Monday, June 9, 2014

(No.266) Conor Fitzgerald & Northcote Parkinson: Two series of novels


"Two series of novels: one by C. Northcote Parkinson,
the other by Conor Fitzgerald"

by Alastair Rickard

I believe that one of a book reviewer's most important as well as useful responsibilities is to the potential reader of the novel being reviewed to convey his or her level of enjoyment while reading the book. Because novels, like wine, are a matter of taste -- and some people's tastes are so self-consciously trendy as to be unreliable as a guide -- it is important for the reader to understand if certain literary genres are considered to be somehow unworthy by a reviewer.

I am always on the lookout for series of well-written novels anchored by an interesting continuing character. Recently I have been reading two such series.

Some readers will have been fans of the Royal Navy novels set in the age of sail and written by Patrick O'Brian (1914 - 2000). Gradually they (and he) achieved considerable popularity both in the U.K. and the U.S., O'Brian having written 20 complete novels in the Aubrey/Maturin series from 1970 to 1999. After his death O'Brian's rather unappealing secret life became known but by then he had surpassed even C.S. Forester as the most popular writer of British naval fiction.

Nautical fiction is a genre which many writers have entered in recent years but few have begun to approach O'Brian's success from creating two memorable characters: the Royal Navy officer Jack Aubrey and his friend Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon and spy.

Many years ago I happened across some novels by an English academic and civil servant C. Northcote Parkinson (1909 - 1993). Yes -- he is the same man who was the creator of Parkinson's Law ("work expands to fill the time available").

He wrote six novels which followed the naval life of a young man from the island of Guernsey named Richard Delancey. I recently reread these novels beginning with "The Guernseyman" published in 1973 and ending with"Dead Reckoning" (1978). All are in print.

O'Brian's naval series has writing and characters livelier than Parkinson's but the latter's plots are as absorbing and his grasp of the naval and political historical context for his novels superior rendering his fiction informative while still enjoyable reading. Rereading these novels by Parkinson one knows not only what certain events meant to specific characters but also how these events acquired their meaning.

If a reader enjoys naval adventures during the Napoleonic period then Parkinson's series of Delancey novels are very likely to be enjoyed as a worthwhile contribution to the genre. They are not nearly as well known today as they deserve to be and as various recent novels in this genre are but they have not been eclipsed by the work of those who came along later, not even O'Brian.

Turning to a different sort of fiction, one of my favourite policeman is Aurelio Zen, a Rome detective of the modern day created by the English writer Michael Dibdin who lived in Rome for several years and eventually settled in Seattle where he died at age 60 in 2007. He died while his Zen series was riding high with eleven novels published between 1988 and 2007.

Fictional police detectives, regardless of their nationality, are too often characters of unreflective self-assurance who come across to the reader as neither convincing nor coherent. Zen is a character at once interesting, irritating, brooding, frustrating -- and is as well-drawn as any fictional detective I have encountered.

So when I read references to a Rome detective named Alec Blume in a new series by Conor Fitzgerald my interest was piqued. However I was more than a little bit sceptical of promotional claims that Blume was the 'new Zen' and Fitzgerald the 'new ' Dibdin.

The first of the four novels in the series published thus far came out in 2010: "The Dogs of Rome". The lead character is Commissario Alec Blume, born in the U.S. but a man who has spent the majority of his 40+ years in Rome. As a politically inept but stubbornly skillful homicide detective his lack of both political skill and any inclination to abstain from annoying his superiors reminds one of Aurelio Zen but with different wrinkles.

Blume's creator, the businessman and novelist Conor Fitzgerald, was born in Limerick Ireland in 1981 but lives and works in Rome. Having read the first four Blume novels one after the other  (the fifth "Bitter Rivalry" will be published in August this year) I too am now prepared to say that Fitzgerald has created a continuing character as interesting and well-written as Dibdin's Aurelio Zen.

In terms of likely reader enjoyment as well as quality of writing in the detective/crime fiction genre I regard Fitzgerald's Commissario Alec Blume series of novels to be up there with Ian Rankin's Edinburgh detective Inspector John Rebus, from me high praise indeed.

Each of the Blume novels is as strong if not stronger than the one that preceded it.

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The six Delancey novels by C. Northcote Parkinson (published by McBooks Press):
The Guernseyman, Devil To Pay, The Fireship, Touch And Go, So Near So Far, Dead Reckoning 

The novels in the Commissario Alec Blume series (published by Bloomsbury):
The Dogs of Rome, Fatal Touch, Namesake, Memory Key and due out in August 2014 Bitter Rivalry.

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email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog:  www.RickardsRead.com

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