'The Long Firm' by Jake Arnott
Arnott is one of those authors who burst into the public eye only to rather fade out. He is still around, but none of his subsequent books has attracted the attention that this one did. I was given a copy when it came out in 1999. However, I was really put off reading it by the dramatisation broadcast in 2004. I have similarly been put off reading 'The Last Kingdom' books by Bernard Cornwell that I had been given as a result of the BBC's four series of them. I think when you find the characters uninspiring or irritating on screen you cannot face wading through the books. If my copy of 'The Long Firm' had not been a birthday present, I think I would have given it to charity as I have now done with the Cornwell ones. The passing 21 years has done it no favours. It looked pretty clichéd back in 1999 and looks even more so now that we have had multiple movies and dramas about 1960s gangsters and the people around them.
The book covers 1961-79 and traces parts of the career of gangster Harry Starks. However, each chapter is written from the perspective of someone who comes into his orbit: a 'kept' rent boy, a life peer, a mildly successful movie actress, a low-level drugs dealer and a criminology lecturer. They are all very stereotypical of the people around the Kray Twins, who are some of the few real people featured in the book. One of the narrators is called Jack the Hat, no doubt influenced by or meant to be Jack 'the Hat' McVitie who was murdered by the Krays in 1967. It consists of accounts of typical crimes of the period, from selling electrical goods on credit, to intimidation, drug dealing and running night clubs and pornography shops. Starks mixes with boxers and even Judy Garland. In prison in the 1970s, he studies a university course and involves an academic who could easily have been a replica of Howard Kirk from Malcolm Bradbury's 'The History Man' (1975). It is as if someone sat down with a checklist of the necessary 'ingredients' of a gangster novel set in the era. All the characters of those around the Krays are there, but so are all the activities, even down to dodgy investments in Nigeria, the corrupt vice squad detective, prisoners studying degrees and 1970s feminists becoming lesbians.
Using the technique of seeing the main character through other's eyes works well and for some of the time, Arnott can keep up a distinct voice for them. However, to me, there were no surprises it has absolutely everything you would expect. Given that we are now another 20 years on, I imagine there will be more readers for whom the era is unfamiliar and so they can approach it much more as a historical novel. Having read it, what surprised me ultimately was not that Arnott is now in relative obscurity that somehow he attracted so much attention at the time. I can only put this down to him having a blatantly homosexual anti-hero as the spine of the book and some people feeling, even as late as 1999, that that was somehow radical.
'A Sea of Troubles' by Donna Leon
This is the tenth in Leon's Brunetti series and the last of those that I was given. Unlike some of the others in the series, this one is tightly written without her wandering off into elements that seem unrelated to the story or have a spasmodic focus on the main mystery. This one takes place on the southern portion of the spit which encloses the lagoon of Venice. This allows Leon to focus on a small, tightly knit community in an almost unique location. When two fisherman are founded to have been murdered on their clam boat before it was set on fire, Brunetti has to find out what rivalries in the village and factors from outside may have triggered this event. Unable to penetrate the village he sends in two of his officers undercover.
The scenery and the nature of the village are well portrayed as is the investigation in such a community. There is a sense of jeopardy, as it is not Brunetti but other officers who are in amongst the situation. I feel the only weakness is the boats going out into the horrendous storm at the end. I accept that Leon wanted an epic finish but the fact that a local takes their boat out in conditions which they would be familiar with and their neighbours were expecting stretched credibility. For Brunetti to follow especially when an officer was in danger, is a different thing. Overall, this is one of the better of Leon's novels, though I have heard from people who have read later ones (there are now 24 books in the series, the latest came out in March 2020), that they remain a mixed bag.
'Snakewood' by Adrian Selby
Alongside 'Imperium' (2006) which I read back in June: https://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2020/06/books-i-read-in-june.html this is probably the best book I have read this year. While I had heard of the fantasy sub-genre, 'grimdark', I was unfamiliar with books that fell into that category. Apparently it is fantasy which features amoral characters and does not hold back from portraying bloody scenes or the lead characters facing bitter or dire consequences of their actions. This book is set in a fantasy world portrayed in a lovely line drawn map at the front, though some of the most vital locations in the story are missed off it. It is in the form of a portfolio of evidence gathered by the son of one of the protagonists from various letters, journals and personal testimony of those involved. While this overcomes the challenge that books straddling continents can face of how to have witnesses in different locations, it can be a little confusing at times, especially as to chronology. However, conversely, it does permit a richness to the story and allows the author to talk about many places he is clearly excited to have imagined.
The story is almost like a Western. It is set 15 years after a renowned group of military advisors/warriors, Kailen's Twenty, have broken up. Someone is now murdering each in turn and there is a race to alert the remaining members and to take a stand against the avenger(s). The society portrayed is a typical fantasy late medieval/Renaissance setting, with familiar tropes such as a group of city states and wildlands from which barbarian hordes ride out from. However, rather than magic it is herbalism and chemistry which provides the edge. In battles, warriors are fired up on 'brews' which heighten their strength and senses. Poisons and bags of spores or that burst into flames are habitually used in battles. These take a high price from the users. That is a different approach and leads to situations that would not occur in other fantasy contexts. Fitting the grimdark line, there is a weariness about many of the characters and vicious behaviour, people focused just on their personal advantage and one vengeance triggers another.
At times, especially near the start, the combination of battle terminology with speech rendered in dialect can make it hard for the reader to really comprehend what is going on. However, as you become more familiar with the terms, it gets easier. The flash-back at the end to the Twenty's glory days really jars. The story is finished and throwing this in then disrupts the closing of the book. However, I found the book engaging if very full of detail and while there are familiar tropes, Selby brings in sufficient freshness to raise this book over many other fantasy novels. This was a successful debut in 2016 and I will look out for subsequent books by him.
'A History of Modern France. Volume 3: 1871-1962' by Alfred Cobban
This volume proved to be far better than the preceding two, especially Volume 2. I wonder if an editor took tighter control over Cobban's writing or if because this volume was expanded from the final part of what had been Volume 2, it allowed him to approach it in a more effective way. Despite the opportunities provided by Pétain and De Gaulle, even Clemenceau, Blum and Laval, in this volume, Cobban steps right away from the 'great man' approach of the previous two books. Instead he shows effectively how despite people outside France seeing it as a country of revolution, sustained social conservatism and had a constant pull on politics, repeatedly taking governments away from the necessary social and particularly economic reforms. Despite the turbulence of the politics of the Third and Fourth Republics, indeed of the wartime regimes too, he does not get bogged down in the details, instead picking out the important themes.
Paying attention to the enduring contest between conservative pro-clerical forces on ones side and the anti-clerical, more liberal republican people facing them he is able to contextualise well developments such as the Boulanger situation, the Dreyfus Affair and how in 1940 France was defeated primarily by those French who wanted an end the republic as it was by the German tanks that French forces could have out-matched. As before, Cobban does well in providing details of the cultural background and developments, especially when these bisect with the political. While it is the period of French history I know most about and despite the age of the book, I came away feeling that I had learnt new details and in particular had seen people, policies and events connected up in a way which was enlightening.