Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A thinking man's exploration

That's two critical clichés in one post title; I must be a weak-minded critic. Maybe the coincidence was too much: that two consecutive books on my crime-fiction list should each exemplify what I think reviewers mean when they use a particular critical trope.

The thinking man's crime novel in this case is Adrian McKinty's Fifty Grand, for its nuanced view of migrant life in the United States and for its final pages. The novel offers a bang-up prologue of even higher tension than those to McKinty's Michael Forsythe books. Its final twist resembles those in Jean-Patrick Manchette's novels, in which the powerless are stripped by the powerful of almost everything that anchors them in this world.

In between, McKinty's first-person narrator/protagonist lives the life of an illegal Mexican immigrant in Colorado, a life replete with indignities, but also with astute observation and quiet moments of daily life and the odd behavior of one town's movie-star colony. The author is at least as interested in imagining his way into the lives of people different from himself as he is in telling a suspenseful story.

The exploration belongs to Bill James' In the Absence of Iles, twenty-fifth novel in the superlative Harpur and Iles series. The middle novels of the series especially, from Astride a Grave (1991) to Eton Crop (1999), are dark and humorous explorations of aspirations to respectability among the criminal classes and of the strange lives of odd, sometimes improvised families on both sides of the law.

Before that, James had written about a police undercover operation gone wrong, in the series' third book, The Halo Parade (1987). He returned to the theme several times in later novels, notably Kill Me (2000), in which an officer selected to infiltrate a criminal gang meets an exceedingly weird psychologist at a training course intended to prepare her for the operation.

Now, though, James explores the issue more thoroughly, concentrating and consolidating his fascination with police undercover work, its perils and its effects on those who send officers into harm's way.

Thus, an officer demonstrating for a gathering of police chiefs, particularly Assistant Chief Constable Esther Davidson, the skills required to work under cover:

"The cloth held to his shoulders in the affectionate, unruffled, congratulatory way a midwife might present a just-born baby to its mother. ... Not much of the waistcoat showed under his buttoned-up jacket, but Esther could tell it fitted right, and the pockets contained nothing bulky to destroy the general line. ...

"But then he turned his back for a moment and when he slowly spun and faced them once more seemed suddenly ... seemed suddenly what she'd originally expected: nervy and hesitant. ... His body signalled prodigious cringe now. ...

"Esther realized they were watching a performer who could have made it big in the theatre."
or

"Esther felt she had fallen into a sort of voodoo superstition, as if scared that to flout any part of the instructions from A and B and the rest of the Fieldfare performers would bring big punishment — big punishment signifying loss of the Out-located officer and failure of the operation."
James makes several interesting choices to narrow the focus on the officers who plan the undercover operation that drives the book, not all of which can be revealed without spoilers. One that can is that, shockingly for an author who has given crime fiction some of its funniest, grubbiest and most shabbily noble criminals, James gives no criminal anything more than a passing mention through the novel's first hundred or so pages.

==================

More later, but for now, the novel's finest example yet of James' typical dark, wry humour, this from Officer B, the cool-headed counterpart to the flamboyant Officer A discussed above:
"Family enmities are generally more vicious than any others. Think of the punch-ups and knifings at typical weddings, christening parties and funerals."
© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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16 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Re: the ending. Yeah life sucks dont it.

December 23, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Thanks, Peter, especially for keeping 50G sounding interesting without giving too much away.

And I've heard of Bill James before, but never read him. Must add him to the ever growing TBR list.

v word=mydrater. I haven't posted many of late, but I must say my word vericator is getting quite multisyllabic and ambitious.

December 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It reminds me vaguely of those great skeptical teleologists, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who asked "Is That All There Is?"

December 23, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Don't forget Peggy Lee.


My v word is the quite interesting 'deednee', which I think means the deed committed when you were born, or alternatively the deed committed by a woman before she married, or might simply be the WV's way of asking the question, Didn't he? The WV may well think this is Norn Iron. Some brave soul may want to deny it. That wouldnee be me.

December 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, Peggy Lee's delivery is in tune with the teleological oomph, so she shares the credit.

After you've read Bill James, you might well tell your friends that he wrote some good novels, didnee? I recommend the middle ones especially, the squence I mentioned in the post, but I'm not sure you could go wrong with any of the books. The two most recent ones are a bit stronger than the three or four or five that had preceded them, but even the weaker books in the series have some marvelous lines.

