Charles Bigger, a five foot gangland killer who offed his own brother and disappeared without a conviction, is contacted by “the Man” to retire one Jake Winroy, a witness about to testify about some important people. People and events do not play ball and our friendly neighbourhood killer is coming apart at the seams, physically and mentally.
As with Thompson’s “The Getaway” this has a sick, dream-like feel to it and voyages into outright surrealism at the end to depict a man at the end of his tether. Killer Charlie’s insertion into wholesome ordinariness lends the narrative a nicely unsettling parodic quality. Everyone – almost everyone – buys Charlie’s nice guy routine, particularly since he comes with glowing personal references to bolster his cover, so the first turn of the novel is when he starts throwing snark around and confiding his actual thoughts to the reader (“Somehow I managed to keep from punching the stupid bastard in the face”). His toxicity is not, however, bullet-proof and among his many blunders the sentimental twonk falls for house-help Ruth, hobbling around on crutches and telling him she knows he’s a nice guy really. This nice guy is someone who drops lit matches onto a woman’s naked breasts to make a point. Charlie gets in with the Sheriff Summers and his wife, accompanying them to Church (where he comes up with his murderous plan), gets mentored and offered a job by fellow house boarder Kendall, almost gets framed by the drunken Jake Winroy, almost frozen to death locked in a cold store and puts away the booze like it’s going out of fashion. This is the good life lived by a liar who can’t quite live with himself.
Thompson’s work feels personal. “Savage Night” is a simulacrum for a dodgy type play-acting at life while secretly plotting murders and nausing up multiple opportunities for happiness and love. Not a million miles away from Thompson’s own turbulent life, one feels. There is hard-won wisdom regarding drink (“You take just so much from the bottle, and then you stop taking. From then on you’re putting”), I doubt Ruth’s biblical name was accidental and with Charlie coughing up blood and Fay Winroy suggesting “Let’s kill him now and get it over with” there are Shakespearean nods if you want to find them. Thompson was no hack and his death-bed prediction of posthumous acclaim is all the more on point in 2019 where Yorgos Lanthimos is looking to follow up “The Favourite” with an adaptation of Thompson’s “Pop.1280”. The feeling seems to be if Thompson was good enough for Stanley Kubrick he’s certainly good enough for a film-maker looking for a low-budget character piece with noir trappings and the opportunity for some arty surrealism at the end. It’s just a pity Thompson never got to enjoy some of that acclaim in his lifetime but then again “it seemed like I’d always been living on the ragged edge.”
Paris times two. One which Hitler never invaded but nevertheless the scene of rising fascism and a mysterious death. The other is a ruin on a destroyed, uninhabitable Earth, courtesy of the “Void Century”. The connection between these two worlds is just one element in an ambitious, very enjoyable, novel that while by no means a failure stumbles a little under its surfeit of knockout ideas.
In fine SF style “Rain” leverages modern fears for its plot. The central idea – the “Silver Rain” – is exactly the sort of threat Prince Charles was fretting about when he talked of the perils of “grey goo” and Reynolds, God bless him, has no qualms depicting in graphic detail what happens when that rain falls. Then there is the terror of “the Forgetting” which will be all too familiar to anyone who has had a hard drive with precious data turn into a brick. There are also secret wormhole entrances in Parisian train tunnels, “war babies” running around killing people, quantum snapshots of Earth encased within so-called “Anomalous Large Structures” and much more… Reynolds is nothing if not reliable when it comes to ridiculously engaging ideas. The narrative switches between one Wendell Floyd, an American detective in Paris with a side-line as a musician (although we don’t rarely see any of the musicians in this novel playing their instruments), his partner Custine and his enjoyably spiky German ex Greta unravelling a European-flavoured murder-mystery that mines new territory for a Reynolds novel. That this murder-mystery is eventually revealed to involve the smuggling of memorabilia to an alternate-future Earth is pure jam. Meanwhile, in scenes that appear to come from a completely different novel, impetuous archaeologist Verity Auger (Reynolds likes his archaeologists) gets co-opted into a retrieval mission through a wormhole to Earth Two. In this, she quickly succeeds. Returning proves trickier. It’s all great fun and ends with a knockout last line. Plus I can’t not enjoy a novel that fields “Asimov-compliant” robots or wormhole entrances buried under the surface of Phobos, recalling Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”.
So that said it seems churlish to criticise a novel so brimming with ideas and written so engagingly but there is a sense that back in 2004 Reynolds was still learning how to juggle his elements here. Auger is remarkably well-informed about politics and military manoeuvres for an archaeologist. Musical gumshoe Floyd experiences zero perceptible culture shock being confronted by much outside his frame of reference and it’s all-too convenient he is the one who twigs how to decipher the coordinates of Earth 2. We only experience the Polity civil war third hand making it difficult to get enthused about and the finale involves the pursuit of a character we have met once only fleetingly and bears not a passing similarity to Roger Moore playing space invaders at the end of “Moonraker”. The Enigma machine gets a cursory walk-on role (why would this have been invented if World War II was avoided?) and music, while important, is more of a grace note. I have no evidence but ‘Rain’ feels like an early unpublished work exhumed after the success of ‘Revelation Space’. It’s in no means a failure or an unenjoyable read but the dexterity with which Reynolds handles his material elsewhere means it’s more noticeable when he grinds the gears a little, as here. Still ‘Rain’ does nothing to diminish Reynolds’ must-read status in my book; it’s a big piece of SF cake where some of the ingredients don’t quite marry, and honestly, a lesser novel from this author is several wormhole-jumps ahead of so much other modern popular fiction. So, great stuff, occasionally clunky but in a nutshell….“I’m not sorry we had this adventure.”
