Friday, 27 March 2015

Pablo Neruda's Forgotten Books

Whilst I'm still in post-holiday mood, something rather different for today, but still (sort of) on the theme of Forgotten Books. My trip kicked off in Valparaiso, a city that reminded me slightly of Liverpool - it's a port, with tremendous character. But unlike Liverpool, it's surrounded by mountains, and a host of funicular railways (not all of them working, unfortunately) make it easier to get up and down the steep slopes. There was something cheekily Liverpudlian, I thought, about the restaurant where I had a good meal and which called itself after Emile Dubois, a murderer who somehow became a local folk hero.

One of Valparaiso's more creditable claims to fame is as the site of one of the homes of Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize winning poet and political activist. It's called La Sebastiana, and it's a gorgeous house, which takes full advantage of a great vantage point overlooking the Pacific from the slopes, and which boasts some fabulous architecture. Today it's one of the must-see sights in Valparaiso, and I really enjoyed my visit.

Neruda's judgment wasn't always sharp - he continued to admire Stalin long after even the likes of Victor Gollancz had come to regret their devotion to the Soviet mass-murderer. But, like a remarkable number of Communists of his generation, he was a passionate fan of detective fiction (it's a reminder, too, of the links between poetry and the classic whodunit.) Some people have even suggested that he took his pen-name, Neruda, from the surname of a famous violinist mentioned in A Study in Scarlet.

Mention of Neruda's love of "police stories" is just a throwaway line in the audio commentary about the house, but when I reached his library at the top of the building, I decided to investigate. And there I found a collection of detective fiction paperbacks written in English. They even included two of my personal favourites, Trial and Error, by Anthony Berkeley, and The Grindle Nightmare, by Q. Patrick; his editions were identical to mine. Michael Innes was one of the other Golden Age writers represented, along with such diverse names as George Baxt and Elizabeth Fenwick. In all, there weren't many books in this famous writer's home (he was one of those Communists who owned several luxurious homes, so perhaps he kept the bulk of his library elsewhere) but it was fascinating to have this glimpse of his taste in popular fiction, as well as to learn more about one of the stellar names of twentieth century literature.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

On the Inca Trail

One burning question prior to any holiday is - what books should I take along? In-flight movies are all very well, and I did watch four, but nothing beats a good book. I always like to take a mix of types of crime fiction, and before my trip to South America, I decided that I'd binge on Patricia Highsmith. Her books, more than most, have a cosmopolitan flavour and a strangeness that seem highly suitable for a trip to unfamiliar places (and I'm appearing on a panel at Harrogate in July which is dedicated to Highsmith, so this choice also served as good revision...)

I found myself wondering about human nature as I read her stories of bizarre relationships at the same time as exploring the history of the Incas, and their fatal encounters with a handful of ruthless Spanish colonists. The Incas were remarkable achievers, and it seems astonishing that, with numbers so heavily in their favour, their empire should have been so quickly conquered. Equally strange are the mysteries of the fate of some of the South American peoples who preceded the Incas; I had never realised until visiting museums in Cusco how sophisticated some of those peoples were.

Cusco was the old Inca capital, and today it's a marvellous city, where visitors are encouraged to consume coca tea and leaves to avert altitude sickness; there's even a quirky Coca Museum which I visited, and which gives dutiful warning about the adverse effects of cocaine addiction. Just outside the city are extensive Inca ruins at Sachsayhuaman and other sites. And I'd like to give a mention to the nice people at The Meeting Place, a cafe at San Blas run by volunteers to help and support indigenous peoples and a range of worthy local projects.  

From Cusco, you can travel through the Sacred Valley of the Incas. This is a breathtaking trip, and provided the amazing experience of encountering brilliant sunshine, a complete rainbow, and thunder and lightning - at one and the same time (it has to be added that after a few minutes the sun disappeared and there was a torrential downpour, but even so, it was extraordinary.) There are more dramatic hillside ruins at Ollantaytambo. And from there you can catch the train and follow the course of the dramatic, rushing river to Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu is one of the world's iconic tourist destinations, and for good reason. You can reach it via the Inca Trail, on which I clambered for one rather demanding afternoon, but from any angle, it's a stunning sight. I also took the time to visit the Inca Bridge - because the route is rather scary, you have to sign in and sign out; presumably they send out a search party if you don't come back. Given the vertiginous cliffs, I suspect the aim would be recovery rather than rescue. Needless to say, this was a journey which sparked thoughts about a murder mystery with a Highsmithian flavour. And I've already scribbled the first few lines of a Machu Picchu mystery - "The Two Sisters."

