Robert Rankin

Story a day update, Dirk Gently, and Peter Tinniswood

In the first 6 days of March I wrote just over 5000 words, spread among 5 different stories – not bad for an arbitrary self-assigned task, and the wordcount doesn’t include the copious notes I’ve made on what happens between the point I reached and the end of the tale. I’d been hoping for one or two completed flash pieces; all the topics I’ve tackled so far seem to warrant a longer work than that but I’ve still got over 3 weeks left.

Thanks to the brilliant BBC iplayer I’ve watched the first episode in the new Dirk Gently series. If you approach it not as a follow-up to the incomparable Douglas Adams novels but as a programme of the sort that a Douglas Adams reader may enjoy, it’s well worth a watch. Gently and MacDuff are well cast, the plot was suitably convoluted, silly, but with a twisted logic to it, and there were a few nods to the original. And I do love the fact that he’s still driving that Austin Princess (I actually have a story in my unpublished pile which features a car of that very type – many years ago my dad had an electric blue one).

Also thanks to the iplayer, on which I’ve caught various episodes of Uncle Mort’s South Country and Uncle Mort’s North Country (never in the order they were intended), I read a Peter Tinniswood novel a couple of weeks ago. A Touch of Daniel is the first of his novels featuring the Brandon family, of which Uncle Mort is a member by marriage. Written in the late 1960s and set among working class characters in a northern town, the novel could happily sit alongside better-known classics such as A Kind of Loving or Room at the Top. However, Tinniswood wrote comedy, and comic novels are hard to pull off though he manages it here brilliantly: this is understated deadpan surrealist dark northern humour at its best. There are running gags, the on-off-on engagement which put me in mind of Bob and Thelma in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, a shotgun wedding featuring a most unlikely couple, bizarre deaths and apparent miracles. All wrapped up with a houseful of elderly (and slightly potty) relatives, a staunch mother, wayward father, and taciturn Carter Brandon the put-upon young man at the centre of it all. If you like Robert Rankin and the Likely Lads, you could do worse than read this book.


Bradford based fantasy – I’m not alone

Either I’ve found a kindred spirit or lost some of my uniqueness this week, depending how you look at it. There is someone else out there writing speculative fiction set in Bradford (no, really). Elizabeth Hopkinson writes fantasy rather than sci-fi, and some of her Bradford-based stories have been published whereas mine tend to be either doing the rounds or sitting in the unfinished pile, so in some sense she’s leading the way – I can rest easier knowing that Bradford already has a purple-headed pin on the speculative fiction map and isn’t relying solely on the fate of Self-aware and Living in Bradford (my near-future AI homage to Julie Christie’s performance in Billy Liar). A Short History of the Dream Library, a story I heard Elizabeth read this week, won the James White Award in 2005 and was in Interzone; it’s comic fantasy explicitly set in Bradford, whereas some of her other work is less comic and less explicit in its setting (but with much inspiration from the city and its buildings).

I had two revelations, listening to Elizabeth Hopkinson read. One was that all may not be lost as far as me doing an audio version of The Whitewing Fallen goes: hearing someone with a similar accent stand and read in front of an audience was quite reassuring, though I’ve still got to get round the fact that I have a character who in my head sounds like a Tudor Glenn Danzig. The other was that I’ve been reading Robert Rankin books for years, and I don’t think I even realised Brentford was a real place for a while, and even when I did, I assumed the streets etc were mostly made up – you can be as parochial as you like and as long as there’s enough of a feeling of solidity for your readers to imagine the setting, it doesn’t matter if they’ve never heard of it, so in theory I could take a leaf out of Rankin’s book and set every piece of speculative fiction I write in future in and around Bradford with no alienating effects on the potential readership.

On that cheering (or possibly horrifying) note, I’ll get back to slaving away over a hot keyboard.

My literary life, or I Blame Douglas Adams

It’s amazing what books influence your life. It might be nice to think some weighty literary tome (or some weighty non-fiction?) had the biggest impact, but if you’re anything like me (which may be a long shot) it’ll have been some light entertainment that you may even dismiss yourself. It just might take you a while to realise it.

