Review: Occupied City by David Peace

15 July 2010

When I first started reading Nineteen Seventy-Four, the first book in David Peace’s Red Riding quartet, I thought that he was something of a James Ellroy wannabe.  But as I got into the book I stopped thinking that and decided that he was original, and the style was compelling.  By the end of the quartet I was satisfied that it all worked in conveying the mood, the emotions and the action.  It wasn’t necessarily easy – the word “bleak” is used a lot in relation to David Peace – but I think that the use of different perspectives at different times in an unfolding story was important in delivering the whole effect.  That story is backgrounded by the police investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper murders, but it deals with overwhelming corruption and evil that seem to be an integral part of that landscape.

So it was with some anticipation that I moved on to the Tokyo trilogy, set in a post-war Tokyo dealing with the aftermath of defeat, where the physical destruction of the city is matched by the destruction of society’s structures and norms, and by the physical and mental decay of the people having to face a wrenching change in their reality.  The first book in the trilogy, Tokyo Year Zero, is based on a real case, and tells the story of finding a serial murderer of women, from the perspective of a police detective.  Again, it is not an easy book, but the style brilliantly conveys the mind and fears of Detective Minami as his discoveries bring together his own past and the murdered women and their murderer.  So that was good, and it was one of those books that improve on reflection.

Which brings me to Occupied City.  Again, it is the story of deaths in Tokyo, and is again based on a true story of a massacre and robbery using methods linked to wartime research into chemical and bacterial weapons.  The framework for this book is twelve stories of the events, told from the perspectives of twelve people with an involvement in them, and is apparently similar to the approach in the Kurosawa film Rashomon (which I have not seen), and also to a Japanese tradition of a ghost-story-telling game.  Wherever it came from, I found the device for linking the stories to be obscure.

Bleakness is here, and collapse, both personal and of society, is pervasive, but I felt that this book somehow lacked the energy of the quartet and of Tokyo Year Zero, possibly because the different stories were too fragmented.  What does come through in a sad and compelling way is the corruption and duplicity of the rulers of the city, of both the occupiers and occupied, in their willingness to accommodate evil, and the implication that little has changed in this respect when we look at our world in our time.

The writing style is even more extreme in its use of repetition and of typography.  Whereas I found this worked in the earlier books, it tended to be more of a distraction in this one.

David Peace is bleak, and his writing is not easy, but it can be rewarding.  I will try his other books, GB84 and The Damned United, and I do have the Red Riding DVDs to watch.

Occupied City by David Peace, published by Faber and Faber, paperback 2010, ISBN 9780571232031

Advertisements

Review: Not In The Flesh by Ruth Rendell

17 October 2008

Chief Inspector Wexford is a lovely creation.  He is also an excellent example of how it is possible to write well-constructed and perceptive detective fiction around a long-running character without worrying too much about the passage of time.  Wexford is clearly satisfied with his lot, he has been a Chief Inspector since first making his appearance in 1964 in From Doon With Death, and his sidekick, Inspector Burden, seems to be similarly, well, unburdened.  Both are clearly aging very well!  Nevertheless, they both seem to have handled the increasing use of technology as an aid to detection, while retaining that awareness of unchanging human nature that marks Ruth Rendell’s writing.

In Not In The Flesh, Wexford and Burden are faced with a body that has been buried for 10 years until unearthed by a truffle-hound.  A second body turns up in a cellar not too far away, and the plot then revolves around determining who these people were and are their deaths related.  This is all very well done. The characters involved are often not very good people, and it is their human frailty and imperfections that are nicely depicted through the writing.  The crimes result from moments of human weakness, but their consequences for the perpetrators and for the families of the dead live on and affect their lives forever.

But running alongside the plot is the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) that Ruth Rendell is campaigning against, in the House of Lords and in this book.  Wexford is placed in a situation of knowing what might happen to a five-year-old girl, but is unable to do anything definitive to prevent it happening.  A link through to the main plot is provided by DS Hannah Goldsmith, who tries to ensure that Wexford and Burden remain politically correct by avoiding sexist, racist or class-based language and attitudes – the message of the book being (I think) that traditional cultural practices are not per se ok simply because they are traditional in some cultures.  Female genital mutilation is wrong, full stop, and political correctness can sometimes blind us to wrongness.  The irony is that both Wexford and Burden are in fact sensitive and perceptive men – they have to be to do the work they do – and they do think and act correctly because they know the right thing to do – but Hannah doesn’t see this.

In the end, this twenty-first Wexford novel stands up in terms of the mystery that the Chief Inspector works his way through, and the Kingsmarkham background maintains its apparently inexhaustible supply of murderers and victims.  Did we need the distraction of the FGM campaign?  I don’t see why not, such issues are part of life, and to present them in the way that Ruth Rendell does here could well make us think a bit more about what is involved, and why people think and act the way they do.

