Saturday, 27 March 2010

More Christopher Fowler

There was an interesting debate recently on Stuck-in-a-book about the reasons people read authors' biographies. Like Simon, if I find a writer whom I really like, I tend to read everything by them that I can lay my hands on, and then finish with their biography. I was therefore very interested to hear that Christopher Fowler, whom I have praised previously on this site, had written an auto-biography of his early life, and grateful to Watson Little for sending me a review copy.

Though Fowler is older than me, we seem to have shared similar backgrounds, haunting the local library, storing away unusual words, and reading books that were supposed to be far beyond our years. I can well remember for example, reading War and Peace at the age of 12 one long, wet Easter weekend.

Paperboy is a joy to read, not only because it tells such a wonderfully evocative story of growing up in a London suburb all those years ago, but also for its wry humour. I loved, for example, the pseudo-academic footnotes such as the explanation of jam roly-poly as "a heavy suet dessert designed to slow husbands down and stop them wanting sex".

I would really recommend this book, though I think you will enjoy it all the more if you read a few of Fowler's books first. As to which, there is good news. Like many readers, I was aghast when Fowler seemed to have killed off his Bryant and May series, but thankfully there is a seventh now available, Bryant and May on the loose, which I have just read. Even more good news, in that the ending strongly suggests that there are yet more to come. I do hope so.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

"Inspector French's Greatest Case" by Freeman Wills Crofts

I promised to report when I got my hands on another of these lesser-known Golden Age detective books, and here we are. Well done Camden library service - incidentally, this looks interestingly like a print-on-demand book.

Crofts was born in Dublin in 1879 but did most of his writing fairly late in life. This book was first published in 1925 and it was not until 4 years after this that he resigned from his job as a civil engineer to become a full time writer. He was to prove prolific. I have so far tracked down 35 crime titles, but he also wrote short stories, radio plays - oh, and a book on municipal drains for HMSO.

Unusually, and heavily unfashionably for the period, Crofts's detective is a professional from Scotland Yard, a species usually treated by the toff heroes of contemporary books with anything from condescension to outright ridicule. This conditions the sort of books which he writes, which are outright policiers, dwelling heavily on investigative procedure and evidential detail.

The book is well written and does not feel unduly dated. I guessed the identity of the killer, and had some sort of inkling of how it was all done, but the way in which French slowly but steadily gnaws through the mass of conflicting detail to the truth within is impressive and keeps you gripped.

On the basis of this story, Crofts deserves to be much better known today. He was certainly very highly regarded by other writers during his lifetime (he died in 1957). Raymond Chandler described him as "the soundest builder (of a crime story) of them all".

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Book Review Blog Carnival

The current Book Review Blog Carnival is well underway. Take a look here.

Monday, 1 March 2010

The Nathaniel Drinkwater books by Richard Woodman

Given my liking for both Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin and C.S. Forester's Hornblower books, it is surprising that I have not come across Richard Woodman, and his creation Nathaniel Drinkwater, before, since the first in the series was written about thirty years ago.

The three which I stumbled across were in an omnibus edition: The Bomb Vessel (set around the Battle of Copenhagen), The Corvette (an arctic tale of privateers and whalers) and 1805 (about - yes, you've guessed it, the Battle of Trafalgar).

The first thing to say is that Woodman writes a good story, and the period detail is excellent. There are one or two things, though, which, if correct, are certainly not what I previously understood them to be. For example, I always thought that a sloop was a vessel that was too small to be commanded by a post captain.

Drinkwater is a strong, credible character who commands our attention and respect, and the supporting cast is well drawn too. It is in truth very difficult to assess books like these, since they have such a strongly specialist appeal, and most readers will have their own favourites in favour of whom they may over-compensate. Personally, I would probably rate them, if pushed, below O'Brien and Forester but above Dudley Pope and Alexander Kent, but this is very much a subjective opinion.

They are well-written and a rattling good read, and at the end of the day you cannot ask for much more than that. The difference, I submit, with O'Brien and Forester is that they are serious literary writers who just happen to be writing about the Napoleonic war at sea (and Forester also wrote many books which had nothing to do with it). Woodman is writing very good quality commercial fiction, and good luck to him, for he does it well. Will I read the others? Yes, absolutely.