Malcolm Redfellow's reading diary

"I guess there never can be enough books" (John Steinbeck)

Month: October, 2011

20 A day with Inspector Fox

As #19 previously suggested, after the let-down that was Reamde, Malcolm [Redfellow, that is — another is along in a moment] needed a further fillip.

The old boy had been looking forward to this one and it didn’t disappoint.

Pretty well all Malcolm anticipated in that post “on the other side” came to pass:

[Rankin] bodes to be trespassing on the territory staked out by Christopher Brookmyre‘s Jack Parlabane novels.

Indeed. Bring together in an intimate family circle a serial murderer, a Chief Constable, the justice minister of the Scottish government. Dig up an awful lot of old history, involving a fair stash of loose moolah. Add in the start of a terrorist bombing campaign. Throw in police corruption and mayhem.

This is high octane stuff, indeed.

The main character — Inspector Malcolm Fox, for the slow learners — appeared previously in The Complaints. Take a quick peek at the opening of that book:

There was a smattering of applause as Malcolm Fox entered the room.
‘Don’t strain yourselves,’ he said, placing his scuffed briefcase on the desk nearest the door. There were two other Complaints in the office. They were already getting back to work as Fox slipped out of his overcoat. Three inches of snow had fallen overnight in Edinburgh. A similar amount had stopped London dead a week ago, but Fox had managed to get into work and so, by the look of it, had everyone else. The world outside felt temporarily cleansed. There had been tracks in Fox’s garden – he knew there was a family of foxes somewhere near his estate; the houses backed on to a municipal golf course. His nickname at Police HQ was ‘Foxy’, but he didn’t think of himself that way. ‘A bear of a man’ — that was the way one of his previous bosses had described him. Slow but steady, and only occasionally to be feared.

Notice how economical, how spare Rankin is. We have much of what we want, a bit of physical description, some atmosphere and a passing whiff — if not quite of Anglophobia, then a firm reminder that Scotland is different. Then check again: barely a handful of words of more than a couple of syllables.

Let us remember that “The Complaints” are the internal investigation of doings inside the police force. And that the police, wherever, are always for the purposes of crime fiction totally unreconstructed.

Now go to the opening of The Impossible Dead:

‘He’s not here,’ the desk sergeant said.
‘So where is he?’
‘Out on a call.’
Fox stared hard at the man, knowing it wouldn’t do any good. The sergeant was one of those old-timers who reckoned they’d seen it all and faced most of it down. Fox glanced at the next name on bis list.
‘Haldane?’
‘Sick leave.’
‘Michaelson?’
‘Out on the call with Dl Scholes.’
Tony Kaye was standing just behind Fox’s left shoulder. An instant before tbe words were out of bis mouth, Fox knew what his colleague was going to say.
‘This is taking the piss.’
Fox turned to give Kaye a look. News would now travel through the station: job done. Tbe Complaints had come to town, found no one home, and had let their annoyance show, The desk sergeant shifted his weight from one foot wthe other, trying not to seem too satisfied at tbis turn of events.

Alongside that, let us set one of the more obtuse reviews this book is likely to receive:

The trouble is Malcolm [Fox] and his crew are always being given the runaround by their self-righteous colleagues and this rapidly becomes as tiresome for the reader as it is for them.

The first score of words there amount, in essence, to the whole point of the plot.

Let us not tell Mark Sanderson of the London Evening Standard that he missed the point, or that he clearly fails to understand what the detective novel is all about.

A day well spent.

It took Malcolm a short start in the evening, an early-to-bed, a period of early-hours insomnia, and a well-spent afternoon to sweep through the 373 pages.

Ian Rankin is in full form.

This is a great piece of writing.

Malcolm [Redfellow] is a happy customer.

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19 Burning The Globe

After that extended wrestle with Neal Stephenson, Malcolm needed respite.

Sitting on top of his guilt pile was Robert Winder’s The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare.

So: from the top —

Winder comes with a creditable pedigree.:

A decent record of fiction and non-fiction.

We have to accept that this is a literary squib. Then we recognise it is one of considerable worth.

A plot!

The premiss is that Shakespeare, happily settled back in Stratford, making an indecently-successful living as a wool-merchant and proto-capitalist, is summoned back to London by James VI and I to produce an addition to the oeuvre — that is Henry VIII.

The representation of London under the [jack-]boot of the Jacobite terror is worth reading in itself.  We are reminded, repeatedly, that England is in a pre-revolutionary moment. Sounds familiar?

Our hero, Will, is provoked to sub-contract the arrangement to John Fletcher while he gathers around him his old mates to improvise Henry VII, a devastating exposé of the Tudor tyranny and Will’s self-exculpation of what he had done in Richard III.

To get all that, plus the early pursuit by Edward Alleyn of Lolita Constance Donne, plus the insertion of John Harvard (yes, of that Massachusetts establishment, but also from Stratford), involves a certain manipulation of the date line.

Add in a entire pastiche-construct (much of it almost convincing) of a Shakespeare play, moreover one that was evolved under the cover-name Cardenio (there are other versions), and one has a literary thriller.