Take the mug on my desk now (actually, don’t – I haven’t finished with it yet): it contains camomile and spearmint tea. A couple of years ago OneMonkey and I were both drinking it while reading novels by Philip K Dick, and we commented on how he loves to run words together, usually to make something sound modern and technologically advanced. We should call it camspear, we joked (yes, maybe we should get out more). And we did, and it stuck, and we still do.

Without intentionally ‘making a reference’, I have been known to attribute something unexplained to the transperambulation of pseudocosmic antimatter – Robert Rankin novels have clearly permeated my being.

Mark the artist was talking to me recently about my writing, and I think he must have asked how long my novel Wasted Years is (81,000 words or thereabouts). There then followed a conversation about my early attempts at writing, aged about 16; So long and thanks for all the fish being the volume of the Hitch-hikers trilogy nearest my desk, and said trilogy being apparently my paragon of noveldom at the time, I did a rough wordcount of So long… and that was my target length (45-50,000 words if I remember correctly). Even for Wasted Years (started age 25, and not in the least bit ‘genre’) it was the point at which I hit that wordcount that I felt like I was writing a ‘proper’ novel, despite most fiction being much longer than that now.

For all my attempts at ‘serious’ writing and ‘mainstream’ (non-genre) writing, is it all down to Douglas Adams in the end? Maybe it’s about time I admitted that and started having more fun.

The Well of Lost Plots

Having started with Something Rotten and been largely confused (partly because I didn’t know the plot of Hamlet), I’ve caught up with myself as far as Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series goes. The Well of Lost Plots is the third in the series and I think the best I’ve read so far.

A complicated and quite thrilling plot (with very little in the way of those trying-too-hard character names that marred my enjoyment of the first two books), plenty of in-jokes, literary references, and some wonderful ideas and imagery. Unpublished novels where scenery disappears because the author’s decided to use it in his new book; a black market in plot devices; slightly steampunk-esque machinery that transmits images to the reader’s mind… Trying to write a coherent review of this novel is too hard, partly because it’s the third in a series and partly because so much goes on (and not all of it makes sense) so it would be very easy to give things away. As I said to OneMonkey earlier, while I wouldn’t rate it quite as highly, I would say that if you enjoy the works of Douglas Adams or Robert Rankin (leaving aside a Dog Called Demolition) this should probably be on your To Read list.

Reviews from a busy week

This week I’ve read two novels and been to see a film based on a comic so I thought I’d share.

Necrophenia, the most recent Robert Rankin paperback to grace my dad’s bookshelves, was pretty much what you’d expect from the founder of far-fetched fiction. While I wouldn’t perhaps recommend it to those new to Rankin (start at The Antipope and work your way through, would be my advice. Only you needn’t bother with A Dog Called Demolition, as OneMonkey is possibly the only person who’s ever enjoyed it), others with a long-held affection for Rankinesque fantasy will probably enjoy it as much as I did (which is to say quite a bit). The themes and some characters may be familiar (Elvis Presley, rock ‘n’ roll, 1950s private detectives or specifically Lazlo Woodbine and his bar-tending friend Fangio, the Ministry of Serendipity, not to mention the transperambulation of pseudo-cosmic antimatter. Which he does, twice) and of course it does involve an other-worldly threat to the Earth (not just Brentford) and its inhabitants, which is (almost) thwarted by an unlikely sort of hero, but if you like that sort of thing (which I do) then it’s worth a read as it’s done very well. And he’s really toned down on the swearing these days (not that I particularly minded anyway).

