Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Secrets She Keeps

my review of the new Michael Robotham novel in last Sunday's Weekend Australian:

West London in the present day. Two women have a chance encounter in a supermarket. They are about the same age, both pregnant, both due in early December.
Agatha works in the supermarket as a shelf stacker (the “lowest position in the place”), Meghan is a “mummy blogger” on the rise (a women’s magazine has picked her blog as one of the top five in the country).
Although they live in roughly the same part of the city, they come from different social classes and their lives are on radically different trajectories. Agatha subsists just above the poverty line in a grubby flat with few real friends and no real connection to her Jehovah’s Witness family in Leeds. The father of her baby, Hayden, is a nice but dim sailor with whom she had a one-night stand and who is back on HMS Sutherland, oblivious to her condition.
Meghan is comfortably upper middle class. Her husband, Jack, is an Irish TV sports reporter whom she met at the Beijing Olympic Games. Jack’s more famous than she is and is often recognised down the pub and handed phone numbers by young women who are”desperate to break into television”. We meet Ag­atha first and we see Meghan initially through her eyes. We distrust Agatha from the get-go. She’s not exactly a dishonest narrator but she watches Meghan with the gaze of a voyeur who has a disturbing, covetous streak.
We soon learn that Agatha is up to no good. She’s a liar and not a very good one and she may not be quite right in the head. Either that or she’s just annoyed about how unfair life is. She is impressed and irritated by the beautiful Meghan with her glamorous partner and her blog and her two kids already! Why can’t she have that life?
The Secrets She Keeps is Sydney-based Michael Robotham’s 12th novel and is as brilliant as his recent Close Your Eyes and Life or Death, which won the UK Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger award in 2015. It begins as an acute, psychologically penetrating character study before moving into hair-raising thriller territory in the second and third acts.
As you would expect of someone with Robotham’s gifts for narrative the plot unfolds with clever, ruthless efficiency, but what really impresses is his sympathetic and well-observed unpacking of the two women’s loves and lives. Both have secrets, both have made mistakes and both are trying to navigate a complex web of emotional entanglements.
Meghan is a self-aware hero who is cognisant that her life may read like a sunny cliche to her many readers but who knows that even her minor celebrity is something of a gilded cage. Agatha’s existence is not a one-note stave of gloom and misery.
People are kind to her and at one point she is offered a surprising escape out of the pit she is digging for herself via a gentle letter from her estranged mother, who wants her to leave gloomy London and come live with her in the apartment she is renting in sunny Marbella.
Unfortunately for everyone Agatha is too far gone by this stage. Her obsession with Meghan is running deep.
Robotham plays with the trope of the alter ego here: Echo and Narcissus, Isaac and Esau and Fyodor Dostoyevksy’s 1866 novel The Double where a lowly clerk encounters a facsimile of himself in a snowstorm; but this other him is everything that the clerk is not: confident, happy, successful, respected. Meghan, too, has a little of the doomed Miranda Grey in her from John Fowles’s The Collector.
Agatha ingratiates herself with Meghan by first imprisoning and then pretending to save her toddler, Lachlan, from a storage room at the supermarket. A grateful Meghan is delighted to see her when she turns up at her yoga class and the women begin an unlikely friendship. Agatha admires Meghan’s ability to
transform herself from a pony-tailed Lycra clad gym bunny into a sophisticated modern wife and mother. Next to her I feel as clumsy and frumpy as a pantomime horse.
By this stage of the novel we’ve realised something important about Agatha’s baby that explains her fixation on Meghan.
Inspired by a real-life hospital kidnap incident from the 1990s, The Secrets She Keeps is also an adroit satire on the media feeding frenzy that surrounds cases such as this. Meghan and Jack remind one of the McCanns, another Irish couple living in Britain whose child was taken from them and who have been blamed and trolled mercilessly since. This is a taut, scary and effective thriller but it’s also a sociological portrait of a society where cupidity, stupidity and fame often coalesce to make a toxic brew.
The Secrets She Keeps
By Michael Robotham
Hachette, 436pp, $32.99

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Dirty Cops

my piece from LitHub about Dirty Cops in fiction....

