Update on the guilt pile

No: it isn’t significantly reduced.

Things went into something of a deep groove as Malcolm ploughed through:


Together these are 1200+ pages, exhausting, exhaustive accounts of half-a-decade of human tragedy, human misery, human malevolence, and a modicum of human and humane muddling-through. They are damned hard work: Malcolm will testify to that — but they are essential to the period, and major works of historiography. Kershaw has never been Malcolm’s favourite history writer— not because he fails in any way as a historian; more because his prose lacks a certain “lightness of touch”. MacDonogh is gruelling, because — if anything — the horrors of the aftermath should be anticlimactic — and his methodical analysis of how the Poles took revenge on German refugees (among many other horrors) is disgustingly enlightening.

For a month they kept Malcolm off the hard stuff.

As a result he made several resorts to lighter stuff. Allow him to celebrate a few:

The delight of the late summer has been discovering the Bryant and May sequence — so delightful that Malcolm is buying them in hard back and pre-publication. There’s a graphic novel, The Casebook of Bryant & May No.1, due shortly (and already overdue). Somewhere down the tracks under Kings Cross Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart is promised to be heading our way. If there isn’t a specific sub-genre of London sepia-noir, Fowler is inventing it. Beyond that, Fowler has one of the better author-websites around.

Incidently, Fowler’s not-quite-unpolitical asides are gems in themselves.

Malcolm has been with Ms Davis ever since he hit upon The Silver Pigs, the first of her Marcus Didius Falco series. That, he realises with a recognition of age, was over two decades ago. We reached number twenty with Nemesis.

Actually, Malcolm now recognises he backtracked to Lindsey Davis’s first Roman effort with The Course of Honour, a sentimental account of the relationship of the Emperor Vespasian and his long-standing mistress, the former slave, Antonia Caenis. He was less enamoured of this one.

More recently Davis has clearly been attempting to break with the Falco/Roman recitals — we had Rebels and Traitors a couple of years back, using the Civil War as a backdrop. Now she is back to Rome, post-Vespasian, with yet another tale of frustrated love and the conflicts of decency and corruption in the time of Domitian. In Master and God she manages a balanced picture of Domitian — balanced because she has two viewpoints, the Praetorian Guard and the hairdresser (at one point she uses a house-fly as the point-of-view). And, of course, there’s the frustrated and interrupted love-story. Like it or loath it, it kept Malcolm awake into the dawning hours.

Now we see that Davis is moving on from Falco to use Flavia Albia (Falco’s adopted daughter in the later part of the sequence) as the main character. That will be next spring in The Ides of March.

Just when Malcolm ought to have been buckling down to the recent Ian McEwan or the new C.J.Sansom (both sitting immaculate on the upper reaches of the Guilt Pile) he hit on something else —

For two evenings he was hooked. If Fowler’s Bryant and May are “London sepia-noir“, then Faye’s Timothy Wilde is the foulest sulphur of New York, the summer of 1845, on the cusp of Tweed and Tammany, as the Irish famine refugees start to arrive to rebuild the whole class-structure.

Indeed, there are echoes of Tweed here. Timothy Wilde’s brother, Val, is a hook-and-ladder man with a fire crew — and thereby a stalwart of the Democratic Party (the volunteer fire-companies had allegiances to gangs, politicians and ethnic groups). That is a dead ringer for Tweed of the Big Six volunteer company and the Seventh Ward. It is set just a few months before the prelude to Gangs of New York, in the same location of the Five Points, and just as violent.

Although it is a straight ‘historical detective’ story (the Wilde brothers are invested as the first ever New York police ‘copper badges’) it is also a remarkable pastiche of the social history of the lower depths: bar, brawls, brothels, prejudice, drugs, casual deaths and murders. It is also one of the most intricately plotted novels Malcolm has met of late.

He happily hopes Ms Faye will persist with the character of Tim Wilde.

And more …

Somewhere in there Malcolm found time to revisit George Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe (a second impression, all the way from 1975, still with dust-cover intact) and Peter Berresford Ellis’s attempt at a biography of MacBeth. Note ‘MacBeth’, not Macbeth. Quite how he got there is a bit of a mystery to himself: he thinks it was a speculation (in Liv Kjörsvik Schei & Gunnie Moberg’s 1985 and out-of-printThe Orkney Story) that Mormaer MacBeth and Jarl Thorfinn Sigurdsson were one and the same.

Now it’s back to Nazi London, 1952, and Sansom’s Dominion.



Filed under C.J.Sansom, Christopher Fowler, Detective fiction, fiction, History, Ian Kershaw, Lindsay Faye, reading

2 responses to “Update on the guilt pile

  1. Doubting Thomas

    The speculation about Macbeth and Earl Thorfinn is certainly in Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter which was published in 1982. Whether she started the speculation or picked up on a theme, I don’t know but it’s well worth the read; in the end it’s not convincing as history – but why should it be as it’s a well researched and very readable novel.

    • Malcolm Redfellow

      Thank you!

      I have to admit that Dorothy Dunnett is not on my essential reading list. I’ve now (thanks to your lead) hit upon Dunnett’s own ‘explanation’ of her ‘research’. To be generous, her credibility there seems thin to exiguous.

      Still, she’s working in a fine tradition: didn’t Hector Boece invent Lady Macbeth, as we know and love her, unaided? Andrew de Wyntoun, the Prior of Loch Leven, cook up the Dunsinnen and supernatural stuff in the mid-14th century? Hollinshed the final battle between Macbeth and Malcolm (whereas Macbeth apparently won the first round, was succeeded by his step-son, who was done down by Malcolm in a bit of back-stabbing)?

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