Saturday, 4 May 2013

Books read in April

The Chinese Agent – Michael Moorcock
A comic romp. Developing early work for Fleetway, especially Sexton Blake, this is one of several novels that fringe the multiverse and play with characters in a light-hearted fashion. It’s a very simple story of mistaken identity and secret plans, which is rather more interested in character and in the truly horrible family of the central character, Jerry Cornell. This is one of the first tranche of the definitive Moorcock being put out by Gollancz – available as an ebook only (most of the others will be ebook and pbook).

Maigret In Exile – Georges Simenon
Atmospheric evocation of claustrophobia, all the more remarkable in a setting one normally associates with quite the opposite.

Maigret And The Toy Village – Georges Simenon
Some of the English titles are baffling. True, Maigret compares the new suburban development with a set of toys laid out in the fields, but the story is related only inasmuch as that is part of the setting. Félice is there would be a more accurate translation, with the extra meaning hidden in the name of the central female character for whom happiness is an elusive commodity. And, as ever, with Simenon, it is this character which sits at the heart of the story. Beautifully drawn, annoying to the last, yet compelling in her own way. One is left hoping that she does, against the odds, find the happiness she craves.

Four Days In A Lifetime – Georges Simenon
A fine novel in which Simenon proves what an exponent he is of the psychology tale. It is true plenty of action occurs, firstly in the two days surrounding the death of François’ wife, and secondly three years later in the events leading up to... well that would be a spoiler. Simenon is both sympathetic toward his characters, but never less than honest about the kind of people they are. They might blame each other, but Simenon, as an author, never does lay blame – his characters are what they are and he subjects them to an almost forensic examination that somehow never ignores their humanity.

In this book, the characters struggle their way out of poverty. It is not done in a savoury fashion, but then the system that put them in poverty is not savoury either. And through this struggle we have layers of Parisian society opened up for us and we see the consequences of failure in playing a dangerous game. As a fan of the Maigret novels I sometimes half expect him to ake an appearance; these are the people that Maigret often deals with as a policeman, yet the novel is distinct from his detective fiction.

The Russian Intelligence – Michael Moorcock
The second Jerry Cornell comic spy novel. This is developed from an earlier novel (as was The Chinese Agent) and is of particular interest in that it has, as part of its setting, a company called Wayflete Publications. Moorcock’s early writing life was spent with Fleetway Publications and he no doubt used his experience there to create background for this book. It is a ffectionate and peripheral part of the book, but nonetheless illuminating. The novel itself is something of a curio, but a pleasant and amusing diversion that clearly grew out of those Fleetway days.

Maigret Afraid – Georges Simenon
Another small town case where the old prejudices and ways, although dying, leave a lingering distaste and enmity, both of which cloud judgement. Although not, it has to be said, on the part of Maigret this time. Indeed, he resolutely stands well back from events and lets others bumble on. Despite that, he navigates past all the false trails and identifies the real culprit.

It has the feeling of one of those westerns in which a stranger comes to town, does very little, yet by the time they leave, events have been resolved (even if the people’s prejudices have not). Maigret’s powers are almost zen like in this book and shows just what you can do with a central character who does virtually nothing.

The Drowning Of Arthur Braxton – Caroline Smailes
I don’t take to much in the way of contemporary writing. It is often bland (even if full of pretty sentences), pre-occupied with middle-class, first world concerns, and largely a waste of even the tiny amount of intellect required to read it. This book had none of that. It was captivating from the first and clearly had things to say and ideas to explore. What is more, it was evident that it was going to say and explore those things in an interesting way.

Arthur Braxton is one of those kids that feral packs feed on. Consequently, he is one of those kids found lurking in out of the way places, exploring (whether willingly or not) the borderlands – between sanity and insanity, the upward climb and the downward fall, the outside world and the strange places inside their heads. Mostly, life grinds the poor sods down. Sometimes they shine. On rare occasions they escape into places we can barely dream of. Where Arthur goes, you will have to find out for yourself, because his journey is the story and to start talking about that would be to give things away, save to say, one of the places in which the borders exist is where water meets the land. It is along that strand that Arthur’s journey proceeds.

