The Sleeping Car Murders by Sebastien Japrisot (Gallic)

IN translation we get a cottage garden style of English not the sprawling, homogenizing white sauce of the ruined mansions of quasi English language. The cathedral once constructed by Dickens is reduced to a semi in suburbia, a bungalow on a beach, a portakabin.

And yet translation has the one advantage: it is foreign; to us English speakers, English readers. We are travellers. We explore.  Part of the charm of this French crimo is just simply the being in France, the glass of beer in a café, the waiter who wants paying so he can go home, the fading film star eyeing up the young policeman, the ugly man with a conscience, the girl anxious to monogram her own clothes like she is at boarding school, the young detective who believes everyone is guilty. Small Gallic traits, definably French or rather NOT English NOT British NOT even politically correct. Abroad. It feels like writing without boundaries but local rules do apply: there is a story to tell, an entertainment, there is a certain back to basics. This story is told by someone, by a witness, by a policeman, a suspect, a guilty conscience, a record of an overheard conversation on the stairs of a hotel. We slip into the consciousness of the time, not just Paris, but France pre 1962, when this was first published, and in fact set a little earlier yet in an era where policemen could not afford their own phones.

The Saturday night event is a boxing bill, sometimes the women too move like boxers…A woman is strangled on the night train…enter the cast of the local precinct…

The world freezes for a moment in search of justice and truth.  In the pantheon of euro-detectives Japrisot is closer to Simenon, this is Maigret without the vindictive ego, in this case a loose canon…this was a first crime novel, apparently written to pay off a tax bill. In fact his first book, published under his real name Jean-Baptiste Rossi – an anagram for his later pseudonym – The Awakening about a 14 old boy at a Jesuit school who has a passionate affair with a 26 year old nun – sold nearly a million copies in America. He translated among other things Hopalong Cassidy westerns and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye into French, then moved into advertising and film (where his credits also include The Story of O, although he said he preferred to write his novels to make his own films). This new edition may go some way way to resurrecting an interesting reputation.

He is a rare beast having won across 50 years of writing a Golden Dagger for crime writing, a Prix d’Honneur, the prix des Deux Magots and four Cesars for a film version, the French equivalent of the Oscars. I plan to read him some more….

Here is the poster for the movie starring two other French stalwarts Simone Signoret and Yves Montand…

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Bleak House by Charles Dickens, part three (Penguin)

BY page 593 this gargantuan torture wheel of a plot is starting to turn.  The perimeter is on the horizon. We have a literary variation on a Swiss watch with all the little interlocking wheels starting to spin. Beyond the frivolity we have passages of dark horror, even fear, naked drama.

Perhaps its sheer length and scale have mitigated against its reputation; in a pantheon of English writing, this is King Lear writ large, even you might argue Lady Dedlock herself is a Queen Lear, the femme fatale.

Trying to keep all the twists and turns of the plot across the equivalent of say binge watching half a year of East Enders or Coronation Street is a small feat in itself. Jo’s story could almost be self standing on its own, the parallel constellation to Esther’s. One LA professor tried reading just the tale of Esther alone to opinionate on its validity; he declared it did work well enough, but that is to align this more with the social works of Jane Austen or the pilgrimages of Thomas Hardy’s women without giving it the full grandeur of its social commentary as setting. Esther’s virtues actually need the gloom around for her to be that candle in the dark. The perniciously respectable Mr Vholes is needed to demonstrate that “the one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself.”

And then we have the parts that are untold. The key role played by someone who is hardly otherwise mentioned at all as in Ms Bucket. And the whole back story which could be another novel, a prequel of the young John Jarndyce meeting with the Barbery sisters, the love affair with captain Hawdon, the escapades of the estranged Mr George…

In messing with the story telling TV gave us an empty crossword with just a few visual clues which perhaps might only be read by a university don.  The 1985 BBC version starring Dianna Rigg and Denholm Elliott opened with the plot very much to the fore, the detective story unfolding the Secret. Poor Joe is sweeping the streets in the opening scene, pushing away the horse dung so Mr Guppy can cross the road. The perfidy of the court of chancellor is rammed home. It is a bleak plot with fine horses, fine rooms, fine bewilderment from the would-be benefactors. It lacks humour and casts the pot as so much bubble on the back burner.  Arthur Hopcraft’s script careful tweaks the original but in doing so loses the many veils of disguise on which the original thrives. None of Rosa’s backstory survives as if censored out by Lord Dedlock himself. It is Victorian noire or more accurately Victorian pea soup foggy. The main case to remake it 20 years later was possinly an admission that this series might have put a great many people off Dickens completely.

