Chris Brookmyre at Bristol Festival of Ideas

Flesh Wounds
Foyles, Bristol, 11 September

I really like Christopher Brookmyre, or Chris Brookmyre, as he’s branded these days. His books (or at least the ones I’ve read, which is quite a few) are funny, clever, insightful, satirical, sharply observed and just plain well written. But I tend to forget him when listing authors I admire (sorry, Chris) and that’s a shame because I really do. So big thanks to my friend L for asking me to go tonight’s talk with her. A quick glance at the number of his books I own gives some indication of the love I have for him.

Brookmyre books

The first Brookmyre book I read was A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away, which Tim borrowed from his friend (actually, the same friend who originally helped me to set up this website) and then told me I should read it as well because it would apparently explain to me why computer games, especially Quake, are so great. As well as being a good crime novel. And also funny. I very bravely (I’m shy, remember) put up my hand and asked Chris about this book tonight and he confirmed that he was indeed a lover of the Quake games, and he felt that those early days of online gaming made a really interesting subject for a book, though sadly he doesn’t play much these days.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Chris Brookmyre was interviewed (in front of a surprisingly small audience – I feel I should reassure Chris that he is loved, though I’m sure his sales figures attest to that) by Julian Baggini about his new book Flesh Wounds and his career to date. Baggini asked some really interesting questions about the sociological and psychological insights into crime that Brookmyre excels at. I did enjoy Brookmyre’s insistence that he couldn’t pull off the perfect crime because he’s no good at standing up to authority (which is a little surprising considering how many of his books satirise major establishments) and in real life you can’t predict what the police will do, the way you can when you’re the novelist controlling them (fair point).

Brookmyre was refreshingly down to earth and accessible. He enjoys language, especially dialect, which I think clearly shows in his work. And he’s very self aware. He says that the violence in his books is deliberately slightly cartoonish because he wants to distance the reader from the reality of that side of things, because it’s never central to the story. I hadn’t really noticed that but on reflection it’s obviously true. As he said, there’s one book in which he contrives to have a character cut off their own head!

Brookmyre is also honorary president of the Humanist Society of Scotland and apparently has written some articles on the subject, which perhaps isn’t surprising having read some of his earlier books that talk about the Catholic Church. Interestingly he said tonight that back when he wrote those books he felt frustrated and angry that there wasn’t a voice for non-believers and that there was an unquestioned respect for organised religion, but now he feels that in many ways the war has been won – religion no longer has a free pass and atheism is widely accepted. Certainly, I’d agree that huge progress has been made but I definitely wouldn’t say the fight is over, even here in the UK, let alone elsewhere in the world. If I wasn’t so uselessly shy we could probably have had a good chat about that afterwards.

As it was, I got two books signed (including an embarrassingly dog-eared and tea-stained copy of The Sacred Art of Stealing that I had to reassure him was in that state because it’s “well loved”, which it absolutely is) and, possibly more importantly, was reminded that I greatly enjoy and admire this author and should read more of his work.

This event was part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas.

Everyone lives in the world they deserve

Ashes
by Sergios Gakas
translated from Greek by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife

Ashes

I took this book on holiday with me because crime is usually a good bet for an absorbing throwaway read. This book didn’t quite live up to that expectation, being both better than expected but also in some ways worse. I probably need to explain.

For a start this is one of the more literary police procedurals I have ever read, inasmuch as the writing is very good, a little experimental even, and it doesn’t follow the expected rules of the genre. Now that may partly be because it’s Greek, and perhaps they have their own set of rules. I’m not familiar enough with Greek literature to know. But this certainly didn’t read like it was slotting into a template.

“Let me break your seal, Stoli, my love. My red beauty, come here, give yourself to me, transparent like all my mistakes…I don’t feel good, damned wine, it’s all your fault. Armchair – prepare yourself. My sweet throne, I’m coming…Who’s that creeping around outside – who’s after my vodka? It burns, the bitch…It burns like hell: fight ice with ice, fire with fire…No! My face is burning, don’t, why won’t you listen to me? No, please.”

