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Snatched: A British Black Comedy by Bill James

April 13, 2014 2 comments

snatched by bill James

Snatched: A British Black Comedy by Bill James, a pseudonym of James Tucker, (Severn House, 2014) finds us in the Hulliborn Regional Museum and Gallery with its director, George Lepage who’s now in dead man’s shoes, the previous director having passed on to a place only a platypus would know. It seems there’s a riot in the hallowed halls. Crowds baying for blood run through the museum. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and our director knows this is his time for heroic action. I should explain that, like all public enterprises, museums have had to adjust to economic realities. There have been economies. Older staff have been persuaded to take early retirement, while the middle-ranking remnants have been promoted beyond their pay grade to do the work of the departed for only slightly more cash. It’s a tough life when you’re trapped in a senior management role. So now underpaid fortysomethings must outperform those they have replaced in a museum running on a reduced budget. At first, this is going well, but then comes the riot. It seems someone dressed up and inserted himself in a tableau of life in earlier times. When the party from the girls school entered, he stood, exposed himself and departed before anyone had a chance to catch him. Now Lepage must take control of the situation before the reputation of the museum is damaged — they are negotiating to take a display of early Japanese medical instruments and want nothing to prevent this coup.

 

One of the board decides to take direct action to protect the museum. Simberdy and his wife dressed in black, with a burglar his wife has recruited as backup (she’s his solicitor), wait in the darkness outside the museum to catch the man. Except the burglar, living up to the high standards of his trade, breaks into the museum, steals four painting which may, or may not, be valuable, and drives off in the Simberdy’s car with the loot. This comes as a surprise to Lepage who’s inside the museum waiting for a telephone call from the female teacher who was so outraged by the indecent exposure during the day. He’s not sure, but he may have found someone simpatico whom he can dissuade from taking action against the museum. The burglar, respecting the status of his solicitor, returns their car and three of the paintings. This is a poisoned chalice. If the paintings are never recovered, they can be worth millions on the museum’s insurance policy. But should they be returned, an expert evaluation might find them fake and expose the museum’s incompetence in parting with millions to buy them.

Bill James

Bill James

 

I should remind you Snatched is billed as a “British black comedy” with satirical overtones. All life involves some degree of suffering and, for the most part, we view those who do the suffering as deserving of our sympathy, if not pity. So it can make a refreshing change when an author decides to recalibrate the response to those who are victimised by circumstances. This goes beyond the prat fall on the banana skin. Every one of us has slipped and fallen at some point in our career as walkers. A laugh generated by depicting such a scene is a there-but-for-the grace-of-God-go-I moment of relief. It’s human and understandable. But suppose we take a more alienated point of view and show existence as pointless and so somehow comic. This would enable the author to use all the standard tropes of physical and emotional violence, and death, in a different light. They may still be seen in some sense as tragic events but, with a satirical twist, they elicit a humorous response because the point of view is unexpected, perhaps even shocking, to the reader.

 

So here’s a museum: an institution which should be considered an ultimately safe and rather boring place (unless Hollywood decides to bring exhibits to life in a moment of fantasy mayhem). If we use stereotypes, the people who administer these cultural and educational organisations are staid and unimaginative. They are married or partnered with fellow professionals who never take risks because they have reputations at stake. Well, all such expectations are turned on their heads by the situations which emerge in this book. The problem, for me, is that the situations are slightly too realistic. The true art of the black comedian is to be able to dabble in the grotesque. This is sharply observed, not a little satirical, occasionally surreal, and somewhat farcical, but I don’t think it’s a black comedy. Does this matter? Well, probably not. It’s highly readable as the plot takes our small group of characters careening down an ever-more vertiginous slope, but I don’t find any of it even remotely humorous (although I do confess to a slight movement of the lips when the security guard gets the name of one of the missing paintings wrong). Perhaps it’s an age thing causing me to be slightly out of the mainstream when it comes to modern comedy. So if you want to see an author at the top of his game in constructing a plot of increasing complexity as even nicknames sprayed as “graffiti” are absurdly misunderstood as suggesting individuals may not be as dead as previously thought, this is the book for you. Snatched is great fun albeit not in the smile or laugh-out-loud league.