There is also a 1959 version, which I have not unearthed as yet, but I suspect there is more drama in Mr Bucket’s finger than all those episodes combined. This novel has been abused by TV.

On the page the plot is still whirling around and around to the last page and the mystery of who, male or female, Esther is writing this for at all? Glorious reading.

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Bleak House by Charles Dickens (part two) Penguin

IN the hands of a more radical director than the BBC employ, say someone Asian, Bleak House might have been less boisterous and bleaker still. Grandpa Smallweed, Guppy and Tulkinghorn might be even more mendacious, the latent sexuality as headed up by Lady Dedlock herself more pronounced.  The sexual currents are not today’s emancipation of say a Sarah Waters romance but of deliberate Victorian enfranchisement. In this context sex can be fatal.

Of course the names might put off anyone Asian completely – they are fabulously Falstaffian middle England – Mr Turveydrop, Mrs Jellyby, the Smallweeds, the Snagsby family, Lady Dedlock, Guster, Phil Squod. And our heroine Esther Summerson, each one an onomatopoeiac marvel, signposts to the coming drollery.

You need a little courage to be reading these weighty paragraphs, but they are richly rewarding in their complexity, a dive into the psyche of the time to unmask Mrs Snagsby’s jealousy; the sad plight of Mr Grindley, the preface assures, was a real enough case. Each of these boulders of sentences might contain all the DNA needed for a TV sitcom of their own.

The language rarely slows up the flow. This is Dickens shoving an oyster knife into the shell of old London and slicing it open. Soap operas may hark back to this granddaddy of them all, but this, as a novel, is more opera than soap, the grand sweep, a front row seat at the comings and goings of a cast of eccentrics, a geologist’s strata sample revealing the different social classes of the old city, top to bottom, how they rub along, how they were set up, down and aside, against a backdrop burnished in history. In a Japanese expression these might all be mini samurai, battling, no this is England, batting for their causes.

Above all, Dickens is telling a story, the revelations from someone who has travelled further afield, met more people. The missive travels robustly down the years, a little parcel of history.

Technically you might feel an Orson Wells drawl in the scene setting; the camera voraciously (because this is before cameras) picking up on every detail, the first repartees ranking the conversationists in the social order, move to the dialogue for sub plot one, pass on to clues from major plot two, finish with a point, a chuckle, a wry grin, a grimace, an aside. On to next week’s episode, out of a total of 67.

Some parts are remarkably modern, here the prose is more a note to actors:

“Mrs Bagnet turning about from her saucepans (she is cooking dinner) with a bright flush face.”

Parallel descriptors shift the emphasis between different thoughts crammed together and an afterthought for parenthesises.

I love Mrs Bagnet. As her husband confides:

“Wait till the greens are off her mind. Then we’ll consult”.

A sentence that is respectful, domestic, diffident, instructional, with a touch of affectionate humour. Her children are named after the places they were born. Quebec and Malta. There is more to this saga than Leicester Square.

I am not about to accuse James Ellroy of plagiarism but this may sound familiar if you have read or seen the movie LA Confidential:

Wintry morning, looking with dull eyes and sallow face upon the neighbourhood of Leicester Square, finds its inhabitants unwilling to get out of bed. Many of them are not early risers at the brightest of times, being birds of night who roost when the sun is high and are wide awake and keen for prey when the stars shine out. Behind dingy blind and curtain, in upper story and garret, skulking more or less under false names, false hair, false titles, false jewellery, and false histories, a colony of brigands lie in their first sleep. 

Writing to a magazine deadline provides a little extra zip perhaps, no more so than the exquisite descriptions like that of Lady Volumnia through which vicariously Lord Dedlock first discovers that “the country was going to pieces”.

