Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Books read in December

The Return Of The Thin Man – Dashiell Hammett
Hammett wrote some of the quintessential hard-boiled detective novels of the 20th century. Based in part on his experiences as a Pinkerton Detective, they combine gritty realism, social comment and excellent plots with a skill for writing that really is top class. Yet Hammett also had a great sense of humour and this was ably displayed in his novel The Thin Man which featured the detective Nick Charles and his wife Nora. The novel is a wisecracking mystery with Nick and Nora always just the right side of innebriated seeming to blunder through an investigation yet using their apparent foolishness as the perfect cover.

So successful was the novel that it was turned into a film. So successful was the film that the studio clamoured for sequels. Reluctantly (Hammett did not enjoy his time in bondage to MGM), he produced treatments for two more films and a brief outline for another. These have recently been unearthed and are published together in this volume.

This is a wonderful book on so many levels. To begin with we get more genuine Hammett. Secondly, we get two new stories that sparkle as much as the original novel. And finally we get to see part of the process by which movies can be made – always a bonus for anyone trying to work on their screenplay. Hammett didn’t write the screenplays, but he did provide detailed stories and most of the dialogue (screenwriters lifted his dialogue by the pageful when preparing screenplays as he was recognised as a master). Indeed, so detailed are these, they could as easily have been developed into novels as movies. Whatever the case (and the movies do differ slightly from the treatments) these were very readable stories and so vivid that one could see them playing out as movies whilst reading them. This is writing at its very best, even when Hammett was losing interest in the project, he did not once short change the reader.

The Saltmarsh Murders – Gladys Mitchell
Another wonderful line-up of bonkers characters. Another wonderful mystery. In this case, Mitchell has also demonstrated her skill as a writer by making a first person narrative from the point of view of one of the characters involved, with Mrs Bradley seen through his eyes. That in itself as an excellent little character study of a young man with all his prejudices, foibles, desires, and in a number of cases fairly advanced thinking for a man of the cloth in the 1930s.

They mystery is, as ever, intriguing and whilst the book does display some of the views of its day that seem shocking to us (especially with regard to the question of race), it also manages to air that problem and show up much of it for the prejudice that it is. It is a question that is thrown into sharp contrast a decade later with the arrival of American troops in the UK, so kudos to Mitchell for giving it a walk around the park so early.

Death At The Opera – Gladys Mitchell
Typically convoluted and, evidenced at one point when a whole new novel appears to start, resolutely its own style of mystery novel. A co-educational private school with a head who has mildly progressive ideas decides to put on a production of the Mikado for its annual concert. Around this the relationships of the staff are explored, particularly those pertaining to Miss Ferris, the self-effacing mathematics mistress who puts up the money to put on the show.

The investigation into why she winds up dead lifts stones on a whole set of things that people would much rather had stayed hidden. Although the story does have truly absurd elements and appalling coincidences, it is still a satisfying read and the characters are wonderfully drawn in a way that portrays the slightly barmy Mrs Bradley as normal and everyone else as a complete basket case.

Poor Things – Alasdair Gray
Part gothic horror (although with tongue in cheek), part social commentary, wholly entertaining, and of course beautifully illustrated. The book is presented as the reproduction of a privately printed volume found outside a solicitor’s offices amongst other papers. As such it is a series of stries nested inside each other. The story of the book’s finding (and a commentary on the parlous state of the finances for preserving and conserving Scottish culture); the discussion between the person who found the book and Gray (as editor) about its veracity and reliability; the story told within the book about a woman who became one of the first female doctors in Scotland and her bizarre origin; a letter written by the woman (at one time married to the author of the book) giving her real origins and life story; plus a whole host of notes.

The whole thing is, of course, a work of fiction. It can be read on so many levels, achieves so much in terms of creating a parallel history, and remains throughout both well-written and entertaining. Gray does wobble sometimes in his writing, but he is never less than bold, never less than entertaining, and never gives less than his whole to a project. This alone makes him a writer to be treasured. That he has a social conscience and manages to discuss important social matters without once dropping into polemic makes him doubly wonderful.

