Sunday 26 March 2017

H is for Homicide by Sue Grafton

I've had a lot of fun reading Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone detective novels (also known as the alphabet series). Unfortunately this will be the last one I'm reporting on, at least for a while...

This is a pity because Grafton can really write. She brings her character and settings vividly to life. As Kinsey enjoys an early morning drive she tells us she feels a "jolt of pure joy". Grafton knows how to use language. She's the real McCoy and her story have freshness and great immediacy.

When Kinsey feels angry she says "I could freel the heat flash through my frame". When confronted with the dead body of a friend, she forces herself to detach from her emotions: "I pulled a mental plug." 

Similarly when she goes undercover to join a car insurance-scam gang, she has to take part in the cons. As she dupes the marks she again has to detach herself, "employing the same mental detachment I adopt when I enter a morgue".

She can also be very funny. A telephone emits a sound like a "garbage disposal grinding up a live duck."

But one of the things that has always impressed me the most about the Kinsey Millhone books is the authenticity of the protagonist and her behaviour. In this story, despite her friend being killed, she leaves the case entirely to the cops — the way a professional would.

Of course, she ends up being involved after all. As we expect she should. But it's the way that Grafton engineers this which causes the book to go seriously off the rails. 

When a woman Millhone is investigating gets arrested, our heroine attacks one of the cops so she can be arrested, too. And therefore get thrown in a cell with the woman and glean valuable information and bond with her.

This just does not fit with Millhone's common sense and low-key professionalism. When she assaults a police officer she is jeopardising her licence, in fact throwing it away forever. Never mind that she's acting undercover

Worse yet, this reckless action is utterly unmotivated. Kinsey Millhone has absolutely no reason to believe that the woman she's following will prove to be such a valuable lead as to justify such extreme behaviour....

Now, all this might make sense if our detective knew she was onto a huge and important case, and the woman was a vital link. But at this point in the story she doesn't, and couldn't.

It's exactly as if our heroine has read the outline of the novel, as if she's privy to Grafton's game plan. Eventually the narrative gets back on track, sort of. But the story never quite worked for me after that.

This was my second Kinsey Millhone disappointment, after S is for Silence, a book which went completely off the rails at the end with a rushed, unsatisfying and entirely unconvincing denouement.

Writing a long running series of crime novels is a very serious business. There is always the danger of penning a weak instalment. But if you do that, you will keenly disappoint your readers. They will feel betrayed. And they may be reluctant to pick up the next book.

This is where I currently stand with Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series. Having been let down twice I simply don't feel the enthusiasm for these stories which I did before. In fact yesterday I took my unread Grafton's to the charity shop and got rid of them.

I'm sorry things turned out like this. I was looking forward to 26 highy enjoyable reads. I'll let you know if things change and I return to these books. But meantime, it's a salutary and sobering lesson to anyone who aspires to writing a long-running series of crime novels.

Including myself.

You can't afford to write a dud. Let alone two.

(Image credits: The covers are from Good Reads. except for the main image (the blue dog cover) which I scanned from my own copy because the Good Reads one was a bit of a mess. Oh, and I quite like the yellow Spanish cover... but can anyone tell me what the hell it's a picture of?)

Sunday 19 March 2017

The Brass Cupcake by John D. MacDonald

It's about time I followed up my previous post on John D. MacDonald. (And in case you're interested, here is an even earlier one where I explained why that middle initial is so important.)   

I recently discovered a useful little book about John D. by crime fiction specialist David Geherin and that has launched me on a project of re-reading many of MacDonald's novels. A project which is proving both fun and educational...

First up, appropriately enough, is The Brass Cupcake, his very first work of book-length fiction, published in 1950. This novel has a couple of flaws, which I won't be able to resist slagging MacDonald off for later, but a fair person would have to concede it's actually a very impressive debut.

Clearly MacDonald's apprenticeship writing short stories for the pulp magazines — he sold over 200 between 1945 and 1950 —  paid off spectacularly in terms of giving him command of his craft.

The Brass Cupcake — the title refers to a worthless prize — tells the story of Cliff Bartells (good name), an insurance investigator on the trail of a fortune in stolen jewels. But, crucially, Bartells is an ex-cop, squeezed out of the local police force for refusing to knuckle under to the pervasive corruption.

