Monday, 23 November 2009

"Swan Song" by Edmund Crispin

Random House are to be congratulated for bringing Edmund Crispin back into print under their Vintage imprint. Publishers please note that technical merit and obscurity do not have to go hand in hand. I secured this book only a few minutes ahead of someone else the first day it arrived in my local library, and there are already reservations pending on it for when I take it back.

Crispin's real name was Montgomery and he was an amazingly talented individual. A capable enough musician to be both organist and choirmaster at an Oxbridge college, and to write various film scores, he also wrote short stories, film screenplays, and book reviews for The Sunday Times. It is though for his detective stories that he is best known.

His first, The Case of the Gilded Fly, was published in 1944, so he cannot strictly speaking be considered part of the Golden Age, though he is so stylistically if not chronologically (he was born after Ngaio Marsh and died before her). His style is quite unique. Light, witty, devastatingly intellectual, and occasionally very bitchy. His range of vocabulary is impressive (even I had to look up "cinereous"), and his characters, though lightly sketched, are full and largely sympathetic.

His detective, Gervaise Fen, is an Oxford don with a liking for Wagner and beer, who drives (very erratically) a battered red sports car called Lily Christine. Because his books are much shorter, Crispin is never able to flesh him out in the same way as Sayers does with Lord Peter Wimsey, but there is much of the same easy intellectual superiority, though with a much more eccentric touch - perhaps Wimsey crossed with Campion?

Detective stories are largely a matter of taste. I must confess to being unable to read Agatha Christie for some reason, though I can appreciate that her books are well crafted. The only one that I ever really enjoyed was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, since it is so original, as anyone who has read it will know. I also found The Mousetrap positively puerile when I finally saw it on stage. I much prefer Ngaio Marsh, though I think the romantic sub-plot, so important and well done by Sayers once Harriet Vane arrives on the scene, is a real weakness for her. The scene where Alleyn and Troy finally come together seems wooden and stilted, even allowing for the period dialogue. Romance also blossoms in Crispin's books, but not for Fen, who has a wife and children hidden discreetly offstage.

I think it is quite possible that Crispin is the best writer of all these authors. With all due deference to Sayers, there is something about Crispin's prose that reaches out and grabs you. His description of a blustery, snowy day in Oxford is wonderfully evocative in Swan Song. Given that this is a murder mystery, it is difficult to say much more about the book without risking divulging some essential clue, but I can reveal that, like some of Marsh's stories, it is set in a theatre against a backdrop of rehearsals for Wagner's Meistersinger.

It has always been a source of surprise and disappointment to me that Crispin has never been filmed or televised unlike his rivals. The image of an Oxford don driving a red sports car around Oxford lanes is surely a cinematic one. Perhaps this re-issue of perhaps his best book (though I might vote for The Moving Toyshop) will prompt the re-evaluation which is surely overdue.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

"The Madness of Queen Maria" by Jenifer Roberts

I do not usually review non-fiction on my blog, but am very happy to make an exception in the case of The Madness of Queen Maria. Jenifer Roberts is to be congratulated not only on adding considerably to one's knowledge of eighteenth century Europe, but also because she has produced a very well-written book, which keeps the reader enthralled with what is admittedly a very sad story throughout.

Given the title of the book, it really is not spoiling the plot to divulge that the unfortunate Maria spent the last twenty-five years of her life insane. Even that was not the end of the indignities heaped upon her, since she died horribly of dysentery, and her rotting corpse was then was not finally given the state burial it was due for another five years or so after that, as we learn from a gripping but gruesome description of her putrid body being laid out according to custom by retching and fainting princesses.

Away from the personal side of Maria's life, however, we have a familiar tale of royal favourites, an oppressive and overbearing church, and an autocratic absolute monarchy. Forget the so-called Enlightened Despots such as Maria Theresa, Frederick and Catherine who were embarking on cautious reform in Austria, Prussia and Russia respectively. The Enlightenment seems to have left Portugal largely untouched.

As I said, this is a sad story, but well worth reading. Anyone familiar with the Napoleonic wars will have a pretty good idea of how things are going to end, but I have never before heard the events described from a Portuguese, rather than an English perspective. I really enjoyed this book.

"The Madness of Queen Maria" is published by Templeton Press under ISBN 978-0-9545589-1-8

Monday, 2 November 2009

"The Secret History of Science Fiction" ed. Kelly and Kessel. "Gravity's Rainbow" by Thomas Pynchon

I am not normally a huge fan of short stories, but I really enjoyed this anthology, partly because it is much more than merely a collection of short stories, also debating the question of to what extent Science Fiction and mainline fiction are really separate entities at all. I found this fascinating. How many mainstream writers have actually written Sci Fi? I could think straight away of E.M. Forster (The Machine Stops), Anthony Burgess (The End of the World News), Lawrence Durrell (The Revolt of Aphrodite, originally published as Tunq and Nunquam) and of course George Orwell (1984). Maybe readers can suggest some others?

