“In London it is always a sickly season. Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be.” (Jane Austen)

You’re telling me Jane. I travel every weekday from south to east London and I’ve become increasingly aware that my lungs are taking a right battering. Still, I do love the east of the city, as I think it’s the best place to get a sense of the layers of history of London. The street names give subtle clues to their past lives by being called things along the lines of Ale Draper’s Alley and Jellied Eel Pass (OK, I may have made those up) and everywhere you go there is something to learn. I eat my lunch next to William Blake and Daniel Defoe’s graves and an adjacent road is the last in London to have preserved the Victorian wooden block paving. If you’re a massive geek like me, you can watch a little 1 minute video about it here, and because it’s the East End, of course there’s some stuff about the Krays in there too.

This nerdy preamble is to say that this week I’ve chosen the theme of historically-set London novels, stories based in the Victorian era and 1960s, despite both being written in the 1990s.

Firstly, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd (1994). This short novel weaves together the story of Elizabeth Cree, sentenced at the start of the novel to death by hanging for murdering her husband, with that of Dan Leno, music hall star, and the Limehouse Golem, insane mass murderer preying on the East End poor. Ackroyd has great fun evoking the gothic atmosphere of Victorian London:

“The early autumn of 1880, in the weeks before the emergence of the Limehouse Golem, was exceptionally cold and damp. The notorious pea-soupers of the period…were quite as dark as their literary reputation would suggest; but it was the smell and the taste of the fog which most affected Londoners. Their lungs seemed to be filled with the quintessence of coal dust, while their tongues and nostrils were caked with a substance known colloquially as ‘miners’ phlegm’”

This fetid atmosphere carries off Elizabeth’s mother, and so she packs her bags and gets a job at the music halls. She adores Dan Leno, who takes her under his wing but remains unknowable:

“He was still very young but he could already draw upon an infinite fund of pathos and comic sorrow. I often wondered where it came from, not finding it in myself but I presume that there was some little piece of darkness in his past.”

The narrative is focussed on Elizabeth and so Dan remains somewhat unknown to the reader, but there is a sense that everyone in the novel is unknowable to an extent. As the narrative cuts back and forth in time, between Elizabeth’s story, court transcripts, and the Golem’s diary, the reader is piecing together the story from fragments. In that way it places us in the position of detectives, who obviously don’t arrive at crime scenes to then work a linear story backwards to determine what happened.

Ackroyd’s brain is roughly the size of Russia and his historical knowledge is formidable but never overtakes the story. He has fun with it – there are cameos from famous people: Oscar Wilde, Karl Marx and George Gissing all make appearances. He also has fun with the irreverent, insane, entertaining voice of the Golem:

“What a work is man, how subtle in faculties and how infinite in entrails!”

The film of Limehouse Golem came out earlier this year. From the trailer it looks as if changes were made, notably to focus much more on the investigating detective. If you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether I should watch it in the comments:

Secondly, forward to the 1960s and The Long Firm by Jake Arnott (1999). Gangster novels aren’t really my thing, but Susan from A Life in Books convinced me in one of her Blasts from the Past that as I’d enjoyed the TV series I should give it a try. She was absolutely right; it may open with Harry Starks warming a poker in order to insert it into someone, but The Long Firm is an intelligent study of the effects of violence and the damage wreaked on the people who inhabit shady netherworlds of crime.

“Breaking a person’s will, that’s what it was all about. He’d explained it to me once. Harry didn’t like to do business with anybody he couldn’t tie to a chair. He liked to break people. Sometimes it was a warning, sometimes a punishment. Always to make one thing very clear. That he was the guvnor.”

The story is told from five viewpoints in chronological order: Harry’s lover, a peer of the realm business partner, a small time gangster, a showgirl/beard and sociology lecturer all give us their view of Harry but ultimately he remains obscure. This is entirely appropriate: like the Krays and the Richardsons, legend builds up around the life and the crimes and the people themselves become lost.

The Long Firm’s historical detail and accuracy seems entirely authentic, and as in Golem, real life characters – this time the Krays, Judy Garland, and Jack the Hat who narrates one section – make appearances.  Harry himself is reminiscent of Ronnie Kray but is still a believable individual character.

The Long Firm doesn’t shy away from the realities of Harry’s profession in any way but it also doesn’t dwell on it or glamorise it; Arnott is more intelligent and interesting than that. There are doses of bone-dry humour:

“He is fascinated by the world of privilege. A patriotic desire to be part of a really big racket, I suppose.”

