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Dead prose

Dead mans timeDead man’s time (Macmillan, 2013) is the 9th in Peter James‘s Brighton-based sequence of bestselling crime novels featuring detective Roy Grace.  All with ‘dead’ in the title.  He has also had 14 other novels of a more occult bent published, and as you can see from the cover boast, sold 15 million books.  I just don’t get it.  This is the second Grace novel I’ve read.  I wasn’t that impressed with the first and nothing much has changed since with Dead man’s time.  (Why bother to read this one then, let alone finish it? I had my reasons.*)

Now, my mother always used to admonish me with his mother’s advice to Thumper, the delinquent rabbit in Disney’s Bambi, to whit, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”  And how many novels have I written, let alone published?  Correct, Pater James fans: absolutely none.  Nevertheless …

For starters, the prose.  Acres of clumsy, dead, wasteful prose.  Wasted words, pointless description, irrelevant detail, dull dialogue and clichéd sentiment.  Like, “Grace had recently crossed the Rubicon to his fortieth birthday” – like he could have stopped time?  Or, “Her first impression of the man was that he was the very double of the television actor Dennis Waterman, former co-star of Minder and now of New Tricks.”  Seems it’s almost compulsory these days for British crime novels to contain a reference to New Tricks, but, you know, if you’re going to go down that route, surely The Sweeny deserves a mention here?  Then there’s:

He stared down lovingly – and hopelessly proudly – at his seven-week-old son. At the tiny cherubic creature, with rosebud lips and chubby pink arms and fingers like a toyshop doll. Noah Jack Grace, in a sleeveless white romper suit, eyes shut, lay on his lap, cradled in his arms.

That’s right.  On his lap, in his arms.  And does it come any clumsier than this?:

Roy Grace, in protective clothing like everyone else in Aileen McWhirter’s house, stood alone in her ground-floor study, at the rear of the property, on his phone, with a map of the area in front of him. He paused from his task of putting together his enquiry team, and issuing instructions to each person he called, to text Cleo and warn her he would be very late home tonight.

And does anyone talk like this?: “They could hear an aggressive beat of music coming from somewhere inside the house.”  Just the one?  (Iron Maiden’s The number of the beast as it happens.)  Then there’s the football.  Our hero is there on a surveillance: “It was a lacklustre game, enlivened by a couple of early yellow cards, and then some minutes later by a tantrum thrown by the team manager, Gus Poyet, after a player was sent off in a highly disputed decision by the referee.”  That’s at least two Brighton managers ago, by the way, so, along with the laboured description of the match, why bother?

Secondly, I don’t fancy sharing a pint with Roy Grace.  The best crime fiction series, as far as I’m concerned, are character driven.  Rebus, Banks and Resnick are interesting people; you want to know them better.  Grace, after two novels, I have no real interest in, or idea about, other than he’s probably going to vote UKIP in May.  “An occasional smoker himself, he loathed the draconian anti-smoking laws the nanny state in the UK had come up with.”  And then there’s immigration (admittedly he’d talking about a brutal thug here): “But thanks to our bleeding heart liberal European laws, we have let the monster in and give him money and free health treatment.”

In the lengthy Acknowledgments at the back of the book, James thanks by name practically half the current and retired East Sussex police service for their help (obviously a slight rhetorical exaggeration there), so I’m not necessarily going to question the police procedural aspects of Dead man’s time.  No doubt the sprinkling of references to the body language of lying and what he calls in one such “trained cognitive suspect interviewers” are a result of such conversations.  But this made me sit up:

Normally, all SIOs hoped for a high quality murder – one which would hit the national press, enabling them to shine, to get on the Chief Constable’s radar. But right now, Roy Grace hoped for a silent telephone.

Really?  Note that ‘right now’, because “Running murder enquiries was the job Roy Grace loved, and it was what he wanted to do for the rest of his career“; and “He would never stop fighting his corner for his murder victims.  He would work night and day to catch and lock up the perpetrators” – a sentiment undoubtedly shared by messrs Rebus, Robinson and Resnick, though they would doubtlessly have shunned the bid for celeb status and expressed the commitment better.

