Tuesday 28 August 2007

Linda Fairstein: Bad Blood (2007)

The ninth Alex Cooper mystery begins in the courtroom, where Alex is prosecuting businessman Brendan Quilley for arranging the murder of his wife. The case soon becomes swamped in drama, as the first prosecution witness is forced to reveal that she had slept with Quilley, making her testimony seem to be untrustworthy to the jury and effectively ruining Alex's case. Further complications - an explosion on a construction site killing Quilley's brother, possible links between Quilley and a cold case - quickly follow, and before the reader knows it, Alex is once again chasing bad guys through a strange piece of New York architecture. Where in previous books we've had the derelict institutions on Roosevelt Island, sites associated with Edgar Allan Poe, abandoned railways and remodelled theatres, this time it's tunnels.

The Alex Cooper mysteries belong to a subgenre of the police procedural crime novel in which the detective is someone involved with crime but not in a profession which usually undertakes investigation. Other examples include the Kathy Reichs novels which were the basis for the TV series Bones. While prosecutors do have a role in ensuring that police investigations remain within the law and obtain enough evidence to make a conviction possible, and I know that they have more involvement in the US system than in the UK, the amount to which Alex carries out the detecting seems unlikely to me.

I have now alluded to the biggest problems in Fairstein's series of novels. The implausibility of both the way in which Alex gets involved in her cases and of the situations in which she finds herself in the course of each stroy don't really register while reading the novels, as they carry the reader on fast enough and are involving enough to keep him or her from thinking about such things. The other main problem with the series is the similarity in ideas between the various novels - the quirky locations, the confrontations with the killer, the complicated personal life - are all repeated each time. This makes the first Alex Cooper novel, Final Jeopardy, by far the best. For the rest of them, including Bad Blood, the edge that Alex's specialisation in sex crimes gives to them marks them out from the herd, but otherwise they are basically well written but unremarkable.

Tuesday 14 August 2007

T.H. White: The Age of Scandal (1950)

Published: Penguin, 2000

T.H. White is obviously best known for his Arthur stories, starting with The Sword in the Stone, and after that, for his book on falconry, The Goshawk. So a guess as to which period he would choose as the subject for a series of essays on history would probably be medieval. Instead, The Age of Scandal is about England in the second half of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, roughly the reigns of George III and George IV. The book chronicles the scandals of the age (with a chapter on the Marquis de Sade taking it across the Channel), and is really a minimal narrative thread connecting excerpts from contemporary letters and diaries.

That White had views which now seem a little eccentric is evident from the very first sentence: "Well, we have lived to see the end of civilization in England." (Those who read the table of contents before this statement would have realised his eccentricity from the inclusion of an essay entitled Ears.) He believed that the essence of civilisation in England was the country house aristocratic culture that was effectively destroyed by changes in the property laws during the first half of the twentieth century - something which may have made this start seem less outrageous to a committed Tory at the end of Labour's first post-war government. It does seem that the rest of the book is devoted to prove something quite different: that there was nothing civilised about the late eighteenth century either.

On the other hand, he may well not have intended this to be taken seriously. Among his other suggestions that must surely be tongue in cheek is the suggestion that the reason that the French revolution failed to spread to England was that the English have a sense of humour. Later, White quotes an English description of King Christian VII of Denmark, which ends, "That is all that decency permits to be said, the rest must be imagined." Then, linking this to an account by a French writer who is much less discrete, he adds, "It need not be imagined, however, by people who understand French."

There are lots of interesting, amusing and enjoyable quoted documents in The Age of Scandal. It is not the place to look for in depth analysis, or indeed for anything (the lack of an index makes it almost useless for reference). White also expects a knowledge of the events of the period; people and events are referred to without explanation or further mention. But if you have a passing familiarity with the personalities, reading the highlights and raciest sections of contemporary accounts of them is fascinating. The bittiness which comes from being a collection of essays is something of a problem, with events referred to without being described elsewhere when in a more unified narrative they surely would be (scandals involving the sons of George III are a case in point; despite an essay on Royal Gossip, there are other scandals mentioned elsewhere that do not appear in that section at all). But otherwise this is a most entertaining read.

Wednesday 8 August 2007

Richard Morgan: Black Man (2007)

Published in the US as Thirteen.
Published: Gollancz, 2007

On the assumption that any technology developed by the human race will be used in for short term gain without consideration of the consequences or of ethics, the outlook for genetic engineering is frightening. That is the basic premise of Black Man, Richard Morgan's latest novel (published in the US as Thirteen, presumably because the publishers there - Del Rey - don't want readers to assume that it is about racism). Richard Morgan envisages the production of three types of genetically modified human being: the hibernoids, considered ideal for space exploration because they hibernate; bonobos, submissive bimbos produced for the sex trade; and thirteens, sociopathic individuals expected to be super-soldiers. None of these groups performed as expected by their makers, and by the time in which Black Man is set, they are rarities, feared and hated by many. The thirteens are the most feared, with the result that they have been declared non-humans, not covered by human rights legislation. Most of them have emigrated to Mars to escape the restrictions placed on them on Earth.

