Wednesday, October 10, 2007

More catch-ups

This morning, three British crime novels; each of them excellent, in its way, but all rather different.

Denise Mina: The Dead Hour

Back in August, I reviewed Denise Mina's The Field of Blood, which was the first in a series of novels about Paddy Meehan, a fat girl of Irish Catholic origins, living in Glasgow in 1981, and working for a newspaper. The Dead Hour is number two in this series.

The year is 1984. We're still in Glasgow, but Paddy has moved up a rung on the journalism ladder. She's now a junior reporter, and stuck with the night shift, which nobody wants, following police cars and ambulances. In the course of pursuing this thankless task, she inevitably stumbles across a crime, meets a lot of hard, vicious men (and that's just her colleagues and the police), and gets into all kinds of physical and moral difficulties.

Several decades ago, at the end of the golden era of detective fiction, the whodunit and the private-eye books of the time had become very formulaic. The more thoughtful commentators on that kind of fiction had begun to murmur about the need for a crime novel which combined the best features of the blood and thunder brigade with some of the character analysis, and other virtues, of the literary and mainstream novel. Well, it's not often found, even these days, but Denise Mina can do it.

Side by side with the story of plain, fat Paddy, who is her family's sole provider, we get the story of another young woman, much the same age, who is beautiful, has access to money, and has never done a day's work in her life. Unfortunately she's a coke-head, which leads, as always to trouble.

I am not a believer in the need for characters to 'grow', and I'm especially not keen on analysts who talk about a character's arc, and all that shit. But Paddy does grow, and develop, before your very eyes, and that's just fine, the way Mina does it. Paddy is a consistently interesting and convincing character.

Much recommended, but start with the first in the series.

This book ends, by the way, with a cliff-hanger which will make you gasp. But fear not. Number three in the series is available.

Very nicely designed by Bantam: royal octavo, set in 12/16 pt Garamond.

Peter Robinson: The Summer That Never Was

Of the three authors whose books are reviewed in this post, Peter Robinson is the one who has written the most books and has had the greatest amount of commercial success and critical recognition. (The Summer That Never Was made the New York Times bestseller list.) The fact that I like him the least of the three is neither here nor there: simply a matter of personal taste.

Robinson's series character is Inspector Banks, a British policeman of the old school. He has now, by my count, featured in 18 books, published over a twenty-year period. The Summer That Never Was first appeared in 2003, sixteenth in the series.

This is a long book, featuring parallel investigations into the disappearance of two teenage boys, forty or so years apart. Both investigations are headed up by women police officers, with Banks assisting each, either formally or informally.

This is a long book (489 pages), and in addition to hearing a lot about the investigations we also learn a great deal about the characters and backstories of Banks, his former lover Annie, and the woman he fancies now, Michelle. This is all well observed stuff, well written, thoughtful, literate, and cultured.

Why then am I not wildly enthusiastic? Well, for my taste the style is curiously old-fashioned, with a slightly plodding pace. The book feels as if it could have been written thirty years ago. But if it had been, the publisher would have wanted a book only half the length.

The cover quotes a blurb about how Banks is for those who miss Inspector Morse. But to my mind this book is not like Morse at all. It's more like Alan Hunter's books about Chief Superintendent Gently (1955 onwards); or W.J. Burley's books (1968 onwards), about Inspector Wycliffe.

But... Robinson is a big seller, so obviously lots of people find this very acceptable.

L.C. Tyler: The Herring Seller's Apprentice

Very stylish; very English; amusing, dry, clever, tricksy, draws on the best of the detective novel's past, and is clearly the work of a man who has read widely in the genre. He also has that old-fashioned virtue, much overlooked these days, namely a command of the language.

This is a Macmillan New Writing publication. The cover, painted by Mark Thomas, is excellent, and sets the tone nicely, as does the novel's subtitle: A gripping tale of murder, deceit and chocolate.

The two principal characters here are a writer (Ethelred) and his agent (Elsie). The latter is a forthright, plainspoken lady, who is described as 'very honest' in her assessment of her clients' work: on page 6, for example, she states that Ethelred's latest manuscript is 'crap'. When asked to be more specific, she says, 'dog's crap'. But Ethelred seems used to it.

Between them, these two look into the disappearance and death of Ethelred's former wife. And that's all you need to know, really.

In tone, this reminds me somewhat of the great and much-missed Colin Watson; and ditto Joyce Porter and her Inspector Dover. I have to confess (or boast) that I saw the Big Surprise coming; but then I am a deviously minded sod, with some experience of writing these things myself. And the ending of this book, like much else in it, is capable of more than one interpretation. So, as I said at the beginning, tricksy stuff. Keep your wits about you while you smile.


Anonymous said...

I'll warmly second the Denise Mina tip - her heroine has one of the best realised newspaper back stories I've read in ages.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, is thirty years ago already that "old fashioned?" I'd rather not think about it...

Anonymous said...

Dear Michael,

Thank you for your kind review of the Herring Seller's Apprentice and the very flattering comparison with Colin Watson. When your computer broke, I was afraid that you might not be able to review my book, but it was worth waiting for!

best wishes

Len Tyler

Jon Jermey said...

"The more thoughtful commentators on that kind of fiction had begun to murmur about the need for a crime novel which combined the best features of the blood and thunder brigade with some of the character analysis, and other virtues, of the literary and mainstream novel."

How sad that the publishers listened to the commentators and not to the readers, who were perfectly happy with the old format, thank you very much, and demonstrate this year after year by buying vast quantities of Agatha Christie books, these being almost the only classic detective fiction now available.

Gladys Hobson said...

Being an 'old fashioned girl' with an equally old fashioned husband, we are quite happy with Banks and co. My complaint is that fat books take too long to read (especially when they are read aloud - as is necessary in our case). We feel sometimes like cranking them up like an 'old fashioned' gramophone — 'get on with it, man!'
So, with plenty of crime, thriller, adventure, books to choose from (my husband's favourites) we tend to pick those books of average length, with short ones to compensate for the occasional 'fat' one. And we prefer books that are not prolific with 'f' words and the like. (We give up when he starts to sound like a steam engine — eff this that and the other on every line of a paragraph)
As I said, I am an 'old fashioned girl with an old fashioned husband' and we help to keep 'old fashioned' authors in pocket money!

Bookride said...

The Peter Robinsons are much better listened to on CDS abridged from the weighty books. They are read by Neil Pearson who is brilliant...I had vaguely thought of actually tackling the paperbacks but you've talked me out of it---for this relief, much thanks. Nigel

Anonymous said...

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