Incendiary – Chris Cleave (2005)

 

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When I read Chris Cleave’s 4th novel “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” (#5 on my Books Of The Year 2017 and one of my 100 Essential Reads) I said “I can tell that this writer is going to be spreading much more delight my way” and it has taken me this long to find out whether this is true as I have just read his debut novel. Back in 2005 he was being heralded as a major new voice as this picked up a Somerset Maugham Award for writers under 30.

I’m not surprised this made an impression as it certainly feels original and I can say I’ve not really read anything like it before. The whole thing is written as a letter in a chatty, self-deprecating style from a young mum which would certainly not be out of place in a chick-lit novel. The narrator (whose name we never know) is a highly memorable vibrant character, but, here’s the twist, the letter is being written to Osama Bin Laden and the woman has lost her policeman husband and four year old son in a terrorist attack.

Immediately there is a tension between the style and the content which adds much to the power of the piece. The fictional atrocity obviously both changes the woman’s life and everyday life in London as barrage balloons take to the skies and curfews are set up. Written over a year she addresses this to Bin Laden in order to get the victim’s point across in an extraordinary fashion that manages to be chilling and at times laugh out loud funny. Within this Cleave has much to say about guilt, class, our society and treachery. Unsurprisingly, the humour is very often black and the novel does take on an increasingly nightmarish quality which inevitably bubbles over to another situation fuelled by fear and panic. At this point I did feel temporarily distanced by the action but the author did draw me back in to an extent for the concluding section.

I was impressed with this easy style to express such darkness and at times felt guilty about how much I was enjoying it. The dark subject matter does lead to a disturbed, unsettled feel. You never quite know in what direction the narrator will pull the story. “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” is a much more straightforward work with an excellent creation of wartime London based on the author’s personal history and has great richness and depth in plot, style and characterisation showing how the writer matured over the years between that and this but there is no denying the power and audacity of Cleave’s debut.

fourstars

Incendiary was published by Chatto and Windus in 2005. In the UK its publication date was 7th July, disturbingly and coincidentally the same day as the London bombings which killed 52 and injured over 700 which certainly would have affected responses to this book from those who came to it soon after publication.  I read a 2009 Sceptre paperback edition.

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Ten Second Staircase – Christopher Fowler (2006) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Christopher Fowler is the clear leader on my most read authors list. Since first discovering what is still my favourite of his books, the Faustian “Spanky” as a new publication in 1994 I have now read 16 of his works. He is strongest with horror novels with dark comic undertones, both “Soho Black” and “Calabash” have impressed me and last year I was inspired by his “Book Of Forgotten Authors” to make a reading list from which I’ve sampled so far Patrick Dennis, Margery Allingham, Edmund Crispin and Barbara Pym.

Since 2003 Christopher Fowler has really established himself with a crime series featuring elderly detectives Arthur Bryant and John May from The Peculiar Crimes Unit. I have read now four of the to-date 18. This is obviously a very successful enterprise for him – I have still to be convinced.

In a number of ways these novels strengths are also their weaknesses. This is written with a playful quirkiness which when it works well explores the puzzle-solving aspect of the crime novel making the author’s role in manipulating and misleading readers more explicit but there is a danger this can make the book seem gimmicky. There’s also an odd use of time which I find disorientating. Nobody knows how old Bryant and May really are but judging from what they say about their past they are very old indeed which makes them feel less plausible as characters in this modern-day setting. But does that matter? Well, it does and it doesn’t. The plots are led by the detectives’ eccentric approaches of dealing with crime with much referencing to their past and sometimes this feels like a distraction to what is going on.

What is done well is London itself, whose history and mythology is incorporated to give a sense of timelessness to the piece. It can at times feel like an alternative reality novel where octogenarians are still putting themselves professionally into precarious positions but it is not as references are regularly made to past events we all know about. It’s clear from the above that I am still struggling to make full sense of the concept and feel of this series.

In this fourth instalment a killer in highwayman garb is killing celebrities which may possibly have links to an unsolved crime Bryant and May were involved with decades before which ended in personal tragedy for them. It begins with their immediate boss contacting the Home Office to get the detectives removed because of their age and competency and Bryant goes on to show how out of touch he is with the modern world when he addresses a group of private school boys where neither his past nor the boys’ present rings true to me. It twists and turns with some memorable characters along the way, yet at this stage, some of the series regulars are still feeling underdeveloped (but admittedly, I do have a lot of the series to go).

