Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Make Death Love Me by Ruth Rendell

Make Death Love Me by Ruth Rendell, 1979

Three thousand pounds lay on the desk in front of him. It was in thirty wads, mostly of fivers. He had taken it out of the safe when Joyce went off for lunch and spread it out to look at it, as he had been doing most days lately. He never took out more than three thousand, though there was twice that in the safe, because he had calculated that three thousand would be just the right sum to buy him a year's freedom.

With the kind of breathless excitement many people feel about sex--or so he supposed, he never had himself--he looked at the money and turned it over and handled it. Gently he handled it, and then roughly as if it belonged to him and he had lots more. He put two wads into each of his trouser pockets and walked up and down the little office. He got out his wallet with his own two pounds in it, and put in forty and folded it again and appreciated its new thickness. After that he counted out thirty-five pounds into an imaginary hand and mouthed, thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-five, into an imaginary face, and knew he had gone too far in fantasy with that one as he felt himself blush.

For he didn't intend to steal the money. If three thousand pounds goes missing from a subbranch in which there is only the clerk in charge (by courtesy, the manager) and a girl cashier, and the girl is there and the clerk isn't, the Anglian-Victoria bank will not have far to look for the culprit. Loyalty to the bank didn't stop him taking it, but fear of being found out did. Anyway, he wasn't going to get away or be free, he knew that. He might be only thirty-eight, but his thirty-eight was somehow much older than other people's thirty-eights. It was too old for running away.
--- (pages 1-2)

Alan Groombridge is an unhappy man. Trapped in a loveless marriage, with two unpleasant children and a tiresome father-in-law, his only escape is reading literature and poetry, and fingering money. As manager of a small rural bank, he has plenty of opportunity to fantasize about stealing the cash and leaving his stifling life behind. When two naive young men stage an ill-conceived bank robbery, Alan gets his chance to take the money and run. But between his own inexperience and the haunting specter of his abducted teller, Alan will be hard-pressed to make a clean getaway.

Make Death Love Me starts with this simple, Hitchcockian premise and then follows it through to its dark conclusion, twining together the double stories of Alan's exodus and of the robbers' pathetic attempts to rectify their mistake. Like one of John D. MacDonald's standalone pulp crime novels, Death is a fast, intense journey of black comedy and suspense.

The novel is crisp and engagingly readable, but the killer premise is probably the best thing about it. Rendell is an accomplished writer (her deliciously cruel skewering of middle-class hell that opens the book is terrific); it's her plotting that lacks vitality. The book's middle segments are a little saggy, which is surprising for a novel that's barely two hundred pages. Not a whole lot happens between the beginning and the blood-soaked ending, just a slow increase in pressure. There's nothing especially wrong with this approach, but it's been done many times before, and better. The storyline doesn't really twist or turn, it just ratchets up the tension.

Both of the stories have potential to be excellent, but neither of them quite make that leap. Alan's rediscovery of life and his torrid romance with his new landlady are good, just not especially memorable or compelling. Likewise, the twisted kidnappers/captive dynamic, while well-written and suitably dramatic, has been done many times, and Rendell's use of the scenario doesn't bring anything much new to the table.

Rendell has a reputation for psychological insight and sharp characterizations, both of which are definitely in evidence here. She brings a dark, chilling pscyhosexuality to Nigel, the main villain, and she nicely captures Alan's unusual predicament and the emotions driving him. I can't say that the characters are especially riveting, but they're all economically drawn and intriguingly amoral to some degree. Joyce, the kidnapped teller, is perhaps a little too dumb to be sympathetic, which hurts her side of the story a bit.

It's the nasty, cruel closing chapters where Rendell hits the gas and exposes the darkly comic underbelly of the tale. The book ends not in triumph, as most thrillers do, but in a vicious, senseless bloodbath that metes out harsh, Flannery O'Connor-style justice. Nigel's fate is a little random for my taste, but you can't deny the dramatic resonance of Alan facing the consequences of his actions down the barrel of a gun. It's a suitably dark finish to a dark, funny little tale of amorality and the difficulties of dealing with the aftermath of our choices.

