The Black Echo by Michael Connelly (Orion)

“The boy couldn’t see in the dark, but he didn’t need to.”

How to write a best seller? Michael Connelly has sold 80 million copies of his books. This is how he began…

Bosch wakes from a Vietnam nightmare. The pager rings. There is a body down the pipe. First smoke of the day. First  Aspirins of the day. Uniforms are disturbing a crime scene. Sorry about that, says the sergeant. Already the jargon is flying – the ME, the SID, the hype, the spike, the DB = dead body. Bosch hitches up his Smith and Wesson 9mm, covers for his partner, moonlighting as an estate agent. Fill in some background, some LA scenery, sky blue, wisps of white, nothing over the top just a few social mentions of the drought and wondering who the damn was built for, a few smells of crops being sprayed.

He is a tough guy. Wiry say the newspapers. The ex-tunnel rat is going down a pipe again to find the body. Something is not right. This is page 11. Pathology arrive…

There are currently 25 Harry Bosch books. Plus another 12 including the Lincoln Lawyer and Mickey Haller. This was Michael Connelly’s first. Written in 1992. There are other reviews here and here and and here and here!

The style is more script than novel, a camera chases the action, thoughts are engrained, cliches burnished, dialogue combative.

Bosch is trying to get through to the station. He admonishes:

Somebody could die in the time it took to answer this phone. “Get me the duty sergeant.”

It is a small detail but already it tells us, on page 4, if we are being fictional detectives here, that Bosch has little truck with bureaucracy, with the uniforms and does not mind saying so. He has a higher calling. Death. Or rather the aftermath. Vietnam, LA what is the difference? This is the south and he is wearing a gun. The duty sergeant is not so much sheriff, but an old Gunsmoke Chester clinking the keys to the jail.

But also another perspective is already nailed – he is on call, he sleeps in a chair fully dressed, insomniac, stiff, going grey, 40 something, forgot to buy toothpaste. And that is one of Connelly’s great skills – he can ram in the details fast and loose so before you skip a chapter you feel informed. We know we are in LA. We know there are things going on. Things we can relate to. Or not. The dead man has a broken finger. Harry notices these things. He is the pivot around which everything revolves.

Do we care about the victim? Hardly, maybe only retrospectively. Harry is the now. We care that Harry gets it sorted, whatever. Murder, fine. Ordering a take-out, fine.

Harry has a back story. He has a mother too, she also has a backstory. Harry is not trying to date Hollywood starlets, he is down the pipe looking for a discarded half can of Coke that might have been used as a stove to cook some heroin. The whole Uncle-Sam-gets-the-job-done is loaded up in Harry’s pistol.

I have not, as yet, passed page 20…

The literary nuts and bolts are:

  • a journey around Los Angeles
  • a sequential set of clues
  • scenes drawn in dialogue
  • back story characterisation

Bosch was thrown out of RH – robbery and homicide – for being too tough.

We don’t get any pause in the unrolling of events, no storytelling, until page 68, when Bosch gets home and has a beer. Connelly allows himself a little extra colour, relaxing the text along with his hero with a little description:

“The setting sun burned the sky pink and orange in the same bright hues as the surfers’ bathing suits.”

And we get to know our man a bit more. By page 72 we find out why this book is called Black Echo. Connelly shies away from obvious titles. This is no Strange Death of H Meadows. Or Good Cop Down.

The plot then takes a mighty swerve. Woaw! And we have this wonderful piece of description about deputy chief Irvin Irving’s teeth, a portrait that might stand against any example of fine American writing.

We have moved into a different plane now, it is army v police enforcement. I still have not reached page 100…356 to go…

Apart from Thelia King, also known as King or preferably Elvis, in computer records, a few distant mothers and a blonde jogger, we have not encountered any women so far. Enter la femme on page 132. What can she make of this outsider, this rough diamond, this unreconstructed southern male? Is there a heart of gold or just the unreformed unreformable? Part three – woman v man. Quite how this going to break down has its own frisson, although we gather she can take care of herself…but now the balance is more about them than the deceased.

“Harry”, she says, “That’s speculation on top of speculation.”

“That’s what cops do,” he replies.

