detectives

Looking back on 2013

The year’s not quite done yet but given my recent form, this could well be the last post of the year. What better time to have a look at what 2013 brought?

Strictly speaking it was the last few days of 2012 that brought my e-reader; I’ve had it a year today and most enjoyable it’s been. Somewhere in a post I can’t put my finger on at the moment, I mentioned my epiphany on the e-reader (the Walkman to complement the bookshelf’s LP collection), and I’m glad that realisation came. I’ve read a whole host of books I wouldn’t have got round to in print, at least in part because of their size. Most of them have come from ManyBooks.net, but some were borrowed from the library (Leeds Libraries have loads of new ebooks available, North Yorkshire libraries also provide an ebook service, Bradford doesn’t as yet but has a list of places to obtain them free of charge. Check your local library but remember Kindles don’t work with library loans); I’m already planning my borrowing to brighten up the commute in January.

I seem to have read my traditional mix of SF, Doctor Who novels, crime fiction, writing manuals, and socialist history this year. A bit of Anthony Trollope and a lot of John Ruskin sprinkled throughout. I’ve only put 7 book reviews up this year, but you can read them all here.

My short story submissions and my attendance at the Telegraph SSC have both been woefully inadequate, particularly in the second half of the year, which is not unrelated to my NaNoWriMo effort (still limping towards 40,000 words, thanks). Sci-fi noir, what was I thinking? Actually I was probably thinking how much I’d enjoyed The Manual of Detection, or Finch, or Peter F Hamilton’s Greg Mandel series. If you think that might be your kind of thing, check one of those novels out while you’re waiting for mine to be finished (I may be some time).

Back in March I released my first short story collection, The Little Book of Northern Women, which was positively received. It’s nearly sold as many copies as my novel Wasted Years, which had a 7-month head start. In August I tried an audio version of the final story in the Little Book, and I’d still be interested to hear what you think. I might try recording other pieces in the coming year.

Probably all that’s left to do is wish you all a peaceful 2014, and I hope you read some good books and travel to some interesting lands via the power of words.

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The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy

A crime novel a little off the beaten track for me, but I enjoyed the film LA Confidential, so when I saw that novel plus a couple of Ellroy’s others in a charity shop, I thought I’d give them a go.

The Big Nowhere is not for the faint-hearted, though I did appreciate as I read it that some events were put across in a couple of matter of fact sentences, when in a more salacious setting they could have been lingered over in awful detail. Even so, there’s a fair bit of violence, some nasty murders and a couple of forensic scenes, not to mention bizarre sex crimes. I kept marvelling at the fact I was still reading, but the power of the writing and characterisation was such that I had to know how it all worked out, I had to know who was responsible for what.

Set in the first days of 1950 in Los Angeles, The Big Nowhere follows a murder investigation seemingly linked to gay men, and an investigation into Communist activity in the motion picture industry, at a time when being gay or being Communist were about equally likely to turn you into a pariah. This is the scuzzy underside of the city, rife with corruption and blackmail, victims no-one cares about, and rivalry between city and county police. It seems there are no good guys or bad guys, only bent cops and gangsters with half an eye on justice. Sometimes they’re the same person.

It’s a complicated novel, the pieces of the puzzles so intricate that I occasionally had to re-read to make sure I’d got it straight before I moved on. On the whole it had an urgent tension to it that kept me reading, but every so often the police procedural aspect of it slowed me down (lists of names, licence numbers, addresses that people read out over the phone to each other, for instance) but I’m not sure how else you’d be able to do it so that the reader sees the information and can put two and two together at the same time as the character. It has a gritty, dirty feel to it, and was depressing in places but I like the fact that it didn’t have a neat uplifting ending with all loose ends tied. Once I’ve cleansed my palate with something uproariously funny, I’ll be back for more of Ellroy’s harsh urban style.

Detective novel as history lesson

As a follow-up to my post in January about the detective novel as geography lesson, I thought I’d point out an article in last week’s Guardian, which my dad has steered me in the direction of. Mark Lawson, it seems, has made a series for Radio 4 about post-war European history as seen in the pages of detective novels. I haven’t listened to it yet, but it does sound interesting and the article mentions a few names I haven’t come across before and should probably go in search of. As Lawson points out, possessions and circumstances are particularly important in crime novels and they serve to catalogue the changing norms in society.
The Guardian also seems to have noticed the existence of NaNoWriMo, which of course starts tomorrow. I won’t be taking part this year (still sorting out those short stories from my mad March experiment) but good luck to all participants and we’ll see you on the other side.

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

The Manual of Detection is fantasy noir, one of my favourite genre-blending combinations. First published in 2009, it won Jedediah Berry a couple of awards, and seems to be his only novel to date.

