The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

Having sat on my to-read shelf for years, I took this on a plane trip recently. I expected to leave it abandoned in my seat pocket for another person. Instead I found it hard to put down.

The premise of the story would never happen in reality – at a party of adult friends and their children, Hugo, a four year old, goes to wack another child with a cricket bat and the father of the target stops this happening by slapping Hugo on the face. The parents of Hugo insist on police involvement and the police take it to court. Because there is so little crime in Australia, that this stands out as a good use of police time and court resources. Not. It just wouldn’t happen.

But let’s pretend it could, because it makes for a great story, as the relations between the various adults are tested by the way in which Hugo’s parents behave and expectations by all concerned. A story gripping enough that not only was an Australian TV series made, but the US made its own – I’m almost curious to see what they did to it. Every main character in the story is ghastly. I’m truly impressed with the author’s ability to make such a readable story out of such shits as they all are. Young and old, they are all materialists whose high points are buying clothes, getting haircuts, drinking and drugging, getting bikini waxes and making entrances. The women are ghastly, the men, the Australians, the Indians, the Greeks, the young, the old. But having said that, the fact is that they are all utterly ordinary. People muddling through life in a self-centered – I, closely followed by my family, are what matters – way.

Tsiolkas is no great prose stylist. Why does he split his infinitives I wonder? Why does his editor let him? But it doesn’t matter. Mostly it is his characters speaking and their voices are all believable. The structural gimmick used – successfully, it might be added – is to unfold the story line through each character’s perspective. My friend Peter on GR wanted it to end with Aisha and I see the logic of that.  I recommend his review. But I can’t help admiring Tsiolkas’ ability to squeeze out of this fuckup of a story the hint of a happy ending, and this is done by ending with one of the teenagers. I said every character is ghastly, but in truth Richie was almost likeable and the nearest thing to a person for whom one wishes the best.

The story is very Australian, and very Greek. It all rings totally true. Looking at reviews on GR, I’m fascinated to see that non-Australians can’t cope with the book at all, whereas Australians love it. As they should.

 

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Earthly Remains by Donna Leon

The last Leon I read was in 2010 and I really thought I’d call it a day. It was Through a Glass, Darkly and was irritatingly thin on plot, but big on fillers – politics/environment. A couple of weeks ago, however, I spotted this for a couple of francs at a church sale and couldn’t resist. Had things changed?

Well, yes and no. I can’t even say this one’s thin on plot. It has virtually no plot whatsoever. But it seems much less didactic than Through… It’s a melancholy meander through what I think of as the outback of Venice, the islands and their lagoons, in the oppressive heat of summer. The environmental issues are the more effectively presented by being done in a gentler way.

If you are looking for a whodunnit or a police procedural that has your heart beat pumping away, this isn’t it. But in the most quiet of ways, I did find this hard to put down. If you want an authentic slice of Venice with an environmental subplot that is, alas, entirely believable. Indeed, I wonder if the controversy over the poisoning of workers and lagoons which resulted in a not guilty verdict for the Porto Marghera plant, was the inspiration.

We, the Accused by Ernest Raymond

I was given this, along with CS Forester’s early novel Payment Deferred, by Kate McCallum, author of checklists of mystery fiction, published by Copperfield Press. I’ve had my periods of reading vast amounts of the stuff, but not for years of late. Nonetheless, with such a well-informed recommendation, and the books handed to me, I was not going to say no!

Neither of these is a mystery. They are both early examples of sitting behind the shoulder of the murderer, following developments as he does. And partly because of the books’ titles, but also because of the period in which they were written, one knows in broad terms, how they will end. No murderer would have escaped his fate back then. A price had to be paid.

In fact, in the case of We, the Accused, we watch everything, it’s something of a police procedural. It’s incredibly detailed with striking and awful descriptions of what happens after the police get onto it. The chase, the trial, the period of three weeks before he hangs. But it is equally detailed in its description of scenery, neighbours, childhood – the lot. Overall I don’t think Raymond is a good enough writer to do this justice, but, he does it well enough. After a slight irritation early on as yet another tangent started, I got into the zone and found it hard to put down. He’s at his weakest when he is in the shoes of the female and as these are critical points – her agreeing to sex, her deciding to accept that he has murdered and still love him, her salvation at the end – I find none of these convincing. Indeed, the ending involving the stranger who saves her is plain silly.

The bottom line in both of these is that although the murderers knew what they had to do to get away with it, they weren’t able to – they weren’t psychopaths and both their humanness and their humanity let them down.

I might add that my own prejudice is in favour of minimalist, so of the two books, I prefer Payment Deferred. Nonetheless, as Kate urged me, I urge anybody reading this and interested in this sort of writing to pick both of these up, you won’t regret it.

Payment Deferred by CS Forester and The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw

What a fascinating pair to read back to back. Payment Deferred is a very modern psychological thriller which hooks the reader in from the start: an astonishing work to come up with in the 1920s by a young man at the start of his career.  The Snow Kimono might also be defined as a psychological thriller, as long and meandering as Forester’s is to the point. And, again in contrast, Henshaw’s novel is the first he’d written for 25 years, having a normal career after realising that there would be no money in writing for him.

I suspect that Henshaw is too clever for me. I spent too much time wondering what I was doing. Whereas CS Forester knows exactly what you are doing. Following the journey this simple question takes  you on: will the murderer get away with his deed? And despite – or perhaps because of – the implications of the title, the reader is sort of barracking (in the Australian usage of the word) for the petty man who acts on this big idea.

