Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bloomsday Dead, On Beulah Height

I just finished a couple of books that made me think about the intersection of the readership for detective novels and "high art" books.  Adrian McKinty's Bloomsday Dead is a violent thriller that is riddled with references to Joyce's Ulysses, from the title and first line ("Stately plump Buck Mulligan") through the chapter titles, all the way to the closing line ("yes").

And these aren't just clever references; the theme of homecoming and wandering is woven through the novel.  Michael Forsyth finally comes back to Belfast, his Ithaca, after 10 years of wandering, to be reunited with Bridget Callahan and her daughter Siobhan, respectively his Penelope and Telemachus.  And the action takes place over a single day, just as Ulysses does.  Of course, the novel is not as schematic as that, just as Ulysses is not a copy of the Odyssey.  Rather, these thematic undertones add resonance to the sense of closure at the end of the book.  But I wonder, how many devotees of both hard-core modernism and hard-boiled noir are out there -- it seems like McKinty's is deliberately aiming at a very small audience.

On Beulah Height is another in the Dalziel/Pascoe series.  It was excellent, with Reginald Hill at the top of his form.  But, reading it at the same time as I was listening to Bloomsday Dead made me wonder again about that intersection of high and low art.  Hill throws in a number of references to the Aeneid (and, with the benefit of reading the novel 10 years after its original publication, I already know that the next novel is called Arms and the Woman).  Now, it's true that the Aeneid is not as obscure as Ulysses, but I can't help feeling that "Of arms and the man I sing" is not exactly a widely-known line, nor will references to Pascoe as "pious Aeneas" ring a lot of bells.  So, is the expectation that those who get it will be happy, and everyone else just ignore it, or what?

And, of course, while I get to revel in my smarts, I can't help wondering what references I'm missing elsewhere.  For example, anything that references, say, Tolstoy is going to go right over my head.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Mexico Set, Bone by Bone

Mexico Set is the sequel to Len Deighton's Berlin Game, which I liked but wasn't crazy about.  I wrote that Deighton spent too much time focused on office politics, and that it put me off.

Oddly enough, I enjoyed Mexico Set a great deal, even though it also focuses heavily on Bernard Samson's daily life.  I think that the stakes felt higher here -- Bernie is coping with the loss of his wife, and her father is trying to take custody of Bernie's children, claiming that Bernie is not a good father.  Bernie is as wonderfully dyspeptic as ever, and his jaundiced view is probably the biggest attraction of the book.

I enjoyed Carol McConnell's Bone by Bone; she gets away from some of the schtick of the Mallory books, which was starting to wear thin.  I thought the climax was a bit overwrought, but other than that it was a solid book.  I was also interested to see that she could write a book without a maladjusted genius as a central character.  But it also didn't blow me away the way her best books do -- I'm looking forward to see what she does outside of the mallory milieu, and I'm hoping this book is just a hopeful sign along the way.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Faithful Spy, Black Cherry Blues, Nemesis

Three books that I wanted to like, but each one fell short in some way...
First was Alex Berenson's The Faithful Spy.  The premise seems really promising: John Wells, a CIA agent, penetrates the taliban in Afghanistan, then returns to the US, but his superiors no longer trust him, since he's been gone so long and has converted to Islam while in Afghanistan.  Unfortunately, Wells's beliefs are just window-dressing to allow Berenson to give Wells CIA training but prevent him from using his CIA connections.  By the end of the novel, Wells is barely religious at all, and, having saved the day, doesn't seem to have any effect on his life for choosing Islam.

I'm not really sure if I liked James Lee Burke's Black Cherry Blues.  On the one hand, Burke is a good writer on a sentence-by-sentence and paragraph-by-paragraph level.  He has some great descriptions of Louisiana and Montana, his dialog is believable, he has some great characters, and I liked the way he works with his theme of redemption. But I had two problems with it.  One is that Dave Robicheaux, who just runs a bait shop, keeps stumbling into fairly large-scale crimes, involving governments or huge companies.  I realize that this is a convention of the amateur detective sub-genre, but I think that an author needs to work on the suspension of disbelief.  More critically, there's a level of macho posturing that made it hard to sympathize with Dave.  The whole plot really gets going when he goes into a hotel room where the antagonists are staying and tries to intimidate them by whipping a chain around.  It's a stupid move, and it doesn't really square with the picture of Dave as a smart guy.

