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The Marseille Caper by Peter Mayle

The Marseille Caper

I need to start off this review with a little theory. Over the years, distinctions have arisen between structuralism, formalism and functionalism. As applied to literature, functionalism goes beyond an analysis of grammar and looks at the function of language in a larger context. So instead of asking about the structure or form of the language, the question is more what the speakers or writers do with it. It’s a more holistic question looking at meaning, authorial intention and the outcomes achieved through the use of the given language. I suppose functionalists are interested in the capacity of language to achieve the author’s intentions. So in The Marseille Caper by Peter Mayle (Knopf, 2012) we have a book which, in all senses, satisfies formalist and structuralist criteria, i.e. when you look at the components of language used, all the properties of language have been most professionally exploited. But when we come to functionalist considerations, there seems to be little attempt made to interact with the audience. There’s an essential passivity about the text which makes the reading experience decidedly dull. What has gone wrong?

As a caper, this is crime fiction that sits on the dividing line between an adventure and a thriller. Many might say this is a false distinction. That in both genres, a protagonist encounters physical danger, so the plots are basically the same. After the set-up, we see the emergence of risks as our hero explores the local environment. Regardless whether the hero is active or passive, the risk matures and positive threats have to be repulsed. In a thriller, the level of suspense and excitement is significantly higher, stimulating the reader’s sense of expectation that serious injury or death are imminent. However, adventures can literally be our hero against the environment, i.e. surviving piranas and other perils when the plane crashes into the Amazon rainforest. Whereas thrillers always feature villains and our hero has to take the initiative in some task or quest. Put simply, if a thriller fails to thrill, it’s a failure. But we can admire an adventure story and enjoy it because our expectations of emotional engagement are initially set at a lower level.

Peter Mayle looking decidedly distinguished

Peter Mayle looking decidedly distinguished

Applying functionalist methods to the evaluation of this text, what should we be looking for? It should start with an analysis of the plot. The point should be to deliver peaks and troughs of emotion, rather like a roller-coaster ride. Overall, there should be a sustained sense of suspense as our protagonist comes into danger. There can be surprises, minor moments of early triumph, some humour, and moments of sadness and despair while the level of danger ratchets remorselessly up to the climax at the end. Set-piece chases and fights will provide high points. Injuries and the deaths of team members provide the lows. As we approach the end, there will be a sense of impending doom. All this needs to be delivered with vocabulary choices to heighten emotion and structural choices, e.g. simple sentences, shorter paragraphs, etc. to produce a page-turner style.

No wait, I did say this was a caper. That means the most we can expect are swindles, perhaps thefts and, when the author feels the need to kick it up a gear, a kidnapping. So perhaps by definition, a book with this title can only be mild adventure. Hmmm. Well this is the second book featuring Sam Levitt. In his first outing, he earned his finder’s fee from the insurance company employing him by stealing the property back from the rich man who had “acquired” it. Impressed by our hero’s ingenuity, the same rich man now forgives past transgressions and employs our hero to front a bid to build some beach-front property in Marseille. Although there are two competing bidders, we’re only interested in one Englishman whose approach to business is to buy or bully his way to success. When it comes to the broad sweep of the narrative, there’s no real sense of threat or menace. Only one person is injured and all problems are easily overcome. Frankly, I can’t remember reading a crime/adventure/thriller novel quite so insipid for months. There’s no suspense and no humour to compensate for the lack of thrills. The only thing that distinguishes it from the pack is the detailed descriptions of the food and wine consumed during our hero’s stay in the Marseille area. Since I like French food and wine, this element of the book was interesting but, otherwise, The Marseille Caper falls completely flat. It’s not functionally fit for the purpose of being read with enjoyment. The only thing in its favour for me as a reviewer is that, at 210 pages, it’s mercifully short.

