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The Gun Seller

Friday, 16 July 2010

In a bookshop on the Champs Élysées last year there was a massive, wall-wide display of Tout Est Sous ContrĂ´le by, according to the big signs, Doctor House. It turns out the French really love Hugh Laurie. Yes, this Hugh Laurie:

The sight of all those books didn’t make me pull The Gun Seller off my to be read shelf any quicker, I’m afraid. In the end it formed half of a thriller read along with Blood Hunt. Amusingly, both novels feature a former military type who uncovers a corporate conspiracy that has led to murder. The difference is in the tone.

The Gun Seller
Hugh Laurie
(Mandarin 1997 – link above goes to the 2004 Arrow edition)

Thomas Lang is a former Scots Guard Captain, now fallen on rather tight times. Someone offers him a lot of money to kill an American businessman. He declines but, thinking someone else has taken up the contract, he tries to warn the target and ends up being dragged into a global conspiracy by the military-industrial complex.

The conspiracy plot is fairly standard, involving various secretive government organisations, arms dealers, terrorists etc. Where The Gun Seller shines is in the details. One character is described as wearing a brown sensible jacket bought from the back pages of the Telegraph magazine. As well as making you laugh at the incongruity, it also provides a lovely character tell. An observation that British security guards would not stop strangers entering a government building “because it would be just too embarrassing” is both funny and sets up the difference between the British and American secret services.

The Gun Seller is in first person past tense, which means we know Lang will survive but also means there’s a strong narrative voice. It’s very hard to separate this from the ‘upper class twit of the year’ persona Laurie used to play on back in the day. Lang digresses, he rambles at moments when you really might expect him to be concentrating, and he generally reacts to unfairness. He’s heroic, without acting like a hero.

Despite the tense and voice, the situations Lang has to deal with are unpleasant and ugly so that you do actually worry that this charming chancer is not going to survive. That’s a really good trick to pull off.

Blood Hunt

Thursday, 8 July 2010

I had a quick burst of crime/thriller reading. Entertainingly, the two books have a similar basic premise but are very different. So there’ll be a link here tomorrow to the other book’s review.

Blood Hunt

Ian Rankin, writing as Jack Harvey
(Orion, 1995)

Gordon Reeve, an ex-SAS man, runs survivalist courses on the remote Hebridean island where he lives with his wife and son. His brother, James, is a journalist in London. James turns up dead in San Diego, having apparently killed himself. Except when Gordon goes to collect the body, things don’t quite add up and he starts to suspect his brother has been killed to spike a story.

I’m not someone who reads SAS/survivalist thrillers. All those brick-sized paperbacks with flames and silhouetted soldiers on the cover are the bookish equivalent of steroid-abusing muscle Marys to me. What I do read, compulsively, is Ian Rankin. Blood Hunt has the usual Rankin strong narrative pull that means you keep turning the pages. It doesn’t have the music references of the Rebus books, because Reeve is very different to Rebus, but there are some similarities.

Knots and Crosses, the first Rebus novel, is about brothers/doubles as well. This probably comes from Rankin’s love of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jeckyll and Hyde. In Blood Hunt Reeve, as well as having a brother who drags him into a darker, nastier world, has anger management issues: a ‘pink mist’ descends and he lashes out. That’s a side-effect of a betrayal whilst in the SAS/Falklands by Jay, who Reeve thinks died on a mission. Except Jay lived and is working for the people who ordered James’ death. Jay is another double – a mirror of Reeve who took a different path.

The Reeves investigations reveal a global agri-industry conspiracy tying back to BSE. Rankin doesn’t shy from adding political material to his novels (there’s a Rebus that deals with political corruption and hospital building, for example). What’s difficult to gauge is not his anger over the BSE epidemic and denial of risk at the time, but the extent to which he believes the conspiracy theory Reeve uncovers. I just can’t be sure.

As always with Rankin, this is well plotted, character-driven narrative with some violence and a real sense of location. Reeve is a flawed protagonist who drags you in because the people he is up against are worse. Overcome the SAS thriller disguise, because this is really another great crime novel.

Crime Spree

Sunday, 6 November 2005

My attempt to start digging into the to.be.read mountain continues, although I did get three books from a charity shop the other day and have read 1.5 of them, thus not making a proper dent in the mountain. Winter has arrived, with the wind hugging the chinmeys and the rain splattering the glass and the cat suddenly deciding that actually, it will sleep on the bed after all due to the feline principle of stealing human’s heat. And when winter suddenly drops in, I get an urge to read crime fiction.

The Fashion in Shrouds
by Margery Allingham
(1938)
fiction | UK crime | C20th | Campion series
I’ve previously mentioned that I have read all the Campion series, so this was technically a reread. It’s the one in which Albert’s sister, a fashion designer, is suspected of attempting to murder her rival (an actress) for the love of a airplane designer. The rival’s husband dies. Then the model he had taken up with, who looks like the actress, is murdered. And the actress’s previous lover shot himself three years before. The press, naturally, are having a field day. Like a lot of jazz era novels involving celebrity, it doesn’t require much to translate it into Heat-era speak: at one point a dress design by Val is replicated by a cheaper house, recalling Burberry‘s current embarassment over market-stall copies of their check.

