Tuesday, December 10, 2013

(No.252) Recently published novels: some good reading, some great


"Recently published novels: some good reading, some great"

by Alastair Rickard

The English critic Cyril Connolly once observed that literary critics had the thankless task of drowning other people's kittens. For this self-imposed critical role writers of fiction are mostly and understandably unsympathetic. As the screenwriter Chrisopher Hampton declared: "asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp post how it feels about dogs."

In my RickardsRead columns on novels I escape the frequent  role of the critic to which Connolly and Hampton refer by reviewing books I have enjoyed at least to some degree.

Some book reviewers feel the urge to draw blood in order to show off their sharp edge. Others revel in taking the role of the termagant when writing abut novels. While I can and do indulge in what some regard as shrewish comment, when it comes to fiction I usually don't.

I do refrain from issuing praise comprehensively, like rain falling on the just and the unjust. I see no point in wasting the time of the readers of RickardsRead.com (or mine, for that matter) recommending  books that make for inferior reading even when they are superior examples of how not to write.

In the column that follows I present my views of six recently published novels, three by British novelists and three by Americans. All of these new works by long-established novelists provide enjoyable reading although not of equal accomplishment.

Michael Connelly is a former California reporter who wrote a series of very good 'police procedural' novels featuring LAPD detective Harry Bosch. The author is now well along with another series in which the central character is Bosch's half-brother, an LA criminal defence lawyer named Mickey Haller who operates out of his limousine, hence the title of the first book in the series "The Lincoln Lawyer".

The latest book in this series is "The Gods of Guilt", a story that is absorbing and set principally in and around an LA courtroom as Haller and his small team defend a client who, unusually for them, is actually innocent in this case of the murder of a prostitute with which Haller's pimp/client has been charged. Neither the police in LA nor the California judicial system come off looking well. It is a great story well written by a novelist who knows his way around the courts, the police and the bestseller list.

John Lawton is an accomplished English novelist who has, among other books, written seven novels featuring a Scotland Yard detective Inspector Troy, from a wealthy upper class family but very far from being a Lord Peter Wimsey-style twit. The series follows him from being a beat constable in the 1930s through post-war England.

Lawton's latest novel, "Then We Take Berlin" is not one of the Troy series. It follows the central character, Joe Holderness, from his lower class London adolescence during the years of W.W.II as an apprentice burglar through being drafted just after the war into the Royal Air Force and then, because of a superior IQ test, taken into British intelligence and sent to post-war Berlin, ending up by the 1960s as an undistinguished London private detective. From that role he is drawn back into a Berlin scheme by a former associate.

The plot is absorbing and the writing is up to Lawton's usual high standard. It is the sort of novel that, once begun, one hates to put down.

Robert Harris is an English novelist and former journalist whose books have covered an impressively wide range of subjects and periods, from ancient Rome to a Germany in the 1950s that had not lost the war. In fact this latter novel, "Fatherland", is one of my favourites.

Harris' novels are impressively researched and then presented as highly credible and informative historical fiction. With his latest novel, "An Officer And A Spy", he takes the famous 19th century French political scandal known ever after as the Dreyfus Affair and makes of it a truly riveting story.

Alfred Dreyfus was a captain in the French army and a Jew from a wealthy family at a time of blatant anti-Semitism in French society. He was falsely convicted by the military of spying for France's arch enemy Germany and transported to complete isolation on Devil's Island. His story and its outcome is told through the eyes and words of a French intelligence officer who, becoming convinced that Dreyfus had been railroaded, is instrumental in his eventual release.

This novel, based on an historical case for which much documentation is available, has been turned by Harris into a fascinating novel. It is also further evidence of Harris' superior skills as a novelist.

For me among many other readers the Scottish novelist Ian Rankin is one of the very best crime genre novelists writing in the English language. He is a real favourite of mine as is the character he created and followed in a long standing series of novels -- Edinburgh Detective Inspector John Rebus. He is a joy to read about (although not to know).

A few years ago Rankin retired Rebus from the force and created a new continuing character in the police, Malcolm Fox, an investigator in the Edinburgh police unit called "The Complaints", the title of the first Fox novel, the sort of police unit which in the U.S. is customarily called 'Internal Affairs'. In terms of the rules, their styles and their respective approach to their work Rebus and Fox are opposites.

In his latest novel "Saints Of The Shadow Bible" Rebus is back in the force although on a short term basis, now in reduced rank as a sergeant, and working on an old case which involves a former group of detectives with whom he was a colleague. Also involved with the case from a different direction is Malcolm Fox.

This novel is everything one expects from Ian Rankin: superior writing and a finely  plotted story.

Archer Mayor is a Vermont novelist who, many novels ago, began the story of a Vermont policeman and Vietnam veteran named Joe Gunther. Joe's cases have been varied as have the cases with which he and his small band of detectives have become involved.

The latest in the Gunther series, "Three Can Keep A Secret", has Joe and his bunch involved in a series of cases arising because or in the wake of Hurricane Irene hitting the state hard. The novel is the sort of enjoyable reading one has come to expect from Mayor but it is not a book that offers either writing or plot on a par with the foregoing novels.

Nor does the latest novel (the 7th) by the bestselling American novelist John Sandford featuring the Minnesota state police detective Virgil Flowers who works rural and small town parts of the state. "Storm Front" is an interesting enough tale in which the pursuit of a holy relic to Minnesota by an assortment of middle eastern characters provides levers for Flowers to pull when not polishing his bass boat.

Sandford knows how to keep an interesting story moving along briskly as he has done in his other multi-volume series also set in Minnesota featuring a tough urban cop named Lucas Davenport. Flowers reports to Davenport but doesn't replicate his traits.

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When next I devote a column on RickardsRead to books I may focus on several worthwhile
non-bestsellers, unusual in authors and subjects, out of the mainstream but still in print.

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About this column:

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

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