Sunday, April 28, 2013

Keep Calm and le Carré On

Soon, soon, I will write up a review of M. J. McGrath's White Heat, a different (for me) and terrifically engaging direction in crime fiction.

But in the meantime, John le Carré obviously has an awesome agent. With a new book coming out just in time for my birthday, he's popping up in all the correct places.  You can read a splendid interview with him here, and a kind of sad but totally charming article by him here (subscription required).  

Le Carré is in a class by himself.  But I was almost as taken with this interview of Philip Kerr, whose Bernie Gunther series I also quite like.  Kerr says to write about what you don't know.  Le Carré is pretty much writing about what he does know, although he's not now a practicing spy (so he SAYS).  Both work, but JLC's bleak patriotism and British-ly taut command of language always gets me in the end.

Saturday, April 6, 2013


I’ve been trying to read some Irish crime fiction, in preparation for a family trip to the Emerald Isle later this month.  There is a lot of it, and you can’t exactly call my sample of two authors scientific (for lots more good reccos, see any of this March’s entries on Detectives Beyond Borders).  But I can say with certainty that you should read Benjamin Black.  I’m not quite so certain about Stuart Neville, not based on Ratlines (2013, Soho Crime) anyway. 

Regular readers (all two of you) will know that I tried to get started earlier on this and dropped it out of disappointment with the prose.  I did pick it up again, and the fast-moving plot kept me engaged to the end.  In a nutshell, Our Hero is Albert Ryan, Irish intelligence officer, who is detailed to find out who is killing former bad guys (really bad guys, Nazis mostly) in Ireland.  They make a big deal about the fact that this is against the backdrop of President John Kennedy’s 1963 trip to Ireland, and that the country needs to be on its best behavior before he arrives.  But other than references at the beginning and the end, that bit historical context doesn’t add much to the plot. 

It appears that in sussing out these killers-of-bad-guys, Ryan will be protecting real-life former really bad guy and Nazi Otto Skorzeny who has taken up residence in Ireland.  This is all true, Skorzeny did purchase property there, although he never lived there permanently, and he was somehow, inexplicably de-Nazified after the war so he was able to travel pretty much wherever he liked.  He used this impunity, and the boatload of moolah that he somehow accumulated to help other Nazis who were not so lucky as him to get out of Europe, as well as to consult with groups and governments who generally followed what we might call an extreme right agenda – you know, Franco’s crowd, the Egyptian army, Gaddaffi’s gang, South African State Security in the 1960s, and so on.  It is said that he even helped Mossad track down a former Nazi in Israel, so we could say that he was an equal opportunity mercenary.  It’s all kind of interesting in a distasteful way.  (Yes, I know there are better sources than Wikipedia for this stuff, and if I was writing the book I would search them out as Neville has, but it is concise, you know, and right there at the top!  And I’m on to another book right now which I am really loving so ready to leave ol’ Otto behind.)

But back to our story.  There are enough twists and turns that you know more will be coming, so if you can make it through the blustering and foul-mouthed politicians, and Celia from central casting (red hair?  Check.), you’ll stick with the story.  And it is interesting to think about that larger question of how the laws of the land apply to someone whom everyone knows is a really bad guy.  Do you protect him, or have it him yourself?  Ryan himself is pretty much stateless, Irish by heritage, but having made the socially unacceptable move of serving in the British Army during the Emergency (what they call WW2).  There are other mercenary types here (the real bad guys, who are going after Skorzeny), and I guess we’re supposed to contrast that with Skorzeny’s blind support of any and all ardent nationalists and decide for ourselves where we stand.  I think that Neville is trying to make some arguments about nationalism – at heart, aren’t all the passionate ones nationalists – but Ryan isn’t really buying it, and neither am I. 

It is hard to really feel sympathy for any side here, though, given that all are so deeply invested in extreme violence as a tool for getting what they want.  There is a LOT of violence here, explicit, bloody, screaming, burning, and so on.  I guess that’s how these guys work.  I guess it didn’t work so much for me. 

And the writing settles down after a while, and is fine.  But every once in a while you run across an exchange like this:
“She tilted her head, showing him the smooth place beneath her ear.  ‘You haven’t asked my name.’
Ryan wondered for a moment if he should apologise.  Instead he put his hands in this pockets and feigned confidence.  ‘All right.  What’s your name?
‘Celia,’ she said, letting the sibilant drip like honey, the vowels thick between her lips.  ‘What’s yours?’” (54)
Ugh!  That’s where I stopped the first time, although I will say that's more of an anomaly.  Maybe Neville can't write women well.  The men don't drip their sibilants, except when they are being tortured, perhaps.