Carl Marsalis is not just a thirteen, but a renegade: he hunts down other thirteens for the UN. However, when he is arrested in Miami, he is left to rot in a brutal Jesusland jail - Jesusland being the fundamentalist state that has seceded from the US - until his expertise is needed. A thirteen has escaped from indentured service on Mars, getting back onto a ship returning to earth. A glitch in the hacker code needed to override the normal cryogenics so that he could get on board means that this thirteen has been woken up only two weeks into the journey, surviving the remainder by brutally butchering the other passengers and eating their body parts. The shuttle crashes in the Pacific, and a killing spree begins. So Marsalis is freed from prison, and sets out, abrasively and violently, to track down the missing thirteen.

In many ways, Black Man is a maverick cop thriller with added science fiction elements. I can't really think of a way that the SF ideas really add anything to the story at all. In the Takeshi Kovacs novels, starting with Altered Carbon, the ideas are fascinating in themselves and a vital part of the plot and atmosphere of the novel. It seems that without Kovacs, Morgan has problems putting together anything beyond a science fiction inflected violent thriller; his other non-Kovacs novel, Market Forces has similar problems. Here, things are worse, because Marsalis is too much like Kovacs (minus a sense of humour), making it look as though Morgan is incapable of writing a range of characters.

My feeling is that publishing this novel as it is was a mistake. Morgan should have been encouraged to revise it, beefing up the science fiction content, improving the characterisation (particularly of the female characters) and reducing the violence. Genetic manipulation is obviously a topic that science fiction should be exploring at the moment, but this is not the novel to start a debate on how it should be handled.

Wednesday 1 August 2007

J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)

Published: Bloomsbury, 2007

This blog entry is not so much a review as a reaction as I read the early chapters (the first ten or so) of the most eagerly anticipated novel of all time. So there are not going to be spoilers for anything later than these chapters. I may return to this post later and add a comment about the later sections of the novel.

Over eleven million copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows were ordered in advance of its release. The only literary events I can think of that rivalled the publication of The Deathly Hallows are the appearances of the serial parts of Dickens' novels in the nineteenth century. While there are obvious differences (Dickens released his novels in a large number of individual parts, rather than Rowling's complete novels making up a series; and Dickens' plots were a lot more predictable in broad outline, so there wasn't speculation about, for example, whether the hero might die). Does the fanaticism mean that Rowling's work last as long as Dickens'? Plenty of old bestsellers have gone completely from the public consciousness - Marie Corelli, for example, was one of the biggest sellers of the early part of the twentieth century, but it would be unusual to see her books even in second hand shops. Will Rowling turn out to be the Corelli or the Dickens of our time?.

All three have social themes in their books which make them more than just escapism, though Rowling's concerns in the Harry Potter books - racism and the rise of Neo-Nazism, and the excesses of the press and its manipulation by government - are more like the social campaigning of Dickens than Corelli's theme of the relationship between spiritualism and Christianity. The first is more explicit from the beginning of The Deathly Hallows, as Voldemort and the Death Eaters are described in ways which show them to be closer to Hitler and his followers than was seen in the earlier novels. Rowling's other major social concern is more modern and is unlikely to have occurred to Corelli at all. Dickens, on the other hand, was extremely upset by attacks on him in American newspapers after he published articles critical of some aspects of life in the United States, just as Rowling has indicated that she feels that press interest in her personal life was unwarranted. So this too is a similarity to Dickens.

Speculation has been rife about how the series will end, and an intensive security operation was (more or less) successful in keeping details from getting out before the release date. Even following this, spoilers have generally (as far as I have seen) been well signposted; it's quite remarkable on today's Internet how polite people who have posted something about the novel have been to those who are yet to read it. The main information that was widely disseminated, revealing that at least two major characters would be killed, came from Rowling herself, and this left a lot open (the ending could have the rest of the cast living happily ever after, or a bloodbath on the scale of a Jacobean revenge tragedy - or anything in between).

More important to me than the issue of what might happen in the novel is whether it would be a satisfactory ending to the series as a whole. I found Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the least involving novel in the series so far, and I was almost expecting to be disappointed by The Deathly Hallows.

And then I read the first chapter, which describes Voldemort plotting with the Death Eaters. This seemed to confirm my worst fears - dull, predictable, lacking in any kind of atmosphere. One thing it does make clear (even if Rowling's revelations about character deaths hadn't) is that The Deathly Harrows is going to continue with the darkening of the series that's been apparent since the arrival of the Dementors in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

But then, in the second chapter, Rowling seemed to return to her best form. Harry's relationship with the Dursley family is an integral part of the whole series, and has gradually been revealed as more subtle than the bullying and abuse which characterised it at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. The chapter also indicates that no matter how dark things become, the humour of the series will still be part of the final volume.