There are some familiar themes. The detective, Police Colonel Chronis Halkidis, is middle-aged, divorced, disillusioned, addicted to cigarettes (and some rather stronger illegal drugs to boot) and doesn’t follow the rules. So far, so familiar. I didn’t warm to Halkidis, especially as his addictions and methods became, well, worse. But that’s fine, I don’t need to like the main character.

“Three dark-haired types with shiny accordions were playing songs, a hybrid, it seemed, of children’s songs and revolutionary battle cries. The audience was singing along, miming the foreign lyrics with adolescent uncertainty. They were happy. I hated them. I ducked quickly into the toilet and snorted two fat lines of powder… Everyone lives in the world they deserve, and my particular world cannot take any more accordion music.”

The book opens with the crime and follows the police investigation, which again sounds traditional enough. The crime in question is the burning to the ground of a house in a suburb of Athens, a fire which takes hold so quickly that three of the house’s occupants are killed almost immediately and the fourth, a formerly famous actress called Sonia Varika, is left in intensive care with severe burns.

“‘Do you believe in God?’
‘No.’
‘Pity. If you did, I would recommend prayer. It would save me the more pedestrian option, where I explain to you that the human body is a machine, with a highly complex mechanism that we barely understand, but a machine nonetheless…Do forgive me if I come across as a vulgar materialist, but so far the only ones I’ve seen performing miracles and saving lives have been doctors and nurses. God has never once put in an appearance, not even to stitch up an eyebrow.'”

It took me a while to figure out the narrative voice, which alternately follows Halkidis and the landlord of the destroyed house, Simeon Piertzovanis, but there are also sections in italic, which are either memories or thoughts of Sonia from her coma. Almost the first thing we learn is that both Halkidis and Piertzovanis are former lovers of Sonia, which means that they both distrust one another but also form an uneasy alliance in their search for truth and justice.

Piertzovanis was an interesting character, a lawyer, gambler and alcoholic who has inherited enough money to not really need to work, he is somehow still largely likeable. And there was a good cast of secondary characters, from a girl Piertzovanis picked up the night of the fire and who has stuck around, to Halkidis’ small team of trusted police, to the various shady types involved to varying degrees in a crime that is somehow political, or at least large enough organisations are involved for solving it to get political.

“I dropped Piertzovanis off at the statue of Kolokotronis, waited for him to take a piss on it and then lurch across Stadiou, his arm raised to deflect the oncoming traffic; drivers were drowning him in hoots, obscene gestures and abuse, but they spared his life.”

So the people and their relationships kept me interested, plus the writing was good, so why didn’t this work for me? I think where it fell down was the crime/detective/thriller part. I’m not sure which of those three it was aiming to be because I didn’t think it worked as any of them. The solution to the crime was too convoluted, with no clues for the reader to follow. But I also never felt, for all of Halkidis’ antics, that he was ever in any danger, so it didn’t work as a thriller either.

Really, this is all about the detective not the detection. And the personal angle definitely added a certain something. Reading what I’ve written it sounds like I’m bothered because I can’t categorise the book and it surprises me that I should feel that way. Perhaps it’s even that the writing was lyrical enough that it slowed me down – I wanted to pay attention to the words, not fly through them. But whatever the reason, I wasn’t gripped, and that feels like a flaw.

First published in Greece by Kastaniotis Editions in 2007.
This translation published 2011 by MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus.

Source: This was a review copy passed on to me by fellow blogger Ellie of Curiosity Killed the Bookworm.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 Translation Challenge.

A thriller without thrills

Southwesterly Wind
by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza
translated by Benjamin Moser

This highly acclaimed novel is the third in the Inspector Espinosa series, set in Rio de Janeiro. Quotes on the book jacket compare Garcia-Rosa to Colin Dexter and Raymond Chandler. I really really don’t agree.

It may be a style thing, it may be poor translation, but I did not get on with this book. I would have abandoned it if it wasn’t so easy to read. Easy but not good. There was a lot of clumsy phrasing, sentences that seemed like they could have been clever or funny if written differently. The plot was odd but predictable, the policeman’s actions unlikely and the ending not nearly as ambiguous as Garcia-Rosa would have us believe.