Lightweight piffle. One year after John Huston put “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre” into cinemas Old Man Lovejoy – a ‘heart case in a wheel chair, with a good-looking nurse’ – hires manly Al Colby to safeguard a packet of Incan parchment telling of “the Treasure of Amarú”. An adventure singularly lacking in thrills ensues.
The first third of this is pure ‘Death On The Nile’ but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is a lot of fun to be had on-board a boat, leaving poker games early to creep about deck in the dead of night while pretty girls get threatened, cabins get ransacked and grandees get offed. It’s an atmospheric setting with a bit of mystery and skulduggery thrown in and this reader strongly suspects the travel-loving David Dodge thought so too, possibly magicking his Peruvian diaries into this slight affair. Once shacked up in the Hotel de Turismo (hotels are fastidiously namechecked) Colby keeps running into his shipmates, fending off the amorous advances of tipsy Julie or getting tied up by the dastardly Jeff. Everyone wants that pesky parchment it turns out and Colby – mouthing the words, one suspects – reads of Incan gold stashes and treasures beyond belief. He’s duped by a man he was warned of, tied up, shot, falls for obvious delaying tactics on-board ship and is surprised when the man he is expecting to double-cross him double-crosses him. One suspects Mr Bean might have made a better fist of proceedings,
This would make for an average episode of ‘Danger Man’ or a so-so entry in a ‘Stories For Boys’ anthology but it’s thin gruel post ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’. What this needs in the middle of it all is a whisky-soaked bruised romantic – say, one Humphrey Bogart – but Dodge is too blissed out on Vitamin D to venture into hard-boiled waters. It’s a perfectly amenable, even moreish read, but the Hard Case Crime cover promises waaaaay more than the novel delivers. Save this for a couple of hours in a departure lounge. “Adiós, smart guy.”
Sex-bomb manipulates player into offing her money-bags husband but the person really pulling the strings is the author. This starts off in familiar waters but Block’s plot turns are, as usual, quite delicious and the narrative ends up going to some surprisingly nihilistic places
This short novel is about dependency in all its forms and it must have been a right old shocker in 1960. Frankly, it features scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in the latest series of ‘True Detective’. Twenty-something Joe Marlin is a drifter, a non-payer of hotel bills, a seducer of women, a gigolo. Think the Steve Martin character in ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ minus the laffs. There’s certainly a vicarious thrill to be had in telepathising yourself into a life that thumbs its nose at any rule or hotel bill but you soon start looking to see where the royal kick in the arse that Joe deserves is going to come from. Enter Mona Brassard. Yes, she’s the world’s greatest piece of eye-candy – these types always have to be to galvanise their man into murderous action and for him to get jolly pissed when things don’t go his way – but she’s also front and centre in coincidences which both the observant reader and the author know are all too convenient. ‘Grifter’s Game’ is self-aware, Joe is too, and Block is fleet of foot in leveraging this for plot goodness. There are three delicious plot turns in the first 30 pages and 55 years later the great man is still at it in 2015’s ‘The Girl With The Deep Blue Eyes’. When the first twist happens you want to hug Block as you hunker down in your reading chair, knowing you’re in good authorial hands.
The novel jettisons the grifter angle fairly early on and proceeds through Joe’s shabby little plan, the bang-bang itself, and then the wheels inevitably coming off as the dratted dame starts stirring the pot. Mona, however, is not quite outed as some great eminence grise and nor does Joe get left in the gutter as she jets it off to Monaco, leaving him and us to reflect wryly on the absurdity of existence. Oh no. This is Lawrence Block we’re talking about, a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America . Fiend Block even dangles escape in the form of Nan Hickman in front of Joe and there is no reader who won’t be yelling at Joe to take what money he has and clear out to a life with her. Joe has every opportunity to walk away from this road show and that he doesn’t is the killing blow. That’s why the novel ends with him (beyond contempt, by the way, for what he does to Mona) contemplating a life down the drain for himself. Joe is despicable but Block lets us know – not that we need telling – that it’s the self-loathing that will do for him in the end.
I think there’s a case to be made for an edition of ‘The Quotable Block’, there are pull-out lines dotted all the way through this: “I thought like clocks tick”, “I drank bourbon and thought about murder”, “Eve learned that one the day they got dressed and moved out of Eden”. Mid twentieth-century man-fic still works like gangbusters because as in Shakespeare (‘Macbeth’ gets a name check in ‘Grifter’) we get to live for a while in the shoes of naughty people doing naughty things, satisfying our schoolboy ids, before sentence is imposed, usually by the Universe, thereby appeasing our nobler, censorious, selves. All done in prose that sings. These days ‘Grifter’ would make for a fine one episode vacation from the main proceedings of a hit show, something like the Jesse and Jane narrative in ‘Breaking Bad’. Wait a minute. Lawrence Block writing for ‘Breaking Bad’? Now there’s an idea…
A vast, all-you-can-eat, SF buffet. Probably off-puttingly long for those trying to cram in 250 books in a year and whether or not the story actually needs an entire chapter on the evolution of the Ly-cilph is open for debate but for those of us happy to sud ourselves in a highly readable SF saga this is a deep, warm, bath. ‘Reality’ certainly is a shelf-breaker but Hamilton can write and he can keep the pages turning too. And how.
