We live in Spoleto, a small town in central Italy.
The old town centre with its Roman remains is almost empty now. My neighbours – there are fewer of them every year – tend to be in their 70s, 80s or even 90s. Their children have moved away, sold up and bought new houses out in the suburbs, modern houses with big gardens, garages and sometimes a swimming pool.
We have none of those things.
What we like is peace and quiet…
Maybe that was why the title of this particular crime novel caught my eye. Or maybe it was because we were in London, where every pub, shop and restaurant had started churning out piped music that wore you down and made you glad to get on the plane that would take you back to the peace and quiet of your own home…
Whatever the reason, the book I pulled out of my bookshelf last night was “Noise Abasement” by Carol Anne Davis (The Do Not Press, 2000).
Funnily enough, the year 2000 was when noise in public places really started to become a problem. Apart from the 'normal' racket of the city, the roar of traffic, the clatter of the Underground, we were being exposed for the first time to other people’s telephone conversations and the clash of bass and cymbals dripping out of everyone’s blasted Walkman earphones. And Carol Anne Davis obviously felt it as much – or worse – than we did.
The incipit takes you straight to the heart of the matter:
“How vulnerable Walkman wearers are to advancing enemies Stephen thought as he walked twenty feet behind Lewis and his personal stereo. If he stepped closer he’d hear the headset’s tinny sound. But he’d already heard enough of the man’s music – ten pitiless weeks of it. Ten weeks of anticipating the next rest-deprived day or dream-denied night.”
And there you have the year 2000 in a nutshell. Some inconsiderate bastard whose only intention in the world, apart from amusing himself, was to annoy you. Lewis gets on Stephen’s nerves from page one, and you wonder how he is going to deal with it.
Well, that’s what the novel’s about, and I don’t intend to give away a thing.
What I want to say is this: it seems a very flimsy idea for a full-length novel, doesn't it? I mean to say, how long can you go on about a character’s distaste for the noise created by his neighbours in a world which has become more and more polluted by the noise that we make? Well, the hook on the cover is by Ian Rankin: “You’ve got to read her,” he says, which is quite a recommendation.
It was well after midnight and I had reached page 99 before I decided it was time to close the book and get some sleep.
In a word, it had hooked me good and proper!
Last night on my way to bed, I dipped into my crime bookcase… and came up with a book that shouldn’t have been on the crime shelves.
What the hell! I thought, I’ll check it out anyway.
Christopher Isherwood published “Goodbye to Berlin” in 1939. It recounts life in Germany as the country hastened into war, a period which is almost universally held to be the most criminal in the history of mankind. As the blurb relates Berlin was “decadent beyond belief… welcoming death in through the door, though more with a wink than a whimper.”
A group of related short stories, the collection opens with “A Berlin Diary" (Autumn 1930).
So, what does the incipit lead us to expect?
“From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied façades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scrollwork and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: streets leading into streets of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a corrupt middle class.”
There’s not much to get worked about, is there? Nothing that we haven’t seen in far more dramatic incipits by Expressionist filmmakers such as Fritz Lang in films like “M” (1931), or the paintings and drawings of satirical artists such as Georg Grosz in the Weimar period (1918-1938).
Indeed, I would have started the story with the second paragraph:
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”
Now, isn’t that more intriguing?
But even this is a false analogy. A photographic camera with its shutter open would produce a blank film, while a cinematic camera is never passive. It focuses on something, and gives that something a value, or not, as the case may be. And Dziga Vertov, a Russian filmmaker, had already used this notion – the I as a camera – in his “Man With a Movie Camera” (1929), a film which purports to be ‘passive’ – i.e. the film-camera records what falls into the film-maker’s path – though the truth is, of course, that Dziga Vertov’s intentions were rhetorical and manipulative in the extreme, as he set out to combat the ‘decadence’ of Western films which were threatening the ‘purity’ of Russian cinema.
So, where does that leave Christopher Isherwood?
In this particular instance – “Goodbye to Berlin” – it doesn’t take him – or us – very far. The Berlin he portrays seems dated and stereotyped even for the pre-war period when the book was written. There is, of course, nothing ‘passive’ about the subjects or the incidents that Isherwood selects as the stuff of his story: the (autobiographical) hero meets a landlady Frl. Schroeder who is exactly the sort of chatty Berlin landlady one would expect to meet; her lodger-guests are the figures Grosz and Lang portrayed without a ‘wink’ – homely prostitutes and accommodating out-of-work actresses. In a word, there is nothing here that we have not seen portrayed before and with far greater efficacy and cynical humour.