Summing up, I very much enjoyed aspects of this book but its unorthodox approach to crime solving did cause my interest to wane. I think it is better than both the first and third of the series neither of which I particularly enjoyed and I do feel that there is so much potential and that seeds are being sown which will elevate this series once I get more of a complete grasp of what is going on.  My befuddled view is reminiscent of what I felt about much of the BBC TV adaptation of “Sherlock” and look how popular that became. I wouldn’t have read 16 books by this author, however, if I didn’t feel in some way committed to his writing (and I do have a few more unread copies of this series on my shelves) so I’m not giving up yet.

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Ten Second Staircase was published by Doubleday in 2006

The Five- Hallie Rubenhold (2019) – A Real Life Review

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I like this author.  A previous work of hers “The Covent Garden Ladies” (2006) a study of Victorian prostitution ended up in my Top 5 Books Of The Year when I read it in 2011.  I very much applaud what she has set out to achieve with this new meticulously researched work but I would give her earlier publication the edge.

 “The Five” attempts to redress a wrong which has existed for 130 years- the public perception of the five women believed to have been killed by “Jack The Ripper”.  From the early press reports, to the way the case was handled, to the coroners’ reports and the development of the whole macabre industry which has built up around the perpetrator these women have been misrepresented.  They have become very much the foils to The Ripper’s dastardly crimes, their whole lives tainted by the sordidness of their demise.  They have been labelled “prostitutes” with an implication that they may have invited or deserved their fate.  Their individuality and humanity has been forgotten in the telling of a lurid tale.

 Through the sifting of contemporary reports, including the patchy coroners’ transcripts, newspapers and journals and the census returns which all provided a deluge of contradictory evidence Hallie Rubenhold has explored each of the five women in turn and tracked their lives to the point where they ended up, completely out of luck, in the Spitalfields area in 1888. 

 The most horrific thing which runs throughout is how the lives of the Victorian working classes were so on edge, one change of circumstance and a downward spiral was begun from which there was no escape.  This was especially true for women where the miseries of lost loves, dead children, loss of reputation etc. could lead to turning to drink and from then on there was little hope.  And, despite the odd bright moments in most of their lives this is what happened to Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly.

 The author has certainly achieved her aim in giving them a different place in The Ripper story and used the evidence well to bring them back to life.  The nature of the type of evidence she is using after 130 years of them being treated differently means that looking back after finishing the work I felt that individually they blurred into one another.  The author might not have found their voices individually but certainly as a group I very much felt their presence.  Little is actually known about the last victim Mary Jane Kelly, who lived her life enigmatically as many who became lost in Victorian London chose to do.  This is where non-fiction can let us down, lack of information leads to more generic non-specific writing thus affecting the narrative flow which a novelist would enjoy in bringing their work to conclusion.  I think this was why I wilted a little as a reader towards the end.

The character who is kept very firmly in the shadows throughout is Jack The Ripper himself, moving in only in the last few lines of each section.  I understand and applaud this but I don’t know as much about The Ripper Cases as the author assumes I do and by keeping the perpetrator so far in the background I feel I need to know more about what actually happened and how it was dealt with and to do this I’m likely to have to read one of the works Rubenhold is challenging.  But when I do I know I will have this author’s new perspective in mind and will not forget that these women existed and lived a valuable life before perishing in the London streets.

fourstars

 

The Five was published in hardback by Doubleday in February 2019.  It has this week been longlisted for the non-fiction dagger award from the Crime Writers’ Association.

100 Essential Books – The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin (Hodder & Stoughton 2018)

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“If I have learnt one thing from my life in London, it is that sometimes it is necessary to descend to deceit, and that those who survive have the wit to know that.”

This novel is not due to be published until February 2018 but I’m giving you plenty of warning as you should be adding it to your to-be-read-lists for it is an absolute gem of a novel.  Regular readers will know that I have a huge soft spot for big, Dickensian style Victorian-set novels like Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith” and Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White”.  I’ve been a little disappointed by some offerings in this area over the last year so (particularly the much-acclaimed “The Essex Serpent”) and others including Australian author M J Tjia’s crime series debut “She Be Damned”(2017) and Canadian Steven Price’s doorstep sized “By Gaslight” (2016) showed promise but neither quite pulled off the authentic feel of London in the nineteenth century.  If they did not live up to my expectations this debut from Derbyshire resident Laura Carlin certainly does.  I think she has got everything more or less spot on here and has written an authentic historical novel and a really good thrilling page-turner.