One very minor technical quibble:  Neville provides a list of sources at the end, which is great.  But please, date them!  It is hard to know if we are looking at the most recent scholarship in the field or not, and that means something to the few of us former academics who look at lists like that.

Ratlines does give you a nice bit of travelogue around Ireland, so that’s a plus.  Our Hero stayed at the same hotel in Dublin that we are going to be in!  I hope it’s had a spiff-up since then.  But yes, I think I’ll read another Neville, I’ve got The Ghosts of Belfast next to the tub.  And now I know what I’m getting.  

Slainte!  (can anyone tell me how to actually pronounce that?)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Ragtime in Simla

I wish I could say I’d been dying to get back to the entirely personable and pleasant Joe Sandilands, but Ragtime in Simla (2002; this edition, Dell, 2006) was more of a desperation move after a few other false starts.  Ratlines was an initial bust, and so was Detective Inspector Huss.  The former was too much of a prose adjustment after Benjamin Black, and the latter was just boring.  While it is true that Huss is a refreshingly positive change after the dour Scandinavians of Henning Mankel and that crowd, her story just never sparked much interest and worse, seemed to be written in cliché after cliché.  Could it have been the translation? 

In any case, I’d decided to give Barbara Cleverly’s early 20th century detective another try, and I’m not unhappy that I did.  For various reasons, World War One veteran and Scotland Yard detective Joe Sandilands (just got the connection – does he know Ian Rutledge?) seems to find himself regularly in India, and there is always some nefarious activity going on that only Our Hero can get to the bottom of.  In this instance, Joe is on his way to the high mountain town of Simla, the summer capital of the British Raj, when he witnesses a murder.  Faster than you can say bobs-your-uncle, that murder is connected to an earlier one, and the cinematic characters and settings are piling up left and right.  There are beautiful women with tragic pasts, disreputable drunken chums, brisk bureaucrats, lordly elites, mysterious madams, inscrutable natives, plucky kids, and all the rest you’d expect to find in a novel set in the final decades of British rule in India. Ragtime in Simla is a pretty straight-up mystery, with some mixed-up identities, but it will keep you reading to see how it all comes out.  

And you cannot miss with the setting.  Cleverly has a terrific eye for detail, and while I don’t know much about India, it all reads authentically.  You can look up Simla, or Shimla, as it is now called, and if you do a google image search you will indeed find pictures of an absolutely stunning setting on the edge of the Himalayas.  Cleverly was not making it up, nor was Kipling, whom her characters all adore and have apparently memorized on the subject of this charming hill town.  And while she has an obvious affection for the British in India, Cleverly is not above an accurate portrayal of its lesser lights, such as this description of a “chummery” where a group of the aforementioned louts live:
“Joe’s impression of Old India was reinforced as they entered the house.  The furniture was European but shabby and knocked about.  Bills and invitation cards jostled each other on the mantelpiece; not a few of these were over a year old.  Inevitably, the prints of the “Midnight Steeplechase” hung on the wall along with a fine leopard skin and the head of a markhor.  A fencing mask and crossed foils added a note of gentlemanly athleticism, and there were whips, boots, boxing gloves, boxes of ammunition, not-well-secured gun cupboards, boxes of cigars sealed and opened, the remains of what obviously been a copious breakfast amongst the debris of which could be seen a bottle of gin and a bottle of Angostura bitters.”  (146)
Yes, I like the distinction between “Old India” and the current setting – suggesting that one shouldn’t paint anything – even British colonialism – with too broad a brush.

But you know, that colonialism – precisely the source of all that marvelous atmosphere – is really a bit hard to take if you think about it even a little bit.  Colonialism has apparently become a focus of tourism in India, which gives about the same frisson of discomfort as touring plantations in the American South that play the antebellum romance card just a little too hard.  Simla in the 1920s is about 25 years away from Indian independence, but of course this is coming after decades, centuries of British domination.  And if you really go down that path, it is just ghastly to contemplate how the British imposed themselves and their nation on so so many other indigenous peoples and entire continents for so very long: North America, Africa, South Asia, and so on.  It is not coincidental that I’m thinking about this because we’re planning a family trip to Ireland, and of course you can’t miss how they feel about the British.  I know that lots of folks think that the US acts the same way today, but while I agree that we come on a bit strong sometimes, in context, the US’ efforts at world domination pale in comparison to the 18th and 19th c. Brits.  But yeah, I felt a little breeze of collective white guilt reading Ragtime in Simla, if only because it does all sound rather lovely.  Oh well, as my husband likes to gently chide, as long as you feel guilty about it.