Not In The Flesh by Ruth Rendell, published in paperback by Arrow Books, ISBN:9780099517221

For the full list of books by Ruth Rendell, including those as Barbara Vine, see the Wikipedia site


Review: What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

13 August 2008

Most of Laura Lippman’s books have featured Tess Monaghan, a former journalist, now a private detective in Baltimore.  However, she has also written a number of others that all feature Kevin Infante, a Baltimore County police detective, his colleague, Nancy Porter, and his sergeant, Harold Lenhardt.  All of these books have a common theme in that they are all based on an incident involving young girls, and how the consequences of that incident impact on the characters involved and their families.  This approach gives Laura Lippman the opportunity to delve more into the minds and motivations of the people concerned, and in particular how the girls think and respond on the basis of their environment and individual characters.  The results are some very good books, and especially What the Dead Know, which in many ways reminded me of that other great Baltimore writer, Anne Tyler.

In Every Secret Thing, two eleven-year old girls are convicted of killing a baby, and following their release seven years later another child goes missing.  In The Power of Three, three teenage girls are found shot at school, one dead, one seriously injured, but the evidence doesn’t match the survivor’s story.  The plot in What the Dead Know centres on the disappearance of the Bethany girls, Sunny and Heather, in 1975, and the apparent reappearance of one of them in the present day.  The story unfolds through a range of perspectives at a range of times – the woman claiming to be Heather Bethany; Kay Sullivan, a social worker; Miriam Toles, previously Bethany, the girls’ mother; and the police, Kevin Infante, Nancy Porter, Dan Lenhardt, and Chet Willoughby, the policeman on the original case.  The other major character in the book is Baltimore and the countryside around it.

Laura Lippman maintains a superb tension, flicking backwards and forwards in time and place and perspective to bring us pieces of the story, pieces of the characters.  Every now and then there are surprise revelations, but the police continue to chip away to try and find the truth.  The outcome is brilliant in its inevitability.  The characters in this book are reminiscent of characters in Anne Tyler’s books, in that they possess a quality of peculiarity or eccentricity that takes them a little outside the normal – it could be Dave Bethany’s Fivefold Path, or Kay Sullivan’s recourse to reading books in preference to other people’s company – and provides an explanation for why things might happen the way they do.  This is one of the best books I have read this year.

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman, Published by Orion (2008, paperback); ISBN: 978-0-7528-9337-2

Other books by Laura Lippman:

Featuring Tess Monaghan – Baltimore Blues (1997), Charm City (1997), Butchers Hill (1998), In Big Trouble (1999), The Sugar House (2000), In a Strange City (2001), The Last Place (2002), By A Spider’s Thread (2004), No Good Deeds (2006), Another Thing to Fall (2008).

Other – Every Secret Thing (2003), To The Power of Three (2005), What the Dead Know (2007)

Short stories – Baltimore Noir (ed. 2006)

See also the Wikipedia entry and the fantasticfiction site entry.


Review: Pomona Queen by Kem Nunn

12 July 2008

In his surf noir novels, Kem Nunn wrote about surfing and about the people who make up the gritty, ugly and painful reality that seems to be life in California (see previous reviews of Tapping the Source and The Dogs of Winter).  In Pomona Queen, he gives us a day in the life of Dean Earl, currently a vacuum cleaner salesman, but previously “Johnny Magic”, member of a band.  Dean spends a lot of the day thinking about the past – the days of his great-grandfather, who came out to Pomona Valley to grow oranges, did well, but died early, and the rise and fall of the citrus industry; and also his own earlier days when he played in a band with Rayann, the red-headed girl that he can’t forget.  Life is not really great for Dean right now – he seems to be a pretty good vacuum cleaner salesman, but really he wants money so he can fix up his great-grandfather’s house on the last acre of orange groves in the Valley; he owns it, but it’s currently lived in by his mother and step-father.

However, life takes a turn for the worse when he has to visit a prospective customer in Clear Lake, a place of cheap tract houses in the Valley.  It turns put that the it’s Dan Brown’s place, Dan being a real mean dude, well-known since their school days for causing all sorts of mayhem and mischief, including a few dead and broken bodies.  He recognises Dean as “Johnny Magic” and proposes that he should sing a song for Buddy, Dan’s little brother, who has just been stabbed to death, and whose body is sitting in the back of Dan’s truck in a freezer.  First of all though, Dan has to find out who killed his brother, with the main suspect being the lead singer of a girl band called “Pomona Queen”.  This is also the brand name that Dean’s great-grandfather had chosen and printed for his oranges, but which never got used.  Dean tries to escape, fails, and spends the rest of the day and night in a surreal tour through Pomona and its surrounds, as events unfold and the truth of the stabbing becomes clear, sort of.  By the end, it seems that Dean’s “theology of hope” might have some validity, but we wouldn’t bet on it.

