Maj Sjöwall. Legend of crime fiction.
Fall Out by M N Grenside.
Plenty of it and super nasty bad guys and stories so outrageously crazy they can only be true. We got McGuffin plotlines, the real deal (buried treasure), assassins, WWII, war criminals, dodgy coincidence, plot twisting surprises, Apocalypse Now, the fall of Saigon, a Buddha, the Cannes film festival and locations galore: Switzerland, France, the Philippines, Northern Ireland, and California. There’s film people and nice people – actually, scratch the last one, there are no nice people. With all that in mind – you ain’t seen nothing yet.
I just had a lot of fun letting this book carry me away. The story sounds kind of complex with plots inside the plot but it’s so well done by Grenside that it’s easy to follow. Firmly tongue in cheek and yet with enough excitement that it doesn’t just become farce. There’s parody and pastiche and boundless energy but also the exploitation of a clever idea.
Fall Out is inventive and, at times intentionally filmic, it’s about a script that could be a gold mine and a deadly secret connected to a unexplained unfinished film project that wrecked a number of careers. This novel has that insider humour that lampoons the preposterous over blown, skewed nature of Hollywood while still feeling the love we all share for the film capital of the world. From the opening where Sam Wood, writer, takes a bullet in an unnecessarily complicated assassination The fun doesn’t stop for 440 pages. The hit is made to look like a robbery/stabbing which it just as easily could have been in the first place – but hell! That’s not Hollywood: think big, outlandish, strange.
It all begins in:
Pagsanjan, Philippines, November, 1944. Finally the work is complete, Major Ito Okobudo of the Imperial Japanese Army addresses the assembled workers, (allied prisoners slave labour), congratulating them on their work and his officers on Japanese ingenuity. Ceremony over the orders are clear, no witnesses, General Yamashita has arrived to see to that personally, bad news for Okobudo too. The Cave and it’s contents are to remain a secret, even when he is executed for war crimes Yamashita take the secret to his grave.
Venice Beach, LA, 2020. Sam Wood types ‘The End’, and it’s done, the script for Fall Out is finished. A story of ‘greed, a secret fortune, a broken friendship, betrayal and murder.’ The script is sent to a select audience, people who’ve been harbouring a secret for more than twenty years:
‘Who would realise that FALL OUT was a road map to their past.’
Sam thinks back to the first script he wrote for Hollywood and how years later that led to him working with Marcus Riley again on The Last Company in the Philippines, a doomed project. He wondered what the reaction will be to Fall Out.
The buzzer goes, there’s a delivery man at the door, pretending to need a telephone. Like an innocent, not smelling a rat, Sam let the killer into his home. The delivery/assassin had met Sam before but he was counting on him not remembering. Sam had just enough time to register shock before the cunningly disguised weapon fired the fatal shot into his heart. Covering his tracks the killer ransacked the safe and stole Sam possessions.
By then Marcus Riley has the script and thinks it’s solid gold, his career is down the toilet, this is the lifeline, he has to have it. He goes to see Sam, luckily for him he has an alibi for the time of the murder as he gets arrested by LAPD. Other jackals begin circling the script, some appreciate the message, there’s a lot at stake. Meanwhile released from jail, Marcus is in the trail of the widow for the option rights, it’s what Sam would have wanted.
Fall Out is about the founding and fall of two criminal empires, about a heist at the US embassy on the fall of Saigon in 1975, but it really about…
You should know about Tan, he joined the Japanese when they came the Philippines, he has a talent for brutal murder, only he and the general returned to Manila after the incident at the cave, and since Tan has done well for himself. And, lastly, although there are plenty more characters in the book, there’s Jonathan but I don’t think I’ll tell you about him, just don’t turn your back!
Some films are murder – literally!
Grenside is working on the follow up novel Bastion which will be released in 2021. I’ll be looking out for that.
URBANE Publications, available as eBook now, paperback 21/5/20, ISBN 9781912666751
Wild Dog by Serge Joncour.
‘People tend to forget past catastrophes just as they fail to see new ones developing.’
Ain’t that the truth! Everything is so dominated by Covid-19 at the moment that I can’t help reading a sentence like this without it slapping me in the face, it seems so relevant. Chien-Loup was published in France two years ago, and, of course, this has nothing to do with the current crisis. On the other hand, as this book is taking a long hard look at what it is that speaks to our humanity that little observation is spot on.
Wild Dog reflects on our capacity to forget, to be taken by surprise over and over again, learning little from history, constantly seeking to reinvent the wheel and in doing so losing our sense of what it is that distinguishes us from the animals. This is an immensely powerful read examining our place in the world. If reasoning distinguishes us why is it so easily diverted by primal instincts? How come we are capable of greater transgressions against our own and other kind than other species exhibit? This is nothing less than a rumination on our coexistence with nature.