The real point is to what extent Sci Fi is under-estimated as fiction simply because of its label. This is a debate I have considered previously in writing about Philip K. Dick, and I tend to agree with Kelly and Kessel. Asimov's Foundation series, for example, can be read as good serious literature, while Dick is almost certainly a neglected genius by anyone's standards. Similar issues arise with various "historical" novelists, though technically any novel set in the past could be regarded as "historical". Perhaps what we need here is a further sub-classification into the "costume drama" type of historical novel (Daphne du Maurier, Jean Plaidy, Dorothy Dunnett, etc.) and the others (Patrick O'Brian, Derek Robinson, C.S. Forester, etc). Yet even this sort of exercise has its dangers, for I can think of at least one lady in North Norfolk who would hotly defend Dunnett as a serious novelist, as I suppose is du Maurier if only for Rebecca. Oh dear!

I think this all goes to show that, as the editors suggest, any sort of classification is both difficult and dangerous, that really there is just "literature", and that to seek to parcel it up into neat little compartments based purely upon its subject matter achieves little but to diminish certain authors in our estimation.

Kelly and Kessel start with an interesting "what if?". Suppose Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow had won the Nebula Award (a sort of Sci Fi Booker Prize) for which it was short-listed in 1973. Would this distinction between Sci Fi and serious fiction have ended? Or might there be yet another classification, perhaps, of "speculative fiction"?

By an amazing coincidence I had just finished reading Gravity's Rainbow when this book arrived. I can see why it might have been considered for a Sci Fi award, though in truth it's hard to say precisely that it would qualify. On one reading of the book there is no alternative science going on, at least not in the sense of it actually working. There are lots of people attempting to do things which sound scientifically impossible, but largely in the hope of gaining and keeping large budgets and staffs, and thus political influence, for this is a novel which operates on various levels. V2 rockets did break the sound barrier, for example, and some of the experiments described sound close to what Jung was working on as described in Synchronicity.

Picking up a Pynchon novel is always a humbling experience for anyone with aspirations as a writer. Like Joyce, his prose is like large vats of hot, dark chocolate in which you can easily drown while enjoying it. It is a style that no other contemporary writer could pull off, yet while it is brilliant it also runs the risk of being labelled as impenetrable as some verse (think Ezra Pound). A novelist's first task is to tell a story, and you cannot do this if you lose your reader along the way. As Pynchon concocts his heady brew, in which every image is striking, every character is larger than life, and every scene slightly surreal, you feel your senses beginning to reel. He is more of a challenge than any writer I have ever read.

As a period piece, set in England during the latter part of WWII, the book works well, although there are a few glaring errors. Petrol for private cars was unobtainable, for example, as were stockings, while the German rocket base at Peenemunde was way beyond the range of Spitfires, except for specially adapted high level reconnaissance models. Normally, I find such things irritating but somehow here they did not seem to matter, perhaps because, as with Philip K. Dick, one's sense of reality has become gradually distorted anyway.

There is a constant mix of the sublime and the ridiculous, of high brow and low brow. It is almost like watching a cartoon version of Proust, or listening to Mahler arranged for the barrel organ. A truly remarkable book. Does it matter whether it is Sci Fi or not? I don't see why.

But, coming back to The Secret History of Science Fiction, what Kelly and Kessel have done is to gather together, and presumably where necessary commission, short Sci Fi stories by mainstream authors. These are all enjoyable and one or two are outstanding. I would single out in particular those by Michael Chabon and Don DeLillo. Read and enjoy.

"The Secret History of Science Fiction" is published by Tachyon Publications of San Francisco under ISBN 978-1-892391-93-3

Sunday, 1 November 2009

"The Search" by Maureen Myant

Having just seen Protektor at the London Film Festival, which also portrays life in what was then Czechoslovakia under the Nazis, I felt I had to go back and read this book again, which I did and it was just as good as I remembered it being the first time round.

Myant tells of a family forcibly split up by the Nazis after the husband / father has been killed, and follows the efforts of Jan, who is only ten years old, to seek out his different family members and re-unite them.

This she does well. There are some tense scenes, particularly when German soldiers are conducting searches, and also some powerfully emotional scenes, not least the bitter sweet ending, which I will not reveal. It reminded me a little of reading The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier when I was young. I wonder if Myant had read this too? It seems such an obvious parallel, though there the family are Polish, I think.

This is a first novel, and promises well for the future. It is certainly a whole lot better than many I have been forced to read while judging first novel prizes. Alma Books are to be congratulated on being ready to support such a promising writer.

"The Search" is published by Alma Books under ISBN 978-1-84688-092-6