NEXT UP: Robert Jordan's third Wheel of Time novel.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Black Book by Ian Rankin

The Black Book by Ian Rankin, 1993

The hotel had once been a traveller's paradise. It was sited on Princes Street, no distance at all from Waverly Station, and so had become a travelling businessman's home-from-home. But in its latter years, the Central had seen business decline. And as genuine business declined, so disingenuous business took over. It was no real secret that the Central's stuffy rooms could be hired by the hour or the afternoon. Room service would provide a bottle of champagne and as much talcum powder as any room's tenants required.

In other words, the Central had become a knocking-shop, and by no means a subtle one. It also catered to the town's shadier elements in all shapes and forms. Wedding parties and stag nights were held for a spread of the city's villains, and underage drinkers could loll in the lounge bar for hours, safe in the knowledge that no honest copper would stray inside the doors. Familiarity bred further contempt, and the lounge bar started to be used for drug deals, and other even less savoury deals too, so that the Central Hotel became something more than a mere knocking-shop. It turned into a swamp.

A swamp with an eviction order over its head.

The police couldn't turn a blind eye forever and a day, especially when complaints from the public were rising by the month. And the more trash was introduced to the Central, the more trash was produced by the place. Until almost no real drinkers went there at all. If you ventured into the Central, you were looking for a woman, cheap drugs, or a fight. And God help you if you weren't.

Then, as had to happen, one night the Central burnt down. This came as no surprise to anyone; so much so that reporters on the local paper hardly bothered to cover the blaze. The police, of course, were delighted. The fire saved them having to raid the joint.

But the next morning there was a solitary surprise; for though all the hotel's staff and customers had been accounted for, a body turned up amongst the charred ceilings and roofbeams. A body that had been burnt out of all recognition.

A body that had been dead when the fire started.
--- (pages 30-31)

The Black Book is a very good crime novel, like all of Ian Rankin's books. The plot engages and holds your interest throughout, the characters are as vibrant as always and John Rebus' personal life takes center stage. There seems to be everything a fan of the Rebus series needs. So why did The Black Book, good as it was, leave me feeling a bit disappointed?

As usual, John Rebus's life, both personal and professional, is a mess. His girlfriend has kicked him out, just as his brother Michael returns to Edinburgh to crash in his flat (already rented out to several college students). When Rebus's friend and colleague, Brian Holmes, is brutally attacked, he begins digging into a ten-year old arson case with an unsolved murder attached. As the plot thickens and the bodies stack up, Rebus finds himself once again on the trail of the truth, with a dangerous gangster intent on either framing him or getting him out of the way.

I'll do the good first. There's certainly plenty to like about The Black Book, which is as readable and well-written as anything you're likely to find in the genre. I especially liked the emphasis on Rebus's chaotic home life and relationship with Michael, who hasn't shown up since Knots and Crosses. Rankin remains excellent at reflecting how the little things in life (like sharing a messy flat with five other people) can reflect on everything else.

The addition to the cast of Siobhan Clarke, a new officer under Rebus's supervision, is also totally successful and I very much like the way that Rankin has gradually built up the world of Rebus's police station, complete with petty politics and rivalries. Rebus being Rebus, naturally he gets pulled into more than one conflict with superiors. At least Clarke seems to be his ally for now (and possibly a love interest down the line?).

Another new character introduced is "Big Ger" Cafferty, a notorious gangster that we've been hearing about for several books now, and a figure that I believe turns out to be the series' Big Bad in the future. Cafferty doesn't disappoint; he's a suitably quirky nemesis for the equally quirky Rebus. Here's a man capable of stunningly brutal violence one minute, and general chumminess the next. The scene where Rebus goes jogging with him is delightfully weird and deliciously tense.

While the ancillary elements in The Black Book may be stellar, the main plot has problems. Unlike Strip Jack, which kept its focus squarely on Gregor Jack, Book juggles new characters, myriad plot threads (some of them only loosely related) and dozens of clues and misdirects. As a result, the plot feels looser and less foolproof than in previous installments. There are too many coincidences and Dickens-style tenuous connections propping up the plot, which also, unforgivably, lacks the gut-punch climax that I've come to expect from the Rebus series. Not that the ending isn't good (it mixes together several separate plot strands in a satisfying way), it's just not the car-chasing, house-burning, glass-punching finale that the previous books had conditioned me to be waiting for.