Everybody loves to hate a dirty cop. The idea of the corrupt or lazy policeman is a very old trope indeed - two thousand years ago Seneca was complaining about dishonest Tribunes and cohortes urbanae. Edgar Allan Poe and Fergus Hume both have choice words for indolent and/or stupid policemen. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was not always impressed by the dedication and reliability of the Metropolitan Police.
         Don Winslow’s summer hit The Force has focused renewed interest in a genre that I love. If you’re interested in stories of sleazy, venial, even murderous policemen (and, occasionally women) then you are in a luck as I’ve compiled a little primer for you of my top 10 dirty cop novels.
10. A Scanner Darkly – Philip K Dick. The weirdest novel on my list but also one of the best. Set in a dystopian Orange County (as opposed to a utopian Orange County?) Bob Arctor is an undercover police agent who is sent to spy on himself. Paranoia ensues.

9. 11th Hour - Maxine Paetro & James Patterson. When millionaire Chaz Smith is killed the very pregnant Detective Lindsay Boxer discovers that the murder weapon is linked to the killings of four San Francisco mobsters and that it was taken from her own department's evidence locker. Boxer puts her life and reputation on the life to solve the case.

8. 1977 – David Peace. Exhausted policeman Bob Fraser and burnt-out journalist Jack Whitehead investigate the Yorkshire Ripper case and discover that the West Yorkshire Police Force is a cesspit of corruption, bigotry, languor, racism, darkness and incompetence. Not exactly a lighthearted cozy from the incomparable Mr Peace.

7. Heavens May Fall – Unity Dow. Naledi Chaba is a feisty lawyer at a non-governmental organization that assists children in need in Mochudi, Botswana. She discovers institutional corruption on a societal scale when a young girl’s claims of rape are not taken seriously by the police or the judiciary.

6. The Given Day – Dennis Lehane. Lehane’s classic about the famous 1919 Boston Police Strike. Aiden "Danny" Coughlin is an Irish patrolman reluctantly sucked into going against the brass of his own department by the hardtimes of his brother officers. Luther Laurence is a black man on the run in a city where racism is as rife as any city in the American South. Bomb toting anarchists, destitute immigrants, corrupt ward bosses and cops on the take clash in the climactic revolutionary year of 1919.

5. Hard Revolution – George Pelecanos. Derek Strange, a black rookie police officer joins the Washington DC police department in 1968 just as the city is about to plunge into chaos and revolt following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Racism, the old boy network and corruption are Strange’s unenviable lot on his first weeks and months on the job. For another look at race and the terrible events of 1968 from a master of the PI novel (not quite in my purview here) try the always brilliant Walter Mosley’s Charcoal Joe.

4. The Cold Six Thousand – James Ellroy. This was a tough call. If you’re only going to have one James Ellroy on your list how can you not pick LA Confidential especially with the evil Dudley Smith lurking like a bloated spider at the center of a web of depravity? Well, for me The Cold Six Thousand is LA Confidential taken to the next level. The whole society is dirty here. From the President and the FBI director on down to CIA goon Pete Bondurant to beleaguered ex G man trying to do the right thing Ward Littell to Wayne Tedrow, Jr. a Vegas PD cop looking for the pimp who raped and murdered his wife. The Cold Six Thousand is America as a vile, unreasoning irredeemable dystopia. What’s not to love?

3. The Choirboys – Joseph Wambaugh. Everybody’s already read The Choirboys haven’t they? This is the classic novel of police corruption from the man who, with Ed McBain, virtually reinvented the modern American cop novel. Several young officers of the Wilshire Division learn quickly how things are really done in the endemically crooked Los Angeles Police Department.

2. The Force – Don Winslow. What Wambaugh and Ellroy do for LAPD Winslow does for the NYPD. There have many great dirty New York cop novels (Richard Price for one has performed sterling work in this arena) but Winslow has really done something special here by embracing police corruption as the raison d’etre of an entire segment of the police. Detective Sergeant Dennis Malone leads the Manhattan North Special Task Force, an elite unit established to combat drug gangs, organized crime and gun running. Years of undercover work and dirty deals have compromised Malone and his cohorts so that by the beginning of the book they are a well oiled thieving machine. Unfortunately for Malone the feds and Internal Affairs are looking for a sacrificial lamb to appease the punters and from then on the book is cop versus cop, cop versus DA, cop versus FBI – pretty much everything except cop versus criminals. A masterpiece of the genre.

