For the past several months Sandi and I have been Antipodean hopping, between Queenstown, Sydney and Western Australia so that somehow 2018 has arrived and already started to disappear.
Most recently we were in Perth to see long time friend Kim Beazley installed as Governor of Western Australia.
There is a history there. Kim was among the first people I met when I arrived in Australia way back then and Susie Annus, his wife, went to school in Perth with Sandi. It is wonderful to be able to celebrate the ongoing successes of such lifelong friends, and to renew a few acquaintances along the way.
Along with that I was able to escape to my sister-in-law’s vineyard in the southwest of Western Australia and finish the main draft of the new novel. As usual some of it is still very rough, but I am of the school that finds it easy to chop and refine once I have words, any words on a page. Well, there are more than 90,000 of them on several pages now so plenty to work with, a major relief.
But I have fitted in some reading and, regrettably, one of the best reads had a really sad touch to it.
Recently we lost Philip Kerr, that marvellous creator of the Bernie Gunther series that began a long time back with his Berlin Noir trilogy, took a several years break then returned with a lot more. His latest, Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts, appeared just days after his death and I will set aside a quiet time to take that in.
Prussian Blue has all the hallmarks of this wonderful series: clever and intricate plot, memorable characters, sparkling dialogue, persistent noir humour that is an homage to Dashiell Hammet, impeccable research and historical context, and just magic writing. Not only was he commercially successful, he was a writer’s writer in that there was always something to learn from him.
While watching the current Netflix sensation, Babylon Berlin, based on Volker Kutscher’s novels, I was reminded constantly of Philip Kerr. The series is set in Berlin in 1929 as fascists, communists, reactionaries and decadents all respond to the rise of Hitler amidst Berthold Brecht and all the rest. Protagonist Gereon Rath bears all the Bernie hallmarks, and much of the story and its setting simply reinforce just how well Philip Kerr got it.
He was no one-dimensional author, however. He was prolific across children’s books, the Scott Manson series and several standalones. Before Prussian Blue I had read Research in which the wife of a major pulp fiction writer is found dead, and the writer’s old ghost team comes back into the picture. It is brilliant, well worth a read for its plot twists, character development, scene setting and, as always, dialogue and general prose.
What a loss this has been, but Bernie remains as one of the best ever creations of crime fiction.
Luckily, though, there are some brilliant new writers coming along and one of them is Australia’s Emma Viskic whose Resurrection Bay won several major awards including a Ned Kelly.
That has now been joined by And Fire Came Down, the second Caleb Zelic adventure. Cal is deaf and survives as an investigator through highly developed lip reading skills, tenacity, and the odd assistant along the way. At the heart of this is signing, and in the first book there is a marvellous unfolding of an introduction to him, his tics and his skills.
Emma Viskic really can write and one of her great skills, rather like that of the late, lamented Peter Temple, is the ability to make commonplace sites well known to Victorians immediately credible as threatening, brooding venues for violence and criminality. She puts her characters through the wringer and makes it all believable.
And then there is Quinn Colson, the creation of Ace Atkins. Quinn is a Mississippi Sheriff, a local boy and returned Ranger who served in Afghanistan. He has his problems, of course, but he knows the local landscape and all its cultural contours. The Fallen is number 7 in the series and features a prolific gang of bank robbers who turn out to be ex-Marines who also served and now crave the adrenalin raised in battle as much as they do the money. A marvellously Machiavellian madam cons one of them into hitting a local drug mob and it all goes wrong, bringing down the ire of the Missisippi Mafia who in turn set out after Colson.
This is high action stuff arced by wonderful dialogue that captures “The South”, some just glorious characters who develop beautifully, excellent scene setting, and a lot of contemporary references – the bank robbers wear Donald Trump masks.
It probably says way too much about me, but I enjoyed this more than I did Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird that recently won the Edgar Award in America for best novel, a book set also in the south.
Eva Dolan’s This Is How It Ends is a lot of people’s favourite book of the year so far and it is good.
There is a lot of crime fiction about, as we know, and it takes a lot to stand out but here the plot line and the character development is way beyond and above the average. Without giving away too much, the main character begins as a PhD researcher into the British women’s activist movement, but as the book evolves she morphs into something very different. I was a little disappointed in the ending but, nevertheless, this is a stellar book.
Brush with fame: back in 2014 my A Madras Miasma was rated among the best ten debut books of that year by one of the UK’s best crime fiction website. I was at No 8. The No.10 slot was held by Clare Donoghue who has gone on to great things while at 9, Sarah Hilary has done even better, winning the Theakston. Way up at No 2 was Eva Dolan who, as you can see, is still a star. https://crimefictionlover.com/2014/11/ntn-the-top-10-crime-debuts-of-2014/
And right now I am way into and just loving Nobody’s Fool by one of my favourite writers in any genre, Richard Russo whose The Straight Man remains among the very best campus novels ever written: “Who else but an English professor would threaten to kill a duck a day and hold up a goose as an example?”.
In this one he unlayers life in a small upstate New York rustbelt town and , much like the now pariahed Garrison Keilor, makes a marvellous symphony out of the simplest tune. Sully is a sixty year old wreck who lodges with a widow and has been cuckolding a largely unsuspecting husband for twenty years, and who survives day to day by wisecracking his way through the crisis that is his life.
Russo is a master storyteller whose ear for the local argot matches Ace Atkins’ for the south and whose characters all have the authenticity of Bernie Gunther. The plot lines and story trajectory are magical, and he is a joy to read.
There will be a bit more reading over the coming days before a commercial commitment in Hong Kong after which, hopefully, I will be back in Queenstown to ride the mountain bike during the crisp mornings by the lake before going back to edit Le Fanu and, again hopefully, having learned something from all these great talents of the craft.