The interest in The Long Firm is in the people that revolve around this world: what they gain and what they lose by their involvement, the prices that are paid and why they are there in first place:

“I relied on Harry. And his ruthlessness at least had a certainty to it. He was on to a sure thing. It didn’t seem that I’d have to do very much. But I felt myself being drawn into something. A gravity that governed me. As if I’d always really belonged to seediness and the bad side of things.”

Ultimately, I think The Long Firm is about stories. Why there are so many stories that emerge from this time and section of society, what is truth, what is fable, whether the difference matters, and why these stories are still being told.

The Long Firm was adapted into a 4-part series by the BBC in 2004 and my memory of it is that it was excellent. Certainly Mark Strong is never anything less than compelling:

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“If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.” (Seamus Heaney)

This is a contribution to Reading Ireland 2017 aka the Begorrathon, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff – do join in!

I’ve decided to make debut novels featuring a crime the theme of the post (the first choice isn’t quite a crime novel, hence that rather cumbersome explanation). It was with regret that I decided the following quote – so thematically apt – was too long to pick as a title:

“There are three states of legality in Irish law. There is all this stuff here under “That’s grand”; then it moves into “Ah, now, don’t push it”; and finally to “Right! You’re taking the piss.” And that’s where the police sweep in.” (Dara O’Briain)

Firstly, The Glorious Heresies, Lisa McInerney’s debut novel which won the Bailey’s Prize in 2016 (the 2017 longlist was announced yesterday). Set in Cork, it tells the story of Robbie O’Donvan’s death – an almost homeless drug addict who theoretically could disappear with few people noticing – and the fractures that radiate out across the city from this one act.

McInerney is interested in the members of society who are simultaneously vilified and ignored. So the people affected by Robbie’s death include a teenage drug dealer, his alcoholic father, their paedophile neighbour, Robbie’s prostitute girlfriend. If this sounds depressing, it really isn’t due to McInerney’s comic voice and eye for beauty where there should be none.

“The rain cleared off in the evening, Tony walked down to the off-licence and stood outside it like a child with tuppence to his name outside the toy shop. If he pressed his nose to the glass, he may well have been able to smell it. The heady warmth of the thought seeped through his hell and into his bones and lifted his onto his toes and rose off him like holy water off the devil’s shoulders.”

She doesn’t shy away from the reality of the situation, but presents it in a complex way, so Tony’s alcoholism is seen through his own eyes as self-medication for the pressures he is under, and we also shown the catastrophic impact this has on his son, Ryan. All the people in the novel are self-aware enough to know the damage they are doing to themselves and others but they are powerless to stop it:

“How could you be two people in five years? How could you undergo such a metamorphosis – whore to saint – and paint the slattern back over the scar tissue only a few short years later?”

McInerney manages to covey insight without ever sitting in judgement on her characters. This moment stood out for me as the tragedy of people who are in so much pain, yet unable to articulate to themselves or others:

“And for the beat before he wordlessly left her she grasped something of what he was trying to say, And that it might have been nice to have someone like him, someone who got it, someone who might have stood by her and bawled her out of it when she stepped out of line.”

The city of Cork is an additional, pervasive character in the novel, surrounding, influencing and directing all the other characters:

“Jimmy had watched the city long enough to know that it would right itself, sooner or later, and that the silence following Robbie O’Donovan’s death was just a long, caught breath”

“The city runs on macro, but what’s that, except the breathing, beating, swallowing, sweating agonies and ecstasies of a hundred thousand little lives?”

I haven’t mentioned much plot-wise regarding The Glorious Heresies, because to me this was the least interesting part of the novel (but still excellent).  How Robbie O’Donovan’s death is dealt with in practical terms is the bare bones of what McInerney is writing about. As a series of characters studies of people and their city, The Glorious Heresies is warm, affectionate, brutal, bleak and incisive.

Secondly, In the Woods by Tana French (2007), the first of her Dublin Murder Squad series, focussing on detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox as they investigate the murder of 12 year old Katy Devlin. I’m not a great one for crime novels but I was persuaded by Lady Fancifull to give French a try. I’m glad I did, but first I had to make it through an appallingly overwritten prologue; I have no idea what French’s editors were thinking, letting her start with a passage which includes a description of a forest thus:

“It’s silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises”

Having waded through such pretentious nonsense, I was rewarded with an accomplished debut crime novel. Rob Ryan is asked to investigate the murder of a child in his home town just outside Dublin, his superiors unaware that when he was twelve, he was found in the same woods as the victim, bloodied and amnesiac, with his two best friends lost forever. If this sounds a bit clichéd, French has fun with it:

“And I suppose, if I’m being honest, it appealed to both my ego and to my sense of the picturesque, the idea of carrying this strange charged secret through the case unsuspected. I suppose it felt, at the time, like the kind of thing that enigmatic Central Casting maverick would have done.”

