Tuesday 30 January 2007

Michael Innes: From London Far (1946)

Published: Penguin 1962

For forty years or so, the serious (but now more or less forgotten) novelist and academic J.I.M. Stewart produced popular thrillers under the pseudonym of Michael Innes. Most of these are crime novels featuring upper class policeman John Appleby; this one is not one of them. It tells of the accidential discovery of a missive art smuggling operation taking advantage of the devastation of Europe during the Second World War. Richard Meredith, an academic, is thinking about poetry while selecting a purchase in a London tobacconist, and absently murmurs "London, a poem": words taken by the shopkeeper to be the smugglers' password; the shop itself covers the entrance to an underground warehouse storing an incredible collection of art. There, Meredith, instead of going to the police, pretends to be a gang member, kills a man, escapes with a kidnapped young woman, and follows the trail to a bizarre Scottish castle with associated guano mining operation.

From London Far is, like most of those Stewart published as Michael Innes, a whimsical novel - in this case too much so for its own good. The plot is full of absurdities, and is obviously intended to be a parody of those early twentieth century adventure stories where an ordinary person (who just happens to be resourceful enough to be a hero) discovers a plot through a contrived coincidence. Most of these books can be seen as imitators of John Buchan, whose Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps is perhaps the best known example of such a hero. The satire starts from Meredith being a scholar of classical literature rather than fullback of the Scottish Rugby team or a South African diamond prospector visiting England. There is obviously a place for such a parody, but the novel goes on to be filled with many more absurdities which are irritating rather than humorous. In Scotland, for example, Meredith is able to play an almost identical trick on the group of smugglers there to the impersonation he carried out in London, something that seems most unlikely after the invention of the telephone. Too much of what is going on is obscured from the reader for too much of the novel, making much of the action seem unmotivated, and the allusive nature of Innes' style makes From London Far a big effort to read: not a good trait for a thriller.

There are detective stories with whimsical humour and academic detectives which work well. The Gervase Fen stories of Edmund Crispin, contemporary with Innes, are excellent, for example, and Innes' Appleby novels are generally better as long as he doesn't let himself get carried away. (Operation Pax is good, and the level of the whimsical in that novel is about that of the average episode of the Avengers, which should give some idea of just how fantastical From London Far actually gets.) I suspect that J.I.M. Stewart would be surprised that his pseudonymous works have lasted longer than the novels he publised under his own name (our local library stocks about a dozen of the one, and none of the other, suggesting that this is the case), and in this instance I would agree that From London Far is too out of date to be far from oblivion.

Saturday 20 January 2007

Sylvia Brownrigg: The Delivery Room (2006)

Published: Picador, 2006

Sylvia Brownrigg's third novel is her darkest so far. Its main themes are given by three different symbolic or real life associations prompted by the title: birth, psychiatric therapy, and death. The main character is a Serbian psychotherapist named Mira, who faces additional worries apart from those connected to her pations (many of whom are women with problems connected, either literally or figuratively, to childbirth). Though living and working in London for decades with her English husband, she worries about her family in the midst of fighting in former Yugoslavia (The Delivery Room being set about a decade ago), about her relationship with her stepson and his wife, and about the way that "Serbian" is turning into a dirty word, as a name associated with the atrocities of ethnic cleansing. The word "delivery" is also used by NATO to describe the airstrikes on Kosovo which occur midway through the novel.