Cleverly, MacDonald uses the jewel robbery as leverage for his hero to ultimately get even with the cops, politicians, and indeed the entire corrupt system which wronged him. The setting is Florida, a favourite John D. MacDonald location, mostly in the imaginary municipality of Florence City but also in the very real Ybor City (which recently featured in the film Live By Night). 

The locale is intensely and convincingly evoked, with a lovely touch of cynicism: "Florence City met the hot February sun with a wide financial smile." And elsewhere the writing is of an equally high standard, whether he's describing a murderously vengeful woman — "her eyes were like broken stone" — or the experience of suddenly being awakened from deep sleep "the dream split across the middle and blew away like smoke."  

Even everyday objects are brought to life with deft intensity, as when he talks about the "thin sharp teeth of the zipper." And, as always, MacDonald writes about the sea and maritime things with great acuity and allure: "the drone of the approaching launch separated itself from the deep voice of the waves." 

MacDonald also scores strongly on characterisation, he has sharp and witty observations of people and social mores, as with two men who don't really like each other but are routinely civil when they meet, whom he compares to "rival car dealers."  And the bad guy in this story is the onlie begetter of many a plausible and charming psychopath in the Travis McGee novels.

On the debit side of the ledger are the sex scenes, one of which is so decorous ("I got out of the car and walked down to the surf line...") we're not even sure it's happened, while another is disastrously overwritten ("a wild shout thrown upward at the stars in crescendoed apex...").

Indeed, the sexual attitudes of the book are sometimes quite alarming. But then, it was written in 1950.

On the whole, though, this is a small, intermittent masterpiece which shows clear signs of the great work which was to come. 

And it features a scene where the police beat the hero which is so savage, concise and vivid that I found myself expecting physical after-effects just from reading it. 

(Image credits: Most of the covers are from Good Reads, where there is rather a good selection. The exceptions are the earliest Gold Medal paperback (number 124) from Vintage45's blog, the nice 35 cent cover, from Pinterest, the one with the brandy and the automatic, from ABE.)

Sunday 12 March 2017

Wonderful Nightmare Journey: The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber

In much the same way that John D. MacDonald is the crime writer I most admire, Fritz Leiber is my favourite writer of science fiction, fantasy and horror — Leiber excels in all three fields. 

The Wanderer is the first of these — science fiction — and indeed won the Hugo award for best SF novel of 1965. It's one of the genre's all time classics. 

It tells the tale of what happens when a new planet suddenly appears above the Earth — popping out of hyperspace — just beyond the orbit of the moon.

What largely happens, of course, is earthquakes and flooding caused by monstrously magnified tides as a result of the planet's gravitational impact on us. 

Leiber's account of this is characteristically knowledgeable and well-informed, as he tells us for instance that the safest places at sea are the “tidal nodes near Norway and the Windward Isles and at Tahiti.”

But science fiction writers who know their science are pretty commonplace. What sets Leiber apart is the brilliance of his imagination and, above all, the superb quality of his prose. He really is the ultimate SF and fantasy writer, combining these traits to great effect.

He talks about how the new planet — soon dubbed the Wanderer — has  “poisoned the radio sky" with static. And when it becomes clear that this world is inhabited, and indeed piloted, by aliens he talks about the shocking impact on the human psyche. 

It is an end to our secure isolation in the galaxy  —“how safe the Earth had swung in all its loneliness for millions of years, like a house to which no stranger ever comes.”

Initially the book functions like a disaster novel (indeed it virtually invents that genre), moving swiftly between groups of characters as they deal with the catastrophes conjured by the new planet's presence. 

But soon Leiber moves on to the more fascinating possibilities of human interaction with the inhabitants of the Wanderer.

Leiber shows great psychological acuity, as when his heroine Margo Gelhorn acquires one of the aliens' weapons, a fascinating device she calls a "momentum pistol." (It is literally dropped from a flying saucer.)  

At first Margo revels in the confidence it gives her, then she discovers she doesn't need it any more, having developed her own inner resources: “she herself was now the big gun she could rely on and experiment with.”  

The book just keeps on getting better, as we discover who the Wanderer's inhabitants are, and why they're here. 

The beautiful cat-like Tigerishka (a name she adopts, combining her fondness for Earth's big cats... and ballet) explains, "your juvenile delinquents — we're like those. Running, running, running. Every step, pounding the hollow planetary pavement, under the cold streetlight of the stars." And the Wanderer is their "getaway car."

And then we find out what it is that the Wanderer's inhabitants are running from...