Maverick coppery 101

As Rob and his partner Cassie investigate Katy’s murder, they discover family secrets and political conspiracies, but did these lead to the death of a twelve year old girl, excited to be going to ballet school?

“All these private, parallel dimensions, underlying such an innocuous little estate; all these self-contained worlds layered onto the same space. I thought of the dark strata of archaeology underfoot; of the fox outside my window, calling out to a city that barely overlapped with mine.”

In the Woods was a good read and filled with believable characters, which bodes well for the rest of the Dublin Murder Squad novels as French focusses on a different person each time. Some quibbles: it was too long and (I feel like I say this all the time) could have done with a heavier-handed edit. The voice of Rob Ryan sometimes felt distinctly feminine but at least he wasn’t an alpha-male detective type. This aside, French’s talent is evident and I’m sure she’s gone from strength to strength in her subsequent novels.

To end, the cop with the least convincing Irish accent of all time, but the performance still won an Oscar, because it’s Lord High Commander Sir Sean Connery 😀

 

The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #96)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

Now that I have some of my life back after a period where I was deranged enough to both work and study full-time (what was I thinking???? etc etc ad infinitum) I’ve decided I need to get back on track with my reading challenge, and I’m easing myself in with the slim novel The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

The Big Sleep is the first of Chandler’s novels, and the first I’ve read. It’s a mark of how far his style and the hardboiled detectives he created have become assimilated into modern culture that I could hear Humphrey Bogart’s voice in my head reading every word:

Having finished the novel it’s a source of constant disappointment to me that I don’t have Bogie’s voice in my head narrating my daily life, although admittedly if he did turn up he’d probably leave out of utter boredom:

“I walked to the kitchen. A cat appeared from nowhere, making his disgust at the lack of crunchies in his bowl known.  I poured a cup of tea. The kettle needed descaling but I couldn’t be bothered. I was out of milk. I debated whether to drink it black or go to the shop. The tea in the cup was as dark as the night outside. As dark as my soul. I put on my coat, knowing the wind outside would be colder than the welcome awaiting my return if the cat bowl remained empty.”

Hmm, it’s not really working, is it? Let’s see it done properly, with tales of blackmail, murder, riches and glamour in Los Angeles, rather than domestic banalities in south London. Private eye Philip Marlowe is summoned by the affluent and moribund General Sternwood:

“His long narrow body was wrapped – in that heat – in a travelling rug and a faded red bathrobe. His thin clawlike hands were folded loosely on the rug, purple-nailed. A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock […] The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work showgirl uses her last pair of good stockings.”

This is the real joy of Chandler, his much-parodied use of simile, inventive and atmospheric. The images he uses accentuate the world-weary knowingness of Marlowe: “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.” but I must confess that my sheltered existence meant I didn’t always understand all of them: “Her face fell apart like a bride’s pie crust”. Whaaat? Anyone?

As Marlowe investigates the blackmail case the General has employed him to uncover, he is drawn into the seedy underbelly (I think the phrase ‘seedy underbelly’ was probably coined to describe Chandler’s oeuvre) of Los Angeles – “It seemed like a nice neighbourhood to have bad habits in”– pornography, drugs, murder, and of course, sexy ladies at every turn:

“She got up slowly and swayed towards me in a tight black dress that didn’t reflect any light. She had long thighs and she walked with a certain something I hadn’t often seen in bookstores.”

The plot is convoluted, with everyone double-crossing everyone else and Marlowe at the centre of it all, trying to hang on to some sort moral compass:

 “I got up feeling sluggish and tired and stood looking out of the windows, with a dark harsh taste of Sternwoods still in my mouth. I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets.”

He is compelling narrator, wise, brave and so much cooler than probably any of his readers (definitely me, as much as I wish I looked like this):

Lauren-Bacall1

This is a novel to accept on its own terms – one where atmosphere and style top anything else.  Famously, director Howard Hawks queried a plot-hole with Chandler when he was filming The Big Sleep. Chandler confirmed he had no idea as to the answer.  But for escapist entertainment, a quick read with a confident narrative voice (Humphrey Bogart’s to be precise), The Big Sleep is a great example of the hard-boiled genre.

“The coffee shop smell from next door came in at the windows with the soot but failed to make me hungry. So I got out my office bottle and took the drink and let my self-respect ride its own race.”