This is arguably the SF version of ‘The Stand’ with the crazy page count, the multiple characters and the dead acting as the insidious virus that takes down humanity. Hamilton has the human race doing…well, alright actually; spreading across the stars via sentient biotek ships, colonising multiple planets (the ‘Capitalists In Space’ angle doesn’t escape criticism), divvying up into two main augmented factions – Adamists and Edenists – with their fancy neural nanonics or affinity links and out-lawing any use of anti-matter after various catastrophes. Other than a deliciously mysterious ring of exploded space stations (the ‘Ruin Ring’) left behind by an extinct race and, um, an escaped maniac inside a tree who wants to live forever all seems to be going tickety-boo. So by the half-way point Hamilton is well placed to systematically take a blow-torch to the entire roadshow. The setting up of and then shocking, awe-inspiring, collapse of an entire space-faring civilisation put me in mind of Dan Simmons’ ‘Hyperion’. Hamilton has the writing chops for the small moments but you can sense him really seizing the SF canvas here and his glee is almost palpable.
The Big Bad in ‘Reality’ is our old friends the recently deceased who make an inconvenient return appearance from the Void Beyond with lightning coming out of their fingers, the ability to shapeshift and crash any nearby tech. The key moment in the novel – the test for the hard-SF reader and the moment Hamilton outs himself as a mainstream populist – is when a set of fangs appears. There is also a Yeti. Oh and naked ladies try to entice you into their arms which regrettably only ever happens in fiction and rarely ends well. The dead’s weird ability to warp reality allows Hamilton to leverage supernatural and historical imagery – hence the books reputation for involving everything and the kitchen sink – but he also has fine fun doing military SF, laser-tastic space battles and has the nerve to actually depict the void beyond death and the armies of disembodied personalities clamouring to return to corporeality. It’s the sort of audaciousness literary critics have orgasms over when your name is Philip Pullman and you’re ripping off Milton and Blake. Here, Hamilton has gruff cosmonik Warlow quietly discussing Catholicism with a sentient space-station amid the rings of Murora before he sets off a nuke.
The encounter between the living and the dead of Hamilton’s Confederation Universe actually goes swimmingly well and everyone goes home happy. Only joking. Humanity gets its arse spectacularly kicked in orbit about Lalonde and only the heroics of blatant – but thoroughly enjoyable – ‘Gary Sue’ Joshua Calvert results in a statistically negligible win. ‘Reality’ is, of course, merely part 1 of a trilogy you puny humans and by the finale dangling threads abound. Whither Dr Alkad Mzu? Last seen nipping off in a voidhawk with thoughts of “the Alchemist” on her mind. What was with that structure the Tyrathca were building and their talk of “the Sleeping God”? Have we seen the last of Laton? Above all, how the hell is Hamilton going to land all this? I have absolutely no idea but I do know it’s a hell of a writer who can have you gagging for more after a thousand pages: “Whatever it was they came up against is something that one day we are also going to encounter.”
Good but not great. This documents in horrifying detail the vicious takeover and expansion of a Mexican cocaine cartel, it’s involvement in America’s war on communism, the political machinations of Opus Dei and much else. On the surface, it’s a rip-roaring read; Winslow has put the research in and he sure knows how to make stuff happen. I must document I was very happy to be engaged by such a page turner as 2018 drew to a close. The only problem is that – on the basis of ‘Dog’ – Winslow is no James Ellroy and this has more in common with a first draft thriller than you might expect.
Lets start with the positives. I was gripped within the first Chapter and there is storytelling going on here that is well above average. Art Keller’s back story, his first encounter with Adan and Raul, the fate of Pilar, Callan and O-Bop’s rise as gangsters, Callan’s year-long “Irish sabbatical”, his road-trip with Nora and her own depressing story; all of these could have been stand alone short stories or novellas, really toothsome mid-season episodes full of interesting character work. Winslow also zooms in and out with aplomb; he can reveal that the Pope is a keen support of Opus Dei and therefore complicit in an anti-communist bloodbath while really making you live Callan’s year of hell in “Single Room Occupancy”. The story and references had me heading to Wikipedia to orientate myself, if nothing else ‘Dog’ gives you a terrifying primer on the hell on earth that is the so-called war on drugs and at times I idly fantasised about a nuclear strike on the entire continent or, alternatively, a long shower. It’s a heck of a picture Winslow paints.
Except coincidences abound. Egregiously so. Callan just happens to run into old lag Mickey in a bar in another country years after leaving New York. Callan then winds up romping onto a beach and saving the one prostitute, Nora, he saw once in a brothel in another country years previously. Nora, handbrake-turning from whore to Madonna, bumps into Father Parada in the middle of – get this – the Mexico City earthquake, the same priest Art Keller ran into in Tijuana brandishing a cross years earlier. Nora then not only gets it on with drug lord Adan but informs on him to Keller. Sal Scachi is a New York wise guy who works for the CIA and Opus Dei. It’s a novel, granted, not real life but in the end it all stacks up. You start asking the novel is there anyone who isn’t going to have a connection to Nora?
