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Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland

February 24, 2012 Leave a comment

John Donne started the ball rolling with the idea that, “no man is an island. . every man is a piece of the continent. . .”. In our postmodernist times, we routinely accept the idea that we only understand the present by placing our “man” in his social context and then interrogating the past. We aim to learn about him by identifying the “facts” reported about him, determining whether they are salient and then forming them into an evidential pattern. In such archaeological diggings, sometimes we identify significant silences and they are just as eloquent as the apparent facts. Once we have all the available evidence, there’s always going to be an argument about what it tells us. Given all our current theories and and beliefs, it’s unlikely one interpretation is always going to be better than any others. That would be the triumph of prejudice. In the best objective sense, we should always be looking for explanations of the past that give the best fit with the “facts” as we have them. So, when searching for a reasoned way of resolving the debate, it may be necessary to conclude one interpretation is right because all the others are wrong. As Sherlock Holmes used to say, “. . .when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Ah, the “truth” — such a complicated concept in these relativistic times.

Such are the games played by those who put together the plots of the better detective stories. When it comes to the blend between current reality and history, I don’t think anyone has more consistently hit the bullseye than Anthony Price. His early books are masterful in their exploration of the relationship between people and their past. He specialised in the construction of meditative dialogues as the lead characters discussed how they should view and then solve their problems which were always rooted in relevant history. So, in The Labyrinth Makers, a missing Dakota aircraft resurfaces. It had been presumed lost at sea shortly after the end of the WWII, so to find it at the bottom of a recently drained lake is disconcerting. That it then triggers interest from the Russian intelligence service brings our series hero, David Audley, into play. If you have not read this book, you should. It won the Silver Dagger Award in 1971.

Barry Maitland with half a Vulcan mind meld

All of which brings us to Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland (Minotaur Books, 2011). This is the eleventh police procedural featuring DCI David Brock and DI Kathy Kolla so, in novelist terms, this is a mature partnership. They know each other well and, together with their Serious Crime team, enjoy tight mutual loyalty. We start off with what might look a random crime. An elderly American tourist is literally thrown under a bus when walking back from the Chelsea Flower Show to her hotel. There’s no obvious motive of a robbery gone wrong. The first theory is mistaken identity yet no-one can suggest whom she might resemble and so justify death. Our heroes are just getting started with the investigation looking at her hotel in Chelsea when the rich Russian who lives next door is also murdered. In a hastily convened meeting between the police and the Intelligence Services, it’s now suggested that our American might look like the dead Russian’s mother. Quite why this has prompted the death of the Russian son is not explained, but it becomes a kind of official assumption for those at the meeting.

Needless to say, our heroes are sceptical. Well, that should be Kathy Kolla who’s sceptical. Brock has succumbed to a mystery bug and the team is covering for his absence while he tries to sleep it off. The problem, of course, is how an elderly American woman might be related to a Russian multi-millionaire. This is where the history comes into play. At first, Kathy Kolla is on her own but she comes across a youngish Canadian attending a conference in London. He’s staying at the same hotel as the dead American and proves to have forensic document skills. In due course, he’s recruited as an independent expert and begins his own parallel investigation. As Brock slowly gets back on his feet, the investigation goes through various crises and changes in manpower. Slowly, they begin to sense the wider picture and, after a trip to America, they have a much better idea of how the two victims may be linked.

Except, of course, the fact a link has been found between the two victims does not explain why they were killed nor by whom. This drives them back into the history and, when some bones come to light, they finally get the answer. Anthony Price would approve of this plot! It’s beautifully managed. What may initially look contrived ends up perfectly explained. We even get a little more background on David Brock as some of his own history resurfaces in an unexpected way. In Chelsea Mansions, Barry Maitland has produced one of the best detective/police procedurals of the last year. If you see it on a shelf, grab a copy and reserve the time necessary to read it. You will not be disappointed.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross

November 12, 2010 Leave a comment

In approaching this book, I’m reminded of decades of musical interventions where jazz and other musicians have taken pieces of classical music or well-known tunes, and variously mangled them, depending on your point of view. Indeed, the Classical Jazz Quartet is currently mining the same field ploughed by the Swingle Singers forty-something years ago, while people like Yngwie Malmsteen write their own orchestral concertos for electric guitar. Similarly, the idea of riffing on old literary favourites is captured in the increasingly contentious practice where “mashup” meets plagiarism. This year, you only have to think Helene Hegemann (as, of course, you all do) or Kaavya Viswanathan, who has just begun work with Sullivan & Cromwell, a top firm of attorneys — kinda ironic, huh!?! — to see the problem emerge into the full glare of the light. With the internet now making it possible to lay your hands on a wealth of content, it’s very difficult not to give into the temptation of an odd phrase here and there.

