With cup of chai at hand and a cool breeze coming in through the windows, this may be just about a perfect summer morning to write about books. The only thing that would make it absolutely perfect would be a freshly-baked slice of date bread, which, alas, I do not have. But after last week’s humidity, I’m certainly happy with what I’ve got.
I want to talk about a book I read last week, Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway. It was a book that I was “assigned” to read, as I am now doing some reviews for the local newspaper. The book opens as a pair of detectives are leaving a crime scene on the way to the hospital to interview the victim of a drive-by shooting, but one of the detectives is in the midst of a dream as he dozes fitfully in the passenger seat of the car. Child is handsome, married and dependable; Hawthorn is neurotic, gay, and prone to bouts of weeping. Together they roam the streets of London trying to solve peculiar crimes involving unusual characters, both criminals and victims, as well as trying to work on their own personal issues. A tourist pickpocket and driver for a gangster, Mishazzo, becomes a police informant. A publisher is given a strange manuscript which may be based on the disappearance and return of a man who is working for a mob leader. A religious fanatic enters a house and holds a baby hostage, and a man who is receiving threatening emails may or may not be a paedophile. These and other crimes are never solved. Nor are the chapters always told from the point of view of the detectives; often they are merely observed by one of the characters in the stories. The dialogue is not written in the customary style, with quotation marks and “he said/she said” indicators, just simple dashes. And finally, not all of the characters have names. Despite all of these things, this was a compelling, darkly funny, raw, gritty book, one that requires me to overcome the expectation of traditional structure and just be carried along by the text. It is not a novel in the conventional sense, more a collection of short stories that could each easily stand alone, but that are loosely connected by the two detectives and by vague, shadowy characters that flit in and out of the chapters. While this was at first frustrating, the moments of brilliance make this book worth the effort; for example, a paranoid character voices his concerns that the mental health system is covertly encouraging him to kill himself, such as when his mental health doctor, located on the twelfth floor, left him alone in the office, seated within easy reach of the large window with a view of all of the east or south or west of London, for a full seven minutes, and that his GP prescribed enough painkillers to “kill me several times over”. The characters are marginal, the situations bizarre, and the stories ambiguous and inconclusive. Think Paul Auster meets Samuel Beckett – everything is slightly out of sync, yet oddly connected. Once I realized that I couldn’t expect traditional structure, I finally achieved the right frame of mind to enjoy what will likely be the most unusual detective novel I’ll ever read. I can’t say I would have finished this if I didn’t have to read it, but it was well worth it, and I’m actually thinking about going back and rereading it to track where peripheral characters appear, just to try to make better sense of the connections. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to any reader, but with the caveats mentioned above, it should be easier going than with no warnings at all. Ridgway is an award-winning Dublin author of several previous works of fiction as well as a collection of short stories.
I finished listening to The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming, which proved to be as good as I remembered it to be, although the main character, Sam Gaddis, an academic at University College London who specializes in Russian history, was more of a “dawg” (no offence to my canine friends) than I remembered, seemingly wanting to hump, I mean to woo, every female he came across. It starts out slowly but the suspense builds to reach a satisfying conclusion, and the characters are believable, in the sense that they are well-rounded, and I learned a lot about MI-5 and MI-6 from reading novels like this, the way the Secret Intelligence Service works in the UK. But I always find it a bit remarkable how ordinary people, when thrown into these unusual situations, seem to adapt and just know what to do, situations that are beyond anything they could have ever imagined. So in this novel, Sam receives information about a possible sixth member of the Cambridge Five, a group of double agents recruited from Cambridge in the 1930s and 40s. After a few unsettling experiences, Sam realizes that there are people out there who will stop at nothing to keep this information from becoming public. Suddenly he is faced with Russian FSB agents on every corner as well as British Intelligence agents trying to keep him from writing his book. How does he know what to do in the various situations in which he finds himself? I don’t know, but he manages to be quick-witted enough to stay alive to the end of the book (sorry if I spoiled it for you). This was the same feeling I had when I read Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, an excellent thriller set in Denmark in which Smilla stumbles upon information that suggests the government is performing unorthodox testing on Inuits from a small island off of Greenland while investigating the death of her neighbour’s son, Isaiah, which the authorities deemed “accidental” but which she suspects was murder. How did she know what to look for, where to look, and how to behave in these situations about which she could have had no knowledge or training? Despite these “curiosities”, both of these books are excellent thrillers, ones I would highly recommend to just about anyone.
And I just started listening to The Serialist by David Gordon, about a hack writer who is offered an opportunity to interview and write a book about a serial killer who is on death row. Despite this dark premise, this book is hilarious! It has caused me to laugh out loud on more that one occasion, which probably looks pretty strange, since I’m listening to it, not actually reading it, so the people on the bus don’t know why I’m laughing. More on that one when I’m finished.
Have a great week!
Bye for now…