Having just finished Marion Brunet’s brilliant novel Summer of Reckoning I was expecting a bit of a come down with my next read. Something less intellectually challenging, not a bit of it, Wild Dog is a magnificent philosophical thriller and an equally stunning read. Every word matters, each thought runs into the next with purpose and clarity. This is a perfect example of the power, energy and insight of French crime fiction. Brunet examines the psychology of a family and a small town, Joncour tackles even grander themes around the psychological impetuses of mankind in the context of a riveting mystery. On the back of this one novel I would say Joncour ranks with Vargas and Lemaitre in his exploration of morally complex issues. Set over two time frames over a century apart Wild Dog tells a unique story with style and wit. This is a novel pregnant with suspense and unpredictability, wickedly tense and portentous, doom laden. The parallels and connection between the two stories are far more apparent than the paths the stories will take, the themes are clear, the mystery is something Joncour manages to maintain to the end.
July 1914. The village is woken from its slumber around midnight by wild sounds emanating from the deeply forested hills, desperate unidentifiable shrieks, could it be wolves on the attack? Are the animals reclaiming the darkness? The villagers bang spoons, making as much noise as they can to scare away the threat, the noise gets louder, the supposed danger nearer, primal fears are aroused. With everyone watching the trees a stranger emerges, his donkey in tow, the noise dies down, the people return to their beds, as mysteriously as he arrived the stranger is gone again the next day. It’s potent imagery because:
‘Seeing the wandering stranger should have helped them realise that tomorrow they would wake up to the dawn of a new age which would be rung in with madness, gunfire, fear in above all, blood.’
Allegorical beasts in the night are nothing compared to what is coming, a waking nightmare that will take the father’s and sons of Orcièrs. The internecine conflict occasioned by a row between members of the same royal family will cast a pall over Europe. No one in Orcièrs asked for a war, this is a village hidden in the Causse many miles from the border. Joncour is conjuring an image of the village as prey to the outside world:
‘In a few days’ time, the war would start to devour their men by the trainload, and by its end, four terrible years later, it would have destroyed four empires and fifteen million lives.’
The animals, food and equipment of Orcièrs are soon requisitioned. They expected people to die but not the animals as ‘humanity embraced barbarity, rage, and death’. The mayor hides a flock of sheep, the women take over the harvest. Then the German lion tamer arrives, Wolfgang Hollzenmaier, no one has need of a circus now, he can’t stay in the village but he takes his animals into the hills:
‘There were no bomb to be heard in Orcièrs, only lions and storms.’
They don’t denounce him but they are afraid of him. They are curious about how he feeds his animals. Josephine, the first widow, is despatched to find out but becomes attached to the German and his animals. The German and the widow become the focus of attention for the village, a distraction from the front and the war…
April 2017. Lise and Franck need a holiday. Lise is drawn to the advert for the isolated gîte in the hills, the idea of tranquillity, a return to nature, sun and peacefulness. The nearest neighbour ten kilometres away, twenty-five kilometres to the nearest town:
‘For years she had longed to cut yourself off from the world by spending three weeks with no internet or mobile phone and here was the perfect opportunity to go completely offline.’
No noise, pollution, or electromagnetic fields. Franck was more sceptical and insisted he needed the internet for his work, gradually he came round. When they arrive the cabin offers an ‘awesome panorama’, abandonment is mixed with a feeling of infinite contentment. Franck thinks:
‘They could be happy here . . . Or it could be hell.’
The idea of the idyll is subtly undermined at every turn. That’s when Franck encounters the Wild Dog a large untamed beast that seems to be looking for a master. Franck, Lise and the dog form an uneasy alliance. Again the portends hang heavy…
The novel is a juxtaposition of past and present, of nature versus modern living, peace and quiet versus a wall of noise, of primal instincts versus intellectual reasoning, of where the real escape lies. Franck is in films, he is desperately trying to get a project off the ground:
‘In the film world more than any other, your survival depends on the scent you give off.’
Where are the carnivores in this story, the wild animals or the human, (wolves), predators? Joncour’s tale is redolent with fear, guilt, jealousy, pain and the fluid relationship between thought and instinct.
Serge Joncour is a French novelist and screenwriter with a substantial body of work behind him but Wild Dog is his first novel translated into English, something accomplished beautifully by Jane Aitken and Polly Mackintosh. Winner of the Prix Landerneau Des Lecteurs 2018. I can only hope that more will follow.
