Isabel Allende: Ripper, review

Isabel Allende, Ripper (Fourth Estate, £12.99, 478 pp.)

Some literary writers have patronizing attitudes to genre. John Banville, who writes crime-fiction as Benjamin Black, has said he produces just 100 words a day as a literary novelist, but a couple of thousand as Black. Crime-writing is easy was his subtext. Isabel Allende’s 1982 debut, The House of the Spirits, introduced millions to magic-realism. Her subsequent sprawling tales of love in historical settings have a devoted readership. But on the basis of Ripper, it appears Allende too thinks crime-fiction is a lesser occupation, as the essentials of the genre – narrative drive, plot development, structure, even suspense – all elude her.

Indiana is a reiki healer, whose annoying tics – ‘she visualized a stream of sidereal dust falling from some distant point in the cosmos’ – the author seems to find charming. She also looks, we are several times told admiringly, like a blow-up sex-doll, and she has a part-time rich lover, Keller, as well as the devotion of Ryan, a war-traumatized Navy SEAL. Her daughter is game-master for an online role-playing investigation into a series of murders, together with her grandfather, and aided by her father, a police chief.

A murder and disappearance in this group has possibilities, but Allende ignores the very basics. The murder occurs only three-quarters of the way through the book, until when her characters pass the time by telling each other things they already know, leaving narrative suspense to portentous voice-overs: ‘It was then she saw the article that would turn her life upside down’.

With the action finally underway, ten pages from the end in a race-to-the-death scenario, she is still moseying along, stopping for a chat about the effects of Prohibition on California wineries. Meanwhile she has drawn situations of astonishing implausibility: a crime expert who hasn’t heard of tasers, police who, after a body is found, contact the victim’s secret girlfriend instead of his family. And no one, apparently, has noticed that mobile phones have caller-ID.

One wonders if Allende was concentrating. ‘He had to persuade Bob, who couldn’t say no to him’: if he couldn’t say no, was persuasion necessary? ‘From a distance – and indeed from up close’: how about ‘from everywhere’? Scenes are repeatedly set up, then broken into by a back-story before returning, often in identical words, to the set-up. It’s like reading in a cave with an echo.

If the characters were interesting, all this might be forgivable. But the clichés come, as Allende would no doubt write, thick and fast: Indiana is ‘the only woman ever to captivate’ Keller, Ryan is a ‘fish out of water’, the police chief has a ‘trusty assistant’ (later someone wears ‘trusty jeans’, too, which makes you wonder). Every page is spattered with vagueness masquerading as description: ‘delicious’ smells, ‘a typical day’, a character’s ‘perfect’ features.

All that’s left is inadvertent comedy. Whenever the Navy SEAL appears, the book practically sits up and salutes. Ryan might be a murderer, but only an honourable one: he ‘would have confronted his rival, given him the opportunity to defend himself.’ The publisher has missed a trick here, because this is the perfect place to embed a microchip that plays ‘God Bless America’ as the page is turned.

First published in The Times

Ian Rankin: Saints of the Shadow Bible

Ian Rankin, Saints of the Shadow Bible (Orion, 428 pp.)

The wait for Rebus’ return was not as long as Holmes’ from the Reichenbach Falls. Only a year after the Edinburgh detective ‘retired’, readers were reassured he would return, and he did, working cold cases. Now he’s back on the front-line, in a neat role reversal detective-sergeant to former protégée Siobhan Clarke’s detective-inspector.

Malcolm Fox is back too, on his last case with ‘The Complaints’ – the police’s internal investigation department – before he moves back to CID, working with those he’d investigated for corruption, not a happy thought. He gets a taste of what this will be like as he attempts to co-opt Rebus to turn over his old colleagues.

When Rebus began his career, Summerhall nick was dirty from top to bottom: witnesses suborned, blind eyes turned, violence and intimidation working-tools in keeping the streets clean, or so the self-named Saints of the Shadow Bible – Summerhall’s detectives – told themselves. A 30-year-old murder case is now reopened: did it and the murderer walk with police complicity?

