|DRY BONES IN THE VALLEY
Tom Bouman (www.drybonesinthevalley.com)
Faber & Faber (www.faber.co.uk)
Henry Farrell is the law in the small northern Pennsylvania rural township of Wild Thyme. On a routine visit to Aub Dunigan, Henry finds a partially dismembered body on a remote part of the old man’s land. When the township’s bad boy, Danny Stiobhard (“Steward”), leads Henry to a second body, he becomes the prime suspect in both murders. But there is more going on here than meets the eye, and the residents of Wild Thyme seem to be shutting Henry out, keeping secrets to which outsiders should not be privy and, while Henry is the law, he is still very much an outsider.
The strength of Tom Bouman’s Dry Bones in the Valley lies in the story’s central character and narrator, Henry Farrell. Henry is a veteran of the war in Somalia – having seen action in Mogadishu, or “the Mog”, as he refers to it – who has now settled in the small northern Pennsylvania township of Wild Thyme, as the township’s policeman. By his own admission a glorified patrolman, Henry is not equipped to deal with dead bodies or suspected murderers, so Bouman’s decision to place him in the novel’s central role is an interesting one. From the outset, he is a thoroughly down-to-earth narrator, a likeable guy to whom it is very easy to listen. What drives the story is Henry’s tenacity, his need to find out who this dead man is and how he died, as a way of bringing sanity and order back to his town.
The setting – a small township near the northern Pennsylvania border – is not your average small-town American setting. There’s something of a frontier feel to the place: these are people who want to be left to their own devices; they have no need of a police force, have no desire to pay taxes or accept the amenities that those taxes often pay for. They’re a half-step down from Survivalists, who maintain a healthy suspicion of the law, outsiders, and anyone else who isn’t part of the their small, closed community. This is offset somewhat by the dual encroachment of drug dealers in the nearby towns, and of fracking companies, who are buying leases across the township and beyond.
As Henry’s investigation progresses – a slow and difficult process, given how difficult it is to find people and get them to answer questions – he begins to see the town and its residents in a new light. He is also convinced that both suspects – Dunigan and Stiobhard – are innocent of the crimes, which is in direct conflict with the thoughts of the county sheriff, who is running the investigation. Henry’s history – his tour in Mogadishu, and a more recent run-in with a fracking company in the Midwest – play a major part in who he is, and how he conducts his investigation, and the unconventional manner in which he proceeds – often at odds with the sheriff or the state police – is what sets his story apart from the average small-town American crime novel.
It is difficult not to like Henry from the outset, and even more difficult to find someone else with whom to compare him. Despite the troubles of his past, he is a personable, friendly, chatty companion for the reader, often digressing or going off on tangents as the narrative progresses, talking about everything from how to hunt deer, to the best way to behead chickens, the subject sparked by something he has found while searching a house, or talking to a witness. He drinks a bit (though on both occasions where he pours himself a scotch, it gets poured back into the bottle almost untouched), hunts deer and plays the fiddle, a man who seems, at first glance, unusual police officer material, but whose sharp mind and ability to talk make him the ideal candidate for the job.
There are echoes of William Gay in Bouman’s writing, even with the northern setting, and the central premise has the feel of Longmire about it. Despite the light tone, and the friendliness of Henry Farrell, there is a hard edge to Dry Bones in the Valley, a tension that oozes from the pages to the point where it feels like Henry is putting on an act to put us at ease as we navigate the almost incestuous relationships that define Wild Thyme. It is a beautifully-written work that sucks the reader into this strange and beautiful world. The solution to these horrific crimes becomes secondary as the novel progresses, the voice of Henry and his stories and observations the main reason we’re in this to the end. Henry Farrell is the type of character that deserves further outings, though his current placement is likely to make that difficult (just how many people can die in a small town before it becomes ridiculous? I’m looking at you, Midsomer!). One thing is for sure: Tom Bouman is a writer of considerable talent, and Dry Bones in the Valley, one of the best pieces of detective fiction I’ve read in some time, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Graeme Cameron (www.graeme-cameron.com)
Harlequin Mira (www.mirabooks.co.uk)
Erica has been abducted by the man who killed and dismembered her best friend, and is now living in a cage in his basement. Her abductor is a seemingly ordinary man with a penchant for murdering pretty young women. But things aren’t going as planned: at the local supermarket, a pair of blue eyes are his downfall, and he finds himself falling in love with Rachel; his relationship with Annie, who he had planned on murdering, but who he ended up saving from potential rape, is complicated to say the least; and neither he nor Erica is sure who has the upper hand in their relationship, or why exactly Erica is still living in the cage in his basement weeks after her abduction.
For his debut novel, Graeme Cameron puts the reader inside the head of a nameless serial killer at the point where his life takes a very strange turn. The narrator is an interesting character – friendly and personable, a man who might live next door, and who you might stop to have a conversation with on your way past his house. Like Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels, there’s more than a hint of black humour here, but Normal presents us with something altogether darker and more sinister: this man targets young women, and seems unable to control himself when in their presence. There is no moral code here, nothing to redeem him in our eyes. And, yet, it’s impossible to dislike him, and when things start to go pear-shaped as the story progresses, we find ourselves rooting for him, hoping that he might find a way out, despite the horrible things we have watched him doing.
