I was first given a copy of The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul to read many, many years ago. It was great but when I noticed that it was the second i...moreI was first given a copy of The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul to read many, many years ago. It was great but when I noticed that it was the second in a series I was a little surprised I hadn't been given the first one to read. Now, I think I understand why. Douglas Adams is often compared with Terry Pratchett but it's a very lazy comparison. Both authors wrote a very British kind of comic speculative fiction at the end of the twentieth century but there, arguably, the similarities cease.
Where Pratchett has evolved into a top novelist, Adams was a brilliant writer of radio screenplays. Often, it must be said, his brand of joyous wordplay and comic meditations did not translate terribly well to the written page. Perhaps this is because he wrote sketches linked by a narrative, rather than writing a narrative encompassing occasional sketches, as Pratchett does.
The first of the books in this omnibus then,Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency very much fits that pattern. Reading the novel, (view spoiler)[with it's devices of time-travel, spaceships and alien planets (hide spoiler)], is very much like reading another episode from Hitchhiker's and the key character of Richard MacDuff, in particular, could simply be Arthur Dent. Basically, this story was amusing but not entirely satisfying. 3/5
The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul, on the other hand, was even better than I remembered. Here, Adams leaves his Sci-Fi security blanket and writes a well-structured tale of Norse Gods coming to terms with life in modern Britain. Some of the themes, such as how belief effects gods, how they come into being and how they die, are covered in Pratchett's Small Gods, too, but here they are treated less earnestly as Adams at last lets the narrative come to the fore. The characters, even the gods, are well drawn and believable and this is probably the author's greatest written work. 5/5["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I was a little disappointed by this book. Ian Rankin's Rebus novels have been widely praised as literary detective fiction. In the introduction to my...moreI was a little disappointed by this book. Ian Rankin's Rebus novels have been widely praised as literary detective fiction. In the introduction to my edition he acknowledges some surprise at this and I agree with him. This was an uncomplicated, character-driven noir with a protagonist that I couldn't care less about.
Perhaps the author's writing improves with later books but here I felt like I was being kept very much at arms length from the narrative. When the plot's so simple (in one of the early chapters the killer becomes exasperated that Rebus hasn't identified him yet and we, the readers, can do nothing but nod and despondently shout 'yes, why haven't you?' as if our hero is PC Plod rather than a highly trained detective) it's essential that we should care about the characters. Instead, this is like watching someone from a car window - a moment of mild interest as you speed past their lives, quickly to be forgotten.(less)
George Smiley is not the character I was expecting. He's like a grown up Piggy from Lord of the Flies. He is, however, a likeable character and that's...moreGeorge Smiley is not the character I was expecting. He's like a grown up Piggy from Lord of the Flies. He is, however, a likeable character and that's crucial in this book which follows the protagonist faithfully. Call for the Dead is written in a way that makes espionage seem like an everyday activity and that's a rare skill: to take something alien to most people's experience, write about it in a matter-of-fact way and yet be entertaining.
I enjoyed the insights not only into the dubious relationships of the Cold War (enemies who were once colleagues, etc.) but also into post-war London. I don't normally read spy stories but I've long thought I should try some John le Carré; there's enough here in his first novel to encourage me to prolong my relationship with Smiley.(less)
I stumbled across this after hearing about Angelmaker, an interesting sounding book by a Cornish author. Then this - a short story featuring one of th...moreI stumbled across this after hearing about Angelmaker, an interesting sounding book by a Cornish author. Then this - a short story featuring one of the same characters, surely an easy introduction to his writing?
I should have been worried by the author's confession that this was his publisher's idea, and I was prepared to cut it a little slack because of that. It overcame it's tawdry origins magnificently though.
A short, sharp, funny story that comes across like Douglas Adams writing Miss Marple, I'll certainly be following this up with Angelmaker, and then maybe Nick Harkaway's other book too.(less)
Around this time last year, I think, I was listening to a program on Radio 4 in which the guests (apparently successful authors whose names escaped me...moreAround this time last year, I think, I was listening to a program on Radio 4 in which the guests (apparently successful authors whose names escaped me then and continue to do so now) were discussing the merits of Dame Agatha Christie's work. There was something one of them said that struck me immediately as summing up my feelings about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's mysteries. To paraphrase: they're great for 10-12 year olds but after that you kind of grow out of them. I think perhaps the speaker mentioned girls specifically with regards to Christie. I've never read any of her books but perhaps if that's true Sherlock Holmes is the boy's equivalent?