Meanwhile DI Clarke is dealing with a road accident. University student Jessica Traynor drives off the road one night and crashes. But she’s a careful driver, there’s no visible reason for the smash. Why make it complicated, urge not only her wide-boy financier father, and her boyfriend, the son of the Justice Minister, but also Clarke’s superiors, too.

That is, until the minister himself is assaulted.

Where does loyalty lie, is the question that permeates the book. So many loyalties owed by and to so many. How do they get balanced, who is owed what, past or present? This is what Rankin does best, complex multi-strand plots that interweave to elaborate a theme.

In their earlier outing, Fox and Rebus had a fascinating Jekyll and Hyde interaction, Fox, a teetotal pencil-pusher, is a flipped photograph of Rebus: what he might have become, if he’d taken another road. Here, however, they draw closer as they work together, and the nuances flatten.

In fact, Saints sometimes feels more like a sketch than a finished novel, despite its length, the author relying on our knowledge of the previous books to gesture at, rather than depict, characters.

Rankin’s technical mastery is renowned, and rightly, but here he allows Clarke and Rebus to spend two pages bringing the reader up to speed by telling each other the backstory of the Summerhall murder. At another point, a character is told, ‘If you worked there as a detective at that period, you were a Saint of the Shadow Bible’. An on-his-game Rankin would never have let that stilted ‘of that period’ stand.

There is, altogether, a sense that the author just wasn’t paying attention. One plot element is explained twice, another character is introduced with a cursory ‘I looked him up on Google – SNP stalwart…face of the ‘Yes’ campaign…married to a lawyer called Bethany.’ Rankin has always been good at not over-explaining, letting the reader fill in the blanks, but it’s a fine balance, and a Google search and a scattering of ellipses falls thumpingly down on the wrong side.

And then, just as you think you’ll give up, along come reminders of why Rankin, and Rebus, take their place at the head of the pack. A brief phone conversation between Rebus and a colleague is so tight, so efficiently written – and so funny – that you fall in love with the series all over again. It ends with a text from a desk-sergeant: ‘Blow me,’ it says, in its entirety, and then the masterstroke: ‘followed by three kisses’.

On balance, then, xxx, and add the novel to your Christmas list.

First published in an edited form in The Times

Benjamin Black: Vengeance

‘A man is not much if he can’t depend on himself, and nothing if others can’t depend on him.” So says business tycoon Victor Delahaye at the start of Vengeance (Henry Holt, 304 pages, $26), the fifth of Benjamin Black’s mysteries set in 1950s Dublin. After embellishing this bit of life guidance with a story about his father taking him for ice cream and then abandoning him—”Self-reliance, you see”—Delahaye pulls out a gun and messily commits suicide.

This tartly playful opening is a tour de force, and one typical of Mr. Black, who enjoys confounding readers’ expectations. Mr. Black himself is the alter ego of the Booker-Prize-winning Irish novelist John Banville, whose novels under his own name are filled with cerebral teasers, such as quoting Nietzsche without attribution in The Book of Evidence (1989) or, in The Newton Letter (1982), naming a character Prunty (the Brontës’ original, Irish, name), leaving readers to scramble along in his wake.

As Benjamin Black he plays with us too, but more inclusively—more generously, perhaps. In these novels, references to detective fiction abound, from Sherlock Holmes, through the canon of the 20th-century Golden Age (John Dickson Carr, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Agatha Christie), to American assembly-line Nancy Drew. “Benjamin Black” itself is almost a crossword-puzzle clue—Benjamin, meaning “offspring of the right hand” in Hebrew, plus Black, a broad allusion to the noir genre he pastiches so elegantly.