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Travel, research, reading and writing

I'm back in Britain after a holiday of a lifetime - several holidays rolled into one, really. I wanted to celebrate a variety of things, including my shift from being a (very) full-time partner in a law firm who does some writing to becoming a writer who does some legal work.In the past, I was never able to take three whole weeks off work simply to roam the world, but when the chance finally came, I grabbed it.

Ever since I was a small boy, and read Thor Heyerdahl's Aku-Aku, which I bought with a book token birthday present, I've been fascinated by Easter Island, alias Rapa Nui. I suppose it's because it's such a mysterious place, with such a strange, almost unknowable history - to this day, there's a huge amount of uncertainty about the island's past, although Heyerdahl's theories are now discounted by many people. If you like puzzles, there are plenty linked to the island's many legends. Why were the moai built, and why were they later (mostly) toppled? What was the appeal of the sinister Birdman cult? And...well, you get the picture.It's a truly unique place.

Until now, the closest I've come to Easter Island is having a small version of one of those extraordinary moai in my rock garden, but at last I've fulfilled my ambition to visit this remarkably remote tropical paradise. And given that it's so far away, I contrived while I was out there to fit in trips to some other wonderful places in South America, a continent I've never visited before. More about mainland Chile, and Peru, tomorrow..

I've never mastered the art of writing while travelling, partly because I'm not a keen laptop user. But travel does offer a writer the opportunity to research, to read, and above all to think and imagine. Getting away from it all is good for the creative instinct, and that was certainly my experience on a tour which involved eleven flights, two rail journeys, and countless trips on bumpy roads by bus or taxi. I am certainly not a hardy or intrepid traveller, and no jungle trekking or camping was involved, but even so, by my standards, it was a truly epic trip.

I did make a very conscious effort to talk to those I met along the way, sometimes in quite a lot of depth, and this was in itself a kind of research, as I learned a good deal from some very interesting people. They included Paolo, of the Hotel Gomero on Rapa Nui, and Fritz, an Austrian professor and seasoned traveller, among others. And while my prime literary aim was to think out my next novel, I found myself digressing, as one extraordinary place after another suggested ideas for stories. Will they all get written? Not sure, but some at least will eventually see the light of day, because the memories I've brought back home with me are so vivid that I'm confident they'll prove as enduring as the mysteries of Easter Island..    

Monday, 23 March 2015

Her, by Harriet Lane - book review

Her,by Harriet Lane, is a very good psychological suspense novel, and although I think it is flawed, I found it intensely readable. In particular, the quality of the writing is striking. I've read a few good psychological thrillers lately,but this is possibly the most elegant in literary terms. It's in the vein of Gone Girl, in the sense that the story is told from two contrasting viewpoints. In Her, though, both the narrators are female.

Nina is a wealthy woman, who seems to have it all. She lives in north London with her second husband, and her daughter from her first marriage, and pursues a successful career as an artist. However, one day she spots a woman she recognises from her past, someone who harmed her in some unexplained way. Soon, Nina is stalking her.

The other woman is Emma. She is much the same age, but has far less money. She has a small boy, and during the course of the story, she gives birth to a baby girl. She does not recognise Nina, and when Nina befriends her, she is almost pathetically grateful. Nina starts to do unpleasant things (even briefly abducting Emma's son) but Emma suspects nothing. The tension mounts, as we wonder what Nina is going to do next....

Two questions tantalise the reader. What did Emma do that was so awful? And given that Nina appears hell-bent on taking revenge, what form will it take? Unfortunately, in this review, I don't think it would be right for me to discuss what happens. I must say, though, that while I felt that one of the plot strands was strong, the other ultimately disappointed me. I sense that Harriet Lane was trying to do something ambitious and unexpected by making a sort of virtue of anti-climax. A bold plan, and for me, it didn't really work. This didn't ruin the book for me, though.. (Be careful if you check out Amazon reviews, because some people who felt the same as me have discussed the story's ending in detail.) One other cavil is that the voices of the two women are perhaps not sufficiently differentiated.

I'm tempted to read the book again at a later date, knowing how it ends, and understanding better what the author was trying to do. And it may be that I'll feel differently about the climax the second time around.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Forgotten Boo - Mystery in the Channel

Mystery in the Channel, by Freeman Wills Crofts, was first published in 1931, the same year as last week's Forgotten Book, The Secret of High Eldersham. The two novels are very different, and this illustrates the point that the range of Golden Age fiction - even in the case of authors such as Crofts and John Rhode/Miles Burton, who are often lumped together and labelled "humdrums" - is actually quite extensive.

