Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Old Dependables

Professional musicians sometimes find themselves playing a symphony for the 99th time, an experience which may be just the tiniest bit wearisome. However, when a conductor finds his orchestra sounding bored, he may encourage them by pointing out that, although they have played the symphony many times before, someone in the audience is always hearing it for the very first time.

So it is with books. Names which are familiar to you and me, and have been for years, are not necessarily well known to everyone else. So this post will be devoted to a few Old Dependables who have recently published books which are well up to their usual standard. It may be that somebody, somewhere, will be coming across these masters of fiction for the first time.

We will begin with John Mortimer. John has been a successful writer for over forty years, enjoying his earliest successes in the theatre. Nowadays he is perhaps best known as the creator of Rumpole, and this year he has given us Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders.

Rumpole is a barrister, i.e. a British lawyer who appears in court. In Rumpole's case he always appears for the defence, never the prosecution. (In real life John Mortimer had a similar career, though rather more distinguished than Rumpole's.) In this latest book (about the fourteenth in the Rumpole series by my count), we hear about the case in which Rumpole first made his name as a young man.

Rumpole is, I suppose, a comic creation. And for those who have followed the series, either in book form or on television, the latest book contains much that is familiar: the Timson family of small-time criminals; fellow barrister Claude Erskine-Brown, who has an eye for the ladies; and She Who Must Be Obeyed (Rumpole's formidable wife); overall, however, they remain as entertaining as ever. And the book is mercifully short, thus demonstrating, not for the first time, that you don't need to grind on for 150,000 words to make an impression.

Next, Carl Hiaasen, with Skinny Dip. Hiaasen was born and raised in Florida, where he writes a weekly column for the Miami Herald. He first appeared as a novelist some ten years ago, and produces about one book a year. He too writes about crime, with more than a touch of humour.

Skinny Dip centres around Joey Perrone, a young woman whose husband tries to murder her by throwing her off a cruise ship. She survives, and sets out to get her own back on the bastard. There are, of course, complications, mainly arising from the fact that her husband is a corrupt scientist who is disguising the fact that his employer is systematically poisoning the environment in pursuit of the almighty dollar. There is also a romantic element.

As with Rumpole, some of Hiaasen's characters appear in more than one book. Here, for instance, we meet the one-eyed man who lives rough in the Florida Everglades; if memory serves, he is a former State Governor. (You'll have to read the book, or better still, read them all, to find out more.)

Finally, Terry Pratchett, who is well up to par with Going Postal. Well you'd expect that, really, wouldn't you? Older musicians (so to speak) will know, of course, that Mr Pratchett is the creator of the Discworld, a parallel universe or fantasy world which contains not only humans but also trolls, golems, various gods unknown anywhere else (such as Anoia, a minor goddess of Things That Stick in Drawers), and assorted other wonders. The hero of this particular Discworld novel is Moist von Lipwig, a con artist who is given the choice of reviving the postal service or being hanged by the neck until dead. Not much option then.

All the above books are by masters of the novel form. It so happens that all three are men, but that's a coincidence. What is not a coincidence is that they have all written a substantial body of work, over a lengthy period of time. They know how to do the job.

All three are commercial writers, rather than literary, but all have had perfectly respectable reviews from respectable critics. And all of these writers are well aware that the realities of life are unbearable unless you learn to smile at them, at least from time to time.

If you really insist that your novels must deal with Grand Themes and Ideas, rather than just tell a story (which is enough for most of us), then I can promise you that all the above books contain food for thought. John Mortimer's theme is justice, as ever. Carl Hiaasen has much to say on the pollution of the environment in the pursuit of profit, and the corruption of politicians and others which can follow in its wake. And Terry Pratchett is also well aware of the immoral and illegal actions which big businesses undertake in the interests of the bottom line.

Sometimes an Old Dependable can produce a book which is a tad below par, and disappoints; but for these three, not this time.