My electronic library of shilling shockers and penny dreadfuls continues to grow. It’s nearly a year since my “Not so close readings” post. In that time, I have added at least 40 books to my Kindle reader.
Amazon is encouraging the process with its Kindle Daily Deal. This offers a different popular book each day at 99p, a charity shop price. I’m also still raiding campsite libraries for secondhand real books for that or less. Here are some of my discoveries — electronic and paper.
Scandinavian writers are becoming more popular, partly as a result of television adaptations and partly because of Stieg Larrson. I read his Millennium trilogy straight through and found the stories exciting but vicious. I’ve since forgotten the plot(s) and most of the characters. It’s Chinese restaurant writing.
More memorable are the Martin Beck books by Maj Sjöwall and the late Per Wahlöö. These are ‘police procedurals’, modelled on Ed McBain’s novels (see my previous article). Although written mostly in the 1960s and 70s, they describe some of the problems affecting Sweden (and other Scandinavian) countries today – immigration, racism, unfettered capitalism, destruction of heritage.
That might make these books sound gloomy but the social criticism is the background to a drolly entertaining series of stories. There’s a recent article about them and their authors here, in The Guardian.
Other Scandinavian writers worth reading (which means they have been sympathetically translated) include Jo Nesbø from Norway, Karin Fossum (ditto) and Håkan Nesser from Sweden.
The English, the English, the English are best!
So chorused Flanders and Swann, as wittily as always. (Words here; spot the typo.) That doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to modern thriller writers. I thought I’d try some of the popular English detectives whenever I saw them secondhand. The experiment didn’t go well.
First was P.D. James’s The Private Patient, one of her Adam Dalgleish stories. I ran out of adjectives – it was tedious, predictable, stereotyped, over-long, stagey, stodgy, smug, censorious, snobbish and patronising. I couldn’t stand it any more and stopped a quarter of the way through. This woman would be the perfect ‘writer in residence’ at The Daily Telegraph.
Next was one of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse tales (or, as we used to call the television character, Inspector Morose). Very dull; I can’t even remember the title. Soon back on the site’s shelves.
After that came Inspector Wexford, in Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage. Better written than the previous two but also plodding. Same destination.
I then read, on Kindle, Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning. What a contrast! Sharp, comic, angry, irreverent and anti-establishment – every page worth reading.
Brookmyre’s cynical hero, Jack Parlabane, is an investigative journalist* with a talent for breaking and entering. Much of the dialogue is in pungent lowland Scots — think Ian Rankin with the brakes off.
*The first of those two words should be redundant but seldom is in these days of press release masseurs and politicians’ messenger boys.
Are the Scottish best, perhaps?
Possibly, except for the late Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen series – English author; Italian hero. Zen is an occasionally venal Venetian policeman, who finds himself pitted against corrupt superiors as often as against criminals. Sometimes the two are in cahoots.
Each book in the series puts Zen in a different area of Italy, which Dibdin describes atmospherically. Part of the pleasure of these stylishly written and often funny books is keeping track of Zen’s moves in his game within the game. He doesn’t always win.
A trio of colonials
Finally, three American authors. C.J. Box has written a successful and continuing series about Joe Pickett. His is an unusual hero, in being a wildlife ranger (in Wyoming) and in being a faithful, sober and conscientious employee.
Box is obsessed with branding, but not of cattle. He goes into tedious detail about makes of clothing, cars and weaponry. It’s non-visual product placement. Nevertheless, the plots are ingenious and Box is good on wide-open spaces and the ethics of the (still wild) West.
I recently picked up an unconsidered trifle in the shape of Mute Witness. It’s the book from which the 1968 cult film, Bullitt, was made. The author is Robert L. Pike, a pen-name of Robert L. Fish. (Working hard on the disguise, as you see.)
There are many differences from the film in locale, action and characters. Even the car chase is missing. Despite all these, the essentials of the plot remain and are told well. It’s good short detective yarn, well worth the 50p I spent on it.
By the way, if you watched the film, did you see how often in the car chase Bullitt’s rampaging, bellowing, tyre-smoking Ford Mustang – also not in the book – overtook a slow-moving green VW Beetle? I made it at least three times. There’s more about the film’s continuity errors here.
Finally, there is Greg Iles’s Dead Sleep. It’s pacy, gripping and preposterous. Good fun, in other words. I’ll try more of his work.