By page 199 we are offered a moral construct, the prison within the prison system, but this one  exclusively for the veterans. We get our man back. Even should they fall and get sent to goal, there is a prison farm for ex-vets to rehabilitate and straighten them out.

By this point, and maybe it is because over the years I have become, we have become as readers and watchers of TV detective crimos, hardwired. Person A is not going to survive. Harry will, he has other capers to assign. The villain is person B. It is a crossword puzzle. The key is in the box. It is a crime scene Sudoko. We are getting there. It can only be… and then we get a third swerve in the plot. We move from micro to macro. Woaw!!

Connelly has a habit, I won’t call it a device, of sometimes handing the camera over to another character for a few paragraphs or even pages, so you get to see inside their lives, their heads too. And then every now and then out pops a piece of A1 description:

“Porter could still wear a size 34 belt, but above it a tremendous gut bloomed outward like an awning…His face was gaunt and as pallid as a flour tortilla, behind a drinker’s nose that was large, misshapen and painfully red.”

When he wants. He can. Write.

We know now this becomes a series of Bosch books but at heart this original is a novel about the Vietnam veteran making his way back into society through police work.

Overshadowing everyone is the city itself. Los Angeles earns more character traits than its inhabitants, like it is a breathing mass, Wiltshire, Olympic, Robertson, Doheny might be round the corner.

And what Connelly is also masterly at is the action sequences, in one case he actually says it was like watching a slow motion movie reel. Or here:

“He was gripping the steering wheel at the ten and two o’clock positions, urging the car on as if he held the reins of a galloping horse.”

It is all very specific, mundane even, relentless and believable. We are in the front seat with him. We are drinking coffee with him. We are interviewing the suspect with him. We are in his head. Searchlights on. Brain ticking. Gun to hand. We are his silent partner in all things, except when he has to go to the wash room, which he does, rather occasionally. And as a former crime reporter for the LA Times, he knows his patch.

It may have spawned a series, but it is a grand novel in its own right, even if the ending is a little too forced, just a tad hammy, but Harry will drive you there in style, I might have taken a different fork in the road plotwise, but Harry’s driving.

Posted in 101greatreads, fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The honjin murders by Seishi Yokomizo (Pushkin)

“Before recording the strange history that follows, I felt I ought to take a look at the house where such a gruesome murder was committed.”

THERE is a masterly, writerly opening to this classic Japanese crimo. Yokomizo introduces himself as the crime writer who stumbles over a real life murder. It is a locked-room-murder theme, he tells us straightaway, styled after the author of that rather clunky phrase John Dickson Carr and followed also by other crime writers of the genre Gaston Leroux, Maurice LeBlanc, S.S. Van Dine and Roger Scarlett who have told similar Cluedo-esque tales. But none them, he tells us, can quite have imagined what happened at this honjin, an old tavern exclusively reserved for royalty and aristocracy. Later there is an interesting discovery of a library of detective books which also reference other writers of the pre-war genre.

So we proceed to the wedding from hell with a certain Japanese scrupulous focus on the gory but also a scrupulous forensic unpacking of the detective work; almost an algorithm of minutiae of process. This locked-room has secrets. These people have ancestry. This valley is full of gossip.

“There’s a suspicious smell in the air and it is getting right up my nose,” declares the uncle

Enter the unlikely looking detective Kosuke Kindaicho (whom this blog has met in a later incarnation here). Yokomizo acknowledges he has based him on his favorite British author AA Milne’s Anthony Gillingham in the popular Red House Mystery, a 1922 book (written more than decade before the locked-room epithet was coined and Milne’s only mystery story). This honjin has also been painted red.

Kosuke is the master of logic and reason, a Sherlock Holmes in a splash pattern dyed hakama with a stammer. And almost as eccentic. There are more than a few Holmes accents here including Kosuke’s drug use plus his magical powers of deduction.

Suspicions swirl. Each chapter has its own thesis as the evidence is slowly unravelled. The conclusion is complicated, but with nods to both Sherlock and to Agatha Christie. The cover photo above is from the Japanese version, both a clue and a red herring in itself.

Posted in 101greatreads, fiction | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Death on Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo (Pushkin)

“Seventeen miles south of Kasaoka…is a tiny island, measuring barely five miles in circumference, its name is Gokumon-to, meaning Hell’s Gate Island.”

