Booking In

This has been one of those years during which time has disappeared, almost literally. It seems inconceivable that the last blog post was so long ago (please check: I cannot bear to date it). A combination of professional tasks have required a long presence in Sydney and upset a few timetables, but the real problem is that the world has gone completely mad.

Australia changed prime ministers.

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Some might rightly say, “Nothing new there, then!” and might very well be correct. When the egregious Peter Dutton mounted his open attack on the hapless Malcolm Turnbull (“Malcolm in the Muddle” as one wag retitled that old television show), our political cynic daughter Laura had another view. As Scott Morrison emerged from the rubble as the new boss, her view was that someone had been watching way too much television and channelling Frank Underwood in the Spacey version of House of Cards. Although Melania is no Claire, perhaps.

The American real life version of that show has continued apace, of course, and combining the “Me Too” dimension via the appalling Brett Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court process. Kavanaugh’s sponsor has wreaked change on us all. At least some of my complications this year emanate from Trump’s confrontation with China that has bashed share markets everywhere including Asia. That all has an indirect as well as direct impact on the global higher education system. For example, the multi-leader Australian government’s siding with Trump in belting China has some Australian university bosses worried that the rivers of funds from Chinese international students might get dammed by the Beijing bosses. So the starting figures for those students next February in Australia will be watched closely.

Across in the UK Theresa May’s dance moves have attracted as much derision as her orchestral manoeuvres in the dark with the EU as a “hard BREXIT” looms. Hundreds of thousands of people have just turned out in London in support of a new people’s vote, while the Tories flirt with their change of leadership that might involve Jacob Rees Mogg or Boris Johnson, both of whom best belong in a political satire show rather than in real life.

The Saudis have apparently killed one of their own in the Istanbul consulate; the war in Yemen rages; Syria now contemplates massive reconstruction after years of conflict; Chinese financial power around the world raises the prospect of a new order of power, especially but not exclusively in Africa; Italy totters on the edge of another financial collapse; and even New Zealand seems to have succumbed.

Since her election a year ago the world has been agog at Jacinda Adern, witness her starring role at the UN and, more importantly, on the Stephen Colbert Show. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYsZv9JXmio   At home things have not been quite so rosy and, until the past few days, a one-term Adern gig seemed likely. Then the opposition National Party blew itself up. A renegade national MP went public against his leader, releasing privately recorded conversations that upset a lot of other members. At the heart of this was the alleged manipulation of party political donations from a Chinese businessman. Then the renegade was himself outed as a “Me Too” offender, claiming to have had an affair with the party’s deputy leader, before admitting himself for mental health assistance. It has been one of the most sensational events in NZ politics for a while, and made Adern look like a steadying force, especially as she seems also to have tamed the ever-present kingmaker, Winston Peters. https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2018/10/the-ultimate-guide-to-all-the-players-in-the-jami-lee-ross-vs-simon-bridges-showdown.html

Even that has not spoiled the pleasure of a brief return to Queenstown where spring has finally arrived and good bike rising weather along with that.

And another way of escaping all that madness has been to catch up on some reading.

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When the American writer Denis Johnson died last year, several writers whom I really respect noted how much they liked his work. Having never read his work I went off finally to devour The Laughing Monsters. It is extraordinary and almost impossible to describe, but think of a cross between Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (or Brando’s Colonel Kurtz-version of that in Apocalypse Now) and Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. A couple of double/agents with a tortuous history meet up on a private wealth-gathering expedition in Africa, one of them accompanied by his about-to-be-wife who is the daughter of an intelligence boss. While the outcome is inconclusive, the story telling and use of language is in parts mesmerising and always compelling. If you want to escape the normal reading rut, this is a great candidate.

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I was less impressed by Kate Atkinson’s new book, Transcription, although many reviewers like it. She has been one of my favourite writers since I read Case Histories years ago. This new book is based around the imagined life of an ingénue woman recruited into British spy services during World War Two. Her role is to listen to then type out the printed version of secretly recorded conversations among low level Nazi sympathisers. It is a brilliant idea, Atkinson’s writing is as sharp as ever, and parts of it are terrific with the characters memorable. For me it limped along a bit, but maybe I just loved Case Histories too much – if you haven’t read that then please do, some of the most marvellous crime writing.