The-Big-Sleep-007

“And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover/To entertain these fair well-spoken days,/I am determined to prove a villain” (Richard III)

Richard III is being buried today in Leicester Cathedral after his remains were discovered in the rather unlikely surroundings of a car park in the county in August 2012.  Controversial to the end, the reinternment of his remains has been delayed by legal wrangling between Leicester and York as to who should have the bones.  Richard III is one of history’s villains, often believed to have killed the sons of Edward IV to secure his own claim on the throne of England (significant crowds attended his funeral procession on Sunday, so maybe he’s been given the benefit of the doubt). This image is due in no small part to the enduring influence of Shakespeare’s portrayal in The Life and Death of Richard III (1591ish), helped along by Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film.

In the interests of balance I thought I would look at this play alongside a novel that seeks to rescue Richard’s reputation.

Richard is an unusual villain in Shakespeare, in that he is the only eponymous character to start his own play (I think…feel free to correct me in the comments!) as he comes on stage to proclaim:

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York”

He is also unusual in that he starts with a trochee – bear with me, I’m not going to get too technical & give you flashbacks to the horrors of Shakespeare at school. But I think this is worth pointing out; most characters speak in iambic pentameter (dee-DUM, dee-DUM etc). Richard comes out and seizes the stage with “NOW is…” (DUM-dee): he is in charge from the off.

What follows is the story of a consummate politician doing whatever he deems necessary to seize the crown.  Although he tries to persuade us that his disability (a curved spine, possibly a slightly weaker arm one side) means that through medieval ableism he is marked for villainy (the title quote I’ve used is a pun – he is determined in will and determined by fate) really no-one is less disabled that Richard, as the powerful opening shows us.  He manages to bend everyone to his will; he seduces Lady Anne within one scene, despite the fact that he killed her husband:

“Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?
Was ever woman in this humour won?
I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long.”

This is the bleak humour of Richard III – he plots to kill his fiancée even as he seduces her.  Often the play is described as a tragedy, but it’s really one of Shakespeare’s history plays and the tone is ambiguous: the last production I saw, with Mark Rylance in the lead, played it as a comedy as far as possible.

Richard’s machinations eventually catch up with him and he is defeated by Richmond (Henry VII) at the Battle of Bosworth, desperately crying out “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” A villain indeed, but the audience, like Lady Anne, is seduced by him against our will and the stage is a poorer space when he’s not in it.

Secondly, Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (1951).  It was Emmie’s review of another Josephine Tey novel that introduced to me to this author, and although I don’t normally read series’ out of order, I made an exception for Daughter of Time, as the Crime Writers’ Association voted it the greatest mystery novel of all time.

Inspector Alan Grant has broken his leg and is bored to abstraction away from his job at Scotland Yard.  His glamorous friend Marta suggests he try and solve a historical mystery to keep from going stir crazy. Captivated by a portrait of Richard III, he decides to investigate the mystery of the Princes in the Tower.

King_Richard_III

(Image from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_III_of_England)

Grant’s team is not comprised of his usual fellow policeman, and they all have varying theories:

“Nurse Ingham thinks he’s a dreary. Nurse Darroll thinks he’s a horror.  My surgeon thinks he’s a polio victim. Sergeant Williams thinks he’s a born judge.  Matron thinks he’s a soul in torment.”

As he becomes more involved in the mystery, Grant repeatedly finds himself in opposition to the legend of Richard III:

“’Always a snake in the grass, if you ask me. Smooth, that’s what he was: smooth.  Biding his time.’

Biding his time for what? He wondered… He could not have known his brother Edward would die unexpectedly at the age of forty […]It was surely unlikely that a man busy with the administration of the North of England, or campaigning (with dazzling success) against the Scots, would have much interest in being ‘smooth’.  What then had changed him so fundamentally in so short a time?”

Grant needs an ally, and it arrives in the form of American academic Brent Carradine:

“He was a tall boy, hatless, with soft fair curls crowning a high forehead and a much too big tweed coat hanging round him in negligent folds…He brought over the chair, planted himself on it with the coat spread around him like some royal robe and looked at Grant with kind brown eyes whose luminous charm not even the horn-rims could dim”

Between the two of them, they start to piece together what they think happened as various powerful medieval families jostled for the crown. The more research they do, the less likely Richard-as-murderer seems to be:

“One could go through the catalogue of his acknowledged virtues, and find each of them, individually, made his part in the murder unlikely in the extreme. Taken together they amounted to a wall of impossibility that towered into fantasy.”

Tey does an excellent job of balancing academic arguments and historical fact with keeping the plot moving (the novel is only 222 pages).  Grant concludes his investigation on the day of his discharge home from hospital, convinced he has his man.  Let’s just say Shakespeare could never have dramatised the conclusion he comes to.

To end, I can’t help thinking that if Richard III had a chance to set the record straight, he’d choose to do so through the medium of song: