunch at Browne’s round the back of the Parish Church (thank you TripAdvisor) – excellent veggie sausage and mash, while Andy and pal sampled the celebrated local dressed crab.  Into the church of

    PaintShop Pro One Step Phot Fix gives us the blue sky of another era's postcards

    PaintShop Pro One Step Photo Fix gives us the blue sky of another era’s postcards

    St Peter and St Paul with an extremely tall tower and a vibrant Burne-Jones window, then sea-sidey stuff: the promenade, the Pier, the ice cream, the beach.  As Swinburne wrote, now embossed in metal and embedded on the esplanade, “an esplanady sort of place” – what a lovely word!

  • IF programmeSummer cold and/or chronic hay fever and the excessive heat meant I didn’t see as much of IF – the biennial Milton Keynes International festival – as I might have, though to tell the truth I couldn’t get that excited about the 2016 edition.  Went to the opening biggie – the largest bubble on the programme cover – the truly international Voalá: Station.  Without being really spectacular it was worth the crick in the neck.  I’ll let the programme do the talking: “Four suited and booted businessmen are swept up into a world of magic, distracted from their daily commute by a mysterious woman who unleashes four sirens who transform the men’s evening into an unforgettable and magical ‘flying’ performance.  Weaving together aerial acrobatics, music and colour, and played out above the audience” … in the Mini-Bowl at Willen Lake.  The mysterious woman had a powerful singing voice but I wish there’d been more of the accordion than the booming modern stuff.  The fireworks were interesting, not your usual, with some lovely blues if I recall correctly, but you had to be in right part of the Bowl to fully appreciate them and the action at the same time.  From others’ enthused reports, I wish I’d drag my blocked nose and sorry body out to see the Station House Opera: Dominoes event, the collapsing dominoes even going up and down the stairs in the Theatre on their route around the city.
  • Arabian tent IF

    The Arabian Bar Tent: roof detail

    Also part of IF, took in a couple of performances on the Stables Sessions Acoustic Sessions Stage in the Arabian Tent: the ancient rural seasonal reflections of the immaculate Straw Horses, and the fragrant Naomi Rose doing her greatest hits (plus an intriguing new song) – such originality.  [http://soundcloud.com/naomi-rose-2]

  • Scribal July 2016July Scribal Gathering was suffering a bit from the post-Brexit blues, the audience energy-sapped.  Shame it was this one had to be set up as a comedy themed night.  Slight of frame Muslim stand-up Zahra Barri had a wealth of decent material from her Egyptian/Irish upbringing, but it never really caught fire; shame.  Philfy Phil, singer of inventively witty dirty ditties, tried to get away with not doing his rewrite of The boxer (“Dali died” etc.).
  • Vaultage early July 16Vaultage mid-July 16What else?  A couple of Vaultages, and an afternoon’s music in Wolverton’s  Secret Garden the Sunday before last, with the ubiquitous Mark Owen, the angular funk and Jo Dervish’s distinctive vocals from Screaming House Madrigals (with a TOT WMGtouch of reggae) and  quirky compositions of some wit from The Outside This (as featured in this photo from my crappy phone).  Nice relaxed community event, and it hardly rained at all.

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The strings are falseOne …

This one‘s a cracker, a gem of a book before we’ve even opened it.  Not only does poet Louis MacNeice look like he’s on his way to a local jump-up folk gig, but that cool photo was taken by his mate, W.H.Auden.  The strings are false: an unfinished autobiography (1965) was written in the ’40s but not published until 1965, two years after his death.  It’s a mash-up of three documents, with an appendix featuring extracts from the letters home of a friend of his at school and uni giving a fuller picture of aspects of the man not so evident in his own engrossing text.

It’s fascinating.  Born in Belfast in 1907, the son of a Protestant vicar with Irish nationalist sympathies (not necessarily a contradiction in those days), he’s sent to Sherborne, an English prep school, and then Marlborough, a public school in Wiltshire, where he’s big mates with then modernist champion (and now Fifth Man) Anthony Blunt, joining his vaguely subversive Anonymous Society.  Appendix A – Landscapes of childhood and youth – is a lovely piece of writing giving us the flavour of the natural setting of those places.

At Oxford in the late ’20s – “the only serious activity was poetry” – he’s mates with the left-wing poets of the time, and while a fellow traveller, his scepticism about middle class Communist perceptions of the working classes and the struggle makes for an amusing read.  There are spells as an academic in Birmingham, where he sees respectable working class aspiration first-hand, and in the US.  We also get the story of a tangled courtship and failed marriage, and a distressingly morally muddy propaganda visit to Spain during the Civil War.

What particularly struck me was both how dated it feels – those letters of friend John Hilton’s in Appendix B are to Hilton’s father – and yet how in many ways how the characteristics and feel of cultural change (‘the Art School Dance’) and radical politics transcend time.  I didn’t, as is my usual wont, take notes as I was reading  (this was my bath-time book) but for what it’s worth, this quote stuck in the craw:

From the British public schools come the British ruling classes.  Or came till very lately.  it is from the public schools that our Governments caught the trick of infallibility.  The public-school boy (sic), after a few years of discomfort, has all the answers at his fingertips; he does not have to bother with the questions.  It is only the odd public-school boy who thinks there are any questions left.  This is why the public schools will die like the dinosaurs – from overspecialisation and a mortal invulnerability.

