Tag Archives: writing

The Sea Withdrew

Review: Started Early, Took my Dog by Kate Atkinson

In common with every reviewer who writes about Kate Atkinson’s novels, I have a legal obligation to start this post by noting that she wrote literary fiction before she started writing crime fiction, and that her crime fiction isn’t really crime fiction because it uses the crime fiction genre  conventions in such clever, literary ways. What isn’t noted quite as often is the fact that her ostensibly literary fiction was riddled with mystery and acts of obfuscation and detection. What is Behind the Scenes of a Museum if it is not a whodunit?

Like all novels in Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, Started Early, Took my Dog hangs on a central, surprising event. Like cracks spreading out across a pane of glass, the implications and effects of this incident fracture and distort the lives of the characters we meet. At first, the effect is almost impressionistic, the pace sedate. We have fragments of different points of view: an actress trying to hold on as dementia frays her mind; a security chief despairing behind her impassive façade; a middle-aged man lost in the turns of his life; flashbacks to other lives, other, seemingly random, events.  It is 60 pages in before we are even introduced our nominal sleuth, Brodie.

Jackson Brodie is an interesting protagonist who differs from so many other series protagonists in his ability to shift and change. We have the pleasure here of watching a man progress though the storms and calms of his life. I think middle age is one of the most difficult passages in a character’s life to evoke but with these novels, Atkinson manages it with sensitivity and startling verisimilitude.  Yet Brodie is more a man to whom things happen, and as such, he is often at the periphery of events in these novels, with other characters taking centre stage.  These stories are told through the eyes of many characters and always with compassion and a devastating understanding of what makes humans do the things they do, no matter how terrible.

In this extraordinary, terrible empathy, the novelist Atkinson is most like is Charles Dickens. And she is like him in other ways, too. She shares Dickens’ understanding that it is connections and intersections, coincidences really, that make up the narrative of our lives. It takes a brave writer, especially in this genre, to reflect this in her work. Humour, too, is another similarity. Atkinson’s work is unexpectedly very funny, from the broadest of slapstick to the bleakest of ironies.

One of her cleverest ironies in Started Early is the way plot is used in the novel – it manages to be both so tightly wrought that at the moment it all come together the reader suffers a delightful kind of literary whiplash and yet, this  seems almost incidental to what the novel is about. The comeuppance faced by the villains of this piece is almost an afterthought, a dénouement that oddly manages to both baffle and satisfy the narrative desires of the reader. But there is so much more here. This is a meditation on aging, of how time changes one, and like all Atkinson’s work, the inescapability of one’s past.

Reading Kate Atkinson’s work is always a bittersweet pleasure, quite apart from the ache at the heart of her novels.  Reading her work always leaves me midway between inspiration and despair. This is the kind of writer I want to be when I grow up.

 


Beginnings (2)

Review: Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas

I stumbled across Will Thomas’ Some Danger Involved whilst searching for information on the lives of Jewish people in Victorian London – quite random I know but it turns out researching possible future novel projects is a lot more appealing than getting on with redrafting the current one. Anyway, allowing myself to be distracted from my distraction, I picked up this novel and emerged blinking some two hours later, having devoured the whole thing.

Some Danger Involved is the first novel in Thomas’ mystery series featuring the Scottish detective Cyrus Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewelyn.  We meet Llewelyn, our first person narrator, on the day he is hired by Barker. No sooner is he starting to get a handle on his mysterious employer than the pair are drawn into an investigation of a particularly gruesome murder in London’s Jewish community.

This is a steam-punk vision of Victorian London, full of exotics and absinthe, monocles and corsets, and overlaid with just a Patina of grime. It’s rather light on the real bone grinding filth and poverty that made up much of life in Victorian London but that’s fine and in keeping with the tone of the piece.  Oddly, despite the horrifying nature of the crime at the centre on this novel, it’s a relatively jovial read and we feel instinctively that good will prevails. If you want darker meat, can I suggest Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night or the even more salty The Fiend in Human by John MacLachlan Gray

Llewelyn is a satisfyingly stolid everyman, full of awe and indignation. He is an excellent contrast to the peculiar and mysterious Barker about whom we only discover fragments as the narrative unfolds. There is enough edge to both characters, however, to promise conflict and crises in future instalments.

The plot, too, works well with religious prejudice and sexual jealousy underpinning a satisfyingly traditional whodunit.

In his afterword, the author makes mild complaint about the ‘cosiness’ of historical mysteries especially those by women. Well, I’m not sure if Thomas fancies himself as some sort of Victorian Brett Easton Ellis or perhaps I’m just jaded but this seemed a fairly lightweight confection and I intend no insult by this. It’s a fun read that sets the narrative up nicely for further instalments. I look forward to them.


Bloody Valentine

It’s not everyone’s idea of the perfect Valentine’s Day activity, starting a blog about crime and mystery fiction, is it? But I suppose it kind of works. After all, not many holidays can claim their very own massacre.  And what do most people do today? They present loved ones with stylised representations of internal organs, inscribed with sinister messages: you are mine; I carry your heart with me; we will always be together. That, or they give bouquets the colour of gore. Now, that’s weird, if you ask me.

My life of crime began with Holmes, of course, and more of that later, but stories about crime always been a thread of my life, an intrinsic part of how I shape the narrative of my life. When my primary school peers were obsessed with the machinations of the Saddle Club or the Babysitters’ Club or any of the other fictional clubs that seemed to spawn a host of novels during that era, I was pouring over the exploits of Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot.   It’s to my parents’ credit that they didn’t freak out when, aged about 9, I started working my way through the true crime section of my local library.

I read other things, too, devouring the recommendations of my teachers like the voracious, precocious  little monster I was.  That was, I suppose, when I learned that not all books were equal. Why was my teacher impressed by me reading Crime and Punishment and Great Expectations , both novels that take as their centre point crime and guilt, when mention of Murder on the Orient Express or The Long Goodbye made him wrinkle his nose in disapprobation?

There is an anxiety about crime fiction, that it is cheap and too easy to read and write or that it is somehow distasteful and vicious. When I first started an MLitt in Creative Writing, I was nervous and, I’m afraid to say, ashamed of working on a crime novel. I felt I should be doing something more worthy, more literary. But like a poorly weighted body decomposing in a lake, crime and mystery keep popping up in my own work. You can’t help but tell the story that wants to be told.

The more I read, too, the more I feel that categorising novels into genres is less to do with writing and writers and more to do with marketing and sales. It’s not what’s most important. Writers like Elmore Leonard, Fred Vargas, Susan Hill, Henning Mankell take the conventions of the crime genre and twist them to their own splendid ends: creating strange and wonderful stories.

 This blog is a way for me, as both a reader and a writer, to think deeply about startlingly good and unusual fiction and film which happen to contain an element of crime or mystery.  I hope too, dear reader, you might find some suggestions for reading  or viewing  in these pages and I would love to hear your recommendations in the comments below.