Got back from London late last night. Exhausted…
I didn’t bother to switch on the light. I just walked into my study, grabbed a book from the crime shelf and went straight to bed…
So, what have we here?
“Outlaws” by Kevin Sampson (Jonathan Cape Original, 2001).
Well, I was still thinking about London and what I had found there. Whenever we visit London, I go daguerreotype hunting. Daguerreotype hunting?
What’s a daguerreotype, you may well ask.
A daguerreotype is a positive photograph on a silver plate in a book-like leather case. There is no negative, so each daguerreotype is unique. Well, I had found a couple of crackers, and I suddenly realised the similarity between daguerreotypes and novels. You open the daguerreotype case, or the book, and you are plunged directly into a new world. I have posted a picture of one of the daguerreotypes that I found: Who was this Victorian man? How did he live? What did he do to maintain himself? Was he a baronet, a gambler, a womaniser? Was he an outlaw, perhaps?
In a word, each daguerreotype is a bit of a mystery…
Which brings me back to crime books and Kevin Sampson.
Chapter One opens with a monologue by Fat Francis. Chapter Two is entitled Ged. Moby (Dick) heads Chapter Three, while Ratter gets Chapter 4…
It was like finding a bunch of daguerreotype portraits with full and complete descriptions of what was going through each (criminal) character’s mind. The fact that “Outlaws” was set in Liverpool, my home town, during the International Garden Festival of 1984 (I remember going there), and that I related to the language and knew a lot of other locations – pubs for the most part! – from personal experience probably helped to ease me into the crude world of Liverpool louts picking on the three million Garden Festival visitors. Was that what I might have become – a lout – if I hadn’t been born under a brighter star?
To keep things short – I am still whacked after four crazy days of trolling through antique markets and street fairs – let’s say that I intend to read on, and that the strength of the novel all boils down to incredibly strong characterisation.
As many writers will tell you, ‘character’ is what any decent novel is all about.
Ps: If you would like to know how and why I became a keen collector and amateur historian of daguerreotypes, this interview appeared last week: http://www.smp-photoconservation.com/2014/04/15/an-interview-with-michael-g-jacob-2/
Thirteen is an unlucky number, they say.
Well, some say.
In Italy seventeen is the unlucky one. In Roman times, the Latin word VIXI (vissuto or lived) was often carved on tombs. Shift the numerals around and you get XVII, or seventeen. So I read on the Italian version of Wikipedia, though I am not convinced by the explanation. I have a feeling that lots of girls got pregnant early on in life, and that seventeen was a very dangerous age for juvenile fathers, too…
However, here was are at INCIPIT 13.
Well, there you are, because we are in London, reading books, buying books, going to antique fairs and generally having a good time. When we get back, I will immediately post a brand new INCIPIT 13, thereby proving that thirteen is NOT an unlucky number, but one that you can look forward to.
While we are away, you may care to take the opportunity to check out the previous INCIPIT blogs from numbers 1 to 12…
Oh God, no!
Add those digits together and what do you get?
Four, or thirteen.
Add those two up and what comes out?
This blog is cursed!
A lot has been written about opening lines.
Everyone knows, or has heard the most memorable ones.
You know, things like “Mother died yesterday. Or maybe the day before” or “Call me Ishmael.” I often wonder whether the writers kicked off with that one idea in mind and just kept on writing to the end. In the examples I have quoted by Camus and Melville, the novel followed on brilliantly, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Then again, it must be said that both titles are killers, too: The Stranger and Moby Dick.
Indeed, the title should set you up for the first line…
That turned out to be a problem the other night.
I headed for my crime bookshelf, closed my eyes and pulled out… “The Big Knockover” by Dashiell Hammett. Well, I am a great fan of DH – “Red Harvest” is one of my all-time favourite crime novels, with one of the very greatest opening lines – but “The Big Knockover” does not strike me as being a great title. And the subtitle in smaller letters made me groan: “And Other Stories.”
Stories are a problem when you read in bed. They are either too long, or too short. In either case, they make me nervous. Either I finish the story before I start to feel sleepy, or I start to feel sleepy before I have finished the story. The same thing does not happen with a novel. As Morpheus comes sweeping down on the wings of Night, you simply check how many pages will get you to the end of the chapter…
Talking of Morpheus, I want to take this opportunity to thank Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) for having written the masque entitled Alceste in 1750. One of the finest operas Handel ever wrote, Alceste never even made it onto the stage. And it contains one of his finest arias, too, my all-time favourite, Gentle Morpheus, son of night/hither speed thy airy flight/and his weary senses steep/in the balmy dew of sleep, sings Calliope as she induces Admetus to lay down and sleep… (sung by Emma Kirkby, L’Oiseau Lyre, 1994, wow!) Imagine, a song about sleep that keeps you wide awake with pleasure!
