Thursday, 31 May 2012

Delicious (Historical) Death: The Devil in the White City

Another day, another book about historical crime. This time it's the turn of fact instead of fiction, and the Victorians instead of the Tudors: I'm reviewing The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson.

The Devil in the White City is set in Chicago, a place where I spent a lot of time as a child watching chicks get born in the Museum of Science and Industry. And that story is even vaguely relevant to today's review. The book's chosen moment is the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, which was very important for America and History and so on, and directly led to the Museum of Science and Industry being built, allowing me 100 years later to stand and watch chicks get born while my mother and grandmother failed to get me at all interested in any of the other exhibits.

It was also important for a man called H. H. Holmes. This charming human being decided that the World's Fair was the perfect opportunity for him to build a murder hotel and kill large numbers of young women, and so he did, while everyone around him totally failed to notice that anything shifty was going on.

And that, essentially, is the story told by this book. It's a gallop through two parallel stories, the creation of the World's Fair by visionary architect Daniel Burnham, and the criminal rise and fall of visionary murderer H. H. Holmes. The World's Fair happens (good!) and people get murdered (bad!). The end.

The Devil in the White City has at least a tenuous link to reality, in that all the things in it did actually happen, but at the same time it reads like particularly ridiculous and racy fiction written by someone who's got a strong sense of a good story but a very bad idea of how to put that story into words. It is the true-crime equivalent of really seductive but bad quality junk food: a double-chocolate whipped-cream Tesco Value cake in novel form.

My feelings on the subject of populist versus scholarly historical writing are sort of contradictory. While on the one hand I believe fervently that history is extremely interesting and should be written about like the crazy epic blockbuster it is, I also believe that bad writing - and bad research - makes the gods weep.

In this case, the research is there, but the writing's just not up to it. Larson can, at least, string a sentence together, but that's the least of his problems. Knowing that he is writing A FUN BOOK FOR NORMAL PEOPLE seems to have sent him off his head with self-importance, and The Devil in the White City is comically over-egged, filled with sparkling 'scene-setting' turds like
As [Holmes] moved through the station, the glances of young women fell around him like wind-blown petals
his eyes deposited a bright blue hope.
How I wish my eyes shed coloured emotion. Alas! All they do is allow me to see.

This is the moustache of a murderer
I admit, I do perversely enjoy this kind of thing. Bad writing can be delicious (there's my cake metaphor again), and as bad writing goes, this one's a winner. It's possible to ignore it and focus on the story, but if you do choose to be cruel (and I did) you're in for many hours of riotous amusement of the sort not at all intended by Larson.

On to the content. Larson obviously means Holmes to be the dark side of Burnham - Burnham's building the White City while Holmes is building the black; they both have blue eyes but one has the blue eyes OF A KILLER, etc, etc - but he's not really good enough to pull the comparison off, and so the book just ends up being about two very interesting and not particularly connected lives. And that's fine. History is amazing enough (and awful enough) to carry this one on its own. Fires, Ferris Wheels, belly dancers, Buffalo Bill, tornadoes and torture chambers all make starring appearances as everything that could go wrong for the Fair does, and everything that could go wrong for Holmes... doesn't, and the whole thing is rounded off with a nice cross-country manhunt for your reading pleasure.

There are also lots of fun Facts About the World's Fair to pick up for future use at boring parties. Did you know, for example, that it brought belly dancers to America for the first time, that Walt Disney's father worked on it and that it was the reason the Pledge of Allegience, the Ferris Wheel and that annoying snake charming music were invented? Well, now you do. See what this book has given you already!

I can't be a total snob about this. I can absolutely see why The Devil in the White City has sold all the copies it has - it's completely addictive reading, historically fascinating and presented in a way that's gloriously awful. It's cake! Delicious historical murder cake! And I ate it all. Oops.

Despite the best efforts of history, though, this gets 2.5 stars as a form of post-binge guilt, and also for that sentence about the petals.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Delicious Death: CJ Sansom

So there I was, at the Have I Got News For You filming last week, among equal numbers of Barbour-clad estate owners and nerds with backpacks. As we all sat and waited for the god-like advent of Ian Hislop, Feel Good Inc. began to play over the loudspeaker.

"Wow," I said to my friend Boadicea (everyone should have a friend called Boadicea), "this is a bit cool for Have I Got News For You, isn't it?"

"Robin," said Boadicea (honestly, this is her real name), "this song is from 2005."

And just like that, I realised my age was showing.