 

For the review of another book by Bill James, see:
Disclosures
Noose.

 

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

 

Plastic by Christopher Fowler

November 12, 2013 Leave a comment

PLASTIC

One of the joys of this role as a now almost full-time reviewer is the pure serendipity of the exercise. Although there’s an element of choice about which books I ask to review, there are times when I simply pick at random and, to my surprise, occasionally turn up a gem. At the other extreme, many of the books I pick on the basis of a known author turn out fairly dire. Everyone can have a bad day at the office. With Plastic by Christopher Fowler (Solaris, 2013) I have the ultimate satisfaction of finding a known author at the top of his game. Yet, somewhat extraordinarily as the preface recounts, this book has been doing the rounds of publishers for some considerable time. For reasons I cannot begin to guess at, all the supposedly knowledgeable big guns of the commissioning world turned this down. Maybe the marketing gurus failed to see this as a best-seller because they could not stick a convenient genre label on the putative front cover. So kudos to Solaris for picking it up. I find myself momentarily stilled in admiration for an author executing a very difficult task flawlessly.

At this point, I need to veer off and mention Tom Sharpe who died earlier this year. For me, the early books are outstanding examples of a raw farce, often turning satirical, but always with the capacity to make the reader laugh. However, starting with The Throwback, I found he grew too dark for my taste. It stopped being funny as his anger and cruelty became rather painful for the reader (and the protagonists). In Plastic, Christopher Fowler confronted the same problem, but solved it by actually liking his heroine. She may start off stunted but, even in her most desperate hours, you feel Fowler retains his affection for her. He wants her to survive. This imbues the first-person narrative with optimism and makes the entire venture a rather joyful if somewhat Gothic experience for her. Indeed, in the midst of all the chaos, there are a couple of laugh-out loud moments when the absolute absurdity of her situation is suddenly exposed. She’s the victim of circumstances outside her control. All the initial events are random. But if ever you wanted to assume a conspiracy to drive her over the edge, this is what it would look like. So in terms of genre, this is a dark farce which occasionally toys with thriller conventions. In this, I’m resisting seeing this in any way as being a horror novel. In a way, it’s an absurdist, extreme aversion therapy version of The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic by the pseudonymous Sophia Kinsella with a mystery element for our heroine to puzzle out.

Christopher Fowler

Christopher Fowler

Now, carefully avoiding spoilers, it’s necessary to briefly introduce the key elements of the plot. We meet June Cryer. She’s hidden her intelligence under a bushel, well several bushels, hampers, buckets and boxes flecked with gold foil, all bought on credit using cards supplied by her husband. This is a tragedy. She could have been an interesting person, but an early pregnancy and a father willing to make an honest woman of her, put an end to that when she failed to carry to term. Now ten years into the marriage, her body may be present but her mind has long been numbed into submission. When she discovers her husband has been spending time with the woman next door, her only friend gets her a gig flat-sitting for a weekend. This should be easy money but that would be no “fun”. In fact things go wrong from the moment she walks through the door of this exclusive block of homes for the wealthy. Or, if you prefer, she suddenly realises the practical problems of the situation which she has volunteered to deal with. It’s perhaps a symptom of our times that people are allowed to occupy a new building before the fitting-out work is finished. These are heady consumerist days in the London housing market for the elite. Indeed, so anxious are people to be able to boast of their new address, they blithely accept the need to turn off the electricity for a weekend while repairs are made. Except the flat in which she’s being paid to huddle is stuffed with valuable artwork. So, with all electronic security systems depowered, she’s gone from suburban housewife to security operative without the see-in-the-dark goggles and 9 mm to reinforce her defensive capability.