I fell asleep quickly… and that is NOT a good sign.
If you really want to know about life in Weimar Germany, I would recommend “Monsters of Weimar” (Nemesis, 1993) which contains the case histories of the real-life murderers, Fritz Haarmann and Peter Kürten, known respectively as The Werewolf of Hannover and The Vampire of Düsseldorf.
Most crime novels kick off with a bang.
They want to set a dominant tone and lay down the principal lines along which the story will play out. As a rule, the scene is a murder, a kidnapping or crime, some central theme which will involve the key players as protagonists or antagonists, and which needs to be established right from the start.
Most crime novels, but not all of them…
Last night I closed my eyes, dipped into my crime bookshelf and came up with a novel from 1999 that is not very well-known: “Stir of Echoes” by Richard Matheson (1926-2013), creator of books such as “I Am Legend” which was filmed in 1971 by Boris Segal and starred Charlton Heston.
Like many other Matheson stories, “Stir of Echoes” was turned into a successful film by Kevin Bacon in 1999. Indeed, when the history of twentieth century literature is written, Matheson will probably be remembered for the films, rather than the books which inspired them. So, let’s open “Stir of Echoes” and see why Kevin Bacon decided to make a film of it.
Here is the all-important incipit, which lays out the chessboard on which the game of the novel will unfold:
“The day it all started – a hot August Saturday – I’d gotten off work a little after twelve. My name is Tom Wallace; I work in Publications at the North American Aircraft plant in Inglewood, California. We were living in Hawthorne, renting a two-bedroom tract house owned by one of our next-door neighbours, Mildred Sentas. Another neighbour, Frank Wanamaker, and I usually drove to and from the plant together, alternating cars. But Frank didn’t like Saturday work and had managed to beg off that particular day. So I drove home alone.
As I turned onto Tulley Street, I saw the ’51 Mercury coupe parked in front of our house and knew that Anne’s brother, Philip, was visiting. He was a psychology major at the University of California in Berkeley and he sometimes drove down to LA for weekends. This was the first time he’d been to our new place; we’d only moved in two months before.
I nosed the Ford into the driveway and braked it in front of the garage. Across the street, Frank Wanamaker’s wife, Elizabeth, was sitting on their lawn pulling up weeds. She smiled faintly at me and raised one white-gloved hand. I waved to her as I got out of the car and started for the porch. As I went up its two steps I saw Elizabeth struggle to her feet and adjust her maternity smock. The baby was due in about three months. It was the Wanamaker’s first in seven years of marriage.”
The scene is utterly banal, even flat. Richard Matheson describes the working life of an unexceptional man, the network of his relationships at home, at work, and in the suburban neighbourhood where he lives. “So what?” you might well ask. Except for the first line – “The day it all started…” and the last – “the Wanamaker’s first [child] in seven years of marriage” – there is nothing to perplex or intrigue the reader.
The effect, indeed, is almost sufficient to bore you out of your skull. If this were not Richard Matheson, the first four or five pages would probably induce you to put the book away and look for something a bit more lively. But this is Richard Matheson, the writer who influenced Stephen King the most – by King’s own admission.
So, what is in store for the reader?
What is going to happen which will shatter this fragile glass bowl of suburban domesticity?
Well, I can’t answer that question yet. I got some hints of it before I had finished reading the first chapter, but this is NOT a spoiler. The only thing I promise to do is post the word YES on Twitter and Facebook, together with the pic of the book cover, when the big shock strikes home. Because I KNOW that the shock is coming. Matheson has told me so by carefully telling me nothing, except for a sequence of apparently inconsequential details about people, places and things that just have to have a connection of great consequence…
Ps: What’s with the seductively purposeful neutral cover, the neutral hallway, the door slightly ajar, a bright light cutting a triangle on the floor?
Isn’t it amazing how quickly one forgets?
I read a book 15 years ago. I know I must have loved it. I’m sure I must have laughed out loud. I know for certain that I went out and bought every other book that the author had written. I have nine or ten more of his novels sitting on my bookshelf…
Fifteen years ago? 1998? Okay, almost sixteen years ago.
The trouble is, I DON’T REMEMBER A THING!
Last night, I ventured into my studio, closed my eyes, turned to the bookshelf and pulled out “Her Last Call To Louis MacNeice” by Ken Bruen (Serpent’s Tail)…
This act of diving at random into your book collection and seeing what serendipity hands you is turning out to be a marvellous experience. Better than Christmas in many ways. As I have said before, the incipit - the first line, paragraph or chapter - is all-important. Either it grabs you, or it doesn’t. So, how’s this for an opening line?
