I was reading an article today about Internet as Big Brother.
They use algorithms apparently to chart your tastes, then target you with appropriate offers.
To be honest, I had already noticed that I was being ‘tracked.’
We went to Bologna three weeks ago for the launch of an anthology entitled “Il Cuore Nero delle Donne” (The Dark Heart of Women, published by Guanda, Italy), which includes one of our short stories. Since then, we have been bombarded by online advertising for high speed trains to Bologna, hotels in the ‘heart’ of Bologna, heart pills, love potions, and novels along the lines of Fifty Shades of Idiocy...
But then I started thinking: What would Big Brother make of my Internet track record over the last month or so? That is, I began thinking about what they are going to bombard me with next. And what would our readers make of such a list, I asked myself?
We are working on the second novel in the Sebastiano Cangio series at the moment, you see. So, if you would like a preview of some of the topics which may turn up in it, here is a selective history of my online excursions. You may even like to guess what the new novel is going to be about.
So, here we go!
In the last month I have used Google, Yahoo and other search engines to find me information about the following topics:
Masons and murderers
Eleven reasons why Italians are your best friends
Dental differences between races
Can you tell a person’s race from his/her skull?
The human mandible
Tit for tat
Dr Scholl’s women’s work shoes
Italian breeds of sheep
The meaning of Tarot cards
The Maremma breed of dogs
Catanzaro – Google maps
The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain
Industries in Perugia, Italy
The Camera of Commerce – how it works
Tuber Melanosporum Vitt
The population of Crotone (Calabria)
The twelve most shocking cases of real life vampire killers
The Beasts of Satan (Italian serial killers)
The Tyrrhenian coast
In the next few weeks I expect to be overwhelmed by online invitations to join the Masons, visit hotels in various Italian locations, purchase at least one automatic weapon, study medicine in an online Asian university, and visit an Australian sheep farm. That is, unless the vampires get me first...
“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley.”
So wrote Robert Burns in his poem, To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough.
My best-laid schemes sometimes “gang aft agley,” as well. As do yours, no doubt. It can happen to the best and the worst of us, I suppose. Sometimes your schemes just fall apart...
As a rule, I try to produce a couple of blogs a week. Not that I expect anyone to read them (though people do, strangely enough), but because I enjoy sounding off about this, that, or anything else that happens to takes my fancy. I am a chronicler by nature, I suppose, so I like to put my thoughts onto paper, then file the paper (or the .doc) away for future reference.
Recently, I have been blogging about how crime books end. As Alfred Hitchcock once said, “A film must have a beginning, a middle and an end, though not necessarily in that order.” I love that definition. It reveals the essence of mystery, and the secret of storytelling, too. However, I am a bit more schematic regarding books. I blogged about how crime books begin for a while, and now I’m doing the same thing with the way that the crime and mystery novels in my personal library end, but then, as the poet, Rabbie Burns, foresaw, my best-laid schemes got sidetracked.
For a lot of reasons.
I have been ill, been busy, been distracted. There’s been too much football on the tv, too, and I do love my football, so what am I to do?
I want to blog, but I’ve been busy writing all morning. We are working on the follow-up to CRY WOLF, which was published on 31st December in the UK, and is scheduled for release in the USA on 1st April, All Fools’ Day.
I want to blog, but I’ve been ordered to take long rehabilitating walks after lunch by my family doctor after various life-threatening disruptions to my sedentary life of writing (novels), smoking cigarettes (Pall Mall) and drinking (wine, whiskey and beer, but never mixed).
Now, I have fifteen minutes before I need to start preparing dinner, and I HAVE to blog, but I haven’t had time to pick a crime novel at random from my bookshelves, read the opening and closing chapters, and decide what I want to say about it.
So, what’s to be done?
Like Rabbie Burns, who ploughed his way through a field mouse’s nest, I’d like to write a poem about the fix I’m in, but I can’t. Poetry is not my thing. Which is not to say that I don’t like poetry. My favourite poet is Thomas Hardy, who swings from the ridiculous to the sublime, but is always his own man. So, here’s a ‘Hardy’ thought for you.
