Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Books I Read In November

'Dead Simple' by Peter James
This is the first book in the Roy Grace series of detective novels.  I have been given the first three; there are currently twelve books in the series.  James has been publishing since 1981 and has a slew of awards.  The edition of the book I had said on it that the book had sold 14 million copies, but personally I have not encountered the man in the media.  The books is fast paced with some very short chapters.  It features a young Superintendent Roy Grace who works in Sussex.  Authors are often advised by publishers not to include details that date quickly, but James utterly flouts that rule referring to a whole host of things such as the BlackBerry palmtop and television programmes such as 'Foyle's War' which have gone from the consciousness of many readers even in the 11 years since it was published.  I am sure these will soon become like period novels with the frisson of references to a particular era the way that 'Life on Mars' provided for the 1970s.

The novel is also very tightly located to real places in Sussex and in a car chase near the end there is so much detail about which particular roads the characters are driving down you could easily recreate the novel.  I suppose the area of Sussex around Brighton and Newhaven is reasonably well known to many Britons.  However, it also adds to what perhaps made this novel a success - that it is clearly trying to replicate the approach of many US authors to writing detective novels, very much referencing a time and a specific place.  There are references to US culture, both Grace and another character are influenced by US television series; one even adopts the accents and jargon of some of them.

One aspect I do not like is the fact that the reader knows much more than any of the characters, even the police.  There are some twists in this book which actually turn out to be less incredible than you first believe, yet before you have that knowledge the book does appear to make an unfeasible turn on occasions.  Grace has a wife who has been missing for nine years and begins a relationship with a pathologist, something which seems to be de rigueur these days.  You forget, in part because his name seems so old fashioned, that he is only 39 when this novel is set so the age gap to the woman he courts is not as severe as the equivalent in the Inspector Morse stories as televised.  As a superintendent he seems free to involve himself in any case that interests him, so he may have a different group of detectives around him for successive novels, I do not know.

One stand out thing for Grace is his belief in the occult.  He uses mediums and a dowser right throughout the books and this helps him get to the bottom of the situation which is messy even for the perpetrators.  I suppose it is the ultimate deus ex machina for a crime novel.  It is handled in a mundane way so the novel does not have a supernatural feel.  However, it seems that all of these practitioners are very successful and it adds a strange extra element to the forensic skills on offer and to some degree relieves Grace of the burden of having to deduct anything.  This element could really undermine the novels.  However, in this one it accelerates the ending without overly weakening it.

The book was mildly interesting and very easy to get through with a good pace.  It is certainly not discouraging enough to put me off reading the others in this series that I have been given.

'Looking Good Dead' by Peter James
Perhaps I read this book too soon after the previous one in the series, 'Dead Simple'.  Despite being published a year later, this book's narrative continues the day after the incidents shown in the previous book.  This does make it all a bit frantic and even one of the characters, a medium, notes he just saw Superintendent Roy Grace the week before.  There are various recaps on incidents in Grace's life, including the two ghosts of the old women and characters around him which seem tiresome if, like me, you just read these some weeks earlier.

The style is consistent.  The writing flows very well.  It is very much in its time and place, there is so much detail about where the detectives and the criminals go that you could trace it almost step-by-step around the Sussex towns and villages.  It is utterly unembarrassed about referencing culture and technology of the time, something very important in this novel which features snuff movies disseminated over the internet.  There are some other continuations.  Grace makes lots of mistakes which leads to harm.  The American style approach is a bit toned down from the previous book; though there are some very gruesome scenes in this book; it is not a cosy, southern England detective story.  Again things come to a climax in a dingy cellar in which Grace has to reach in time to save the victims and there is an epic, this time explosive conclusion.

The stories are credible and fast-moving indeed to the point of being frantic.  It is good to see a police character who, though with issues from the past, is moving on and in this book he gets a girlfriend and has some very good sex, given in quite a bit of detail.  James does seem interested in up and coming prosperous people of southern Sussex, having their worlds dissolve around them as a result of their arrogance, coming up against criminals who are furious and vicious at even minor disruption to their plans.  I wonder if the next book, the last of the ones in this series that I have at present, will have a similar slant.  The book is refreshing as a detective drama, but is too similar to its predecessor and I am little apprehensive that Grace will become a one-trick pony.