1. The Killer Inside Me – Jim Thompson. The original and best sociopathic, sadistic, sexually depraved, serial killing, scary dirty cop. Lou Ford is an intelligent, cynical, chronically bored small town Texas deputy sheriff who uses his power to murder and pervert justice with impunity in post war Jim Crow Texas. This and Pop. 1280 (about another corrupt Texas sheriff) are the high watermarks of Thompson’s under appreciated genius.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Don Winslow's The Force

my review of the new Don Winslow in the Sydney Morning Herald...

Don Winslow’s The Force

In 1995 the crime writer James Ellroy published American Tabloid, a novel so revolutionary in its scope, narrative arc, prose style and structure that it immediately raised the bar for all other writers in the genre. Ellroy was the heavyweight champ and if you were going to compete with him you needed to produce something big, brassy and bold.

American crime fiction has thrown up many important talents in the last twenty years but perhaps only Don Winslow, Dennis Lehane and Richard Price possess the requisite skills to get into the ring and challenge Ellroy.

The Power of The Dog (2005) was the book that established Winslow’s brilliance beyond a reasonable doubt for we crime geeks, but it took until 2015’s The Cartel for the rest of the world to catch up. The Cartel won the Dagger Award, was the subject of a lengthy review article in The New Yorker, became an international best seller and was optioned for the movies by Ridley Scott.

Dog and Cartel were two long novels about how America’s war on drugs corrupts everyone and everything. Winslow’s new book The Force is an epic crime novel about a corrupt cop and his crew in contemporary New York.

Detective Sergeant Dennis Malone leads the Manhattan North Special Task Force, an elite unit established to combat drug gangs, organised crime and gun running. Years of undercover work and dirty deals have compromised Malone and his cohorts so that by the beginning of the book they are a well oiled thieving machine. Skimming from dealers is the normal operating procedure for a crew who manage to put enough of the bad guys behind bars to keep the heat off. Malone’s corruption is entirely believable as Winslow’s novel draws on several real life cases, particularly that of Detective Michael Dowd in the notoriously dirty Seven Five precinct.

Of course all good things must come to an end and when Malone kills a drug kingpin and hubristically lifts $4 million and 20 kilos of heroin from the scene of a major drug bust he draws the attention of not just Internal Affairs but also the hated Feds.

Malone is told that they will put him away for a long time unless he cooperates and helps them take down the bigger players. This is the second act turn we as readers are hoping for and I really enjoyed this look into the rules and mores of what a cop will and won’t do to his brother officers. You can rat on a dirty district attorney or a crooked politician but as Frank Serpico discovered more than three decades ago ratting on a brother cop takes you into a really complicated moral maze. Especially in a New York Police Department still in recovery mode from the long lasting psychic damage of 9/11.

One of the most interesting aspects of The Force is its geography. New York’s Upper West Side is cozily familiar to viewers of Law & Order and in the Marvel Cinematic Universe Midtown Manhattan has been the setting for so many Gotterdamerungs with gods, aliens and killer robots that probably every teenage boy on Earth can navigate his way blindfold through Times Square. White New York is a cliché and Winslow is shrewd enough to realise this, so he takes us north into the old Chester Himes territory of Harlem, Washington Heights and Jackson Heights. In the wealthy, gentrified Manhattan of 2017 there is still an invisible line that runs across the island through 125th Street. North of the line is where the action is.

The Force therefore has an original setting, a fascinating lead character and a tense and exciting third act. It’s a brilliant, big, messy, ambitious blockbuster of a book and exactly the kind of thing that American crime writers should be doing if they want to knock Mr Ellroy out of the ring. A+

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Symphony For The City of the Dead - Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad

Symphony For The City of the Dead by MT Anderson is the kind of book I wish
I'd written. I know the city and I know the subject matter and I know the symphony and if I'd gotten off my arse and gone and done the research I probably could have produced a book about half as good as this one. It's the story of course of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony. This was Shostakovich's seventh symphony and his opus #60. It was begun before World War 2 but only finally completed during the extraordinary circumstances of the siege of Leningrad after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The Wehrmacht's Army Group north pushed right to the edges of the Leningrad (known before and now as St Petersburg) and surrounded it to the south and east while the Nazis' Finnish allies surrounded it to the North. For 900 days the city was completely surrounded and attacked mercilessly. While the city was being bombarded by heavy artillery and bombed relentlessly by the Luftwaffe the greatest Russian composer of the twentieth century Dmitri Shostakovich was working on his masterpiece (one of his masterpieces anyway) in cellars and bomb shelters and occasionally in music rooms and rehearsal spaces. Eventually evacuated first to Moscow and then a safe-ish city on the Volga Shostakovich finished his symphony in early 1942 where it took on a new life as a propaganda piece that toured the world raising awareness of Russia's war effort. 
MT Anderson unpacks all of this and provides the context for Shostakovich's life and career and explains how his music fitted in or rather didn't fit in to the expectations of the New Order established by the Soviet Union. I was particularly moved by the sections of the book dealing with Stalin's terror. So many of Shostakovich's friends, acquaintances, fellow artists and musicians were randomly dragged off the streets and murdered by Stalin that it's amazing he didn't go mad or kill himself. He almost did go mad when a review written by Stalin himself in Pravda accused him of bourgeois tendencies. Immediately he was made a persona non grata and all the professional music bodies in Russia denounced him. Perhaps he eventually would have been killed by Stalin's NKVD had not war intervened. 
You can get Symphony For The City of the Dead at all good bookshops and you can listen to Shostakovich's 7th Symphony here

Saturday, July 1, 2017

All The Duffys In PBK

All the Sean Duffy novels are now available in mass market an aside I keep getting asked if there are anymore on the way...I don't want to be mysterious here but I honestly do not know. Circumstances are not entirely the way I'd want them to be at the moment. A writers life is not an easy one, but at they say in the Godfather...this is the path we've chosen....

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Brian McGilloway's Top 10 N Irish Crime Novels

this was originally published in The Strand Magazine which you shld definitely check out.

My Top Ten Northern Irish Crime Novels


There has been an explosion in crime writing from Northern Ireland over the past decade or so. An element of this certainly has been as part of the wider growth of Irish crime writing, but in Northern Ireland there is also the specific role the peace process has played in informing the fiction that is being produced here. I think the appeal of crime fiction rests in the fact that it imposes a degree of order and justice in a world where there is precious little of either at times. Crime allows us to vicariously experience fear safe in the knowledge that right of some sort will prevail in the end. I think the catharsis that it allows, and that imposition of order on disorder, is comforting in uncertain times.
I think it is also why Northern Irish crime fiction only really found its voice after the violence here subsided: there’s no need to vicariously experience fear when you are actually undergoing it. When I wrote Borderlands in 2003, I deliberately set out to write a novel unrelated to the Troubles. But, in the writing of it, I found the events of the previous thirty years remained a constant shadow, bleeding around the edges of every narrative. The same could be argued for many of the other crime writers here. In the absence of a Truth Commission in Northern Ireland, fiction is the closest we will come to an understanding of the past even as we chart our way forward. And crime fiction, more than any other genre, works in that dual movement—a crime novel starts at the end of the victim’s story and, while the narrative has continual forward momentum, the detectives are generally working backwards from the moment of the crime to trace the initial acts and motives that lead to it.
There are so many fine Northern Irish writers I could include on this list—John McAllister, Garbhan Downey, Sam Miller, Des Doherty, Simon Maltman to name a few—but this (in no particular order) is my Top Ten of Northern Irish crime writing.

