Previous Contents Next

wot I red on my hols by alan robson (nulla lemma)

Random Thoughts of a Random Reader

There is a very good story hiding inside Laura Lam’s novel Goldilocks. Unfortunately she has chosen not to write it. Instead she has written a book that is far more concerned with socio-political point scoring than it is with story telling and as a result the novel turns into a rather uncomfortable polemic.

Climate change is making the Earth uninhabitable. But there remains a flicker of hope – astronomers have found an exoplamet that is suitable for human life. So NASA puts together a mission designed to set up a colony on this newly discovered planet. Hopefully a successful colony will present  an opportunity for humanity to have a new start. Unfortunately, increasing political conservatism in both the Government and the NASA administration means that women are being edged out of high status jobs and are being replaced by men. Five women have been exhaustively and thoroughly trained for the colony mission but NASA chooses to replace them with an all male crew that is much less well trained. Feeling aggrieved, the five women hijack the ship and set off to complete the mission they have been trained for...

Of the five women who make up the crew, one is gay, one is bisexual, one is black, one is pregnant and one is a multi-billionaire representative of the Deep State, who is directly responsible for several highly complex covert conspiracies. Every politically correct box having been checked, the way is open for a multitude of fashionable controversies to be presented and argued about. I must admit that I am mostly on the author’s side in the sense that I largely agree with the opinions that the novel presents about all the prejudices that it exposes. But nevertheless there is far too much one-sided advocacy in the book for my taste. The positions adopted by the women in the crew are declared correct by authorial fiat and counter-arguments are simply dismissed as straw men. As a result, I feel quite strongly that the book has rather too much stereotypical posturing and rather too little story for its own good.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain addresses some of the same points that Laura Lam concerns herself with, though it manages to do so without any overt preaching. The novel is the first of a trilogy with the overall title of Science in the Capital. The focus of the series is on the effects of global warming in the early decades of the 21st century. The characters are mostly scientists, either directly involved in biotechnical and climate research, or working behind the scenes as government advisers and research funding administrators. The main focus of the narrative is on the need to tackle climate change on both a national and international level. Much is made of the clash between the scientific opinion on climate change and the bureaucratic denial that climate change is even happening at all by those who are determined to preserve the status quo at all costs.

This book is everything a novel should be – thoughtful, balanced (though not at all afraid to come down firmly on one side of an argument when necessary) and full of interesting people with whom it is easy to identify and sympathise. The scenes where Washington DC is flooded are particularly poignant as a result. I enjoyed this one a lot.

James Lee Burke is back. A Private Cathedral is the twenty-third book in the Dave Robicheaux series and Burke’s fortieth novel in total. He’s rather a prolific writer...

Although this book is the latest in an ongoing series, don’t let that put you off. It works very well as a stand alone novel, so you really don’t have to read twenty two other books in order to understand this one. And that’s just as well, because arguably A Private Cathedral is Burke’s best novel in years.

The Shondell and Balangie families have been enemies for more than four centuries, ever since an assassin employed by the Shondells killed the then patriarch of the Balangie family. The assassin sewed the man’s lips shut so that he couldn’t scream and then he hung the man upside down over a fire and boiled his brains until the pressure made his skull explode.

These days the Shondell and Balangie families are very prominent in the Louisiana criminal underworld and they show each other no mercy as their feud continues to ebb and flow. Despite this fierce enmity, their youngest heirs, Johnny Shondell and Isolde Balangie, have fallen in love with each other. That story is, of course, very Shakespearean – but let’s face it, if a plot is good enough for William Shakespeare it is more than good enough for James Lee Burke as well. If you are going to steal, you owe it to yourself to steal from the very best. But Burke doesn’t stop with just a simple plot theft. He is an artist and he brings his own unique twist to the shape of the story. By the time he has finished filing off the serial numbers and putting his own spin on the details, I doubt that Shakespeare would recognise very much of what’s left.

