Sunday, 28 December 2014

Bad Men by John Connolly

Badmenbadmenbadmen...
John Connolly is a lovely man. In the couple or so interactions I've had with him as bookseller and bookshop manager-type person, he has never been anything other than polite, respectful and very willing to put in a shift when it came to signing his backlist and meeting the general public. In addition, and I choose to consider this not to be an author sucking up to the people who are responsible for moving units but rather as further evidence to support my opening statement, he is genuinely nice about booksellers. Indeed, booksellers get a nod in the acknowledgements of Bad Men, and, to my surprise as I'd not remembered him doing it, he wrote a very pleasing dedication in my copy referring to me as a bookseller as someone with a proper job (and not, as it might be interpreted, as possibly one of a marginal group of people living in Cardiff in full time employment). I don't know if it's a trait of genial Dublin-born Irishmen, if his parents had something to do with it, or if it's a conscious decision to hoodwink or swindle the purchasers and purveyors of supernatural thrillers; whichever, it works in his favour, as you'll probably realise when you notice the deliberately positive spin I give to this novel, which does have its flaws, but about which you'll not hear from me.

Necessary spoilers follow. In a departure (although not a major deviation as Parker haunts the lives of a few integral characters) from the Charlie Parker supernatural detective novels that have rightfully won him acclaim from peers and reviewers, Bad Men brings us an archetypal bad dude, the biblically named Edward Moloch, and his entourage of ne'er do-wells, as they plot revenge for a betrayal by Moloch's wife and object of scorn and cold, spiteful injury, Marian(ne). She has pinched a wad of cash from the shed, bought herself and her infant son new identities, and legged it after shopping Moloch and his gang to the authorities, leading to a short and abruptly interrupted incarceration for Edward. It all sounds like a tasty, suspenseful thriller, with a girl on the run and a determined posse of crims out for blood, needing only the intervention of a Quixotic knight errant to stand and fight on her behalf. Fittingly, up steps Melancholy Joe Dupree, giant and lawman, and heir to the forbidden secrets of the fictional Dutch Island (or Sanctuary), outlier in the chain of islands in Casco Bay, Maine. These secrets include historical massacres, murders, and the supernatural peace-keeping performed by those disturbed souls who watch over the island, and wait for the return of the one deviant who got away from them. And odds are on Edward Moloch to fulfil the role of prodigal island son, especially given he's having former-life flashbacks, particularly vivid ones, where he kills his island-settler wife over and over again. Naughty boy. And guess which unholy island serves as wifey's bolt-hole...


*Raises quizzical eyebrow*
I'm surprised I've still got a job with that hair.
What Connolly does really very well, as the equally lovely Mark Billingham points out on the front cover in one of those industry standard associative tag-lines that cause me no small amount of angst, is write a compelling page-turner, where the reader is actively engaged in the lives of the people who, normally, are there to dampen the sharp edges of various weaponry, which straddles the literary fiction genre and also pulls in other genre fiction fans. He has a broad appeal, which might put off literature snobs like myself, had he not been such a lovely man. A lovely man. Inherently believable*, readable and intelligent, Bad Men is a quality supernatural thriller, a classic good versus evil narrative, and just one of over a dozen such written by Connolly. Crass comparisons to Neil Himself and Stephen King might be appropriate, but I shan't be doing that. I prefer to consider Connolly a market-leader in this sort of thing, and shall work on re-stocking my diminished library with his backlist as soon as the lottery win is in the bank.

* Thanks in no small measure to his impeccable research, the fruits of which are gently folded into the mix rather than info-dumped as is occasionally the standard method of arriving at a justification for things and stuff.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Mendelssohn Is On The Roof by Jiří Weil


Can you see the swastikas?
In my triptych of black satires informed by the atrocities of the Second World War, I had high hopes that this oft-neglected author would offer something as equally entertaining as that of Vonnegut and Heller, showcasing the rational humanism alongside the absurd and insane with a dash of gallows humour. It certainly starts out that way, with a low level municipal officer in occupied Prague being tasked with the removal of a statue of the 'Jewish'* composer Mendelssohn from the roof of the Prague Academy of Music by the office of Acting Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich. Of course, he knows nothing of the likeness of Mendelssohn, so chooses instead the statue with the largest nose, which unfortunately belongs to Wagner.

I was salivating at the prospect of another comic masterpiece from Central Europe in the veins of Hrabal or Čapek, but sadly this is the high tide of comedy in the novel, and it occurs at the very beginning. What follows is a novel of fear, oppression and deep tragedy, told in as matter-of-fact a fashion as is possible considering the author himself faked his own death to avoid transportation to the death camps. In what reminds me of a Stephen King novel, the cast of characters introduced, including Heydrich himself, are ushered quickly through the farce to their doom, either to re-assignment to the Russian Front and inevitable death, or to the crematoria of the Final Solution, often under the auspices of the Gestapo. Heydrich avoids both fates, but dies in hospital after the infamous assassination attempt of Operation Anthropoid. Any humour, if there is some to be found, is sardonic. Throughout, the motif of the statue haunts the prose, whether it is the mocking statues of former heroes and patriots of various conquering or conquered nations, or Justice herself, astride roads and rivers, guarding bridges, or being smashed in air-raids, or the petrification of a person through fear, their inability to fight the rising darkness rendering them complicit in its abhorrent actions. And in a chilling finalé, the only truly innocent characters in the whole novel die just as the Russian tanks roll into Berlin to crush the remaining German forces and liberate Europe from the grip of Nazism. 

