“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.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG by Kate Atkinson

Former policewoman and now a security guard at a Leeds shopping centre, Tracy Waterhouse makes a shocking, split-second decision on an otherwise ordinary day. In ‘buying’ a child from a junkie, Tracy puts herself on the other side of the thin blue line she has defended ever since she left school. Fifty-something, lonely, and living a life that grows increasingly meaningless with every passing day, Tracy is fully aware of the enormity of her decision, and yet every instinct screams at her to protect the half-starved mite, Courtney.
  A number of stories run parallel to Tracy’s. Jackson Brodie, a private investigator and a recurring character in Atkinson’s novels, criss-crosses the Northeast of England as he attempts to track down the genealogical roots of a client who was adopted at a very young age, and whose parents subsequently emigrated to New Zealand. Tilly, an aging actress who suffers from early dementia / Alzheimer’s, witnesses Tracy’s ‘purchase’ of Courtney, but can barely differentiate between who she is and the character she is playing, let alone help the police with their enquiries.
  A further narrative strand takes us back to the mid-’70s, when the Yorkshire Ripper was at large in the Northeast. Tracy’s first case, as a young policewoman on the beat, involves discovering a woman dead in her flat, and a young, half-starved boy who has been left alone with the mouldering remains of his mother for a number of weeks.
  It’s something of an understatement to say that STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG, the follow-up to Atkinson’s runaway smash WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS?, is an unusual crime novel. On the face of it, and given that it features a policewoman (both as an ex-policewoman and, in flashbacks, when she was actively working the beat) and a private eye, the novel appears to be adopting the standard tropes of both the police procedural and the private detective novel. Once you get under the skin of the novel, however, it quickly becomes clear that Atkinson employs these tropes in order to subvert them. Although she gains our sympathy very early in the story, and retains it throughout, Tracy Waterhouse is far from a typical copper. To begin with, her ‘buying’ of a young child is a shocking development mere pages into the story, regardless of how noble her motives are, or how desperate the circumstances Courtney is escaping. Atkinson never shies clear of how outrageous Tracy’s actions are, and yet still manages to generate reader sympathy for her self-imposed plight.
  Meanwhile, Jackson Brodie is arguably the most whimsical private detective in contemporary fiction. His past, which is alluded to in a number of tangential sections, suggests that he is by no means a man to be messed with, and yet his internal monologues, and the ‘conversations’ he carries on in his head with his ex-wife, often border on pure farce. Brodie, incidentally, is the man who ‘adopts’ the dog of the title, when he rescues a terrier from a bullying owner. His ‘adoption’ of the dog runs parallel to Tracy’s ‘adoption’ of Courtney, and much of the black humour of the novel derives from their lack of understanding of their new charges.
  Tilly, the aging actress, is also presented largely by way of internal monologue, although Tilly’s version of events tends to be cloudy at best, given that she is suffering from short-term memory loss and incipient dementia. Tilly is currently shooting a TV series called Collier, which is set in the Northeast and features the kind of hard-nosed, rebellious copper beloved of screen crime writers. Here, again, Atkinson has plenty of inter-textual fun poking jibes at fictional representations of crime in mainstream media, particularly in terms of how TV cop dramas tend to be chock-a-block with incident, whereas Atkinson’s story is positively mundane by comparison.
  Atkinson writes in a deceptively elegant style, with the musings of her characters rendered almost conversational. The easy flow and apparently disjointed thought process masks precise plotting and superb attention to detail, although the style does become more staccato in the flashback sequences that take us back to the mid-’70s, when the writing - deliberately or otherwise - echoes the more impressionistic but simultaneously brutal style of David Peace’s haunting ‘Red Riding’ quartet, which also employed the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror for backdrop.
  Atkinson’s subversive treatment of the tropes of crime fiction, and particularly those of the staple narratives of police procedural and private eye, is very much to her credit. Many crime fiction fans read little other than crime stories, and many are very happy to re-read the same kind of story over and over again. In playfully deconstructing the police procedural (Tracy, for example, uses her skills as a policewoman in order to keep herself beyond the reach of the long arm of the law), Atkinson is tapping into a zeitgeist in which concepts of law and order grow more fluid by the day. That sense of fluidity can be something as simple as the downgrading / upgrading of a particular drug from Class A to Class B, or vice versa, with the penalty for possession and / or dealing very much dependent on the political will of the day; or it can emerge from a much more important philosophical point of view, given that Britain - for example, and whether the majority of its citizens like it or not - played a major part in the illegal invasion of Iraq. If it’s okay for a government to flout international law, runs the theory, then why should the citizens of its country feel obliged to obey domestic laws? When the particular case explored here, that of Tracy’s rescuing the stray waif Courtney from horrible domestic circumstances, is an example of doing the right thing regardless of what the law demands, then the line between right and wrong is further blurred.
  This is especially the case when Tracy’s actions are set against the historical backdrop of the novel, in which corruption, murder and cover-up go right to the heart of the policing establishment.
  Meanwhile, Jackson Brodie’s private investigator is in many ways a parody of the conventional private eye. Yes, he is dogged, and yes, he follows through on his case to uncover the truth for his client. By the same token, Brodie has been commissioned to discover the truth about a woman’s birth details, which is hardly the kind of mission any self-respecting fictional private eye would concern him or herself with. Moreover, Brodie appears to be using the case as an excuse to visit monasteries and castles and other tourist traps. And while Brodie does deliver the information required, his emotional commitment in the novel is to the stray waif of a dog he has rescued from a bullying owner. This sub-plot strand is apparently designed to parallel that of Tracy and her rescue of Courtney, and Atkinson seems to be saying that, in the grand scheme of things, one more or less rescued child is worth no more or less than a rescued dog.
  It’s also possible that the reverse is true, and that Atkinson is suggesting that a society can be judged on how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable, and that that applies not just to its human beings. If Brodie, a hard-nosed cynic with a dubious past, is prepared to go the extra mile and learn to live with his new best friend on its terms, then society is far more robust in terms of doing the right thing at its grass roots level than it is in its higher echelons.
  Despite its picaresque structure and its flaunting of the standard crime novel tropes (and perhaps because of this), STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG is never less than a compelling page turner. It’s also a very good novel of any stripe, genre or otherwise, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that Atkinson’s debut novel BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE MUSEUM (1995) won the Whitbread Book of the Year. Atkinson, of course, isn’t the first literary author to turn her hand to crime fiction, and she won’t be the last. What makes this offering so satisfying is very obviously immersed in the genre, to the extent that she can afford to stand its conventions on their head and still turn in a pulsating, thoughtful, intelligent thriller. - Declan Burke