GIVEN what Hollywood has done to terms like Hell’s Gate, I am not sure the English translation applies here, more Gokumon might be the island of adversarial spirits and ancestors, a closed island that has survived the trauma of war but has its own sub culture, if you like by omission from the rest of Japan and the 20th century. I enjoyed this leisurely, rural Japanese crimo, for the wrong reasons, or at least not the reasons why it was first penned. This you might say is Japanese noir, 1945.  Seishi Yokomizo captures the clash of old and new as the war subsides, the moody countryside, the weather and the people on this small island where pirates still roam offshore and the macho fishermen are not quite as brave as they seem. Maybe the fanciful plot is secondary or even tertiary like one of those classic oil portraits where the face is fairly blank and all the interest is around it, in the clothes, the room and the view out of the window. Even the violence is totemic. Everyone on the island is nervous, not least of strangers. We meet the pretty, batty sisters, the priests, the divided family, the doctor, the jolly policeman, the gossipy barber, the tidemaster et al…and later we will even discover their ancestors. The dialogue is a bit manga so we get a lot of “Oh, but that is impossible!” but it works as scaffolding to hang all these various threads of the grand puzzle together.

Kosuke, an investigator, is back from the war, with a letter and mission, to the island where his best friend’s family are notables. He is prone to long silences while he is thinking, and scratching his head of thick hair. Each time bad things are coming his heart beats faster and when confronted by a victim he shudders and sweats. In crime scene analogy he is more Endeavour than Morse, more heartbroiled than hardboiled.

Yokomizo teases out through the conversations a bigger portrait of a passing society, customs are unpredictable, norms are at odds even probably to Tokyo readers confronted with this far outpost where past bonds, the temple and shamanic traditions still hold sway. The ending is suitably involved, colourfully imagined and elaborate. Yokomizo wrote more than 70 stories and died in 1981. This work just creeps in to the 21st century definition of this blog thanks to Louise Heal Kawai’s new and welcome translation. If you have read Guillaume Musso’s Secret Lives, then I will just say that his final denouement, is the starting point here…

Posted in 101greatreads, fiction | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Office of Gardens and Ponds by Didier Decoin (Maclehose Press)

“Following a long confinement and strict observance of the eating restrictions associated with bereavement….”

A STRANGE lash up of old Japanese folklore with Gallic machismo teeters on the edge of being a fine read full of intriguing descriptions and sparkling interactions and then bumps along on an Edgar Rice Burroughs style adventure yarn. It would be interesting to compare this with Burroughs and Tarzan and views on other heritable elites.  The mundane title might equally. and more literally. have been the Journey of Carp Fisherman’s Widow.

Decoin has published more than 20 books in France, and spent many years researching all this background. Miyuki is wrapped in as as many adjectives as layers of kimonos. She is almost a naïve, encountering strange personalities:

“…an elderly woman with a bloated face, a snub nose, and a large wide mouth, moist like a toad’s, whose body seemed to float within a smock squeezed into red trousers…”

The images of courtly Japan feel, even smell, which is a theme, as close as perhaps we can get to the 12th century or thereabouts.  

The relationships also beg attention, even the unrequited ones; people we meet on the way at the monastery, and at the court itself could have been spun out some more, if Miyuki were not so passive, although she did win Decoin a bad sex award for:

“Katsuro’s penis had tasted of raw fish, of warm young bamboo shoots, and of fresh almonds…”

She is on a journey to the office of gardens of the title, a young widow in wild, middle ages Japan, weighed down by the carp she is delivering. The sexual imagery is pretty overt.  You can guess it will a reach a climax at the imperial palace, with a contest, of course, evolved here from the ceremony of kodo, being the way of fragrance.

The final pages return us to the elegance of a deeper story, a surprisingly touching end that dispels some of the doubts that probably have built up on the way.

Posted in 101greatreads, fiction | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Cooking by Jeremy Lee (Fourth Estate)

“The simple truth I’ve learned from a lifetime of cooking is that good food is honed from fine ingredients”.

THAT opening sentence may not sound so radical, so revolutionary but it is a statement of courage and intent, the kernel of an idea that even in our fast food infected times, stands out as a prime virtue and validation of both the pleasure in cooking but also its why and its wherefores.

