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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (deprehensio maxima)

The Game’s Afoot…

Since I discovered the detective novels of Ian Rankin a couple of months ago I’ve been steadily plowing through his complete works. I’ve now read all of his Rebus books and I am overawed by the brilliance with which he examines the disintegration of Rebus the man and compares and contrasts that with the disintegration of Edinburgh and also of Scotland (in certain minds at least). He doesn’t do it in any phoney pseudo-artistic way - it’s barely even a sub-text - and the whole thing arises so naturally out of the characterisation and the situations that you hardly even notice it is happening at all. He really is writing a long, involved, Scottish novel but without any of the stylistic tricks and phonetic dialects that make his more "literary": contemporaries so very hard to read and ultimately so unrewarding. The Rebus novels are police procedurals written as literature and they are very satisfying indeed.

Having run out of Ian Rankin (I’ve read them faster than he can write them unfortunately) I cast around for more grist for the mill. The first obvious port of call was a series of early Rankin novels which he wrote under the pseudonym of Jack Harvey. They’ve recently been republished under his own name; prompted I suppose by the popularity of the Rebus books. As a general rule I avoid early pseudonymous novels. There’s often a reason for the anonymity and it is seldom a good one. But I took a punt and I bought and read the three Jack Harvey thrillers.

I was reasonably impressed. They are only thrillers (only – what a terribly damning word; I don’t mean it to be). They succeeded because they held me on the edge of my seat. The nervous tension was almost palpable. Unlike the Rebus books there isn’t much more going on than just the surface trappings – they really are just thrillers. But they are superb examples of the genre.

Witch Hunt concerns Witch, the eponymous terrorist. The special branch are hunting her down; she has killed too many people far too frequently, and the showdown is due. The chapters alternate between the points of view of both the hunters and the hunted. And when her secret identity is revealed and the final showdown takes place, I swear there wasn’t a dry fingernail on my hand. It was story, pure story and it grabbed hold of me and it rocked and rolled.

Bleeding Hearts is an odd book told largely from the point of view of an assassin. As the book opens we follow the assassin as he carries out his latest commission, a hit on a prominent journalist. Something goes wrong with his careful planning and he barely escapes from the scene. It would appear that whoever had hired him to do this job had also laid a trap for him. He doesn’t know who originated the order to kill the journalist (there are too many cut-outs, too many middle men) but he determines to try to find out. He doesn’t like being placed in such difficult positions.

The ending is a little unsatisfactory. When all the secrets are revealed it turns out to be a sort of a shaggy dog, twist in the tale ending which might make the book difficult to re-read, for the story depends for its success on its shock value and once that shock has gone perhaps there isn’t very much left.

However the artistry rescues the book, to an extent. Rankin’s problem was to try and make a cold-blooded killer into a sympathetic character with whom the reader can identify; the audience must be made to laugh at his triumphs, weep at his tragedies, lust for his lovers. Somehow Rankin succeeds in solving that very difficult technical challenge. The chapters that tell the story from the assassin’s point of view are all in the first person and sufficiently introspective to cast a detailed light on his motives and background. Despite his overtly repellent nature we do end up feeling for him and hoping things work out well for him. That’s a story telling skill of a very high order and although this is just a (simple) story, it is a (simple) story par excellence that leaves you gasping and satisfied at the end (though it’s very much a Chinese meal kind of a novel - an hour later you are empty again).

Blood Hunt concerns an ex-SAS soldier called Gordon Reeve (those of you who have read the first Rebus novel Knots and Crosses will recognise the name and there are lots of Rebus in jokes and references for the aficionado to appreciate). Gordon’s journalist brother has been found dead in a car. The general assumption is suicide, but Reeve is not convinced. Perhaps the story that he was working on had some bearing on his death? Reeve investigates as best he can and begins to uncover a conspiracy of massive proportions involving a very large multi-national chemical company. Thematically the book is surprisingly similar to John Le Carré’s recent novel The Constant Gardner with its taint of corruption in high industrial places. It’s much less subtle of course (since it’s "only" a thriller and it isn’t required to have a sub-text) but nevertheless the message is there for those that have ears to hear it.