The story centres around Gabriel who was told by a strange fortune teller at his 29th birthday party that he would kill someone before his next birthday. As the big three-oh approaches, his paranoia gets increasingly bad and he goes to the police. Inspector Espinosa is intrigued but doesn’t know what he’s expected to investigate – no crime has been committed. Yet.

Of course, eventually crimes do happen that may or may not be related, there are shadowy characters and beautiful women, and there are many detailed descriptions of the city of Rio, which was one part of the book that I did like. That and Espinosa’s friendly neighbour, a young girl called Alice who wants him to get a dog so that he doesn’t get lonely. That was a sweet subplot.

There seemed to be an attempt to add something spiritual to the usual thriller fare. There was a lot of talk about psychoanalysis and religion and the effect of the southwesterly wind. But it wasn’t fully explored and it didn’t sit well with the rest of the novel.

The main problem, though, is that it takes a while for stuff to start happening and yet I felt no suspense. I thought that it was obvious there would eventually be a dead body that could possibly be linked to Gabriel and before that had even happened I had figured out the ending. None of the characters beside Espinosa had any real fleshing out. I am frankly baffled by the awards and praise Garcia-Rosa has received. Maybe his previous two books were far better?

Originally published in Brazil in 1999 by Companhia das Letras, Sao Paulo, under the title Vento sudoeste.
This translation first published 2004 by Henry Holt and Company.

The cruelty of children

A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil
by Christopher Brookmyre

This book took a while to grow on me. I was a little disappointed from the start to realise that it wasn’t part of the Jack Parlabane series, and its structure was at first an irritation, before I realised how vital it was to the storyline, and how clever.

Martin is a successful lawyer to the rich and famous. He gets a phonecall one night from an old schoolfriend asking him to go back to Braeside where another old schoolfriend has been arrested for the murder of…you got it, yet another former classmate. And another classmate’s dad. And another classmate is in a coma, while yet another is the policewoman leading the investigation. The scene is set for a lot of memory dredging, facing up to childhood prejudices and crime-solving.

The narrative skips between current day – beginning with two crooks trying to dispose of the bodies – and school days, tackled year by year. Hidden behind the Glasgow dialogue and ever-changing nicknames is all the complexity of childhood – the complicated tangle of loyalties that are constantly switching, the importance placed on certain games and certain moments, the favours given and the mistreatments that were never forgotten.

There’s a lot of very believable childishness here: the changing slangwords; the fear of recrimination from saying, doing or reacting in a non-uniform way; the moments of innocent naivety followed by awful realisation. It’s not exactly how I remember primary school. We weren’t all swearing in every sentence from the start as Brookmyre’s class seems to be. And the rough talk and violent threats started later to my knowledge, but then I wasn’t a boy and all that was the boys’ domain, after all. With girls it’s all about the bitching and the name-calling and the cliques and I most certainly remember that.

In fact, though I struggled with it a little at first, mostly due to the dialogue, the school stuff was far more clever and subtle and well-written than the adult part of the book. As adults, the same characters seem to be either remarkably well adjusted or in a complete mess and in need of a life lesson. Which they duly receive. Okay, it’s not quite that simplistic but there is a certain tendency for old friends to declare “I told you so”. But the adult part does have the murder mystery, which slowly unravels into a much more complicated picture than it initially appears.

Though it has its moments, this book isn’t as funny as previous Brookmyre novels that I’ve read. It’s not bleak and heavy either, and at a push I might call it black comedy, but the genuine comic moments are few and far between. There also isn’t a single main character with the charm and presence of Brookmyre regular Jack Parlabane, but by the end of the book he has fleshed out almost a whole classful of rounded, believable individuals, which is no small achievement.

I would say this isn’t quite as fun and light a read as other Brookmyre books, but it still served me well on my beach holiday.

First published 2006 by Little, Brown.