Furthermore, I didn’t believe in Nora for a moment. Here’s a college girl (“Nora the Whora”) who drops out to go on the game, makes all the men go weak at the knees (natch) but reads the Wall Street Journal over breakfast, negotiates an arms deal with the Chinese (quoting from the Sun Tzu she’s just read on the plane) and on the run with Callan picks up “Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, The Eustace Diamonds and a couple of Nora Roberts romances”. Ah, fiction. The moment Father Parada starts making sentimental plans for the future a red warning sign might as well start flashing. Poor old Pilar never gets more character than “God, what a beauty”. Tio Barrera gets pitifully addicted to cocaine but reappears in the finale without so much as a shake. Both Keller’s and Adan Barrera’s families are there to facilitate attacks of conscience and phone taps when the plot requires but otherwise disappear, as does Callan’s first love Siobhan. Character work is all too convenient for the story Winslow is trying to tell.
Finally, Winslow flat out abandons prose for script directions during the action scenes. So we get:
The bullet takes Raul in mid-stride.
Square in the stomach.
Art sees him tumble, roll and then start to crawl forward.
Then the night lights up.
…and there is reams of this. No one is ever going to rave about Winslow’s sentences. It’s all about the story and that’s fine, God knows I love a page-turner, but with its time jumps and novella-length vignettes this sometimes feels more like one of the old “fix-up” novels than a single, linear narrative. A lot of this would be fixed in the transformation of this novel into a workable script – which many scenes already are – but on screen, the same faces popping up again and again it just wouldn’t fly. In the end, Winslow makes you wonder whether your time might be better served reading a non-fiction account of the events rather than a clumsily fictionalised account.
So why do I still intend to gobble up “The Cartel” and “The Force”? Because none of the above complaints do anything to subtract from the power of a toothsome, propulsive narrative however shonkily put together. And that, my fellow sicarios, is the real power of the dog.
Nearly seventy years after publication this novel still has thousands of rads of gamma radiation coming off it. No one is going to say ‘Killer’ is a fun read but, by God, it’s powerful. And disturbing. This reader found two main reasons to keep reading: the very modern psychological realism of what author Jim Thompson does (there is more insight here than in an entire library of psychology textbooks) and the readerly desire to see Sheriff Lou Ford get his just desserts, preferably involving a stake through the heart. Your copy may have the Stanley Kubrick quote on the front and if so you should consider it due warning that if such a work gave the director of ‘The Shining’ the willies you’re about to take a trip through a very dark forest. Lou Ford’s mind makes the Overlook Hotel look like the Pontefract Travelodge.
This novel is a walk through the mind of a despicable piece of filth led by a writer with awesome control and craftsmanship and if you dip into Robert Polito’s Savage Art you’ll quickly learn Thompson had real-world experience of menacing sheriffs and other degenerate authority figures to draw upon. Plus his journo buddies said when he was sober he was one heck of a writer, so there’s that. The plot involves a local good ol’ boy Sheriff Lou Ford falling into a sadomasochistic relationship with a prostitute, cooking up a get-rich-quick scheme and then double-crossing her, mainly to get back at the man who he blames for his brother’s death. So far, so conventional for the genre but Lou Ford is a rum sort. He likes to purposefully button-hole ordinary types and deliberately bore the pants off them. Failing that, a cigarette burn will do. His idea of comfort reading is morbid psychology and medical textbooks. He’s intelligent, charming, an expert manipulator, a lover of carb-heavy meals, fond of shooting himself with male hormones in lieu of Viagra and talks of ‘the sickness’. He offers to marry his long-term girlfriend Amy Stanton just to shut up her up then tries to wriggle out of it by plotting to kill her. The murder for which his brother takes the rap on his behalf was heinous in 1952 and remains so in 2018, being potentially a barrier to entry for readers with young children and what eventually happens to Amy Stanton, announced heart-stoppingly at the start of chapter 18, had this reader gagging for Ford’s comeuppance. It’s a piece of work that takes 120 pages to do what the TV show ‘Dexter’ tried to do in 96 episodes and it provoked a right old storm when Michael Winterbottom dared to put it all on screen, sick-making violence and all.
The trick is in giving Lou Ford the floor, letting his voice reign supreme, because the man can’t shut up (“I'll tell you everything”) and convicts himself from the earliest pages, with the reader cast as impotent, horror-struck, bystander. Ford’s first-person narration, his sentimentality (“My feelings were hurt”), his intellectual arrogance (“I don't know why he hadn't used hyoscin like any damned fool should have”), his misanthropy and games playing are all depicted in pin-sharp clarity. Thompson really pins the bastard to the dissecting table and you get the sense the author is standing in the corner with his arms folded watching calmly as Ford thrashes around entrapping himself. Thompson eventually fields pathological and developmental reasons for Ford’s behaviour which may or may not convince the reader depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing but which definitely feels in tune with the modern crime novel with its background police sources and cleave to realism. Thompson certainly isn’t beholden to realism (‘The Getaway’ voyages into outright surrealism in places) but ‘Killer’ definitely feels like new seams of insight were being opened up for exploration.