Young people have been going missing from the London streets for some time and eighteen year old Hester, the narrator of the novel, has fallen on hard times.  An incident in Smithfield Market leads her to an association with a family who could provide her with a future or who may bring about further downfall.  The story builds beautifully, and although the situations and characters may feel familiar for Dickens fans Carlin puts it all together in a way which is inventive, thrilling and feels new.  It is rich in atmosphere throughout.

At the heart is a relationship between Hester and the daughter of the family, Rebekah Brock, who has been persuaded Pygmalion-like to educate Hester in a plan arranged by her brother Calder, a leading light of The London Society for the Suppression of Mendicity and it is this connection between the two women which will attract all Sarah Waters fans to this novel. 

Like Dickens, secrets are revealed gradually by characters brought in to move the plot along and Hester’s account turns into a quite extraordinary tale of grim London existences underneath the cloak of the respectable and socially acceptable. The last third sees the plot move up a gear considerably as revelations follow one after another and the danger Hester puts herself into had me holding my breath.  The plot twists keep coming giving the real feel of a Dickens serialisation

This novel is proof alone that Carlin is a major new talent and her brand of literary historical fiction should provide her with big sales.  I absolutely loved it. 

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The Wicked Cometh is due to be published by Hodder and Stoughton on 1st February 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

She Be Damned – M J Tjia (Legend Press 2017) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I have a big old soft spot for novels set in Victorian London.  I love the mix of classes, the hypocrisy of the wealthy and the poor struggling to get by through any means.  From Dickens to “Fingersmith” to Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White” this kind of fiction has the tendency to end up amongst my all-time favourites, especially when there is a strong female lead to stand against the patriarchal society.

Enter Heloise Chancey, main character in the first of a proposed historical crime series by Australian author Tjia.  This is the first full-length novel for a Brisbane-based novelist much lauded for her short stories and novellas.  Heloise is a strong, complex character- a well off courtesan with a background on the stage and as a celebrated beauty, posing as a widow, who helps out an aristocratic private detective with his cases.  Heloise is able to move fairly effortlessly thorough the ranks of society from the upper echelons who may have used her courtesan services, their wives who cannot imagine these services and to those who have remained in the less respectable strata of society, the “renters” in the brothel houses where Heloise passed through in what is evidently a very rich back story.  As such she is a character who has been carefully thought out for a series of novels.

In “She Be Damned” she is asked to investigate a missing girl who has left home after revealing her pregnancy to her family and where her only option is to sink towards harder times.  Prostitutes are being mutilated and murdered around the Waterloo area and Heloise gets caught up with all of this.

Interspersed with the narrative are the back-story experiences of Amah Li Leen, Heloise’s oriental maid and this is done in such a way that we know she will be a supporting character in subsequent mysteries.  Tjia keeps a lot up her sleeve about both characters, good for the future but not without risks as by holding back too much in an introductory novel these characters may end up not as well-rounded as we’d like.  I think the author just gets away with this, but only just in the case of Amah.

There’s a fair evocation of nineteenth century London.  It’s not as drenched in atmosphere as I might have wanted but there can be a tendency to over-egg this leading to cliché and melodrama, both of which are avoided here. 

All in all it’s a very readable introduction to a series and I would certainly seek out follow-ups.  I don’t think Heloise Chancey is going to challenge my favourite investigators but I certainly enjoyed spending time in her company.

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She Be Damned was published in the UK in August 2017.  Many thanks to Legend Press for the review copy. 

Queer City – Peter Ackroyd (2017) – A Real Life Review

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With this book Peter Ackroyd eases himself into my Top 3 most read authors from the last 22 years that I’ve been keeping count. This is the 11th book of his I have read (plus there’s a couple I’ve read twice). The crowning glory of his 30+ year writing career (so far) is his monumental “London: The Biography” (2000), the best history of a geographical location I have ever read and my Book of The Year in the year I read it. Some of his London-based fiction has also been first-class.