We all love Jeremy. Or those of us who follow such things. He is the most exuberant of cooks. So here we have the exuberant cookbook, boy from Scotland comes down to London and finds his way through the kitchens that have helped define modern British cooking – Bibendum, Blueprint Café, Quo Vadis.

Radio 4 marked the publication with a heartwarming valediction, one I could have written 40 years or so ago, did write 40 or so years ago. It takes a while for the BBC to catch up. Sadly it was prompted also by the death of one Jeremy’s compadres and mentors Alastair Little. I coined the term modern British cooking in 1985, after lunch at Little’s with Jeremy Round. Lee was in the kitchen.

A cadre of intelligent, book-reading chaps took over the stoves, eschewing stocks and sauces for simple olive oil. The old cooking was about suppressing the ingredients, disguising them, it was a tomato sauce so who cares what kind of tomato, but Little, Simon Hopkinson, Roley Leigh, Mark Hix, and a solitary female in Sally Clarke and later Ruth Rodgers championed the ingredients themselves, like Alice Waters in San Francisco who called it her light bulb moment, and to an extent Michel Guerard in France whose sauce vierge managed to straddle two eras. It was an intellectual change, a breaking out of the disciplined hierarchy of cuisine laid down by Escoffier. A return to the market. A need to discover the true value of a tomato. To say, enough, it is a tomato. And also an emancipation by which a single chef could take back control of the cuisine from the brigades.

Lee writes:

“It was a new kind of cooking best summed up by dishes such as a whole grilled seabass or sardines dressed only with superb olive oil and lemon.”

There are some lovely old bits of language revived here. An ashet being an old Scottish term for a large serving dish, a charger for a larger platter on to which you might put a salmagundi being an assembly of many – not just meat and two veg but more than a dozen vegetable and salad leaves or so – different ingredients, topped with a single showpiece like a roast chicken or a whole fish. Cecils are small meats balls. Sippets are smaller variations on croutons, an old southern Italian device for turning breadcrumbs into things of significance by mixing them with parsley and garlic, black olives, sherry to such a point that one recipe detailed here is simply spaghetti with lemon and fennel flowers..and breadcrumbs.

Salads, as the grower Frances Smith says on Radio 4, were grown to stretch the market, open up new avenues, to make a point that lettuce dos not mean one thing, one lettuce, but many varieties, each with their own characteristics. That diversity is important.  And the job of the kitchen is to understand that and show it off. One hand me down of this approach, pioneered by Smith, is actually rocket, once rare and obscure, now ubiquitous, available to all. Hurrah.

These days when the recipe book weighs more than the chicken you are cooking, there is the question of where or how to read such a tome – because for all the fandango of photos and lovely illustrations, this is is at heart a reading book full of intelligent culinary diversions. I used to read these kind of books in the public library where you had a table and space to write notes.

Even for old stagers like myself there are tips I may follow like the caramelised apples in the rummage of the salmagundi, like blanching the lemons for 30 minutes before slicing the skins thinly, but mostly I will turn to it for the things I don’t usually cook like the pies, the tarts, the pastry.

This was written in lockdown, a sort of pared down restaurant book designed for home use although some of the elements you may find hard to uncover outside of Soho, and some of the processes you might need to be in lockdown again to have the time.

Lee credits a lot of his enthusiasm to his mother and father, and any aspiring young cook reading this might well be jealous of such parents. That they could approach food in this manner in the ‘50s and ‘60s just north of Dundee is a statement in itself.  It could be done, even if, as he laments, many of the Dundee bakers of his childhood have disappeared.  In that sense this book is important because it sets out a stall. It connects the kitchen with the producers and countryside, in a way that is second nature in France and Italy but here even now is too often spuriously confused. This is a book that may change your mind more even than your cooking. The best reason to cook at all, as Lee points out, is that you want to eat what you want. And you will probably want to eat quite a lot of this…

Posted in 101greatreads, Non fiction | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Trees by Percival Everett (Influx Press)

BY itself the cherry tree front cover and title Trees might suggest, visually at least, some rural Celtic saga of family strife, but the insides quickly disabuse that notion. We are in Mississippi noir territory, noir in the sense of a multiple murders, noir in that we half know this story from history, noir in the sense of black humour, noir in the sense of a missing cadaver (black), noir in the sense of the seemingly amiable detective duo Ed Morgan and Jim Davis sent to unravel the mystery in the unwelcoming white town of Money. This is is Mississippi, as the police chief points out, spelled out MI and crooked letters-crooked letters – I – crooked letters-crooked letters I-P-P-I. If the satire is broad stroke bravura, the secrets in Mama Z’s backroom are precise.