The other main thing that bothered me about Book (and about Strip Jack, too) is the subtle. . . mellowing. Rankin has stepped away from some of the unusual choices that made the first three books so damned good: Rebus's amorality and general loser-ness, the raw emotional power of the stories, the grit and darkness of the themes. There's a comparatively lighter touch here, and in Strip Jack, a broader feel, a greater conventionality, if that makes any sense. The Black Book reads as a more standard crime novel than its predecessors. That feeling of taking a peek into the fiery pits of human evil (and the equally strange world of the man who fights it) is missing. The solution to the central mystery is not scorching or horrifying or emotional; it's shrug-worthy.

I know that what this is is Rankin settling the series down for a prolonged run, which he probably wasn't anticipating earlier. Keeping up the early books' intensity and bleakness for twenty-plus novels would probably have been impossible, if not downright unsatisfying. I think Rankin still has the old craziness in him--he's just decided to pull it out less often.

The Black Book, then, is perhaps a bit of a series placeholder. The dip in quality is not that enormous or shocking--it's still a great read and would look even better if its predecessors hadn't been so excellent. A tighter plot and more emotional oomph is what I'm looking for from Mortal Causes. I don't want to sound like I don't appreciate how good Ian Rankin is. Because I do. Even at his weakest (and Book is the weakest novel of the series), he can still blow 95% of his competition out of the water.

NEXT UP: A short little potboiler, Make Death Love Me, from Ruth Rendell.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American Gods by Neil Gaiman, 2001

"She's the goddess within us all," said the girl with the eyebrow ring, color rising to her cheek. "She doesn't need a name."

"Ah," said Wednesday with a wide monkey grin, "so do you have mighty bacchanals in her honor? Do you drink blood wine under the full moon while scarlet candles burn in silver candleholders? Do you step naked into the seafoam, chanting ecstatically to your nameless goddess while the waves lick at your legs, lapping your thighs like the tongues of a thousand leopards?"

"You're making fun of me," she said. "We don't do any of the stuff you were saying." She took a deep breath. Shadow suspected she was counting to ten. "Any more coffees here? Another mochaccino for you, ma'am?" Her smile was a lot like the one she had greeted them with when they had entered.

They shook their heads, and the waitress turned to greet another customer.

"There," said Wednesday, "is one who 'does not have the faith and will not have the fun,' Chesterston. Pagan indeed. So. Shall we go out into the street, Easter my dear, and repeat the exercise. Find out how many passerby know that their Easter festival takes its name from Eostre of the Dawn? Let's see--I have it. We shall ask a hundred people. For every one that knows the truth, you may cut off one of my fingers, and when I run out of them, toes; for every twenty who don't know, you spend a night making love with me. And the odds are certainly in your favor here--this is San Francisco, after all. There are heathens and pagans and Wiccans aplenty on these precipitous streets."

Her green eyes looked at Wednesday. They were, Shadow decided, the exact same color as a leaf in spring with the sun shining through it. She said nothing.

could try it," continued Wednesday. "But I would end up with ten fingers, ten toes, and five nights in your bed. So don't tell me they worship you and keep your festival day. They mouth your name, but it has no meaning to them. Nothing at all."--- (pages 311-312)

American Gods is a glorious, overstuffed banquet of riches for the fantasy reader, the kind of book that Stephen King used to write, but with more quirk, more humor and smoother writing. Gods is enormous fun, bursting with inventiveness and innovation, constantly moving between light and dark. Neil Gaiman, always good in my experience, has never been better.

When a mysterious man named Shadow is released from prison, he finds out that his beloved wife Laura has been killed in a car accident. On the plane home, he encounters a strange man calling himself Wednesday, who offers him a bizarre job.

Wednesday is an "old god," one of many living in America, brought from their native lands by immigrants over the course of history. Some have acclimated to their new surroundings (such as the Egyptian gods using their embalming skills as funeral directors) and some have not (such as Mad Sweeney, the drunk seven-foot leprechaun). Now, the new gods of technology, finance and media are rising, and Wednesday is spearheading a war between the two sides, a war that Shadow finds himself trapped in the middle of.