Jo Nesbo's Redbreast was an exciting novel in the tradition of The Day of the Jackal, with a race to stop an assassin from killing a public official.  There was a big hole left open, though, and I was hoping to see Nesbo tackle it in Nemesis, the follow-up.  Unfortunately, instead I ended up with two Agatha Christie-like plots.  The thing that I never like about Christie is that the plots so byzantine that they seem ready to topple over at a moment's notice.  In this case, we have a bank robber implicating a different one by throwing a soda can with fingerprints on it into a garbage can, knowing that the police would see him throwing it away in the surveillance cameras of the 7-11 across the street.  The whole thing goes completely awry if (1) the police don't get the tape from the 7-11 (2) they don't notice that the criminal is in the video (he's not in the same clothes and mask as he was wearing during the robbery) (3) the garbage is collected before they make the connection.  The other plot is just as bad.  It's too bad, because until the denoument, I was enjoying the novel.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Jurgen, Dead Lagoon

I recently re-read two books, The Dead Lagoon by Michael Dibdin, and Jurgen: a Comedy of Justice by James Branch Cabell.

There's always a bit of trepidation in re-reading a book that I enjoyed.  Was the book actually as good as I remember?  Sometimes it's better just to keep the old memories...

In this case, though, both books were great, so no worries...  In Dead Lagoon, Aurelio Zen learns that you can't go home again.  He gets himself posted to Venice, his birthplace, to engage in a bit of private enterprise.  He gets involved with an old neighbor, tries to help a persecuted old lady, and ends up finding his father's whereabouts, and reconnects with old friends.  And every one of those things ends badly -- Aurelio ends up manipulated on all sides, and leaves Venice with nothing to show for the trip.  Overall, Dead Lagoon is the bleakest of all the Zen stories.

Jurgen, on the other hand, is a very light novel, although Cabell certainly puts in some thematic depth.  I first read Jurgen back in college; a number of a my favorite fantasy authors mentioned Cabell's prose as an influence, and Penn had a large collection of his works, including a number of rare first editions, so I decided to check him out for myself.  I still remember the feeling of reading those books; Cabell was witty, a top-notch stylist, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient mythology.  But would the book still seem amazing twenty years later, with a lot more fantasy under my belt?

The short answer is yes.  In part, I think this is because Cabell, who was writing before there was a fantasy genre as such, is part of a road-not-travelled.  Modern fantasy, largely influenced by Tolkien, has focused on world-building.  Books succeed in part by how well they make you feel that the fantasy world is "real."  Cabell, though, isn't interested sucking the reader into a magical world.  Cabell is more interested in using fantasy to talk about love, romanticism, and the like.  So Jurgen travels to the Garden Between Dusk and Dawn, where all the made-up creatures live, and there he finds his first love -- because, of course, the first love we think we love isn't the actual person.  Jurgen travels around from one land to another, trying to recapture his lost youth, but finding that even with the body of a 20-year old, his 40-year old mind keeps him from seeing the world the way he did when he was 20.

In the end he chooses to stay with his very ordinary wife rather than the mythical beauties he could choose, like Nimue or Helen of Troy, essentially because she's put up with him for 20 years, and that's more than he can expect of most women.  A decidedly unromantic reason, and Cabell seems unsure whether that's a good resolution or not.  He loves the idea of romanticism, of heroic actions, but he's also realistic enough to realize that eventually we all come back down to earth.  Many of his other books deal with the conflict between the workaday world and the romantic ideals we might have.  He is suspicious of traveling too far down the path of romanticism, but at the same time, he thinks that we're inspired by our ideals only because we hide the nature of the world from ourselves.