On the third count: plotting.  I know for some people the plot’s the thing, and I’ll grant a driven narrative can overcome a multitude of sins.  Hell, I once read Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel just like that (for research purposes, you understand), and he can hardly string a proper sentence together.  I’d say James is only partly successful.  The crime, the initial murder, that sets off Dead man’s time once we’ve left Brooklyn in 1922 (to which I will return) is a successful but imperfectly executed mega-antiques robbery, the international unravelling of which would have been a sufficient and satisfactory plot driver without the ludicrous back story of its historical context.  This involves a very rich and very spry 95-year-old keeping a promise he made to his absent father when he was 5 years old looking back at the Statue of Liberty, as the liner left New York for Ireland, an exiled member of the losing family in some Irish ‘mafia’ turf war:

“One day, Pop, I’m going to come back and find you. I’m going to rescue you from wherever you are.”

It’s really no spoiler alert to reveal he has been sleeping with the fishes all that time.  But the emotional and dramatic culmination of the fulfillment of this promise, the fishing of the bones out of the NY river, along with the cryptography, the settings (Costa del very successful crime, NY, Brighton and the South Downs), the lush interiors of exclusive residences and the high-end antique trade, not to mention the violence, would certainly make for one of those over the top action movies that I never go to see, but where the suspension of belief stands a better chance than in black and white on the printed page.  Alternatively, you could say I’m moaning because Dead man’s time is not the book I wanted to read; so be it.

And then there’s the revenge sub-plot.  Some failed super-crim – Amis Smallbone, to give him his name – whose life Grace ruined by putting him away years ago, and he, Smallbone, is taking it very personally.  Out of prison now, he’s planning on causing maximum misery to Grace and his new family.  This all culminates in an absurdly implausible climax on a roof in a the middle of a rainstorm in night-time Brighton, where plot and sub-plot magically coincide.

Fourthly, let us consider the inevitable soap opera that is the life of the long-running fictional detective.  You can’t argue with a concern for the problem of the copper’s life/work balance.  As you might have gathered from a previous quote, Grace has just become a dad: “How the hell was he going to be a good father and a good detective at the same time?”  His established new partner, the mother, is reading 50 shades of grey, for gawd’s sake, and her frisky badinage is the closest we get to humour throughout.  Meanwhile Sandy, his ex-wife, or rather wife, who just disappeared without trace in one of the earlier books in the sequence – it’s approaching the 10 year period when she can be declared technically dead or something, and he can become unmarried – suddenly appears in a few isolated chapters in session with a psychotherapist, working through her jealous rage at his new partner (!), a rage which has involved actual actions that up the paranoia caused by the obsessed Smallbone.  So you can be fairly sure where the next book’s going to be heading, at least in part, and I don’t envy him.

And a few other things …  The town of Brighton is pretty much a character in its own right, is part of the whole saga’s spec, so naturally it has a murder-rate approaching that of Midsomer and Oxford – c’est la vie, goes with the crime genre.  What’s newsworthy and/or the media cliché narrative about Brighton in the real world, though?  The Green Party and the lesbian and gay community, right?  Neither of which feature at all in Dead man’s time.  And in another slip from said real world, “Out of curiosity, he entered Robert Kenton in Google.  There were over 20 hits.”  That’s our hero; I just did it using advanced search and got over 6,000.

Are there no saving graces? [Sorry].  There’s a neat twist in the denouement to the denouement involving the local tv newsreader and domestic violence victim wife of the old man’s useless son.  And there’s the nice gesture of a plug for the local indie bookshop, City Books (though would they really carry 5 books on the gangs of New York in the early twentieth century).  Oh, and Roy Grace is a Kinks fan.  Hence that asterisk in parenthesis at the end of my opening para.  Enough!

*I maintain a chronicle of mentions of The Kinks in literature here at Lillabullero, in another section called, rather imaginatively, The Kinks in Literature.  I got a tip-off there was at least one in Dead man’s time.  There was, just the one, early on, so it’s there in all its glory in some interesting company.  Here’s a link to this spectacular example of anoraky.