The only description afforded the girl in Dinah’s Diner is ‘slender’. Her name tag says Dixie, which earns more tips than Gertrude. We are dialogue dependent here, sitcom slapstick, although the names like the coroner Dr Revered Fondle, Granny C, Lulabelle and Little Tallahatchie spell out the south as in a town with a ‘tradition of irony and nescience’. Granny C is the Carolyn Bryant whose testimony led to the lynching of Emmet Till, Bryant and Milam are children of Till’s killers.

Percival Everett, a professor of English in south California, has written more than 30 books, so perhaps, like Alan Garner for Treacle Walker, there is an element of saluting a life’s work in listing this in the Booker long list. It is a very untypical Booker listing. Short sentences. No descriptions. Fast. Twisted. Easy reading. This is chapter 71, in its entirety:

“Ho to Hind: ‘What the hell is going on?”

The social order is inverted. Bigotry and racism perhaps do not brook much depth, spouses are typically overweight and marooned in sofas, but putting the good guys in uniforms only gives them a little more padding. These are cops who have chicken sandwiches for lunch. It is the women who move through these pages and make the novel shake and tremble. They have the pizzazz, the ownership of the moral compass: Medical examiner Helvetica Quip, divorcee from a pyramid selling husband, FBI agent Herbeta Hind…we departed from real-time history some pages ago and moved into a one dimensional black comedy, a strip cartoon-town, clichés that don’t need to be said anymore, the post apocalyptic that never is/was…Everett teases out the humour, almost tickles it in the police procedurals, sly, conspiratorial, clever, fun, like he is telling a story on his front porch, like he is old enough, now, to tell this story which might have been too much for anyone closer to tell safely.

The real time population today of Money is down to less than 100; in the 1950s it was upwards of 400 supported by a cotton mill. Mama Z’s parents, it is briefly noted, were slave master and a slave. This is back of backwoods America. The delta diaspora has washed its guilt away. Here is revenge, of a sort.

Posted in 101greatreads, fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Secret Life of Writers by Guillaume Musso (Weidenfield & Nicolson)

“The wind was slapping at the sails in a dazzling sky.”

THE opening quote is from Umberto Eco: ‘To survive, you must tell stories.” By half way through this page-turner thriller,  you may have counted six or is that seven separate stories? And more are on the way. Before any narrative reaches a brick wall, up comes another one. Another twist. There is hardly any time to get to know anyone before the gears change again.

There is a particular skill to writing the kind of chapters that end on a tease, the melodramatic cliff hanger, the omg what is up next? Musso is a master.

We are on a mythical island of millionaires, Beaumont, into which we have a cast connected by their writing aspirations, the student wannabe author, the reclusive writer, the bookshop owner, the journalist. Musso has sold apparently 33 million copies across 40 countries and is France’s best selling author. Some of the humour is probably lost in translation, but not the accent of blanquette de veau or the bureaucratic proclamations issued by authorities to close off the island, or the egos of all concerned. Raphael, our narrator, is on a mission, but then so is everyone else, and so have others been as the past creeps up.

What sets out as a friendly social interplay, somehow manages to wrap up all the loose ends into one gigantic bag of a finale, well actually more than one. You won’t see it coming, because you are not expected to…Excellent beach reading.

Posted in 101greatreads, fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Treacle Walker by Alan Garner (Fourth Estate)

“Ragbone! Ragbone! Any rags! Pots for rags.”

THERE is a fair amount of subtext here, which you might, or might not, need. A little Latin may help. Alan Garner’s first work was published in 1963. He has been admired and influential since then for his children’s myth, and fantasy overlaid with a thick layer of Cheshire folk tales, some of which pop up here. His previous book Boneland published in 2013 had a 13 year old boy with amnesia, and we have not strayed too far by the time we meet Joe.

