I’ve been fairly ploughing through books this year (at least by comparison to last year). In an effort to keep me going, I’ll try to blog brief reviews as I go.
(Okay these turned out less brief than planned so I’ll spare you by putting them behind the cuts.)
1. The Devil You Know – Mike Carey
2. Vicious Circle – Mike Carey
Books 1 and 2 of a series with a protagonist called Felix Castor. Yes, these books fall into that ever-growing subset of crime/horror fiction featuring heroes with improbably cool names. Specifically these are Chandler-esque P.I. novels given a supernatural spin, focusing as they do on a down-at-heel professional exorcist: the kind with a grubby office, no money and a dedication to concluding his case even when fired by his client. Philip Marlowe with a pop-culture twist.
It’s an engaging genre when done well, and these are very well executed. Castor narrates the novels in first person and it’s in his intelligent, laconic voice that the books’ real strength lies. Take this description of a church: “Early Gothic: very early, taking its shape from Abbé Suger’s original prescription. Which meant that it was straight up and down and plain as a pike: a colossal ecclesiastical doghouse on which the Holy Spirit could sleep like Snoopy until the Day of Judgement.”
Castor is English and the novels are set in contemporary London, but rather than treading the well-worn X-Files path of supernatural secrets unseen by mundane eyes they postulate a world in which the dead have begun to rise, en masse, as ghosts or zombies. Society as a whole is having to change to accommodate them; bills are being debated in parliament over the legal rights of those who have failed to move on after death. It adds an interesting slant.
The first book deals with a ghostly woman in a historical records archive who has inexplicably turned violent; the second with the ghost of a young girl who has, impossibly, been “kidnapped” from her living parents. Both books are tightly-plotted and fast-paced, with several interwoven threads knitting together, plenty of hired goons and polite gangsters, and a focus on characterisation. If I was feeling cynical I might note that the stories feel more than a little like the DC comics character John Constantine (whom Carey wrote for a while) with the serial numbers filed off, but Castor is more interesting than Constantine and the stories less prone to pulling last-minute rabbits out of hats.
The third in the series, Dead Man’s Boots, is on my To Read pile.
3. The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
Speaking of Raymond Chandler Veggiesu reminded me that while I may bandy around words like “Chandler-esque” I’ve never actually read any Chandler. To fix this problem I bought the first three Philip Marlowe novels in lovely matching covers. This is the first. To begin with I must confess that I find it impossible to read these books in anything other than Humphrey Bogart’s speaking voice, which some might view as a handicap but which suits me fine. Marlowe’s voice is just as laconic as his distant offspring Felix Castor, but if anything even more deadpan. His descriptions are detailed, factual, declarative, but laced with dry wit: “Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.”
Marlowe is unflappable, methodical, always moving forward but rarely pausing to explain himself to others. In interactions he’s often watchful, monosyllabic. He keeps his own counsel. He’s a character who emerges from the sum of his actions and observations, particularly in his strange mixture of compassion and indifference. Marlowe is a man of principle, but one who sees the world without illusions, for good or ill. He’s such an archetypal character that it’s easy to understand why he’s become so influential.
The setting is LA in the 1940s (reminding me, for obvious reasons, of Chinatown at times), ranging from the houses and clubs of the rich to seedy downtown streets and bars. Along the way there are rich men, spoiled daughters, crooks, gangsters, heavies, femme fatales, cops. Everything you’d reasonably expect. The storyline itself is an odd, meandering case of blackmail that segues into a missing persons case. There are several points at which the case seems finished and Marlowe could quite reasonably call it quits, but decides to push a little bit further. It’s something of a testament to the writing that the book survives this odd pacing. It helps that the characters are vivid, although it has to be said that the novel is a product of its time: its depiction of women and gay men is fairly unreconstructed. Likewise there are a few times that the meaning of comments or descriptions seems opaque, as if I lack the necessary context. It’s strange to think of reading an early twentieth century novel and needing annotations. At other times it seems startlingly modern, such as when Marlowe observes that modern Hollywood clubs are all indirect lighting, fused glass pictures, “chairs in violent leather”, and “polished metal tubing”.
On the whole a very enjoyable book. The plot is fine, but as with much detective fiction it’s really Marlowe that makes it work: his character, his voice, his personal code. I’ll definitely read the next few.
4. Air – Geoff Ryman
Moving from Chandler to Ryman is a bit like taking a plunge in a cold pool after a hot bath. Air is written in a very careful, very formal style of English that’s the polar opposite of laconic. The book is the opposite of The Big Sleep in other ways. The novel’s protagonist is female, and a very well-drawn depiction of a complex, contradictory, self-analytical human being. Much of the story is given over to the nuances of human interaction and character, both male and female. Although events move forward quite quickly, this is not a book about what happens so much as about how it happens and what it means.
The plot concerns the impact of new technology on a small farming community in Kurzistan. Air is essentially the internet mk 2, an invisible, telepathic form of direct access to all human knowledge, culture, commerce, communication and information. In a way it represents every kind of technology and progress. It’s seen as positive, but it is also invasive and mandatory for all humans across the globe, its testing has caused chaos and death, and its proponents are engaged in petty format wars akin to Microsoft vs Linux. To this small community it’s alien, unknowable, emblematic of the West, of the Government, of the death of their way of life.
The heroine, Chung Mae, chooses to embrace Air, and the novel tells the tale of her many failures and successes in bringing about change, turning her small village enterprise into an international online business, and slowly but inextricably pulling her neighbours into the future along with her. Along the way, thanks to the multi-dimensional aspects of Air, she experiences visions of both past and future. The novel very effectively uses these SF devices to draw out a vivid sadness for the passing of the old as well as an evangelical passion for embracing the new.
The novel is clear and balanced in dealing with the ties of tradition as well as the need for change. Leaving aside a detour in the middle portion of the book into a kind of technological Oz, large portions of the novel deal with ordinary people in an ordinary setting. Often there is no overt sense of the story being science fiction, and yet the SF elements are all-pervasive and integral.
Towards the (fairly pat) ending of the plot the book introduces a more mythological aspect to events which ties into a pregnancy which is unusual, implausible (or impossible as far as I can see) and deeply symbolic. Here things take a turn for the surreal, and the conclusion feels like a strange fusion of spiritual ideas with technological evangelism. Its meaning is abundantly clear, but I’m left questioning how literally we’re intended to take some of these events. It’s a small niggle in an otherwise accomplished and thoughtful novel.
(Films 1 to 4 are here).