Today’s good news is that the first printed copies of Cry Wolf arrived by post.
We were just sitting down to lunch when the doorbell rang. Not pleased in the least to be dragged away from my steaming plate of spaghettini, I ran down stairs and returned with a box.
By the time we opened the box and examined the contents, our spaghettini were cold.
Still, they were the best spaghettini we have eaten in a long time!
In case you don’t know, this is what happens.
Occasionally before I go to bed, I dive into my study without switching on the light, grab a book from the shelves where I keep my tried and trusted favourite crime novels, take the book to bed, read a bit to get my memory working (that’s the Incipit), then I check out the final chapter (the Excipit) to see whether the writer has managed to live up to his promises.
If he has, the book goes back into my collection.
If he hasn’t, the book gets passed on to someone else.
This week I pulled out an old paperback by a writer named John Burns.
Nobody seems to know very much about JB these days (Amazon.co.uk, having nothing to sell, generously offers a used 1998 paperback of Hack, the first of his four Max Chard novels, for only £0.01), and there seems to be very little biographical information about him anywhere else. Not even Wikipedia has got its collective finger out! In the ‘disambiguation’ note they list a whole host of them – the ‘controversial’ US novelist, John Horne Burns (1916-1953), a now forgotten Scottish priest (1744–1839), an unknown Scottish surgeon (1775–1850), and a lot more clever Scots besides with birth and death dates in evidence, but they don’t have a single word to say about my John Burns.
Who is he, I wonder.
More to the point, where is he?
As far as my memory of his books go – I have all four – I would HATE to think of John Burns as just another forgotten novelist. Hence, today, I am launching a one-man campaign to have the Max Chard novels reprinted, insisting that John Burns’ crime-writing career should be resuscitated for the good of Mankind, and that he be given the Nobel Prize for Readable Literature!
As the reader realises from page one, our hero, Max Chard, like his inventor, John Burns, is a red-top journalist. We don’t know if he works for The Sun or The Mirror (John Burns wrote for the Daily Express as a matter of fact), but either paper would love to have a creative lead article writer like Max Chard on board. If he can’t root out the facts, he makes them up. Comedy crime has never been the easiest ship to sail after Evelyn Waugh, but John Burns does it brilliantly. His prose is full of throwaway put-downs and on-the-ball one-liners. One of his characters, Dave Stretch, “had served more porridge than Quaker Oats.”
This is not so much a crime novel as a crime romp – a cynical scam retold by a cynical journalist, who slides down hills on the seat of his pants. Maureen Frew has turned Queen’s Evidence. She has a story to tell, and Max Chard will go to any lengths to get it. The story opens up at the Old Bailey: “First off I got frisked. Head to toe. That was just in case I had a Scud missile tucked down my socks.”
Line 1, Chapter 1 takes you straight into the irreverent world of Mister Chard.
The problem with romps is that they need to romp from beginning to end. If the pace slows down, you start losing readers. The ending, or EXCIPIT, is thus especially tough. If you’ve been romping and raving irreverently for over three hundred pages, then you’re going to have to top it all if you want to go out with a bang! Those are the rules of the game.
So, how does John Burns make out?
In excellent fashion, I would say. He creates characters who are believable, tells a story which is credible, uses prose in a cavalier fashion which not only moves the story along, but is also funny. The secret, I think, is that he really likes the lovable rogues in the gallery he has created. They come alive on the page. One character in particular, who plays the least memorable guy in the book, steps into the limelight in the final three pages...
Now, isn’t that saying something?
His characters come alive on the page.
I insist! Give this man the Nobel Prize, and please, please publish him again!
I’ve published a number of blogs entitled Only In Italy over the last three years.
My conviction is that – whatever the subject – it could only happen in Italy, and nowhere else.
Hey, hey! Why should some things only be possible in Italy, I can hear you asking.
Well, it’s a question of history and culture. Some things can only happen in certain countries for reasons of availability, opportunity, and ease of execution – tea and scones in England, hamburgers and root beer in the USA, corruption and handouts in Italy, for example.
These are stereotypes, you may well say, they are not to be trusted.
In my opinion, stereotypes have a lot going for them. They are predictions based on observed behaviour over a long period of time and they are reinforced by the experience of many people, which will, in most cases, turn out to be correct, either wholly or partially.
So, let’s work on the stereotype that Italy and Italians are corrupt...
While it is certainly NOT true that ALL Italians are corrupt – journalists and opinion-makers who condemn corruption are probably (probably...) NOT corrupt, for instance – the problem lies in the fact that you can really never be sure. And a lot of the people you need to be sure of – politicians and priests, for example – are continually reinforcing the bad stereotype that hangs dangerously over their heads...
We would all love our neighbours – whatever their role in life – to be honest, kind and trustworthy. We know that many of them are, but we always hope that the ‘lost sheep’ or ‘black sheep’ will stray back into the pen of righteousness. And when we hear the bad news that one of them is still out there, as mean and nasty, lost and black as ever, our first knee-jerking reaction to his/her latest offence against suffering humanity lies in that one word: Again?
That is, has he/she gone and done it again?
