Sunday, April 12, 2015


GBH (Soho, 2015, originally published 1980) came highly touted by the Soho Crime Club, but I confess I had no idea why.  I never read author Ted Lewis' supposed masterpiece, Jack's Return Home (Get Carter), and do not consider myself an expert, nor even at all familiar with British noir, or black, fiction.  But the author had died young and handsome, and people seemed really excited about it, so I was.

Took me a while.  GBH (and I obviously missed something because I have no idea what that stands for except that it might mean Grievous Bodily Harm which is a thing in British law according to the internets) is extremely fast-paced, and jumps, chapter by chapter, between The Sea (Our Hero?'s exile) and The Smoke (London), sometime in the late 1970s.  Sometimes the chapters are not even a page long.  The language is very jargon-y and if you are a 1970s era British gangster you will be at ease in these pages, but for the more law-biding, or for Yanks, it takes some time to figure out what's what.  Our Hero? is clearly hiding at The Sea, but it takes a while for activities in The Smoke to catch up and reveal just why.  Meanwhile, he may - or may not - have been clocked (that means spotted), and he may - or may not - be losing his mind as a lifetime of carefully-managed but shockingly violent business catches up to him.

For Our Hero? is a porn king, the greatest of them all, with a massive distribution network in England and probably beyond.  Not just your garden variety stuff, either, he associates and does business with people who practice the black arts of snuff films and the like.  And his lovely wife Jean turns out to also have a dirty streak a mile wide, under her carefully coiffed exterior (also played by Christina Hendricks in the movie, for sure).

So, one of the many vaguely uncomfortable things about this story is the pacing.  The Sea sort of pots along, with oblique references to whatever happened in The Smoke.  Actions in The Smoke start years earlier, but after a while you sense where this is going, even if you don't know what is going to get you to The Sea.  While I found this disjointed at first, by the end, it was hard to put down.  The writing jumps about but more because the characters are mostly reading each other's thoughts, and we aren't.  There's a you-know-what-I'm-talking-about sensibility where everyone on the page does, but you don't.  But again, the farther into it I got, the more I kind of knew.  You can even kind of see the end coming, if you know what I'm talking about.

Another piece to prepare for is the extreme violence.  Some seriously bad stuff happens in this book, to good and bad people alike.  Yet oddly, it never feels gratuitous.  The porn references, well, that's just business, and there is no accounting for taste when it comes to hard-core.  And when you're in an illegal business, there will be criminals, and they will need managing, and sometimes killing or at least a little torturing so you can keep your business on the up-and-up.  It is not that Fowler (for that is Our Hero?)'s business is legit, far from it, but he runs it as such, with strict rules, loyal employees (both criminal and in the Law and Order business), and an understood code of conduct:  if you screw me, you will pay.  I expected to find the violence disquieting but somehow it fit.

Hardest to take was the drinking.  Our Hero? drinks like a fucking fish!  Morn til night, that guy must go through at least two bottle of scotch a day, and god knows how many pints, and he only appears to really feel it very very late at night.  Everyone drinks in the story, much of it takes place in bars or living rooms with drinks carts.  I just do not know how these people stay upright, much less dealing with threats and stupidity and other criminals.  If ever there was someone who needed to keep his wits about him, it is our strangely sympathetic hero.

For George is, in his way, appealing.  He's clearly hiding from something, and he obviously loves his Jean very much.  As for business, some companies fire people, other companies shoot them.  That is just how it is done.  George has a highly developed sense of self and honor, and if you treat him and his people with respect, you will receive the same in return.  Of course, god help you if you don't.

GBH is for you if you like noir, and aren't terribly squeamish.  I should think it would make a great read on long plane flight - quite engrossing, and you will be happy when you arrive anywhere other than where this story ends up.  Of great interest to me was the illuminating Afterword, written by Derek Raymond, himself a practitioner of British blacks, which is like extreme noir, who died in 1994 (and what a story, you should read his wikipedia entry).  Raymond says that Lewis was basically drunk his entire adult writing life, well, so that explains that piece.  He also suggests that Lewis "knew a good deal of what he was writing about, from very close to - perhaps dangerously so . . .  describing the horror around him in terms of his own interior horror, if necessary with the help of alcohol or any other weapon to keep him going."  (322-3)  In a way, this is the bleakest part of this entire story.  It puts one in an unsettled state of six degrees of separation:  if I am reading this story about this bad world, and the writer knew people like this and the things they did, does that somehow  make me just a couple of degrees removed from it?

The Invisible Code

Regular readers of Crime Pays will have noted my affection for that madcap British duo, Bryant and May.  Even thought I cannot for the life of me recall the intricate details of their Byzantine plots - which makes one wonder whenever a former nemesis is mentioned: was that actually in a book or did author Christopher Fowler just make it up and it sounds like one of their actual former nemesi? - I always look forward to getting back in with the Peculiar Crimes Unit gang.