Charles Unwin is a clerk at the city’s gargantuan detective agency, efficient and ordered. He works on the fourteenth floor, is not permitted to speak to the detectives from the 29th floor, the watchers from the thirty-sixth, or visit the archives where his meticulous files find a permanent home. The only logical descriptor for such intricate, compartmentalised and rigid bureaucracy is Kafkaesque, but at least at the start it doesn’t feel sinister. Unwin is comforted by his known and predictable place in the vast machine, and proud of his achievements therein; this is Kafka wearing warm socks, drinking cocoa, and cuddling a purring cat.

Unwin has been assigned for many years to the agency’s star detective, Travis Sivart, and when Sivart goes missing his clerk finds himself thrown into the world of detection head first. After all, who knows Sivart better than the man who’s spent twenty years typing up his case reports and excising irrelevant details? Armed with The Manual of Detection, which he doesn’t have time to read properly, Unwin stumbles his way through the beginnings of a case, using Sivart’s years of written descriptions to find his way through unknown parts of the city, and recognise criminals. All the while he worries about his increasingly damp socks, the possibilities of rust on his bicycle chain, and how to sort out the administrative error that’s landed him on the 29th floor. Eventually Unwin gets drawn into a confusing web of connections and lies, dreams and reality, and acquits himself better than anyone imagined.

Although I wasn’t completely convinced by the ending (the post-climax wrapping up of loose ends, rather) I enjoyed the book and would recommend it widely. This is noir with literary pretensions, and all the richer for it. Sad and dreamy, and almost fussy in its detailed descriptions, the atmosphere of the rainy streets brought to mind the wonderful film Dark City.

The Last National Service Man by Reginald Hill

Tankie Trotter is the last National Service man. He never liked the idea of being conscripted, and he showed it in none too subtle ways. But time spent in the glasshouse doesn’t count towards his two years’ service, so here he is, several years later, with a grudge against anyone who can be blamed for having a hand in this wasting of long years of his life. Chief among them is one Andrew Dalziel, brash Chief Inspector in the Midyorkshire Police, who kept handing Tankie back to the army when he went AWOL.

If Dalziel had to be taken hostage, it’s a fair bet he wouldn’t have chosen to be accompanied by newly arrived, wet behind the ears university graduate DC Peter Pascoe, who isn’t even a Yorkshireman. These things rarely come down to choice though, and their loss is our gain as we watch the first hours of a lasting partnership that seems like it can’t possibly get off the ground.

I’m not sure this 1994 novella is still available (I picked it up second-hand) but anyone who has enjoyed Dalziel and Pascoe would be well-advised to seek out a copy. It’s not a conventional mystery or detective story but it does involve crime and psychology and is by turns (or at the same time, in places) tense and amusing. Beyond that, it’s a wonderful character study of colleagues who might not be as mismatched as either of them thinks at first.

The Barbarous Coast by Ross Macdonald

If you haven’t encountered Lew Archer yet, think Philip Marlowe with a less terse and more poetic turn of phrase. Ross Macdonald’s private eye also works in California and the 1956 novel The Barbarous Coast sees him taking on a case in Malibu that starts out as a simple request for a bodyguard. It’s quickly replaced by the search for a naive Canadian sports reporter’s errant young wife, believed to have returned to her Californian roots. Even that doesn’t remain Archer’s focus for long, and he follows a trail to the filthy underbelly of Hollywood, where the glamour cracks apart to reveal blackmail and murder. Dreams turn rotten with age, and cops turn rotten with money, and all the while Lew Archer does his best to remain unsullied and serve up justice when even the good guys are asking what’s the point.

One thing I particularly liked about The Barbarous Coast was the almost total absence of police, except as shadowy figures in the past, or offstage characters who Archer hands evidence to. Until this felt so refreshing, I hadn’t noticed how often private detectives run up against obstructive policemen, or work around the activities of the police department, trying to stay one step ahead. Because the police aren’t interested in the justice Archer is looking for, he has free rein and over a couple of very long days his determination allows him to gather the evidence he needs.

The novel does use a sneaky ploy that, depending how much of a murder mystery purist you are, you may find irritating. However, because I spotted it before Archer did, I didn’t feel tricked and I was prepared to forgive his slow realisation on the grounds that he was tired and overworked. With its sad portrayal of love gone sour, and the exploitation of vulnerable people, this is not a light-hearted read but I found it gripping and satisfying, and I’d recommend it to readers of the flawed American dream (F Scott Fitzgerald perhaps?) as well as lovers of classic noir.

Reginald Hill: worth celebrating

In case anyone who enjoys crime fiction hasn’t noticed, the Crime Writing Month blog has a whole host of articles on Reginald Hill’s life and work this month, along with reviews of some of his books and memories from those who knew him. I came across it via an article by Martin Edwards on Reginald Hill’s short stories. Although I’m well aware of the Dalziel and Pascoe series, and know about (though haven’t sampled) his Joe Sixsmith series and some of his stand alone novels, I didn’t realise Hill was a writer of short stories as well. I took this as a cue to search some out and I’ll report back (possibly) once I’ve read my newly acquired copy of There Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union.