The Guardian said of Simenon’s books that they

… focus on the tensions that lead a person to an extraordinary act such as murder. Through Maigret, who works primarily from intuition rather than procedural techniques, Simenon explores the psychology of his protagonists. The focus on people and setting is emphasised by the extremely spare language which is a feature of all his work.

The Encyclopedia Britannica (1993) said ‘Simenon’s central theme is the isolated existence of the neurotic, abnormal individual. Employing a style of rigorous simplicity, he evokes a prevailing atmosphere of neurotic tensions with sharp economy.’

This could so easily be a description of Payment Deferred, published five years or so before Simenon’s first non-pulp books. I wonder if that’s a coincidence? Equally the setting, a down-at-heel neighbourhood, a lower middle-class family who are living beyond their means and with nothing much to show for it. And a one-off opportunity. Never for one moment does William Marble think of using his position in the bank to illegally syphon off funds to sort his situation. But when a nephew appears out of the blue with a large amount of money in his pocket, he conceives on the spot a murder. That juxtaposition of moral lines is always fascinating to observe.

From there on things could scarcely have gone better for Marble, but his psychological spiral downwards is inevitable. He isn’t a psychopath, in other words. Just a rather unpleasant, unattractive loser whose wife feeds off his odd kind word and forgives him everything, including the murder when she finally figures it out. And then, despite her best intentions, she is the undoing of him. It’s a really neat story.

The Snow Kimono is full of exquisite description of place, exactly as a Japanese work should be. Overfull when it first went to an editor, I gather, who insisted that some 40K of words be removed. Even then, I don’t know if that decision was harsh enough. But then perhaps there was a danger that it would be trimmed to a point where it became obvious that none of it needed to be there.

I really don’t mean to be rude to the book in saying this. It ran the gauntlet of several dozen rejections before not only being accepted for publication, but also becoming the winner of a prestigious prize, all monies gratefully received. It is beautiful. But the amalgamation of the stories in it were’t adequate for me. What has the Inspector’s life got to do with the story he is meanderingly and episodically told by his odd neighbour? I didn’t feel like any of it fit together properly. I don’t really understand why it couldn’t instead have been a story, more simply and economically related, of the neighbour’s experiences.

Am I being unfair in saying that? I think Henshaw must be a totally amazing person and I’d love to invite him to dinner and fawn over his erratic, episodic literary career which is even more unlikely than the fiction he weaves. But I still didn’t like this novel enough and it’s one of those times where I feel like I’ve let a book down.

I can’t believe Payment Deterred isn’t a celebrated classic and I’m most grateful to Kate McCallum for giving it to me.

 

The spoiler: Disappearing off the face of the earth by David Cohen part two

I had a friend in Geneva who went from close to cutting me off when she read my review of The Sea, The Sea, The Sea (repeated to taste) by Iris Murdoch. She was a Murdoch fan. She was deeply hurt by a review which made fun of her idol. Although at the time I thought she was an idiot, the fact is that books we love hold a place in our heart which overtake rationality. I love this book, and it pains me to think that there are people out there who don’t get it.

When I wrote my review of this a few days ago, I was reluctant to give anything away that would cause one to know too much of the book prior to reading it. However, I can see that this has led to not enough information in some respects. So, this is the spoiler and the upgrade, since I gave this four stars at the time, whilst wishing I could give it five.

More than one nimwit has read this book thinking that they ‘got’ the twist early on and that therefore this book has failed. But this book is not meant to have a twist. The point of the book is that it is about a person with schizophrenia. He doesn’t know that – but can he know it? Can the part of him that we are barracking for, the part telling the story, understand what is happening and therefore do something about it?

Much as the book may be comic, it has this disarmingly sad fundament. We are hoping the best for a serial killer, who is so ordinary he could be anybody. The author has produced a dysfuntional serial killer we can all love and relate to in no different a way from relating to the family in The Castle.

It is possible that only Australians will get that. We are particularly tolerant and have a sense of humour which permits this book to be what it is. But I encourage non-Australians to read it and attempt to enter the spirit of the exercise. If, however, you are wanting a book that has a clever twist that you don’t get until the very end – or at all – then this book is not for you.

Disappearing off the face of the earth by David Cohen part one

I write a spoiler sort of review of this here.

I think it’s safe to say, having read this over the course of a day, that it’s the perfect easy read. An equal mix of suspense, pathos, great characters and humour including laugh out loud precise comic timing. On top of which it’s splendidly Australian.

Over the last months, having followed the experiences of a friend with a book in the Australian best seller lists for the unusually long period of a couple of months, it has become evident to me in a more real way than previously that it’s a cut-throat world out there for the author. Once your book drops off the lists and that happens almost immediately post publication, it becomes near impossible to get a copy. Perhaps this is a reason to be thankful for the large online booksellers and databases.

What chance does this give a book such as this of big success? Approximately zero. But what a shame. I don’t want to talk about the story, it’s to be left to the reader to find that out. I can, however, give this four stars, which from me is high praise indeed.

My best guess is that sometime in the future, and I’m afraid that will be about thirty years, that this will become one of those little revived classics that clever people on goodreads write about knowingly.

Well, come on goodreaders. Beat the rush. Be different. Read it now!

 

Death in the Limelight by AE Martin

Plot-wise I can’t say I liked this as much as The Chinese Bed Mysteries, but it was still surprisingly fresh. Anybody who likes the old-fashioned pot-boiler murder mysteries should give Martin a go. As well as an engaging style, he knows his stuff, the world of his action is the world he actually lived in for many years prior to WWII, and this really makes a difference, not just because he is technically knowledgeable, but because he adds that air which comes from your subject matter being part of you.

I’ve a couple more on the shelves and I’m curious to see if they stack up. Will report.