Frankly, this is a wonderful book. . . but I’m obliged to raise a minor caveat. There’s a wealth of wit and humour to be excavated from the elegant prose and the unexpected nature of some of the events. Except it’s very British humour which may not travel so well outside the sceptered isle. It’s also possible some readers may be dubious that a man can produce a convincing first-person narrative featuring a woman. On this you should have no fear. In these more gender-blind days, I seriously doubt you would know the sex of the author unless you read the name on the cover. Well, obviously you did read the name but you know what I mean. Overall, Plastic is impressive no matter what genre label might be attached to it.

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

The Sound of One Hand Killing by Teresa Solana

The Sound of One Hand Killing

The Sound of One Hand Killing by Teresa Solana (translated by Peter Bush) (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013), is the third in the Barcelona series featuring twin brothers, Eduard Martínez and Borja “Pep” Masdéu, who unofficially act as private detectives. They keep their relationship a secret and just say they’re partners. On this auspicious day, they set off to meet their metafictional client, Teresa Solana. When they arrive at their offices (for which they don’t actually have a lease), they discover the chaos of a break-in. This is not a problem because Borja has the keys of a flat upstairs in the same block occupied by an American. There’s just one problem. When they enter the flat, they find his dead body.

This presents them with a dilemma. Do they meet with the client and then report the murder? In the end, the thought of a cash advance leads to them postponing the call to the police. There’s just one problem. They are hopelessly compromising the murder scene. Fortunately the client does pay them in advance. So everything’s all right. Well. . . if they tell the police, the client will hear they saw her in a flat with a dead body. And then there’s the small antique that Borja had hidden in the flat. That’s not strictly legal, you understand. So what choice do they have but to clean off all the evidence of their presence and leave the doors open so that the smell will attract interest and someone else will call the police. There, you see, an end to another successful day. Except the school pass on the news Eduard’s five year old son is well on the way to becoming a foul-mouthed football hooligan. This is an unwelcome distraction made worse when the police send a car for them. Apparently someone in the building opposite saw the brothers opening the windows in the American’s flat. No that must be a mistake, surely, their offices are immediately underneath.

Teresa Solana

Teresa Solana

The moral of this story is that, when you’re already in a hole, there comes a point when you must stop digging. It’s just that our two heroes never seem to have received this message during their basic training for doing whatever it is they do. That means it never rains but it pours and then the wind gets up and blows away their umbrella, and lightning stalks the land. It’s at times like this they should go to Zen Moments for a little meditation and relaxation.

From this introduction, you will understand the book is delightful fun. The whole point of farce is that the objective observer can see the build up to the approaching disaster but the protagonists remain oblivious. What gives added edge to the anticipation is the general air of improbability about the set-up. Surely no-one would get into this sequence of events and allow them to proceed. It would be absurd. . . but then we all think back to those times when we were caught up in events beyond our ability to control. We too were swept along and ended up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

This is not to say The Sound of One Hand Killing is a comedy. That rather misses the point of farce. Although there are times when we, the audience, do laugh, the reality of the situations is often more cruel. Because of all the mistakes, misjudgments and misunderstandings, the characters frequently find themselves on the receiving end of humiliation and defeat. In more extreme cases, the threatened consequences of disclosure and discovery can be far more severe. If we do find this comic, it’s only because of schadenfreude, the sense of relief that we are not caught out in this way and some degree of pleasure the characters deserve their misfortune. Well, perhaps not all the misfortune of our heroes being involved in another murder and then kidnapped. It would be so helpful, in times such as this, to be able to speak more than just Catalan and Spanish. But you just can’t prepare in advance, particularly if you think you might be in China. Well that might just be another misunderstanding. And then they have to account to the metafictional author and, of course, there’s still the problem of who had what and wanted it, but might have got something else instead, or not as the case may be. On the way, at least one of the crimes committed is solved which is always reassuring because this is supposed to be a detective murder mystery novel. Or perhaps that’s not the point at all. You really should read it yourself and make up your own mind. I was fascinated.