The other book I borrowed from my dad (I’m not being tight, it’s an eco thing. Well OK, but I’m not just being tight) was Lullaby Town by Robert Crais, a 1990s contemporary-set novel featuring LA private detective Elvis Cole. I’ve read a few Elvis Cole novels now, and I like the character (and his friend Joe Pike: cat-loving, vegetarian, largely silent tough guy who wears shades no matter how dark it is), and I usually enjoy the plot (enough human interest without being soft, enough violence to be plausible without straying into brutal). However, the thing that really bothers me is the excess of description – yes I know it might tell you something about the bad guy that he’s wearing green socks with a sharp suit, but when he’s pointing a gun at Elvis Cole I don’t need to know which side his hair’s parted or what make of gun it is. And since it’s written in the first person, are we supposed to believe that Cole has noted all these details in the middle of the action? As usual, all the brand names mean nothing to me so maybe it would be better to say expensive/cheap/mid-range/out-moded rather than relying on all readers being familiar with American brands. That aside, Lullaby Town was a fairly fast and satisfying read: Peter, an immature, self-centred film director wants to find the wife and child he walked out on ten years earlier, before his success – all in a day’s work for Elvis Cole, but then it gets a bit more complicated and Peter learns the hard way that money can’t buy him everything, and dealing with the mafia isn’t as easy as it looks on the big screen.

The film was Scott Pilgrim vs The World. I was expecting good things from the director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and I wasn’t disappointed. Adapted from a series of comics, set in Toronto and full of good music, the film was one of those that leaves you with a buzz for a few hours after you’ve watched it. Although Scott Pilgrim himself mostly just needed a slap, his room-mate Wallace was brilliantly portrayed by Kieran Culkin, and several characters were real enough that they kind of reminded me of people I used to know back when rock music and being cool were major themes of my life. Visually, the comic book and dodgy old pixelated computer game theme worked, though it seemed to be forgotten later on, outside of the fight scenes. It was funny, it was fast-paced, people had superpowers with absolutely no explanation or apology, and it should serve as a self-esteem boost to geeky gawky bass-players everywhere.

Teenage fanclub

Iron Maiden are apparently releasing a new album, and despite having been disappointed by the last two, I know I’ll end up buying it. I do this in the same way as I continue to read each new book by Robert Rankin or Terry Pratchett (and to a lesser and slower extent Stephen King, though I think I’ve missed a couple of his out now). I can’t decide whether it stems from some kind of loyalty, or perhaps even gratitude, to those that sustained me through my teenage years (Iron Maiden and Terry Pratchett having been constants in my life for at least 18 years now, Stephen King for 16 and Robert Rankin for 12), or a hope that each of them (though wavering a little now, at least in my opinion) will hit the mark again and delight me as they once did. It could be nostalgia for lost youth. Or just that I’m always frightened I’m missing something (as my mum’s so fond of pointing out), and I don’t want the album or novel that I don’t buy to be the best they’ve done in years.

Full of cold, surrounded by books

Full of snot and self-pity as I’ve been this week, I’ve been doing a lot of reading when I haven’t been asleep. The main book of the week was The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde, which I enjoyed much more than its follow-up The Fourth Bear (I do have a tendency to read books in the wrong order these days, which occasionally gets confusing but now I have an insight into my dad’s approach to Robert Rankin’s Brentford novels, and an even greater respect for his brainpower). I honestly can’t say whether that’s because it’s better, because I’ve read a few Ffordes now and I have greater tolerance for him trying too hard (it’s the really contrived names that get to me), or because I’m not well and was therefore approaching it much less critically and more with a view to a few hours’ amusing diversion.

The Big Over Easy is one of Fforde’s Nursery Crime Division novels, and if you say ‘Humpty Dumpty’s fallen off a wall in Reading and died; DI Jack Spratt and DS Mary Mary are trying to find out how and why’ it just sounds a bit daft, but in fact it’s a proper gripping detective novel, a bit gruesome in places, full of twists and brilliantly built-up tension. There’s a healthy dose of satire and an affectionate (I assume it’s affectionate) poke at the classic detective canon, as well as quite Rankinesque absurdity (I was going to say Pythonesque, but it’s a lot more internally consistent than that and it does generally follow its own logic). Berkshire is a long-established safe-haven for anthropomorphic animals, apparently, and Reading has a disproportionate number of nursery rhyme characters, all of whom fall under the jurisdiction of Jack Spratt and his tiny underfunded team. And he’s happily married with five children. No wonder no-one takes him seriously as a detective.

Read it if: you like comic fantasy but watch the occasional Poirot; you like detective novels and have a sense of humour that embraces Life of Brian; you are bored, would like your brain exercised in the pursuit of a whodunnit but are sick of depressing, nasty or twisted police-related stories.