  1. The Cold, Cold Ground – Adrian McKinty
McKinty’s work needs no introduction, but there is no doubt that, with the Sean Duffy series, he has really reached new heights. Throwing his main character into the heart of our violent history, McKinty has grasped with both hands the role of truth commissioner, dismantling the events of the past and imposing some form of rough justice on those who hitherto escaped it in any form. He deservedly won an Edgar this year for one of the later Duffy novels, Rain Dogs, but you should start here.
  1. The Twelve – Stuart Neville
Again, a writer who needs no introduction, Neville’s debut novel blew everyone’s socks off when it came out. Fearless in its portrayal of the effects of the past, unflinching in examining the consequences of violence on violent men, and a cracking thriller to boot, it’s the perfect place to begin with a writer who has gone from strength to strength with each new book.
  1. Divorcing Jack – Colin Bateman
While Northern Ireland may not have had an appetite for local crime fiction during the Troubles, there was one writer who bucked that trend by finding a way through it, using comedy to analyze the realities of the political situation here at the time. While Bateman has focused on screenwriting more recently, his talent and dark wit are plain for all to see in this first novel in the Dan Starkey series.My Top Ten Northern Irish Crime Novels
  1. The Lost – Claire McGowan
In a male-dominated field of Northern Irish crime fiction, Claire McGowan was a welcome new voice, and her character Paula Maguire, a forensic psychologist introduced here in 2013’s The Lost, works along the border areas. McGowan is particularly adept at dialogue, and Maguire herself, as she develops across the series, is a fascinating figure.
  1. Disappeared – Anthony Quinn
Another book based around the border regions where Anthony Quinn himself grew up, the Inspector Daly series offers a dark, occasionally brutal depiction of the realities of policing a lawless region. Daly is an intelligent, thoughtful investigator while Quinn’s lyrical prose style is just beautiful. Again, best to start with book one and savor the whole series.
  1. The Defence – Steve Cavanagh
Cavanagh, a lawyer himself, brought something different to the Northern Irish crime fiction table with his Eddie Flynn novels, legal thrillers based in New York. The Defence is fast-paced and compulsively readable while Flynn is a likable, quick-thinking hero. The books may not be set in Northern Ireland, but Cavanagh’s concern with the law and justice and the frequent distance between the two is very much born of a lifetime living here.
  1. The Bones of It – Kelly Creighton
While Creighton may not have set out to write a crime novel, there’s no denying that The Bones of It is very much informed by crime and the effects of crime through generations. A first-person narrative told by Scott McAuley, the novel deals with father/son issues and the consequences of violence and hatred, not just on the generation that lived through the Troubles, but on the generation that followed after. Beautifully written, The Bones of It offers a chilling evocation of a damaged mind.
  1. The Point – Gerard Brennan
Brennan started a blog, Crime Scene NI, some years back that covered the growth of new crime writing coming from the North and became a hub of sorts for the writers from here. But Brennan is also a brilliant crime writer in his own right. Start with his novella The Point. Fast-paced and extremely witty, it showcases Brennan’s wonderfully dark sense of humor and his intuitive understanding of noir fiction.
  1. The Dust of Death – Paul Charles
Best known for the London-based Inspector Kennedy novels, Paul Charles moved to the southern side of the border for several books featuring his intuitive Garda Inspector Starrett. Featuring the same intricate plotting and underlying sense of humanity that one would expect from Charles, the books exploited the border region setting, focusing on the consequences of discord within families and communities and the personal cost of crime.
  1. The Anglo-Irish Murders – Ruth Dudley Edwards
Dudley-Edwards’s satires have hit many targets from modern art to the world of academics, but here she turns her acerbic wit on local politics to fine effect. With a complete disregard for political correctness and a sharp eye for irony, she draws attention to the absurdities of politics and politicians in Northern Ireland.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Colum McCann - Letters To A Young Writer