 

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The impossible dead (Orion, 2011) is Ian Rankin‘s second outing for Malcolm Fox and his Complaints team – now renamed (a new cliche of crime fiction, all this reorganisation) Internal Affairs.  It’s not so much that I miss Rebus (I do, but never mind that) as his DS, Siobhan.  We’ve got Fox (divorced, sworn off the drink long term, quarrelling with his sister about their dad in an old people’s home) aided and abetted by Tony Kay (bawdy drinker) and young Joe Naysmith (keen, bit of a tekkie): it’s a boy’s club.  It’s still a decent enough ensemble Rankin has put together and, as you’d expect, morality – personal greed, public face, political ends and means – is at the story’s core.  A routine disciplinary investigation leads to the maverick Fox pursuing a successful businessman, brother to a minister in the Scottish parliament and married to a police chief, for a crime dating back to the time – how long ago it now seems – before Scottish nationalism figured as an electoral force.  The security forces were involved then and the action now takes place against the background of a terrorism alert.  The soundtrack that accompanied Rebus has gone – hardly a music mention, and I doubt Jackie Leven, if he were still with us, would have been writing any songs – as he did in his Jackie Leven said collaboration with Rankin – about the haunting of Malcolm Fox.  Won’t stop me reading the next one, though.

I here indulge a short, picky, grumbling addendum.  I get annoyed at some sentences, at unnecessary wordage.  So on page 89 we get,

When she gestured for him to sit, he did as he was told, brushing his hands across the knees of his trousers.

Why does he have to do anything with his trousers.  What does it signify?  Indeed, what is going on?  Across his knees – is he doing the hand jive?  In a similar vein we get (p172):

Having finished his coffee, he pushed the plastic lid into the crushed cup.

Can’t he have just finished his coffee?  Or shouldn’t he have pushed the lid in first, before crushing the cup.  Unfair, this, I know (and Peter James is guilty of far worse – see later) and, on the other hand, we do get (p274),”You’re the Complaints, not some fucking Simon Schama“; to which the riposte is, “History seems to have a funny way of repeating itself.”

More impossibility – but of the phantasmagorical kind – with Angela Carter‘s brilliant Wise children (1991).  As Dora Chance, the narrator says at one stage, “What larks“.  Delicious, delightful and oftentimes wonderfully absurd, it all leads up to a glorious set piece at a physically injury free family apocalypse of a party.

The Hazards are a theatrical dynasty, the impoverished Nora and Dora Chance, the by-blows of the patriarch; I had to look that up – they’re bastards.  Unacknowledged, by Sir Melchior Hazard, they worked the variety halls, aided through life by his brother, the magical Peregrine, who is both a literal prestidigitator and narrative conjuror (making love to Dora on his hundredth birthday is the least of it).  Twins abound and the bard of Stratford’s works are never far away in the glorious bawdy narrative, delivered by the life-embracing Dora at the age of 75.

There I go again! Can’t keep a story going in a straight line, can I? Drunk in charge of a narrative.

The language, the phrase making, is a sustained feast of invention; the action, taking in the sweep of the twentieth century, is energetic and engrossing, the twists of mood beautifully paced, while the satire is prescient and, in parts, horribly precise – Angela Carter saw it all coming.  The family names and the Shakespearean twins are the vehicles addressing identity, contingency, love, luck, confusion and injustice, and more pointedly, notions and perceptions of of paternity and maternity and their relation to the physical facts of the case.

Impossible not to quote liberally and with joy. How fixed for you now are the sights and sounds conjured up by, “Music from the days when men wore hats” or (Jane Austen adapters , take note) “little ladies in period cleavage“?  Fiction and reality are all in the mix.  John Osborne’s end of the pier comic creation Archie Rice briefly appears, while Dora’s romance with a Hollywood writer – ‘Irish’ put her through a literary education –  is more than a nod to Scott and Zelda.  They’re in Hollywood making a hilariously awful and doomed Midsummer night’s dream extravaganze:

You’ll find me in his famous Hollywood stories. The last flame of a burnt-out case, but, oh, it had a glorious light! I never rate more than a footnote in the biographies; they get my date of birth wrong, they mix me up with Nora, that sort of thing. And I’m bound to say my best friend wouldn’t recognise me in the far-from-loving portrait he’d penned after I’d gone.  […]  Such turned out to be the eternity the poet promised me, the bastard.