Mr. Black’s protagonist is a pathologist with a penchant for detection named Quirke, whose unknown first name brackets him with Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Colin Dexter’s Morse. (In a hat-tip to the hero of the now obscure novels of R. Austin Freeman, another pathologist who briefly appears in Quirke’s first outing, Christine Falls (2006), is named Thorndyke.) Morse’s first name was eventually revealed to be Endeavour; Quirke’s surname is no less suggestive, while the common Irish name of his adopted brother—Malachy—is ominously abbreviated to Mal.

In Vengeance, Quirke and his partner, Inspector Hackett, nose around the case of Delahaye’s suicide. The only witness is Davy Clancy, the son of Delahaye’s aggrieved business partner. The police accept Davy’s account of the incident, but Quirke and Hackett are less persuaded, even before a second unexplained death makes the crosscurrents between the Protestant Delahayes and the Catholic Clancys worth examining.

Meanwhile, Mona, Delahaye’s sulky and substantially younger wife, treads a series of shifting alliances between her stroke-crippled father-in-law and her amoral twin stepsons. Jack Clancy, Davy’s father, is always finessing, and not merely in the beds of several complaisant women. His wife, Sylvia, has lived in Ireland for decades but continues to think of the Irish as “they”: “They perceived in a dim way the inner life she continued to live, which was mild, reasonable, tolerant, and self-mocking—which was, in a word, English.”

Vengeance is filled with such enticing sentences, sentences that quietly beckon, promising one thing before flirtatiously turning back and ending unexpectedly. Indeed, language is at the heart of the entire series. Mal in middle-age “still had that smooth seal’s head of oiled black hair”; an elderly man inhabits a “cisternlike space with the indolent furtiveness of an elongated, big-eyed, emaciated carp”; Quirke’s apartment holds an “atmosphere of tight-lipped stealth, as if something vaguely nefarious had been going on that had ceased instantly at the sound of his key in the door.”

The danger with such memorable sentences is that they are memorable. Mr. Banville once tellingly commented that on a good day he writes 400 words, while his shadow, Mr. Black, writes 4,000. The substantial repetitions that appear across the series may owe much to Mr. Black’s speed of composition. In Christine Falls, Mal’s head may be seal-like, but so is another character’s, some 200 pages later. In Vengeance, Inspector Hackett sucks at his cigarette “as if he were performing an unpleasant task that had been imposed on him and that he was condemned to keep carrying out, over and over.” Unfortunately, so did a character in A Death in Summer (2011), smoking “with grim distaste, as if it were a task he had been unfairly assigned but which he must not shirk.” Several more characters have the unusual habit of shaping their cigarette ash into sharpened points, while Quirke’s cigarettes are regularly offered “arrayed like the pipes of an organ.” (The series should perhaps come with an advisory label: “If you dislike accounts of smoking and drinking, look away now.”)

More troubling than this is the recycled plot elements. Incest features repeatedly; Vengeance and A Death in Summer both open with the suicide of a rich businessman; after the first few novels, readers will know that if a character walks down a dark street at night, a trip to the hospital is the least they can expect; and grieving widows should be warned that a detective will shortly be along to bed them.

Ultimately, plot seems to be something that Mr. Black feels is necessary but not interesting, and there is little in the way of traditional crime-plus-detection. Even so, the books manage to be powerful in their evocation of a living, breathing, palpable Ireland of the 1950s. Its inhabitants are given almost music-hall, knock-about dialogue in some scenes—”Will we go for a pint?” “For God’s sake, Barney, it’s eleven o’clock in the morning.” “Is it? Jesus, we better hurry up, then”—which shifts, in an eye-blink, to a drier, more cerebral humor: “He had never had anything against the English, himself, though the Black and Tans had murdered an uncle of his—he was only an uncle by marriage.” Meanwhile, pubs on a summer evening fill with “the sound of slow talk and the rich reek of whiskey,” of “sunshine the color of brass” and “lazy swirls of cigarette smoke in the dusky air.” Elsewhere, a light filtering through windows gives “a muted radiance Quirke always found mysteriously dispiriting.”