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In a similar setting, Cathi Unsworth’s That Old Black Magic is altogether different and more captivating, even if the conclusion is a bit too cerebral for me. This, too, focuses on people in Britain who did not support the war effort and on attempts to bring them to book, but locates many of these people in the world of the occult and the supernatural. Central to unravelling this is an undercover cop who himself has a occult connection as well as a flair for the show business life and suggestions of a few other different lifestyle inclinations. I really liked Unsworth’s capture of the period and this particular subculture, the characters are memorable and the plot lines clever. Well worth trying.

Joseph Kanon’s Istanbul Passage is set in that city’s immediate-postwar life with spies and counter-spies on every corner, and an American businessman recruited into an operation that is well beyond his understanding. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/03/books/review/istanbul-passage-a-novel-by-joseph-kanon.html  This is one of the best things I have read for a while, as is Alan Judd’s Uncommon Enemy that covers a similar set of themes in postwar Britain. https://www.spectator.co.uk/2012/03/thirty-years-on/ Both writers develop character extremely well, their story and plot lines are excellent, and the overall atmospherics convincing.

Donna Leon has been an exemplar of crime and place, and I have written elsewhere how I once spied her in a waterside restaurant in Venice and how her books were my guide to that city on my first visit. There are now well over twenty Guido Brunetti mysteries and perhaps I have now read too much other good stuff but The Temptation of Forgiveness did not provide the satisfaction of the earlier works.   https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/donna-leon/the-temptation-of-forgiveness/ Brunetti now rails routinely against the depredations of tourism and tourists who make life miserable for the few remaining Venetians, and the crimes he investigates have some neat twists. But he remains essentially ageless, not much changes. His boss is as unfathomable as ever; the boss’s ever-ahead-of-the-game expert hacker is as strong as ever; his colleagues are as much as they ever were, just like him and his family. The city changes, but not them. These days, crime fiction is very often about personal change – think Wallander and say no more. I don’t get this from Guido now, and sadly so, because he has been a central part of my crime life.

Early next year I will be a part of Rotorua Noir, https://www.facebook.com/KiwiCrimeFiction/ , so it is fitting that I round out my recent reading with a couple of authors who will star there.

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Fiona Sussman won the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Award with The Last Time We Spoke, the story of a violent home invasion in rural New Zealand, and the consequences of that for all  involved as victims or perpetrators. Set firmly in the “domestic noir” mode, now so strong in the UK and elsewhere, it is harrowing in parts, but realistic in capturing the New Zealand underbelly, as it were. And in doing it explores dimensions of the contemporary Maori and Pasifika experience, laid bare earlier in Alan Duff’s confronting Once Were Warriors. Sometimes overwhelming, it remains impressive because Fiona Sussman is a seriously good writer.

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So, too, is Alan Carter who recently won the 2018 Ngaio Marsh, for the cleverly titled Marlborough Man, and so added to his Ned Kelly Award for best debut of a few years ago. Here, an English undercover cop fleeing a criminal boss intent on revenge is relocated to rural New Zealand, specifically the Marlborough Sounds and Nelson, best known these days for the astonishing amount of sauvignon blanc it produces. This has serious characters and a strong story arc but with banter and light relief, wordplay and interplay between characters, and a back story of domestic pressure in the cop’s family life. It is a good read.

Meanwhile in other news. My Crusaders (you know I hate the Orientalist name) won the Super Rugby series yet again; and the All Blacks the Rugby Championship despite losing at home to South Africa – that was a timely reminder for the ABs heading into next year’s World Cup. The International Cricket Council had Dubai-based Pakistan flogging Australia in 40C+ heat, while India at home has been flaying the West Indies who are no longer the force they were when I played in Barbados long ago. And the Dodgers are in the World Series for the second year in a row, and we fans hope for a better display than against the Astros last time. But they are up against a massively talented Boston so who knows.

This next bit will have come to the attention of those who followed the link to Rotorua Noir.

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Le Fanu is back.

In my last couple of blogs I mentioned that Le Fanu 4 was under way. Well, now, amidst all the chaos recounted earlier here, he is ready to reappear in A Greater God.

Le Fanu returns to Madras from the adventures of A Straits Settlement, intent on getting back to Penang as fast as possible, attracted by Jenlin Koh and a new post. But things get complicated, naturally. Hindu-Muslim tension is rising in 1920s Madras, affecting the working relationship between Habi and Jackson Caldicott, Le Fanu’s two main police offsiders. Arthur “The Jockey” Jepson is exploiting that in a campaign for ever higher office as Le Fanu’s major government supporters prepare to leave the Presidency. Le Fanu’s personal life becomes complicated, again, as the professional problems mount and he comes under severe pressure to resolve his future.