The first part sets the scene and introduces the characters. (The patients seemed to me slightly too connected to each other and to Mira's family for versimilitude, but this flaw was not too off-putting.) but with the second part, bad news turns the novel onto its bleaker path. Mira's husband is diagnised with cancer, which becomes the centre of the rest of the novel as it dominates her emotional life. This is not a novel to read if you find such topics distressing to read about. I'm not sure that the introduction of something so serious works; it possibly overbalances a novel that has already tried to bring in so many themes under the general heading of delivery. It would be just as overpowering and central in real life, it is true, but in a novel it comes over as heavy handed and less realistic, paradoxically. It lacks the lighter touch which helped The Metaphysical Touch, which deals with the equally downbeat issue of suicide, to be more successful. Reading The Delivery Room, I was surprised when a comparison occurred to me that I hadn't thought of before: that Sylvia Brownrigg's style is similar to that of Carol Shields, another writer whose work I generally enjoy. Shields is generally less dark and more domestic, but the issues Mira has with her stepson and vice versa could well appear in one of Shields' novels. This thought may well be due to re-reading The Republic of Love just before starting on The Delivery Room, but I think it is valid. Both of them have gentle styles, and their novels are not only character based, but they also share a knack of bringing characters to life quickly. Brownigg is perhaps not yet as good - and this novel seems to me to be something of a retrograde step - but she could easily rival the Canadian author with a little more experience.

Thursday 4 January 2007

Sergei Lukyanenko: The Night Watch (1998)

Published: William Heinemann, 2006
Translated: Andrew Bromfield, 2006

There seem to be a lot of good vampire novels around at the moment. Soon after The Historian, I was able to pick up The Night Watch in my local library. Strictly speaking, this Russian publishing sensation has been available for almost a decade, but despite huge sales in Lukyanenko's home country, it is only in 2006 that an English translation has appeared. That one has now come out is something of a guarantee of quality, as very few modern novels seem to be translated into English each year. The cultural dominance of the English language is such that bookshops all over the world are full of translations from English: perhaps only in the Middle East and China will this not be the case. Clearly, though, English speakers seem not to be too keen on translations, which makes the quality of the rare exceptions such as Lukyanenko or Henning Mankell even more obvious.

This is the first novel in a quartet of novels (the final volume was published in 2006, and so the blurb for The Night Watch describes itself as part of trilogy). The story, divided into three parts with fairly separate adventures (so that The Night Watch is effectively a trilogy itself), concerns Anton, a systems engineer who has discovered that he is an Other, a human who can sense and use the magic of the shadowy world which underpins our own and which is known as the Twilight. He is a junior member of the Night Watch, the body set up by the Light to watch over the Dark Ones, to ensure that the fragile equilibrium in the Cold War between Light and Dark is not broken. A similar body, the Day Watch (also the title of the second book) maintains the equilibrium from the other side. At the beginning of first part Destiny, Anton is sent on a mission (a mistake, he feels, for he is not a field agent): he is to find and stop a vampire who is killing people - something forbidden by the Treaty. While on his way, he tries to help a young woman he meets by chance on the Moscow subway who is under a curse (he can see it as a black cloud hanging over her head), and by doing so precipitates something very much bigger than his original task.

The Cold War analogy is really very apt: The Night Watch is very like a John le Carré spy novel, full of people doing questionable things for a cause they more or less believe is right, where the equilibrium itself becomse more important than morality. This cynical view of the world is particularly easy for the characters in Lukyanenko's novel to fall into, because the two sides (like communism and capitalism) do not simply equate to good and evil. Instead, they embody the acceptance of the duty to help others as opposed to the need for freedom, including the freedom to be selfish. The Night Watch is a spy thriller with supernatural trimmings, and it is very well done indeed. The issue, whether it is right or necessary for individuals to act against the ideals governing their society in order to protect that society is very much alive in these days of illegal wiretapping, of CCTV cameras on every corner, where there is less and less privacy from government to protect us from the threat of terrorism. (It is an issue that is, for example, at the heart of most episodes of fashionable TV drama Spooks.) What makes this novel feel as though it is looking back to John le Carré and Len Deighton is the way that each mission that Anton is sent on is hiding bigger, complex and underhand schemes: he is never told the real point of what he is doing. (A sure recipe for inducing paranoia and cynicism.) The stories are given depth through these multiple layers, like an onion. The characters here are also like Len Deighton's: you can measure how long someone has been a member of the Night Watch by their cynicism.

The Night Watch has been talked about for ages among fantasy fans: now it is available in English, and definitely lives up to expectation.