Lady V has become “a little dreaded elsewhere, in consequence of an indiscreet profusion in the article of rouge….” ends an introduction of no less than 18 lines of sheer joy and brilliance. The disdain is not from Dickens but from Lord Dedlock himself who sustains it with the “constancy of a martyr”. If there is such a thing as British humour, then here it is, at its very cradle, the kernel, a necessary antidote to the mud and splash of the alley, to the deceit and machinations of the courtroom, to foppish cousins lounging on mansion sofas, to opium exhaustions, to Lady Dedlock herself who keeps the lovely Rosa beside her as her “anything; pet – secretary – messenger. Her :  I don’t know what.”

The same Rosa who is so beautiful, bashful and blooming that Lady Dedlock’s maid Hortense is let go.

For all the qualities for which Dickens is regarded, perhaps the most enduring is his good humour…Maybe he was instrumental in showing us, as in the national psyche, how to laugh at ourselves.

Somewhere here there lies a thin thread that you might say inspired vaudeville and was picked up again by comedians like Morecambe and Wise. The employeees of Are You Being Served? could be the descendants of these same characters. Discuss? Disagree?

Here he is poking fun at himself via his namesake, Charley, a young waif taken in to the Bleak House who is struggling to learn to write:

“every pen  appeared to become perversely animated, and to go wrong and crooked, and to stop, and splash and sidle into corners, like a saddle donkey. It was very odd to see what old letters Charley’s hand made; they, so wrinkled, and shrivelled, and tottering; it, so plump and round….the letter o was represented as square, triangular, pear-shaped and collapsed in all kinds of ways.”

From the heart on suspects, but the pathos is underlined in the plot. To be able to read….

If you just want to dip in for free, there is an online version here:

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Bleak House by Charles Dickens (Penguin) part one

LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather.”

EVEN in the opening lines above, the style is strikingly modern, almost casual, just taking aim as it were, Hemingway might have approved. The linocut is from the brickmaker’s house.

Spurred on by the 2005 BBC TV drama of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, inspired by its cameos of overacting, its period settings and costumes, its sprinkling of dialogues from another time, its sense of intrigues, I sought out the original novel, curious to see what had been altered and adapted. Had it been improved? Could it still be relevant? Or is it now just a milestone on the journey of British writing? Has TV triumphed over literature and buried it? The answer, for me, is a big no.

It is an epic of nearly 1000 pages. The TV adaptation runs to 15 episodes even so I was expecting chunks to have been set aside and left on the cutting room floor. Of course TV being TV, the plot has been reworked and re-focused. The order of revelations changed. Most crucially it managed to miss the social satire, the whole point really of the novel itself which contemporaries would have read with huge guffaws and bravos like an Elizabethan theatre audience. I read, as they would have done, in small extracts, like a magazine episode. It was helpful to know the direction of travel in broad terms from the TV, a bit like taking a train journey a second time when you get more of a chance to check the changing view outside and meet other travellers.

The central point is in the title. It is a Bleak House. The book is not about a house but a nation, Albion herself, a point in empirical history. England and the home countries are mired in a fund of hopeless stasis, the rich unaware, the middle class aspirants strangled in legalities, the poor very poor, the whole sorry mess summed up by the foppish Harold Skimpole who maintains his innocence as being like a child, unable to grasp his own responsibilities, a leach on others, clueless to the enormity of what is going on around him. Or Richard’s befuddled understanding of money.

Affections run through on different scales between Esther and Ada and Richard and Maddy and platonically in the distant warmth and compassion of their guardian. The deeper theme is hereditary, loss and gain. Families in hovels and families in mansions. Those who know their histories and those, like poor Joe, who don’t.

We have a need of a guardian to take us through this madness, “the crowning confusion of this great confused city”. We have cousin John Jarndyce to help, always there with endless patience and money but also secretive, nervous of any east wind, generous but hardly unmarked.

We are on page 296 before we get to the nub of the plot, or not so much arrive at, as have it shuffle in quietly and politely around the edges, a wall flower at the ball. A storm breaks:

“…the wind awoke, and bent the trees, and drove the rain before it like a cloud of smoke; and to hear the solemn thunder, and to see the lightning….and seemed to make creation new again”.

As it will.

It is 170 years since that sentence was written, in its entirety 83 words long, it includes seven ands, seven commas; plus two semi colons. Conspicuously Dickens rarely uses adjectives. A leaf is a leaf, it is not red or brown, although sometimes it is large. The descriptions of buildings and countryside are like a painter giving himself the time to include chimney, breast, smoke, brick, a cat on the roof, his descriptons are as expansive as a man blowing out a long draw on a cigar… So too with his characters, no one is allowed in who does not get a minimum of a chunky paragraph of description.