I realise the feline aspect of some of the cover art depicted here might suggest to you that I love this book because I'm a sucker for cats. Trust me, there's a lot more to it than that. The Wanderer is a masterpiece and I commend it to you most heartily.

(Image credits: The Philip Castle airbrushed "good cat art" cover is my own scan of my own copy. The handsome Gollancz yellow typographic copy is also my own — and I can't find another image of this anywhere on the internet. The original Ballantine printing of people fleeing is from Lankhmar, a useful and interesting site dedicated to Leiber. The two French covers are from a Pinterest gallery. The other covers are from Good Reads.)

Sunday 5 March 2017

Introducing John D. MacDonald

I'm looking forward to writing a series of posts about one of my favourite writers of all time. 

He's scandalously forgotten now, but in his heyday John Dann MacDonald (1916-1986) sold tens of millions of books and was omnipresent on the paperback racks.

McDonald's métier was crime or suspense fiction. But he also wrote powerful human dramas, highly effective humour and some outstanding science fiction. 

Sometimes he combined these genres (The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything is science fiction humour, and it's smashing). He even wrote a charming book about his cats.

But crime was his main thing. And he was impressively prolific. One book about MacDonald and his writing has the highly appropriate title The Red Hot Typewriter. You may want to check it out. Written by Hugh Merrill, it's a readable and useful introduction to MacDonald. 
Unfortunately it's also annoyingly error-prone. For instance, Merrill declares that the short story 'Looie Follows Me' (he calls it 'Louie Follows Me') is "about big-city gangsters." In fact it's a touching tale of small children in a rural setting.

A more solidly reliable book is simply called John D. MacDonald and it's by David Geherin. 

But the most painless introduction to this fine writer is the excellent BBC Radio 4 program 21 Shades of Noir. Available indefinitely online, you can listen to it while jogging, driving, or riding to work on public transport.

It's hosted by Lee Child, another big fan of MacDonald and himself a colossally successful crime writer — he's the creator of the Jack Reacher series. Child is to be applauded for his support and enthusiasm. Largely thanks to his efforts MacDonald's reputation is being recovered from obscurity.

Unfortunately, this has also led to MacDonald's Travis McGee novels being meretriciously repackaged to look like Jack Reacher adventures. I think this is a mistake, since the appeal of the two series are very different.

Travis McGee is MacDonald's immortal character, created in 1963, after decades of resisting his publisher imploring him for a series. McGee ushered in the third great phase of MacDonald's career, which began as a short-story-writing machine for the pulp magazines  in the 1940s and then segued into a star novelist of the paperback originals in the 1950s.

John D. MacDonald started writing just as the careers of the three great giants of American crime fiction — Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain — were drawing to a close. 

Of these three, MacDonald is closest to Cain in that his plots often involved ordinary people who are swept to destruction by currents of greed or lust. Whereas Hammett and Chandler tended to write about the professionals who came along and picked up the pieces afterwards.

In terms of his prose style, MacDonald doesn't really resemble any of these three. And in fact, by the time he hits his stride in the 1950s he was better than any of them in his sheer ability to use language. MacDonald's prose was a shrewd blend of brilliant description, acute observation, cynical humour and what he called "unobtrusive poetry".

The quality of his writing was unprecedented in the crime field, and pretty much in American literature at large. (Though if he had no clear predecessors, he had a least one very distinguished successor — Thomas Harris shows the emphatic and beneficial influence of MacDonald throughout his work.)

If MacDonald had a flaw it was in moments of  over-sentimentality — something which Hammett, Chandler and Cain were very unlikely to succumb to. MacDonald also tended to over-write, sometimes embarrassingly so, when devising erotic-romantic scenes.

But by the late 1960s even these minor flaws had fallen away and left him as the great American storyteller at the top of his game... for another twenty years.

It will be my pleasure in the weeks to come to guide you through some of the highlights of his long and dazzling career. 

(Image credits: The shot of John D. at the typewriter is from Thrilling Detective. The Geherin cover is from Pinterest. The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper, a lovely Bob McGinnis cover for this late McGee reprint, is from Good Reads. The McGee omnibus with the Jack Reacher style cover is from Penguin Books. The Red Hot Typewriter is from Amazon UK. Deadly Welcome is from Facsimile Dustjackets. The House Guests is from ABE Books. The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything is from John D. MacDonald covers.)