Auckland’s wonderful Adrienne Charlton has been a sensational editor on this one, and from her I have learned an enormous amount. http://www.amproofreadingnz.com/    It is a running joke that she insists I do not use enough semi-colons and I insist she wants too many hyphens. But the final quality of the book owes much to her, as does its very presence on several global platforms awaiting a late-November release. If you need an editor, then I recommend her most highly.

And Adrienne thinks A Greater God has a stronger complexity than its predecessors, and a bit more of a “slow burn”. Maybe I was thinking about Guido.

I do hope you will all like it when it comes out, and if you do then needless to say I would love for you to post reviews on Amazon and anywhere else you can find.

Many thanks.

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Crime, Place, Character

As you know, I’m intrigued by the connections between crime fiction, place and people (or characters, to be more specific). There is now a broad and extending idea that crime fiction is among the largest selling genre forms for a reason – it provides insights into the general human condition wherever that is found. And that adds to the other modern mantra on the form, that it is now more about the people than the puzzle. To understand that, just juxtapose Agatha Christie with Denise Mina or Megan Abbott and you’ll spot the difference.

Megan Abbott

Of course, there are always exceptions. Among my favourite crime writers is Michael Innes, the pen name for J.I.M. Stewart, a Scot who was Professor of English at Adelaide from 1936 to 1946, during which time he began the Sir John Appleby series. Appleby himself developed considerably over the fifty years that Stewart wrote the books, and so did the other characters and crises. That befitted such an acute observer as Stewart whose A Staircase In Surrey quintet (written in the 1970s) remains one of the great campus novel series. But as always, that exception goes to prove the general rule.

J.I.M. Stewart

What may also be taken from Stewart/Innes is the idea of place and milieu. For him it was the cloistered university and the largely decent upper class set, a sort of early version of Midsomer Murders. Because of Christie and the rest, that social strata was for a long time the go-to site for the crime novel, and has been extended dramatically only in relatively recent times. Among the many reasons the rise of Tartan Noir has been so important is precisely its break from that tradition, starting with Willie McIlvanney’s works.

Across the Atlantic, it was very different from an earlier point, another indicator of the intricate relationship between the specific crime fiction form and the culture that produces it. Dashiell Hammett had introduced his hard boiled Sam Spade by the early 1930s, a clear reflection of his own life as a Pinkerton that helped him pioneer the life on the street genre. There is a clear line from there to the wonderful work of Michael Connolly whose Bosch is in so many ways Spade’s direct descendant.

I have been thinking about all this again of late having time in Sydney, Perth and Hong Kong as well as New Zealand. That has been aggravated by reading and viewing choices that always raise the question about what works and why. And for me that always involves place and culture, but it also involves believability.

Why is it, for example, that these days anything set in Scandinavia is automatically regarded as a compulsory read or view? Sweden has just 9.9 million people, Denmark 5.7 million, Finland 5.5 million, Norway 5.3 million and, spectacularly, Iceland only 337,000 inhabitants. That last is spectacular because Iceland Noir is all the rage. The number of published writers per 100 people there must be very high. And the impact of the crime writers far outweighs these figures: think Stig Larsson, Jo Nesbo, Yrsa Siguroardottir and all the rest.

By comparison, New Zealand also has many writers among the 4.8 million inhabitants that put it on a rough par with the Scandinavian countries. Over sixty entries turned up for the current Ngaio Marsh Award round. Yet with all due deference to Paul Cleave, no Kiwi comes close to having the impact of any Scandinavian writer. Given similar landscapes and all that, why should that be so?

Paul Cleave

One funny clue might help start the analysis. At Crimefest a few years ago the inimitable Simon Brett delivered an after dinner speech that was a spoof on a Scandi krimi. “He brooded. He brooded some more. He brooded for a long time.” It was an affectionate homage to Henning Mankell and Wallander, but also food for thought. Put simply, perhaps simplistically, Scandinavian writers find a surprisingly large number of intense characters in among those small population numbers.

This comes out somewhat in the Jo Nesbo-inspired television series Occupied where Norway is taken over by Russia, sparking all the usual questions about collaboration or resistance, challenged relationships, intrigue and double dealing. And in this case, the role of the European Union provides a marvellous additional source for both setting and story.

Occupied

It would be difficult to do that in a story that had New Zealand occupied by Australia. Besides, New Zealanders will tell you they don’t “brood”.