Except this is also so of its era that it passes beyond pastishe. Not just the automatic exocticism of air travel – something long lost in the easyjet era – or the colonial elements (the husband was the governor of a Ivory Coast British colony snadwiched between the Belgiums and Germans). Not even the fact that women wearing trousers is terribly shocking. No, it’s the language and mindset which seems shocking. The casual use of ‘nigger’ pulls you up before you even get to Albert’s awful line to his sister: “What you need is a good cry or a nice rape, or both.” Campion has been sepia’d by the television adaptations with Peter Davison as the detective, so it seems even worse that a detective thought of as pleasant, diffedent and shy would casually say these things. I’ve no idea if the book has been allowed to fall out of print (this was a green Penguin editon I found to add to the collection) or if it has been bowdlerised as Christie’s Ten Little Niggers (1939) became Ten Little Indians became And Then There Were None. Perhaps surprisingly, given the ageless elements, or unsurprisingly, given the dubious language it was not amongst the Campion stories filmed back in the late 80s. But neither was my favourite, Traitor’s Purse.

The Silver Pigs
by Lindsey Davis
(1989)
fiction | UK crime | C20th | Falco series
Like many crime readers, I devour entire series about a particular detective. Discounting the Famous Five, I think the first series I read through was Lord Peter Wimsey, then Campion, then Roderick Allyn, then Cadfael and so on. I was late to Christie which may explain my dislike of Poirot. I keep meaning to read the Morse books, and I like several more contemporary series, like Christopher Brookmyre, but I wanted new historical crime so I asked for recommendations. One person whose name came up was Lindsey Davis so I picked up The Silver Pigs whilst in Waterstones (at the same time as The Palace Tiger). What struck me almost immediately – whilst reading the list of characters – was the humour of it.

Titus Caesar:
Aged 30. Vespasian’s elder son; popular and brilliant.
Domitian Caesar:
Aged 20. Vespasian’s younger son; not so brilliant, and not so popular.

A gardener’s horse:
(disposition unknown)

Also, there are maps. I like extras with my crime. The novel itself is an entertaining mixture: Falco would like to see himself as an ancient Rome version of Philip Marlowe, but he’s hampered by his large family, his mother and the fact he is too kind-hearted. Like Cadfael, he’s a former soldier but unlike Cadfael, who went to the Meditterainean on the First Crusade before returning to Shrewsbury, Falco was sent from Rome to Britainnia during the Bodicea uprising and is, unsurprisingly, very unhappy to be sent back there. Davis’s Rome has both the marble beauty of the Senate and the piss-tubs of the launderies in the backstreets. (As a sidenote, anyone who found the HBO Rome series to be less enjoyable than they hoped should try these books.) Her Britain is damp, cold and corrupt. Unlike now, obviously. Part of the British section is set in Isca Dumnoniorum or, as it is known today, Exeter, which was one reason I followed the recommendation to try the book. There was a bit in which a bunch of drunk soliders were described as at a crossroads in the city: that was also true in the Civil War era, and right up until 3am last night.

The central mystery is laid out in such a way that the reader suspects as Falco does, so that you neither feel superior due to working it out far in advance of the detective, nor cheated because information enabling you to solve the murders is withheld. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that, when I saw Scandal Takes a Holiday in a charity shop last week, I grabbed it and am currently halfway through.

Murder in Baker Street

Friday, 25 March 2005

Murder in Baker Street
edited by Greenberg, Lellenberg & Stashower
(2003)

I’ve been having a bit of a Sherlockian craze over the last few months and, having reread the Canon, I’ve moved onto the non-Canon. (Some of this I can blame of Kelly Hale, whose non-Canon Holmes novel I read a couple of years ago and which is finally getting published.)

This is a collection of short stories featuring Holmes and Watson by modern crime writers. There’s nothing very wrong, just the occassional jarring Americanism or a not-quite-right Watson voice, but they do seem to lack a certain something. It’s not that I am wedded to the Canon – I thoroughly enjoyed the recent Rupert Everett non-Canon adventure on the BBC – but the devilish detail doesn’t work in most of these. Some suffered from what we in the Doctor Who trade would call the HGWells effect: let’s get our famous fictional character to meet a famous author/person of the time and the historical one will be inspired by him! Thus Holmes is brought into a case, involving mysterious marks on someone’s neck and Mittel European servants getting all superstitious, by one Abraham Stoker.

The best was, I thought, A Hansom for Holmes which put aside Watson as a narrator in favour of a cabman who gets entangled in a case. This had the lively narration you want from Holmes, without trying to mimic ACD’s style.

Ah well, it passed the time until the New Annotated… arrived.

Traitor’s Purse

Thursday, 23 September 2004

Traitor’s Purse
Margary Allingham
( Penguin, 1941)
One of my favourite Campion novels, which I bought just to have it in the classic Penguin green and cream design. An amnesiac Campion wakes in a hospital, suspected of murder.

One of the reasons I like the Campion novels is that he goes through WW2 and emerges a different character. You can contrast the early novels like Mystery Mile in which he is a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Bertie Wooster with these later novels (Traitor’s Purse, More Work for the Undertaker etc) in which he has ended up a government agent albeit one still with Woosterish mannerisms. Allingham writes war and post-War Britain with a staggering grinding sense of impoverishment so Campion’s changing character reflects the changing eras.

Carter Beats the Devil

Thursday, 13 May 2004

Carter Beats the Devil
Glen David Gold
( sceptre, 2001)

I was utterly captivated by this novel, despite working out one of the mysteries quite early on. It tangles together stage magicians, childhood tramas, fate-dictated romances and the American Secret Service. The opening of the second section, dealing with Carter’s childhood reminded me sharply of Citzen Kane, although doubtless the mentions of (William Randolph) Hearst were also responsible for that. In fact, the entire book reminds me of Welles and his fascination with magic and illusion. There are the occassional moments where Gold spells things out a little too hard, and one supporting character who really should work very well as a hard-boiled anti-hero has a curiously lacklustre storyline despite some excellent character pieces. Overall, though, a great read.

(Any Doctor Who novels fan reading this will be hopelessly reminded of Sabbath as well, I should warn you)


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