A number of factors conspire to make the narrator of Normal question his career choices: his meeting with Rachel, and the rapport that quickly develops between them; the arrival on his doorstep of the police, who have linked him – however circumstantially – to the disappearance of a prostitute. But there seems to be a foreshadowing of this in his treatment of Erica: he gives her a microwave oven so she can cook her own food because she says she won’t eat anything that he has prepared; he spends hundreds of pounds on clothes for her, and takes her from her cage into his home where he allows her to bathe, and eat, and watch television. And even he is unable to explain why he has spared her for so long, or why he is now treating her like a houseguest rather than a prisoner held against her own will. It is a decision that will haunt him, given the new direction his life seems to be taking.
Cameron focuses on the relationship between abductor and abductee, and paints it in a completely unexpected light for the reader. These two people feel like a married couple at the end of their tether with each other. Erica becomes suspicious of her abductor’s motives, and gives him hell when he disappears for extended periods of time. When his kindness towards her inadvertently places her face-to-face with a CID officer, her reaction is completely unexpected. Interestingly, on his dates with Rachel, our hero feels some guilt about Erica, as if he is cheating on her. It’s an interesting dynamic, and Cameron uses it to great effect to drive the story in the direction he wants it to go. This is Stockholm Syndrome taken to the extreme, with a reciprocal feeling from the man who, for all intents and purposes, should be calling the shots, but who isn’t.
Normal is wonderfully written, and blackly funny throughout. The comparisons with Dexter will be obvious for the humour alone, but Cameron draws on – and extends – a much broader-ranging sub-genre. The first person narrative puts us in the head of this psychopath, with access to his thought processes and justifications for what he does. Not since Lou Ford, the protagonist of Jim Thompson’s seminal The Killer Inside Me, have we been so closely involved with the workings of the sociopathic mind. Despite the humour, Normal is a chilling and gripping read, made all the more so by the seeming outward normality of the man at its centre (and the sometimes questionable motives of those he encounters). There is a mastery of the language here that allows us to laugh out loud while we’re trying to think through the consequences of the narrator’s every action, and to wonder at just how plausible a plot-line it is.
If I have one complaint about the novel, it’s Cameron’s repeated use of “innuendoes” to insinuate murders that the narrator hasn’t committed. Throw-away lines like “[She] made a hell of a mess” play on the reader’s expectations, only to pull the rug out from under us several paragraphs or pages later. While it’s an interesting trick, and fits nicely with the overall light-hearted tone of the novel, I feel it was overused: once is clever; twice, slightly funny; beyond that it just gets predictable and irritating. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a reasonably minor quibble.
Graeme Cameron has done a phenomenal job with Normal. Taking the serial killer formula and playing with it to see what new and interesting shapes he can make has resulted in a dark and hilarious examination of the psychopath next door, and how quickly our carefully constructed world can start to crumble around us. It is a brilliant first novel, and I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about Cameron in the near future.
|THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND
Stuart Neville (www.stuartneville.com)
Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk)
Released: June 2015
After seven years served for the murder of his foster father, Ciaran Devine is released from the young offenders’ centre where he and his brother Thomas spent their teenage years. Probation Officer Paula Cunningham is assigned his case – a high-profile case at the time of sentencing, though neither Ciaran nor his brother were named at the time – and reaches out to DCI Serena Flanagan, who helped to put the young man behind bars, to get a better feel for what she can expect. Flanagan is convinced of Ciaran’s innocence, believing that he covered for his older brother. Now that he is back on the street, the women are convinced that he is falling into his old ways, being led astray by Thomas. When the son of the man they murdered – who shares Flanagan’s belief in Ciaran’s innocence – is beaten, Flanagan and Cunningham concoct a means to separate the brothers, and attempt to get the truth from Ciaran, using any means necessary, despite the fact that it puts both women at odds with their superiors, and sees Flanagan playing dangerously close to the edge of breaking the law herself.
Those We Left Behind, the latest novel from Northern Ireland’s own Stuart Neville, reintroduces us to Detective Chief Inspector Serena Flanagan, who we first met in Neville’s previous novel, The Final Silence. Along with the shift from his long-term series stalwart, Jack Lennon, there is a subtle change in tone in Neville’s writing towards psychological thriller, and marks Those We Left Behind as the first of his Belfast-based crime novels not to feature a heavily sectarian slant. In some ways, this mirrors the changing nature of crime in Belfast itself, as the city continues to try to distance itself from the stigma of the so-called Troubles.
Despite the short period of time that has passed since the events of The Final Silence, we find Serena Flanagan a very different person. We meet her as she returns to work following surgery to combat breast cancer. Flanagan’s career progressed in a time and a place where it was difficult enough to be a police officer, let alone a female one, and we see some of this as she readjusts to her job, and deals with the reactions – and obvious discomfort – of her mostly male colleagues. Neville also gives us a view into her family life, and the impact the cancer and the ensuing surgery has had on her marriage. It is little wonder, then, that she has changed so much in such a short period of time. She may be less sure of herself than was her previous incarnation, but we get a deeper insight into the character as the novel progresses, a fleshing-out that was necessarily missing from before, leaving no doubt that Flanagan is Neville’s finest creation since The Twelve’s Gerry Fegan, a complex, layered character about whom we still have much to learn.