Gaiman's basic premise (the forgotten gods that live among us) is a simple stroke of genius. It's a device that runs the whole novel; it creates hilarity, intrigue and a strange poignancy as Gaiman investigates the weird and wild creatures that live among humans, ignored and unloved. It's a deliciously twisted dynamic, one where we can actually feel sorry for a god who no longer gets regular blood sacrifice. Overall, Gaiman is less interested in the "new gods," who are mostly generic, man-in-black baddies. It would have been nice if he had fleshed them out a bit more, but hey, the book is already six hundred pages long.

It says something about the power of Gaiman's vision that the creepy, quirky warring gods never overpower the story of Shadow, and his equally strange journey. Gaiman paints his main character with almost exquisite lightness, building him up slowly. His eventual descent into a patchwork underworld is a strangely moving sequence, and his relationship with his wife, Laura (who, in the tradition of The Princess Bride, is only mostly dead), is like the rest of the book, a bunch of contradictory things all rolled into one. It still works like gangbusters, though.

The novel's structure is endearingly odd. It's largely episodic, with a big subplot running through the last half or so. Everything and everyone that's shown up so far collides for the epic finale, in classic Dickensian tradition. Gaiman is way too genre-savvy to use a simple quest pattern and I love the fact that he would write a novel as thoroughly modern as this one in the style of nineteenth-century fiction.

His inclusion of frequent flashbacks (some that go waaaay back) is another major risk, since they could easily have made the book feel even more stuffed with content than it already did. Thankfully, most of the flashbacks are entertaining in their own right, and they serve to further elaborate the novel's sprawling mythology. American Gods is a book to savor, anyway, not a quick read.

I think it was the novel's final hundred pages that really clinched the entire book for me. There's a certain grace to the way Gaiman slowly, deftly brings together all of the book's separate strands in a surprisingly emotional, resonant way. There's something gorgeous about the way that Shadow, always the detached observer, comes into his own and becomes a crucial player in the cosmic game. And that final, devastatingly well-done plot twist is sheer storytelling excellence. Very few authors could have done something like that and gotten away with it. I might have preferred a more epic bloodbath (it's the Lord of the Rings fan in me), but it's a minor issue.

It takes a talented author to pull off a book as complex as this one while finding a balance between humor and pathos, between the epic and the personal. Neil Gaiman is more than up to the challenge. He's a real original, a writer unlike any other. His mixture of wiry, textured prose and sharp, funny dialogue is perfect. There's a certain undefinable something that sets his style apart.

He's written a wonderful book, too, strange and thrilling, equal parts funny and sad. American Gods is one of those rich reading experiences that readers everywhere crave. A twisted, delicious masterpiece of the macabre and bizarre, of old magic, which, as Gaiman shows us, so often lives not in outer space or Middle-earth, but right next door.

NEXT UP: The Black Book by Ian Rankin.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Watership Down by Richard Adams, 1972

"Hello, Bigwig," said Hazel "You're off duty?"

"Off duty," said Bigwig, "and likely to remain off duty."

"How do you mean?"

"I've left the Owsla, that's what I mean."

"Not on our account?"

"You could say that. The Threarah's rather good at making himself unpleasant when he's been woken up at ni-Frith for what he considers a piece of trivial nonsense. He certainly knows how to get under your skin. I dare say a good mmany rabbits would have kept quiet and thought about keeping on the right side of the Chief, but I'm afraid I'm not much good at that. I told him the Owsla's priveliges didn't mean all that much to me in any case and that a strong rabbit could always do just as well by leaving the warren. He told me not to be impulsive and think it over, but I shan't stay. Lettuce-stealing isn't my idea of a jolly life, nor sentry duty in the burrow. I'm in a fine temper, I can tell you."

"No one will steal lettuces soon," said Fiver quietly.

"Oh, that's you, Fiver, is it?" said Bigwig, noticing him for the first time. "Good, I was coming to look for you. I've been thinking about what you said to the Chief Rabbit. Tell me, is it a sort of tremendous hoax to make yourself important, or is it true?"

is true," said Fiver. "I wish it weren't."