This is probably the least successful of the Jack Harvey novels (it was also the last one to be written – perhaps Rankin was impatient to return to Rebus who was starting to require more and more of his time as the books got larger and more demanding by the paragraph). It has its moments, but I felt it dragged a little. The tension had been unwound a knot.

Once these books were out of the way, I feared that the well had run dry. I was still twitchy for more, but I’d run out of Rankin. What to do? Who to read? Peter Robinson, that’s who.

Robinson is another police procedural writer. His novels are set in Yorkshire (an immediate attraction for that is where I was born) and his central character is Inspector Alan Banks (another point in Robinson’s favour – he knows how to spell Alan).

I was initially attracted to the books by a blurb on the cover. It was a comment by Ian Rankin himself:

"…watch out for those twists – they’ll get you every time."

I won’t detail the plots – that quickly becomes tedious when there are so many books to discuss. They are, one and all, ingeniously constructed and whether Banks is solving a contemporary murder or one that took place a generation ago you can be sure that the story will grip you, the characters will move you and the social and political insights will astound you. Over a multitude of novels, Robinson catalogues the growth of Alan Banks in much the same way that Rankin catalogued the growth of Rebus. There are enormous similarities in style and substance between the two writers and as each of their series progresses the characterisation becomes more subtle and the psychological gestalt becomes deeper and ever more satisfying.

Alan Banks is nowhere near as desperate a character as Rebus and is not disintegrating nearly as fast. However he is often under severe pressure and in the later novels the perils of a dysfunctional marriage are tearing him apart (though in the very latest novel in the series Aftermath he seems to have come to terms with it).

Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson and of course Reginald Hill (who has a new book out soon – I can’t wait) form a triumvirate who are engaged in writing literature heavily disguised as popular fiction. And good on them – I wish more people would do that. In the science fiction world, Terry Pratchett has several times been accused of being guilty of literature (someone wrote a book about him with just that title) and it seems to me that in the detective thriller world Rankin, Robinson and Hill are doing just the same thing.

In the past, it has often been the case that a book would be considered to be either populist trash or heavy literature with no middle ground; little or no overlap between the two extremes. Because of this, Graham Greene, who had a foot in both camps, used to divide his own books into two categories: "entertainments" and "novels". I’m not sure that the division holds true any more. The separation between the two aspects is becoming progressively more blurred. Rankin, Robinson and Hill have torn down the walls between the categories and their fiction, while being undeniably populist, magnificently plotted, hugely entertaining and full of twists (they really will get you every time) also has a depth and a subtlety that lifts it out of the category of mere entertainment and forces it kicking and screaming into something else as well. Is the something else a category that the more strait-laced literati would recognise? I’m starting to think that it might be. And therefore both sets of criteria must be applied simultaneously; something that the great divide forbade us to do before.

The same phenomenon surfaced briefly in a different, though closely related, genre in the 1960s and interesting parallels can be drawn between the two. Back then it was the spy story which caused all the excitement. It was a genre which had fallen into disrepute. Perhaps only Eric Ambler was doing anything worthy and even he had largely fallen silent. The spy novel was moribund, buried under the excesses of the incredibly shallow James Bond stories which had cheapened it to an enormous extent and put the final nail in its coffin.

Then Len Deighton and John Le Carré erupted onto the scene and suddenly the spy novel was rehabilitated. Le Carré had previously dabbled in straight detective fiction. His novels prior to The Spy Who Came In From the Cold are archetypally generic detective stories (and they read somewhat embarrassingly today, in light of his later reputation, simply because they are so archetypal). Deighton himself, because of his stylistic idiosyncrasies was quickly dubbed "…the Raymond Chandler of the cloak and dagger set…" and it was obvious that he was indeed steeped in the Chandleresque tradition. Interestingly in light of later developments, both writers had a clear connection with the classic detective novel and equally obviously both writers were fully aware of that fact and were heavily influenced by it; but, for some reason, they set out to apply that influence to the spy novel rather than the detective novel from which it was derived.

They succeeded magnificently. Suddenly spy stories were everywhere - it was perceived as a serious genre whose time had come. It had serious things to say and it could deal with contemporary politics (the cold war) both literally and as a metaphor which gave it an incredibly strong position to argue from. Life magazine said:

"Next, big soft girls will read Len Deighton aloud in jazz workshops."

