Author and writer living in London. Six non-fiction books, one of which (published by WIley) has been in the best-seller lists for three years since publication. Various works of fiction including two additions to the immortal "Mapp and Lucia" stories. Currently seeking a publisher for my narrative history of the Plantagenets, which was nominated for a Royal Society of Literature prize.
I don't normally post about business books here but felt I would break the rule in respect of Going South, which paints a very sobering view of the British economy and political system. The authors are both economic journalists, so it has the ring of true expertise about it.
It's message is that we are being unduly complacent about "our place in the world" and allowing our past glories (which were in many cases largely imagined) to blind us to out present competitive position, which is rapidly falling behind countries such as Brazil, which we still fondly like to think of as an emerging market. It is Britain, the authors argue, which will shortly have a third world economy, at least in relative terms.
I liked the comments on politicians past and present. One comment resonated in particular: that in the present soundbite-driven political system, leaving things well alone is not an option, because politicians have to demonstrate that they have "vision". I was reminded of Milton Friedman's comment that consumers do not need the government to protect them - on the contrary, it is the government from whom they need protection.
This is a very well written book by two authors who clearly know what they are talking about. Their message is unlikely to prove popular in political circles, but it is a very necessary one.
I remember enjoying The Necropolis Railway very much when I read it a few years back, and my current search for new detective writers led me back to his creation, Jim Stringer in this, the second of what has already become quite a lengthy series.
While I do enjoy the books very much, I do quibble a little about whether they truly qualify as "detective" fiction, at least the two which I have read to date. They are really just well-written narratives featuring a railway fireman who fancies himself to be also a detective. Whether he really is must remains a matter of conjecture. He takes part in no structured investigations, frequently leaps to wild conclusions, and is almost always wrong.
However, none of this seems to matter. He and his wife are likable and well-drawn characters, and the narrative is strong and well paced.
The author obviously has a love for steam trains and all the period and technical detail is spot-on. What is even more impressive is that the books are written in the first person, and reveal a narrator who is instantly credible, with period dialogue and perceptive inner thoughts.
I think what makes these books so endearing is that both the central protagonists are so essentially decent that it is impossible not to like them, and to care about what happens to them, which is more than one can say for Never Apologise, Never Explain, which I also read recently.
By coincidence, I happen to be following The Blackpool Highflyer with The Railway Detective by Edward Marston, of which more shortly.
I have recently read the first book in various detective series, and comparing and contrasting them is an interesting exercise.
I must admit to never having read anything by Susan Hill before save for Howard's End Is On The Landing at the recommendation of Simon Thomas. I had however read a lot about her, and knew that she was rated as a fine writer. Having now read this book, I would agree with this, but with qualifications.
The Various Haunts of Men follows the fortunes of the detective who will feature as the central character of the series, Simon Serailleur, and a thoroughly dissatisfying character he is too. We learn almost nothing about what makes him tick. On the contrary, we see him almost exclusively through the eyes of others, and then only to hear them telling each other what a puzzling person he is, who does not seem able to offer commitment to a relationship, or allow himself any feelings. I am sure this is a deliberate ploy on Hill's part, but it seems an odd approach to take. Perhaps things change in the later books. It is difficult to say more about the plot or characters without giving away what is meant to be a savage twist at the end, but I have to say that I guessed the ending (all of it) about half way through the book.
I think I read somewhere that she claims not to write detective fiction, but rather novels which feature a detective. In the light of that, I was expecting a Wallender-type experience, but this falls a long way short. When Mankell describes someone moving around their home talking things off shelves it somehow enriches our understanding of their character. Here it just feels like padding.
This is a good story and I am sure it will somehow end up on television, but it left me feeling slightly disappointed. It felt almost more like a women's romantic novel than a detective story.
Patrick O'Brian said in interview that his only regret about his Aubrey / Maturin novels is that he did not begin the narrat8ive at an earlier point in time. Mankell obviously feels the same way because he has now published a prequel to his Wallender novels.
The Pyramid is said in the author's note to have been put together from various ideas about Walenderl as a younger man which he sketched out and then discarded. They form a number of short stories. Only The Pyramid itself is of any real length. They are an interesting read, from which the female characters do not emerge well. Both Wallender's wife and sister are pretty appalling. Yet at this time he still has a good, though distant, relationship with Linda. his daughter.
More importantly, Mankell decided to publish The Pyramid to make explicit something of which he became increasingly aware while writing the later books, namely that they formed a narrative debate on Swedish society, and in particular on what has become known as "the Swedish model". In the introduction he asks the specific question of whether, if the welfare state and democracy are seen an linked, one can survive without the other. Sjowall and Wahloo, of course posed this question bluntly in their books, showing that despite the level of welfare provision, crimes are still committed, and great inequality remains. From their avowedly Marxist viewpoint, this is the result of oppression of a gullible proletariat by a capitalist system. For Mankell, more a matter of human nature and his actually more puzzling.
Throughout The Pyramid, the same question keeps cropping up. What is happening to Sweden? Surely things like this don't happen here? There is a sense of dislocation between the dream and reality. Towards the end, Wallender is debating this point with a colleague. If the welfare state provides for everyone, why do people need to commit crimes? His colleague poses a disquieting possibility. Is it democracy itself which no longer works? If people feel excluded from the political process, unconsulted and ignored, perhaps they commit crimes as some sort of existentialist statement? Or, as he calls it, "a rite".
Mankell has always been a good, thoughtful writer who just happens to write about crime. The Pyramid offers another dimension to the Wallender stories. At least now one can read the entire series in sequence. If only British publishers would do the same for Fred Vargas.
First, many apologies for not having posted recently. I have been writing rather than reading. Since my last post a few weeks back I have delivered not one but two finished books to the publishers.
One, Lucia on Holiday, will hopefully be of interest to many who read book blogs as it is the next instalment of my continuation of the classic Mapp and Lucia stories. I can be heard discussing it with Mariella on Radio 4's Open Book at 4pm on Sunday.
You heard it first from Pursewarden! Duly praised by this blog on its release (see review in May 2010 archive), Simon Acland's wonderful book "The Waste Land" has now been nominated for a People's Book Prize. You can vote for it here.
I have reviewed both Jim Murdoch's previous novels and have thoroughly enjoyed doing so. Rather than following that particular story any further, though, Murdoch has embarked in a totally new direction. Milligan and Murphy expressly refers to Mercier and Camier, a Beckett novel in which two men repeatedly try to leave a particular town without success, and the allusion is obvious as out two eponymous heroes first finally leave the town of their birth on a whim and then spend the rest of the book walking to other places which seem exactly the same, while debating while they left in the first place and dealing with their guilt about having abandoned their mother. In Beckett's book, Camier is a private eye, and in a nice touch Murdoch has the two boys successfully located by a private eye hired by their mother, allowing a few wry reflections on the nature of the detective's process.
There are other influences too. Surely the name of the first character is not accidental, for there are frequent whiffs of Puckoon, one of Jim's (and my) favourite books, and I thought I detected a sense of Jack Trevor Story in some of the dialogue. Jim's unique voice shines through, however, and just as well since he is a very fine writer indeed.
It is particularly impressive that he has managed to produce a novel which is so different in subject matter, style and characterisation from his first two. I can only begin to guess how many hours it must have taken to think himself into the minds of his characters.
I am not going to reveal the ending, not least because there is an amusing and thought-provoking passage about the nature of the end to a novel. In order to know the ending, the author argues, you have to know at which point in the story the writer decided to stop telling it.
I really recommend this book. It is available online from FV Books