But back to the plot! Detective Dave Robicheaux is dumped in the middle of this feuding mess when he starts to suspect that the Balangies are involved in white slave trafficking and child prostitution. Isolde, it seems, is the latest victim of her own family’s depravity, having been given in trade to Johnny’s uncle, Mark Shondell. Robicheaux becomes such a thorn in the family’s side that they send an assassin to get rid of both Robicheaux and his friend Clete Purcel. Robicheaux and Purcel are the "Bobbsey Twins of Homicide". You can’t have one without the other. Janus faced, they have always protected each other’s backs throughout all the previous novels. However the assassin is an ominously efficient presence, and it isn’t long before Clete finds himself hanging upside down over a fire about to have his brains boiled...

Fortunately rescue arrives in the nick of time from a very unexpected quarter. However the experience is traumatic enough that even the famously imperturbable Clete Purcel is shocked into severe PTSD in its aftermath. The episode will haunt and scar him throughout the course of this long, dark and dangerous novel.

In many of the Robicheaux stories, Burke flirts now and then with the supernatural. Dave Robicheaux seems to have irrational visions that sometimes help and sometimes hinder his investigations. Almost always in the previous books Burke has not required the reader to believe that the events Robicheaux experiences are real (even Robicheaux himself is not always completely convinced by them). Not only is Robicheaux an unreliable narrator, he is also a recovering alcoholic with severe psychological problems caused by his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam. In the later novels, his mental stability is also called into question after his first wife is murdered and his second wife dies from lupus. So the ambiguous interpretations of his visions can easily be excused and explained. Perhaps the reader can be persuaded to give Robicheaux a pass when the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers rise up out of the mist. Maybe it really happened, maybe it didn’t.

But in this novel there remains little or no room for doubt or ambiguity. Evidence suggests that the assassin, Gideon Richetti, has been in the family’s pay since at least the seventeenth century when the head man of the Balangie family was killed, and there are suggestions that he was plying his evil trade long before then. Gideon hides his face inside a hood because he looks very much like a snake and his hands are covered in scales. This obviously Christian imagery implies that Gideon’s career of evil might stretch back a lot further than anyone has imagined.

On several occasions, both Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel each have their own visions of Gideon piloting a galleon through the Louisiana swamps. All the men who Gideon has ever killed are chained to the oars and those spectral oarsmen are fated to propel his galleon for all eternity, carrying Gideon back and forth through the centuries. It’s a grotesquely effective image.

So the question has to be asked – is a supernatural experience more likely to be real if more than one person experiences the self-same impossibility? Does sharing a hallucination give it a concrete existence?

It’s trite to say that this book is really about the conflict between heaven and hell, between good and evil. Nevertheless, aren’t all the most important books always about that very thing if you drill down far enough? Doesn’t it define the entirety of the human condition? In a moment of insight, caught in the middle of a storm, Robicheaux reflects that:

It was one of those rare moments when the ephemerality of the human condition becomes inescapable and you want to smash your watch and shed your mortal fastenings and embrace the rain and the wind and rise into the storm and become one with its destructive magnificence.

Perhaps that poetic image represents his only means of escape from the conflict, from the nastiness that lurks in the shadows. It is the only way he can turn his back on the world and walk away from everything. After all, he lives in a dark and unpleasant world, corrupt and slimy with few, if any, redeeming virtues. Robicheaux himself is a child of his times, steeped in the lore of the deep south moulded by the scars on his conscience. Racism is in his blood (though he repudiates it) and he is all too ready to accept it as the motive that drives others into darkness. To the victor belong the spoils, and the victor is always the man who uses violence most effectively as a means of achieving his goals. Neither Dave nor Clete are exempt from that world view. They are both very violent men. So can they really be considered to be the good guys? Just how biased is their self-image?

And yet… And yet… There is beauty here too, and sometimes there is softness. Chivalry hides somewhere deep down inside the ugliness and because of it Robicheaux often finds himself doing the wrong things for all the right reasons. And that contradiction too is something that is tearing him apart. How far is he prepared to go in order to save Johnny and Isolde?

This is not an easy book to read. It is depressingly bleak. But I do think that it is an important book.

The author John Sladek died in 2000. In the years since then David Langford has sought out and published many of Sladek’s uncollected (and sometimes previously unpublished) stories. Puff Love is the last novel that Sladek completed before he died. It’s a very short book – perhaps rather more of a novella than a full length novel – and to be honest, although it certainly tells a complete story, to me it reads rather like a first draft. I’m sure that had he lived to revise it Sladek would have added a lot to the piece. But he didn’t live long enough and so we must make do with what we have, and what we have is a first class locked room mystery story, full of delightful Sladekian jokes and bits of business.