A steamer sailing from Newhaven to Dieppe comes across a yacht which has an apparently dead man on deck. The crew board the yacht and find another corpse down below. What on earth has happened?Wisely, a decision is taken to call in Scotland Yard, and the case is passed to Inspector French, that most dogged of detectives.

It soon emerges that the dead men were prime movers in a dodgy financial business. Were they fleeing their creditors, and if so, who made their escape from justice more permanent than they'd intended? In 1931, this was a highly topical story-line, and Crofts makes it very clear, all the way through the book, that he is contemptuous of those who exploit the financially vulnerable. His sympathy is for the victims of the swindlers, ordinary people who face ruin.

I enjoyed this story. It is well-constructed, as usual with Crofts, and suspicion shifts from one candidate to another in a very satisfying way. There's a good, dramatic climax, too. All in all, a good example of Crofts' skill at plotting, and a story that is sufficiently "different" to be well worth remembering.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Marathon Man - film review

Marathon Man is a 1976 thriller film with impeccable credentials and an enduring reputation, yet until recently, I'd never seen it. I'm glad to have repaired this omission, and I felt that, nearly forty years on, the film stands up very well. It's gripping from start to finish, while its violence, rather controversial at the time, remains frightening.

Dustin Hoffman plays a history student who has never quite got over his father's suicide. He is something of a loner, and when he is not studying, he practises marathon running. He falls for a glamorous fellow student, played by Marthe Keller, and they become lovers. When he introduces her to his older brother (Roy Scheider), however, there is some tension between the pair. Is the girl playing a game of some sort? And why were the pair of them mugged by two men in suits while out in the park?

What we know - but Hoffman's character doesn't - is that the brother is not an oil executive but some kind of secret agent. And he is mixed up with people who, for whatever reason, are keeping a close eye on a former Nazi (Laurence Olivier, no less) who has emerged from hiding in South America following the death of his own brother. When the Nazi comes to New York, things turn very unpleasant indeed.

The screenplay was written by William Goldman, and based on his own novel. Goldman is a gifted writer, and his expertise shows. So does that of the director, the estimable John Schlesinger. Really, this is a good example of how to write a thriller that grabs you from the start and never lets go. Today, writers such as Lee Child do this equally well. If you enjoyed Jack Reacher (as I did) then it's extremely likely that you'll enjoy Marathon Man. Though I suspect many readers of this blog will have watched it years before I belatedly caught up with it..  

Monday, 16 March 2015

Deception (2013) - film review

Deception is an unoriginal title for an unusual film that came out not so long ago. Its alternative title -not brilliant, either, to be honest - is The Best Offer. But you can't judge a film by the quality of its title. This is a really interesting movie, with a great cast led by an actor I admire very much, the very versatile Geoffrey Rush.

Rush plays Virgil Oldman, an auctioneer and expert in the fine arts who is a strange, and very repressed, character. It is a tribute to Rush's excellence that we stay interested in the character without ever learning enough of his backstory, to a point, towards the end of the film, where sympathy is very much with him. Virgil is very, very rich, and has a secret room full of valuable paintings of women, but he also has at least one secret. He has an unscrupulous side, and is involved in dodgy auction deals with Billy Whistler (Donald Sutherland, at his breeziest) who is an art forger.

Virgil is contacted by a mysterious young woman, Claire Ibbetson, who wants him to value the rare treasures in her parents' villa. The caretake (Philip Jackson, yes, Inspector Japp himself!) has never laid eyes on her, and she continues to avoid a face to face encounter with Virgil. He becomes fascinated, and deduces that she suffers from agorophobia, and is hiding in her own secret room in the villa. It takes him a long time to catch a glimpse of Claire (played by Sylvia Hoeks) but when he does, he finds that the wait was definitely worth while.

Virgil finds strange items in the villa which his young pal Robert (Jim Sturgess) tells him are parts of a priceless old automaton. Bit by bit, Robert pieces the mechanical marvel together, while giving Virgil advice on his romantic pursuit of the mysterious but gorgeous Claire. This is not a fast-paced film, but it is visually striking and brilliantly enhanced by the soundtrack, written by the great Ennio Morricone, one of the finest of all film composers. The strange atmosphere of the story also derives in part from the fact that it's by no means clear where it is set. Italy, perhaps? There are conflicting clues.