In the Absence of Iles might not be the best place to begin since it's rather different from the other books in the series and therefore atypical. Laura Wilson writes in the Guardian that "the sting goes disastrously wrong - all of which would be great if we had more characterisation and fewer thinly disguised lectures on the methodology of this type of police work." I, on the other hand, find this all a refreshing supplement to everything I'd learned and the characters I'd come to know in the previous novels.

December 23, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Thanks for the suggestions on possible entries to Bill James books, Peter. I'll probably end up reading whatever I can find.

v word=igadkag. As in 'igad,Kag, we have sure had a lot of entries to authors whose last names are James in the past 24 hours, havenee we?

Though I still have no idea who Kag is.

December 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

We have a regular James Gang and a couple of Peters, too, but no one has mentioned Peter James yet.

By further odd coincidence, I have suggested that the two best prose stylists writing crime fiction in English might be Bill James and Peter Temple.

December 24, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Peter James. Yet another British crime novelist I don't really know.
But one of my friends at work really raves about Mr. Temple. He's even lent me a copy of The Broken Shore. Guess I better get on that.

December 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I haven't read Peter James, but I did post about him some time back when he sponsored a police car in Brighton and Hove, where he lives.

I'd also recommend Bad Debts, Black Tide and Dead Point, in Peter Temple's Jack Irish series. Any number of fictional detectives have an interesting sideline or second profession. Jack Irish has two.

December 24, 2008  
Anonymous marco said...

Mmm...you spoiled the ending.What if I expected an "happily ever after"?

Peter,Seanag,merry festivity of choice and happy new year.

December 24, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Although you mention Bill James being out of print in the U.S. on your other blog post, I think I'll just respond here to say I think he's pretty available at the library, I think. I doubt I'll get to him all that soon in any case.

I would have posted this on that post, but I don't think I dare while WWII is still being reenacted. Too many flying bullets, even if the consensus is uncertain as to how many flying choppers there actually were.

Marco, I wish you a very happy holiday as well.

December 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And the same to you, Marco.

OK, I'll tell all: at the end of the book, everyone gets married and settles down, and the reformed villains agree to serve as cheerful househould retainers.

December 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, Bill James' most recent novels should be available in the U.S. even though they're not published here. Pix, the most recent before the current book, for example, is available through Amazon as an import. In any case, start with the earlier books, which you're more likely to find more easily.

Bill James is widely admired by critics and fellow authors. Recently, for example, I read an interview in which Ken Bruen said he reads Bill James alone among U.K. crime writers. But I don't think James has ever been a big seller, perhaps because his books don't play up the mystery aspects. He's more interested in writing about the investigators and their targets than he is about investigations.

Yes, two correspondents are reenacting World War II even if they can't agree on the weapons.

December 24, 2008  
Anonymous Peter Temple said...

Why does someone always have to spoil things by looking up the exact words? Clive James, you're on your own, baby. But, Mr Mckinty, I still await a reference for an eyewitness account of a Flettner 282 in action in the Med or Aegean. And the Discovery channel's cobbled-together film of test flights is emphatically not a witness account. Nor does it bolster the case for helicopter operations by saying a helicopter would almost certainly have rescued Mussolini if the thing had been able to get off the ground. As for the possibility of Alistair Maclean having seen a marine helicopter in action in WW2, he unfortunately passed on without revealing this piece of information.

PS. Bill James is a star

December 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, it's nice to hear a good word about Bill James.

As it happens, I've just found an extensive excerpt from the Clive James article in question. First, I am awed by the man's serious embrace and analysis of a phenomenon that most of us would sniff at. I may rush out and use my Barnes and Noble discount coupon to buy Cultural Literacy.

I was surprised, however, to discover that the reference appears to come from an article about popular culture's willing embrace of stupidity rather than about military history. As dead on as Clive James may be, he appears to have overreached when he asserted that there were no operational helicopters in World War II. The use of a helicopter depicted in Where Eagles Dare may be anachronistic, but it appears not to justify a statement as sweeping as the one James made. Had I been his sub-editor, I might have suggested this.

But what the hell, this debate may have sold at least one copy of Cultural Amnesia.

December 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Why does someone always have to spoil things by looking up the exact words?"

At least until my newspaper suceeds in abolishing my profession, I am a copy (sub) editor, given by profession and inclination to looking up exact words. I can't help this, but I can try hard not to let it inhibit my enjoyment of Clive James.

Incidentally, the crime novelist Michael Walters is also a Clive James fan and has defended him in arguments. But those discussions were mere skirmishes compared to this firefight.

December 24, 2008  

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