Intertwining the narrative with occasional flashbacks, Neville shows us how the relationship between Flanagan and Ciaran develops, from their initial meeting during the investigation into the murder of his foster father, through to his current obsession with her. Despite the fact that the novel has a number of viewpoints – mainly Flanagan, Cunningham and Ciaran – the author manages to maintain suspense throughout, making the reader feel almost as if they’re inside Flanagan’s head for the duration. The violence, when it occurs, does so off-stage, leaving both reader and investigator to piece together the clues and come to their own conclusion. Whether it is the right conclusion remains in doubt until the story’s thrilling climax, a testament to Neville’s abilities as a plotter and storyteller.
Through all this, we watch as Flanagan deals with the aftermath of her illness and surgery, and its impact on her life, both personally and professionally. In one subplot, both these worlds collide with a bang, and we, as readers, find ourselves completely invested in Flanagan’s reaction, her need to meddle in a case that has nothing to do with her, but which affects her on a personal level. Throughout, Neville manages to find the right balance between examining the impact, and keeping the story moving.
As with his previous novels, Belfast plays a key role in the story. Here the author widens his scope, and takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of Northern Ireland, from Flanagan’s base in Lisburn, to the Serious Crime Suite of Antrim Police Station, to the seaside resort of Newcastle. Neville relies heavily on the geography of these places, giving the story a very definite sense of location and imbuing it with a distinct flavour of Northern Ireland.
With Those We Left Behind, Stuart Neville leaves behind the crimes of post-Troubles Belfast, and focuses on the everyday crimes of a growing, maturing city. A masterwork of misdirection, this is a well-written novel by an author who seems to have found his groove, producing novels that are more challenging for both himself and the reader with each consecutive release. Stuart Neville is at the forefront of the Irish crime fiction movement, and Those We Left Behind is an excellent example of why that’s the case. The perfect jumping-on point for new readers, this is also a very welcome addition for long-time fans, and will leave both groups crying out for more: more Stuart Neville; more Serena Flanagan.
Lindsay Hawdon (lhawdon.co.uk)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
Jakob is barely eight-years old, and he is running for his life, searching for shelter in a world that has turned against him. It is 1944, and Jakob is a half-gypsy, the oldest child of a Romany father and an English mother, living in German-occupied Europe. High on Hitler’s list of undesirables, Jakob’s gypsy heritage has condemned him to a less-than-human existence that can only end in one way if he stays where he is. So, he must reach Switzerland before he is found, but what chance does an eight-year-old child have against the might of the German army?
Just when you thought you knew about all the atrocities carried out during the Second World War, something else gets unearthed, or someone comes along to examine something in more detail, and uncovers fresh horror and pain. Based on the Romany Holocaust, Lindsay Hawdon’s novel is all the more intense for showing the horror through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy whose survival is, by no means, guaranteed.
Concentrating on the story of Jakob as he tries to evade capture, Hawdon uses flashbacks to supplement this young boy’s story, to show us where he came from, in every sense of the phrase. Flashbacks to the previous year show us Jakob on the run with his mother, brother and sister, as they try to find Jakob’s father, from whom they were separated during a pogrom on the town in which they had settled. During other flashbacks, we find the family all together though, horrifically, they’re wedged into railway cattle cars on their way to God knows what fate. Others show us the childhood of Jakob’s mother, the madness that drove her to the asylum where she met and fell in love with Jakob’s father, a man obsessed with collecting colours, a passion that he passed on to his eldest son.
In the main narrative, Jakob finds himself being helped by an old man named Marcus. Marcus has secret compartments under his stairs that he uses to hide people from the Nazis. He takes Jakob to his home and hides him in the smallest of these compartments, where he lives for months, his only companionship the two Jews in the neighbouring cubbies, and his daily trip outside to get fed and use the toilet. As the story progresses, a plan is hatched, and Jakob begins to receive more food to strengthen him for a run to the Swiss border. In his innocence, much of what is happening passes over Jakob’s head, though there are clues that point the reader to a more realistic conclusion.
There is much beauty between the covers of this stunning novel: the relationship between Jakob and his mother; the stories she tells; and the love that shines from the page not only between Jakob and his family members, but also between Jakob and the man who will become his saviour, Marcus. This beauty is balanced by moments of sheer horror that will leave the reader in tears – what lies at the end of that train journey; Jakob’s realisation as he leaves his cupboard under Marcus’ stairs for the last time. These and other scenes are designed to rip the heart from your chest and wring it dry; the contrast with the beauty, with the wonderful colours that infuse the whole story, makes the horror all the more stark.
Hawdon’s characterisation is masterful, to say the least. In a few short words, she can create a living, breathing human being out of thin air: Jakob and his family; the two men in the cupboards next to Jakob, each with their own stories to tell, their own pain-filled routes to these small spaces of solace and shelter; the German soldier who haunts Jakob’s dreams, one of the most evil characters you’re likely to encounter in fiction, who remains unnamed, and whose conscience makes his violence even more terrifying.