GALLIC BOOKS, paperback, March ISBN 9781910977793
Victim 2117 by Jussi Adler Olsen
Department Q volume VIII
This is a series I love for its darkly gripping stories and anarchic, slightly off the wall humour. I’m pretty sure policing isn’t supposed to be quite like this but then Department Q of the Copenhagen police force is a law unto itself. Victim 2117 is a really enjoyable and very satisfying read. Eight novels in this series is just as vibrant, energetic and surprising as it was in the beginning. The story involving terrorism, Iraq and the refugee crisis couldn’t be more zeitgeisty. This is a stylishly written novel, a slice of Euro-noir with an original twist. Once again the melding of crime and comedy is masterly, relieving and ramping up the tension as appropriate. Victim 2117 is a long novel but it’s a pleasure to savour every page.
When I read the first Department Q novel, Mercy (2011), the originality and breadth of imagination hooked me. The combination of laugh out loud humour and a terrifyingly dark story was so well-done it was thrilling. I hadn’t come across characters like Mørck and Assad before and the relationship between them was almost enough on its own to sustain the books. Carl Mørck is a fine creation, an irascible misfit. When we first meet him they’ve given him a department just to get rid of him, they’ve even found a deep cellar for it. Department Q deals with cold cases, Mørck is happy to while away the days until he teams up with the cleaner to work a case. Assad, the janitor may be the best sidekick creation in crime fiction. He has a presence that dominates the page, he’s enigmatic, resourceful, and possibly very deadly. He knows things you don’t learn at janitor school and he’s got a nose for detective work, (where did he acquire these skills? We don’t know). Mørck is always a little in the dark, the last to know, Assad is usually the one to tell him what is going on. Together with Rose, (a whole other story in her own right), they manage to solve one of the most important and baffling cases in Danish history. Department Q gets a big budget, legendary status and autonomy, since then Gordon has joined them. The personal stories are all really intriguing but none so much as Assad’s and in Victim 2117 readers find it much more about his past, this story is very personal.
Victim 2117 opens by reminding us that Assad is a refugee although he’s been in Denmark for decades now. But things really kick off in Barcelona. Joan Aiguader is not a religious man but he’s taken to praying that something might arrive in the post and save him. He’s a 33 year old journalist who’s father committed suicide eight years ago. Although he tried he wasn’t able to look after his mother and younger sister after that and his family fell apart. Joan’s life has been on a downward trajectory ever since. He’s broke, his landlord can’t evict him under Catalan law but the gas has long been cut off, he can’t even afford the coffee he’s drinking in the cafe. He’s about to drown himself when the drowning of another person inadvertently saves his life. Joan sees a report on a refugee washed up off the coast of Cyprus. He hops a plane to Cyprus, stealing/borrowing the money from his old girlfriend. This will be the story to make his name. The next victim to wash up on the beach is an old woman, well dressed, but nonetheless a refugee, she is Victim 2117. He photographs her and writes a moving piece for his paper, they pay him but when he returns to Barcelona he find the editor is angry. What he failed to spot and all the papers who weren’t on the scene got was that the woman was murdered, stabbed in the back of the neck. The editor gives him one last chance, follow the victim’s story, find out what really happened, who killed her or don’t come back. It isn’t long before Joan finds a witness, the it turns out the perpetrator doesn’t seem to mind that Joan is on his trail, it’s as if he wanted the world to know that he killed the woman.
In Copenhagen Alexander is putting his own plan into action from the barricaded fortress that is his bedroom. Soon the world will know who he is and he will avenge Victim 2117. First he will notify the police they can expect him to make his move soon. When the chief of homicide detectives dies of a heart attack and his brother commits suicide on the same day the past comes back to haunt Assad. He’s now in real danger. What this has to do with Victim 2117 is not initially clear but then Assad discovers the old lady was Lely a family friend from his time in Syria. The death of Lely Kabibi is the first action in a deadly plot to attack Europe. . .
The strands of the plot are cleverly woven into unified piece in this engaging thriller with a strong denouement and a poetic footnote. Long live Department Q.
Quercus, hardback, March, ISBN 9781786486172
The Devil by Nadia Dalbuono
The Devil is the fifth novel in the Leone Scamarcio series and is a welcome return for one of Italy’s most distinctive and intriguing fictional detectives which is saying something given the competition. Despite a CWA Steel Dagger longlisting and critical praise the Scamarcio novels are still not making it to the big time, which is a literary injustice. Dalbuono is as good as Michael Dibdin, Madeleine Nabb or Donna Leon, maybe more niche, certainly her novels are darker, more intense and stronger on the social critique but they are easily as well written as any of the above. If like me you’re heavily into Italian crime writers the comparisons could be made with the best there too, I have no hesitation in comparing her work to de Giovanni, Carlotto, Lucarelli, and Saviano when it comes to her understanding of the dark heart of Italian society. To date this is a fine series and The Devil carries on in that vein. The opener in 2014, The Few, introduced Scamarcio, the cop with a father in the mafia trying to get out from under the cloud of suspicion that always hangs over him. Given the nature of the cases he’s had to deal with Scamarcio has been forced back on old relationships from time to time, often caught between the police and his family connections – just who the good guys are is not always clear. In the Devil he’s a much more settled character but still an outsider, still edgy, he’s about to become a father and is terrified by the prospect. Scamarcio is a lone wolf, quick to anger and not good with people. This is exemplified in The Devil in the tension between Scamarcio and Inspector General of the Vatican police, Davide Cafaro, who is insinuates himself into the murder investigation because a Cardinal is involved. Of course, Scamarcio is intent on bulldozing his way in as usual.