Now this is not to say there’s even the slightest hint of plagiarism about The Fuller Memorandum (apart from mentioning the phrase “here be dragons” twice which is the title of one of Anthony Price’s books). Indeed, for all its advertised homage to Anthony Price, I’m able to report there’s almost nothing even remotely like a David Audley book on display.

At this point, I admit to a prejudice. I used to be a collector and was the proud possessor of a complete set of Price first editions. He was a quite remarkable author. One who does not deserve to have been lost in the mists of time. The beauty of the books is the blend of history and two puzzles to be solved. There’s always a historical mystery, beautifully researched, and the solution of that mystery leads to the resolution of the contemporary mystery and the unmasking of the criminal, spy or terrorist. As a historian, the “hero” Audley thinks his way through both puzzles and, with the help of more active helpers, catches the bad guys. For anyone who wants an intellectual but exciting adventure story, you can’t do better than Price, particularly the early books. As he got older, there was a slightly wooden quality to the writing. But there are some great books to savour.

So Charles Stross, having been inspired by Len Deighton and Ian Fleming in the first two Laundry books, now claims Price. You need not worry. This is the same as Hollywood asserting a film is based on a true story, i.e. the filmmakers dramatise reality and so turn it into something different. This is the usual Stross first-person narrative where the now familiar Bob Howard struggles his way through the morass of problems until he emerges battered but victorious (and, according to Stross in June, he’s pitching another outing). First, the good news. This is way better than the second in the series, The Jennifer Morgue, which kept the Bond theme going far too long. The Fuller Memorandum succeeds in no small part because, although there are the texts of some historical documents included, Stross is not interested in copying the style or tropes of his inspirational source. Whereas even the living dead have either read a Bond book or seen one of the films, I’m probably one of a dying breed who could give you chapter and verse on Audley. Without Price fans to appease by including this favourite element or that, Stross could be unconstrained and just write a good Lovecraftian romp.

It has been interesting to watch Bob Howard’s development from The Atrocity Archives onwards. He’s losing his naive geekiness and becoming increasingly competent. In this outing, from the moment he misjudges the extent of the problem in RAF Cosford and inadvertently kills someone who proved to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, to the end where there are rather too many dead around for it to matter any more, we can see a man growing more comfortable in his ability to take on the dark forces and win.

And all is told with considerable wit. I can hear Stross cackling as, like one of these slightly manic entertainers who bend balloons into funny shapes, he takes ordinary sentences and wraps them round each other to make the entrails of something diabolically amusing — or which might represent a human sacrifice and so admit a power from beyond. Although there are moments where there’s an odd repetitiveness about the writing, it’s high pulp and not ashamed of it. This is not a book you sit down to read as brain food. It’s not intended to be anything other than great fun. In this it succeeds admirably and represents the best book Stross has published since Halting State. That our first-person hero can assert what others are doing at the same time in different parts of London just adds to the madcap feel of the whole thing. So once we have done our stretching exercises, it ambles along happily for the first half and then runs frantically to get to the end. There are no real mysteries in the Price style to solve except to wonder how Stross manages to stay so amusing so long.

Definitely recommended for those who like Lovecraftian fiction with a subversive attitude.

For more reviews of Charles Stross, see:
The Apocalypse Codex
Neptune Brood
Wireless
The Revolution Business
Rule 34
The Trade of Queens.

This is a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

 

The City & the City by China Mieville

The world is an endlessly fascinating place and we depend on our abilities to understand all the signs and signals that surround us to navigate safely from innocent childhood to mature adulthood. The study of this interaction between the individual and his or her environment is most commonly called semiotics. So, when we pass each other in the streets, we make a mass of instant judgements based on the hairstyle, facial expression, posture, clothing and shoes, each factor being shaded depending on the time of day, the geographical location and any other socially relevant information. So we could conclude that, in one context, we see a police officer while, in a different context, we see a stripper about to remove his or her clothes. In some urban areas, there are signs identifying the local gang whose turf you are walking through. In other areas, we might choose not to see some people because their presence is somehow embarrassing or offensive. All of us go through a process of socialisation to learn the local culture and its nuances. Our willingness to conform ensures each culture and its niches survive and, where appropriate, evolve to different but nevertheless mutually compatible forms. This adaptability can make cultures act as if independent creatures. For those of you interested in the theory, you can google autopoiesis and take it from there.

The idea of interstitial areas has been briefly explored in two recent novels: Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams and The Shadow Pavilion by Liz Williams. Both assume that there will be one or more “spaces” or “lands” between more structured spaces. It is also interesting to compare Thunderer by Felix Gilman who is interested in the essential mutability of a city’s geography in time and space. Returning to gang culture for a moment, there may be areas of overlap or separation between two gang territories where members from different gangs may meet in safety, or where a “no man’s lands” exists as a buffer zone, i.e. no gang members may enter, but other citizens may pass through.