There’s no business like … Carter invents a game show, hosted by legitimate son of the Hazard line Tristram, so inane and utterly devoid of skill or knowledge that it can compete with Deal or no deal (remember she was writing 20 years agao), while his brother is a missionary:

Gareth and Tristram, the priest and the game-show presenter. Not so different, really, I suppose. Both of them in show business. Both, in their different ways, carrying on the great tradition of the Hazard family – the willing suspension of disbelief. Both of them promise a free gift if you play the game.

There is a serious side at play here – the consequences and responsibilities of fatherhood, maternity, their relation to environment, inheritance – and it is wonderfully forwarded and subverted by speculation about Mrs Lear (we know nothing of her – where did those daughters come from?).  The narrative hinge is an old music hall joke, the punchline of which is, “‘Don’t worry, darlin’, ‘e’s not your father!“:

What if Horatio had whispered that to Hamlet in Act 1, Scene I?

The book’s last words: “What a joy it is to dance and sing.”  What a joy it is to read.  The discovery that Wise children is an A-level text, to be studied and examined on – that there is a York Notes for it – fills me with all sorts of … despair.

Which is not far from the effect, I’m afraid, that Dead like you (Macmillan, 2010), the sixth in Peter James‘s series of crime novels set in Brighton featuring detective Roy Grace, also had on me.  I got about a quarter of the way through the 550 pages of it and, really, I should have trusted my instincts and parted company with it at that badly written first paragraph.  Look, I know, he’d written – no, had published – nearly a score of novels when this one appeared, and I haven’t got so much as a first draft festering in the bottom of a draw somewhere, but consider this:

We all make mistakes, all of the time.  Mostly trivial stuff, like forgetting to return a phone call, or to put money in a parking meter, or to pick up milk at the supermarket.  But sometimes – luckily, very rarely – we make the big one.

That’s his opening.  Is that not rotten, clumsy prose?  This hasn’t taken me long:

We can all make mistakes, at any time.  Mostly trivial stuff, like forgetting to return a phone call or put money in the parking meter, pick up milk at the supermarket.  But sometimes – if we’re really unlucky – we make the big one.

I’d say that was a vast improvement, but then I’m not winning awards and topping bestseller lists.  Which is why I had a go at Dead like you, to see if, given all this action, the big three of British crime – Harvey, Rankin, Robinson – had a new contender in the wings.

The narrative of Dead like you skips unnecessarily backwards and forwards between ‘1997’ and ‘Now’.  Even with short chapters it’s hard to keep one’s bearings.  There’s a one-off (I think, remember I’ve given up a quarter through) labelled, rather confusingly, ‘1979’, in which we see the genesis of the designer shoe fetishist rapist and murderer who features in both strands, though I suspect there are actually two shoe fetishists out there (remember I’ve only read …).  This shifting backwards and forwards is a pathetic attempt to rack up the tension and terror on the first victim’s fate (she’s taken, she’s in the back of a van, she escapes the van but not the lock-up, he comes back …) – look, we know something bad happened; just get on with it and spare us the nastiness, please?  Needless to say, there’s a cold case team to hand.  A specialist rape interview centre is described like a PR release.  And as well as all the shoe desigbers you have to put up with stuff like:

Roy Grace grinned and stared into her eyes.  When colleagues, off duty, got wrecked in the bar upstairs at Brighton nick or out in pubs, and talk turned, as it always did among men, to football – something in which he had little interest – or to birds, the girls got divided fifty-fifty into those that blokes fancied because of their tits or those that blokes fancied because of their legs.  But Roy Grace could honestly say that the first thing he had fancied about Sandy was her mesmerizing blue eyes.

Yeah, me too Roy – more the smile, actually – but, you know, sorry, but … pass.  Disappointing.

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