Eventually, the townspeople twig Ford is a bullshit merchant of epic proportions and one of Ford’s colleagues is so riven with remorse he shoots himself. There are still good people in Thompson’s fiction. The novel ends (“All of us”) with Ford claiming solidarity with some supposed cadre of similarly put-upon outlaws and losers which is the standard self-aggrandising bollocks from narcissistic egomaniacs but the reveals (here, as in ‘The Getaway’, characters refusing to die complicate matters most enjoyably), the parodically romantic hook in the opening chapter (“The way I'd fought to forget—and had almost forgot—until I met her”), the deathly black humour (“Why'd they all have to come to me to get killed? Why couldn't they kill themselves?”) all demonstrate who is actually in control throughout. In Jim Thompson Lou Ford meets his match and he loses in straight sets. ‘The Killer Inside Me’ is chilling but it’s also a complete demolition, not remotely sensationalistic, profoundly serious and, as we now know, highly influential, right into the digital age. “What a good man is Deputy Lou Ford.”
Sui generis. Yes, this features a bank robbery but it ends in successive visions of hell that even Sam Peckinpah thought were unfilmable. It’s a grim read but if ever there was a novel to hand someone thinking of doing over the local Santander this is it.
‘The Getaway’ is all about mistrust. Once you lose your trust in those around you – criminal partners or no –that’s it, it’s all over. Self-confidant criminal mastermind Carter "Doc" McCoy (“No one could get on the inside of a job as easily as he, no one could plan so shrewdly, no one was so imperturbable and coolheaded”) and his vastly more inexperienced wife Carol high tail it from their latest bank job, are inconveniently betrayed by their knuckle-dragging partner Rudy, worry about what to do about their bent lawyer and the parole that was bought and then get some very bad news indeed which, of course, drives ‘The Getaway’. If that isn’t enough bad luck, Carol gets conned out of their entire bag of loot by a train station thief who, natch, ends up sleeping with the fishes; bodies are dropping in this novel from the earliest pages. Doc (struggling to maintain his shit-eating grin) and Carol (barely holding herself together psychologically) bicker their way across America with migrant farm workers, hide out in some hellish caves, a house literally built out of shit and then journey through mist to hell itself. The novel depicts the immense pain in the arse living on the wrong side of the law is (“the good seems always to be in the past”) and fields some moments of borderline surrealism: the delirious Rudy has a full-blown conversation with his childhood mentor, crime matriarch Ma Santis appears out of nowhere by the side of the highway like some sort of demonic siren and the kingdom of El Rey Doc and Carol end up in prefigures ‘The Prisoner’. Along the way, the chronic alcoholic Thompson offers decidedly lived-in observations such as:
“Flight is many things. Something clean and swift, like a bird skimming across the sky. Or something filthy and crawling; a series of crablike movements through figurative and literal slime, a process of creeping ahead, jumping sideways, running backward.”
That’s a writer who knows what he’s talking about. ‘The Getaway’ is an odd beast, a novel that for the first forty pages (which Thompson was careful to only supply to his publishers to disguise where the novel went) is pure genre goodness, colouring in the backgrounds of the protagonists most deliciously (Doc gets a gilded childhood, a mistrustful father and an almost pathological sense of entitlement) but which then starts to punch holes in convention until it entirely escapes. The nearest thing to it these days would be Walter White’s eventual pitiful log cabin exile in ‘Breaking Bad’ (and I have Vince Gilligan down as literate enough to be aware of ‘The Getaway’) but even that show didn’t have White literally living in a house built out of manure, infested with flies and maggots. The last third of the novel or so is a Dantean vision of hell, arguably a symptom of alcoholic psychopathy and according to Robert Polito’s excellent Savage Art biography it gave Thompson’s publishers the heebie-jeebies too. In both filmed versions of ‘The Getaway’ the ending is jettisoned. The over-riding sense once you reach the strange, dreamlike ending (two people sitting at a bar, neither of whom trust each other despite protestations of love) is of a writer trying to doing something quite unusual and it remains a strange, disconcerting piece of work decades later. “Still, that was maybe, and maybes were bad stuff.”
Needed a short-ish diversion to calm and gentle waters, something unchallenging with loveable characters being nice to each other and reached for this. Dan J. Marlowe continues Earl Drake’s story from ‘The Name Of The Game Is Death’ and it’s a wonder the pages don’t burst into flames. It’s not quite as stellar as ‘Name’ but this is still scorching stuff.
Previously on Earl Drake’s Crazy Life Of Crime we left our, um, hero badly burned and incarcerated in a prison hospital. Gruff, terse, unsentimental, prone to violence…yes, that’s just the wardens and Marlowe pointedly makes the majority of characters the misanthropic Drake encounters right dodgy types, with only Blind Tom meeting with his approval and he’s a man who lives with a crocodile called Cordelia. Recuperating from his burns, Drake apes monosyllabism while being sadistically abused by his captors and bribes a bent plastic surgeon to give him a top make-over. It’s a move that is decidedly similar to Donald Westlake’s ‘The Man With the Getaway Face’ which features a similarly taciturn professional but if you’ve watched any sixties telefantasy series – Man From U.N.C.L.E., for example – you’ll know plastic surgery was certainly part of the zeitgeist. Drake leaves a trail of bodies in his wake escaping from the hospital with dwindling finances the only serious – but very relatable – cloud on the horizon. His incessant plotting and seething as he sits in his hospital chair is quite delicious.