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

The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice by Chris Ewan

December 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Good Thief;s Guide to Venice-dec-2011

When we reviewers want to show off, we tend to bandy words like “metafiction” around as if we actually know what they mean. I‘m not entirely sure such academic extravagance is justified but, in this case, it does give me the right starting point to talk about The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice by Chris Ewan (Minotaur Books, 2012). In many ways I’m always inclined to like books that self-consciously play with the medium of writing. Here we have a first-person narrative exploring the world of a semi-retired thief called Charlie Howard. As someone experienced in dishonest arts, this potentially makes him an unreliable narrator but, only in certain key moments does he actually hide things from the reader. For most of the book, he’s disarmingly honest and not a little confused by the circumstances in which he finds himself. That said, he’s abandoned the life of crime to focus on writing crime fiction. Appropriately, he’s created a burglar as hero who, in fiction, plays out some of the “real” crimes the author has committed. Should he ever be suspected as a very good thief, the police would only need to read his books to identify his methods and some of the crimes he had committed. Such are the minor excitements of an author when he choses to write about what he knows best. More importantly, it also gives Chris Ewan the chance to play with the craft of writing and, for example, discuss how to arrive at those sentences at the end of chapters intended to hook you into turning the page rapidly to find out what happens next.

This would all be wonderful if our author had stopped there. But he has also decided to engage in what’s intended as a slight aping of past prose styles. I would have been happy with a parody of hardboiled pulp. Having grown up surrounded by the detective magazines and adventure/mystery fiction that so dominated the first four decades of the last century, I enjoy an affectionate reprise if it’s done well. Nostalgia for days of innocent fun still runs strong. Unfortunately, instead of aiming high for Chandler or Hammett, we have something rather closer to a poor parody of Leslie Charteris filtered though Wodehouse. Now don’t get me wrong, the tradition of the gentleman as a thief is littered with interesting historical relics. The Saint is paper-thin plots but some morality, while Hornung’s Raffles shows slightly more brio. Perhaps the Maurice Leblanc creation Arsène Lupin is the best both in their originals and all those who followed in his footsteps. He does at least manage to avoid looking foolish. Chris Ewan has similar pretensions with his “good thief” taking on criminals who are at least as bad if not worse than he. That he emerges in one piece speaks loudly of some skill and quite a lot of luck, i.e. he does look foolish some of the time.

Chris Ewan showing a little British understatement

Chris Ewan showing a little British understatement

So where does all this leave us? I like the plot of this novel. There’s a certain elegance on display as we slowly work our way through the revelations to the punchline at the end. There are, however, a number of problems. I prefer to avoid coincidences and the arrival of one figure as we work our way up to the final confrontations is an egregious example of the phenomenon. It’s all a little too convenient in a story that had been moving along comfortably under its own steam. Secondly, there’s a serious problem in the tone of the book. Even at the best of times, it’s very difficult to generate humour out of a thriller scenario. In this instance, the reason for the failure is the metafictional self-consciousness of the first-person voice. When the author is smiling with us, showing us how clever he is in deconstructing the process of writing a page-turner, it’s difficult to make us laugh with or at the narrator when he falls flat on his face or goes through some other experience that might otherwise have raised a smile. This is easier with a third-person show-and-tell. A more omniscient author can expose the mechanism of the prat fall by walking us through the scene, giving us a sense of anticipation, and then laughing as the expected catastrophe befalls the character. In the first-person form, the main feeling is the embarrassment or humiliation of the victim.

Finally we come to the problem of a book wanting to be a caper movie. Although my heart will always belong to Rififi, we’ve all sat through and enjoyed The Italian Job, the Ocean’s series and all the others where the pleasingly criminal show off their skills with a sly but endearing smile. Sadly, this hero could not be played by George Clooney. Worse, the wit and humour, such as it is, comes over as rather more laboured. Earlier in the review, I referred to Wodehouse and the humour of this book has a certain period charm about it, i.e. it is populated by slightly eccentric characters with curious interests and superstitions (our hero feels he can’t write unless he can look up at the first edition of The Maltese Falcon he stole early in his career) with two strong female characters to help and hinder. But the version presented here is too long, the slight jokiness wears thin, and the payoff is not really amusing. It just feels like a reasonably good place to stop. So, on balance, The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice would have been better if a strong-willed editor had persuaded the author to cut out the deadwood and leave us with a faster-paced thriller where we might actually feel our hero was in real danger.

