No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, February 21, 2013

2013/03: The White Trail -- Fflur Dafydd

She was always showing him the light in things, the whiteness. When they first met it would pain him when she left the room, as though the light were leaving too. The day she disappeared happened to be the shortest day of the year.
[location 88]

Cilydd and Goleuddydd are expecting their first child any day: then Goleuddydd apparently vanishes into thin air at the supermarket. Cilydd turns to Arthur, a private investigator who happens to be his cousin (the axiom that blood is thicker than water being the only explanation of why Cilydd would turn to a PI who'd never solved a single case) in the hope of tracking down either his missing wife, or the son he's never seen.

Goleuddydd -- or, rather, her body -- turns up in a pigsty, with a macabre message scrawled in blood on the wall. The child is not found.

Cilydd, at a loss without his fiery and tempestuous wife, becomes involved with a charity that supports people who've lost a loved one to that liminal 'missing persons' state: he also becomes involved, more intimately, with Gwelw, a woman whose husband just happens to be the stranger who Cilydd 'inadvertently pushed... off a cliff'. The two marry, and all seems well, until Cilydd receives an anonymous phonecall from someone who knows exactly what happened to Gwelw's previous husband. And meeting the caller opens up a whole new web of happenstance: a child who realises he's adopted, and the girl he's fallen in love with, who leaves a white trail wherever she goes ...

The White Trail retells the story of Culhwch and Olwen, from the Welsh Mabinogion. (It's one of a series of 'New Stories from the Mabinogion': I purchased several in Amazon's post-Christmas Kindle sale.) I might have noticed more of the allusions and references in the novel if I'd known the original better: as it was, the twists of the plot were surprising. I did feel the novel lost focus near the end, when the dastardly schemes of Ysbaddaden (and the hidden agenda of Arthur) are revealed: those revelations felt jarring, insufficiently signalled. But the imagery of the novel resonated with me, and the author's afterword made me want to go back to the beginning and read through the story again with new understanding.

I realised that I was concentrating too dutifully on what was present in the text, rather than searching for what was absent. I should, after all, have been looking for the gaps, the silences, for those things that didn’t quite make sense, things dense with meaning, well hidden – waiting to be brought to light. Those still, curious moments, where the action subsided and the characters lay exposed, flawed, human even. [Author's afterword: location 1548]

2013/02: London Falling -- Paul Cornell

... not being able to control things is why people started doing stuff like Losley does, way back when. That’s why it’s town stuff. Everyone going back and forth in the city, doing deals, getting one up on each other, when maybe you were used to how it was in the country, just working your land and stuff, same thing happening every year ... The city makes you want it now, makes you want it easier. But the bureaucracy of the city also grinds against that, makes you look for a way to get round it.’ [location 3856]

Whoever described this as 'Buffy meets the Sweeney' wasn't far off the mark. Yes, it's London coppers versus the forces of darkness -- but the doom and gloom is leavened with humour, rounded characters and a profound appreciation of London-as-phenomenon.

Everything's normal to start with. (Possibly for a little too long: would I have kept reading if I hadn't known there were Weird Thingies ahead? Though I can't actually imagine a world in which I remained ignorant of this novel, what with Twitter and word-of-mouth.) But then DI Quill's prime suspect Toshack, hauled in for drug-related crimes, dies in a suspicious and inexplicable fashion; and Quill ends up with a rag-tag team, and a horrifying (and literal) new insight into the underpinnings of Toshack's criminal empire.

Suddenly there are ghosts amid the crowds, ghosts following Quill's colleagues; there are mysterious spirals of earth appearing in apparently-random locations; there are screaming plague-pits, and a fortune-teller whose divinatory method of choice is the London A-Z. Also, a statistically-improbable incidence of death amongst football players who score hat-tricks against West Ham. And the Sekrit Historie of Anne Boleyn. And a talking cat which, in my head at least, has the Received Pronunciation of early BBC broadcasts.

There are some very cool ideas in this novel, and some fascinating characters (a category into which I think London itself might fall). Cornell manages to write about a team that includes a self-confessed 'shit', a woman and a gay man without drawing from central casting's handy basket o' stereotypes. He also manages an oddly sympathetic villain. With those factors in the novel's favour, I can easily forgive the occasional clunkiness (one does not 'run into close quarters').

I am really looking forward to the next book in this series.
If this is the Old Bill versus Old Nick, we’ll have him too, sunshine. [location 6097]

Friday, February 08, 2013

2013/01: Broken Harbour -- Tana French

... the ghosts I believe in weren't trapped in the [...] bloodstains. They thronged the whole estate, whirling like great moths in and out of the empty doorways and over the expanses of cracked earth, battering against the sparse lighted windows, mouths stretched wide in silent howls: all the people who should have lived here. The young men who had dreamed of carrying their wives over these thresholds, the babies who should have been brought home from the hospital to soft nurseries in these rooms, the teenagers who should have had their first kisses leaning against lampposts that would never be lit. [location 3722]

Broken Harbour is a half-finished estate, far enough out of Dublin to be disconnected from the city. Those who chose to move in before development stalled feel isolated, abandoned, hopeless. Perhaps that's what drove Pat Spain to murder-suicide: he and his children are dead, his wife is in intensive care, and the case looks clearcut. Blame the recession.