my review of the new Colum McCann book in last Saturday's Weekend Australian...
Half a dozen times a day on my Twitter feed someone will post the following quotation attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “Writing is easy — all you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.”
It’s a good quote because it captures the school of thought that sees writing novels as a heroic, almost impossible endeavour. The fact Hemingway never said any such thing is neither here nor there. He is the patron saint of those who strive to wrestle and throttle the blank page into submission.
In opposition to this model there are the utilitarians who see writing as a job like any other that simply requires you to punch in in the morning, working until you hit the daily word count, whereupon you punch out. Novelists who started in newspapers tend to be of this school. They are used to deadlines and discipline. “So what’s the secret of your success?” I once asked a famous novelist. “Sit down, shut up, stop looking out the window and do your 1000 words,” he explained succinctly.
Colum McCann’s wonderful new book Letters to a Young Writer is an attempt to steer a course between these two different philosophies. The New York-based Irish writer is all for discipline and sitting at the desk but he cautions that a successful day’s work is often one in which you cut your text by 1000 words. It can be glorious to ride the delete button or “fling the pages into the fire. Often, the more words you cut the better.”
The essential thing for McCann is to toil hard on the manuscript, continually testing it for authenticity and beauty and integrity. Work on it and put it away and work on it some more. Is this paragraph the sort of thing you’re going to be proud of if the book makes it into print? If not, edit it or delete it and begin again.
For McCann writing is a job and a calling, and not an easy one at that. His metaphors come from the boxing ring, the coalmine and the cross-country track. He agrees with Joseph Conrad that a work of art must justify itself on every page, and preferably every line. If that sounds too difficult, well, there are easier professions.
Letters to a Young Writer is more a series of meditations than a Novel Writing For Dummies guide but it’s the more welcome for that. All of us need someone in our corner telling us things aren’t as grim as they seem and that we have to keep jabbing away at our opponent.
And who is this opponent? Not other authors, not agents, not publishers; no, our enemy is probably fear itself. Fear of trying something new, fear of starting over, fear that time is passing us by and we have left it too late to begin. It’s never too late to be a ‘‘young writer’’ McCann says. Look at Frank McCourt, look at Miguel Cervantes, look at Giuseppe di Lampedusa.
Not that this book doesn’t have practical advice too. There are excellent chapters on finding an agent, finding an editor, how to build characters and how to shape a story.
Get yourself a small notebook, McCann says, carry it everywhere and write down snatches of dialogue, descriptions, ideas. Most of these notes won’t be useful at all, but some of them will germinate into a paragraph, or a page, or even a book.
One of the most powerful sections comes near the end when McCann, a writing teacher of 20 years’ standing, allows a little of his frustration to boil over when he asks how anyone can think of writing when they have barely begun to read. You have to read wide and deep, he says. You have to know your chosen genre inside and out. You need to understand where the literature has come from and where it’s going. You need to know the work of great contemporaries. You have to read poetry and plays, the classics, the Russians, James Joyce, the pulpy bestsellers, everything.
“Read, read, read!” McCann says, echoing the famous mantra of Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School. Read not hundreds of books but thousands. That’s where you will learn grammar and truth and the ‘‘rules’’ of the game.
When you’ve done the reading and wrestled with your opening line (McCann has a great chapter on opening lines), what then do you write about? Don’t write what you know, he says. Instead write about something you would like to know more about. Go on a journey, do the research, explore, become obsessed by something and write about your obsession.
I’m not so sure about that one myself. Personally I’d rather have fewer novels by master of fine arts students who’ve become obsessed with obscure figures from history and more books by people who have actually led interesting lives outside the academy.
I also wish McCann had given us a comprehensive reading list the way Herzog and Stephen King in On Writing and Harold Bloom do. I’m sure there will be people who read Letters to a Young Writer wondering who on Earth this DeLillo fellow is that he keeps speaking about.
But these are only minor gripes. McCann’s book will make an excellent pick-me-up for all wannabe writers out there. Put it on the shelf next to Bloom’s The Western Canon and Robert McKee’s Story and take it down when things are looking bleak and your latest opus is lining the cat’s litter tray.
In the end, of course, there’s no real substitute for sitting there at the desk and staring at that awful blank page. Books on writing are a bit like a map of a minefield. It could be the greatest map in the world but the only way to test it is to venture out there into the unknown, step by terrifying step.
Adrian McKinty’s latest novel is the sixth instalment in his Sean Duffy crime series, Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly.
Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice
By Colum McCann
Bloomsbury, 168pp, $22.99 (HB)

Friday, June 16, 2017

New Interview

New interview w me here on the Garret podcast in conjunction with the Library of Victoria. It's also free on iTunes...

Thursday, June 8, 2017

JG Ballard's Great Decade 1973-1983

According to historian Eric Hobsbawm the twentieth century really began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in his car in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914. It was a century dominated by assassinations, cars, aeroplanes, wars, mass production and American pop culture. For me the novelist who perhaps best captured the obsessions and imagery of the twentieth century was the Shanghai-born English novelist J G Ballard. Pigeon holed early as a science fiction writer, for a long time Ballard was not noticed by critics. He had his champions, of course, such as Martin Amis, but in general his books seldom broke through into the popular consciousness until the publication of Empire of the Sun in 1983.