Come Away, Death – Gladys Mitchell
Always literate, Mitchel lifts what might have been a straightforward murder mystery to an altogether different and chilling level. The usual conventions of such books are in place. Mrs Bradley happens to be a guest of a family about to embark on a pilgrimage to sacred sites of ancient Greece. There are tensions and it quickly becomes obvious who the victim will be. So far, so normal.

What is chilling about this is the way in which it exposes the awful assumptions of certain classes of British society and the casual way in which an irritant is dealt with (the victim is a pain in the arse but no more so than the family he has attached himself to like a leech). Murdered, disposed of, and the assumption that that was the way to handle it and that it should be hushed up.

As such it is a scathing and unflinching view of British society and how little distance it had travelled even after the horrors of the First World War. It is also a an excellent novel in its own right, lost to most readers as it is a genre novel, one by a sadly neglected writer who produced much better work than Christie but one who exposed the dark underside of society rather than smoothing over the cracks and making it look cosy and normal again.

The Chain Of Chance – Stanislaw Lem
Another of Lem’s metaphysical investigations where noir meets the absurd (in a territory in which both happily exist). I love both kinds of writing and to have them in one story (much as Goddard did with his movie Alphaville) is perfect.

In this book an ex-astronaut (dumped from a Mars programme because of his hay-fever) agrees to help into the investigation of a series of mysterious deaths in Italy. This is a world that is both contemporary and in the future; a world plagued by all the concerns of the mid-70s when it was written, but viewed through the filter of a highly analytical mind.

With all the hallmarks and proceedings of a murder investigation it soon becomes something else – mostly a meditation on modern life with aspects of mathematics thrown in. The denoument is suitably downbeat and quirky and whilst it might not satisfy mystery buffs, it is intellectually satisfying and thoroughly enjoyable.

Father Ted, The Complete Scripts – Graham Linehan & Arthur Mathews
What’s to be said that hasn’t already been said? Lots, I suppose. Collected here in a single volume, with notes, are the final written drafts of the scripts of the TV series Father Ted. They differ slightly from what appears on screen as decisions are made during shooting about what transfers from the page, but the differences are tiny (mostly scenes cut because they were too long or went nowhere). It is the genius of the writers that what is on the page is as funny as what appeared on screen, although for different reasons. The performances in the series were superb and brought a whole new dimension to the written word (and it is very difficult to read the scripts without hearing the actors and visualising them – especially if you have watched it a few more times than once). However, the written word here is funny in its own right and has that deceptive simplicity of all good writing. It’s the sort of thing that makes you say, ‘I could do that’ until you try and realise that you have to be very gifted indeed to translate surreal humour into first the written word and then a written form that then translates to TV. Excellent.

When Last I Died – Gladys Mitchell
Another superb piece of writing from Mitchell. Well informed (as are all her books), solid, and believable. This involves a tangle of family relationships and what happens when the family members come together over a slightly dodgy scheme to convince people that a house is haunted in order to make a bit of money and a reputation on which to live. Stepping out onto that limb makes everyone vulnerable especially when one of the is determined to stop at nothing to saw the branch off at the base.

It is also extremely refreshing to have children portrayed realistically rather than as the jolly, precocious brats they often are in such stories. But then Mitchell was a teacher so she knew what children were really like in all their moods – even the children that had long since grown up.

Death and the Maiden – Gladys Mitchell
No happy ending in this book, although justice is served at a terrible cost. Set in Winchester, mostly along the banks of the Itchen, this is a complex tale of greed and murder which, in true Mitchell style, manages to be seamlessly erudite, disturbing, and entertaining.

Tom Brown’s Body – Gladys Mitchell
Whilst this is well-written and contains a mystery every bit as intriguing as her other books, the ending feels rushed. There are no cheats, but suddenly Mrs Bradley and the police make an arrest and it’s all over. That may well be the experience in real life, but in a book of this sort one would like something a little more satisfying.