I know I'm still many years away from Spanx and anti-wrinkle cream, but the signs are all there. The younger siblings of my friends are showing startling tendancies to go to university and get jobs, my favourite children's authors are dying like flies and I don't know the name of a single member of One Direction. Also, I remember eating Opal Fruits. Damn kids, get off my lawn!

More distressingly, many of the books I used to read as a child - and even as a teenager - are beginning to go out of print. When I was just getting into crime fiction, way back when everyone wore leggings and Will Smith was cool (this could actually be a description of 2012, except that now everyone wears leggings and Will Smith's offspring are cool. I think. Are they still cool?), the go-to historical crime series was Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael novels. Remember Brother Cadfael? Do you? Well, you must be getting old like me.

For the young among you, these books were about a medieval Welsh monk who solved crime and gardened, often at the same time. Bloodstained bodies constantly turned up, in piles of straw and blocks of ice and under hedgerows and so on, and Cadfael would potter about a bit, work out who done it, tell them off for being naughty and go back to pruning his apricots. It was all extremely nice, and very historically accurate, so you could pretend you were learning something while you waited for the next body to turn up.

It has taken me an extrememly long time to notice that people have moved beyond Cadfael. Apparently medieval monks are not the done thing any more. He no longer appears in bookshops, and if you mention him to crime junkies they look at you like they have no idea what you are talking about. The twelfth century is so not in right now. In fact, these days it's fashionable to make your historical detective a Tudor, so you still get to write about blackened teeth and privies, but with the added bonus of a monarch people actually know the name of.

I've been slightly resisting trying this codpiece crimewave out, for no better reason than that Change Is Bad, but then last week I saw the first CJ Sansom novel in our local library and I thought that I might as well give it a try. So I got Dissolution out, and I read it, and then I immediately went back to the library and exchanged it for Dark Fire. It turns out that change is actually pretty good - though since the first Sansom was originally published in 2003, most of you may have already found this out.

Sansom's chosen period is, as I've said, Tudor England, and his first book starts with (those who were paying attention in History, hands up now) the dissolution of the monastaries under Henry VIII. Yes, just like the Cadfael books, Dissolution is all about monks arguing with each other and then committing lots of lovely murders. The whole thing gives off more than a whiff of Ellis Peters, from its plot to its plethora of meticulous and yet still slightly dodgy-seeming historical detail. Like Peters, its content means that it ought to be grim, and yet you get an overwhelming sense of sweetness and calm. After all the blood has been cleared up, you know that everything is going to be very nice for the remaining characters. (Unless you are a monk at the end of Dissolution, in which case you are screwed.)

I can't say I know a huge amount about the period, apart from that Henry was a fat king who married lots of ladies, but I'm pretty sure Sansom's historical details are all present and correct. There's a great moment in Dark Fire, the second book, where someone gets sick because he's been drinking water, and the main character Matthew Shardlake hears about it and says something along the lines of "Jesu! Water! No wonder he's ill." Also there are lots of nasty bits with privies and pisspots and rotting meat, because as we all know, history is dirty and it smells. As far as the little things go, Sansom gets top marks.

But there are definitely bits that would have a Tudor scholar rocking back and forward in a corner. The first book is set during the shutting-down of the monastaries (which certainly did occur), but the second is all about Thomas Cromwell trying to find the long-lost formula for Greek Fire to keep himself in favour with King Henry (which did not happen even slightly at all). And things get even more ropey when you consider Shardlake himself. He appears to have sprung fully-formed from a checklist called 'How To Make People Like Your Historical Character (Even Though He Is White And Part Of The Patriarchy)'.

Debilitatingly disabled (he is a hunchback, something we are reminded of about every three pages), Shardlake has nonetheless striven through cruelty and adversity to succeed as a lawyer. He gives alms to the poor whenever asked, he is kind to his horse, he believes women can be intelligent and his best friend is a black man. (While all other characters express mild to severe confusion and distress at the sight of said black man - there are many, many scenes where someone turns to Shardlake and says, "I don't want to be rude, but have you noticed that that man is black?" - Shardlake is totally OK with it from the start, because he is cool like that.) Also, in the second book, he gets an assistant who is slightly Jewish, and he works pro bono to exonerate a falsely-accused woman because he believes everyone should have a fair trial. To all of this I say: come ON. I totally agree that racism, sexism and ableism are bad, and I understand how tempting it is to make your historical character sympathetic, but these traits together are too much for the sixteenth century. Most people in the twenty-first century aren't even this liberal. I wish they were, but the fact still stands that they are not.