The priest carried out the exorcism according old book he has in his hand, nothing has changed over the last four centuries. It took the priest and five others to hold the thrashing woman down as Satan refuses to leave her be. Eventually calm is restored, although the woman has no memory of the struggle when she comes round.
Scamarcio’s mood matches that of the city, Rome is grey and wet. Becoming a father scares him, he has doubts about being ready, about Fiammetta being ready, she doesn’t want to know the sex of the child, he thinks it would help them plan if they did, things are a little tense. He’s still smoking and he promised to quit. When his mobile rings he jumps to it to the amusement of his boss, Garramone, he has something to take Scamarcio’s mind of his personal worries, a murder. One that requires delicate handling, which begs the question why Scamarcio is a good choice, because he won’t stop. Cardinal Piero Amato, the Vatican’s chief exorcist performed the exorcism rites on eighteen year old Andrea Borghese only an hour before he was discovered dead, strangled. Amato was the last person to see the boy alive. The Cardinal had the boy in his pastoral care for some time, he carried out weekly exorcisms, this time with three other priests. All of whom believed, as the family did, that the devil possessed the boy which accounted for his behaviour. The crime scene looked peaceful to Scamarcio, undisturbed except for the boy’s body, his father had found him lying there. Scamarcio is deeply sceptical of exorcism and possession but the boy though usually mild mannered turned violent and had fits that could not be explained. Neither doctors, neurologists, not psychologists or psychiatrists could fathom the change in the boy. The parents appear to implicitly trust the Cardinal. Scamarcio doesn’t, he wants to interview him, the Vatican police chief, Cafaro, is less than cooperative. When Scamarcio returns to the Vatican to interview one of the priests who was at the exorcism, father Meinero, he can’t be found. As things hot up a complex web of dark deeds and secrets emerge. Initially there appears to be little to go on, Scamarcio gets into a scrape with the press, but then he make connection between the boy and some very powerful people, Cafaro is forced to admit that Meinero might be involved with a small group of priests involved in nefarious activities and the killing is not over yet…
The Devil is a dark slow burn murder mystery with a satisfying denouement. The novel is rich in setting; Rome, it’s politics, religion, power and corruption. The story is populated with interesting characters but none more so than Scamarcio, a detective who can carry a story. This is an intelligent grounded thriller, the latest in one of the best police procedural series currently being written. If crime writing this good to being overlooked it is criminal.
SCRIBE UK paperback, ISBN 9781911617945, March, £8.99
Your Friendly Neighbourhood Death Peddler by Jimmy Sangster.
“…referred to as the battle of Santhoma Sea. Others who knew just that something had happened, but who weren’t aware of all the facts, called it either the South Sea Bubble or That Monumental Cock Up Down There.”
The title gives it away, this is an irreverent black comedy thriller, a damn good one. The novel catches the zeitgeist and has a healthy scepticism about the way the world works. Money talks and who you know really can get you that leg up in life, even if that elevation drops you into ethical sewer. There’s enough meat on the thriller element to make this an intriguing read and the characters have depth but overall it’s the riotous farce that will crack your funny bone.
Context: Your Friendly Neighbourhood Death Peddler was originally published in 1971, a decade after Catch-22 and a couple of years after Monty Python hit the TV and The Italian Job hit cinemas. The spoof wasn’t ubiquitous but it was carving a niche for itself across the decade; Deighton’s The Billion Dollar Brain, Martin Waddell’s Otley, and Albert Finney’s Gumshoe were all released around the same time. Sangster’s novel about an innocent stepping into arms dealing fits right into that niche. It’s also a fore-runner of Brian Freemantle’s Charlie Muffin series and a distant antecedent of Mick Herron’s Slough House crew. You want more context? This is Kafka meets Billy Liar.
What’s it all about? Anthony takes 15 minutes to fill in the questionnaire, it’s not complicated, it’s just more difficult when you’re making it up as you go along, (an MA from Leeds rather than a BA), a sabbatical rather than unemployment. In the end he’s happy with it, as long as they don’t find out he was fired from his last job all’s well. He’s a shoe in anyway, the job is a quid pro quo. A few weeks ago Anthony started seeing this girl, Lillian – Roedean, Swiss finishing, sex maniac, daddy’s money. This was fortunate as he had no money and nowhere to live until they shacked up. For weeks they hardly left the flat, then she starts introducing him to her friends and eventually mummy and daddy. Off to the country, Anthony puts his best speaking voice on and preps a speech on the tragic loss of empire. The Elizabethan, Georgian Victorian house;
“…the single most hideous edifice he has ever clapped eyes on, not excluding the Albert Memorial.”