Ballard’s early apocalyptic novels from the 1960's such as The Drowned World and The Crystal World cut against the mainstream science fiction of the time with their concern for the effects of disaster on the protagonists’ psychological states. In 1973 Ballard’s most remarkable period as a novelist began with the publication of Crash, a book famously rejected by one London publisher’s reader with the phrase “This author is beyond psychiatric help - DO NOT PUBLISH.” Crash is the story of Vaughan, a television psychologist who is fixated by the sexual power of the car crash and who wishes to die in an auto-erotic accident with Elizabeth Taylor’s limousine. A damning indictment of, and also a love letter to, American celebrity culture, Crash reads as fresh, subversive and lively today as it did forty years ago. It prefigures the deaths of Princess Diana and Grace Kelly and recapitulates the deaths of Franz Ferdinand, JFK and screen siren Jayne Mansfield who was reputedly (but not really) decapitated in the 1967 crash of her Buick Electra 225.

Ballard’s follow up to Crash was a retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story, Concrete Island (1974), about a man who crashes his car and is trapped in it at the junction of many motorway flyovers and sliproads, living desperately on his concrete island and finally dying unseen by the thousands of commuters passing by on their way to work. High Rise (1975) is a funny, perverse and oddly believable novel about the collapse of civilisation’s norms within an apartment building. Satires on the English sense of decorum seldom get this ribald or excoriating.

For me, though, the climax of this period in Ballard’s evolution is the willfully strange, surrealistic novel The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) about a man who hijacks a small plane and crashes it into the Thames in the sleepy suburb of Shepparton. It’s never clear whether the pilot died in the crash or not but certainly some kind of apotheosis takes place and throughout the novel London is transformed into a seething, primordial, tropical city (similar in many ways to the London of The Drowned World) rich with sexual and avian imagery. The Anglo-Saxon world has generally been uncomfortable with the erotic and surreal in serious fiction but Dream Company is a book which treats both these tropes with the gravity they deserve and it may be Ballard’s finest work. The short story collection Low Flying Aircraft (1976) highlights many of Ballard's obsessions: abandoned swimming pools, crashed planes, urban decay etc. and contains one of my favourite Ballard stories, My Dream Of Flying To Wake Island.

Empire of the Sun (1983/4) is a novelistic retelling of the young Jim Ballard’s imprisonment in a Japanese internment camp from 1942 - 1945. Although the story is told in conventional matter-of-fact prose the book throbs with Ballard’s usual obsessions: war, repressed sexual desire, cruelty, ruined cities, America, cars, flight. As a novel of people in extremis it is a psychological masterpiece as well as being probably the last great novel to come out of the direct experience of World War Two.

In the 1990's and early 2000's Ballard wrote more volumes of memoir and interesting novels about the growth of advertisement speak, business parks, motorways, urbanisation and the spread of pop culture into all walks of life. In 2009 Ballard died of prostate cancer and the British obituaries were respectful but somewhat restrained in their praise. Ballard had been hard to categorise and he was never completely embraced by the British establishment even after his success in Hollywood. It’s a shame because many of Ballard’s contemporaries have dated rather badly and their books read like peculiar period pieces, but Ballard has hardly dated at all. Like Philip K Dick his voice is that of the clear sighted Cassandra warning us of the perils and strange joys ahead. Ballard agreed with the poet Horace who famously said that “they change their skies but not their souls, those who run across the sea,” which is true even when the seas are black with pollution and the sky is a radioactive hell.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