Despite that lack of pace, I found this film gripping, even though, considered in the cold light of day, the plot does not really hang together. But the splendid acting, music and visuals make it very watchable. Even though I do wish they'd come up with a title with more resonance.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Forgotten Book - The Secret of High Eldersham

The Secret of High Eldersham, first published in 1931,was the second book that John Rhode (or, to be precise, Cecil John Street) wrote under the name Miles Burton. The first,was a thriller, and this book too is more of a thriller than a detective story. However,it is significant because it introduces Desmond Merrion, the clean-cut hero who went on to feature in dozens of Burton's books, including a post-war story, Heir to Lucifer, which I featured in this column recently..

The author was a great pub-goer, and it's typical of him that the first scene is devoted to a discussion about a publican's wish to move from one pub to another. How this bears on the plot becomes evident much later. After this preamble, the action moves forward five years, and the man who takes over from him as landlord of a pub in the remote East Anglian village of High Eldersham is found to have been murdered.

At first, it appears that the identity of the culprit is obvious, but the individual in question appears to have a cast-iron alibi. Well, we know about alibis in Golden Age stories, don't we? However, this isn't one of those railway timetable stories of the kind associated with Freeman Wills Crofts, and soon the plot thickens. The police are out of their depth, and Merrion lends a hand. He also takes an interest in Mavis, daughter of the local squire...

This book is very highly rated by Barzun and Taylor, those great American experts in Golden Age fiction, and I'm glad finally to have got round to reading it. For me, the particular appeal of the book lies in the rather spooky setting - East Anglia is a fascinating part of the country that has often featured in fine crime novels. It's also somewhere I'd like to revisit before long.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Funeral in Berlin - film review

Funeral in Berlin is the 1966 film version, starring Michael Caine, of a book published by Len Deighton a couple of years earlier, and followed the great success of The IPCRESS File both as a novel and on the big screen. The director was Guy Hamilton, who has already directed Goldfinger, and who would go on to direct three more James Bond films, a couple based on Agatha Christie novels, and one based on an Alistair MacLean. Hamilton had worked in intelligence during the war, and put his know-how to good effect in translating story to screen.

Harry Palmer (Caine) is told by his boss (Guy Doleman) that the chap in charge of the Berlin Wall on behalf of East Germany (played by Oscar Homolka) wants to defect to the West. Is this true, or is some kind of trap lurking? Harry hasn't been in West Berlin long before he is picked up by a pretty girl. Has he swept her off her feet, or is she, too, spy? No prizes for guessing the answer...

The story is well told, but today the real fascination of this film for me lies in its depiction of a vanished world, when Berlin was divided, and people trying to cross from East to West risked their lives. In 1975, I stayed with a family who lived in a flat right next to the Wall, and I have never forgotten hearing shots being fired at would-be escapees. It was such a joy to visit Berlin last year and see the city united, with that wretched wall torn down.

Michael Caine is, as usual, good as Harry Palmer,and the supporting cast includes Hugh Burden, an excellent actor whom I remember fondly as Mr J.G. Reeder in the TV version of Edgar Wallace's stories. Where this film falls short of The IPCRESS File is not so much in the storyline as in the soundtrack. John Barry's brilliant music for the first film added a great deal to the atmosphere. Here the music is intrusive, clunky, and far from suitably mysterious. A reminder, I thought, of the dfference that a soundtrack can make to a film. With that minor exception, I can certainly recommend Funeral in Berlin.

Monday, 9 March 2015

The Haunting - film review

If you like stories of the supernatural, then a 1963 film, The Haunting, might be just your cup of tea. Its credentials are impeccable. The director/producer, Robert Wise, won an Oscar for his work on Citizen Kane, and was responsible for West Side Story and The Sound of Music - not exactly a bad CV, and certainly a varied one. The cast includes Richard Johnson, Julie Harris, Russ Tamblyn and the stunning Claire Bloom, each of whom gives a strong performance.

And then there is the writer of the novel on which the story is based. Shirley Jackson's book, The Haunting of Hill House, is much admired, but for me, she is above all the author of  my favourite short story, "The Lottery". All I can say is that if you haven't read "The Lottery", I urge you to do so. Jackson suffered from health problems, and died relatively young, but she possessed a remarkable talent.

As for the film, yes, it is a haunted house movie, and many will be tempted to dismiss it as hokum. But I am keen on stories of the supernatural - I've recently written a story that has undeniably been influenced by extensive recent reading of Robert Aickman - and The Haunting is very well done indeed.

We begin with the concept of an old, sick house, which has many connections with death and disaster. Johnson plays a researcher who wants to explore Hill House's secrets, and persuades Harris and Bloom to assist. Tamblyn, his sidekick, is a sceptic - until, that is, creepy things start to happen. More than half a century after this film was made, it remains entertaining, a first class example of the well-made story of the supernatural.