To anyone who has had to engage with Shakepeare’s later period, who has an acquaintance with the works and recognises the references and quotations (not to mention the running gag about “the sea coast of Bohemia“) this is a delight.

Thank you, Mr Winder.

18 Read me? Well …

It took a week of Malcolm’s spare time. He is still musing whether it was a worthwhile investment.

What we have with Neal Stephenson’s latest is an inventive conflation of the cyber-world with a conventional thriller, but inflated over a thousand pages. Don’t drop it: the binding could hardly take the weight: three pounds and half-an-ounce, since you didn’t ask. And … oops! … there goes a large chunk of your carry-on baggage limit. If there was a reason for a Kindle this is it.

Are we really interested in Chinese teenies being able to rip off overweight, over-wealthy bourgeois on-line gamers? Particularly when the westerners are doing so well out of peddling such pap to the lesser breeds without the law? Did we even understand the intricacies of the on-line game which makes so much money for so many people?

The whole thing seems too self-indulgent.

Many of the minor walk-on parts were gratuitously developed to the point when we could begin to take an interest, and they are then neglected. For example, “Pluto”:

Richard’s crazy idea was to eliminate the possibility of such fudging by having the availability of virtual gold stem from the same basic geological processes as in the real world. The same, that is, except that they’d be numerically simulated instead of actually happening. Idly messing around on the Internet, he discovered the mind-alteringly idiosyncratic website of P. T. “Pluto” Olszewski, the then twenty-two-year-old son of an oil company geologist in Alaska, homeschooled above the Arctic Circle by his dad and his math major mom. Pluto, a classic Asperger’s syndrome “little professor” personality now trapped in the rather hirsute body of a full-grown Alaskan bushwhacker, had spent a lot of time playing video games and seething with rage at their cavalier treatment of geology and geography. Their landforms just didn’t look like real landforms, at least not to Pluto, who could sit and stare at a hill for an hour. And so, basically as a protest action—almost like an act of civil disobedience against the entire video-game industry—Pluto had put up a website showing off the results of some algorithms that he had coded up for generating imaginary landforms that were up to his standards of realism. Which meant that every nuance of the terrain encoded a 4.5-billion-year simulated history of plate tectonics, atmospheric chemistry, biogenic effects, and erosion. Of course, the average person could not tell them apart from the arbitrary landforms used as backdrops in video games, so in that sense Pluto’s efforts were all perfectly useless. But Richard didn’t care about the skin of Pluto’s world. He cared about its bones and its guts. What mattered very much to Richard was what an imaginary dwarf would encounter once he hefted a virtual pick and began to delve into the side of a mountain. In a conventional video game, the answer was literally nothing. The mountain was just a surface, thinner than papier-mâché, with no interior. But in Pluto’s world, the first bite of the shovel would reveal underlying soil, and the composition of that soil would reflect its provenance in the seasonal growth and decay of vegetation and the saecular erosion of whatever was uphill of it, and once the dwarf dug through the soil he would find bedrock, and the bedrock would be of a particular mineral composition, it would be sedimentary or igneous or metamorphic, and if the dwarf were lucky it might contain usable quantities of gold or silver or iron ore.

Reader, they bought his IP. Pluto moved down to Seattle, where he found lodging in a special living facility for people with autism spectrum disorders. He set to work creating a whole planet. TERRAIN, the gigantic mess of computer code that he had single-handedly smashed out in his parents’ cabin in the Brooks Range, gave its name to T’Rain, the imaginary world where Corporation 9592 set its new game. And in time T’Rain became the name of the game as well.

With that quantum of character detail into “Pluto”, he gets name-checked just six dozen times in the whole thousand-plus pages: a fair quota of them in that extract.

Much of the middle phase takes place in Xiamen. Huh? — in Malcolm’s younger days that was Amoy, and we were always ready for the Chines Communists and Nationalists to open hostilities across the strait. Earlier still, it was a treaty port, and appears in the history of the Opium Wars. As “Xiamen” Malcolm had to look it up.

Any way, should one believe that it is that easy to hijack a private jet, whizz round a fair bit of the globe, and crash it conveniently close to the castle/theme park in British Columbia that happens to house the main character. Or is the “main character” said main character’s adopted niece?

Well into the story (page 295) an alternative piece of totty is introduced: she just happens to be a British secret service spook under cover in Xiamen. She has to be provided with the usual Stephenson back-story, which takes another dozen pages … and so on.

The “action” repeatedly hangs on considerable unauthorised acquisition of convenient modes of transport. Not to mention the conventional Russian heavies. All with lots of hardware. All, we know, will be coming to a bad end.

And swathes of blood and gore, some of it described in ghoulish detail.

The final chase sequence is interminable, itself the length of a reasonable cheapo thriller. And — oh! — it would be helpful to have one of those cast lists that Russian heavyweight novels include.

After all that the wind-up is so trite it defies empathy. Unless one is an addict of and so they lived happily ever after stuff.

According to the puff on the dust-cover front:

‘Stephenson has a once-in-a-generation gift … his novels are funny, heartbreaking and thrilling’ Time

Four adjectival descriptions. To which Malcolm responds, in order:

  • overstatement,
  • not true here,
  • you jest!

and

  • well, that’s what a thriller is supposed to do.