Sunday, 28 April 2013

Philip MacDonald: The First and Last of Colonel Gethryn

Colonel Gethryn is Anthony Gethryn -- he hates to be referred to by his military rank. An intelligence officer in both World Wars, he consults with the police on an informal basis.

He is Philip MacDonald's detective hero and featured in a sequence of some twelve novels which began with The Rasp in 1924 and ended with The List of Adrian Messenger in 1959.

I started with the last book, and then proceeded to the first. It was an unconventional procedure, but an enlightening one.

By the time he wrote The List of Adrian Messenger (great title, by the way), Philip MacDonald was a writer fully in command of his craft with almost half a century of experience, and it shows. This is a taut, expertly plotted thriller with evocative locations, memorable characters and a compelling villain.

The bad guy here is reminiscent of the monstrous antagonists in Thomas Harris or John D. MacDonald

Indeed, the scheming ruthless psychopath killing for gain could come straight out of the pages of one of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels.

The List of Adrian Messenger is a race-against-time thriller where Gethryn has to work out who the victims are, and why, and identify the killer and stop him. It's beautifully done and well worth a read. It has hardly dated.

The same can't be said of The Rasp, which as I said was published in 1924 and was for decades regarded as a masterpiece and a classic of crime fiction in the great tradition.

The Rasp appears to be MacDonald's first solo effort. His earlier works were two novels under the pseudonym Oliver Fleming, written in collaboration with his father Ronald MacDonald -- a name which, to the modern reader, seems hilarious.

Given that The Rasp is effectively his first novel, and that Philip MacDonald was still three years away from his masterpiece Patrol, I guess one should cut him some slack.

However, I found The Rasp a major disappointment. It is a whodunnit and features a 'locked-room' style puzzle murder. Unfortunately, the solution to the puzzle wasn't sufficiently original, convincing or ingenious to impress yours truly.

This is in complete contrast to MacDonald's Rynox, written in 1930, which was also a locked room puzzle, and is a work of sheer genius which had me chuckling with awestruck delight.

Much worse than the weakness of the central conceit in The Rasp is the gooey romance which encumbers the book (in fact, three gooey romances). This gives rise to some of MacDonald's most unfortunate prose. I was particularly amused by the line "a dark proud face whose beauty was enhanced by its pallor."

But, as I said, within three years MacDonald would be writing the brilliant hard-boiled prose of Patrol. And even here in The Rasp there's much excellent writing, as when he describes the "low angry mutter of thunder."

And the other early Gethryn novels are by no means to be ignored. I'm currently reading the fifth one, from 1931, and it's turning out rather well.

I'll report about it soon. 

(Note: I wish I could have included a link to the great Thomas Harris/Hannibal Lecter website Hannotations. But it has vanished and the real estate is now occupied by some jerks who want to offer links to "Lebanese Girls" and "Funny Funny Pictures". Like I'm going to click on those. Hannotations was a magnificent resource and if I'd known it was going to disappear I would have printed out every page. On the other hand, John D. MacDonald is very well served online, and Steve Scott's The Trap of Solid Gold, referenced above, is informative, detailed and a labour of love. Also, there were too many good Travis McGee websites for me to link to them all above. Check out this one by S. Rufener and also the handiwork of the admirable Book Slut.)

(Image credits: The striking black and white Bantam paperback of The List of Adrian Messenger (by Sanford Kossin, I think — shock update: I just picked up a copy of this edition (13 July 2013) and it's cleary signed, in the form of his initials, by Mitchell Hooks. Yippee) is from Good Reads. The groovy German The List of Adrian Messenger is from Prisma 631 on Flickr. The Vintage jigsaw cover of Adrian Messenger is from Amazon. The Vintage jigsaw cover of The Rasp is from Paperback Swap. The wonderful early dustjackets of The Rasp, one British and two American, are from the magnificent Facsimile Dust Jackets site. I urge you to shop there.)

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Zen and the Art of Murder

Dashiell Hammett once wrote an essay about the most common — and annoying — mistakes in crime fiction.

Number one on the list was for the writer to confuse an automatic pistol with a revolver. Hammett said: "A pistol, to be a revolver, must have something on it that revolves."

He wrote those words in 1930, but it's a lesson that still needs to be learned. Perhaps it seems like a nit-picking detail, but if the author gets something like this wrong  it spoils the whole illusion of reality which is essential to the artifice of fiction: disbelief ceases to be suspended.

Which is why I was so disappointed when Michael Dibdin's marvellous Italian detective Aurelio Zen digs out a pistol obtained by his father when Zen was a little boy. It's a Beretta 9mm revolver.

Beretta are famous for their automatic pistols. They did, eventually, manufacture a couple of revolvers for the American market in the 1980s, but there was never a 9mm model and the period piece described by Dibdin simply doesn't exist.

And that's a real pity, because in other respects Cabal, the novel in question, is a wonderfully diverting piece of crime fiction and Aurelio Zen is a great creation.

Moving through the corrupt world of Italian policing and politics, Zen is himself an amiably semi-corrupt individual. When he is summoned by the Vatican authorities to assist them in covering up a murder, his response is pretty much an enthusiastic 'sure thing'.

This is such a refreshing change from the unbending square jawed crusaders who dominate the literature.

And Dibdin writes very amusingly: "The stairwell was dark, and the timer controlling the lights had been adjusted for the agility of a buck chamois in rut rather than a middle-aged policeman going about his dubious business."

In this case, his dubious business is framing a suspect. But it turns out someone has arrived before him and (very ingeniously) murdered the man...