Thursday, September 30, 2010

On Preserving The Status Quo

DOWN, DOWN, DEEPER AND DOWN is the latest offering from one Eamonn Sweeney, a rather cheeky title for a tome about that most benighted of times and places, Ireland in the 1970s. To wit:
The years 1973 to 1985 in Ireland were turbulent, dramatic and unpredictable. It was a different and wild time. A time when strikes meant you couldn’t post a letter for five months, rubbish piled up in the streets and there was no TV to watch. When there were bombs in the streets of the capital, hostage dramas kept everyone glued to their sets and the government kidnapped a hunger-striker’s corpse. When you needed a prescription to buy a condom and when trying to alter this situation could see you threatened with death and your family with abduction. When crowds marched for pirate radio, a pro-life referendum and Viking relics, and against the PAYE system and nuclear power. When a president resigned, a Taoiseach voted against his own government and ministers bugged journalists and their own party colleague. When Garret and Charlie went head to head. When Irish women looked for equal pay and got it, when people risked their jobs and their liberty to help the oppressed in South Africa and the Philippines, when Irish gays took their first steps out of the closet. When the pope came to Dublin and so did heroin and Heffo’s Army.
  Sometimes it wasn’t too different from today. An unprecedented boom led to an economic meltdown, unemployment soared into double figures and the government bailed out the bankers while everyone else suffered.
  DOWN, DOWN, DEEPER AND DOWN is the story of a time when statues moved and the Rats rocked. It is the story of a time not so long ago which is sometimes portrayed as being part of ancient history.
  It is the story of the years that made us what we are today.
  Incidentally, those scholars of the Irish crime novel amongst you might want to take a gander at Sweeney’s debut novel, WAITING FOR THE HEALER, which was published in 1997, long before writing Irish crime fiction was either popular or - koff - profitable. The rather impressive big-ups run thusly:
“Exciting and explosive . . . As though Angela’s Ashes had been crossed with the novels of Cormac McCarthy.”—Colm Toibin