So far I have perhaps made this sound like a YA fantasy book of some kind. Well, there are elements of that and it could, no doubt, be read on that level. You’d be missing 99% of the book if you tried it that way. Because there are many other such elements running through the book, nods to this and that. Yet it never becomes any one of those because it is unique. It is its own story acknowledging popular culture along the way (it would take someone who hadn’t been near a television in the last few years not to hear the echoes of the final words) without ever being trapped by any of it. That is down to two things, in the end. The first is a strong story. The second is a strong writer.

It is not just popular culture that feeds the book. Indeed, much more important is myth. Certain myths featuring water. They are common to all myth cycles. Water is such a fundamental part of our existence, and clean water so fundamental to our survival and the fertility of the land, that it is no wonder every tribe and every nation has stories about the origins of streams, wells, springs, and pools; has stories about the guardians of such places, of the beings that inhabit them, of the curative qualities, of the terrible consequences of misusing them. Our native mythology is replete with such references, none more so than the Arthurian stories. Ladies in the Lake, swords appearing from and disappearing into water, battles fought at the water’s edge, water as a source of healing and wisdom, and key to the Arthurian stories, the rape of the guardians of the wells that led to the wasteland and the quest to restore fertility to the land. As someone who has studied these tales for decades, it was a genuine thrill to see them explored so thoroughly in such a vibrant way that whilst paying all due respect to the source of such tales, made its own statement.

It should not be taken from this that we have some kind of dull thesis, some rewriting of ancient myths. They are the source and the story drinks deeply of them in a way that displays a deep understanding of the archetypes. But what emerges as a result is a new story, a new myth for today, sung with a voice every bit as mesmerising as the bards of old. And if you still can’t quite figure what kind of book this is, the film should be made by Terry Gilliam or by Jeunet and Caro.

You can probably gather I like this book. I have a jaded opinion of modern writing, but this has restored my faith. Because for all that stuff about mythology, for all the fact that author here is doing for myth what Angela Carter did for fairy tales, at the heart of it all is a solid and heartbreaking story about ordinary folk and the truly shitty lives some of them lead. A story told with eloquence and sympathy. Buy it. The author deserves your support.

St Peter’s Finger – Gladys Mitchell
A typically competent mystery. Well-written although a little lacking in the tension one might expect from the story – with one child murdered and others (possibly) in danger. However, it is a wonderful portrait of a closed society and, in retrospect a paean to the imperturbability of the British in the face of threats (it was written in 1938). And, as ever, there is a neat twist in the tale.

Maigret And The Reluctant Witnesses – Georges Simenon
A portrait of past glories refusing to die and dragging others down as they decay – asituation that resonates with a Maigret close to retirement. The usual intriguing plot and superb psychological insights.

Maigret On The Defensive – Georges Simenon
A classic example of Maigret’s (and by extension, Simenon’s) interest in the psychology of the criminal; his understanding of the damaged and his ability to empathise. In this case going so far as to promise to stand witness for the man who nearly destroys him.

Maigret Hesitates – Georges Simenon
An interesting story with relevance today. How do you prevent crime? How do you identify a criminal? Can you identify a criminal? Can you morally intervene before a crime has been committed? Is it a crime if the perpetrator is considered insane? What is insanity? Simenon doesn’t attempt to answer these questions and they come naturally to the story, providing a poignant reminder that sometimes we are unable to intervene and people suffer as a result.

Maigret And The Killer – Georges Simenon
A young man is found stabbed in the street and he subsequently dies. Something of a loner his main interest was wandering the streets of Paris and recording people’s conversations. Did he record something that would incriminate someone. It is possible, but Maigret has his doubts. Another intriguing psychological study.