I also loved Zen's girlfriend Tania, who works in police administration, but in fact spends her days using the office's resources to run her thriving food wholesale business, selling local delicacies from her home town.
What's more, the way Dibdin handles his shadowy, sinister conspiratorial Vatican sect in this novel should be adapted as a model for other writers — notably Dan Brown.

It would make for a lot more fun.

There are eleven Aurelio Zen books. 

The BBC did some adaptations for television, based on the first three: Ratking, Vendetta and Cabal. I missed these and the series was cancelled after one season.

I now regret both these facts.

(Note: the Dashiell Hammett essay I quoted was published in the Saturday Review of Literature on 7 June  and 3 July 1930. Astonishingly, it isn't available on the internet, though there's some excerpts here. Until some kind soul types it out and posts it, you'll have to find it in a physical book, like Richard Layman's excellent Hammett biography Shadow Man, on pages 122-125. It's well worth a read. And the rare hybrid automatic-revolver Hammett mentions is described here.)

(Image credits: the book covers for Cabal, Ratking and Vendetta are all from the Faber website. Nice designs, folks. The DVD cover is from The stylish Shadow Man cover is from Amazon. Buy a copy. They're going cheap.) 

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Dick Francis: Nerve

Another cracking thriller by Dick Francis.

I'm currently writing a series of novels about a record collector turned detective. Someone asked me how many stories there can be concerning mystery, murder and mayhem revolving (ahem) around records?

My reply was, Dick Francis managed about three dozen concerning the world of jockeys and horse racing.

But I didn't realise how damned good they were.

Nerve concerns a jockey, Rob Finn who is just starting to build a reputation when that reputation is cruelly and deliberately sabotaged.

It is a riveting story of his attempts to salvage his career -- and gain retribution against his tormentor (Finn describes his plan of revenge to his cousin: "I told her. It took some time. She shivered. 'He didn't know what he was up against when he picked on you'.")

And Francis can really write. His characters and background detail are beautiful. 

Finn is the only non-musical member of a family of professional musicians. This is from a description of their sitting room: "A cello and a music stand rested side by side like lovers along the length of the sofa."

Elsewhere he describes a man struggling to lead a powerful, impatient horse "hanging on to his leading rein like a small child on a large kite."

There are many other lovely concise bits of scene setting. He talks about "the freezing dawn" and "a damp raw January afternoon". And immediately the reader is there.

Nerve was written in 1964 and there is an interesting air of Cold War terror shimmering subtly in the background.

Amazingly, it was only his second novel.

Many thanks to my blog reader Frank Fair for pointing out that Stanley Kubrick was also a Dick Francis fan (pity he never adapted one of the novels) while another one was script writing guru Syd Fields, who praised Francis' depiction of film making.

Another reader Mark recommends Smokescreen so I'm delighted to say I've now obtained a copy of that, and I'm reading it next. Many thanks.

(Also, I'm hypnotised by this review of 1965's Odds Against, from The Sun: "a spot of kinkiness in the delectable shape of a sado-masochistic femme fatale.")

I love Francis' terse evocative titles, by the way.

(Image credits: Once again the striking Colin Thomas photo cover is from Jan-Willem Hubbers excellent and useful website, a terrific Dick Francis resource. The great first edition cover is from Wikipedia.
The Penguin edition with the stylish graphic design by Cato is from The Woman in the Wood's photostream on Flicker. The grey painted cover is by Greg Montgomery and the artist's website is here. The yellow Pan cover is from via Antiqbook. This is the copy I read and I don't recommend it because the cover painting gives too much of the plot away, particularly the back cover. Do they think people read books without turning them over?)

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Jack the Giant Writers

The best written movie I've seen since Side Effects is, somewhat to my surprise, Jack the Giant Slayer

Interestingly, one of the writers on Jack is Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote (and directed) Jack Reacher which featured in this blog a few weeks back.

The other writers credited are Darren Lemke who worked on Shrek Forever After, Dan Studney and David Dobkin.

It's a splendid movie visually, with some great design reminiscent of Terry Gilliam.

The script is clever, witty, neatly structured and features some excellent characterisation. 
Nice dialogue, too. 

At one point during the terrifying climb up the beanstalk Jack (played by Nicholas Hoult) suffers a fall which knocks him out. 

He groggily returns to consciousness, staring up at Ewan McGregor and Eddie Marsan.

"Am I dead?" says Jack.

"Not just yet," says Ewan dryly.

The action sequences are particularly well planned. Someone actually sat down and thought, "If I was a giant, how would I attack a (human sized) castle?"

Some strong performances, too, from a really high calibre cast... though I thought a couple of the accents were a bit silly.

I was startled to read a rather bitchy article about this picture saying that it's a box office 'flop'. Hard to credit, for such an excellent film.

The same article goes on to compare it to 'notorious cinematic bombs' Battleship and John Carter. (In fact, both these movies did well internationally, though they weren't successful in the USA.)

Well, I'd like to go on record as saying that, like Jack the Giant Slayer, these were both good films and notably well written, especially Battleship, which was a model of screenwriting -- and of making feeble subject matter work on the big screen.

Anyway, if Jack really is a 'flop' (it seems to be performing strongly as it enters its fourth week at my local cinema) I urge you to rush and see it on the big screen, while you can.

(Image credits: Ewan with his crossbow is from Fantasy Film Scoop. Nicholas Hoult climbing is from Never Ending Radical Dude. Eleanor Tomlinson looking fetching in her armour is from Imp Awards. And the stone faced drain is from The Coventry Telegraph. No, honestly.)