In ‘The Name Of The Game Is Death’ Drake was a terrifying force of nature, exuding agency from every pore and given enough of a back story to just put you on his side. It’s therefore a pity that cash flow problems here put Drake on the back foot. The two bank jobs he participates in during the second half of the novel are messy affairs, the first near-spontaneous and the second designed by Robert ‘The Schemer’ Frenz – an unseen owlish type who does all the research about a job for you, in return for 12.5% of the take – meaning Drake, unlike Westlake’s Parker, does not “own” events around him. It’s a glaring come down after the tornado that wreaks havoc across America in ‘Name’ but Marlowe throws enough fun curveballs into the mix to keep us reading. Drake as a lean, mean, wig-buying machine gets his end away with a saleswoman in a chapter which might almost be titled “This Never Happens” (“Come on. You need a little hairpiece therapy…”) and the two men Drake & Co have to coerce into ‘fessing up the bank vault combination number have families which are just a tad more dysfunctional than anticipated (“I want you to kill Rachel before you leave”). Drake is left in flux at the end of the novel but remains a compelling figure we – and by ‘we’ I mean ‘I’ – get to pursue through subsequent ‘Operations’.
Is this worth reading in 2018? By gum, yes. It’s a shot of whisky, taken down straight. Marlowe’s oeuvre has seen a digital reprint in the internet age but I really think this and ‘Name’ need a proper prestigious paper edition. Maybe now that the University of Chicago Press has finished republishing the entire Parker sequence they could see their way to giving that nice Mr Drake the day in the sun a favourite of Stephen King deserves. “I would have liked to finish him off, but I had a use for him alive”
Very dark chocolate. Blatantly part one of a quadrilogy (my copy is the SF Masterworks imprint which bundles ‘Shadow’ with ‘The Claw Of The Conciliator’) what we have here is low on action, high on characterisation, a through-the-roof central idea and much subtlety, particularly of prose. Probably a candidate for a re-read at some stage. I’m not yet running into the street shouting about its status as a genre-defining masterpiece – I need to progress on and chew it over a bit more – but, hey, Alastair Reynolds provides the intro so consider me on-board.
Dictionary Corner: Eschatology, n. The part of theology concerned with death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind. Awareness of Wolfe’s Catholicism puts a lot of ‘Shadow’ in context and gives it real heft. Daytime in this world is blood red thanks to the meagre light of the dying sun bleeding into everything, lending a terrible “end of days” feel to proceedings while – hello, ‘Star Wars’ fans – the ruins of a previous space-faring civilisation are all around. This is the delicious central premise (after Jack Vance) of the ‘Book Of The New Sun’ sequence: the events are all taking place after every other science fiction novel. Man has been and done the whole interstellar exploration thing and very believably he’s stuffed it up. Like Rome and the British empire it has all collapsed and contracted back down to this singularity, this dying Earth and the ruins are everywhere. So in amongst all the cod-medievalism we have fliers, genetically engineered creatures, apes with dog heads, rats that can talk, “animal species resulting from biogenetic manipulation”, “extrasolar breeding stock”, bamboo huts that appear to hold 3D snapshots of the past, a woman who can see the past, present and future…. Wolfe isn’t implying any of this, it is wholly explicit and the secret sauce of the novel is wondering what on (or off) Earth happened. If ever humanity needed the ability to decamp elsewhere it’s when the Sun is dying. Now is not the time to have bollocksed up your intergalactic empire and lost the ability to travel faster than light. Humanity is in deep trouble.
With all that merriness as background, we have Severian the trainee torturer; a job title that is an immediate barrier to entry, cleanly separating him both from our initial sympathies and from the rest of humanity. However, it’s complicated. Young Severian is a kindly soul, inclined to compassion (Dorcas specifically mentions his kindness), helping the rebel Vodalus, then tending to the put-upon pooch Triskele (a swift short-cut back into the sympathies of the reader) and then to his beloved prisoner Thecla (Wolfe is great on names). Then again Severian isn’t above half-strangling another apprentice or coldly fulfilling his role as executioner. We never actually see Severian a-torturin’ in ‘Shadow’ but he can be cold as well as kind. As narrator of his passage from star apprentice to reviled outcast he throws forward a lot (notably to his position as Autarch, going to be interesting to see how that comes about), cites events he previously omitted and has characters referencing moments he skipped over (Dorcas states he was very sick after executing Agilus). He also abruptly severs the narrative at the end of ‘Shadow’ and warns us “It is no easy road” ahead. We leave him passing through a gigantic wall of black metal in the company of mysterious actor Dr Talos (Christoph Waltz), the giant Baldanders (Bernard Bresslaw), the voluptous actress Jolenta, Severian’s own new love Dorcas and Hethor, the requisite holy fool babbling cosmic gobbledegook. In Severian’s items list is his executioner’s sword Terminus Est and ‘the Claw of the Conciliator’, a cosmic gem that provides the title for novel two and much mystery.