Mummy is charming, daddy “buys and sells” things. On their first encounter Anthony sees daddy getting a blow job from his sexatary. Daddy isn’t too keen about Anthony getting too attached to his daughter. They strike a trade, he gives Anthony his independence back – a job, money, his own place, just go see Walpole at the London office. So Anthony dumps Lilian. The enigmatic Walpole has no intention of spelling out what the job entails but he’s delighted with Anthony questionnaire responses, specially three years in the army. £5,000 a year plus commission, Anthony is minted! He just needs his passport, first job – collect signor Carlos Ramirez from the airport. Thus Anthony steps into the world of arms trading and gun running, prostitutes, African affairs, embassies and corrupt officials, boat trips, spies, and you get the picture. . .
Sangster has a keen eye for telling detail and storytelling delivered with style; taut, lean prose, snappy dialogue, and a subtle use of setting bolsters the mood. It’s all devilishly wicked, loaded with irony and satirical bite, a cynical view of a jaundiced world. All his novel are tongue in cheek but this one is right out there.
I’ve reviewed a handful of Jimmy Sangster novels recently, all available on NB magazine, including a previously unpublished California PI novel, Fireball. Brash Books and publisher Lee Goldberg have done a new generation of readers a real service by republishing these British crime classics.
About Sangster: He is better remembered as a screen writer and director. He was there for the early days of Hammer House of Horror directing films including Lust for a Vampire with Barbara Jefford and Ralph Bates and writing the screenplay for Curse of Frankenstein with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (1957). His screenplay credits include versions of his own novels Spy Killer and Foreign Exchange (1969/70), Wonder Woman, Cannon, Kolchak: The Night Stalker and B.J. and the Bear. That list is not exhaustive. Sangster was born in Kinmel in Denbighshire, North Wales. At sixteen he began working as a clapper board boy and after military service joined Exclusive Studios in 1949 which later became Hammer Horror. Over the years Sangster worked with Bette Davis, George Peppard, Raymond Burr, Dean Jagger, Keith Michell, Sheila Hancock, Barbara Stanwick and a who’s who of British cinema.
Bloody London written and illustrated by David Fathers
You have to feel for any author with a book due out during the Covid-19 crisis but it seems extra hard on David Fathers as this is a walking book. All I’d say about that is the walks will be there when this is over and the book is very readable, even in the abstract.
Bloody London is a lightly told potted history of the dark side of 2000 years of London life, it is immensely enjoyable and informative. As a guide the walk is the focus so each entry is brief, there’s no nuance to the stories which is fair enough. If your curiosity is aroused by something in particular you can always look it up. The walks are well thought out, well plotted, obstacles like steps are highlighted as are nearby transport links, and there are alternative routes offering different bloody discoveries for each location.
Sadly, now isn’t the time to test the walks unless they happen to be on your local exercise route, which is frustrating. Reading Bloody London will make you want to see the locations associated with crimes and events you may be familiar with but haven’t connected to a specific place. There are also plenty of entries that will be new to readers, some will surprise and one or two will shock.
This pocket guide is handy enough to take out and about. Even in London with its myriad attractions you can get blasé about getting from A to B not taking in the sights. Bloody London is an aid to curing that complacency. In all Bloody London has twenty walks. The first area covered is Holloway and Islington and the first walk takes in these people and places: Frederick Seddon, poisoner, Ronald Marwood, cop killer, Joe Meek, record producer – Telstar by The Tornadoes – and killer of his landlady before committing suicide, Holloway prison, Dr. Crippen, the scene of the last duel, Frederick Bucknell, jilted lover/killer, Pentonville prison, and the MDC not guilty affair. The alternative walk features Joe Orton’s house, (murdered playwright). Other areas include Fitzrovia and Soho, Kensington and Notting Hill, but some walks are themed; The Great Plague 1665, The Great Fire 1666, Jack the Ripper, Tyburn, and the Thames. The lengths of walks vary, from less than a kilometre to ten kilometres. They are for the curious, the history buff wanting to connect paper knowledge to location, and for Ben Aaronovitch, the crime writer who introduces this guide, a source of material. Maps are clear and the illustrations by the writer/artist add to the flavour.
This is a book I intend to make use of as soon as social isolation allows. If exploring London is your thing this is for you.
Published by Conway, 2nd April, Paperback, 9781844865505
Europa 28 edited by Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave.
Writing by Women on the Future of Europe.