The Dwarfs – Harold Pinter
I remember thinking when I first read this that it had only seen the light of day because it was interesting to see how Pinter’s writing had developed and people who enjoyed his plays (as I did and still do) would want to. As a work it already displays Pinter’s interest in dialogue. There is very little of anything in the novel that could be described as action, little more than would be found in a play as stage directions.

In the sense that the author already has a mature and idiosyncratic style where the dialogue is already ‘Pinteresque’, the novel works. Many of the sections of dialogue work within themselves. But there are passages that display the immature side of Pinter as a writer. They ramble without adding anything to the work. There is no plot to push forward and the characters are types rather than individuals.

Despite its faults, it is still a work I will champion and suggest people read simply because it is one of the hidden treasures of British literature. It follows its own course, speaks with an individual voice, tries something that writers at the time would have found alien, and succeeds in its failure by being a far better and more interesting book than much of the dross that purports to be literature these days.

Watson’s Choice – Gladys Mitchell
A rather pleasing mystery with a Holmesian background, supplied by an eccentric who holds a party Holmes themed party out of which the rest of the story flows. Fluent, filled with wonderful characters who are just on the right side of caricatures (as befits a novel of this kind), and a solid mystery at the heart. The ending is also considerably more satisfying than the last one I read. The deductive steps were clearly shown and suspects whittled down until it was inevitable at the end just who it was who committed the murder.

The Twenty-Third Man – Gladys Mitchell
Set on an island this is a tangled tale in which truth and identity are never what they seem. Mrs Bradley, having hoped for a holiday stumbles upon murder and deceit. And in a neattwist that disposes of the ‘why does the investigator always happen to be on the spot when a murder occurs problem’, it is the arrival of Mrs Bradley that triggers the events that lead to murder. Pleasingly convoluted yet nonetheless plausible, this is another excellent mystery from Gladys Mitchell.

The Compleat Ankh-Morpork City Guide – Terry Pratchett et al
For the compleatist, a nonetheless entertaining book and the ideal gift (as this was). Based on Victorian directories, this is the ultimate guide to Pratchett’s premier city on Discworld with a huge fold-out map. One wonders how long before there is a Google Street View version.

Caligula & Other Plays – Albert Camus
The volume contains ‘Caligula’, ‘Cross Purpose’, ‘The Just’, and ‘The Possessed’. And despite these being for a theatre of ideas they each display a tendency toward a theatre of personal psychology (character driven, in other words). This is manifest in ‘Caligula’ which clearly starts out as examination of nihilism and other similar philosophical stances, driving them to their logical conclusion, but which transforms into a study of an individual and his descent into what we might call madness, but which is clearly much more complex than such a sweeping diagnosis would suggest.

Very often the term ‘madness’ is used in this way – as a convenient means of pushing a problem to one side and refusing to deal with it. Which is, itself, a form of madness. Failure to engage with the real world and deal with it is not, of course, confined to history. Every year people set out on killing sprees, the extent of the body count determined by the position in society of the killer. Even the lone and lowly killer can rack up body counts that are horrific. And every time, the root causes are ignored.

As ‘Caligula’ shows it is not always easy to determine the root causes, any more than it is easy to stop such murderers. Far too many other people stand ready to support the cause. Very often, such murders as well as violence and astonishing cruelties are committed in the name of politics, or revolution, or the fight for liberty or however it is dressed up. ‘The Just’ and ‘The Possessed’ examine these latter issues in particular.

I have never seen any of these performed, but with a background in Drama and Theatre, it is not too difficult to imagine them on the stage. And despite the sometimes stilted feel (they are expository to a degree not normally found in British theatre), an appropriate style of delivery would surely make these worth seeing.

That's a total of 164 books read this year (and that doesn't count the parts of books read for research). Very few were newly published works; a large number were re-reads; a considerable proportion were 'light' - mostly because I was writing my own (two novels drafted and a lot of other stuff scribbled). So, here's to next year with a book already being read (and another already being written).