The blast took her face off.
In a sense, I’m limiting things here. Can you read one line of a book, and decide that it is worth reading? In my case – and in this case – the answer is definitely yes. Indeed, there is a wonderful circularity to the way the entire incipit of one page works. Read on, my friends, read on! You start with a blast, and end with a blast.
The blast took her face off.
Two seconds of pressure on the trigger and a full shotgun load went roaring out.
We’d been doing good. In with a maximum of ferocity. Get ’em terrorised, shouting ‘Get the fuck down – NOW.’
Push, push, push.
Let ’em see the guns, hear the manic screaming of very dangerous men.
Doc had planted devices at the
The Masonic Lodge
They’d gone off like lubrication. You had the noise, smoke, confusion and then we’re in – ‘MENACE’ writ brutal large.
Oh yeah, fuckin’ A.
Bingo, the motherload.* More cash than Camelot, two bin-liners overflowing with readies.
Everything hunky-dory… and then…
Then I shot the cashier in the face.
I guess it began with Cassie.
One hundred and twenty-one words, though it seems a great deal more.
I don’t know about you, but I’m already on page 7, loving the language which cracks and sizzles, as the narrator chats up Cassie:
I stood up, explained. “It’s not a difficult question… but lemme break it down. A: Are you hungry. B: If so, lemme treat you. A new joint has opened down the road… What do you say?”
“Her Last Call To Louis MacNeice” is only 124 pages long, unfortunately.
With a bit of luck I should be able to start another one by Ken Bruen before I turn in for the night.
* (sic, but who cares!)
In 1980, after 3 years studying Eng Lit and 10 years teaching it, I was sick of Eng Lit.
My older literary heroes like Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell and Kingsley Amis were giving way to new names like Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and… well, Amis fils. I read them all, of course. Martin Amis’ “Money” and “London Fields,” McEwans’ “Cement Garden” and “Comfort of Strangers,” Barnes’ “Metroland” and “Flaubert’s Parrot.”
I didn’t really like them very much. I preferred more measured books like Graham Swift’s “Waterland”. Amis was too full of himself, I thought. Ian McEwan was original, but once you’d read two, you’d have read them all (the second half of “Possession” proved me wrong, of course), while Julian Barnes was… well, he just wasn’t my thing. I couldn’t stand him. I found him phoney, so full of words, so… so English Literature with Capital Letters.
It was revulsion at first reading.
Fortunately, I wasn’t stuck with literature. I was reading crime novels, too, and one of my big discoveries in the mid-80s was a little-known UK crime writer who really pushed all the right buttons. He was funny, nasty, and had a great way with words. His name was Dan Kavanagh, and he had a hero named Duffy who wasn’t sure quite sure whether he was homosexual, heterosexual, or something else.
The other great thing about Dan Kavanagh – apart from the fact that he had been “a steer-wrestler, a waiter-on-roller-skates at a drive-in in Tucson and a bouncer in a gay bar in San Francisco” – was that he wrote a mean Incipit. Not blockbusters, but subtle, razor-sharp scene openers. This one is from Fiddle City, the second of the four novels he published before his mysterious demise in the mid-80s…
“The day they crashed McKay, not much else happened on the M4. At least, not on the stretch between Heathrow and Chiswick; further west was someone else’s patch, so who cared? Especially as it was one of those warm, hazy August mornings when the police cars bask like lizards on their special roadside ramps; when those few extra feet above the tarmac permit a careless, unobserved, cap-tilted snooze. And then, perhaps, towards 11.30, the quiet phut and crackle of the FM radio would be eased a bit lower, and finally drowned out by the tiny portable in the blue pocket, tuned to the ball-by-ball.”
God knows and sees all things.
He sees that McKay has been forced to crash by criminals.
He sees that nothing else is happening between Chiswick and Heathrow (airport).
He notices the coppers snoozing in their cars beside the motorway.
He knows that the cricket starts from Lords at half-past eleven…
Apart from “crashing Mckay,” i.e., driving him off the road, it is all so fwightfully Bwitish.
That was what I loved about it! It was a perfect social satire on a world where the only thing that really counted was cricket.
I read a few chapters last night and loved it all over again. This one – along with “Duffy,” “Putting the Boot In” and “Going To The Dogs” – will all have a guaranteed place on my bookshelf ‘til the end of time.
Oh yeah, I nearly forget to say. Dan Kavanagh’s demise?
Dan became Julian Barnes and he started writing ‘literature’… OMG!