Some thoughts on recent reading, mostly crime fiction related:
Some Die Eloquent—Catherine Aird (1979)
Discovered Aird thanks to Steve at Stevereads (how does he read all those books?). Some Die Eloquent must come midway through the Sloan & Crosby series, but I don’t think it matters much where you start. Aird is clearly a genius in her way and I wonder why she’s not better known. Wonderful dialogue (witty but not snappy: dry), very funny, keen eye for the way institutions work (here medicine, especially hospitals). And a decent plot in less than 200 pages. Take that, bloated 400-pp crime novels! More Aird is definitely in my future.
Several books by Karin Fossum (translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson, Charlotte Barslun, and others)
I read Fossum’s Inspector Sejer books when they first started appearing in English translation, about ten years ago. I liked them well enough, but suddenly there were more and more and they just didn’t grab my attention enough to continue. I returned to her this year thanks to the English-language publication of the first in the series. (Eva’s Eye in the US, In the Darkness in the UK—both quintessentially lame crime fiction titles.) Despite what I just said above about length—the book is 400 pp—I thought this an auspicious start to the series.
Ruth Rendell claims to like these books, and it’s easy to see why. Like Rendell, Fossum is primarily interested in motivation—most of her books aren’t that suspenseful. Rather, the suspense comes from seeing how the perpetrator’s actions come undone. Fossum is better than most crime writers at characterization: her best feat comes in The Indian Bride, where she manages to make plausible and sympathetic an aging Norwegian bachelor who goes to India to meet a woman after falling in love with a picture in a National Geographic book. Eva’s Eye is good in this regard, too, giving us a desperate, haughty, and clueless artist.
What I particularly like about the first book is its balance between criminal and detective. Sejer is a bit in the sensitive mold I’ve decried before, but his triumphs are more muted and thus more palatable. In later books, Fossum seems unable to decide what she wants to do with Sejer. Sometimes he’s important, sometimes barely present. It’s as if she’s experimenting with crime novels that would have no detective or inspector, and only accidental perpetrators. I guess I like my procedurals more conventional. Still, I read four of these in a row, and have now read almost everything that’s in English, and I’ll likely pick up the latest translation when it’s out this summer.
Red Road—Denise Mina (2013)
Mina’s a superior crime writer, one of the few I’ll drop everything for. Her previous books have come in trilogies; I was glad to see that Red Road is the fourth in the Alex Morrow series. Morrow is a great character: smart, a bit stroppy, unable to let things go. Halfway through the book a body is found in an apartment high rise that’s being demolished. Morrow’s unwilling trip to the scene of the crime is a brilliant, frightening set piece. I don’t think Red Road is as good as either the second or third in the series, but it’s totally worth your time.
Life After Life—Kate Atkinson (2013)
Some of the people whose reading taste I respect most really love this book. I liked it, too, even quite a lot at times. But I didn’t fall under its spell the way they did. Strange, that: the book ought to be right up my alley, being set in the historical periods (Edwardian England through WII Germany) I’m most invested in.
Ursula Todd, the protagonist, lives many lives in the book, eventually learning to avoid the causes of death and unhappiness (influenza, rape, sexual abuse) that befall her in some versions of the story. At some point, Todd, struggling through a series of vividly depicted second world wars (though I prefer Sarah Waters, or, you know, Henry Green, on the Blitz), both in London and Berlin, decides she must assassinate Hitler to stop the bad things of the twentieth century happening. This view of history is less juvenile than Quentin Tarantino’s, say, but still pretty naïve.
Atkinson, never much of a stylist, does better with England than Germany (despite the irritating, anachronistic “parade of historical ideas” quality, evident, for example, when Todd is sent to a Harley Street psychoanalyst quite unlikely to have present in the early 1920s of historical London). Atkinson did a lot of research for the book, and it shows, mostly in the laboured scenes set in Germany. There’s a whole dull little biography of Eva Braun waiting to be excised from this book.
The book’s merits are two-fold. The first is in its play with our attachment to Ursula. We do get attached to her, despite or perhaps because she keeps dying on us. Each death comes as a bit of a shock, a disturbance anyway, even though we know she will begin life again on the next page. Atkinson makes us care about Ursula and her family a lot. I think the book’s structure is key to that feeling, but I’m not sure how exactly. Anyone have any ideas?
The second is its steadfast refusal of romantic love for Ursula. She has a few relationships, even in one life a (disastrous) marriage, but none of them are ever important. As the lives pile up and she starts to “learn” from earlier ones, she avoids sexual and romantic intimacy more and more. One reason for that is a traumatic early experience, important in a book that believes events have resonances not just over the course of a life but across many lives. Another, more interesting, reason is that there are already lots of intense relationships in the book—they just happen to be between siblings. Interestingly, the Todd children aren’t orphans, in the way they might have been in the Edwardian children’s book that lurks in the unspoken background to Life after Life. What this means is that the book doesn’t feel the need to undo the parent-child relationship altogether to present the one between siblings as the most meaningful one a person can have.
Still, I wanted the book to do more with these things. I wanted it to be smarter. But I can understand why many smart readers are excited about it. For a particularly compelling view, read Derek Jenkins’s Goodreads review—it is better than the book itself, and, at moments seems to be a brilliant riposte to, for example, Adam Mars-Jones’s surprisingly brittle and hostile review in the LRB: “When someone complains about the slack internal logic of Todd’s eternal recurrence, they aren’t exactly missing the point, but they are evidently missing some of the pleasure.” Wonderful!
Several books by Benjamin Black
When it first came out I eagerly read Christine Falls, the Irish novelist John Banville’s pseudonymous effort at crime fiction, set in 1950s Dublin and starring a pathologist named Quirke. In the meantime, Black has published a number of sequels, which have accumulated on my shelves on the hopeful assumption that I would like the others as much as I did the first. I’ve read the next three now, and they’re entirely satisfying, although sometimes a bit workmanlike. Black is better on atmosphere—he sure gets the fug of provincial cities right—than on plotting, and the general trajectory of the books (Quirke stumbles upon wrong-doing at the highest echelons of the young Republic’s oligarchy and is unable to do much about it) gets repetitive. But he’s a good writer, and he comes by his genre interest legitimately: as a reviewer of his recent Marlowe novel put it, the best part of Banville’s work already involved secrets and investigations of one sort or another.
He can do you a fancy, (almost) overripe sentence:
Strange, how for him all the uncertainty and doubt, all that feeling of adolescent fumbling, how it was all gone, rid of in an instant, replaced by something deeper, darker, of far more weight, as if that kiss had been the culmination of a ceremony he had not been aware of as it unfolded, and that had ended by their sealing, there by the cold hearth, a solemn pact of dependence and fraught collaboration, and it was not the nearness of the fireplace, he knew, that was giving to his mouth a bitter taste of ashes. (A Death in Summer, 2011
And he can do you a marvelously efficient one:
All institutional buildings made Quirke, the orphan, shudder. (The Silver Swan, 2008)
That’s how you do exposition!