The Occupied storyline is marvellously intricate and the second season probably as good as the first, although the heroic Prime Minister turned resistance leader has become somewhat irritating both personally and professionally.

I am watching that show having binged Harlan Coben’s Safe season that somehow did not impress. The combinations provide a clue. This joint English-French production for Netflix is set in an English gated community and masterminded by Coben, the quintessential American writer. A widowed surgeon still bothered by his behaviour during his wife’s last days now struggles to deal with his young daughters and is in a clandestine relationship with a neighbour who just happens to be the local detective sergeant. One of his daughters disappears after her boyfriend turns up dead in a swimming pool at an unauthorised teenage party that gets out of control. The detective sergeant handles the case but the surgeon runs his own alternate investigation, and both turn up a myriad of back stories that may or may not explain the events. Without giving anything away, the final plot turn challenges believability.

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That last point is why Safe did not work for me. The gated community does not come across so well in the British setting, and while its inhabitants are admirably modern Brit in the cross-cultural sense, it is not evident how some of them end up living in what is obviously an expensive place. The surgeon, yes, but the loner hoarder who lives next door, hardly. And the tone gets stuck between the serious and the comic, with the actions of the mixed-marriage family on whose property the body turns up becoming pure slapstick.

Safe lacks a coherent cultural core, Occupied carries that strongly. The result is powerful: the Safe storyline is inherently more believable that that in Occupied (party goes wrong versus Russia occupies Norway) yet structure and grounding make it far less believable.

So if the Scandi settings are so believable, both in book and on screen, why is it that places like New Zealand and Australia are a harder sell leaving aside obvious standouts like Jane Harper’s justifiably triumphant The Dry? In part it is a cultural thing: it is far easier to be impressed by somewhere else than by your own settings. Paul Cleave makes Christchurch seem a dark and complicated place, but you’d generally have a hard time convincing other Kiwis that was so. The sadly now late Peter Temple made Melbourne seem internationally nuanced, whereas Peter Corris’ Cliff Hardy books set in Sydney started with Hammett but morphed quickly into an attractively disdainful and diffident riff.

Peter temple

In one sense, like New York, LA, London and Edinburgh (thanks to Rankin) the Scandi sites have become believable as crime sites. So if you write about them you’re off to a fast start with a reader. In recent years those sites have expanded. Think Chan Ho-kei’s Hong Kong; Fred Vargas’ Paris; Ovidia Yu’s Singapore; Ankush Saikia’s Delhi; Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles and Seicho Matsumoto’s Tokyo.

Matsumoto

It would be a far tougher sell to start with, say, my home town of Ashburton even though in recent years it has had an unsolved murder and an office shooting carried out by a disgruntled client. While most of us would think that small place settings eliminate complexity (because everyone knows everyone else), the Scandinavians have made that work, largely by way of the characters themselves.

That comes through in another Norwegian show, Borderliner. A big town detective goes on forced leave having accused a senior officer of corruption. Back in the small town where his brother is also a cop and his father the retired sheriff, the visiting detective is pressed back into service by another officer come from the outside to investigate an apparent suicide. The show floats constantly on the margins of the incredible, but survives by stressing the differences in people and their motivations. That could work with Ashburton.

Borderliner

As I contemplate a substantive edit on the new Le Fanu, then, I think a lot about this dimension. The setting in 1920s colonial Madras (then one of the British Empire’s largest cities) is a good start for most readers, but the characters still need to ring real in that setting and in their behaviours. Therein lies one of the essential writing challenges.

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Believable Creativity

Netflix and all those other outlets encourage binge-watching of television series, we know. The plus is that you can track momentum and development, the negative is that there is no time left for writing. Among other things, though, this watching raises questions about all the rules of writing to be found in all those manuals about writing fiction and writing for TV and film. Rules are there to be followed or broken as the creative process desires, of course, but watching series like this highlights both good and bad.

River is one of those English programs that shows creativity at its best. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4258440/  Stellan Skarsgard plays a detective whose “hearing voices” condition is aggravated by the shooting of his partner played by Nicola Walker, who these days is in just about everything. That leads to some strange behaviours on his part as he unravels her complex life that was ended courtesy of an unlikely source.

The show is a tightly run six part affair, well paced, neatly written, well cast, off beat but strangely believable. It was written by Abi Morgan whose earlier work includes The Hour, another neat series set in a British television newsroom in the 50s, and whose latest showing is the film, Suffragette that has gained some mixed reviews.