I'm left a little raw by the experience of reading Weil, and I suspect I might leave it a little while before I return to the literature of the Holocaust, if at all. However, I'm in complete agreement with the preface by Philip Roth that the brevity with which Weil delivers his testimony is the "fiercest commentary that can be made on the worst that life has to offer." As an apologist for overlooked Czech writing, I can commend this able storyteller with no fear of it being considered controversial and free of my habitual cynicism and sarcasm.

* In parenthesis here as Dr Rabinovich, Jewish scholar, points out later in the novel that Mendelssohn was christened as a child so he couldn't be Jewish


Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

We are what we pretend to be.
I'll lay my cards down from the off, so you are under no illusion about where my loyalties lie. I love Kurt Vonnegut novels, and I love Nick Nolte movies. I haven't read / seen a bad one of either. True, some have qualities in excess, some are deficient thereof; but none are so bad that I wouldn't watch or read them again. Considering the intertextual currents on which I've been adrift recently, this convergence of preferred author and actor is a pleasant one. For a starter, it's not often that one can post a picture of Nick Nolte wearing a swastika arm-band without a cease-and-desist order following shortly behind. Secondly, as I realised on re-watching the movie another time, the poignant music of Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa features throughout, which just so happens to be one of my favourite pieces of music with which to accompany fits of self-pity. Thirdly, Vonnegut manages to cast SS Obersturmbannfürher Adolf Eichmann in what must be his only comic role in literary history, albeit with the benefit of dramatic irony and only very briefly. 

So of what is it that I speak so knowingly? Vonnegut, in what is a Cervantes-esque editorial comment right at the start, claims this to be the testimony of one Howard W. Campbell Junior, only slightly edited to make it less objectionable to the reading public and then only to cut out some of the more overtly erotic scenes from one particular chapter, from his time incarcerated in a Jerusalem prison awaiting trial for war crimes, for the benefit of the Haifa Institute for the Documentation of War Criminals. Campbell is a war criminal, and possibly the greatest secret agent of the Second World War. An American by birth but raised in Germany for the most part, Campbell does what he needs to survive during the tumultuous years of Nazi rule, which mainly consists of doing nothing to stop them and also broadcasting the racial doctrines of the Führer's twisted dogmatism. However, unbeknownst to his Nazi Übermensches, through a cleverly disguised system of coughs and pauses, he is also broadcasting secrets of the Reich to agents of American Intelligence*. Married to a German actress of some beauty, his only loyalty, so he repeats to himself and to her, is to what he terms, and is one of the most enduring ideas of the book, Das Reich von zwei - the nation (or more accurately, kingdom) of two, paying no heed to the laws or requirements of any other nation but their own. 


All legal correspondence can be addressed
care-of Jesus to the Pentagon...
Fast forward many years, and Campbell is hiding in New York, in plain sight, as himself, his only friend a man who it turns out is a Russian intelligence agent and who eventually betrays Campbell by publicising his true identity, from whence comes the dramatic tension of the second storyline of the book and film. His wife is dead (or is she...?) and his life is meaningless, captured perfectly in both media when he leaves a police station and has for the only time in his life no good reason to move in any particular direction whatsoever (until a police officer politely threatens him). In the film, again to Arvo Pärt's music, Kurt Vonnegut makes a very small cameo appearance as a man on the street walking towards camera looking concerned, and the first time I saw it I was nearly in tears! Any way, badda bing, badda boom, things go terribly wrong, despite a last minute reprieve of sorts, one which robs him of his reason to accept the blame he finally comes to believe he deserves and which precipitates his ultimate fate. 

Thankfully I'd read the book before watching the film for the first time, so my own mental images of the characters are burnished rather than dictated by the excellent on-screen portrayals by John Goodman and Alan Arkin of Campbell's Blue Fairy Godmother (the American agent who recruits him in the first place) and George Kraft (his New York Judas). But the film is quite faithful to the novel, convincingly done given the difficult nature of the timeline, and despite the director or screenwriter incarcerating Eichmann in the cell above that of Campbell rather than the very fleeting meeting of the two that occurs in the book. If you've not read or watched either, do the book first, as always. You'll find a rare moral satire of depth and complexity, written by one of the keenest minds in recent American literature. You'll find more great lines** than at which you'd be comfortable shaking a stick. And you'll find yourself feeling more for a notorious Nazi than years of cultural backlash could have prepared you so to do. It's one of my favourite Vonnegut novels, one of my favourite 'war' movies with one of my favourite male leads - the holy triptych - and incredibly relevant for our intolerant, ignorant society and its false, hollow politicians, pretending to be what they are.

* I choose to ignore the oxymoron.
** Some of which you can read here.