‘The Expanse’ this is not. It takes a certain amount of work at the outset but it’s worth it for the way it takes up residence in your thoughts; I put the novel aside for a while then returned after finding I was mulling it over. If you don’t start getting goose bumps when the mysterious Father Inire starts talking of the lost secrets of faster than light travel then it’s probably not your bag. I feel ‘The Shadow Of The Torturer’ is one of those works of prose art that is wholly in and of itself. You have to approach it aware it’s not going to make many friendly concessions to you. It just is, and entirely successfully so. It’s an operatic cosmic vision set against the misery of human existence. “If you're killed this evening, I'll feel badly for a fortnight.”
Unforgettable. This year my big authorial find has been Canadian writer Guy Gavriel Kay – or “God” as I now like to call him – who with this and “The Lions Of Al-Rassan” has managed to get me very excited about the storytelling potential of fantastical alt-history. GGK sprinkles fantasy elements over real-world historical periods, emphasising their universal qualities but that’s like saying Shakespeare wrote a few plays. “Tigana” is a story that features sorcerer-tyrants casting crazy-powerful spells while still feeling painfully close to home and it is utterly wonderful in every way.
“Tigana” is about memory and the political power of language. It’s also a romping adventure story featuring a young farm boy who discovers a great secret and gets to unlock his fate. It features two tyrants, both of whom are complex. It is Brandin the Ygrathen who is responsible for an act of enforced cultural amnesia visited upon the region of Tigana and which drives the main characters of the novel to action while in the East we have Alberico the Barbadian, a gentleman for whom arrows are not a bother and who winds up being a rather good comedy character, constantly beset by the fools and events around him and dreaming of usurping his own coffin-dodging Emperor. Short-arse farm boy and talented musician Devin joins a travelling band of troubadours and quickly gets way more than he bargained for, not least from flame-haired Catriana in a cupboard during an important meeting. Structurally the novel comprises travel, meetings, assassination attempts, whispered confidences, the “Ring Dive” and much emotional intelligence. It’s a long book but doesn’t feel it, the prose is literate but uncomplicated while the flashes of violence (“Isolla’s head exploded like an overripe fruit smashed with a hammer”), sex and, above all, the focus on the emotional landscapes of the characters makes for a delicious, moreish, read.
As always, however, the devil is in the details and a straight precis of “Tigana” is laughably inadequate at conveying the riches on offer. For example, there’s the late in the day, kick-in-the-teeth, message delivered by Alessan’s mother which is a most unexpected plot twist and the epitome of “both good and bad news”. There’s the absolutely beautiful scene where quiet, serious Alais talks to her father about taking over the Sea Maid. There’s the end of Part 1 and Tomasso’s fate. There’s the trapped wizard Erlein who really. wants his freedom and while GGK is sexually progressive – at times breathtakingly-so – he still manages to have Alienor, Queen of Castle Borso, describe recreational sex as “a kind of insurrection in the dark that somehow stands against the laws of day”. There’s reams of this stuff. It would also be remiss of me not to mention the finale which GGK not only sticks but deals one of the most thrilling crescendos and resolutions I’ve come across since, oh, “The Lions Of Al-Rassan”. It is an utter knockout; Erlein saying “Link” and the Night Walkers Skyping in from across the Palm is right up there with the multi-army finale of ‘The Return Of The King’ and Dionara’s fate – no spoilers – is absolutely on point. This is a beautiful, humane and thrilling novel that lodges itself in your head and heart and does not let go.
That said, there’s something else that makes this novel chime with readers which GGK addresses in his interesting afterword. For example:
Wikipedia - Destruction_of_cultural_heritage_by_ISIL
“Tigana” has real-world atrocities on its mind, it’s not just mythopoiesis for the sake of it. ISIS would absolutely do what the sorcerer-tyrant Brandin does in “Tigana” if they could and, worse, they would do it because of ideology rather than grief. Brandin’s personal loss vastly complicates our reaction to him and embodying this is Dionara, sleeping with the enemy, hugely conflicted and well aware what she’s up to is surely going to get her killed sooner or later, probably by her own brother Baerd. The truly delicious thing about GGK’s writing is the ambiguity of his characters, he doesn’t do black and white not even when brutally depicting Tigana’s terrible predicament and, in my opinion, that is the mark of an artist. He make us see what drives even the worst of tyrants, an act of empathy incomprehensible to the likes of ISIS. In these polarised, binary times “Tigana” is an amazing novel to read. It’s certainly one of the best I’ve ever read.
Hornblower sticks it to the French. If “A Happy Return” illustrated Hornblower’s lethalness against a single ship “A Ship Of The Line” crazily ups the ante as Horatio inspires his crew of gaolbirds and prisoners to five victories in three days leading the reader to wonder why this guy isn’t Admiral rather than the boozy, complacent dinosaurs he reports to.
Even after just two novels it’s clear Forester relishes putting Hornblower on the back foot and then stacking the deck against him. Robbed of his prize-money and reduced to Captaining “the ugliest and least desirable two decker in the Navy List” Horatio begins his next mission of accompanying an East India convoy with one of the greatest spew-fests this reader has ever come across. Forester really conveys that galley cabin rising and falling 20 feet in waters very different to those of the blue Caribbean and has Hornblower desperate to avoid his men twigging he’s seasick, one of many humanising details. Good news though, the French handily decide to attack the convoy and what follows is just the start of an incredible tour de force for both Hornblower and Forester.
