Monday, May 27, 2013

(No.236) What I read after the dog ate my column on insurance


"What I read after the dog ate my column on insurance: 
novels by Jose Latour, Peter Robinson and Eric Ambler"

by Alastair Rickard

I have been delinquent of late in posting new columns to RickardsRead.com while Pat and I have been travelling. This column restarts the process.

Earlier this month a major British newspaper, The Daily Mail, published a list of the top 10 crime fiction "masterminds" ranked by their worldwide sales. Several of my favourite crime fiction novelists were included: Ian Rankin (#5), Michael Connolly (#6), Lee Child (#7) and Peter Robinson (#9). Of course many of my favourite novelists were not on the list.

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Jose Latour (born 1940) is a Cuban novelist who lived and worked in Castro's Cuba for years. In 2002, fearing dictatorial repression because of his novel writing (which he was now doing in English) Latour and his family moved to Spain in 2002 and to Canada in 2004 where he now lives.

I have enjoyed reading his novels including Havana Best Friends (2002) and Comrades In Miami(2005). In that same category of enjoyment I include his latest novel published only as an ebook: "Riders of Land and Tide" (2012). As one has come to expect from Latour, this latest novel is a nuanced picture of Cuban life under Fidel Castro.

Latour has written most effectively about the reality of life in Cuba after the Castro revolution of 1959. Indeed he does so with the sort of insight and balance often missing from work by North American writers.

The plot of "Riders of Land and Tide" is intricate and tells the past lives of several Cuban and American characters from pre-revolutionary Cuba to the mid-1980s when their lives come together in a most intriguing fashion and a violent conclusion.

It is typical of Latour that a fascinating story is both well written and credible, one that reaches its climax at Cayo Largo on Cuba's south shore.

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Peter Robinson is an Englishman who moved to Canada in 1974. In the years since he has become a successful international crime fiction writer.

My wife Pat became a follower of Robinson's fiction early in his career and has been a faithful reader ever since. I learned of him through her.

Most of Robinson's novels feature Detective Chief Inspector Banks and are set in the fictional Yorkshire town of Eastvale.. His life as it has played out in a series of novels has featured a succession of problematic relationships -- ex-wife, adult children, police colleagues.

Banks himself is not an especially likeable person [Pat disagrees; but, she says, "I do seem to find redeeming qualities in most people]. As a homicide detective, Banks easily becomes obsessive. Robinson gives him wonderful plot paths to follow.

The latest Banks novel, "Watching The Darkness", is set in both Yorkshire and the Baltic state of Estonia where Robinson spent time teaching a university course and absorbing Estonian history and atmosphere -- and making good use of both in this novel.

"Watching The Darkness" revolves around two murders in England and the disappearance in Estonia six years previously of a young Englishwoman. The novel is interesting, the plot believable and the writing well up to Peter Robinson's customary high standard.

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Eric Ambler, who died in 1998 at age 89, has been described as a writer of thrillers who led the way for other English writers like John Le Carre and Len Deighton.

Beginning in 1936 he wrote a series of novels that featured 'ordinary' protagonists in situations of political intrigue for which they were poorly equipped.

For me these novels do not foreshadow fiction by Le Carre or Deighton so much as the later fine fiction set in pre-WWII and wartime Europe (especially post-1933 Germany) of Robert Kerr, Alan Furst and the Berlin 'station' novels by David Downing.

Recently a number of Ambler's early novels have been reissued in softcover  under the Vintage Crime designation published by Black Lizard Vintage Books.

"Journey Into Fear" (originally published in 1940 reissued 2002) was written and set in Europe during the 'phoney war' period post- Sept.1939 and pre-Dunkirk.

It is a suspense spy thriller novel to be sure but it calls up this strange period of European history before the German invasion of France very effectively using the plot of an escape from Turkey by an English armaments engineer.

In an afterword to his novel "Epitaph for a Spy" (1952/2002) Ambler argued that "it is difficult to think of any fictional spy story of note written more than fifty years ago" (he wrote these words in 1951) ... But there have been few good spy stories. ... I wrote "Epitaph for a Spy" in 1937 and it was a mild attempt at realism. The central character is a stateless person (fairly unusual then), there are no professional devils, and the only Britisher in the story is anything but stalwart. I still like bits of it."

So do I. "Epitaph For a Spy" is an interesting novel and one that holds up rather well after seventy-five years.

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email: Alastair Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

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