An Alternative History Novel Primer

my article on alternative history novels from the Guardian. I'm not attempting to be comprehensive here, it's more of a trawl through some of my favourites...
With Ridley Scott’s adaptation of The Man In The High Castle on Amazon and SS GB on the BBC we can safely say that the alternative history genre is hotter than ever. The Man In The High Castle was not the first alternative history novel, nor even the first Nazis-win-the-war novel but it is still probably the most influential book in the genre. Anyone who likes historical fiction should be able to enjoy good counter-factual scenarios. It’s fun imagining how things could have been otherwise. As Ray Bradbury demonstrated in ‘A Sound of Thunder’, one tiny change in the past could have momentous consequences in the future. A “Butterfly Moment” (from the so called butterfly-effect) is the point from which our timeline diverges from the AH timeline. Structuralist historians tend to discount such moments but clearly if Franz Ferdinand’s driver had driven straight on instead of turning right the entire history of the twentieth century would have been different.
           Of course the most successful AH novels are good novels per se with interesting well rounded characters and a plot that moves. Some writers such as Harry Turtledove, SM Sterling, Jasper Fforde and Ken Flint have spent nearly their entire careers writing alternative histories, others such as Kingsley Amis, Iain Banks, Stephen Fry, Stephen King, Kim Stanley Robinson and Philip Roth have merely dabbled in the genre. Wikipedia has compiled a rather daunting list of alternative history novels, here but if that’s too much to contemplate you could do worse than try some of the following:
The first real AH best seller was L Sprague De Camp’s 1939 novel Lest Darkness Fall in which a modern time traveller attempts to prevent the collapse of the Western Roman Empire by introducing steam engines, pencils, double entry book keeping and other exciting innovations.
World War 2 and its aftermath really got the AH genre going in earnest. Spawning many copycats/homages such as Fatherland, SS-GB, The Plot Against America, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, etc. The Man In The High Castle by Philip K Dick is still the best what-if-the-Axis-had-won novel. The butterfly moment was the successful assassination of Franklin Roosevelt in 1934. Set in the early 1960’s the victorious Germans and Japanese have divided North America between them. Juliana Frink, a judo instructor, discovers that there is a resistance movement to the Axis which has been inspired by a novelist called Hawthorne Abendsen. Abendsen, with the help of the Chinese book of prophecy, the I Ching, has written an alternative history novel called ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ set in a world in which the Nazis lost the war. Subtle, menacing and utterly brilliant this is Philip K Dick’s masterpiece. In a nice touch of crazy Dick believed that he had only dictated the novel which had really been written by the I Ching to prove the existence of other Earths.
Directly inspired by Dick’s novel, The Alteration by Kingsley Amis, takes place in a 1970’s England where the Reformation never happened and where the all powerful Catholic Church is in a cold war with the Ottoman Empire. A talented boy chorister is forced to become a castrato to preserve his beautiful voice, but in so doing his gift as a composer is lost. (Amis following Nietzsche believed that sex lay behind all great art.) The fragmented and weak resistance to the church militant is motivated by a novel called ‘The Man In The High Castle’ authored by a certain Philip K Dick who dares to imagine a world in which the Reformation triumphed. Look out for odd cameos from Harold Wilson, Michael Foot and Tony Benn in this neglected tour de force.
The Alteration incorporates some elements of the steam-punk genre, one of the most entertaining of the AH sub-genres. The who-invented-steam-punk debate is a surprisingly vitriolic one that I shall neatly sidestep here, instead I’ll briefly draw your attention to some of the best steam-punk authors. Michael Moorcock and K W Jeter really got things going in the late 1970’s and by 1990 William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s wonderful The Difference Engine saw steam-punk reach its maturity with a novel about the brilliant Ada Lovelace (Byron’s daughter), Charles Babbage and a mechanical computer that achieves sentience Terminator style. Other great books in this oeuvre are Leviathan by Scott Westerfield, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, Mark Hodder’s The Strange Affair Of Spring Heeled Jack (which contains a  very clever butterfly moment) and Neal Stephenson’s fabulously detailed Baroque Cycle.
I’m not sure that books that contain magic really count as AH novels as the butterfly moment is somewhat ill-defined, however if you want to stretch a point Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series could be seen as alternative histories of the Napoleonic Wars and Britain in the 1990s/early 2000’s respectively. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August the very impressive debut novel by Claire North is an interesting spin on butterfly-wing tinkering over multiple lives within the same time-line.  
What about some big really big canvas AH novels? Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt takes place in a Europe that has been utterly devastated by the Black Death and is being repopulated by Muslims from the south and Chinese from the west. The world gets divided up between China and Islam and a dazzlingly imagined alternative Middle Ages is the result. West of Eden by Harry Harrison takes alternative history as far back as anyone ever has attempted, imaging what would have happened if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs at Chicxulub and of course Philip Pullman's universe keeps expanding with his new Book of Dust...
             Anyway, I hope that you have enjoyed this little run through the AH genre and that I’ve given you some ideas for future reading...