“The apt old scholar of the old school, with his dull black breeches tied with ribbons at the knees, his large black waistcoat, his long sleeved black coat, and his wisp of limp white neck-kerchief tied in the bow the Peerage knows so well….”

The drama is subtle, brooding, it wells up, you know it is coming even before you know it is coming, you fear and hope for everyone concerned. There is menace.

The TV plot throws a lot of those toys out of the pram. It made a pantomime out of a satire, caricatured the cartoon, denied the drama.

The main joke on TV was who was playing what part and how far would they camp it up – most regally with X-Files Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, soberly with Holby City’s Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce, while Jed from East Enders turns up as Burn Gorman as Guppy. Little wonder our narrator Anna Maxwell of Motherland is confused as Esther

And this is a brave book for a male author with female characters to the the fore, their destinies prescribed by their sex, where the men are prescribed, corsetted even, by their buildings.

This is accurate social history of attitudes and mores, it wells up to talk to us of what it really was like in those days, here is the guts, the blood, the sinews of 1852….Lord Dedlock’s descendants, for all I know, still rise in the House of Lords

Feel the full horror in Esther’s staccato delivery on the poverty in the brickmakers house, as sharp and poignant as Hogarth’s Gin Street cartoon of 100 years earlier, the more so coming from the innocence of adolescence.

“Beside ourselves in this damp offensive room – a woman with a black eye, nursing a poor little gasping baby by the fire, a man, all stained with clay and mud, and looking very dissipated, lying full length on the ground…a  powerful young man fastening a collar on a dog: and a bold girl doing some kind of washing in very dirty water.”

And visual too: Hortense storms off barefoot in a huff into the rain to wade across the sodden grass. What is her secret, what is the French connection? And humour as in Guppy’s disastrous first proposal. Or Mr Chadband’s eating habits.

Scholars enjoy picking out Shakespearian references but those would mostly have been part of the vernacular to a book buying, theatre going circle. There is one totemic Shakespearian figure who looms large, adopted in a way by Dickens as his voice. And that is Falstaff. Dickens is telling his story as if in Falstaff’s voice. It is Dickens’ stage. He is moving people around, shifting scenes, poking endless fun. Each paragraph has the tone and construction of telling a joke or anecdote, not perhaps so much in today’s sense of leading up to a punch line – often the point is half way through and the rest of the paragraph is just rolling in the aisles at how funny that was. There is an intimate shared camaraderie of lifting up the lid on life’s eccentricities, the fun of the reveal.

Imagine this being read in weekly episodes in a gentleman’s club, or aloud in a drawing room with large roaring wood fire. The architecture and ambition of the sentence construction – like an opera singer who has trained her voice to reach heights others cannot – casts a long shadow over much of what is published today.

To say this is fine writing is to belittle it. How many others have matched it? Dickens is the genius of a chronicler, a reporter at large (which in a sense he was) our confidante reporting back to us now on Victorian eccentricities.

If you don’t want to embark on the whole massive odyssey, I might urge you to read just one chapter – perhaps 20 The New Lodger which is free here.

Guppy is meeting an old pal Mr Jopling for a Slap-Bang lunch with Smallweed.

“His hat presents at the rims a peculiar appearance of a glistening nature, as if it had been a favourite snail-promenade”.

Is this one of the best chapters in English literature?

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Coming soon…a masterpiece

Been quiet for a while; re-discovering a masterpiece, review coming soon…watch this space…

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Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (Sphere) part three, finale

part two review

EVEN in its very last paragraph on page 926 there is a titbit that throws back to page 10 by way of bonus for getting so far. Probably this whole saga is going to be just too big for little screen TV and too long for a one-off film, so maybe the Strike agency will have to become a series, a Netflix blockbuster, Hawaii 50 for 2020, if it is to transfer at all.

The who, what, where, why, when are probably just too much to condense. The various sub plots, red herrings plus the rest of the agency agenda and the personal innuendoes are not going to fit. It is the kind of story telling where the novel as a format is supreme. This is a defence of The Novel, as art.

Is it too long? Other crime dramas rarely have been given this level of depth and texture, the characters, major and minor, are not paid the respect they get here, the story telling is metronomically on message. Complex, yes but you are always confident that you know where you are and who you are with and why.