I know, I'm whining. And before you take my complaints seriously, remember how fast I got through Dissolution and Dark Fire. Basically, ignore me. Flawed though they are, these books are, more importantly, extremely fun. Like Peters' Cadfael books, they're nice enough to be charming, nasty enough to be exciting and contain enough local colour in them to make you think you are learning worthy things about history. Actually, of course, you are reading about people throwing each other down wells and off tall buildings, which is even better.

So, in conclusion: I miss Cadfael, I like Shardlake, I'm glad someone is following in Ellis Peters' footsteps but at the same time I'm deeply disturbed that I remember Ellis Peters well enough to know that there are shoes Sansom is filling. In fact, I'm practically a historical artifact myself, and now I'm just waiting for the day when people start writing historical crime about the 1990s. THEN I'll be old.

The Shardlake series gets 3 stars.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Here Be Monsters: Two Leviathan-themed Reviews

Today's reviews come to you dressed up as a literary fight, because 'comparison' sounds boring, and because I think both of the writers concerned are appropriately ferocious and war-like. One of them actually was a sailor, and the other looks as though he ought to be a boxer, and so the idea of them settling their differences through fisticuffs is not entirely crazy. Except that one of them is dead, which might make things a little difficult.


Melville wins on beard
In the red corner, we've got a writer who's been the bane of American teenagers for generations. He's a fearsome racist, a very dodgy scientist, a Bible obsessive and a man who really, really likes whales. Ladies and gentlemen, it's... HERMAN MELVILLE with MOBY DICK.

Facing off against him in blue is a man with a very different literary reputation. He's young, he's cool and in his time off from churning out amazing novels he teaches creative writing at my old university (he never taught me - I think I missed a trick there). Let me introduce you to the one, the only... CHINA MIEVILLE and his novel KRAKEN.

(Cue applause.)

But Mieville wins on sheer number of earrings
This is such a great pairing not only because I think Mieville's book is a response to Melville's, but because of who Mieville is. Melville spends a large part of his novel being patronising about a bald, tattooed, non-white man, and then one hundred years later a bald, tattooed, non-white man whose name differs from Melville's by only one letter (seriously, I'm getting confused just typing them out) takes Melville's concept and flips it into something totally different and totally awesome. The universe definitely has a sense of humour.

If a lot of people complain that Melville is much too popular, then Mieville suffers from the opposite problem. I've complained about this before: he's an absolutely excellent writer, but all the same he tends to be shoved onto the genre shelves and largely ignored by people who like Serious Books (who all, of course, will tell you that they love Melville). This is particularly ironic, because I think that what Melville and Mieville are doing is not at all dissimilar: both of their books are rip-roaring yarns with a twist; brainy, well-informed takes on a genre that's usually agressively masculine and aggressively brainless. That I enjoyed Mieville's book isn't surprising, but I'm still reeling from the fact that I didn't only like Melville's book, I completely adored it.

China Mieville is a writer whose brain seems to be constantly shooting out amazing plots in all directions like an overactive tumble drier, and the plot of Kraken is, as you might expect from him, both intense and intelligent. In an alternative London where the elusive giant squid has actually been captured, the Natural History Museum's prize specimen goes missing. The prime suspects are an underground religious group who worship the Kraken as a god, and who now believe it's about to be used to bring about the end of the world. Cue wild shenanigans as the squid's curator Billy discovers an extremely dark and dangerous alternative London where tattoos are alive, where statues talk and where there's even a crack anti-magic police unit.

I was sold Kraken on the basis that it was a reworking of a Western, and it's certainly got those influences going on, but after reading Moby Dick I realise that what it really is is a seafaring epic on dry land, and that what it's doing is taking literally a concept that runs through the heart of Moby Dick.

Now, everyone thinks they know what Moby Dick is about: some dude called Ahab chasing a white whale for 500 pages while nothing else happens. I am delighted to tell you, however, that this is not really the case. I was expecting a lot of angry masculine people yelling at each other in gale-force winds, and it isn't really that at all. Sure, Ahab slopes about, being moody (this is Melville's favourite descriptive word; the phrase 'moody Ahab' appears so many times that you might conclude it was Ahab's given name), shaking his fist at the sky and screaming 'DAMN THAT WHITE WHALE!' or words to that effect, but the revenge plot only takes up about a quarter of the text. Moby Dick really is, to use Melville's own term, a book of cetology, a very charming pre-Darwinian attempt to understand the nature of the whale. Is it a fish? (Melville delightfully concludes that it is, because only a stupid person could possibly suggest that mammals might live in the sea) What does it eat? What shape is its face? (This is honestly a chapter) How do you kill one, and when you have, how do you cut it up? What does it taste like? How long does it live? What is its history and mythology and what will be its future?