Sometimes you shouldn’t probe too deep

Rupture
by Simon Lelic

This was another book club read and it certainly generated a lot of discussion, even if part of that was our cynical reaction to the marketing surrounding this book – a lot of review copies were sent out and the book includes “book club” style questions at the back. I mean, it worked, we all read it!

I really enjoyed this book but I didn’t note down my thoughts on finishing it, as I usually would, because I suspected it wouldn’t stand up to intense criticism. Turns out I was right. The more questions asked around the table, the more I realised that this was a guilty pleasure rather than a class act.

The story follows policewoman Lucia May’s investigation into a school shooting. It seems to be a cut-and-dried case – teacher walked into assembly, shot and killed five people including himself – and May’s superiors urge her to wind up the investigation quickly so that the community can move on. But May wants to know not just what happened but also why, and that’s a complex question.

Lelic certainly has some skill. I was gripped by the story even though most of the facts are revealed early on. Every other chapter is a transcript of an interview from shortly after the shooting, allowing a lot of characters’ voices to be heard. Certain details are revealed in these chapters that you realise Lucia has known all along (because she conducted all the interviews) while we as readers had to wait to get to that interview, which is the opposite way round to how information in a novel usually works, and I liked that.

Without wanting to give too much away, the key theme of this book is bullying, and it wears its mission statement so plainly that the message can get heavy handed at times. Yes, bullying happens among adults as well as children and I think it’s important to acknowledge that, but I’m not sure that this book gave the most accurate portrayal. I’m also not sure how accurate Lelic’s portrayal of the police is (I’m guessing not very) though I did find the school convincing. Our discussion revealed a number of plot holes, many more than I would ever have spotted alone.

I was glad to find I was not alone in considering the killer, Samuel Szajkowski, to be the most compelling character in this book. Even though he is dead before the book begins, and there are no flashbacks, we get to know a little of him through other people and what emerges is a believable, complex man. It’s a shame that no other characters are quite so fully rounded, but then you could argue that the book is really about Szajkowski even though it follows Lucia’s daily life.

It was suggested that there is a certain element of doggedly following writing guidelines evident in this book, which is Lelic’s first novel. But while reading it I was able to completely suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride. Which is no bad thing, let’s face it.

First published 2010 by Picador.
Finalist for the Crime Writers Association John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award 2010.

Fun with guns

Out of Sight
by Elmore Leonard

I’m reasonably certain I saw the film of this shortly after it came out and I remember absolutely nothing about it, which isn’t generally a sign of quality. I can’t be sure until some time has passed but I think the book was better.

I’ve been meaning to read some Elmore Leonard for years. He’s often called the king of crime fiction and has won numerous awards. I would have liked to start with something from earlier in his career but this was what the library had. He’s been writing novels and screenplays since 1953 and is still going strong. That’s one long career. This is one of his more famous titles and even spawned a short-lived TV series so it probably wasn’t a bad start point.

The story arch is basically a love story, that of serial bankrobber Jack Foley, just escaped from his third spell in prison, and beautiful, hard-nut federal marshal Karen Cisco, who managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when Foley was making his escape. In their brief time together an odd bond is established that neither can shake, even though next time they meet they may have to accept that they’re on opposite sides.

It’s not the best writing in the world. And the copy editing was atrocious. There were often words missing, making sentences nonsensical. Leonard’s much-lauded dialogue was very Pulp Fiction, which no doubt I should be saying the other way round, with discussions between characters jumping from how to avoid the cops to a funny news story they just read, or obsessing about clothes. It makes a big difference to the readability of what could otherwise be a very gritty story. There’s some serious crimes going down here, with some not very nice people involved, but Foley and his sidekick – the appropriately named Buddy – are classic loveable rogues and it’s hard, reading this, not to wish that there were some way that Foley and Cisco could believably end up together.

This was an enjoyable, quick read. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen next, I felt that was fairly predictable (though maybe I did have a vague memory of the film after all) but I definitely did care about the characters. At some point I will definitely come back to Leonard’s rather large back catalogue.

First published in the US in 1996 by Dell Publishing.