Ye olde reading time was at a premium this month, for a variety of reasons, but while the quantity was low, the quality was pretty good. I gave up on Stieg Larsson’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO after something like 120 pages, not because the preamble was so tortured, but because I didn’t believe in what appeared to be the two main characters, Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander. It just didn’t make sense to me that a wealthy industrialist, who wanted his family’s history explored with discretion and could afford the finest private investigation talents available, would turn to a journalist who had been recently disgraced in a high-profile court case in which he was found to be guilty of a serious error of judgement. The Lisbeth character, meanwhile, came on like a goth Modesty Blaise who was simply too good to be true. It’s a pity, because the overwhelming verdict seems to be that TGWTGT is a modern classic, and Ali Karim reckons it’s sequel is even better. Maybe I’ll come back to it in a few years’ time and try again.
For some reason I re-read Alistair MacLean’s WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL immediately afterwards, and I should point out here that WEBT is one of my blind spots – I must have read it about six times by now. I’m not a MacLean fan, though. I know I read more of his novels in my misspent youth, but none of them stand up the way WEBT does. If you haven’t read it, it’s set amid the Scottish islands and features Philip Calvert as a British Secret Service agent investigating piracy on the high seas, which makes it kind of topical. The ‘Philip’ is a nod to Marlowe, presumably, as the style is a Chandleresque take on the typical Bond story, albeit one grounded in the kind of self-deprecation where Calvert describes himself as a civil servant. Pithy, funny and pacy, it’s a darling read, and I’ve only semi-plagiarised the style with third-rate knock-offs twice to date.
I went straight from that to MacLean’s THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, because I’m working on something right now that involves WWII shenanigans in the Greek islands. I made it as far as page 17 or thereabouts, which was when MacLean has one of his characters tell how an island in the Dodecanese was invaded by German forces, some of whom were parachuted in. As far as I could tell, the story is set midway through WWII, but to the best of my knowledge the German parachute regiment – the Fallschirmjager – was downgraded to infantry after the debacle that was the airborne invasion of Crete, in 1941, and never went a-parachuting again. I hope I didn’t put away the book on the basis of my getting the timing wrong, but that kind of detail should be important. I can only presume the Allied commandos succeeded in their mission, given that FORCE TEN FROM NAVARONE was a subsequent best-seller, but I’ve never seen the movie and I probably won’t be reading the book again.
I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I don’t read a lot of women writers. I don’t think it’s a sexist thing, but more to do with the fact that men tend to write the kind of stories I’m interested in. Anyhoos, Mary Renault is one of the rare exceptions, and THE KING MUST DIE was the latest of her novels, most of which are set in classical Greece. It’s a fictionalised version of the Theseus myth, or the first half of it, covering the hero’s journey on the Greek mainland and his coming to recognition as the son and heir of the King of Athens, Aigeus, before he volunteers to be one of the victims sacrificed to the minotaur of King Minos and sails off to Crete to become a bull-dancer. Renault strips away the mythical elements, while remaining true to the quasi-spiritual aspects of the myth, and presents a fascinating tale of the clash of civilisations between the crude barbarians of the mainland Achaeans and the sophisticated culture of Minoa, which would eventually be undone by a combination of indolence, earthquake and ravening hordes from the north. Again, there’s a topical resonance, and Renault is a beautiful writer. Mind you, for a woman she tends to write quite a lot on the quintessentially male topics of war, conquest and glory – Alexander the Great was an obsession of hers – so maybe she’s not really an exception. I think she was a lesbian too, although I’m open to contradiction.
Speaking of women with a male mind-set, I dipped into Alex Barclay’s latest, BLOOD RUNS COLD, and found myself fascinated by her creation Ren Bryce, a hard-drinking, no-bullshit FBI agent who seems to have more balls than most male characters. So I’ll be reading that next month. I’ll also be reading Donna Moore’s latest, on manuscript, because GO TO HELENA HANDBASKET was screamingly funny, and the first couple of chapters I dipped into there were just as hilarious. Staying with the manuscripts, I was sent an m/s of Alan Glynn’s WINTERLAND, which is due out next year and already claiming all kinds of wondrous big-ups. The first chapter seems to bear them out, so that’s another cracker lined up for next month.
Back to this month and another female writer, Deborah Lawrenson, whose THE ART OF FALLING was a terrific read. Set in the present day, but driven by a parallel narrative from WWII (Italy this time, rather than Greece), it’s the story of a woman on a quest to lay some ghosts to rest in order to gift herself the peace of mind she needs to be happy. Lawrenson published TAOF herself, before Random House picked it up and gave it the Big House treatment, and I enjoyed it every bit as much as SONGS OF BLUE AND GOLD, which employs a similarly dual narrative, this time steeped in the fictionalised life of a writer who bears a very strong resemblance to Lawrence Durrell, and which I’ve already recommended in these here pages.
Finally, and for research purposes, I’m about to finish THE RASH ADVENTURER: A LIFE OF JOHN PENDLEBURY by Imogen Grundon, which features a foreword from Patrick Leigh Fermor. Pendlebury was a renowned archaeologist in the period between the wars, a specialist on Egyptian and Minoan culture. His life came to a premature end on Crete in 1941, when he was shot by German forces as a spy while working with the Cretan resistance while operating under the guise of the island’s ‘honorary consul’. His was a life lived to the full, and he seems to have been the classic kind of post-Edwardian renaissance man, and a superb writer in his own right who played a huge part in making the esoteric science of archaeology accessible to the masses. Grundon is also a beautiful writer, her own descriptive work no less evocative than the liberal sprinklings of excerpts taken from Pendlebury’s letters. All in all, it makes for stirring stuff.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.