Melville's cetology can be pretty much summed up as an elaborate How To guide to worshipping the sperm whale. To most of the characters in Kraken, Moby Dick would be read not as a novel but a holy book, part of the huge underground library the Kraken worshippers have filled with books about their deep-sea god. I'm really not going out on a limb here at all - at one point, the text actually calls Moby Dick a god, and it's pretty clear that the men in Moby Dick are out there killing whales not only because it brings them money to do it, but because they believe in what they're doing. You could make a definite argument for whale-slaughter-as-ritual-sacrifice, and if there isn't a Moby Dick as Old Testament God thing going on I'll eat my Oxford World's Classics edition.

The sea appears in both novels as an almost human (or more than human) presence - in Kraken it even has its own house next to the Thames. Kraken's Billy, just like Moby Dick's Ishmael, teams up with a big bruiser with a harpoon and both pairs of men go adventuring together in pursuit of the big prize god, who may or may not (no spoilers here) be the death of them. As I've said, there's a lot of other stuff going on in Kraken too that comes from different literary traditions, but on one level it absolutely has to be a very sharp and well-considered response to Moby Dick.

And much as I liked Moby Dick, it definitely needs responding to. Ishmael is an absolutely infuriating narrator who spends his entire time making clanky puns and being willfully obtuse for humorous effect: he's the kind of man who, if he met someone called Miss Fine, would say something like "In fine, it's a fine day to meet someone so fine, I find!" (This is partly why he does not have a lady friend waiting for him at home like all of the other sailors; it also may have something to do with how much he likes cuddling in bed with his friend Queequeg.)

Also, and more disturbingly, Melville himself is quite obviously racist in a way that's not just unthinking but disgustingly deliberate. There's a horrible scene where a white character unleashes a torrent of verbal abuse on one of the ship's black servants just because he exists and the white character feels like it, and at another point a different black character is told that if he falls into the sea while they're in pursuit of a whale he won't be saved, because the whale is worth three times his price in Alabama. Even the broadest allowances for time and culture don't exuse it, and I was left wishing I could unleash not only China Mieville but Toni Morrison upon him. Nasty man.

Talking about the Great American Novel, by the way, I cannot understand how anyone not completely insane could ever think it was a good idea to set Moby Dick as high school reading. Large parts of the text are plotless meditations on whales, their history, biology and mythology, and the parts that are actually about moody Ahab and his Great White Whale nemesis are so heavy with intense Biblical references that the average page needs to be glossed five times. Your typical teenage reader is going to have jumped ship by page twenty. Moby Dick is the kind of book you need to come to on your own, and read it because you want to. If you do that, it's a delightful Victorian curiosity cabinet of a novel with some startlingly good writing hiding inside it. There's a scene where Melville's describing the ship setting light to excess bits of whale as it sails along in the dark: the ship is burning and it's making the sea burn and the whole thing looks like it just got thrown up from hell. It's an absolutely great description, and, like his hilarious cetology, totally unexpected.

In fact, I'd have to say that I think Melville is the better writer of the two. Mieville has a cracker of a plot, and an exceptionally vivid writing style, but at the same time it feels a bit chaotic and unchained, all his mad descriptions and ideas pinwheeling about with not much focus. Melville handles delicate and serious just as well as he does crazy and bold, and as a result Moby Dick is less of an exhausting adrenalin rush and more of a stunning piece of artistry.

Both Kraken and Moby Dick are exciting and extremely fun - unexpectedly so in the case of Moby Dick. I'd certainly recommend them both, and I definitely enjoyed reading them, but even though I'd far and away prefer to hang out with Mieville the person, I think Moby Dick might just have the edge on its opponent in terms of sheer textual excellence.


RED: 4 stars
BLUE: 3.5 stars

AND SO RED WINS IT. I know, I was shocked too.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Delicious Death: Boris Akunin edition

As you may have noticed, I love crime novels. The dissertation that I should currently be writing (but I'm not, because I'm writing this) is, in essence, an excuse for me to read a lot of awesome detective fiction. I can't quite believe that I've managed to trick my department into letting me have so much fun.