It would be wrong if Quirke didn’t find a radiance dispiriting, because he too is a familiar model: the Chandler-esque self-destructive loner episodically drinking himself to death, a void on which each reader’s imagination can inscribe its own outline. “I have no origins,” he says in A Death in Summer. “I have a suspicion of what they were, but if what I suspect is the case, I don’t want it confirmed.” And so, apart from his working relationship with Inspector Hackett, he has no friends. “Aren’t you lonely?” he is asked in Elegy for April (2010), and his reply is that of Romantic heroes from Goethe onward: “Yes, of course. Isn’t everyone?”

He views himself bleakly, far more bleakly than those around him, who seem to find him worth persisting with. After he returns to his girlfriend, whom he had abandoned for another woman, his gambit is a feeble, “I should have telephoned. I should have kept in contact. That was unforgivable.” She retorts, “But of course you’re asking to be forgiven, aren’t you.” (He is. She does.)

The amount of sex that appears to have been readily available in the oppressively church-dominated atmosphere of 1950s Dublin is astonishing, as is Quirke’s apparently magnetic attraction for a vast range of women. This shambling bear of a man with tiny hands and feet—a charmingly Black-ian touch—sleeps, by my count, with eight different women over five novels, from those grieving widows to friends of his daughter, all presumably between the moments when he considers himself to be “at an age . . . when female beauty provoked admiration in him more often than desire.”

But of course genre fiction has only intermittent connection to the mundane details of reality. Instead, what the best noir—and Benjamin Black—does so well is to show how life falls between the cracks, how there are no tidy resolutions. The classic detective story, one character in “Vengeance” reflects, makes “everything so squared off and neat. . . . There was a body, there were clues, there were suspects, then the detective came along and put it all together into a story, a true story, the story of the truth.”

Instead, Quirke lives in a world of nuance, of half-spoken evasions and untruths. In that world—our world—Mr. Black forces his readers to make the same leaps that his characters must make, to build their own conclusions rather than having them delivered ready-made by the all-knowing detective. When Quirke works out the solution in the first novel, all we see is: “Mal had turned his head and was watching him again, and when Quirke met his eye he saw what Quirke had suddenly seen, and he nodded once, faintly.”

In The Silver Swan (2008), Quirke is told by his sister-in-law Sarah that Phoebe, who he had thought was his niece, is in reality his daughter. “And now Phoebe knew, and Sarah was gone, and Mal was alone, and Quirke was as Quirke had always been.” For Quirke, as for his fellow-countryman Beckett, language is all we have, finally, in a desolate world where “we give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”

Wall Street Journal, 11 August 2012

Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd

Wilkie CollinsIn Dickens’s bicentenary year, it is pleasant to remind ourselves that the 19th century did, in fact, produce authors other than “The Inimitable”, as Dickens (only partly joking) called himself.

Ackroyd was an earlier worshipper at the Dickens shrine, his 1990 biography including dramatised imaginings of Ackroyd meeting his subject. Now, more conventionally, he turns to Collins, Dickens’s friend, the author of The Woman in White and the book TS Eliot referred to as the earliest and best detective story, The Moonstone.

Collins seems at first a less interesting subject, however. He was the son of a well-known artist, who took his children touring in Europe. Yet as an adult, Collins had his share of unconventionality. His father’s death left the family on uncertain financial foundations, and Collins seemed destined for a life as a tea-merchant, before his writing permitted him to move to the bohemia his personality craved. Never marrying, Collins had two long-term relationships, for much of the time simultaneously, living openly with the working-class Caroline Graves while also setting up with a shepherd’s daughter, Martha Rudd, with whom he had three children.

In contrast to the healthy, focused Dickens, Collins, always sickly, was addicted to laudanum, ultimately taking daily doses large enough to kill anyone not so habituated. The drug not only caused physical problems, but induced terrifying hallucinations, including the fixation that another Wilkie Collins was sitting beside him to prevent him writing. Once the struggle between the two Wilkies was so ferocious an inkwell was overturned.