After living in Italy full-time for thirty-four years, I have to admit, I thought I had seen it all. I’ve seen and read about votes being bought and politicians changing their colours for large cheques. I have followed trials on tv where giants of public rectitude have been branded as whited sepulchres. I have followed scams and scandals which would make any normal person curl up and die of shame – the MOSE scheme to save Venice from the sea (ha!), the 2015 EXPO (Feed The People) scandal in Milan while half the planet really is starving (ha! ha!), the TAV high-speed trains from Rome to Paris that nobody will use (there are planes, you know – ha! ha! ha!) These were all top-class scams, rip-offs, with politicians and managers stealing from the public coffers. Indeed, it is so hard to remember even ONE public project in Italy where at least a dozen thieves were not arrested for corruption, that soon everyone believes that it is inevitable. Not only inevitable. (Shit! I want my cut!)
But yesterday... Again?
The latest scandal, the finest in a long series, was unveiled in Rome. The Italian newspapers are calling it the MAFIA CAPITAL SCANDAL. Rome, the most beautiful city in the world (I hereby decree!) is also the European city with the largest public debts, the poorest public services, and the most widespread abuse of public by-laws which should guarantee the safety of its streets, citizens and tourists (i.e., the public).
It seems that there’s an organised Roman Mafia, and that the members of this illegal organisation control everything that goes on in town. There’s even a Tolkeinian dimension to it all. These thieves speak of ‘Middle-earth,’ a place where the city fathers (the Hobbits?) meet the city gofers, and where everything wrong is made to look right – at a price.
The going price is 2.5% of everything that moves within the walls of Rome – beggars, rubbish, immigrant hostels, welfare, the drains, public transport, public health, people sweeping up leaves, social services, etc., etc.. If you want to manage some aspect of the public purse, you have to pay 2.5% of your spendings and earnings to the jolly bunch of Mafiosi middle-men who make the world turn in Middle-earth. It seems that this well-meaning bunch of gangsters – including an ex-mayor of Rome, his predecessor’s political manager, and the top dogs of all the utility services – have been creaming off €50 million a year for... for...
Well, it seems like forever!
No, let me correct that.
It IS forever...
INTERVIEW - PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
This has just appeared if anyone would like to know where CRY WOLF comes from
I closed my eyes and pulled a novel out of my bookcase last night.
I was pleased when I read the title; I’ve been a Kate Atkinson fan for some time.
I must have read six or seven of her books – is that the entire opus? – and I enjoyed them all, except for the last one, Life After Life, which didn’t hit the spot for me. (It was a sort of British Rashomon without the genius of Akira Kurosawa behind the camera directing operations). Still, a writer can’t be perfect all that time. And Kate Atkinson takes risks – big ones – so half the thrill of reading her novels lies in seeing whether she can carry it off successfully – in this case – after 349 pages.
Atkinson launches each novel by throwing any number of disparate strands into the cement mixer before flicking the switch and setting the mixer in motion. The blurb on my Doubleday paperback edition talks about “Dickensian brilliance, a tale peopled with unlikely heroes and villains,” but I see it differently. Each separate strand of the novel dangles on the brink of gross improbability, particularly where her central characters are concerned.
Started Early, Took My Dog is an excellent example.
Tracy Waterhouse is a retired cop – big, butch and distinctly unfeminine by her own assessment – until she steps off the cliff of dull and cynical respectability and does something which is as truly improbable as it is, well, nutty...
Tilly Squires, Miss Matilda Squires, is an ageing actress on the slippery slope to dementia, uncertain of the present, unsure of the past, troubled by a bleak future. ‘Confused’ is the word you would use to describe Tilly. ‘Nutty’ is another word that comes to mind...
Jackson Brodie, Kate Atkinson’s ‘detective’ is, well, he’s Jackson Brodie, isn’t he? He’s an ex-soldier, ex-cop, a sort of private investigator (specialising in the recovery of lost cats and dogs – hey, come off it, Kate!), though the reader is never quite sure what sort of PI Brodie is, or where his erratic investigations will lead him. Nutty again, right? Right.
Throw these three nutty characters into the arena in Leeds – was Leeds ever the scenario for a novel? – with a back-story involving the deprived child of a murdered prostitute, and a story that revolves around the fate of another deprived child, and there you have it. The questions is this: will the fabulous Kate be able to pull all these strands together and cross the finishing line to a burst of rapturous applause?
The final chapter says it all: we take a trip through Disneyworld Paris in the company of Tracy Waterhouse and the deprived child she has bought; we stroll through the ruins of Tintern Abbey with Jackson Brodie and the dog he has found; we are trapped inside a flat thirty years before with a child whose mother is dead; and we conclude with one of Emily Dickinson’s nuttiest poems:
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
There’s a lot more of the same, but you get the idea. The book is nutty, but it works wonderfully. (Rapturous applause!)
Hm, maybe I should read Life After Life again. I never did get to the last chapter...
Ps: One of my favourite words is funambulist. Hence the accompanying carte-de-visite of the supreme funambulist, Charles Blondin (born Jean François Gravelet, 1824) from my collection, which I dedicate to that exquisite literary tightrope-walker, Kate Atkinson.