As well as Jakob’s story, this is the story of the Romany people, and the trials they faced during Hitler’s reign. As we learn about the history of Jakob’s family, it becomes clear that little has changed for the gypsy people in the thirty years or so that the novel spans: the pogroms and discrimination are nothing new, though the final outcome may have changed. What Thomas Keneally did for the Jews in Schindler’s Ark, so Lindsay Hawdon does for the Romany in Jakob’s Colours. There are obvious parallels between the two works, but what makes them so similar is the simplicity of their stories, the horror they evoke, and the sympathy that the author has for their subject. Schindler’s Ark won Keneally the Booker Prize; I’ll be very surprised if Jakob’s Colours doesn’t receive similar accolades in the coming year.
Beautiful and horrific, Jakob’s Colours is an intense and gripping examination of one person’s experiences during the Second World War, written in a way that examines how an entire race of people suffered during that war. Lindsay Hawdon’s writing is beautiful, her characterisation pitch perfect, her ability to terrify and sicken eclipsed only by her ability to make us smile, to appeal to our maternal or paternal instincts for this small boy on his own. Like any book whose subject is genocide, it is difficult to come away from Jakob’s Colours feeling that you’ve enjoyed yourself, but it is an important book, a story that is still very relevant seventy years after its setting; this is a book that demands an audience and I can guarantee that you will not come away disappointed.
|Name: OLIVER LANGMEAD
Author of: DARK STAR (2015)
Literary Influences, Contemporary & Classic
Dark Star has a lot of influences, because it’s three things in one. It’s science fiction, it’s a detective story of the noir and hard-boiled brand, and it’s an epic in the classical sense.
The best place to start is at the beginning, because it’s possible to see the exact moment when a fairly predictable trend in reading became something else. I started out with Brian Jacques and Roald Dahl from the age of about six, and by the time I was half way through my teens, I had devoured everything written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, as well as a few other authors writing along the same lines. Then, at the age of sixteen, I was made to read All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, and everything changed.
It’s difficult to describe exactly what that book did for me. It was as if I had certain expectations about what books were, what books could be, and I could see the limits of that. Then experiencing a book like All the Pretty Horses opened my mind to a whole world of literary writing that I had not really considered before.
This is where it’s possible to start to see where Dark Star came from. Over the past few years, I’ve been reading pretty much anything and everything to broaden my sense of what a book can be. From Lovecraft’s grim and verbose short stories, to Philip Roth’s beautiful but horrible Sabbath’s Theatre (the best book I’ve never finished) to Bret Easton Ellis, testing the idea of vacancy in the lines he writes, and beyond. I’ve loved the architecture behind Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, and been in awe of James Joyce’s almost impenetrable writing in Ulysses, and spent even more time investigating what makes gothic classics, Frankenstein and Dracula, tick.
From science fiction, I cite China Mieville and Michel Faber as major influences. Specifically, Mieville’s The City & The City, which had a sense of wonder behind each discovery that I desperately wanted to kindle for myself, and Faber’s Under The Skin, which evoked such a sense of character in both its place and in its moods, that I hoped to see something similar in my own work. For Dark Star, I wanted the reader to feel a sense of discovery in a world that is disarmingly familiar. I wanted to evoke that 1920s noir kind of atmosphere, then give the reader glimpses of the science fiction beyond.
I chose a few books from the classic detective genre to look at in order to understand it better, and Raymond Chandler is the author I have to cite above all others. The Big Sleep was crafted so well to be what it was, and it is possible to see why it has had such a big influence on authors other than myself. This is one of the main sources from which those most treasured clichés and tropes come, which I hope I have treated well in my own book. Making a world that felt familiar, just like Chandler did, was important to me. Closer to the atmosphere that Dark Star would have, however, has to be Frank Miller’s Sin City. Sin City had the voice that I wanted to use; that gritty internal monologue, bitter and beaten by its surroundings.
Dark Star is a love story for three genres, however, and the third might surprise you. I hope that you’ve heard of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. I hope that you’ve heard of The Divine Comedy, and the Aeneid, and Paradise Lost. Because these are all epics, written in an ancient style, which I completely fell for and decided to try and emulate. I’m hoping that you’re wondering whether writing a science fiction noir in verse would work at all. Because I wondered that, as well. But… it does work. Some of those recognisable elements are there: the pentameter, the descent and the divine, and some of them are not, but Dark Star is undoubtedly written in the tradition of those ancient greats.
It all comes back to McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses, in the end. When I read it, I thought that it was completely marvellous that I had never read a book like it before: that someone had tried something so ambitious, and had been so successful with it. It’s something that I wanted to try for myself. And the result of that is Dark Star.
To celebrate the release of this excellent novel, Oliver’s publishers, Unsung Stories, are very kindly giving away a signed copy of Dark Star and a signed Dark Star poster to one lucky winner.
To be in with a chance of winning, all you have to do is send a single tweet answering the following question:
Which book changed your expectations of what books can be?
Make sure you include the hashtag #DarkStarGiveaway as well as including @MattGCraig @UnsungTweets to ensure your entry is included.