Kem Nunn’s writing moves seamlessly from the historical to the present, from Dean’s inner musings to the ever-present danger of dialogue with Dan.  In terms of the writing, this seems to me to be the most assured of Kem’s Nunn’s books that I have read.  It is certainly very funny in a noir sort of way.  I particularly liked the quotes from F P Brackett’s history of the area at the beginning of each chapter, and especially the first, which includes a description of the original inhabitants of Southern California as “…squat, fat and unattractive.  Untrustworthy they were, and ready to kill on provocation or for gain, but not brave or fierce.”  This could just as easily apply to the Southern Californians who inhabit this book.

Pomona Queen by Kem Nunn, published by Washington Square Press (1993, trade paperback), ISBN: 0-671-79877-4

Other books by Kem Nunn – Tapping the Source (1984), Unassigned Territory (1986), The Dogs of Winter (1997), Tijuana Straits (2004)


Review: The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke

8 July 2008

A Dave Robicheaux book from James Lee Burke tends to have a fairly predictable plot – someone does evil things, often involving threats to Dave’s womenfolk; Dave responds with the help of Clete Purcell, often with violence; and there is a lot of agonising over what is the right thing to do, often unresolved.  This book is no different, on the face of it, but given the context – Hurricane Katrina and the desolation it caused, even more so the weaknesses of the human spirit seen in the response to the misery – and especially given the wonderful luminous writing of James Lee Burke, it is new, and it is even more powerful than its predecessors.

Burke’s use of words and the rhythms of the language he puts on the page is pure poetry, and make for compelling reading.  Some examples:

Fear was a gray balloon that floated from place to place, object to object, and each time he tried to confront it, it moved someplace else, transforming the most innocuous of situations into dilemmas that he would never confess to anyone else, lest they know him for the frightened man he was.

and

The world has become an unforgiving prison where the images from a mistaken moment have not disappeared with sleep and instead pursue you wherever you go.

In Dave Robicheaux’ Louisiana, everyone is special, everyone has a story, everyone has come to the place in the world that they now occupy through a series of decisions in which they were not necessarily a willing participant, but the consequences of which they must now confront.  What Burke succeeds in doing is to illustrate the sheer immensity of the impact of Katrina by focusing on the impact it had on the lives of several people when their intersecting stories come together at a point in place and time, and the tragedies and violence, but also the redemption, that unfold as a result.

The key stories are those of an insurance man, Otis Baylor, and his daughter; Bertrand Melancon, a young black “street puke” who had been involved in the rape of the daughter, the death of a priest, and the looting of something valuable from the flooded house of a mob boss.  And of course there is Dave Robicheaux, former New Orleans cop, recovering alcoholic, now working for the New Iberia Sheriff.  The violence and misery of the events they are involved brings forth a figure of evil, Ronald Bledsoe, who threatens Alafair, Dave’s daughter and is determined to get his hands on the valuables that Bertrand has hidden.  Dave continues his lifetime journey through the underworld of crime and pain, trying to do good, often succeeding, but dependent on the goodwill of Sheriff Helen Soileau, his boss, and the dubious assistance of Clete Purcell, his friend.

The fight between good and evil takes place between and within the characters, but there is another force that looms large – the ineradicable fact of the failure of much of the US government to recognise and address the extent of the tragedy and its impact on the people of New Orleans, and the futility and cruelty of those who preyed on their neighbours.  Against this Burke recognises the individuals and groups who, like the US Coastguard, toiled unceasingly to try to save lives and restore some faith in the human spirit.  In introducing the story, Dave Robicheaux recalls the tragedy of Vitenam and says:

When I go back to sleep, I once again tell myself I will never again have to witness the wide-scale suffering of innocent civilians, nor the betrayal and abandonment of our countrymen when they need us most.

But that was before Katrina.  That was before a storm with greater impact than the bomb blast that struck Hiroshima peeled the face off southern Louisiana.  That was before one of the most beautiful cities in the Western hemisphere was killed three times, and not just by the forces of nature.

This is the Dave Robicheaux novel you must read.

The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke, published by Phoenix (2008, paperback), ISBN: 978-0-7538-2316-3

See the Wikipedia entry for James Lee Burke, including bibliography.

Listen to a podcast of Kim Hill’s 5 July 2008 Radio NZ interview with James Lee Burke.


Review: Blind Faith by Ben Elton

3 July 2008

Ben Elton has been getting bleaker and bleaker.  Blind Faith, which is an update of and homage to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, pulls together a number of trends and shows us where they could go.  These include the surveillance society that Britain has become, with CCTV and mobile phones allowing the authorities to follow and trace your movements; ubiquitous use of social media including blogging (compulsory) and always-on video chat rooms; global warming that has flooded London; the attacks on science represented by those who believe in faith alone as the answer; and the dumbing-down of entertainment and social intercourse that Elton has charted so brilliantly, especially in Dead Famous and Chart Throb;  As the blurb has it “In this world, nakedness is modesty, independent thought subversive, and ignorance is wisdom”.