For a review of the next book in the series, see The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin

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

An interview with Adrian McKinty

October 29, 2012 4 comments

I’d like to start by thanking you for agreeing to answer a few questions about your latest work. It’s been interesting and stimulating to exchange ideas with you. First, a personal question. Like me, you’ve left your home turf for greener pastures elsewhere. Why have you made your home abroad?

That’s an easy one. I met a girl at college and I followed her to New York. It was a crazy, romantic notion because I had no job or any prospects and for my first three years in America I worked as an illegal in bars and various bookshops and at the odd construction site. It was a really happy time though. Leah and I were living on 50 dollars a week in a frightening apartment in ungentrified Harlem, but I was soaking up amazing material every minute of every day: crackheads and car thieves and cops and robbers. . . When I went to write Dead I Well May Be, it was very much a Speak Memory situation: I just let that stuff pour out of me.

In Falling Glass, your hero is one of the Pavee — a man with membership of a moving family. It’s a cultural allegiance and not tied to a single place. Does this also reflect your own view of the world?

I think so yes. Was it Auden who said that specious thing about betraying his country before his friends? Well I wouldn’t betray either. And I have a lot of countries now that I feel attached to: Ireland, England, Israel, America, Australia. I’ve got roots and friendships and deep memories in all those places. I’ve lived in Belfast, Carrickfergus, Coventry, Leamington Spa, London, Oxford, New York, Boston, Jerusalem, Denver, Melbourne and now Seattle. My allegiances are all mixed up. Of course I still go for Ireland in the rugby and Liverpool FC in the EPL. That will never change.

In Falling Glass, the hero becomes a defender of the weak and oppressed, prepared to use violence to ensure the safety of others. This would not be necessary if society had a law enforcement process that did not implicitly protect people of status — ironically a higher-profile issue today because of the furore over the apparently untouchable status of Jimmy Savile.

I can’t say I was surprised by either the Jimmy Savile or Lance Armstrong scandals. I think the rich and powerful get away with much much more than we will ever know. Truth is always stranger and more perverse than fiction. If a writer were to make up the Savile story it would be labelled ‘ridiculous’ by every editor in the business and not get published. Fiction writers need to work harder to catch up with reality it seems to me.

In the traditional British crime novel, the appearance of the body is always a shock to the small community on display, i.e. there’s an immediate identification of this as a crime scene where there’s been a breakdown in law and order. But Northern Ireland was a permanent crime scene for decades with an inevitable overlap between policing, politics and the terrorists. In such a society, what makes a good policeman?

In England, certainly in rural England, there are very few murders so it should be a shock. I remember the three years I was at Oxford there wasn’t a single murder anywhere in Oxfordshire, but on Inspector Morse (which was filming and playing at the same time) there was usually one, or quite often two or three, in a week. There was a large disconnect between reality and TV reality. In Northern Ireland in the late seventies and early eighties there was too much reality. Certainly too much for impressionable kids. I remember being stuck with my mother in central Belfast the night the Co-op was firebombed. I remember taking my American girlfriend (now wife) to the cinema and coming out to find the city on fire and under the control of masked paramilitaries who had set up burning tyre checkpoints everywhere. I remember the week the SAS assassinated an IRA hit team in Gibraltar and we watched live on TV as a mad man killed three mourners with hand grenades at the funeral; and just two days after that, two off-duty Signals corporals were lynched live in front of our eyes. Stuff like that went on all the time. You never get immune to it, but you do get numb, and I have to say that, in Belfast, the response was often black, very black, humour, some of which I’ve tried to capture in my books. I should emphasise that because I remember as a kid being surrounded by very dour sarcastic grown-ups with a very dry sense of humour. There was also a very strong sense of community in our housing estate that I miss now that I live in middle class suburbia. As kids we could walk into any house we wanted and have dinner there or borrow a book or just sit down with the family and play Monopoly or watch TV. And it was also paradoxically a time of great innocence too. We were always outside playing football or running up into the fields. Yes there was a civil war going on five miles away in Belfast, but we felt safe and loved and happy.