The competition will close at midnight, Monday 30th March 2015 and the winner will be notified shortly thereafter.
Book & Publisher Information
Dark Star product page (Unsung Stories)
Unsung Stories (www.unsungstories.co.uk)
Prometheus, resident wonder-drug;
Pro’, Promo’, ’Theus, liquid-fucking-light;
Prohibited by city law and shot
By yours truly, Virgil Yorke, hero cop.
Virgil Yorke is a Vox Police Detective, assigned to the case of Vivian North, a young lady found dead in the city’s back alleys, her veins glowing so brightly, they shine through her skin. It looks like an extreme case of Prometheus overdose, but Virgil isn’t convinced, and when he is pulled off the case shortly after he picks it up, his instincts go into overdrive. But the city has bigger problems: Cancer, one of the three Hearts that power this remote human outpost, has been stolen, and the loss of energy is the least of the city’s worries; should it fall into the wrong hands, Cancer could become a superweapon that could destroy the entire solar system.
Oliver Langmead’s debut work – novel, novella, epic poem; none of these words seems just right – takes us to the city of Vox, a city on a planet that orbits a dark star. The city’s inhabitants have adjusted to the lack of light over the years, learning to read through touch (very few people can read actual words from a page by sight anymore), and carrying out their daily routine in a world where light is scare, and light bulbs one of the city’s most expensive – and rare – commodities. The science – or at least Langmead’s version of science – behind this interesting phenomena comes through in the story in bits and pieces, rather than as an all-in-one introduction to this strange new world. Langmead introduces us to Vox’s “ghosts” – people who have long since lost their minds, and who are now drawn to sources of light – to the little adaptations that make life in this environment possible, and to the strange invisible fire which means the citizens live in fear of candles, or cigarettes, or any open flame.
Dark Star is difficult to categorise genre-wise as well as format-wise. It’s Philip Marlowe imagined by Philip K. Dick and penned by Dante Alighieri. At its core, it’s a hardboiled mystery relocated in time and space, built around Virgil Yorke, a drug-addicted, wise-cracking, cynical cop who tells the story in first person and, most interestingly, in epic verse. Yorke is the stereotypical hardboiled policeman, who seems to have begun life as a cardboard cut-out of Marlowe or Spade. The setting injects the story with a massive dose of originality, the fruits of Langmead’s seemingly boundless imagination. Like his forebears, Yorke tends towards the unlucky, a target for beatings and stabbings that see him losing large chunks of the time that has been allocated to him to solve the case. He is surrounded by equally-engaging characters, many of whom have, we can only imagine, long and interesting backstories – Dante, Virgil’s hulking partner on the force, and the mysterious Rachel, another well-worn trope of the hardboiled genre: the femme fatale.
The book is an interesting concept, but the thing that sets it apart is the thing that is likely to be its biggest downfall when it comes to attracting readers. Like Homer’s Iliad, or Dante’s Commedia, Dark Star is written in epic verse, a long poem told in the first person. I have something of an aversion to poetry – my mind can’t seem to parse it in the same way that it parses prose – so I didn’t expect to get very far with Dark Star, much less enjoy it as much as I did. After the first handful of pages, the narrative structure loses its importance, and the story reads in a prose-like manner. Most of this is down to the strong and easily-identifiable voice of Virgil himself, a voice that makes us feel that we are listening rather than reading, and that the metre is nothing more or less than the cadences of the character’s voice as he recounts his tale. The structure gives the story an added dimension that makes these characters feel all the more real and vital than they might otherwise have been.
I have already mentioned the strength of Virgil’s voice as one of the key reasons that we keep reading, but this is a mystery novel, so there are obviously more: the mystery itself is cleverly constructed, and the violence Virgil encounters restrained and in keeping with the rest of the narrative. The strangeness of this new world, and the darkness that enshrouds Vox are also key to the story’s success, and it feels that the city – a dark and dirty cross between Jack O’Connell’s Quinsigamond and Frank Miller’s Sin City – has plenty more stories to tell in whichever style Langmead chooses to tell them (I’m living in hope for a collection of short stories, myself).
One of the most interesting and original books you’ll read this year, Oliver Langmead’s Dark Star is one of those gems that creeps up and takes you by surprise. Beautifully written, masterfully plotted, and built around a character that is at once a complete stranger and an old friend, it sucks the reader in from the opening stanza, and holds the attention to the very last word. There are ideas and concepts here that will leave you wide-eyed with wonder, alongside wise-cracks that might have dropped fully-formed from the nib of Raymond Chandler’s pen. In short, a masterpiece, and a story you really won’t want to miss.
|Name: CHRISTOPHER FOWLER
Author of: BRYANT & MAY Series (2004 – 2015)
On the web: www.christopherfowler.co.uk
On Twitter: @Peculiar
Today marks the UK hardback publication of the twelfth Bryant & May mystery, The Burning Man. To celebrate the book’s release, I’m very pleased and excited to welcome its author, Christopher Fowler, to Reader Dad, to talk about his writing space. So, without further ado…
Fellow writers are always horrified when they walk into my home. The horror intensifies when they see my writing study. ‘But where is everything?’ they ask. ‘How on earth can you work like this? There’s nothing here!’