Surely that’s the ultimate accolade.

But the phenomenon quickly peaked, the bubble burst, the new writing itself became formulaic and the genre disintegrated again as it became inward looking and began to feed upon itself. The point of view it espoused proved to be too narrow. In order to continue to produce worthy work, a broader perspective is required. There’s a limit to the metaphorical weight that the cold war can bear. Le Carré and Deighton turned to other things and the field stagnated. Who now remembers Adam Diment , Ted Allbeury, Alan Williams or Charles McCarry (to name but a few)? Once they and many others were household names, riding the crest of a very trendy wave. These days, of all the old guard, only John Le Carré is still writing and his novels are now only peripherally generic. Today spy fiction belongs to the likes of the relatively pedestrian Tom Clancy and nobody takes it seriously any more.

In a similar vein, the police procedural novel where the hero (often a detective, but not invariably so) gathers the clues and unmasks the killer had also fallen into the doldrums, particularly after the havoc wreaked upon it by Agatha Christie. Across the pond, American writers such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout, John D. MacDonald and others have done sterling work with it (though mostly within the artificial boundaries and classical traditions of the genre – really only Chandler came close to transcending it). However the British have been almost completely silent for a whole generation; perhaps scared into submission by the ghost of Christie. Now it seems their time has come round again and Rankin, Robinson and Hill are in the vanguard of what may well prove to be a literary renaissance somewhat akin to that of the 1960s spy novel (though hopefully much longer lived because it has a much broader base and wider themes to explore). So far, unlike the pioneering Deighton and Le Carré in the spy fiction world, they are not showing any signs of leaving the genre that they have brought to maturity and they continue to explore its possibilities, taking an awesome delight in the fresh fields that are opening up to them. Consequently it’s a very exciting time to read detective novels and there is every reason to expect that it will continue to be so.

Paul Johnston is a detective story crossover writer and once I had high hopes for him. He has written a series of detective novels set in Edinburgh in the 2020s after a social revolution that has seen the British Isles disintegrate into a country of independent almost self-sufficient city states. There is no central government at all. Edinburgh was originally set up to be governed according to a strict platonic ideal, but in later years this idealism has started to fall apart as younger (and more cynical) council members come to power. The first person narrator of the stories is Quintin Dalrymple, the disgraced son of one of the original council members. On occasion, when the council is threatened with large dangers or embarrassing crimes he is called in to provide a solution.

Marrying genres (in this case SF and the detective novel) can often be fruitful. Asimov, for example, explored this territory with more than a modicum of success. But Asimov’s great strength was the ingenuity of his plotting (often rather Agatha Christie-like for he was a great fan of the cheating old dear) but nevertheless recognisably his own; cerebral and clever with all the i’s crossed and all the t’s dotted. His books were carried on the strength of their plots rather than through characterisation or insight into the human condition. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But other possibilities exist, and it is this territory that Johnston has been trying to explore in his series of crossover books, but he is becoming less and less successful at it for his plots are becoming sillier and sillier, and once the plot fails to convince, nothing else, however clever, will be able to hold the ideas and the themes together.

The novels started out strongly but have grown progressively weaker. The House of Dust is the fifth in the series and while it is nowhere near as bad as its predecessor (The Blood Tree) it certainly isn’t as strong as the first two novels in the series (Body Politic and The Bone Yard).

It all starts when Edinburgh signs a contract with Oxford. It seems that Oxford has a surprising expertise in criminal management. And so Edinburgh employs the Oxford experts to design and build a prison for them.

Some high Oxford officials arrive for the opening ceremony. One of them finds a severed arm in her bathtub, an arm that proves to have been amputated from a member of one of the youth gangs who, the Edinburgh intelligentsia agree, are likely to make up a large proportion of the population of the new prison.

And then at the opening ceremony itself, one of the Edinburgh guardians is shot dead by a mysterious assassin. Quint Dalrymple investigates the case. He discovers that Oxford too has been plagued by a phantom amputator. He travels to Oxford to pursue his enquiries; and he finds a ruthless dictatorship operating beneath a thin veneer of academic sophistication and respectability.