But The Invisible Code (Bantam, 2013), while it did not entirely disappoint, did not delight quite so much as previous offerings in this creative series.  True, the gang is all here.  Longbright, surely played by Christina Hendricks  in the film, and Dan the techno man, and Colin, pining perpetually after Meera.  Even ol' Crippen is sklathing around (and there is a twist there, wait for it).  They are, as always, on the verge of being shut down, and must must solve the latest case in order to prevent their demise.  But this time, the case is given to them by their uber-boss, the always-described "cadaverous" Oskar Kasavian.  (At one point, Kasavian admires his hands "marmoreal sheen."  (300)  I myself imagine him looking more like Drac in "Hotel Transylvania"):

Kasavian's wife is acting out of character, which is to say that she is not acting like a dutiful Home Office wife, and he needs to keep her in line in order to secure a major and sensitive project on which he is working about security, borders, and the European Union.  Plus which, he seems to be genuinely in love with her, an emotional state heretofore impossible to imagine for this character.

But Bryant and May, being Bryant and May, somehow manage to put Sabira Kasavian's breakdown together with some seemingly completely unrelated deaths, during which time much running around of picturesque and arcane bits of London ensues.  Like all of these stories, it is complicated, but somehow not as gripping.  Why?

First, it is not quite as chortle-worthy.  Arthur Bryant is now just old, and John May comes across as even more subdued than usual (he's the straight man to Arthur's mad genius).  That's not to say that Arthur doesn't still shuffle about in ancient scarves, eating sweeties, and benignly torturing his long-suffering landlady, Alma Sorrowbridge.  And things always get interesting when Arthur's cheerfully loony friend Maggie Armitage, "white witch and self-proclaimed leader of the Coven of St. James the Elder" appears, "in a purple woolen tea-cosy hat, a green velvet overcoat and orange leggings.  Her glasses, winged and yellow-tinted, hung on a plastic daisy chain around her throat.  She looked like a small seaside town celebrating a centenary."  (220)  But beyond Maggie, and Arthur's encounter with his new neighbor, Brad Pitt (not that one), things sort of potter along here with a little less gleeful abandon than usual.

To be fair, Fowler's stories have always walked a line between hilarity and pathos - Arthur spouts arcana and calls people old sausage, but important and sympathetic characters die suddenly, and there is a thread of quiet despair in John May that is rarely but painfully exposed.  Fowler also makes a point of using these stories to reveal the Weird Old London, illuminating forgotten corners of that complex city where desperate or devilish deeds took place or just where people lived, to the fullest extent of the word.   There is often a whiff of pedantry about this but it just feels a bit more heavy-handed this time around.  "'You know, there's hardly a church in the whole of London that doesn't have something unusual about it.  St. Bartholomew the Great in West Smithfield has the ghost of a monk who's said to haunt the church looking for a sandal stolen from his tomb. . . . And there are wonderful puzzles in churches" at which point Maggie describes several.  (222-3)  Thanks for the lecture, I'll be sure to bring this along the next time I'm there.

Finally, there is a scene in warehouse in Whitechapel, that houses giant props for the Spitalfields Art Fair.  (ch. 44)  Hello, Blane Kern's Mardi Gras World! Didn't we see something like this in Live and Let Die?  Not exactly, and maybe only people who have been to Blane Kern's Mardi Gras World would get that sense of literary deja vu, but there it is.

Am I losing my affection for intellectually funny British detectives?  Gosh, I hope not.  According to the folks at CrimeFictionLover, there is a new B&M just coming out.  I'm pretty sure I'll want to read it.

PS.  What's up with Crippen?  I'm not spoiling it; you'll have to read to find out.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

on the blogs

I was going to highlight this post from Shane Kuhn, on Mystery Fanfare, in which he laments the passing of an era when Real Writers Lived Dramatic Lives.  Remember the good old days when all the really good writers were alcoholics or mysoginists or womanizers or drug addicts?  Yeah, back then not only could writers write but they were colorful.  Who cares how many lives were upended by all that "character?"  I get his point that we're all a bit anodyne these days, but the alternative was only entertaining if you got to observe it; not so much if you were living with it.

But when I went to confirm the link, the post had mysteriously (of course) disappeared!  Was it too inflammatory?  It was kind of obnoxious in tone, but I suppose one is allowed.

In other news, I'm really enjoying a new blog from Sarah Weinman, a.k.a. The Crime Lady.  Well, I don't really know how new it is but it is new to me.  The CL is actually a newsletter, to which you subscribe.  She offers some short and sharp reviews of books I'd not otherwise find, and includes some interesting links, too, like The Rap Sheet does sometimes.  These may be only tangentially related to crime fiction, but that is what makes them interesting, you actually have to think about it.  But what really cemented my as-yet-brief infatuation was a link to an obituary for Stan Freberg, one of the most brilliant comedic minds of the 20th c., who answered the Call of Destine this week.  RIP, madcap adman.