"Then you'll be leaving the warren?"

They were all startled by the bluntness with which Bigwig went to the point. Dandelion muttered, "Leave the warren, Frithrah!" while Blackberry twitched his ears and looked very intently, first at Bigwig and then at Hazel.

It was Hazel who replied. "Fiver and I will be leaving the warren tonight," he said deliberately. "I don't know exactly where we shall go, but we'll take anyone who's ready to come with us."

"Right," said Bigwig, "then you can take me."
--- (pages 28-29)

Watership Down is a great old-fashioned English adventure story, like The Hobbit or The Swiss Family Robinson. It has danger, coziness, courageous heroes, humor, action, suspense, originality and a memorably diabolical villain. It's an entrancing and spellbinding ride into a world that's equal parts alien and familiar. It's a novel that feels magical and somehow handmade. It's a delight from start to finish.

Oh, and it's about rabbits.

When a young rabbit named Fiver has a psychic vision of danger and death, a small group of rabbits leave their comfortable, doomed warren in order to seek out a new home in the unknown wilderness. Led by the level-headed Hazel, the wanderers find themselves beset by foes and perils, none greater than Efrafa, the dystopian warren run by the vicious General Woundwort.

In classic fashion, the plot is loose and episodic until the last half or so, which deals with the war between the warrens. The novel apparently began as a story that Adams told his daughters on a long car trip, and you can almost feel the storyteller inventing as the plot progresses, coming up with new obstacles and storylines. The slight feel of improvisation is another element of the book's considerable charm.

The rabbits' mythology feels anything but contrived, though. Adams gives his rabbits a vocabulary and religion all their own, complete with a Robin Hood-like folk hero El-ahrairah. There are several complete El-ahrairah stories embedded in the book (as the rabbits tell them to each other). This is usually one of my least-favorite literary devices, but these stories are gems, both funny and poignant. I especially liked the way Adams uses the stories to foreshadow future events or to underline important thematic points.

I liked the way that the story grew, too. The novel begins as a simple, fairy-tale-like narrative and slowly morphs into something darker, broader and epic in scope. By the end of the book, what began as a fun Wind in the Willows-esque amusement, has become a thrilling tale of war and sacrifice. The last few chapters are as exciting and pulse-pounding as anything I've read this year.

The characters are not the main event here in general; there's not a whole lot of growth or development, especially the minor rabbits like Acorn and Speedwell, who remain featureless throughout. Hazel, Bigwig, Fiver, Dandelion and Blackberry get the most "screen time" out of the main characters. Bigwig in particular seems to be a favorite of the author. Why? Because he's awesome, that's why. I love his gruff courage and street smarts, and his climactic fight with Woundwort should be in the dictionary under "epic." Hazel has some pretty amazing moments, too, and Woundwort is a suitably memorable and nasty villain. What Adams' characterizations lack in complexity and nuance, they more than make up for in strength and consistency.

Adams' flair for descriptive writing is a double-edged sword. On the one hand he absolutely sells his world, down to the smells, textures and tastes (I find his descriptions of burrows and tunnels especially cozy). His world is rich and vivid. On the other hand, passages describing sunsets, flowers and lanscapes can become overly long and far too wordy, slowing the book's momentum a bit at times. It's not that the descriptions are exactly bad, just too bloated.

My only other real complaint is that Adams cheats a bit during the climax by inserting a sudden, random chapter from the perspective of a human. It's a jarring, utterly pointless addition to the narrative that stops the story dead in its tracks. It's quite badly written, too, and just a bizarre interlude in an otherwise breathtaking conclusion. I always hate something that violates the "rules" of a fictional universe.

There's something about Watership Down that just telegraphs 'classic' from the start. The force and passion of the story, the universal themes of courage, loyalty and leadership, and the mind-boggling originality of the premise combine to form a novel that you can feel getting under your skin even as you read. In a good way. Yeah, I know that sounds weird, just go with it.

I love the way that Adams combines innocence and experience, creating a book that sometimes feels like a giddy return to childhood and sometimes provides us with a surprisingly dark view of the world. In the end, it's a real literary journey in the traditional style, running the gamut from terror to hilarity, from tragedy to salvation, all within the confines of a few miles of English countryside. Watership Down is the kind of book you can give your heart to.