At around the age of ten to eleven, The Hound of the Baskervilles did the rounds amongst my friends and I. We loved it. Perhaps living and going to school in Dartmoor helped, perhaps not. Having now read three volumes of Sherlock Holmes short stories as an adult I've never been able to recapture that enthusiasm. They're laden with heavily descriptive text and both farcical and predictable.(less)
Like many other Wycliffe novels this one hinges on events that happened in the distant past. Unlike many others this one does not focus on familial or...moreLike many other Wycliffe novels this one hinges on events that happened in the distant past. Unlike many others this one does not focus on familial or community tensions, eschewing the tension of that set-up for an altogether different kind of psychodrama. The book opens with the discovery of a body in the Gwithian towans and we get to see the fallout of that discovery as it awakens old wounds in a group of shool-day friends who are, for the most part, no longer on speaking terms.
That discovery proves to be more than merely picking at a scab, however, as it leads to personal tragedy and to murder - it's that (real) murder that ends up being the focus of the investigation after Wycliffe, Kersey and Lane are led a merry dance. The story features one of W.J. Burley's more nasty and memorable villains.(less)
W.J. Burley was a supremely gifted writer; one whose prose could appear simple but whose command and use of the English language was that of a precisi...moreW.J. Burley was a supremely gifted writer; one whose prose could appear simple but whose command and use of the English language was that of a precisionist. Every so often, that apparent simplicity is given the lie:
'There were only two other tables occupied, one by an elderly, studious-looking couple who were probably touring Cornish churches or looking for ley lines; the other, by two pin-striped salesmen types who must surely have strayed off the spine road and got pixilated.'
In the hands of lesser authors, dropping words like that into their prose could appear as showing off but here, it's perfect. One short paragraph/long sentence built of familiar words which nevertheless convey a precise meaning, balanced by one unfamiliar one. Pixilated. Befuddled or confused, derived from pixie-led or pixie-elated. What better word to describe two businessmen breakfasting in a Cornish pub? That word conveys so much and, in that, it's as precise and appropriate as any of the other, more familiar words.
Wycliffe and the Last Rites is as technically well written as those familiar with Burley would expect, then, and his familiar themes of claustrophobia and family ties are present here, although perhaps not dealt with as deftly as usual and perhaps, also, with a slightly different spin. The 'whodunnit' element though is sadly lacking - the reader can guess who and why from the very first chapter, which is a shame. It's almost a cliché and it's frustrating to wonder when the police will reach the same conclusion. (less)
I’m very much enjoying listening to the current BBC radio series Foreign Bodies which charts the history of twentieth century Europe through its fictional detectives. This is social history explored through literary device and it works well but it also chimes with a conviction that I’ve long held: that W.J. Burley’s books are one of the more authentic Cornish voices in modern fiction. The press release accompanying the series offered this explanation for its significance:
“In crime fiction, everyday details become crucial clues: the way people dress and speak, the cars they drive, the jobs they have, the meals they eat. And the motivations of the criminals often turn on guilty secrets: how wealth was created, who slept with who, or a character’s role during the war. The intricate story of a place and a time is often explained in more detail in detective novels than in more literary fiction or newspapers, both of which can take contemporary information for granted. “1
Wycliffe became very much more famous than Burley during the latter part of the author’s lifetime, a circumstance that he struggled to come to terms with: it would seem that the successful TV adaptations were a somewhat Faustian pact. We live in a world where it is easy to deride the popular as the populist and success in the arts is often met with accusations of simplicity, as if nothing of any value can possibly appeal to the masses. Mirroring my contention with the Wycliffe novels, it is worth pointing out that Alan Kent has made just such an appeal to affirming a recognisably Cornish representation in the Wycliffe TV serial2. Before appearing on the small-screen, Burley did receive some critical praise for the Wycliffe books3 but it’s probably fair to say that the same kind of cultural snobbishness that could write off those adaptations as mass entertainment of little inherent worth rapidly saw those novels relegated to the insultingly named “English Cozy” genre. It’s ironic then, that the detective series to which Wycliffe is most often compared, Georges Simenon’s Maigret, should also be adapted by ITV and yet suffer none of this cultural baggage; perhaps the fact that the author was Belgian helped to save him and his character from Little-Englander attitudes?
It may seem peculiar to review the seventeenth novel in the Wycliffe series here before any of the earlier ones but I wanted to approach the topic with relatively fresh eyes and so chose one I had not read before. For readers new to the character, it’s worth noting that all the novels stand alone and, as such, they can easily be read in any order. For those who wish to read them in the order they were written in there are several little in-jokes concerning the development of police work during the time of the novels: written over a period of more than thirty years at the end of the twentieth century we see a lot of changes in the nature of the work (the introduction of computers, new forensic techniques and the forever shifting relationship with the mass-media) and in wider culture (posters on college bedsit walls change from The Beatles to Oasis, anti-smoking sentiment gradually creeps, brass bands are replaced by night-clubs, close-knit communities are encircled by tourists and second-home owners before fragmenting and reforming across a wider area facilitated by the modern ubiquity of car ownership). The one constant is Wycliffe, who never ages despite those around him getting promoted and retired through the course of the series.