Laura Bates in her introduction tells us that this collection is all about ‘seeing other people’s way of seeing things’: she tells us, “Women see things differently”. These alternative opinions are the perspectives of a number of eminent women from across Europe, reflecting their experience and their perception in stories and essays; they are scientists, writers, and entrepreneurs and yet their voices have seldom been heard until now. Europa 28 aims:
“To see a Europe so far removed from the over simplistic, binary, staid portrayal of recent times. To come to it afresh in all its fractured, fragile, compromised, contoured parts. To recognise its flaws and its richness, it’s gifts and its costs, it’s challenges and it’s beauty…”
There’s plenty to engage with in this sharp collection of ways of seeing modern Europe, it’s historical context, what it means to be European, the nature of the European Union and the future of the continent. For good reason everyone’s gaze has turned away from Brexit at the moment, however, as it is yet unresolved at some point it will have to be returned to. Surely this current crisis points up one of the reasons coming together, cross border co-operation, has such value, if anything needs a coordinated response it’s a pandemic.
Putting the current crisis to one side for the European debate. In the whole of the three years we’ve just experienced in Britain there was never a real exchange of opinions in an open spirit. There is no real vision for the future beyond the bald decision to leave. Bates points out the debate was largely between white, well off, Christian men entrenched in their views. Europa 28 simply seeks to address the lack of diversity in the debate, widening it’s parameters, to hear the voices of those not usually represented.
I found this collection both hopeful and incisive, women do think about things differently. The women here see the human problems and the need for holistic humanitarian solutions. These writers see the refugee crisis as a human problem in its own right rather than an issue that impinges on Europe, suggesting we take responsibility first, not examine consequences first. The crisis won’t evaporate, deal with it properly or experience the misery and uncertainly we currently face indefinitely. Countries, governments, see the issue within the context of their own problems, so it related to overcrowding, social care, financial burden, chopping it up into pieces that never address the fundamental human tragedy. Tackle the tragedy is a point that comes out of several of these essays, a view rarely heard above the din, the xenophobia, the financial fears. Another point that is made concerns the alarming rising significance of neo-fascist views, fear and prejudice that we see across the continent.
Several essays echo the thought that ‘you never know what you’ve got until you’ve lost it’. The lack of respect shown to membership of the European Union. While a member Britain chose to opt in and out as it was fit, the rest of the Union let Britain get away with that, treading lightly. So when it came down to it nobody, not even the most ardent Europhiles in government bothered to speak up for the virtues of the Union. It was allowed to slip away without a proper fight. No one is suggesting blanket approval of all things European Union but throwing the baby out with the bathwater was surely a stupid option. The writers here lean towards cooperation, we keep coming back to the simple point that if we listen to other opinions, engaged in debate rather than entrench or hide away we might learn something.
The first stimulating contribution in this book is Cracks in the Ice by Austrian contributor Julya Rabinowich, Austria, (Katy Derbyshire trans.). A potted history reminds us of how we got here, how much we take that for granted and how negligent we are of hard won freedoms. Rabinowich compares the barbed wire of the East-West divide, the iron curtain, with the concept of a common Europe and its ideology. Further comparing that to the current refugee tragedy on the borders. Just how do democracies explain the camps? ‘The ice is cracking beneath our feet’.
Europe Must Be for the 99 Per Cent by Apolena Rychlíková, Czech Republic, (Julia Sherwood trans.):
“What Europeans society so desperately needs nowadays,” writes Apolena Rychlíková, ‘is a chance to take a deep breath and start thinking beyond the present day, a chance to see itself in a different way, in a different constellation and social order.’
Staging Europe by Annelies Beck, Belgium, discusses the Brussels bubble and comes from a cab ride with Umberto Eco:
‘It is not enough for Brussels, or any city, to have a brilliant artist design a wonderful monument, compose a piece of music or sculpt a statue, for people to relate to it as the capital of the EU.’
Eco: ‘In thirty years, Europe will be a colourful continent, not only in terms of skin but in terms of ideas. It will be a continent we’re all kind of religions will have to live together. To learn to appreciate each other’s culinary traditions in a fundamental way to learn about one another’s mentality.’ (2001)
Europe Day or Bloody Thursday by Maarja Kangro, (Estonia), is a story about the Brown Years, far-right movements, populism, and the age of the inexpert opinion, Brexit, ignorance, intolerance, exclusion, nationalism, and ‘mental immobility’:
“The Brits even had a minister who said the people of Britain had enough of experts.”
All of One Mind by Lisa Dean, Ireland, is an exposition on old and new terrorism and Samuel Beckett:
“We need to see that we are much greater and richer than our paltry ideas of identity can stretch to, that we are as Beckett says, ‘Of one mind, all of one mind… deep down we’re fond of one another.’”
Everything I have, I’ve been Given by Karolina Ramqvist, Sweden, (trans. Saskia Vogel). Explores history and feminism and failings in understanding how we got here.