Also unlike Dickens, Collins wrote only two masterpieces, and a lot of potboilers: indeed, of his more than 30 books, Ackroyd only deems half worthy of examination. And while Collins’s narrative skill was thrilling, plot summaries such as Ackroyd gives us can’t bring to life the core of his success. Instead, in Ackroyd’s hands Collins’s life falls into a routine: a house move followed by an illness followed by a plot synopsis. After a while, it becomes a bit deadening.The book appears to have been written swiftly, with repetitions of words and phrases, or flat-out contradictions (omnibuses both “catered for everyone” and were “relatively expensive”). The text is peppered with “must have”, “seems” and “is likely”, recurring far too frequently to create an air of confidence. And then, just when you wonder what the point is, Ackroyd reminds you what an insightful writer he can be, as when he describes an early Collins novel where “the chapters succeed one another in beautiful monotony, like waves crashing on the Tahitian shore”.

Wilkie Collins
Peter Ackroyd
Chatto & Windus, £12.99, 208pp

Editathon-ing away, the Victorians rule the waves!

Well, that’s a Saturday spent usefully. No, I haven’t joined the Boy Scouts — although it’s a thought. Instead I spent the day at a seminar organized by the British Library in conjunction with Wikipedia. From the BL’s point of view, it was a way of promoting its special collections and areas of interest to a wider audience, and particularly to those who cannot travel to the library itself.

The group seemed to be mostly divided between computer-folk and Eng.Lit. people, with the odd sprinkling of historians (well, one, I think, me) and a classical music person, plus a table-ful of enthusiastic sci-fi-ers.  (Did you know it was a BL speciality? Well, now you do.) Plus Lauren Collins from the New Yorker, taking notes so as to write us all up, we assume as hopelessly comic characters.

We split up into groups to create pages highlighting different areas of the BL collection that we were interested in. The table I was on was Victorian, and we produced Wikipedia pages on Barry Ono, whose train-spotterishly vast collection of penny-dreadfuls is now owned by the BL; on Andrew Forrester, who wrote short-stories with one of the very first female detectives; on Ruth Traill, as far as I have determined, the first fictional female detective; and on a late Victorian novelist whose name I have shamefully forgotten.  I also added a bawdy 1830s song about the fire that destroyed the old Houses of Parliament to the Burning of Parliament page, just to lower the tone.

At lunchtime we broke off to find out what everyone else had been doing, and lo and behold, the Victorians had conquered the world — the sci-fi buffs had been working on Mary Shelley and the Brontë’s juvenilia; the poetry table on Victorian poets; and even those working on the BL table had focused on their 19th-century collections.

I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned from this, although I’m damned if I know what it is. In the meantime, if you need a rude drinking song, check out Wikipedia’s Burning of Parliament page.

Help write Victorian history

What fun. The British Library (here) is calling all budding Victorianists to join them on 4 June for a massive edit-in. The idea from the library’s point of view is to help spread the word about the depth and breadth of the various Victorian collections quietly waiting for readers at the BL, by adding new Wikipedia entries, or updating and expanding already existing ones, and particularly focusing on their special collections: Dickens, boys’-own stories, penny-dreadfuls, the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays.

‘Access’ is changing. When I first started to write, if I needed a date, I checked it in an encyclopaedia, on the shelves across the room. Spelling, a dictionary, on the other side. A page reference? It was jotted down on a ‘to check when I’m next in the library’ list.

And now? Dates are online, either Wikipedia for the biggies, the Dictionary of National Biography for the UK figures, accessed via the London Library (blessings on your head, LL!) or a dozen other websites. Spelling, OED via the Westminster Public Library. Page reference? Google books. Checking citations, Project Gutenberg. And every day it still seems like a miracle. My ‘to check in the library list’ is now vanishingly small.

One of the greatest developments is also the BL’s, its digitization of hundreds of complete runs of 19th-century newspapers. This has opened up huge new research areas, and is quickly changing our views of British history, turning it from a London, Times-centric research base, as has been the default, to a broader view, geographically, politically and socially.