Harold "Boomer" Babcock III, the chairman of the General Snuff and Tobacco Company (known as GST) dies under mysterious circumstances. It is left up to Wentworth Fitzmorgan and his chimpanzee Bingo (who Fitzmorgan is looking after for a friend) to solve the puzzle of Boomer’s death. Which, of course, they do in a nicely satisfying way. Sladek was a connoisseur of locked room mysteries and therefore it comes as no surprise to find that this is one of the better examples of the genre. I highly recommend it.

Throughout the novel we are treated to extracts from The Golden Leaf,  the official history of the General Snuff ! Tobacco Company. This official history is used to provide background material on the company and the people involved with it, material which is important to the detail of the plot. If the extracts sound familiar to you, you should note that they are actually taken from another John Sladek book which was published as Wholly Smokes in 2003.

More Better Deals is a stand alone novel by Joe Lansdale. It is set in East Texas in the 1960s. The story is narrated by a used car salesman called Ed Edwards. He is the sleazy embodiment of everybody’s idea of a used car salesman. He winds back odometers and of course all the cars he sells have just had one careful lady owner who only used it once a week to drive to church. Ed sets off one day to repossess a car whose owners, Frank and Nancy Craig, have fallen behind on the payments. Frank and Nancy own a business that combines a drive-in movie theatre with a pet cemetery – not a common business combination. It turns out that no animals are actually buried in the cemetery (Frank and Nancy just throw the bodies into a ditch). Nevertheless, despite such cost and corner cutting, the business is not a profitable one. Hence the lack of payments on the car.

Nancy soon has Ed wrapped around her little finger (well, wrapped around one of her body parts anyway...) and it isn’t long before she persuades Ed to kill her husband so that they can claim on his insurance policy and live happily ever after together. What can possibly go wrong?

As it happens, quite a lot can go wrong and the story lurches from crisis to crisis getting darker on every page as Ed and Nancy get themselves into deeper and deeper trouble in their vain efforts to keep themselves safe from discovery.

It turns into a singularly grim and gruesome tale enlivened by Lansdale’s devilish wit and his usual no-holds-barred approach to painful, harsh and brutal detail.

One of the most popular story tellers of the twentieth century was W. Somerset Maugham. I devoured his novels and short story collections in my teens and I was very sad when Maugham died in 1965 at the age of 91. As is so often the case, his popularity waned after his death and these days I doubt that very much of his work remains in print. But I am still an ardent fan and so I was very pleased to find The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selena Hastings. It’s the best biography of Maugham that I’ve read – and I’ve read several including Maugham’s own rather poor attempt at autobiography, The Summing Up, which is a very sad and unsuccessful book that he wrote towards the end of his life when he was starting a long decline into dementia.

Maugham did his best to make life very difficult for his biographers. He deliberately destroyed all his own correspondence, notes and diaries and he tried hard to persuade his friends to destroy whatever records they had about him. Nevertheless some material remains, a lot of it matters of public record that Maugham was not able to destroy. Selina Hastings has done a marvellous job of putting it all together into what will almost certainly prove to be the definitive biography of Somerset Maugham.

One reason why the biography is so good is that Hastings does not shrink from discussing Maugham’s sexuality. Maugham was almost completely homosexual in an age when homosexuality was illegal. The scandal surrounding the trial of Oscar Wilde had a profound effect on him (as it did on many artists of the time) and Maugham has often been quoted as saying:

I tried to persuade myself that I was three-quarters normal and that only a quarter of me was queer—whereas really it was the other way around.

The two great loves of his life were Gerald Haxton, who died in 1944, and Alan Searle who remained Maugham’s  lover until Maugham’s own death in 1965. Maugham was briefly, and unhappily married to Syrie Wellcome and they had a daughter called Liza who was named from the title of Maugham’s first novel Liza of Lambeth.