But 'Scorcher' Kennedy (who's appeared in the background of Tana French's other novels) is not convinced. He and his partner, Richie -- a rookie who might have potential if he can learn to set aside his assumptions -- are puzzled by the state of the Spains' trophy home: there are holes in the walls, surveillance cameras in the attic, and evidence that someone's been hiding out in an unfinished building, staring straight into the kitchen where the Spains met their fate.

Kennedy's own past is nagging at him, too. Back in the Seventies, the site of Broken Harbour was a caravan park. Scorcher's memories of one particular summer are still vivid, despite his attempts to force them back into the past. His sister Dina's mental health issues have risen up again now that Broken Harbour's on the news. Something bad happened there before: something bad has happened again.

As in French's previous novels, the past is inescapable. And everyone is guilty of something, whether it's objectively wrong or not. (Is this Catholic guilt? Does confession absolve if the confession is a lie? If you'll never know the truth about what you did?)

I didn't like Scorcher Kennedy much at first, but as his iron self-control started to crumble I found myself increasingly fascinated by the contrast between his hard-nosed detective persona and the softer parts he no longer reveals or acknowledges. The gradual destruction of his relationship with Richie is painful to read, and ramps up as inexorably and horrifically as the murder investigation. French has a knack for characterisation and a lyrical style that one wouldn't expect to suit Kennedy: it does. "In these rooms, the world’s vast hissing tangle of shadows burns away, all its treacherous greys are honed to the stark purity of a bare blade, two-edged: cause and effect, good and evil. To me, these rooms are beautiful. I go into them the way a boxer goes into the ring: intent, invincible, home." [location 9221]

Like French's other novels, there's a hint -- but only a hint -- of the supernatural, of something ancient and inexplicable, affecting those who can't perceive it but know there's something wrong. This presence isn't as prominent as the weirdnesses of In the Woods, but it's there if you look -- and can be discounted if you prefer your murder mysteries rooted firmly in the real. (But Emma saw it!)

And, like French's other novels, Broken Harbour drew me in, surprised and affected and moved and awed. I can't think of another crime writer who so consistently impresses me.

I had been sure I was mended, all the breaks healed, all the blood washed away. I knew I had earned my way to safety. I had believed, beyond any doubt, that that meant I was safe. [location 8854]

Thursday, February 07, 2013

2012/69: The Bookman -- Lavie Tidhar

The fat man looked taken aback. "Why, I thought my name is well known even in that lizards'-spawn hell of yours across the Channel," he said.
"I'm sorry, I don't–"
The fat man drew himself up. He snapped his fingers and his servant threw him his cane. The man caught it single-handedly and twirled it. "The name," he said stiffly, "is Verne. Jules Verne." [p. 135]

A 19th-century London ruled by the Calibanic dynasty known as Les Lezards; an orphan youth named Orphan; the launch of a Martian space-probe by one Professor Moriarty, Prime Minister; the automata, who wish only freedom ... Lavie Tidhar's steampunk novel, set in a world whose history is slightly askew, is a remix jam-packed with familiar names and allusions. I especially liked Orphan's perusal of titles in the bookshop: "Jo March's A Phantom Hand... Colonel Sebastian Moran's Heavy Game of the Western Himalayas... George Edward Challenger's Some Observations Upon a Series of Kalmuk Skulls... In My Father's House by Princess Irulan... Eustace Clarence Scrubb's Diary... Augustus Whiffle's The Care of the Pig. Dr Stephen Maturin's Thoughts on the Prevention of Diseases most usual among Seamen...Hugo Rune's The Book of Ultimate Truths. Harriet Vane's The Sands of Crime..." [pp119-20].

The Bookman is a swashbuckling adventure that's also philosophical, witty and -- despite the rollicking plot -- quietly menacing. Orphan feels like the hero of a nineteenth-century novel, naive and idealistic, ignorant of the bigger picture: he also, it has to be said, suffers from a certain two-dimensionality at times. But the scenery is rich enough that Orphan's inadequacies never overwhelm the reader. And, though I didn't engage with most of the female characters, Inspector Irene Adler more than made up for their colourlessness.

That said, I was deeply disappointed by the ending, which felt slight and anticlimactic. If I'd known this was the first of a trilogy (now complete!) I think I'd have read the whole book differently, expecting a different pace and only partial resolution. I have now acquired the complete trilogy as a single e-book. I shall read it ... soon. So many books! So little time!