For the love of god, never read this book
Now, as far as British detective fiction (and my dissertation) is concerned, the Golden Age is where it is at. Most recent British writers seem to me to be either Trying Too Hard To Be Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayer,  or Trying Too Hard To Not Be Like Them At All, and it makes for awkward, slightly painful reading (see: James, P. D.; also Rendell, Ruth, a writer so dreadful that even remembering the book I read by her makes me feel ill). In my opinion, the best stuff being written today as opposed to seventy years ago is not only not coming from Britain, it's not orginally in English at all.

Now, I know you think that's the lead-up to me starting to go googly-eyed over Scandinavian crime, to which I say: hah. Tricked you. I read a Henning Mankell once, and the experience was enough to last me a lifetime. For 450 pages, Wallander slowly stared up at the birds in the sky and slowly thought about the slow inevitability of death. Slowly. By page 100 I was hoping someone would do him in.

In fact, apart from the works of Anne Holt I've come to the conclusion that I'm not a very pro-Scandinavian person at all, and my two favourite contemporary crime writers are not from Sweden or Norway at all. They're Fred Vargas (French) and Boris Akunin (Georgian/ Russian), and they're awesome.

One day I will give Vargas (don't be fooled into thinking she's male, like me she is just trying to trick you with her name) a proper write-up, but today I'm mainly blogging about Boris Akunin.

If Akunin isn't known much around these parts, he more than makes up for it in Mother Russia. Think about our attitude to J. K. Rowling, imagine her as a writer of adult crime novels (which won't take much doing after September, actually) and you've pretty much got the way Russians feel about Akunin. Over there he is a god of popular fiction, and his detective, Erast Fandorin, is a literary hero, like Poirot but sexier.

The Fandorin series is set in late nineteenth century Imperial Russia (think Tolstoy with stabbings), and it follows the life of State Councillor Fandorin (his official title changes a lot, and trying to remember it makes me bewildered, but the essential point is that he is The Business, beloved of kings, emperors and actresses alike). Each novel lets us drop in on Fandorin at a certain point during his life - the first, The Winter Queen, is set when he's twenty and not yet cool, and by the time we get to Special Assignments, the one I've just read, he's about thirty-five and owns a very large house and several demanding mistresses.

The series (apart from being about crime and nineteenth century Russia) has an overarching theme, which in my view makes it especially cool: Akunin has identified thirteen subgenres of detective fiction (locked room, espionage, consipracy, country house and so on) and has written a Fandorin title for each of them. It's a brilliant idea, and means that the formula of the novels never begins to feel boring. In one book, Fandorin is creeping through back alleys in search of a mysterious evil, and in the next he's galloping about during the Russo-Turkish war. He goes on boats, he goes on trains, he goes to Japan and learns fabulous fighting moves and then he presumably does a lot of other stuff, but in later books that I haven't got to yet.

To be fair, Akunin's more a charming writer than a great one, and I'm also forced to conclude that there's stuff going on with the character of Fandorin's Japanese servant Masa that, if it isn't overtly racist, is definitely teetering on the edge of it. But all the same, the books are an enormous amount of fun to read. Their scenes are interesting, their plots are clever and they're laid out in a sharp, engaging, fast-paced way that means you can read 100 pages of one without even noticing.

It also doesn't hurt that Fandorin himself is a top-notch detective creation. He's got just the right balance of endearing quirks (he stutters and is somewhat strange) to sexy mystery (he has a troubled past and a startling ability to win every game of chance he plays), making him familiar but essentially unknowable and therefore insanely cool. He's even got that essential Man of Mystery accessory, a lock of pure white in an otherwise black head of hair. Ooh, Erast, you saucy thing.

As I said, I've just read Special Assignments, and I've got The State Councillor sitting on my bookshelf waiting for me to finish Moby Dick (sharp-eyed readers may have noticed the new 'currently reading' widget in the top right corner. At the moment I am on page 212 and Cap'n Ahab is being a FEROCIOUS CRUSTY DEVIL, but so far the White Whale is just rumour and hearsay). I am having surprising amounts of fun with Moby Dick (more on that later, and don't be so dirty-minded), but all the same the thought of Erast Fandorin pursuing wrongdoers on a train is a lot more enticing than 300 pages more of salty sea dogs harpooning each other (at this stage, the jokes are writing themselves). What can I say? Crime novels are fun, and good crime novels are things of endless delight.

In conclusion, if you like Russia, history, mystery and dark-haired men (and who does not?) you should put down your Scandinavian crime and your P. D. Jameses and read these books. Agatha Christie would definitely approve.