You simply cannot understand Maugham’s life and his stories without also understanding that almost everything he wrote was filtered through his own sexual preoccupations. He travelled extensively and his most famous stories document the decline and fall of the British Empire through the doings and the flirtations of the (often very bored) ex-pats, diplomats and their wives in far away places with strange sounding names. He claimed that he had no imagination of his own and that he travelled simply in order to gather material for his fiction. Later in his life he remarked:

Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other.

I wonder if any of the people whose lives he mined for material ever recognised themselves in the pages of his books. And if so, I wonder what they made of it.

During both world wars, Maugham worked for the British secret service. He later drew on his service experiences to write Ashenden, the first of the truly great espionage novels. Both Graham Greene and John le Carré cite Ashenden as a direct inspiration for their own secret service stories. There is a persistent rumour that the original manuscript of Ashenden contained significantly more material than that which appeared in the finally published work. The mandarins of the secret service are presumed to have heavily censored it because it gave away far too many of their secrets. Perhaps Maugham’s disclaimer about the paucity of his imagination and his consequent use of personal experience in his writing really was correct.

Selina Hastings’ biography is utterly fascinating and brilliantly researched. I thought I knew Maugham well but Hastings constantly gave me new insights into his life and his work. If you have any interest at all in W. Somerset Maugham, you really need to read this book.

In the closing years of the twentieth century I took a journey on the Trans-Siberian train. I knew that I would need a large book to occupy myself with because I was well aware that staring out of the carriage window at thousands of miles of never changing Siberian scenery would quickly become excruciatingly boring. The book I chose to read was Maugham’s magnum opus Of Human Bondage. I first read it when I was a teenager. I read it again as I travelled across Siberia, and as I write these words I feel a strong urge to read it once again. Maugham is that kind of writer – he really gets under your skin.

Life on Air is David Attenborough’s autobiography. It’s an engaging and highly entertaining book that tells his life story with the dry, self deprecating humour that is his unmistakeable trademark. You will smile and nod with agreement as you read this book, and often you will laugh out loud. That’s the kind of person David Attenborough is.

I vividly remember that in England in the 1950s one of the highlights of our black and white television watching week was the series of Zoo Quest programmes that David presented. In these programmes he travelled to exotic places to collect animals for the London Zoo and he filmed all the things that he saw there and he provided a brilliant, insightful and often quite funny, commentary on what he was filming. By the end of the decade, he had become a household name. Everybody knew him, everybody loved him and he was the acknowledged expert on all things to do with the natural world.

And then, in 1965, he became the controller of BBC Two. I found this very puzzling at the time. What on earth did a naturalist know about administering a television channel? But his autobiography explains this apparent contradiction. David joined the BBC television service in the early 1950s when the service itself was very new, rather small and rather insignificant. Radio was king in those days. He was hired as a producer and director. He turned into a presenter almost by accident when the original front man for the Zoo Quest programme that David was producing became seriously ill. Over the course of the next decade he saw the fledgeling broadcast service grow and turn into a nation-wide force to be reckoned with. He saw all this happen from the inside – he was very much a part of that initial success, albeit from the front lines, rather than as part of the administrative team. So his appointment as the head of BBC Two was actually part of a natural career progression. Time proved that his appointment to the post had been an excellent decision. He instigated the production of programmes such as Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, Kenneth Clark’s Civilization, and Alistair Cooke's America – programmes which have since come to be recognised as classics of their kind. He was also closely involved in the commissioning of other programmes such as Man Alive, Call My Bluff, Chronicle, Match of the Day, The Old Grey Whistle Test, and Monty Python's Flying Circus.

But his first love was always the natural world and eventually he moved away from management and went back into production. Over the next few decades he gave us some of the most awe-inspiring natural history documentaries that the world has ever seen. In his own words:

...the fundamental reason why I have spent my life in the way I have, and why I am reluctant to stop making programmes, is that I know of no pleasure deeper than that which comes from contemplating the natural world and trying to understand it.

What more needs to be said?

Laura Lam Goldilocks Orbit
Kim Stanley Robinson Forty Signs of Rain Bantam Spectra
James Lee Burke A Private Cathedral Simon and Schuster
John Sladek Puff Love Ansible Editions
Joe Lansdale More Better Deals Mulholland
Selina Hastings The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham Random House
David Attenborough Life On Air BBC Books
Previous Contents Next