Trafford Sewell is the modern-day Winston Smith, a “civil servant of sorts” who works for NatDat, the National Data bank, which collects and stores “Every single recordable fact about every single person in the country…Every financial transaction, every appearance on a CCTV camera, every click on every computer, every quirk of every retina, every filling in every tooth, captured and entombed in the mainframes of NatDat…”  But Trafford wants some degree of privacy, somewhere he can think thoughts that he doesn’t have to blog about.  He would also like some privacy with his wife Chantorria, and to protect their baby, Caitlin Happymeal, in a world where vaccination is abhorred, and child mortality is rife.  He hesitates to Tube the birthing video and is reprimanded by his Confessor.

Trafford does find a way to think for himself and to learn about ideas and science, and above all about reason.  Just as Winston Smith saw that the proles provided hope for the future, so Trafford sees that reason and the theory of evolution are the way the world will be saved – perhaps not soon enough for him, but the tyranny of the Temple will certainly be overcome.  It would be interesting to spend more time on the parallels with Nineteen Eighty-Four.

I said that Ben Elton was bleak, but what reinforces the bleakness is that the awful world of Blind Faith is already happening, in parts, and it is easy to see us going there.  Elton shows us that the trends he works on are related and interconnected, and come down to the importance of ensuring that individual thought can be maintained; that privacy, whether physical, mental or spiritual is essential to us; and that blind faith should not trump reason and science.  There are lessons for how we use technology to support society, and importantly there are unforeseen (but perhaps inevitable) consequences that will arise whenever new ways of communicating and sharing become universal, and subject to human behaviour.

Blind Faith by Ben Elton, published by Black Swan (paperback, 2008), ISBN: 978-0-552-77391-1

Other books by Ben Elton – Stark (1989), Gridlock (1991), This Other Eden (1993), Popcorn (1996), Blast from the Past (1998), Inconceivable (1999), Dead Famous (2001), High Society (2002), Past Mortem (2004), The First Casualty (2005), Chart Throb (2006)


Review: Friend of the Devil by Peter Robinson

19 May 2008

Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks makes a welcome return in Friend of the Devil, by now a wiser more reflective man than when we first met him in 1987, then newly moved to Yorkshire from London. Banks still likes his music and savours his beer, and his attention can be caught by an attractive woman.

In Friend of the Devil, Peter Robinson creates an intricate plot that intertwines past and present crimes and links together different murders being investigated by Alan Banks and by Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot. Annie is facing her own demons, including her feelings for Banks, and she doesn’t handle them all that well.

The crimes they are investigating are the death of a girl in The Maze, the ancient cobbled alley ways in fictional Eastvale, and that of a tetraplegic woman in a wheelchair on the coast. The links are to two separate crimes in the past, including a possible serial rapist and his death, and a shocking trail of death and sexual attacks by a sadistic couple. The story reflects on the impact of crime on the victims, and the tragedies that ensue. Events do stray towards the unlikely, but the skill of the writer makes them believable and in a sense inevitable, given what we learn about the people concerned

Banks has some of the characteristics of the typical fictional police detective – independent thought, but he recognises the political reality of his profession; relationships that generally avoid the permanent, but with plenty of promise at the start; and an unexpected attachment to different kinds of music, in his case not exclusively the jazz or classical tastes of some of his fictional contemporaries. Peter Robinson also knows how to write interesting sidekicks – not just Annie Cabbot, but also Winsome Jackman and Kevin Templeton, and not to forget Detective Superintendent Catherine Gervaise. The families of the victims are beautifully drawn and seem very real. Current technology, whether recreational or forensic, is also well-handled without taking over.

For me, this has been a very satisfying series, with the quality maintained all along. The writing is unobtrusive, the characters real, and the resolution of the crimes satisfying. This includes the books where Banks has gone into his past, or into his family, to resolve a mystery.

Friend of the Devil by Peter Robinson, published by Hodder (2008, paperback), ISBN 978 0 340 83691 0

See Wikipedia entry

Other books by Peter Robinson:

Alan Banks series – Gallows View (1987); A Dedicated Man (1988); A Necessary End (1989); The Hanging Valley (1989); Past Reason Hated (1991); Wednesday’s Child (1992); Dry Bones That Dream (1994); Innocent Graves (1996); Dead Right (1997); In A Dry Season (1999); Cold is the Grave (2000); Aftermath (2001); The Summer that Never Was (2003); Playing with Fire (2004); Strange Affair (2005); A Piece of My Heart (2006); All The Colours Of Darkness (2008).

Other books – Caedmon’s Song (1990); No Cure for Love (1995); Not Safe After Dark (1998); (short stories)