Clerkenwell, London in the 1970s smells like this. It is old London before it was gentrified, investigated by modern people who are internet and text savvy but not without their own cares, modern day worries. Much of the geography survives but the social classes and people who inhabit them have changed. The office in Denmark Street was the original tin pan alley, it still has music shops but not sheet music which was once its mainstay. And in a similar way it feels like Strike and Robin’s old relationships are also from a previous era, their comradeship feels like they are feeling their way into a new modernity.  There is cultural generational heft.

A fabulous read, barn storming detection, even some pithy social commentary and (whisper it carefully) a suspicion of a love story perhaps, even, maybe, possibly…definite implications anyway. Must read. Lockdown essential.

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Troubled blood by Robert Galbraith (Sphere) part two

UNILKE the fantasy of Harry Potter, here Joanne Kathleen takes a random group of seemingly respectable ordinary Londoners connected mainly by a doctor’s surgery circa 1973. It is real enough commentary. Each new lead becomes a horse on a carousel bobbing up and down, round and round…

The nanny did it? The cleaner? The ex-boyfriend? The Hannibal Lecter style serial killer? Maybe it was an accident? We have a gaggle of possibilities. A swarm of deceits. Everyone has a past.

Perhaps this might have been better titled as the Disappearance of Margot Bamborough, although there must be a clue in the title of Troubled Blood, but I am on page 639, and no, not a clue. Except maybe…

In classic who-dunnit/crimo detective yarns, the identity of the villain becomes secondary to the wiles, the cunning, the unravelling of the truth along the way. To use the Cluedo example it matters less that it was Professor Plum in the drawing room with a blunt instrument, than the whole party game ritual in arriving at such conclusion. Typically we are not invested in the victim. We don’t know them. We never meet them. They have no currency. They are symbolic.

The only person with currency is the detective(s).  Only they can get it right and protect us all. He or she is imbued with all the humanity going. That is back story. In better than usual fiction there is a bonus of a time, a place, an era, a smell of another time. That is an extra, the more so if the minor characters become believable commentators on their own time, morals. That is front story, parable.

So why is this better than, say, Batman? Comics can work as film because the actors bring their own humanity to the part, but they cannot have the depth or texture of a novel as it is here. You can make a comic of a novel but not the other way around.

Strike has his own back story – reckless hippy mother, sage step mother. He has his own Robin. She has a broken marriage. Even their names have subconscious overload. Strike is comic book-esque. We wait for the bell to toll. A moment of clarity. Even go further and add a t to Cormoran and you have an image of a bird that can swallow all the evil and make it disappear. Strike is obviously JK’s hero knight from the extensively quoted Faerie Queen, even to the point that his endless chain smoking seems designed to protect him from others. His shield. But there is also something homely to him, like his fondness for a piece of cake. But he is human:

“It suddenly came back to him, after those long days of guilt, why he’d avoided coming back to the little town for so long: because he’d found himself slowly stifling under the weight of tea cups and doilies, and carefully curated conversations, and Joan’s suffocating pride, and the neighbours’ curiosity, and the sidelong glances at his false leg when nobody thought he could see them looking.”

That is actually the end of an 85 word sentence. Not bad for so called popular fiction.

Each scene is carefully depicted, as if in the legend of JK Rowling, she has visited each venue herself to paint around the action in the scarlet carpeted Fortnum & Mason’s, in the National Portrait Gallery, in the Totes café. Here is a quick description from later on in Cornwall.

“There was a brief break in the cloud and the sea was suddenly a carpet of diamonds and the bobbing seagull, a paper white piece of origami.”

You don’t write such stuff from imagination.

The depth of the story across 40 years allows JK to develop different sides of her witnesses through gentle probing cross examination. There are quite a few well-I-nevers. As turns out our missing doctor was a former Playboy bunny. Turns out the original investigating officer had to be relieved of duties.

Everyone gets their moment in the spotlight. try this for a portrait:

“Betty Fuller looked as though she had been subject to heavier gravity than the rest of humankind. Everything about her had sagged and drooped:….it appeared that the flesh had been sucked down out of her upper body into her lower: Betty had almost no bust, but her hips were broad and her poor bare legs immensely swollen..”

Someone else looked like a grand piano piano had fallen on his head.