The book is extremely gripping for about three quarters of its length as bizarre mystery piles upon bizarre mystery. The surrealism is fascinating. But it all begins to fall apart as Quint zeros in on the culprit. The explanation for the amputations is just plain stupid and the killer’s motivation – indeed the whole scenario that defines the very reason for the existence of the killer – is incredibly weak and contrived. It reads almost as if Johnston had written himself into a corner and was desperately looking for rabbits to pull out of his hat. And the use to which he puts the main product of the House of Dust itself is so unutterably ridiculous that nobody with half an active brain cell in their head could ever willingly suspend their disbelief enough to accept it. The plot simply hasn’t got a leg to stand on. Perhaps the mysterious amputations are symbolic of that.

Johnston seems to have recognised that the detective novel is a place where serious work is being done and he gives every evidence of wanting to be taken seriously himself. Unfortunately he isn’t succeeding in his aims.

An unrelieved diet of brilliant detective stories (along with the occasional wannabe) is not suitable for a growing intellect. Diets need variety and spice to allow the mind and body to develop properly. So I decided to add the piquancy of some science fiction to this month’s reading.

Counting Up, Counting Down is a rare collection of short stories by Harry Turtledove. He doesn’t write many short stories and his reputation is securely founded on several series of block-busting alternate history novels, a genre he has made his own to such an extent that he has no longer has any serious competition in the field.

The collection does have a number of alternate history stories in it but mostly they feel uncomfortable at being shoe-horned into such a short space. The exception is Ils ne Passeront Pas a story set in the trenches of Verdun in the first world war. Turtledove captures the moment magnificently and really makes you feel the squalor, the pain, the inhumanity of the Verdun conflict and the cynicism of the troops themselves. You can taste the decaying flesh, smell the chlorine gas, hear the crump of the artillery shells. And the ending will take your breath away. It is magnificently conceived. There is nothing that can bring home the horrors of war like the ending of this story. Read it and weep.

The book is called Counting Up, Counting Down for the sake of the two stories that open and close it. They act like bookends, holding the rest together and they are mirror images of each other.

The first, Forty, Counting Down tells the story of Justin Kloster who travels back in time in order to advise his younger self how best to handle the most important romance of his life. Justin wants to ensure a long, happy marriage for himself, something that did not happen in "real life". However by changing the past, by stopping himself from making mistakes, he hopes to affect his own future and prevent his marriage from breaking up.

The last, Twenty-One, Counting Up, tells exactly the same story as the first one, but this time from the point of view of the younger Justin.

It is absolutely fascinating to compare the two. Despite the fact that they tell the same tale, both are fresh, both are clever, both are utterly entrancing. The one does not spoil the other at all and each gives fresh insight into its companion piece.

Turtledove also exhibits a great sense of humour in some of the stories. Vermin is a squirmingly clever tale about bugs (read it and scratch). A shower after you finish the last paragraph is almost mandatory. The Maltese Elephant is a very funny parody of the Dashiell Hammett classic. The Phantom Tolbhukin has a delightfully punny title but, it has to be admitted, the tale is a little tedious. Honeymouth is a predictable dirty story, but fun nonetheless. Myth Manner’s Guide to Greek Missology is a scream from start to finish.

It’s an excellent collection. It makes me wish that Turtledove would write more short stories and fewer block-busting novels.

It’s been an odd month for reading. I’ve been overdosing on a theme; indeed you could even say I’ve been overdosing on specific authors. I hope it won’t prove fatal.

Ian Rankin (Jack Harvey)   Witch Hunt   Orion
Ian Rankin (Jack Harvey)   Bleeding Hearts   Orion
Ian Rankin (Jack Harvey)   Blood Hunt   Orion
Peter Robinson   Wednesday’s Child   Pan
Peter Robinson   Dry Bones That Dream   Pan
Peter Robinson   Innocent Graves   Pan
Peter Robinson   Dead Right   Pan
Peter Robinson   In A Dry Season   Pan
Peter Robinson   Cold Is The Grave   Pan
Peter Robinson   Aftermath   Pan
Paul Johnston   The House of Dust   NEL
Harry Turtledove   Counting Up, Counting Down   Del Rey

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