Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Nigel Strangeways Mystery | Nicholas Blake and Cecil Day-Lewis | A Question of Proof

Publisher Vintage is re-issuing a batch of Nigel Strangeways mysteries, written by Nicholas Blake, the pen name of the late poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis (yes, Daniel's dad).


Not the decision to publish, you understand. More the merrier. But reading the first one, A Question of Proof... well it's hilarious.

Cecil's narrative style makes the guy who did the Pathe newsreel sound like a crazy American hip hop star. Stiff? There isn't a word for how stiff this narrative is.

We are often told that the whodunnit became the genre of choice for a certain type of well to do Brit. Here it is in action.

Partly what is wonderful about it is that it is a reminder just how good Agatha Christie was. Blake/Cecil's narration is all over the place. Points of view criss cross, the reader is deluged with characters, half of which I constantly got confused, and it is packed with self deprecating, but actually quite insulting references to the silly business of writing crime novels. Cecil is slumming it and he wants to make sure his friends realise this. Bet he got well paid though, he ended up writing twenty-one of these books.

Check out Crimelit for more info

As for Strangeways, the oddest thing about him is his name. We are told he likes tea (this is England, so big deal) and that he likes to sleep under a heavy weight. ie a lot of blankets. Er, um, really? No kidding. As detective ticks go it isn't exactly up there with playing the violin late at night while high on morphine, but I guess Blake/Cecil thought all the best ideas had already gone.

I'm not saying you shouldn't read it, of course. It's entertaining, if for no other reason than to remind yourself just how we ended up with Midsomer Murders on TV.

If You're Reading This I'm Already Dead | Andrew Nicoll | Circus Act

I love a story teller. Come in, close the door. Of course you can smoke, what is cancer between friends such as us? Now where were we? Oh yes, it all began when...
Andrew Nicoll’s If You’re Reading This, I’m Already Dead kicks off in Berlin in the last days of the Third Reich just as the Allied bombs are dropping from the sky and people are dying by the thousand. In the midst of the mayhem a former circus acrobat called Otto Witte somehow finds the time to write down his account of how he became the King of Albania.
The King of Where? Talk about a tall tale. Nicoll -- a political journalist, so he’s used to spin – has weaved fiction from fiction. I got over the start, which I thought was a touch overdone, and allowed Otto and his hugely enjoyable tale to grow on me, his breath hot on my ear as he bends in low to explain what it was really like in that cellar in Buda – or was it Pest?
Witte, you see, was a real person, who went to his grave calling himself ‘The former king of Albania’. He even had it stamped on his identity card. He’d claimed to have successfully fooled the Albanian army into making him king and giving him a harem, only for his ruse to be discovered after just five days. Facts of his story didn’t add up, however, and it is widely thought he was either a liar or a fantasist. In another age he would have been a novelist, or perhaps a politician, and been well paid for it.
 A recent discovery is Charles Portis’ True Grit, the novel which inspired first John Wayne and then the Coen Brothers. The book surprised me by being better than either film, thanks largely to the narrator, Maddy, who manages to be both old and young, experienced and naive. Like Renton in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting or John Self in Martin Amis’ Money, she stayed in my head after I closed the book. Otto is in there too, now. Laughing his head off and sitting on a camel.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Patrick DeWitt | Esi Edugyan | Walter Scott Prize

Scotland's foremost literary prize for historical fiction, the Walter Scott prize, has named an international line up in its 2012 short list

I loved DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers when I read it last year. It's smart and funny. But I'm still surprised to see it on this list. DeWitt made several comments about how he barely did any research at all into the historical aspects of the book. And the book turns on a rather fantastical element -- dressed up as science.

Edugyan's novel has won high praise already too -- she is another Booker shortlister. I was less taken with the book which promised more than it delivered.

However, Pure by Andrew Miller, which took the Costa honours, is one of my favourite reads of the past twelve months. Brilliant detail. Fascinating story. It didn't quite go where I thought it should, but it worked really well.