'Going Postal' by Terry Pratchett
As I tend to buy many books second hand and Pratchett books are heavily under-represented in charity shops because fans hold on to them and re-read them, in the past 34 years that I have been reading his work, I have missed out on some.  This is probably the most notable one, coming from the later-mid period of Pratchett's work and the first in what is one of his sub-sets of Discworld novels, this one featuring Moist von Lipwig.  This one was published in 2004; 'Making Money' (2007) which I read a couple of years ago and 'Raising Steam' (2013) which is on my shelf.

The book does tackle some issues as Pratchett tended to do in his 21st century novels.  There is satire and observation on corporations and how they run rings around attempts to control them as well as being careless with their employees lives.  However, in this book this focus is not as heavy as in some of the books he wrote around this time, notably 'Thud!' (2005) and ones that came later.  The book moves at a good pace with von Lipwig, a conman, being assigned to run the defunct post office of Ankh-Morpork and rival the unscrupulous clacks company.  Clacks is a form of semaphore to communicating quickly, but is run simply to turn a profit leading to a decaying service and the death of many operators - clearly paralleling utility companies of our world.

The small man living by his wits and seeking to win the heart of a woman he fancies is handled well.  Von Lipwig is an interesting character and at times behaves in a way that is unexpected.  There is not much laugh-out-loud humour as in the early Pratchett books, but this is an engaging story which does not permit the issues to get in the way of a romping story.  What is interesting is that the complexity of the clacks is really only covered in passing and it would be fascinating to learn more about how it was established.  Parallels to emails in our world are natural.  I also wondered if it had been influenced by the semaphore messaging which appears in the alternate history novel 'Pavane' (1968) by Keith Roberts.

The one element which unsettled me in this novel was the opening scene in which von Lipwig is condemned to death and taken to be hanged.  There was no humour in it and it rather set an unpleasant tone which took time to shake off.  Not something that you really want in a humorous book.  Overall I enjoyed this book more than I have done a number of Pratchett novels I have read recently which in contrast have been weighed down by their self-importance and ensuring that they thoroughly tackled the issues in focus.

'The Three Musketeers' by Alexandre Dumas
Like many people who come to this book I have seen multiple television and movie adaptations from the three light-hearted Richard Lester adaptations (1973, 1974, 1989) to the recent BBC series (2014-16) and the steampunk version, 'The Three Musketeers' (2011).  I must say that the first two Lester movies, despite their light tone feature elements of the original book, including breakfast in the bastion at La Rochelle, the seduction of the Puritan jailer and the execution on the island.  The BBC series which extends the lives of a number of the characters, does, however, capture the characterisations from the book very well and across different episodes features various small incidents such as the seduction of wealthy women by Porthos.  The book is long (629 pages in my edition despite having very small type) and being published in 1844 has a very different narrative dynamic to an adventure book produced today.

The first half of the musketeers meeting D'Artagnan and the mission to retrieve the Queen's jewels from England will be familiar, but then it goes off in all sorts of directions.  D'Artagnan had to reassemble his comrades from assorted locations where they have been engaging either in being lazy, discussing theology or occupying a cellar.  I guess this is to develop the characters but it really slows down the book.  Later we see a great deal of events simply from the perspective of Lady Anne De Winter (why she is often referred to as 'Milady' in reviews, I have no idea.  She is addressed as 'My lady' as she is the widow of the brother of Baron De Winter, but she has a first name which is mentioned), the main nemesis of the musketeers in this novel.  However, being focused on her escape from England and her plots against the Musketeers it is almost as if she becomes the heroine, even though she is shown as utterly ruthless, manipulative and happy to murder.  Thus, the book is almost like a number of books bundled together.