So you can probably tell I would be excited to read this publication. I had anticipated another large volume but when I saw it in a bookshop I was surprised that it looked rather slim (232 pages + bibliography and index). That made me a little concerned and I was hoping that it wasn’t made up of material taken from “London: The Biography”. It isn’t; it’s a completely new history subtitled “Gay London from the Romans to the present day”. What I like about Ackroyd’s historical non-fiction is how it feels learned and academic and yet how very readable it all is. “London”, given its size might be a book a reader might just dip in and out of but I read it like a thriller and relished every word.

Well, here, I’m going to start with a personal gripe. I’m not thrilled by the title. Ackroyd defends his use of the term “Queer” as the word now commonly used by academics and “Queer Studies” appears in universities. A recent exhibition (and book) celebrating “Queer British Art” appeared at around the time of this book’s publication at Tate Britain and the word also appears now as the Q in the abbreviated LGBTQIA (although some will say it’s for “questioning”). The word rankles with its association of dodgy men in raincoats but I’m going to let it go and find out just what is in between the covers.

Ackroyd encompasses the raison d’etre behind the book with his final words: “This book is a celebration, as well as a history, of the continual and various human world maintained in its diversity despite persecution, condemnation and affliction. It represents the ultimate triumph of London.”

What was it about this city which led to its being, throughout time, a magnet for its sexually curious residents? According to Ackroyd; “The city was known to be both a jungle and a labyrinth where gay life could flourish, each street leading to another and then another; there was no end to the possibilities or to the adventures. It provoked the restless need to explore.”

He takes a chronological view of these Gay Londoners. For a good chunk of early history there were no terms for “homosexuality” and people just did pretty much what they did without labels. There is also a marked difference between genders. Lesbianism was never made illegal (Queen Victoria reputedly refusing to acknowledge its existence) and over the centuries Ackroyd makes mention of a number of instances where female partnerships caused little storm and they were occasionally even married by confused clergymen, sometimes by one impersonating a male in a ruse which might not be discovered until after her death. There have also been times when homosexuality was more ignored than tolerated, especially at Court (there’s been more than one gay royal) and within the Church but generally the plight of the gay man has not been especially happy. Obviously the nature of using existing evidence means that Ackroyd’s research will tend to be on incidents which moved over into public knowledge and these will most likely be court cases when something has gone wrong. There’s the odd surprising fact, however. He states that in terms of population, there were probably as many “gay bars” in 17th Century as in 21st Century London.

For many gay men, as we know, their sexual identity led to ruin and shame, punishment or their murder. Many faced public wrath at pillories and public hangings and Britain was slower than most to adopt change. By the eighteenth century much of Europe had abandoned execution for the “crime” of being gay. Britain, alarmed by the Continent and especially by France clamped down further in a bid to establish its separation from Europe (given events over the last year can’t stop the hairs rising on back of my head just a little here). Homosexuality was seen as “a foreign vice. It was un-English” (never mind that the French referred to certain sexual practices as “anglais”). The last two men hanged in England died in 1835 but the death sentence was not actually abolished until 1861.

After this date you might not hang for it but; “It is arguable that in the first half of the twentieth century, however, gays of both sexes were subject to a level of prejudice and intolerance not seen before in Western history, entrapment, imprisonment and sudden police raids became familiar characteristics of London life.”

So not especially a joyful celebration here then. I think Ackroyd does rush through the twentieth century somewhat in his race towards equality. I think I was expecting a little more focus on those places that had real history and importance for gay people. (Coincidentally, this was catered for, to some extent, by Channel 4’s “Britain’s Great Gay Buildings” first shown on 24th June 2017). Ackroyd seems more confident with dealing with the academic evidence than the popular culture which steeped places like Heaven, The Royal Vauxhall Tavern and The Black Cap. He does look to the future at what equality and gay marriage will end up meaning to the more subversive “underground” aspects of London (the “twilight world” that the News Of The World and Sunday People used to refer to) which is rapidly disappearing as we all settle down to domestic environments.

This is often a very readable, undeniably racy account of our capital city and its more diverse residents. There’s some wonderful characters along the way and far too many meet unhappy ends. It’s a good read but do not expect it to have either the magnitude or scope of “London: The Biography”,

fourstars

Queer City was published by Chatto and Windus in a hardback edition in May 2017.