This one was meant to go up on New Year’s Day, however …
It’s too early after a heavy night for a pondered, even ponderous, piece.
Even so, as Malcolm stirred in the late morning light, his eye passed over the guilt pile of books read and — hence the guilt — part-read or even unread.
For a start, he has to admit that December has been poor month for reading. It wasn’t so much one of those chronic reading blocks, but there was so much else happening — two major expeditions occupying three weeks of the month. Even so, there’s shame that Ian Rankin’s latest was carted to New Jersey and back, and barely opened, so is still squatting on recent life and conscience like Larkin’s Toad.
Too heavy, already
No: that’s becoming far more intense than New Year’s Day deserves. And the household rubbish needs to be decanted for the imminent arrival of the dust-cart on Wednesday morning.
Instead, prompted by that glance at the bedside books, overhung Malcolm settles for a reflection on recent gains and losses.
On the down-side he would list two disappointments:
- Lindsey Davis’s Master and God.
Now Davis’s Falco series has been a long-term delight: light, bright and witty. Somehow when she turns elsewhere the magic fades. Yes, this fictionalising — and humanising — of the appalling Domitian is well-researched and well-plotted, even well-written. It somehow seems soul-less, even predictable: a trite love-story wrapped around with shenanigans and machinations.
The book reads well, but — for Malcolm — lacks any lingering of warmed satisfaction. Malcolm found himself wondering on that: why? what does one expect from a piece of disposable reading? in there is the difference between ‘writing’ and ‘literature’?
Perhaps it is that reaching the end of a book is, in itself, an achievement — both for the author and for the reader. When the ending is so predictable — one is well ahead of Gaius Vinius Clodianus, the central character with his anachronistic PTSD (Davis’s own usage), long before the denouement — that terminal satisfaction is denied. Something is missing, and so some satisfaction is lacking.
- Donna Leon’s The Jewels of Paradise.
Here’s another one, to which much of that previous comment might equally apply.
The score-plus-one of the Brunetti sequence has to stand as one of the major monuments of crime-fiction. Joyce claimed that Dublin could be reconstructed from Ulysses. Leon might similarly boast that the visitor’s Venice has continuing existence through those novels: Brunetti’s amblings and meanderings across and around his native city catch the light, the glamour and the squalor, the glories and the underlying filth of La Serenissima. Ahem! Have you ever observed a diver emerge from the cess-pits beneath those well-photographed buildings?
In The Jewels of Paradise Leon attempts to construct a different protagonist in the same environment. When Maureen Corrigan was reviewing the book she hit the buttons:
It may take a few chapters beforeDonna Leon’s avid readers get over their disappointment in her latest mystery. All looks molto bene at first: Venetian setting? Check. Insider descriptions of Italian food and architecture? Check. Corrupt officials and brutal criminal bottom-feeders? Check, check.
Throughout 21 novels, Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti has investigated . . . Holy Cannoli, there’s no Commissario Brunetti in this story! A Donna Leon mystery without Brunetti, at first, feels empty, as though a mischievous god had pulled the plug on the canals.
“The Jewels of Paradise” is Leon’s first stand-alone mystery, and, while it is undeniably strange to be wandering through Venice without the protection of Brunetti’s solid presence …
Unfortunately Corrigan then allowed herself to be taken in by:
the young heroine of this novel … so winning that readers should find themselves forgiving the commissario his absence. Native Venetian Caterina Pellegrini holds a recently minted PhD in music, with a specialization in baroque opera.
Yes, but Ms Pellegrini is so thin, and the plot so trivial, the thing doesn’t quite hang together. The novel ends in a typical Leon wrap-it-up-and go away fashion. Yet, unlike the Brunettis, it seems rushed, anticlimactic … and unsatisfying. Unlike the Brunettis, Leon has allowed her deep knowledge of Italian opera to take over and stifle the plot for the less committed and less musicological. And the later Brunettis all come laden with a convincing social conscience: something missing here.
Perhaps, if Dr Leon allowed Ms Pellegrini another outing or two, we might come to love her more. At the end of The Jewels of Paradise she has been despatched to sub-arctic Russia, and — presumably — fictional oblivion.
On the other hand …
Malcolm would wish, at greater length, to celebrate two discoveries — well, to be more accurate, one discovery and a rediscovery.
The rediscovery is William Boyd.
It has been a long while, some half of Malcolm’s adult reading life, since A Good Man in Africa. Malcolm’s edition — alas! — is not that first edition (as right). To be honest, there are a couple of previous offences to be taken into consideration:
- that Malcolm assumed Boyd was touching, if not taking on the mantle of Evelyn Waugh;
- that Malcolm found Ordinary Thunderstorms a trifle tough on the tooth.
And then came the prior publicity for the BBC TV production of an (abbreviated) Restless. Fair enough: half-a-dozen years from publication to adaptation is a decent interval; but it does require a re-reading from days-gone-by. And, in the cold light of a reappraisal it is a very, very good book: a convoluted plot and an easy-reading (but not sanitised) writing.
And so to Waiting for Sunrise. OK, Mr Boyd: you did for WW2 in one book: now it’s time for WW1, and what a delight! And what an enigmatic ending! Here’s another which would provide a decent production company, with access to early twentieth-century wardrobes, another two-parter. Just wait and watch.
Above, Malcolm suggested one of the satisfactions of a novel is simply reaching the designed end. So read Waiting for Sunrise and define your own end and ending. It’s remarkably tormenting and satisfying.
On which ambiguous note, let us pass on from the guilt pile … (of which, we will doubtless hear more).
And the discovery is …
Christopher Fowler’s delicious, delightful, sparky and seductive Bryant and Webb series. Take it from the horse’s mouth: it takes something for Malcolm to scour the bookshops of North London to complete the sequence. But he did … and felt better for it.
And the pick of a very plump litter, by the narrowest of margins, is Full Dark House.
Say no more: Fowler’s website does it for one and all.
This post has done great damage to many worthy and worthwhile reads Malcolm has enjoyed in 2012. And has overlooked here.