Digression ended, let’s get back to Dashiell Hammett.
The collection of short stories is prefaced by a long essay by Lillian Hellmann. Well, the last thing I want to read in bed is an introductory memoir. Still, Lillian has a great opening line, I have to say:
For years we made jokes about the day I would write about him.
Hellman outlived her lover, and the joke came true.
And the incipit to one of Hammett’s short stories also hits the spot:
It was a wandering daughter job.
And there you have it, the story summed up in a single line!
It has a great title, too: Fly Paper.
Ps: Why did I keep this book? The answer is simple. You cannot give away or throw away a Dashiell Hammett!
It was a windy night.
Rain was bucketing down as I picked a book at random from my bookshelf...
Oops! I've just broken Elmore Leonard’s first rule of writing:
Never open a book with the weather, Elmore advised.
But how can I avoid it? I wanted to mention picking a book at random, going to bed and reading it with rain lashing the roof and a gale howling eight feet above my head…
Okay, so let’s start again.
“There were two hours left of 1938. It had been snowing on and off all day, and a gang of children were enjoying a snowball fight in front of the grain warehouses which lined the old waterfront. John Russell paused to watch them for a few moments, then walked on up the cobbled street towards the blue and yellow light.”
Elmore may be right on principle, but sometimes the weather has a part to play. The important thing is that it doesn’t obscure or overwhelm the important details. And if it enhances them, so much the better.
So, there I was in bed, the rain hammering on the roof. I opened the book I had chosen at random, and I was immediately drawn into the melancholy atmosphere of the story. It’s 1938, New Year’s Eve, a man is in a foreign port alone, and it’s snowing. He isn’t looking out for red lights. No, he’s looking for a blue and yellow light. A beer sign, or something else?
I like the incipit. It leads me gently into the world of John Russell, an English journalist in a strange town, who is facing a life crisis which will rapidly escalate as the Germans…
As author David Downing begins to unfold “Zoo Station,” the first in his immensely successful series of historical mysteries which take their titles from the names of the railway stations in Berlin, the weather crops up quite a lot in Chapter One.
Sorry, Elmore, but that’s the way it is!
Elmore didn’t like exclamation marks, either, but I felt I had to use one…
There’s one in Downing’s opening chapter, too: “You are English!” the Swede exclaimed (on page two, and we know that we are in a Baltic town – Holtzmarkt and Langermarkt – and we know that we are in Danzig, and that things are going to happen there very soon…
No spoilers, obviously, so let’s stick with the weather.
It’s getting on for midnight (in my bed, and in Danzig, too), and John Russell emerges from the bar. “Outside, the sky was beginning to clear, the air almost cold enough to sober him up. An organ was playing in the Protestant Seamen’s Church, nothing hymnal, just a slow lament, as if the organist was saying a personal farewell to the year gone by.”
Then, midnight chimes and a Polish girl “reached up and brushed her lips against his, eyes shining with happiness. It was, he thought, a better than expected opening to 1939.”
I can’t wait to go to bed again, and I hope the weather’s bloody awful!
Crime Bookshelf Top Ten
Anyone who has been following this blog – there have been a lot of people, thanks! – will know what I have been doing. Every few days, I close my eyes, reach into my crime bookshelf, and pull out a book at random. Then I read the incipit – the opening line, first paragraph, or first chapter – and see what attracted me to it, and why I decided to keep it. I don’t keep all the books I buy, only the ones that I think I may be tempted to read again, so I do a clearance now and again.
With ten blogs under my belt – the first was posted on 8th February, 2014 – here is a listing of what I picked, and a note about what I finished, what I liked, and what I didn’t like.
1. The Crooked Man – Philip Davison. Finished, and enjoyed. Rank: 4
2. Hell to Pay – George P. Pelecanos. Abandoned, bored. Rank: 9
3. Fiddle City – Dan Kavanagh. Finished, loved it again. Rank: 3
4. Her Last Call To Louis MacNeice – Ken Bruen. Finished, great book. Rank: 2
5. Stir of Echoes – Richard Matheson. A total wash-out. Rank: 10
6. Goodbye to Berlin – Christopher Isherwood. Dated, dull. Rank: 8
7. Noise Abatement – Carol Anne Davies. Very good, but won’t read again. Rank: 6
8. Black Box – Michael Connelly. Not his best. Finished. Rank: 7
9. The Last Sherlock Holmes Story – Michael Dibdin. A first-class pastiche. Rank: 1
10. Heart Sick – Chelsea Cain. Great commercial read. Rank: 5
I will definitely read again Dibdin’s “Sherlock Holmes Story,” everything by Kavanagh and most things by Bruen.
If anyone would like the books ranked 6 to 10 (which will not be going back into my bookshelf), please send your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Only one book per person, so choose wisely!
INCIPIT 11 will appear sometime this week, and many thanks for your support.