This is a book of different opinions, but it is positive and upbeat about the future if we care to take up the challenge of making this continent a better, safer, more decent place to live. I can’t speak for everyone but this common humanity makes sense to me. COVID-19 struck, it has forced a certain unity of purpose, encouraged a level of cooperation we’ve not seen since in decades. If we can temporarily solve homelessness, why not permanently, it only takes the will. If that can be done why not look to the refugee crisis. Isolation should make us appreciate how interconnected we all are.
Comma Press, March, ISBN 9781910477793, £12.99
The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey
A beautiful, beguiling mix of fantasy and allegory, myth woven into life, which says something of the our humanity, the darkness and the light. A simple tale elegantly told that enfolds the reader into its sense of wonder and mystery. Life’s cruelty is on display but this is a love story, (maybe even two love stories); redolent with loss and longing and the desire to escape. To escape not just the bonds that restrict us but the relationships and attachments we form willingly when overwhelmed by an urge to be free, to be who we are. A tale of worlds colliding and stars aligning.
If you see David Baptiste now, wizened features and grey dreadlocks you might but struggle to imagine the young man who found the mermaid in 1976, most of the locals in St. Constance have long forgotten the affair:
‘…when those white men from Florida came to fish for marlin and instead pulled a mermaid out of the sea. It happened in April, after the leatherbacks had started to migrate.’
She would never have been caught if David and her hadn’t flirted the way they did by the jagged rocks of the Black Conch waters, a mile or so from Murder Bay. David was happy with his ganja, his guitar and his fishing, red snapper and king fish. Then he spotted her while he was singing and playing, her seaweed and barnacle matted hair, his heart thumped, he was trembling:
“Holy Mother of Holy God on earth.”
When he saw her she dove under the waves and no amount of entreaties would bring her back that day, for sure she was a mermaid. Then he returned the next day and so did the mermaid, and everyday there after, it was a secret innocent tryst that went on over the seasons, she loved his guitar, he didn’t tell his family, or his friends:
“Whenever I see the first leatherbacks arrive, I always feel happy, I know she, my mermaid, will soon appear, happy too, to greet me.’
Then in 1976 two white men arrive for the fishing, Thomas Clayson and his son. The mermaid mistook their engine for David’s boat and followed them, when they spied her they can only think about the money they could get from the Smithsonian for this find. They catch her after a prolonged brutal hunt, she fights for her life:
“I swam away, then dive deep
my terror was ENORMOUS
I swam but I still ketch
I want to go down to die’
The men leave her hanging on the dock like a slaughtered shark by her tail. David rescues her, revives her, she begins to change into human form, the white men hunt the mermaid and the thief. Aycayia is caught between two worlds, her growing love for David, her human desires and the call of the sea. Meanwhile hurricane Rosamund is brewing.
David’s journal looking back, rich local Trinidadian dialect:
‘I am an ol’ man now, and sick sick so I cyan move much, sick so I cyan work, go out to sea, and so I go write my story.’
narrating as it happens, told at the time the mermaids in verse:
‘long long ago so long I don’t know the time
only that they call that the huracan
to take me far away
seal up my like my legs inside a tail’
A powerful emotionally involving tale Loaded with bitter sweet, melancholy, that will transport readers to another place for a time.
If you like this novel I had previously enjoyed Roffey’s The Tryst (Dodo Ink Press, 2017), the tale of an erotic ménage a trois. She is a Trinidadian born British novelist and is a lecturer in creative writing.
Published by PEEPLE TREE PRESS, April, ISBN 9781845234577
Face of My Assassin by Jan Huckins & Carolyn Weston.
At sixty-one years distance it’s hard not to read this novel for the remarkable social document it is, for what it says about segregation in the 1950s. The issues Face of My Assassin raises are sometimes brutal and obvious but there’s a lot of subtly here too. As integration is coming to the fore this novel explores prejudice in all its forms; institutional, paternalistic, unconscious, also the possibility of change and the way people see their own racism. Segregation isn’t the only focus of the novel, Face of My Assassin says much about the mores of society, the post WWII world, the gulf in attitudes between the North and the South, the city and the backwater. It’s about the tensions between black and white populations and the way people live, rich and poor, privilege and disenfranchisement. The stark divide between those seen as poor white ‘trash’ and the general black population, still worse off, yet these people have more in common than they know if only they realise that. Monagee City seethes with white corruption and self interest, the abuse of power from the court room to the cops. There’s a pyramid of power and influence that the black population don’t even register on.