NEXT UP: Neil Gaiman's sprawling opus, American Gods.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré, 1962

"I want you to stay out in the cold a little longer." Leamas said nothing, so Control went on: "The ethic of our work, as I understand it, is based on a single assumption. That is, we are never going to be aggressors. Do you think that's fair?"

Leamas nodded. Anything to avoid talking.

"Thus we do disagreeable things, but we are
defensive. That, I think, is still fair. We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night. Is that too romantic? Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things"; he grinned like a schoolboy. "And in weighing up the moralities, we rather go in for dishonest comparisons; after all, you can't compare the ideals of one side with the methods of the other, can you, now?"

Leamas was lost. He'd heard the man talked a lot of drivel before getting the knife in, but he'd never heard anything like this before.

"I mean you've got to compare method with method, and ideal with ideal. I would say that since the war, our methods--ours, and those of the opposition--have become much the same. I mean you can't be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government's
policy is benevolent, can you now?" He laughed quietly to himself: "That would never do," he said.

For God's sake, though Leamas, it's like working for a bloody clergyman. What
is he up to?

"That is why," Control continued, "I think we ought to try and get rid of Mundt. . . Oh really," he said, turning irritably towards the door, "Where is that damned coffee?"
--- (pages 15-16)

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is probably one of the finest examples of plotting that I've ever encountered. It's a short book, not much over two hundred pages in my edition, and le Carré uses its brevity to masterfully, methodically wind the strands of story tighter and tighter. Spy is an exhilarating exercise in tension, understated atmosphere, diamond-hard prose and slow, subtle character development. It's no wonder why this one's a classic.

Alec Leamas is a spy without gadgets, guns or adventures. He's really more of an administrator, overseeing spy rings in Cold War-era Berlin, soon after the rise of the Wall. When the last agent under his command is killed, Leamas returns to England, anticipating retirement. Control, a high-ranking officer in the Circus, has one final mission for him: a dangerous gambit to bring down a crucial member of Berlin's secret police. As plots become layered on plots, Leamas finds himself trapped in a web of treachery, double-agents and deceit, where being human is the ultimate risk.

The plot of Spy is constructed with a thrilling delicacy, each small detail carefully worked out, the pieces fitting together like an elaborate piece of clockwork. What makes the story so exhilarating is its complete lack of glitz and glamour. No nuclear bombs set to blow, no elaborate action setpieces. The spies are more office drones than anything else--but this is a job where one mistake means death. The way le Carré weaves the story's strands together is pure craftsmanship.

At first, it seems as though character will take a back seat to plot in le Carré's world. Not so. Alec Leamas slowly emerges as a flesh-and-blood figure, a tired, burned-out man with nothing left to believe in. His opposite number, Mundt, is a cipher, as is the genial Fiedler, whose manners and poise may mask good, evil or some combination of the two. Only naive, gawky Liz Gold is basically pure of heart, unable to understand the cutthroat world of the man she loves. Above it all looms Control, the man holding the strings (but of what puppets?). These characters are simultaneously mythic and surprisingly everyday. Le Carré shows us who they are through his pitch-perfect dialogue.

Even given le Carré's reputation, I was taken aback by the quality of his prose. The man can say a lot with very little; there are no extraneous words (Elmore Leonard would be proud). The shoestring scenes of back-and-forth dialogue are maybe the tensest of all. Le Carré perfectly evokes a time, a place, an atmosphere, without ever coming out and showing us his hand. Understatement is his secret weapon, and he deploys it beautifully.

Ultimately, Spy offers both a penetrating look at a dark and amoral shadow war and a perfectly constructed story of espionage. There is something mildly revolutionary about le Carré's approach to his subject matter (and I'm sure it was more than mildly in 1962). His spy world is dirty and dangerous and dull, but without the shiny appeal of the James Bond series or TV's Alias. It's a world where the line between good and evil is practically nonexistent, and the feelings of the people trapped in the web don't matter at all. It's a novel with a lot of power and terrific resonance, as well as being seamlessly written and white-knuckle thrilling.

NEXT UP: Richard Adams' classic Watership Down.