Naughtily press-ganging the best able seaman from other ships in the convoy, Horatio then appears to the modern reader to go completely off his rocker, waging a one-man war on the dastardly French. However, a quick reminder of the politics of the day gives us a free pass to join in the fun without any tedious political reservations with sequences guaranteed to have English readers cheering and getting weepy-eyed at every turn. This really is England’s Greatest Hero in full sail, moral relativism be damned. Horatio captures supply ships, storms coastal batteries and manfully tips French cannons off balustrades – this, THIS, is what happens when you don’t get to first base with Lady Barbara. Throughout all Hornblower shows himself to not only be a whizz at seamanship (and the requisite mathematics) but an ace strategist too, getting his men to synchronise watches when going ashore and work to a strict schedule in the storming of the coastal battery. He has no idea what the French signal “M.V.” means but deduces it must be a friendly signal and uses that to buy time in his next attack. His people-management skills are on the up too: “It was more effective delivered that way, he knew, even while he despised himself for using rhetorical tricks”. None of this gets him any thanks on his return from Admiral Leighton, gorging himself aboard the Pluto, but who then has to find space for some humble pie when Hornblower battles a ferocious storm to rescue the Pluto from shipwreck. “Sutherland to flagship. Am about to give assistance.”
No wonder this won the James Tait Memorial Prize back in the thirties. It all ends, of course, in a superb, shocking, “you have got to be kidding me”, cliff-hanger cementing this as part of one of the great ongoing, serialised English novel sequences. It’s pure A-grade storytelling that was ripped off left right and centre for every boy’s comic strip and adventure fiction for decades and being a newcomer and having no idea what fate lies in store for Hornblower the finale is all the more delicious. “A Ship Of The Line” is, above all, a perfect example of a writer putting obstacles in front of their hero and allowing us to watch him work his way out from under them. Bravo.
Rip-roaring. My first Hornblower (to my shame) and I’m kicking myself I didn’t dive into these as my English teacher advised at secondary school back in the 1980s. It was all computers and space battles in those days and I was unaware that in watching ‘Star Trek’ I was actually witnessing the adventures of a Hornblower proxy. The original stands up, though, and then some.
Captain Horatio Hornblower (I’m reading these in publication rather than chronological order) has secret orders to support a Spanish revolutionary (who has to first restock Hornblower’s ship with supplies which appears to mean ransacking his entire country), create some sort of sea passage and capture or destroy the fifty-gun two decker frigate Natividad. All of this Captain Hornblower achieves with ease and sets sail back home, job done. Except the man is hellishly tested throughout. Forester throws everything and the kitchen sink at Horatio, introducing us to a prickly, awkward fellow with rubbish people-skills and haunted by the sense that England is marking him out of ten from afar. The Spanish revolutionary turns out to be a basket-case, the political situation changes with the weather, the Natividad is unleashed in a battle scene of pulse-quickening vividness, the weather turns and to cap it all there’s a footlin’ woman on board distracting Hornblower by being brilliant. It’s all wonderfully controlled and deployed and piped straight into your imagination via beautiful English prose.
Hornblower is a hero who “as he turned on his heel he hit his head a shattering crash on a deck beam”. He is a hero not because of his brilliant seamanship but because he is *this* close to cracking under the pressure of command. Practically penniless back on land, his naval dress laddered and fraying, he repeatedly brings himself to heel and forces himself to act casual, or play cards, or control his cracking voice in the face of maniacs and enemy ships firing on him. He is chippy, moody, literate, fond of card-playing, sex-starved and grief-stricken (two children lost to Smallpox and in childbirth). He’s also married but that doesn’t stop the Lady Barbara from proposing late night conversations on the quarterdeck. Centuries away from the England of 2018 Hornblower remains a deeply relatable figure. He may be Captain but he is us. Required to act because “England Expects” his thoughts and reactions would be our thoughts and reactions (I believe after the big battle Hornblower displays all the symptoms of PTSD after seeing headless corpses on deck). Also, Forester keeps making stuff happen. No sooner have we opened secret orders but we’re going ashore and finding men tied to stakes by a madman Hornblower has to keep sweet. Fast forward to a change in the local politics and suddenly Hornblower has to go after the Natividad which is now under the command of one of El Supremo’s stooges, Crespo, and he isn't going down without a fight. Forester really puts you in the middle of the battles, the decision-making, the stormy seas and he does not stint on the shocking violence. No wonder there are reviews on Amazon of Hornblower being bought for husbands who then proceed to devour the lot. I certainly intend to.
Whither reading Hornblower in 2018 England? What are the optics of that? As an arch leftie, novels featuring British Naval heroes enabling the British Empire aren’t the first thing I reach for on my commute and I don’t want anything in my life that might be given the thumbs up by any right of centre political figure or gormless St George flag-waving, Brexiteering, moron. However, this is C.S. Forester we’re talking about (recently praised by Clive James in his latest collection of essays) and on the basis of “The Happy Return” (a nicely ambivalent title) this is at the very least wonderful craftsmanship but also, arguably, art. On offer is the sort of direct telepathising into the heart and head of a brilliant character and period of history that Rockstar Games could only dream of.
So fiddlesticks to optics. “They love him not for anything he does or says, but for what he is.”