Wycliffe and the Dead Flautist was first published in 1991 and another period detail from then that I’d almost forgotten is immediately to the fore: the resignation with which we expected an annual hosepipe ban. Here the rivers are low, the ground is hard and the plants are dying. In what’s called literary fiction (another genre name I despise – isn’t all fiction literary?) such a setting would provide a major element in the story; here it is mainly background detail – the very same kind of detail that was used to discuss European history in Foreign Bodies. The ever greater freedom of movement to Europe is also concisely expressed here as Wycliffe returns from a car holiday in France and muses on retiring there: both concepts really at their peak for the middle classes at that time; this is contrasted with rising disquiet about the influence of the EC (forever a concern in Cornwall) and with global warming.
The novel opens with a scene between young lovers, sneaking out after dark for an assignation. The relationship is delicately presented without a word wasted – a hallmark of Burley’s writing – the assignation takes place on a creek in the upper reaches of the tidal Fal and the landscape is instantly familiar to anyone who knows the area: redolent with the moist, musty smells of the wood and the sweet rottenness of the mud when the tide’s out. Burley sketches landscapes well – never over-describing but always writing enough for the reader to recognise places or else hang the details of his own imaginings on the framework. What he really excels at however, is writing atmosphere and he relishes exploring the psychological burden of people in a small community bound together through circumstance and convenience and how they react when those circumstances begin to change.
“His wife was silent for so long that he turned to face her. She was looking at him, her eyes so coldly speculative that he was disturbed. She said in a level, unemotional voice: ‘Up to now I’ve never troubled about your little games but if you’re mixed up in this then you’d better watch out.’
He was alarmed; he had never known her either so bitter or so self-confident, usually she took refuge in hysterical weeping. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about Beth. What am I supposed to have done? Unless you tell me – ‘”
In many of his Wycliffe books, as well as others, he examines this particular facet of human nature through the device of an extended family living together in a large house; here he has two such families to play with: the local landlord and their hereditary estate lawyers living in an adjacent house, both some distance from the village (granite and slate core, sprawling bungalows around the edge…). By the time he wrote this book Burley knew exactly what he was doing with his prose and here he has fun throwing around literary references (Poirot, Frankenstein, Perry Mason) and joking with the reader regards literary conventions:
“’It’s overcomplicated. The story writer creates a theoretical framework for a crime and by devising alibis and false trails he turns it into a test of wits. The real-life criminal, if he’s going to get away with it, keeps it simple and, if we catch him, it’s as much by luck as by cunning.’”
The mystery here is one of Burley’s better contrived ones: you may guess whodunnit, but explaining why is considerably more difficult and guesses are, of course, useless in a police procedural: evidence is required. Burley cast Wycliffe in Cornwall because that was his home for most of his life and the place he knew best; just like the difficulty in guessing why the killer did it in this book it’s difficult to explain why they should be such effective depictions of Cornwall: I very much doubt that was his intention. As the BBC indicated though, the devil is in the details. Burley did not set out to write about Cornwall but he couldn’t help himself, his love for and knowledge of his birthplace seeps into the pages of each Wycliffe book as the necessary detail for crimes committed and their detection. To write convincingly about people’s lives, passions and motives without that kind of detail would be nigh-on impossible.(less)
This is one of the best of the Wycliffe novels. All of the elements which W.J. Burley excels at are pres...more"Secrets and lies! It's all secrets and lies!"
This is one of the best of the Wycliffe novels. All of the elements which W.J. Burley excels at are present: a family living on top of each other in a big house, evocations of the Cornish landscape and Wycliffe's cerebrational walks (Burley uses that word a lot in this book: either he had a thesaurus to hand or I missed it in previous volumes - it's a good word though!).
In part then, the book owes its success to the author's conservatism: by the time he wrote this he'd been a published author for more than twenty years and in this work he sticks to his strengths without any kind of experimentation. There's even the odd in-joke: comparing 'today's policing' (published in 1990, so we're talking c.1988-89) to the situation twenty years ago the reader is acutely aware Wycliffe was working that way himself a few volumes prior (I've written about the anachronism of Wycliffe's age in other reviews). It's also effective because the plot holds together a little better than some of the other mysteries. Here, the reader is allowed to infer a good deal, but an unexplained mystery remains at the end and, without firm evidence, Wycliffe is forced to compromise.(less)