Face of My Assassin is a melodrama, an epic tale of murder, rape, betrayal, loss, brutality, hypocrisy, fraud, sexism, and court room drama but also family, love, the human spirit – hope and justice. The story is seen from multiple perspectives, black and white characters, it’s nuanced and insightful. It’s tempting to think of some of the characters as clichéd, tropes, honestly, I think that’s familiarity rather than cheap writing, the sheriff is a lazy, racist cop with a self belief that belies his talents. The ‘big daddy’ character is like Endicott in The Heat of the Night but surely that is the way it was? I might be tempted to think this was just easy characterisation if it weren’t for the many subtleties. No one has a damascene conversion but some racists come to see certain things aren’t right. White liberals are faced with their own prejudices and internal struggles, unconscious bias. If Face of My Assassin has one fault, it’s overlong but nonetheless it’s a powerful piece of writing. It’s hard to imagine this novel didn’t land like a grenade when it was originally published by Random House in the US in 1959. That’s a year before To Kill a Mockingbird came out, it may not have had the impact but it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten, no one who reads this novel will ever do that.
4pm at the Cotton Queen Hotel and it’s 104° in Matthew ‘Matt’ Scott’s room. The heat, like everything else in Monagee City, population 3,400, is oppressive, the rain won’t come for months. Since he got here no one wants to talk about segregation, especially not to a journalist from Now magazine, out of New York. Matt looks out the window at the war memorial – Civil War not WWII. White folks say ‘no one wants integration’, they feel free to offer the same opinion for the black population; ‘[they]…know when they’re well off’. Black people are nervous of been seen with the journalist, those who offer an opinion just say, ‘it’s the way it is’. Nobody appears to care about the Supreme Court, this is the deep South, they have their own ways. Scott is thinking of packing it in, this is a hopeless assignment. Then he gets a call, don’t say anything, the switchboard will be listening, I’m an old friend, I’ll call round about five.
A few days earlier: Howard Patterson says this is Matt’s third and final chance, never mind his wife died and that he’s a recovering ‘lush’. Patterson praises his Africa stuff, the Mau Mau rebellion, of course, it was spiked but it was insightful. That’s what this story needs; heart, a sense of justice, ask the people of the South about integration, get both community attitudes. So Matt is here, talking to the porter at Monagee City train station:
‘I was bawn heah, gonna die heah, likin doan have nothin to do with it.’
At the hotel he makes a friend of the bellboy, Bones, calls him by his give name, Tom Winters. Tom has a sister, Ellie, she’s a teacher, she might be willing to talk. About 5.30 Ellie waltzes into Matt’s room, best not to knock, not to draw attention. Ellie is not what he’s expecting, she’s light skinned, spent three years at Columbia, passed as white in New York, but lived the whole time in fear. The novel is already beginning to challenge Matt’s perceptions of race. Ellie is angry, tired, frightened, bitter, she’s risking her life being here and she won’t trust another do goer lightly.
Hours later Tom let’s his sister out the back of the hotel, he’s suspicious of the time she spent with the white guy, even though he likes him, Ellie soothes him. In the lane outside Ellie runs into Sheriff Landreau, when he realises who she is, a ‘good girl’, he offers/insists on walking her home. Landreau is predatory, paternalistic, superior. Ellie doesn’t want to trapped the way Ludie was, abused by big daddy Ballou before being given to the sheriff. This time she manages to slip away unharmed.
Matt doesn’t want to take sides, a journalist should be impartial, he visits Ellie’s school, a shack with no facilities, no books, let alone running track, swimming pool like the white schools. She’s angry he doesn’t seem shocked, outraged. Ellie begins to tell Matt what life is like for the black population, protest against being kept off the electoral role would bring reprisals; castration, rape, foreclosure. Slowly a bond is forming.
Kit Ballou is young and spoiled, the daughter of the richest man in town. Big daddy Ballou won’t see the journalist, a Yankee trouble maker, but Kit questions her father’s paternalism, maybe it is time for a change. Like the sheriff’s this is a dysfunctional family. Kit and Matt also form a bond.
Resentment in the town builds and the atmosphere of the novel darkens, rape and murder, arson and a cruel mockery of the law ensue.
‘“But in ain’t right,” Allie went on recklessly, “stickin a murder rap on a man cause he don’t talk like you or think like you or he’s got a funny name—” like Chadash or Horowitz or Blumberg.’
The inequality in the treatment of a black man or a white man show up even when a man is being framed for murder. The slow pace of life, the local dialect and Southern style are all well observed. This novel is loaded with injustice, passion, and pathos. Given that we still have major problems with racism and division in society this novel is as timely as ever.
‘About the authors’ tells us that: “The collaborators met by chance at the beach, and the next week found themselves at work on Face of My Assassin.” Serendipity in all its glory. Jan Huckins wrote this novel and a couple of PI stories, as well as radio plays and journalism. Carolyn Weston wrote five other novels, including three police procedurals which became The Streets of San Francisco.
Cutting Edge Books, ISBN 9781734429510, published 25/3.