The one caveat is that it is only free if you are physically in the BL, which strikes me as very peculiar. If you have a reader’s ticket, and can key in your number, why not free to any registered BL reader, as with so many libraries?

A girl can dream…

How to Murder your Wife, in 2 easy steps

In his novel Armadale, Wilkie Collins seemed to share the generally low view of professional detectives, as working-class men sticking their noses where they weren’t wanted. And the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act added to the general perception.

Divorce was now possible without getting a special act passed in parliament, but to obtain a divorce, a woman had to prove adultery with either bigamy, incest or cruelty; a man could divorce for adultery alone. In either case, the need to prove adultery greatly increased the number of private detectives. In Armadale the detective James Bashwood operates out of an office on ‘Shadyside Place’, and in case that hint isn’t heavy enough, he is described as a ‘vile creature…a man professionally ready on the merest suspicion (if the merest suspicion paid him) to get under our beds, and to look through gimlet-holes in our doors.’ Allan Armadale, headstrong and naive, initially rejects the idea of hiring a detective, calling it ‘meddling in…private affairs’.

Not meddling in others’ private affairs, it was thought, had much to recommend it.  It took Dr Edward Pritchard to change some minds. Pritchard was the third of four high-profile doctor-murderers in a quarter-century. Perhaps familiarity was breeding contempt, but people were becoming progressively less shocked with the idea that a middle-class, outwardly respectable professional man might commit murder. Pritchard himself aroused only local interest, not national. For that, it took a discussion on the merits or demerits of professional busybodies vs. professional detachment.

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Is Wallander really ‘Goodnight Moon’?

Wallander is leaving us, says Henning Mankell. I’ve written a (fairly frivolous) piece on detectives abandoning their readers in the Telegraph this morning (here). But while I was writing it, I was actually thinking about the instalment, and how attuned we are to it.

Dickens, of course, was the king of the serial. A chunk of Oliver Twist arrived monthly (and with later novels, sometimes weekly). The family sat down and someone read it aloud, or it got passed from family member to family member to friend. Then you waited another month, thinking about the characters and the plot, wondering what was going to happen next.

Magazines didn’t replicate that formula entirely, but the connection was still forged with characters like Sherlock Holmes, who showed up every month in the Strand Magazine, with a recurring cast of characters (OK, with Watson’s revolving cast of wives: either he married a lot, or Conan Doyle couldn’t be bothered to check what he had called his wife, and just made a stab at it; I know which theory I prefer), with a familiar household setup and plot formula. Readers loved it: it was comforting to know that somewhere life goes on in a routine fashion, even as you’re dealing with the unwelcome and unexpected.

And television, of course, follows exactly the same formula. The soaps and the telenovelas are the extreme version: a standard set of characters, in a complicated plot but with familiar emotions and recurring themes. Tune in any time, and you can bathe in the warm familiarity.

And detective fiction does the same too. The conversation I recorded in the Telegraph about one of the subsidiary characters in a Donna Leon / Brunetti novel was real. (You can usually tell which conversations I’ve made up, because I always sound so much smarter in them.) But this time I was truly discussing with a friend how long a fictional character had been dating another fictional character, and where she lived. (‘In the pages of a book, you fule,’ went unspoken.)

Descendants of the golden age of detective-fiction are known as ‘cosies’. I had always thought it was for their fairy-tale formula of restoring order to chaos, to the happily-ever-after ending where the ‘bad’ character is corralled, separated from all the other characters who are therefore, by definition, ‘good’, and harmony prevails. But writing this piece, I wonder if the ‘cosy’ element refers as much to the nursery love of the familiar. Just as we needed, as children, to hear Goodnight Moon over and over, in exactly the same setting, in exactly the same tone of voice, no page-skipping allowed, maybe as adults in a messy, uncertain life, we love the formula, the genre-ness of detective-fiction.

I wonder if Wallander ever thought of himself as a comfort-blanket?