There are aspects which you have to forgive in an early Victorian novel.  Dumas over-narrates.  He gives immense detail and we find out that not simply Planchet is a servant to the musketeers, but that the other three have their own valets who often get involved in the action including battles - Bazin, Grimaud and Mosqueton who follow their masters into various professions in the epilogue.  They get left out of the adaptations.  Some dialogues on things such as religious theses or the history of a character go on too long.  However, we are reminded that this is a novel from another time, because Dumas has to keep addressing the audience of the 1840s to explain behaviour of the 1620s when having mistresses, taking gifts from patrons or people seeking patronage and abrupt fights to the death between people were commonplace in sharp contrast to the era of the readers.  In fact the Musketeers alternate between being penniless and having immense wealth.  At times the difference between francs, crowns, louis, livres and pistoles - all different denominations of coinage, need to be explained.

For a modern reader this is a heavy going book.  We are more accepting of the Musketeers' behaviour than Victorian reader, but will find the detours away from the momentum of the story, unnecessary.  There are interesting characterisations and portrayals of different locations.  There are sections of great suspense and action, but you have patience to get from one to the other in the narrative archipelago.

'Medieval English Warfare' by R.R. Selman
This is another of these books that I seem to have picked up from a library selling off some of its stock.  This one has stamps from two different school libraries in Surrey in it.  It is one of those history books with line drawn illustrations and maps that I find highly charming.  It has quite a narrow focus looking at just conflicts that English forces were involved in, from the late 13th to the late 15th centuries.  It is, however, very readable and direct.  It analyses changes in armour, weapons, tactics and the nature of warfare over this period.  It provides interesting analysis of the battles of Crecy and Agincourt, other battles of the Hundred Years' War and Edward I's campaigns in Wales and Scotland; showing the peculiarity of the English approach in comparison to those of France and Scotland.  It is a good introductory book.  It was published first in 1960 and my edition was from 1967.

It has a great feel to it and the illustrations and maps have old world charm, but some of the attitudes would grate to a modern readership.  Two of the most notable are that, after outlining throughout the book how many conflicts the English were involved with, it says that the English are not a military nation, despite that even now, fifty years later, as in the Middle Ages, our monarchy has intimate links with the military and the armed forces are lionised throughout UK society.  The second one is that the Middle Ages somehow magically terminated in 1485 and that modern society began.  Even constraining ourselves to warfare, there is greater similarity between an English army on the battlefield in 1645 and 1485 than between even the 17th century and modern day.  It shows that in the 1960s even when a book had a fresh approach, it felt obliged to mouth the apparent aphorisms that a contemporary author would challenge from the outset.

'Warrior to soldier, 449 to 1660. A brief introduction to the history of English warfare' by A.V.B. [Alexander Vesey Bethune] Norman and Don Pottinger
This is very similar to the Selman book, being from 1966 and bought by me from a school library sale.  In addition it has wonderful line drawings to illustrate weaponry and armour as it developed over the time period; many draw from tomb effigies or brasses.  It generally avoids things that we would challenge nowadays, though it does adhere to the traditional perspective of Chaucer's Knight.  It complains that Shakespeare gets it wrong when one of his characters says a sword from Innsbruck would be a Spanish weapon, given that both Austria and Spain were ruled by the same man at the time. 

These minor things, however, are outweighed by a perceptiveness which distinguishes this book from those of contemporaries writing for a popular audience.  Norman and Pottinger alert the reader to how a shield wall would really work; they note that while Harold II at the Battle of Hastings could draw on Sussex levies, it was the skilled, permanent parts of his army worn out by the march from Stamford Bridge and in particular, they note how much of a fantasy chivalry soon became.  Thus, though this is aimed at the general public, it will open your eyes to some facts about warfare in the period which might even surprise a reader today.

The writing is brisk but engages with a range of terminology very capably so that you never feel as if you are lost by the vocabulary especially as it changes through the periods.  Sections on different aspects, such as organisation of forces, castles or armour are indicated by symbols which actually makes this an easy to use reference book too, as you can go to the chapter on a period and quickly identify the text on the aspect you are particularly interested in.  One complaint is that the book ends abruptly and I would have welcomed a summing up of what has been considered.  There is an appendix about the making of armour which is interesting but seems orphaned from the book and would have come better in a chapter on one of the periods when metal armour was at its height.

Overall, despite its age, I found this an engaging and informative book and see that it is still available on Amazon, for certainly far more than the pennies I paid for my copy, probably something like 35 years or more ago.

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