Murders for the start of February
A good novel as detective story, and the detective story as a good novel
Snow by John Banville, Rather Be The Devil by Ian Rankin, The Force by Don Winslow and A Long Night in Paris by Dov Alfon
Four books with a clear ranking of my preferences, but sufficiently different to hold interest for a variety of readers. My error, but I have not read a John Banville crime story before (most are written under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black), only knowing of him as a Booker Prize winner (The Sea, 2005).
Bleak midwinter in 1950s’ Ireland did not initially tempt me. Possibly it is because I also live in an old, cold (but not so large) house and favour winter’s indignities as little as those of ageing. Telling me I ought to read Snow (2020, Faber, £8.99), Jan Lawrie pressed a copy on me — and it is a triumph, well-written, with a shrewd capturing of troubled characters and their interaction. This is a good novel as detective story and the detective story as a good novel, justifying the remark of Jeremiah Reck, the learned butcher, “…you should make time. The book is one of our great inventions as a species”. Occasionally, there is possibly inappropriate over-writing, as when sheep give rise to hyperbole, which is unusual, although Aggie, my daughter’s dog, likes watching sheep (and ducks) on on Doggie D-Time television in New York:
“Strafford idly studied the milling animals, admiring their long aristocratic heads and the neat little hoofs, like carved nuggets of coal, on which they trotted so daintily. He was struck too by their protuberant and intelligent-seeming shiny black eyes, expressive of stoical resignation tinged with the incurable shame of their plight, avatars of an ancient race, being herded ignominiously along a country road by a snot-nosed brat with a stick.”
The stamina expected in adventure novels is always over-the-top
Well, no. Fortunately, most of the writing is more to the point. The protagonist, Detective-Inspector St John Strafford, member of a decayed Protestant landed family, is called from Dublin in 1957 to investigate the murder of a Catholic priest in the house of just such a family. Out of place, in a novel where just about everybody is similarly challenged, he is a triumphant creation, and is joined by others, such as the son of the house:
“He was dressed like his father, indeed markedly so, in tweed jacket, cavalry twill trousers, checked shirt and spotted bow tie. The toecaps of his shoes gleamed in the firelight like chestnuts fresh out of their husks. Any day now, if he hadn’t already done so, he would take to pipe-smoking, and getting drunk with the chaps from the rugby club on Saturday nights. He would drive a two-seater and talk disparagingly of girls, and shoot crows in the copse, wherever it was, and plight his half-hearted troth to some landed family’s horsey daughter. None of that would entirely convince, either. In Dominic Osborne, something, some undefinable finish, would always be lacking. There would always be something amiss.”
Or Freddie Harbison, who “wore a double-breasted suit that was just a shade too well-cut”, the “taut, parched look” of Rosemary Lawless “caught in the furnace-glare of grief”, or Sylvia Osborne who tries “on versions of myself the way I try on dresses in a shop”. In a landscape made hallucinatory by the snow, and a house by a decaying present of past weight, Strafford is observant but only fitfully in charge, prone in his detection to “a sort of dull half-trance”, confused in his sexual appeal to Sylvia, and reflective: “The policeman insists that there be a plot. However, life itself is plotless.” The story grips more strongly as the characters harden with the frost, and it is a triumph of plotting in which the cause of the murder may throughout appear obvious to the reader today, but the route to the solution is fascinating.
Rather Be The Devil (2016, Orion, £7.99) is one of the excellent Ian Rankin Rebus stories, taking forward the character introduced in 1987 in Knots and Crosses. Rather Be The Devil involves Rebus both in a cold case, the strangling in 1978 of the glamorous, lecherous, socially prominent Maria Turquand in a bedroom in the Caledonian Hotel, and a struggle for the control of Edinburgh’s underworld, one that brings back the potent Ger Cafferty. Well-plotted, well-paced, with assured characters and quick-fire dialogue. Did not develop the character or genre, but a very satisfying read, and one that yet again makes Edinburgh appear very dark.
Don Winslow’s The Force (2017, HarperCollins, £8.99) is even bleaker in its account of New York, with corruption, guns, police acting as criminals, racial tension and the whole repeated throughout as pole-dancing kicks from a morality-tale plot of the fall of Detective Sergeant Denny Malone as he loses control of his equivocations. Seeing himself as the protector of his turf, he moves from being a discipliner of criminals let loose by a collapsed social contract and corrupt legal system, to being a predator. Beyond that ambiguity, the characters lack depth and there can be a sameness in the resolves into violence and the revelations of corruption, but this novel works as a fast-paced read and deserves some of the praise lavished on it.
Less so for Dov Alfon’s A Long Night in Paris (2019, Quercus, £8.99), the translation of a 2016 Israeli work. This is an account of Israeli-Chinese violence in Paris, one very much written from the Israeli perspective, although shot through with discussion of tensions in the Israeli system, notably within its intelligence apparatus and its military, and with a corrupt Prime Minister. The characterization is generally crude, although the energetic plot is effective and some of the intelligence details work. I thought the power that Chinese criminals could readily deploy overplayed, and the account of the French authorities unduly negative. The stamina expected of characters in adventure novels is always rather over-the-top.
For the screen, the Austrian-made Vienna Blood and the French-made Paris Police 1900 both deserve attention, and if the latter is somewhat gruesome, it ably interweaves the politics.
Jeremy Black has recently published The Importance of Being Poirot.
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