I grew up in a terraced Victorian house where space and light were both restricted. In summer you stayed cool inside, but in winter you lost the will to live. It was cluttered and chaotic with books, magazines and far too many ornamental objects. When I finally gave up my job for my career and switched to writing novels full-time, I knew I needed a better space in which to work. My partner and I found an apartment where the architects had spent four months measuring light levels before putting in the walls. Most of the outer walls are floor-to-ceiling glass. Living in a goldfish bowl takes some getting used to; there are many days when you have to wear sunglasses to the breakfast table. The unforgiving design ethic of stark white minimalism and glass is not conducive to the care and protection of beloved old books. Only one room could be shielded from the relentless glare of daylight, so that is where the library lives. We couldn’t leave books out in the light because even recent volumes have yellowed and turned brittle (whereas my rare paperback collections from the 1950s are fine).
Shelves were ordered, but only enough to keep the lines of the room. In my old house I had sat surrounded by wobbly stacks, shifting them from tables to eat, piling them beside my bed until I was in danger of being buried alive.
We decided to take all the books with us, but remove the duplicates. The dog-eared student texts, from Chaucer to Gunter Grasse, were all doubled, so they went. Out went spares of Shakespeare, Balzac, Hesse, 20th century poets, and reference books that were available online. Practical choices were made – we dumped the gardening books because we no longer had a garden. For a while the process remained polite, and even developed a peculiar kind of quid pro quo. ‘No,’ I insisted, ‘you keep your African authors, but I’ll hang onto my British theatre histories because I might need the research.’ Being an author, I could unashamedly pull rank.
There were still not enough shelves, even though they ran to the ceiling. I hung on to some very strange book choices. The worthy volumes that we felt required to keep had been discarded in favour of guilty pleasures. The Pan Books Of Horror, Spider-Man and The Films of Norman Wisdom had inexplicably been deemed more valuable than Proust. Ultimately, the new truncated library that emerged was as idiosyncratic as the old one, and as enjoyable. I think libraries should breathe and fluctuate.
Wi-Fi meant no cables, and the printer could be tucked away – although it’s virtually redundant now. The study naturally became a paper-free zone as nearly all of my research documents, photos and letters are stored online. I’ve only kept a few book awards – the rest are stored in an electronic format. The study windows overlook St Paul’s, an inspirational sight for any London writer, and there are 360 degrees of blinds which can be lowered one at a time, according to the position of the sun.
One problem is that my past books have all been written on different systems, and there’s no single access source for the texts. At some point in the future I’ll have to transcribe them to Word – the earliest were typed on manual typewriters. Even my first Bryant & May mystery novels were written on now defunct systems, so I have to go back to the master copies for reference. I keep style guides and character reference notes online, but still revert to pen and paper occasionally to help me visualise a situation.
It’s a great way to work, calm, uncluttered and skybound.
Pierre Lemaitre (www.pierrelemaitre.com)
Translated by Frank Wynne (www.terribleman.com)
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
Anne Forestier is in the wrong place at the wrong time. When she stumbles upon the robbery of a Paris jeweller, she is beaten to within an inch of her life, and left for dead. Despite the lack of body, Camille Verhœven of the brigade criminelle pulls strings and calls in favours to get the case assigned to his team. What he keeps to himself is that Anne Forestier is his lover, and Camille has no desire to see a repeat of the events to which he lost his wife, Irène. As the investigation continues, Camille slowly unravels, working above and outside the law to determine who did this to Anne, and discovering that all is not exactly as it seems as he goes along.
Given how clever both Irène and Alex were in their construction, it was inevitable that Pierre Lematire was going to run out of ways to surprise the reader, not least because we have come to expect the surprises. As a result, we enter into the final part of the Verhœven Trilogy, the eponymous Camille, with our guard up and our senses finely tuned. It is unfortunate, then, that the trilogy’s closing chapter is, in some ways, something of a disappointment, although maybe not much of a surprise.
Set a number of years after the events of Alex – Le Guen has moved up the ladder leaving a new commissaire to butt heads with Camille, and the team itself is now reduced to Verhœven and Louis – Camille opens in brutal style as Lemaitre intertwines the account of the robbery – and the beating of Anne Forestier – and the initial portions of Camille’s investigation. It is clear from early in the novel – as soon as the relationship between victim and investigator is established, in fact – that Camille has been deeply affected by this close call, so it is easy to understand how completely he goes off the rails as the story progresses. Camille is as gruff and unsympathetic as ever, the type of character who shouldn’t make a good leading man, and despite this new, darker side that is a wild departure from the steadfast and conscientious policeman we have known so far, we still find ourselves rooting for him, praying that he solves the case before someone finds out his secret and he loses the case and, most likely, his job.
