Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Nick Stone: Mr Clarinet

A couple of days ago I reviewed Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower; and if you tried to think of a book which was as different as possible from that one, I don't think you could come up with anything much better than Nick Stone's Mr Clarinet.

Where The Blue Flower was short, this one is long (560 pages). The Blue Flower was literary, and this one's commercial. The list continues: set in the eighteenth century, set in the present day -- well, not quite, actually; about ten years ago. Set in Europe, set in the New World. Understated, includes everything plus the kitchen sink. Restrained, violent. Deals with highly civilised characters, deals with criminally deranged perverts. And so on.

Although Mr Clarinet is long, it is not perhaps as long as it might appear. The reason being that it is set in 13.5/16 point Garamond, which at least means that it is easy to read, a design decision which is much appreciated by this older reader, for one.

Essentially, what we have here is a hard-boiled thriller. The principal character is Max Mingus, a former cop turned private eye who has done time for shooting some bad guys who deserved worse. This is, we are told, the 'first' Max Mingus thriller; so there will, presumably, be more. And in fact Stone tells us, in an interview with Spoiled Ink, that the next book will be a prequel called King of Swords.

Max is recruited by a multi-millionaire to find a missing child. And to find him Max has to go to the island of Haiti, where many other children have gone missing, over a period of years, without anyone appearing to worry too much.

If you know anything at all about Haiti, you probably know that it has been 'governed', loosely speaking, by a succession of tyrant/dictators, of whom the most famous was Papa Doc. It is a grindingly poverty-stricken country, and the inhabitants, while professing to be Roman Catholics (which is the state religion), also believe in Voodoo. One way and another, all of this provides enormous local colour as a backdrop to the events of the novel.

This book is reportedly the author's first novel; if so, I have to say that he performs well, on the whole. Which is not to say that I don't have criticisms. In fact, I suppose one has to say that for a first novel he writes very well.

Nick Stone is the son of Professor Norman Stone, a historian of some note, and his mother is a member of one of Haiti's oldest families. Hence the background, which he knows well from having lived there for a while. Having a few connections with the literary world hasn't hurt Nick Stone's career either. In an interview for Shots magazine, he relates that he found himself an agent before he'd actually written a word of the book.

So, what of my criticisms then? Well, by page 55 I was making the following note: ever so slightly run of the mill; good but not that good; not altogether credible.

But the real problem, I think, is the subject matter. I was reminded, while reading this novel, of a remark made to me by an editor some thirty years ago. I had been asked to draw up an outline of a thriller based in Africa. And the comment was that I had included everything but the kitchen sink. And Nick Stone, as I mentioned above, has included the kitchen sink.

There is lots and lots of violence in this book, and it is described in some detail. The plot is also sordid -- no other word for it -- in that it deals with selling children to paedophiles on a considerable scale. Many children, over many years. Then there are the Bangladeshi soldiers, representing the UN, who rape a Haitian girl, and who are handed out appropriate penalties (having their testicles crushed, followed by death) by a Haitian mobster. And so on.

As the Shots interviewer pointed out, this is not, perhaps a book which is going to appeal to women readers. So be it, was basically Stone's response.

The problem is that the subject matter of this book didn't altogether appeal to this male reader either. The author's purpose is obviously to write a powerful commercial thriller. But by including so much, so graphically described, he is in danger of overpowering the reader. In my opinion, he would have been better off toning things down a bit. Less can sometimes be more.

That is, however, a lesson which will come with experience. And I was also reminded, as I read this book, of the series of private-eye novels written decades ago by Ross Macdonald, and featuring a character called Lew Archer. Macdonald also dealt with matters sordid and violent, but he didn't always give us every nasty detail, and his books were therefore, oddly enough, that much more gripping.


Anonymous said...

I haven't read this novel, so I cannot comment on it, but I do thank you for your detailed analysis.

On a more general level, I've observed over the last year that some newer/younger authors seem to want to push the boundaries when it comes to the explicit way in which the violence of crime can be graphically portrayed in crime fiction.

As you say here and as is said sometimes on a more general basis - less is often more, leaving the rest to the readers' imagination.

Thomas Harris broke a mold with his fictional creation of Hannibal Lecter, but in my mind, the last novel "Hannibal" was more of a caricature of previous credible thought.

I've been solidly reading crime fiction for about 15 years and I am now repelled by explicit and detailed narrative description of violence. Another turn off for me was Jilliane Hoffman's "Retribution".

For me, what is more interesting is the impact of violence on the victim and those around him/her. That's where the story lies.

That's my taste, developed over time and probably a product of age, these days. Perhaps 15 years ago, I'd have queued for a signed copy of the latest hard boiled novel. Not so, now. Subtle can say so much more.


Great observation about Ross McDonald and offscreen violence. I don't equate noir fiction with explicit violence, but rather with mood, subject matter, circumstance. More of a solo sax than the full orchestra.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, shock value does count for a lot today, and it seems to sell. Methinks you see the same trend in movies and television, where more (and more) is better.

Anonymous said...

Well guys, I was reading the detail of it for a few years. I watched and loved the first two series of CSI - excellent detail without any clue as to smell.

Now I prefer to leave most of it to my own imagination. And I'd say give it two years and the tide will start to turn...

Not that I'm about to put money on that, you understand. But there's only so much of a theme and a certain type of story that a reader can take and an author can vary, come to that!

archer said...

Crushed testicles are rough stuff, especially when you're expecting a biography of Benny Goodman.