“Written in pungent, slangy prose . . . Part detective story, part coming-of-age novel.”—Erik Burns, The New York Times Book Review

“Sweeney paints his landscape with the eye of a Constable and the ear of a thief . . . [This book] leaves a thirst for more.”—Jonathan Levi, Los Angeles Times

“Sweeney’s language fuses resiual Gaelic lilt with staccato rapster rhythms and obscenities. The MTV generation takes over the Irish novel and makes it startlingly new.”—Entertainment Weekly

“[A] fine first novel . . . filled with the simple comedy of everyday life and warm moments of tenderness . . . hard to put down and hard still to forget.”—Neil Plakey, The Chicago Tribune

“Powerfully, sometimes brutally direct . . . [Sweeney] has fashioned a satisfying tale of quest and comeuppance.”—Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

“Grim, angry, profane, and entirely convincing . . . Paul’s salvation, when it comes, is hard-won and persuasive. Like everything else in this book, it has an authenticity found only in the work of first-rate writers.”—Kirkus Reviews

“In the character of Paul Kelly, Sweeney has carefully traced the psychological parameters of a man divided by pain . . . It is a testament to Sweeney’s authorial skill that Kelly somehow remains a sympathetic character . . . The range of well-drawn lesser characters . . . aid in making the Kelly family’s tragedy feel achingly real.”—Detroit Free Press
  Nice, no? It’s a long, long time since I read WAITING FOR THE HEALER, I might well dig it out for another perusal …

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Have Novel, Will Travel

FOLLOWING THE DETECTIVES popped through the post-box the other day, said tome being a collection of essays on ‘Real Locations in Crime Fiction’ edited by Maxim Jakubowski and written by the likes of Barry Forshaw (Brighton, Edinburgh, Sweden and Venice), Sarah Weinman (New York and Washington DC), Peter Rozovsky (Iceland), John Harvey (Nottingham), Oline Cogdill (Florida), J. Kingston Pierce (San Francisco), Martin Edwards (Shropshire), David Stuart Davies (London), and Maxim himself on a selection of locations. It also - disclaimer alert - includes yours truly waffling on about Vincent Banville, Arlene Hunt and Declan Hughes, and the crime stories they set in good ol’ durty Dubbalin town. To wit:
Whether it be the London of Sherlock Holmes or the Ystad of the Swedish Wallander, Dashiell Hammett’s San Francisco or Donna Leon’s Venice, the settings chosen by crime fiction authors have helped those writers to bring their fictional investigators to life and to infuse their writing with a sense of danger and mystery. FOLLOWING THE DETECTIVES follows the trail of over 20 of crime fiction’s greatest investigators, discovering the cities and countries in which they live and work. Edited by one of the leading voices in crime fiction, Maxim Jakubowski, each entry is written by a crime writer, journalist or critic with a particular expertise in that detective and the fictional crimes that have taken place in each city’s dark streets and hidden places. The book includes beautifully designed maps with all the major locations that have featured in a book or series of books - buildings, streets, bars, restaurants and locations of crimes and discoveries - allowing the reader to follow Inspector Morse’s footsteps through the college squares of Oxford or while away hours in a smoky Parisian cafe frequented by Inspector Maigret, for example. Aimed at the avid detective fan, the armchair tourist and the literary tourist alike, FOLLOWING THE DETECTIVES is the perfect way for crime fiction fans to truly discover the settings of their favourite detective novels.
  You’ll appreciate that I’m biased, of course, but it’s a lovely, detailed and not entirely unfunky piece of work …