As with the previous novels, Lemaitre moves through a number of different points of view to give the reader a more complete view of what is going on: Camille himself, Anne, and the robber. There are, as you might expect if you’ve read the earlier books in the series, twists aplenty, though slightly more mundane ones that we’ve grown used to (probably, as I mentioned earlier, because we have grown used to them), and Lemaitre manages to maintain the suspense, if not the solution, for the greater part of the novel. And therein lies my biggest complaint about Camille: the robber’s identity – the identity of the man against whom the great mind of Camille Verhœven is pitted – is telegraphed early in the book, becoming a certainty around the two-thirds mark, despite the fact that the “official” reveal doesn’t come until the novel’s closing pages. It is this that leaves the reader – this reader, at least, feeling that the trilogy has failed, to a certain extent, the final view of Camille Verhœven we get not the triumphant genius of Irène or Alex, but the slightly anti-climactic denouement of Camille and the trilogy as a whole.
In all, I have very mixed feelings about Camille. Given how much I enjoyed the previous two books, I wanted to love this one, so I’m somewhat disappointed that it fell short of my expectations. That said, there is very little structurally wrong with the book and, examined in its own right, it’s not a bad novel at all. Here are the characters we have grown to love from the previous outings, the wonderful writing – and translation by Frank Wynne – that sets Lemaitre’s writing apart from his contemporaries. The violence is graphic but strangely necessary, the type of violence that is difficult to stomach, but almost impossible not to look at, while Camille’s descent into morally ambiguous territory is handled with no small amount of tenderness by the author, the fate of Camille’s wife fresh in our mind even as we watch him attempting to cope with the attack on his current lover.
While not the novel fans of Lemaitre’s first two Verhœven novels will be desperately hoping for, Camille does, however, still have some high points. A welcome return to the world of this strange and compelling policeman, the novel lacks some of the genius touches that mark the earlier books in the series. It may not be a fitting finale, but it’s a competent and enjoyable one nonetheless, and is a must-read for anyone who has already come this far.
|I AM RADAR
Reif Larsen (reiflarsen.com)
Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk)
In April 1975, in New Jersey, Radar Radmanovic is born, a black child with white parents. While his father, Kermin, accepts the child’s “condition”, his mother, Charlene, is driven to discover some kind of cure. Her search leads the family to northern Norway and the mysterious Kirkenesferda, a group of puppeteers and scientists who claim to have some way of changing Radar’s skin colour. Thirty-five years later, a massive electromagnetic pulse plunges Kearney, New Jersey into darkness. Radar Radmanovic, now an engineer for a local radio station, races home to discover that his father has disappeared and may well have caused the pulse. When he tries to find his father, he discovers the remnants of Kirkenesferda, of which Kermin has been a member for over thirty years, as they prepare to depart the US to put on one of their mysterious shows. Drawn in by the mystery and the sense that he may be the only man who can fill Kermin’s shoes, Radar finds himself on a boat bound for the Congo, and the truth about who he actually is.
It has been a long wait for Reif Larsen’s second novel, whose 2009 debut The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet remains one of the most beautiful and engaging books ever produced. I Am Radar is very different in both tone and design, falling more into the realms of Neal Stephenson or Nick Harkaway than his first novel did, but still retaining some of the unique design elements for which T.S. Spivet’s journey will be remembered.
Ostensibly the story of Radar Radmanovic, a black child born to a white American mother and a white ex-patriot Serb in early 1975, it soon becomes clear that this novel has a much wider subject than the eponymous “hero”. I Am Radar gives us brief glimpses of Radar’s life: the first four or five years, and then the period thirty years later when his relationship with the enigmatic Kirkenesferda is rekindled. Interspersed with these stories are others: the story of Miroslav Danilović, who grew up during the terrible disintegration of Yugoslavia, and who would eventually become the core member of Kirkenesferda known as Otik Mirosavic; and the tale of Raksmey Raksmey, a foundling who would be present at Kirkenesferda’s disastrous Cambodian event and play an important part in the continued survival of the group. Threaded through these stories is the history of Kirkenesferda itself, the Røed-Larsen family and the seemingly well-informed book, Spesielle Partikler. In short, the scope of I Am Radar is vast, in terms of time, space and ambition.
Despite the book’s size, and the vast scope it contains, I Am Radar is one of the most engaging reads you’ll encounter in recent years. The central characters are, despite the often ridiculous scenarios in which they find themselves, well-drawn and reasonable people. The book’s opening section, describing the first four years of Radar’s life, sets the tone for the novel as a whole: here is the full range of human emotions laid bare on the page. There are hints of genius here, much of it original, some of it borrowed: Radar comes into ownership of his name in much the same way that Joseph Heller’s Major Major did – through the machinations of an over-enthusiastic father taking advantage of an overwhelmed mother’s mental state.
Kirkenesferda becomes the novel’s focus for much of the second half, yet they remain as mysterious at the book’s end as they were at its beginning. They are a group of puppeteers and scientists who perform shows for no audience, in the most bleak and remote areas on the planet. There is plenty of science behind their existence, behind the spectacles that they create, but Larsen does not dwell on the details, but rather uses external material – excerpts from books, photographs, newspaper clippings – to reinforce the novel’s reality for the reader. Like T. S. Spivet, in which drawings and margin notes form an integral part of the story, I Am Radar takes frequent breaks from the expected linear approach to storytelling to provide the reader with something a bit different, something that adds an extra dimension to the story above and beyond what the author’s words can provide. Also like his earlier novel, Morse Code plays a part in the proceedings, and its integration into the narrative – often overlaid with a visual representation of a drumbeat – is a beauty to behold.