In The City & the City, Mieville engages in a clever exploration of two overlapping cities, each one socially invisible to the other. As children growing up in one city, you learn not to “see” the other city or its inhabitants. This is a sophisticated mental trick because, of necessity, you see your surroundings to avoid walking into people and not crash when driving. But other than this basic behaviour to ensure mutual survival, neither side acknowledges the existence of the other. Indeed, the cities are considered located in different countries, with a formal border control between them. Policing this bilocation is the mysterious Breach — a term which expresses both the physical transgression of failing to relate to the city environment in which you are currently resident, and the agency (assumed not to be supernatural) responsible for punishing all transgressions. As you will gather, there is a very detailed system of metarules in place, maintaining the separation.

Into this existential anomaly comes a murder which seems to have been committed in one city with the body dumped in the other without this crime involving a Breach. Thus, at a metalevel, we are immediately pitched into a game of establishing the rules of Breach and then understanding why no Breach has occurred in the movement of the body between the cities. It soon becomes apparent to the investigating officer that another element to be considered is whether there is balance at all levels, i.e. just as there are two cities occupying the same space, are there also two metalevel agencies: Breach and Orciny?

At this point, I want to refer to one of my favourite authors, Anthony Price. He began with a series of outstanding titles and, although he tailed off as he grew older, even at his least inspiring, he was still better than most. To avoid spoilers, all I will say about the quality of the murder and its investigation in The City & the City is that it’s one of the most elegant puzzles of the last few years and worthy of Price at his best. Even though Price is now mostly out-of-print, you should seek him out.

In writing this review, I note I’m coming to this book late (courtesy of the US postal system which lost a complete batch of 2009 titles on its way to me for several months). In the intervening time, The City & the City has been picking up prizes, the most recent being the Arthur C. Clark Award which Mieville is winning for a third time. In every respect, I agree with the assessment of the world. This is a remarkable piece of fiction that seamlessly blends fantasy with detective fiction to produce a mesmerising novel. If you have not already read it, do so immediately.

P.S. For those interested in trying Anthony Price, you have a choice. The first published novel was The Labyrinth Makers (1970). The novel that starts the internal timeline is The Hour of the Donkey. The series is unbeatable as well-developed characters struggle to solve some wonderfully complex problems.

As an added note, The City & The City won both the World Fantasy Award 2010 for the Best Novel and shared the Best Novel Award for the Hugo Award 2010. It was shortlisted for the Nebula Award 2010 for Best Novel. It also placed third in the John W. Campbell Memorial Award 2010. It was Le lauréat du Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire 2012 for Roman étranger.

For reviews of other free-standing novels, see
Embassytown, Kraken and Railsea.

The Alchemist’s Code by Dave Duncan

And now it is time to sit down for that second cup of my grandma’s tea (see The Alchemist’s Apprentice). There are times when I reach the end of a mystery book and the detective does the final “reveal” leaving the criminal a quivering wreck and I think, “Wow, that was really underwhelming!” I look back at the cardboard cut-out characters who were shuffled around the page to create the illusion of a puzzle and frankly, like Rhett, I don’t give a damn. Thank God for books like The Alchemist’s Code by Dave Duncan.

This is probably the most difficult of books to write — the second in what looks as though it may become an ongoing series. Let’s look over the author’s shoulder. He or she knows exactly what went into the first book and this was a success. So the first question is how much backstory to include in the second. You cannot assume that all the readers for the second volume will have read the first, but the more you repeat what happened in the first, the more you may bore the “old hands”. Duncan takes the bold route of assuming everything and plunging happily into the story. When some explanation is required, it is dropped unobtrusively into the text as we go along. This first step is encouraging.

He then produces an immediate statement of intent in the first major set-piece encounter between the Sanudos (the clients) and the two main characters Maestro Filippo Nostradamus (the detective) and Alfeo Zeno (the put-upon factotum). It is a delight to observe the dissection of the thought processes that go into impressing (or gulling) the clients.

Having settled into his rhythm, Duncan then sweeps us through a somewhat more violent and dangerous outing than the first volume. There is swordplay and a more positive supernatural element. We have the same tarot and use of a crystal ball, but there is a real jinx blocking progress in the investigation with an interesting confrontation. More importantly, the political framework of the story is much more powerful and, even though some of the history is distinctly of the cod variety, it contributes beautifully to the content for the problem and its resolution.

Back to the ending. Absolutely everything about this particular solution is meticulously set up and then explained. It is so completely a part of the milieu of Venice that it is obvious once it is pointed out to you. But it is one of the few solutions over my reading past that has evoked genuine admiration. The only other author who consistently produced a similar response is Anthony Price. The cleverness of the misdirection in some of the Dr. David Audley novels is unsurpassed. In this case, I immediately read the last few chapters again to enjoy it all over again.

Overall, this is far better than the first and can be read as a stand-alone. A positive joy in every respect. The next in the series is The Alchemist’s Pursuit. There’s a new series starting with Speak to the Devil and When the Saints, and a stand-alone called Pock’s World.

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