If the police officer is on the side of right, he or she will be pressured to ignore the real perpetrator, or to pin the crime on a false suspect.

So often those attempts at pinning evidence on a person the cops knew was the guilty party backfired because they weren’t guilty at all. In Northern Ireland this happened all the time as did jury tampering. In fact the latter got so bad that juries were abolished for all paramilitary cases and, instead, Continental-style, three judge courts were introduced.

In both Falling Glass and The Cold Cold Ground, the hero becomes a vigilante. Do you see the search for justice as personal redemption?

It may be an attempt at personal redemption but. . . The temptation to take justice into your hands is so strong that you have to be incredibly strong to resist it. It’s interesting that until very recently in human history murder was always taken care of by the victim’s relatives. Police forces have only been around for a century and a bit, but murder has been around for as long as humans have been walking the plains of Africa. In Ulster and places where Ulster people emigrated to (Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, etc.) this tradition still lingers. The police are distrusted and kin are the ones who mete out natural justice.

Ah, but you’ve changed your mind. The heroes in Falling Glass and The Cold Cold Ground are not family. In Fifty Grand, your heroine is both a cop and family. Which view do you prefer: the blood feud or the dispassionate enforcer?

Oh I prefer to let the police do the solving and the bringing of justice. I wish everyone did but they don’t, at least not in places where there the idea of blood feud is still engrained in the culture. The book to read about this is Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer: the section on the folkways of Ulster immigrants to America is eye opening.

The PSNI wants access to interviews given to the Boston College/Belfast Project by former IRA Old Bailey bomber Dolours Price. They claim Price gives a detailed account of how McConville was targeted, abducted from her 10 children, driven across the border, murdered and buried in secret late in 1972. What do you think of such work in an academic context?

It’s a very interesting case. It’s common knowledge in Belfast who gave the order to abduct Mrs McConville. Everyone knows who Delours Price is talking about but, setting aside a suit for libel, naming the man might jeopardize the entire Northern Ireland Peace Process because he is such an important and prominent figure in Republican circles. Once again I feel that Northern Ireland missed a trick by not having a South African style Truth Commission. That would have given a blanket amnesty to everyone involved in a Troubles offence who came forward and told the truth about what happened in the dark days of the seventies and eighties.

I’m not sure South Africa is a better country because it went through a “truth” process. More to the point, I don’t think anyone actively involved in the Troubles on any of the “sides” would have wanted to be honest about what they did.

Perhaps you’re right but at least South Africa drew a line under the whole process. In Northern Ireland these old cases are still lingering, are still a wound that hurts.

For reviews of the excellent books mentioned in this interview, see:
The Cold Cold Ground
Falling Glass
The Sun Is God

The October Killings by Wessel Ebersohn

April 8, 2012 3 comments

I’ve just finished The October Killings by Wessel Ebersohn (Minotaur Books, 2011) which is an outstanding political thriller cum police procedural cum crime novel. But as I sit here with a blank screen in front of me, I find myself surprised by this reaction. At this precise moment, I’m not entirely sure why I think it so good. This requires a little thought. In part, it begins with the origin of the plot. It’s a sad admission that the last book I read based on the South African experience was more than thirty years ago. Nevertheless, Biko by Donald Woods remains firmly embedded in my memory as a magnificently brave book. In his own way, Wessel Ebersohn is also prepared to stand up and speak honestly about later events pre- and post-apartheid. This story begins in 1985 with a raid by South African Defence Force troops across the border to eradicate ANC rebels. Young Abigail Bukula survives thanks to the intervention of Leon Lourens, a young white soldier and, later, the bravery of Michael Bishop who worked for the ANC.

