Friday, April 13, 2012

(No.194) Reading without disbelief


Alastair Rickard

The fiction genre in which I increasingly find reading enjoyment is the one variously called crime/mystery/police procedural. In this type of novel a key ingredient for me is a believable plot. Too many novels these days in this as well as other genres call for a suspension of disbelief by the reader that requires a crane.

From time to time I write columns for in which I recommend novels I have enjoyed reading but I try not to waste readers' time on novels unworthy of their attention. In the age of 3 minute attention spans plus Twitter and Facebook as substitutes for conversation and reading, I remain among those (like regular readers of RickardsRead) who are happy to spend time on 'long form' reading but not on what may be fashionable but is still rubbish.

What follows in this column are some comments about a few novels I have enjoyed reading and rereading recently. I include no 'spoiler alerts' since I avoid what incenses me elsewhere: reviews that ruin a novel one might enjoy reading by revealing too much of the plot.

I have just reread the first three novels by the Scottish writer Philip Kerr which feature the Berlin policeman and private detective Bernie Gunther: the first two set in the Berlin of the 1930s (March Violets and The Pale Criminal) and the third in post-war Berlin and Vienna (A German Requiem). They were republished in 1993 in one volume as Berlin Noir.

I have reviewed novels by Philip Kerr previously in these columns including the novels featuring Gunther which, after a long interval following the Berlin Noir novels, Kerr resumed writing. They are absolutely superb novels, wonderfully plotted and written. As with the European pre-war novels of American Alan Furst the atmosphere created by the writing and the sense of doom are almost palpable. It will not be the last time I reread these novels. I recommend them without reservation.

Rereading the Berlin Noir trilogy prompted me to think about novels that offer guaranteed pleasure to readers who share my tastes in fiction. There are many novels and authors among which to choose. I place in this category, for example, almost any by Alan Furst set in pre-war Europe and any of the novels by his countryman the superb novelist David Liss. I have praised the writing of both in these columns.

Lawrence Block has been for decades a prolific writer of crime novels set in the U.S. Perhaps his best known series has as its lead character the ex-NYPD detective and alcoholic Matthew Scudder. This character has aged through the course of more than a dozen novels. In his latest novel, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, Scudder reminisces with an old friend about his first year as a member of AA struggling to stay off booze while investigating several Manhattan murders. This story is up to Block's best standard.

I just encountered a police procedural series I quite enjoy. The novels are set in the small fictional English city of Crowby in the Midlands. The novels feature Detective Chief Inspector Frank Jacobson and Detective Sergeant Ian Kerr. Jacobson is an old style copper with little patience for modern police bureaucracy but with a very modern, almost liberal approach to cases and criminals. Kerr is preoccupied with his own extra-marital affairs.

The author is Iain McDowall. His plots are far from run-of-the-mill and his characters come alive. There are a half dozen novels in this series so far. Check out the recent Envy The Dead.

Another English author whose crime novels I have enjoyed recently is I.K. Watson. Some of the novels feature criminals, others have cops as their lead characters. All are dark, gritty and absorbing. In terms of cops as the lead characters, see A Little Bit of Previous; for one of Watson's novels with a criminal family as the focus, read Manor.

Finally I cannot recommend too highly a novel by English novelist and art historian Iain Pears titled Stone's Fall. It is so well written and plotted that it is a sort of literary equivalent to those small Russian 'egg dolls' that fit one inside the other, and then inside another and so on. The novel begins with a funeral in Paris in 1953, then a death in 1909 in London, to Paris in 1890 and to Venice in 1867. The plot is fascinating and the novel a gem.




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