There is a chemistry that makes things like River work, but it does start with the writing and Morgan exercised a tight rein over it, with great results. That allows a great cast and a great production team full scope to produce a winner.

The Fall is something else altogether. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2294189/  It stars Gillian Anderson of X Files fame, and works to her English-American background, probably in order to give the series a more international profile. It has so far gone through two seasons with a third and final due mid-2016.

Anderson plays an English senior detective brought into Northern Ireland to deal with a murder case where the victim was the estranged wife of the “connected” son of a local “player”. Anderson’s character soon determines that this is part of a serial killing spree, and the chase is on. Along the way there are interpersonal issues that have her selecting members of her team (of both varieties) for casual sex; excursions into domestic violence; the inevitable sectarian and political struggles; crooked cops and corrupt politicians; and the suppressed nature of Belfast life.

It is slow in an attempt to be atmospheric, and Anderson’s ice cold, efficient character frequently strays into melodrama, it must be said – the strong jaw sometimes looks more like lock jaw. Some of the best moments in the series, it must be said, come from Stuart Graham who plays a senior detective brought into “shadow” if not watch Anderson.

The series was written by Allan Cubitt who has a pedigree going back to Prime Suspect, and there is an obvious attempt here to play off long running shows like The Killing and its knock-offs like The Bridge. It has won awards, including for writing, but for me it is way too slow and raises serious issues of credibility. Anderson stalks around abandoned buildings and the countryside in high heels and designer clothes, for example, and there are big moments of doubt as to whether things would really have happened, like police officers going into dangerous sites unaccompanied.

That immediately raises the question of why something so unlikely as River works and, for me, The Fall does not. It goes to believability, I think, and that is a combination of writing and acting with a clear interaction between the two. Skarsgard and Walker make the unlikely seem possible, Anderson and Jamie Dornan do not.

Much the same principle applies to crime writing, in all likelihood, and might explain why a few books I have started reading lately have been problematic. Part of it is repetition – many UK books now reference child abuse and illegal immigration automatically. That is part of the “crime as social commentary” move that is in general a good thing, but it places a premium on the writer’s skill. Ian Rankin makes it work in his latest, some others do not.

That was why I read Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings that won the recent Booker Prize.  http://www.amazon.com/Brief-History-Seven-Killings-Novel/dp/1594633940 At heart it is a crime novel, based in the chaos of Kingston, Jamaica from the 1960s to the 1980s when economic collapse, political violence and the rising drug trade all intersected to make suburban slums like Trench Town among the worst in the world.

James’ writes the book in several “voices”, and cuts between the patois of the slums and the white American world and a lot in between. It is a “literary” rather than a “crime” novel per se, though, and at times I wish there had been a tougher edit. That said, it is a brilliant piece of writing and for me, having spent a little time in Kingston in the 80s (and it remains one of the scariest places I have been), it is believable.

That is a good reminder as I return to two non-fiction books I am trying to complete, and think about writing the fourth in the Le Fanu crime fiction series.

Alert: A Straits Settlement is Le Fanu number 3 and will be released May 19th, including to bookshops in the UK. http://www.amazon.com/Straits-Settlement-Superintendent-Fanu-Mystery/dp/988145848X

Much of this reflection has been the result of the latest round of lecturing on the high seas, this time for a month aboard the ms Rotterdam of the Holland America Line, sailing from Piraeus in Greece through to Singapore. Once again, that demonstrated that there is a lot of unbelievability in the actual world.

One highlight for me, for example, was visiting the Falcon Hospital in Abu Dhabi. http://www.falconhospital.com/ These birds are magnificent, and pampered. Many spend the malting season in the hospital, at considerable cost. Most have passports so that they can travel with their owners during the hunting season, and many travel alongside their owners on commercial airline flights. http://stuckattheairport.com/2014/12/10/falcons-fly-in-style-on-many-airlines/ That simply underlines the centrality of falconry in the local culture, and seems scarcely believable to the outside world. http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/abu-dhabi/falconry-essay/

 

That was matched by the opulence of the new mosque in Abu Dhabi. It cost north of $US1.5 billion but, to me, lacks both a soul and the essential humility of Islam. Then there is Dubai and Dubai Mall with its ice rink that featured ice hockey while we were there, along with the massive aquarium that hosts sharks and rays and much more.

It just goes to show: there is much in the world already that we struggle to “believe”, and that should make us think much more when writing a creative or imaginary one.