Ladled into the mix is a goodly suggestion of the supernatural, the tarot, the zodiac which opens the door for another tier of speculative forecasting, as Talbot discovered…add to this the symbolism of the quotes from the Faerie Queen that open each chapter and the two knights Redcrosse, the knight of holiness who gets himself into unexpected scrapes and Britomart, knight of chastity who can resist lust but is not ready for love, the pair out to slay the dragon of all evils. Remind you of anyone?

There is perhaps more than one piece of villainy here…

One mystery remains: how does Robin manage to park that Land Rover so easily?

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Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (Sphere) part one

You’re a Cornishman born and bred.

A BOOK for lockdown. Tier 3. At 927 pages it is a blockbuster that blows out those other contemporary fat books like Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch at 881 pages and Eleanor Catton’s Luminaries at 848. But this being a conventional detective story full of red herrings, of interviews of suspicions, it is a challenge to keep up if you are not reading everyday or at least regularly. It will for sure make great TV spread out over six or more parts but you may need to take notes.

The master storyteller aka Galbraith aka JK Rowling aka Joanne Kathleen. Strike is back in Cornwall drinking with his old school chum. His foster mother has cancer. A woman in the pub recognizes him. She stops him and asks if he might take on her case. Her mother went missing, 40 years ago. A medium, told her she might find a lead soon…the internet reveals she may have been victim to a serial killer.

Robin is on the trail of a bigamist. A year on Mathew is playing hardball over the divorce. The agency has taken on staff. The nicknames allocated to their case studies like Shifty add an extra dimension of intrigue, subterfuge. The jargon of the hunter.

I love JK. We used to read the Harry Potter stories out loud in the car. I love the way she has shown up her contemporaries, and especially the kind of popular publishing that has come to be dominated by forms of pornography, tribal manifestos, violent crime, schmaltz romance and stuttering creative writing.

JK tells a story. That is important which might seem obvious but too few books these days don’t. She has characters that are believable and not self obsessed. There is sprightly dialogue. There is plot and subplot. There is texture in the background. We are fed little tidbits about Strike’s childhood. Suddenly a dachshund dog has appeared at Robin’s feet. And at each chapter curiously there is a quote from the Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser, which you sort of know is a hint, it also was one of the longest poems, and tantalizingly aspired to define in stories and allegory the virtues of a gentleman. Perfume is a hint too but why? Umm.

JK. gives herself a good chunky paragraph to describe her characters. Tom Burke might have got the part for looking just how JK describes him…”a large man with a slightly crooked nose, dense curly hair”. Oh, and an overcoat.

The more mercurial Robin, always seems a little too nice to be part of this circus. Strike is a little too tough and wizened, ex boxer, ex Afghanistan amuputee, ex, ex his broad shoulders hide a closet of skeletons. But, and this is an important technical point, the villains are real villains, real evil, real nasty…evil depicts better as fiction than does good. Interestingly Hermoine in Harry Potter was voted best female character by a poll for the Holluywood Reporter.

JK’s other strength is she does not get distracted. There may be red herrings in her yarns but the main characters pivot on their relationship. They stand apart. When they are not together or directly interacting via the story, there is little detail, days pass, weeks pass, nothing gets in the way…If Strike and Robin were ever to get married it would be a Diana moment, of course even leading up to a kiss might take another 500 pages in itself. Poor Robin may have a job getting that overcoat off him. It is the knight’s armor.

So we could read these little moments as in the Spenser allegory. Strike has such a heart of gold that he will take a lost cause of a case for a stranger who stops him in the pub. With the bigamist he will be ruthless. Gentlemanly virtues?

Great entertainment, again, although all the fuss about cross dressing seems pretty wide of the mark for my money. The TV series are still on iplayer if you want to catch up. More follows later…

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Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (Vintage)

“I sometimes wonder what was disappeared first – among all the things that have vanished from the island.”

THE original Japanese version was titled Secret Crystalisation which also marries with the snow falling across the island and perhaps the fate of some of the characters, but the more menacing Memory Police (and an equally graphically intimidating cover) seems more topical, more on message, for our times. Although first published in 1994 this is a very Orwellian, Kafka-esque vision. A dystopian world without memory, without voices, without compassion, a passive acceptance of the unmentionable. A communal Alzheimer’s descends.