This is a poem rather than a novel, one you could share happily with a child at bedtime. Joe’s comic book world is coming to life. This is not a world into which anyone else can stray, mind you – no girls, no adults, no dinner, no phones, no pets. We are in the present tense, and that in a sense is the point, or one of many points that readers of other Garner books may conject. Some of the linguistics are great fun, some with antecedents some probably without, applications for next years OED. Amblyonic, is Joe’s condition. Flustication has previous and so apparently does hurlolumberjobs. YIKES!

Part of the achievement here is to write this unbelievable story in a way that is believable. It is beautifully produced in big type with a fine etching on the front and a great title, Treacle Walker, who is Joe’s avatar.

That it is long listed for the Booker prize this year is perhaps in part the literati wanting to honour Garner, but it is very welcome to see such work on the list at all. Introducing writers like Garner to a new audience is what such prizes should be about.

Posted in 101greatreads, Biography, fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (Faber)

In October there were yellow trees.”

A SLIM slice of rural Ireland, from not so long ago. You might see this as an addendum to the bigger Irish politics covered in Fintan O’Toole’s We Don’t Know Ourselves.

It is short, moving, laden in tension, possibilities, narrative, beautiful description, but also in getting underneath the covers with the girls of Billy Furlong’s small young family, and his own fears. As the local coal and timber merchant Furlong gets about on his deliveries.

Sentences are crisp. Each chapter opener more a poem: “Furlong had come from nothing.”  “Christmas was coming”. “It was a December of crows”. You might want to put the kettle on and make a cup of tea before reading on too far, such are the Dickensian, dramatic vibrations.

At 110 pages, it is a short book to be listed for the Booker Prize, Keegan has focussed on short stories so far rather than novels, but no harm in that if it brings people back to reading, if only for being more accessible. “A story needs to be as long as it needs to be,” she has been quoted as saying. Here there is hardly a word out of place. Her earlier work Foster has been slated for a film as the Quiet Girl. Masterly.

I would offer a bit more detail but… spoiler spoiler spoiler…father, father, father.

Posted in 101greatreads, fiction | Tagged | Leave a comment

We Don’t Know Ourselves by Fintan O’Toole (Head of Zeus)

“My parents’ wedding photograph always reminds me of a frontier town in an old western.”

FOR anyone with a passing curiosity as to the unfolding events in Ireland over the last 60 years, this will be a rewarding, insightful, enjoyable and intelligent narrative. As the counsel for the defence might say: the facts in this matter are well known. But our witness here was born there, lived, there, worked there and as a reporter knew and covered the antics of many of the protagonists, large and small. He was the man who stayed behind, while many emigrated.

I was reading this at the bus stop in Clerkenwell, London when a nun, from her accent Irish, who was passing noticed and stopped to say: Good on yer.  In parts this is also a testament. O’Toole is yer man.

It might be hard to write a similar chronicle of say Britain, say England, say even Wales, but Ireland has its own shared story, if only on the level of language and to an extent politics. And Ireland has things in capital letters like Sin, like Social, like Crack, like Shame and most obviously the Troubles. O’Toole unpacks each of them like so many stories you might tell in the pub.

One striking element is just how much has changed over the span of time, notably the waning of the powers of the Catholic church and the arrival of what we might call modernity. It is a long story told in eloquent short journalistic snap shots from when he was born right up to the Now. O’Toole is knowingly informed from a life of what used to be called letters, to watching from the journalistic sidelines, of maintaining his neutrality where everything around seems to have become tribal. But it is also a history from someone who has read the Beano, who sits/sat at the apex and who has a ribald sense of humour, even as he uncovers some of the country’s darkest secrets. In that sense he is more akin to Hunter S Thompson (without the drugs) or Thomas Wolfe or a renegade newsreader.

There is a lovely anecdote about the time when the pill was still banned in southern Ireland and a group of women crossed the border to get supplies from the north. On arrival, the chemist informed them they needed a prescription. Undeterred, they bought aspirins instead and brought their protest back with them brandishing the pills, with no one the wiser, their point well made.

O’Toole’s long experience of writing around the local polemics has allowed him to burnish the arguments here to masterly effect.

Posted in Biography | Tagged | 1 Comment