Aside from the science, one of the novel’s main themes is that of war, and Larsen focuses on a number of modern-day conflicts as the interlinked stories of Radar and Kirkenesferda play out: first, the Bosnian conflict of the early 1990s, as a backdrop to Miroslav’s young adulthood; second, the Cambodian civil war, and the role played by the Khmer Rouge, during the late 1960s and 1970s, as a backdrop for the differences in Kirkenesferda between our first meeting in 1979, and the group’s incarnation in 2010. Larsen pulls no punches in either case, and plunges the reader into the middle of the respective conflict, showing the horror of war from the point of view of the people closest to it.
Apart from the fact that Radar Radmanovic is in his mid-thirties by the time I Am Radar ends, there is a distinct feeling that the novel is a kind of coming-of-age story. Maybe “voyage of self-discovery” would be more appropriate, but it is difficult to get away from that sensation. Perhaps it is Radar’s childlike innocence when we reconnect with him in 2010, but it feels that we are watching his transition from boy to man, rather than the so-called eye-opening that a mature adult would experience. In many ways, Radar Radmanovic is a negative image of young T. S. Spivet, that young boy who was much too old before his time.
There are touches of beauty and genius between the covers of I Am Radar. It’s an engaging and emotionally-charged novel that is guaranteed to keep the reader engrossed for the duration. Filled with characters with their own stories to tell – the cast of I Am Radar could populate an entire library of novels – I Am Radar is the perfect fusion of story and design to create something unique, enduring and wonderfully quirky. Funny and touching, exciting and horrifying, it marks a welcome return for Reif Larsen, and a novel you most definitely will not want to miss.
|CREATIVE TRUTHS IN PROVINCIAL POLICING
Chief Hung Duong is head of the small police force in the southern Vietnamese town of Dalat. When his daughter Lila, blinded in a horrible accident, is to marry a local Party bigwig, Duong borrows 500 American dollars from Mr Mei, who has a finger in every one of Dalat’s criminal pies, and signs a contract that includes a clause that should (in theory) never affect him. When his new son-in-law is gunned down before the wedding is even finished, and the 500 dollars disappears, Duong discovers that a life of crime might be the only way to save Lila from a life of prostitution in Mr Mei’s brothel.
Paula Lichtarowicz’s second novel, Creative Truths in Provincial Policing, feels like a wild departure from her 2013 debut, The First Book of Calamity Leek, but the two have more in common than will be obvious at first glance. For her second outing, Lichtarowicz takes us to rural Vietnam and gives us front row seats as the life of the local police chief, Chief Duong, falls apart around him. As with her previous novel, the strength of Creative Truths lies in the pitch-perfect characterisation, from the placid Chief Duong and his high-strung wife, through the manic Mr Mei and his odd mannerisms, and the huge cast of supporting characters who make this world feel vital and fresh.
A farcical comedy of errors, Creative Truths is an off-the-wall tale that relies on a series of bizarre events and coincidences to get from point A to point B. Its power is in the author’s ability to grip the reader from the first page, and not give him or her time to breathe as she relates this series of tall tales: the death of Duong’s new son-in-law and the subsequent activation of Clause 46cii in his contract with Mei; how a gang of animal activists stealing primates from the region’s businesses is deemed more important by Duong’s superiors than catching a murderer (and the shady business goings-on that back up the decision); the kidnap of international soccer superstar, Sam Porcini, and the harrowing events of his incarceration. And through it all, the disintegration of Duong’s family and – it would seem – his very sanity.
There is an otherworldly or timeless feel to the story and, as with Calamity Leek, there is a feeling that the story might be taking place on a plane different from our own. The isolation of the location and the backward nature of the town of Dalat conspire to make us feel out of our depth, putting us at Lichtarowicz’s mercy for the duration. As the story progresses, we begin to get glimpses of normality, hints that this is the world as we know it, despite never having seen this corner.
Lichtarowicz’s narrative combines the oddness of Nick Harkaway’s worlds with the laid-back approach to Asian-set storytelling that Colin Cotterill does so well. Often laugh-out-loud funny, there is a strange undercurrent that leaves us feeling uneasy (why, exactly, does Mr Mei insist on riding a menagerie of stuffed animals?), surfacing in a handful of well-placed – and well-written – scenes that will linger long after the book is finished. As coincidence piles on seeming coincidence and the various threads of the story begin to converge into a single coherent whole, it becomes obvious just how cleverly-constructed this tale has been, how well-manipulated we have been by the events that have unfolded before our eyes. Everything is meticulously planned, with not a single word out of place.
Anyone picking up Creative Truths in Provincial Policing expecting something in a similar vein to The First Book of Calamity Leek will be surprised at just how different Paula Lichtarowicz’s second novel is. But the key elements are all here: well-drawn characters, an engaging and very original plot, and a narrative voice like no other. Creative Truths is a wonderful second novel and one that is impossible to put down once you’ve made the start. It cements Lichtarowicz’s place as an author worth watching and leaves the reader wishing and hoping for more. You may not come away with a burning desire to visit Vietnam, but you won’t read crime fiction in quite the same light ever again. Either way, it needs to be one of your must-reads for the year.