And as a final thought, don’t forget the healing properties of purée of asparagus.

For a short collection by Teresa Solana, see Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts.

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

Paris Express or Coursier (2010)

January 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Let’s take two completely different situations. First, we have the consummate professional delivery rider called Sam. The firm may not value him, giving him the worst of the bikes with dangerous tyres, but the only people who can get from A to B faster are in a helicopter. On the ground, there’s no stopping him. Think parkour on a scooter and you have our man. Except he is both unlucky (so often late) and diffident (so hides his light under a bushel). It would therefore be harder to find a more down-trodden man. Particularly because his girl friend, Nadia, has already told her parents he is a businessman running a delivery company and with her sister’s wedding looming, she is being forced into the situation of having to introduce a failure to all her family. In this context, those of you who are old enough should remember Jour de Fête, a remarkable comedy by Jacques Tati. Here a rural postman is suddenly inspired to acts of greatness by seeing a documentary film about the US postal system. One should never be surprised when quiet men prove themselves lions.

 

Second, we have a top criminal gang that has stolen something of great value for a buyer. Now there has to be an exchange of value. To achieve this, the right players have to be in the right place at the right time with all that is necessary to make the exchange. Think Colonel Mustard, Professor Plum and Miss Scarlett in the library with both the rope and the dagger. If anyone or anything is missing, the exchange will fail and serious criminals will be upset.

 

Now mix. At an early point in setting up the exchange, Loki, the courier played by the sauve Jimmy Jean-Louis, realises he is being followed, so hands over a large amount of cash in an envelope to Sam. All our star delivery man has to do is deliver the unopened envelope to a café in an adjoining neighbourhood. It should only take ten minutes. What could be easier?

Catalina Denis and Michael Youn

 

The essence of good farce is that it should be absolutely straight. If anyone steps out of character and plays to the camera, showing they understand their situation, the whole effect is lost. So Sam must innocently take the package and then ensure it gets where it is supposed to go. Except. . . Well, it seems there are different groups determined to lay their hands on the stolen goods or the price to be paid for them or both. Sam is therefore taken in hand by one faction and must work out where to go next to use the money to buy the diamonds. So begins the pursuit of a logical trail across Paris. At different points, Nadia is kidnapped but does not realise it. One of Sam’s friends is kidnapped and does realise it. Sam appears to have rough sex with an Amazon who, when not beating up men, enjoys discussing the finer points of classical art. We all get to see a new version of the Macarena as a wedding dance, and learn how the possession of several staplers can make men dangerous.

 

All of this should indicate that this is a laugh-out-loud farce of the highest class. Yes, people fight and draw blood, and bullets fly with devastating effect on property. But as absurdity piles on logical absurdity, we move inexorably towards the final exchange, helped by Dickhead who cannot hold his urine, particularly after eating chocolate cake. We collect Professor Plum as our expert valuer and Miss Scarlett has the original stolen goods. The only question is whether Sam can stand in for Colonel Mustard.

 

As for the cast, everyone is wonderfully deadpan. Michaël Youn plays an increasingly desperate Sam who must somehow find his way through the maze. Géraldine Nakache as Nadia slowly comes to realise she is in the middle of gang warfare (even as her sister’s wedding goes on around her). While Catalina Denis as our Amazon warrior shows remarkable humanity for someone so deadly. Written and directed by Hervé Renoh a director moving from the small to the large screen, we have a wonderfully assured result, beautifully balancing the necessities of the plot and the opportunities for the principal characters to grow. It is genuinely hilarious and, if you do speak French, the bland English subtitles hardly do justice to the variety of the swearing. This adds to the humour but enables the film to show with a lower age rating. Most refreshingly, the mixture of ages and cultures in the surrounding seats were all laughing. Sometimes humour does not cross cultural boundaries. This seems to win people over by being a subversive action thriller. There is mayhem and chases, even a leap to make Evel Knievel proud, but all in the pursuit of amusement. It’s worth every cent to see it.

 

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