This sets the theme of the book. The question for discussion is what qualities do we recognise as heroic? In some senses, it’s easier to define in a fight when, despite the danger and the position of relative disadvantage, the individual continues the struggle. This may be reckless. It may even be suicidal. But it’s usually magnificent when you see it (and survive). So we’re looking for people who give their all for the greater good of society. It can be political leaders who defy the odds to establish a new reality. It can even be academics if they supply the persuasive force to move the masses. To many, Karl Marx is heroic even though the result of the class struggle was determined by the people on the streets. The labelling all depends on how those with access to the discourse write the history. Myths become facts until they are inconvenient and then are dismantled into folk memories and slowly forgotten as the generations die. So would Abigail be a hero? She’s the child of activists who were murdered for their beliefs. She not only survived the massacre, but also escaped from jail the next day. Or perhaps the man who rescued her was the hero. Had the ANC not sent him, she would probably have died. Or perhaps it was the white soldier who defied orders and threatened to shoot his commanding officer unless he spared Abigail’s life.

Wessel Ebersohn pretty fly for a South African guy

It would depend on who you asked and when you asked the question. Abigail’s parents were considered terrorists by the government of the day. When the ANC later took power, the same victims were martyrs to the cause. As an insubordinate soldier, the saviour was a race traitor. After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had done its work, he could live openly in South Africa without harassment. And Abigail? Well, she became a lawyer working for the Justice Department. And Michael Bishop? It’s a curious thing about killers. When their services support the winning side, they are quietly lauded and protected. But what happens after victory is declared? Should they continue to kill because that’s what they enjoy doing, will they lose the protection offered by those in power? Or, with their image as unsung heroes tarnished, will they be thrown to the wolves?

Now the tables are turned. Twenty years later, Leon comes to Abigail for protection. It seems someone is killing off all the members of the team that crossed the border. In the hope of working out who would be motivated to systematically kill all these men, she tries to visit Marinus van Jaarsveld, the captain in charge of the death squad. To get inside the prison where he’s held, she enlists the help of Yudel Gordon, a psychiatrists specialising in the criminal mind. Together, they begin to probe the mystery and confirm all the deaths took place on the same day in October. With only days to spare, Leon disappears. Now they must increase the speed of their investigation. Suspicion naturally falls on the elusive Michael Bishop except no-one admits to seeing him for years. When Yudel has a theory about where Bishop might be found, they recruit Deputy Commissioner Freek Jordaan to their team. He puts together a police team and sets a trap.

In all this, I hope you have asked why Abigail is trying so hard to save a white man. This is more than the simple repayment of a debt. It’s an affirmation of the relationship between the races in the new political reality. That she can work equally well with the ageing Yudel is further evidence of her commitment to accept people regardless of their race, gender, age or apparent abilities. She’s simply motivated to get results. Given she starts off this investigation at a disadvantage, I suppose this makes her a heroine.

The October Killings is a fascinating look inside a country I have not actively thought about for some years, a very good crime story or political thriller, and a thoughtful examination of what it takes to be a hero — not just in physical terms but also in matters of the heart when it comes to the process of reconciliation as opposed to revenge. The core of the book can be summed up in a single sentence, spoken by Abigail to Yudel, “One night in Maseru I was saved by a good man, defending an evil cause, and on the next I was saved by an evil man, fighting for a good cause.” It’s only when you step back and see the breadth of the book that you can also understand why it’s so good. So, even though you might not immediately consider reading a book set in South Africa, you should definitely make an exception for this. It’s wonderfully engaging!

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

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