Probably Ogawa may also have read Margaret Attwood’s Handmaid’s Tale which first appeared a decade earlier. This is a standout book of similar calibre. Stephen Snyder’s neat translation earned it a place on the International Booker shortlist.  

“It always snows when the onions’ skins are deep brown, like these, and thin as butterfly wings.”

It feels contemporary, rather worryingly so. There are twin plots. Our heroine is a writer. Her latest novel edges closer and closer to her own main story.  You might not say it is totally believable but it is not unbelievable either.

What gets vanished? It starts with rose petals, ribbons, and hats and later calendars, domestic ideological trinkets but also more vital things like birds. All this is enforced by the smartly overcoated, fur collared, heavy booted, inscrutable interlocutors of the title who could have marched out of Peking or Red Square or for that matter the National Guard. The common vocabulary is being shaved away. Memory is not allowed. Was this a first prediction of fake news? The process has begun before we have arrived, our narrator is anonymous, her parents disappeared, her friend is the Old Man, her editor is R. Names might be dangerous.

But even our heroine is succumbing to the general malaise, the acceptance, the idea that the fading memories are for the best.   In her novel the heroine is mute. She communicates by writing and typing. She is in the sway of her typewriting teacher. She frets:

“Does he gently move her finger to the correct spot, as he used to do for me?” she wonders. We have a double life within a double life.

Both heroines are incarcerated, held by invisible forces, their freewill removed, but perhaps that may equally be true of their brusque inquisitors. They have a vague sense of a need to fight back. Ogawa nurses them nervelessly through to the bizarre, fateful but faithful climax.

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Summer by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

“Everybody said: so? As in so what?”

SO, we have the younger genius brother from hell, the father’s mistress who is struck dumb. This is the fourth in the quartet (I presume) and like the other volumes the opening salvo takes no prisoners. “As in, so what?” Smith’s present tense is catastrophe, get over it.

The cover illustration from the David Hockney series of changing seasons reinforce the point that this is writing firstly about time. As in Time. And memory. A record for the future.

It is a brave tradition. Hamish Hamilton first published writers such as Chandler, Capote, Salinger in Britain, then in translation Camus, Sartre, Simenon. A sparkling intellectual heritage is upheld.

Smith toys with the story telling dropping through different episodes of the family saga stretching back beyond world war two. But she plays free and easy with the narrative so, she said, may mean Grace said, may mean mother said…as her characters assume their different roles and perspectives…in Grace’s case as a once aspiring actress made famous by a TV advert…stay awake, children.

Superficially it is an obituary to the Brexit fracture in history, although to label her a Brexit author/protester as the Sunday Times suggested in a pretty awful spoiling review rather dismisses her grander ideas of compassionate internationalism, her perspective through society and her stiletto humour. I was thinking how would a project like this have been for the 1960s or 1930s or even earlier – which all get a mention although here we are grounded in what we know, the now, but what is that? What was it then? And if the characters veer on the side of dotty they are still likeably (mostly) of their time, our time.

Thoughts and memories move between generations: “So here’s another fragment of moving image from across time”.

And so there is a connection being Einstein, being brother and evangelical sister, of truths erased, of messages not delivered, of old violins in the attic, of art that passes, of memories and their value…of distorted realities. And Smith’s bubbling playfulness with language and surreal imagery. It is a dance of ideas. Summer is also an old term for the large beam that holds up a ceiling.

Here the literary references are to Winter’s Tale where in Winter it was to Cymbeline, the social conscience returns to the detention centres of Spring, we meet Charlotte and Art again, in Cornwall again, and a finale that is quite unexpectedly soft and touching.

What to make of the whole quartet? Any one can stand alone because in that sense it is their themes and styles that connect them not the story. Their time. I am reminded of Toni Morrison’s first novel Blue Eyes which is also divided by seasons but it is not as joined up or as focused as that, its interests and enthusiasm are more varied and abstract notions about writing, art, here also film and popular culture. There is life in old causes like Greenham Common. And the despair of being locked up by real and imaginary predators, which extend painfully in this volume as far as the old people’s home.

Smith is a bit of an old hippy, but no harm in being reminded of days when young people did wish each other peace and love. I have a sense that I have been invited into some front parlor with floral wall paper and a large comfortable armchair and offered a cup of tea. So, Ali, tell me how it was, for you…what’s really troubling you?

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