Some hope.  I enjoyed The strings are false immensely.  It is beautifully written, variously funny, bracing, elegiac and thrilling.  I’m guessing the title is a refutation of the ideas of Freud and Marx – puppet strings – that energised the times, though I can’t also help thinking of ’80s bands and the ubiquitous synthesizer*.  Because it’s one of my favourite poems, here’s link to Louis MacNeice‘s cheery An eclogue for Christmas: http://poemplume.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/eclogue-for-christmas.html.

*Sorry, but sometimes it is hard to resist saying something like this.  Especially when you then read William Empson‘s Preface to the 2nd edition of his Seven types of ambiguity (1947):

To be sure, the question how far unintended or even unwanted extra meanings do in fact impose themselves, and thereby drag our minds out of their path in spite of our efforts to prevent it, is obviously a legitimate one …

PapercutsMystery manTwo …

So … with Paper cuts (Head of Zeus, 2016) the author previously known as Bateman (himself the author previously known as Colin Bateman) is back being Colin Bateman again.  I’d say it’s a shame, really, but it’s his prerogative – he’s also got a play up and running, and an important film script in production – so the withdrawal from the manic Mystery Man series of novels is understandable; the author must have feared repetition, and I for one found it hard to distinguish them from those equally wonderful later books in the Dan Starkey sequence.  Lillabullero has already chronicled its love of both series’ boundless energy, sharpness and wit, the endlessly quotable smart-ass one liners, the slapstick and acute social observation, the stark, violent, pacey and painful thriller action driving them along; quite often all on the same page.

In as much as Paper cuts is a retreat into the more conventional comic novel genre those quotes on the cover are a bit of a cheat.  I was disappointed, and it would be interesting to know how someone coming fresh to Bateman appreciates the new book.  It’s a bit corny if the truth be known, the stuff of, in different locales, more than one old movie, and television series.

Rob, a biggish shot Guardian journalist on gardening leave (itself a bit of a mystery, ultimately a bit of a damp squib) and with marital difficulties, goes back to Northern Ireland for the funeral of his mentor from the start of his career in Belfast, who ended his career as editor of an ailing small town local paper.  Proprietor gets him drunk, persuades a reluctant Rob to give the local paper a shot before he probably closes it down.  Cue lots of office politics, some decent office banter, and a potential romance.  Various stories follow, he softens to the place, proprietor learns to love the buzz of local papers & so on.  There is an effective action climax, but, in the fashion of a big American tv series finale, another big plot line is left hanging; so I guess there’s a sequel in the pipeline.  (I had to take some stick on Colin Bateman’s FaceBook page – not from him, I hasten to add, he was suitably droll – for querying whether I’d been lumbered with a faulty copy of Paper Cuts because pre-publicity suggested it had 400 page whereas it only has 375).

There are saving graces.  Bateman‘s spirited prose is still in evidence:

Pete was comfortable and dependable, a worker, a toiler behind the scenes, he believed in family and the church and a quiet life, none of which prevented him from being a two-faced shit-stirrer with a bitter streak; but nobody’s perfect.

… though without the quick-fire rapidity.  Where many authors will give a wise quote before the action starts, in Paper cuts we get:

Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
Rob Cullen bought curly kale in Tesco’s just to watch it wither.

There’s a nice running joke of his new colleagues not getting Rob’s allusions from popular culture (“ ‘It’s not a conspiracy,’ said Rob, ‘it’s Chinatown.’  ” ‘It’s wah …?’ “), and there’s a useful and sobering reminder that, once upon a time, before the Troubles, there was a Civil Rights movement that pre-dated the IRA really taking off, and it wasn’t just Catholics.

Three O’clock …

Luckily for the hat-trick conceit, one of the standout performances for me at the Arts Gateway MK’s Spoken Word Extravaganza, held on the occasion of World Storytelling Day (March 20) and World Poetry day (March 21) was Liam Malone‘s cri de coeur about the plight of the middle-aged man trying to buy a pair of ‘ordinary’ jeans in Top Shop.  Not only was Liam born across the Irish Sea (and, I’m pretty sure, north of the border) but he also – back to where we started – sports a cap not dissimilar to that featured on the head of Louis MacNeice on the cover of The strings are false and, indeed, wears it in the same fashion.

Much to value from the mixed band of poets, storytellers and comedians who also performed, but it was a long time ago now …  Though I will mention Elsie Bryant‘s intense and thoughtful tour de force testament of social, political, emotional  and intellectual development, delivered kinda rap but with rhymes that actually made sense beyond the rhyming dictionary.  Bravo!

The Extravaganza was held at MK11, an excellent licensed small venue with a proper stage and an ambitious programme of all sorts of musics ongoing.  And an undistinguished entrance from the car park, a door that reeks (metaphorically) of speakeasies in prohibition days.

 

 

 

 

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