Is it the beginning, the middle, or the end of a story?
And where, in any case, do stories begin, middle, and end?
Out of the past there rises a week –
Who shall read the years O! –
Out of the past there rises a week
Enringed with a purple zone.
Out of the past there rises a week
When thoughts were strung too thick to speak,
And the magic of lineaments remains with me alone.
Ps: The mysterious painting of crows and footprints in the snow is by Joseph Farquharson, and it’s in the Manchester City Art Gallery.
Have you ever finished a book and thought: hey, they should make a film of this!
When you see some of the rubbish tv and cinema churn out, however, you begin to wonder whether anyone in the film industry can actually read.
Okay, that’s my daily rant out of the way.
On a more serious note, one novel I always thought would be a ‘natch’ for a film was Tobias Hill’s The Love of Stones (Faber & Faber, 2001). It is a fascinating historical thriller with a mysterious jewel and a (potentially fascinating) heroine at the core of the story. Following on in the line of ambitious ‘intellectual’ thrillers that began when Umberto Eco first published The Name of the Rose in Italian in 1980, the ‘stone’ at the heart of the novel is a fabulous assembly of gems known as The Three Bretheren – a great film title, if ever there was one – and the search for the elusive bauble which launches gem-lover, Katherine Sterne, on a hunt which takes her to strange lands, and lands her in the strangest of company company.
You see the way it all fits into a familiar filmic pattern – a beautiful young woman, a passionate quest, danger, and the possibility of a thrilling conclusion?
The history bit – the story of how the jewel was made in the early fifteenth century, and how it was passed down from ever-less royal hands into the mean streets and the nasty by-ways of international smuggling and gem-trading – could easily have been accommodated within the film in a series of flash-backs which would have added colour, mystery and intrigue, while the contemporary chase for the jewel in the dark-and-dangerous world of crooks, auction houses and big money would have brought the house down.
In the right hands, The Love of Stones, might have brought in Oscars (Academy Awards as they were then known) for best picture, best actress, best costumes, best screenplay, and more besides.
Instead, they didn’t make the film.
“Why not?” you may ask.
In my personal opinion, it all comes down to the Excipit, which is just too slow, too drawn out. Rather than waking you up, it lulls you gently to sleep. Oddly enough, rewriting and remodelling the finale – with dramatic flashbacks to recall the Three Bretheren as it once was – might have been Hollywood’s big chance to make a significant contribution to a project that was very close to cinematographic perfection on paper.
STREAMING WITHOUT CONSCIOUSNESS
As an undergraduate (B.A. Hon. Eng Lang & Lit), I read lots of ‘stream of consciousness’ novels – Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Proust et al. At the time I thought I was pretty swish, but later I came to detest those writers. Who wants to be locked inside somebody else’s muddled mind full time? I have a hard time living with my own endless and inconclusive ‘interior monologues.’
On my way to bed last night, I picked a book blindly from my book shelf – The Football Factory by John King (Jonathon Cape, 1998). I remember buying and reading the trilogy – The Footie Factory, Headhunters and England Away – as they came out in rapid succession in the last decade of the last century. I don’t recall how I hit on them, but I was an instant fan and I recommended them to all my friends.
The funny thing was this...
Last night I realised that The Football Factory is a pure ‘stream of consciousness’ novel. I’d been too busy reading and enjoying King’s novels to realise that here was a (dull and hackneyed) literary device being used to perfection.
We are in the mind of the narrator, and he’s no aesthete like Woolf, Joyce or Proust. Indeed, we are inside the mind of a brand new form of literary human being, the sort that always ‘got stuck in,’ but never pushed his Doc Martens deep into the guts of English Literature. Our hero is a Chelsea fan, a lager lout, a street-fighting man, a racially prejudiced ‘git,’ the sort of person that I, for one, would not like to be, i.e., a soccer hooligan. Also, in my opinion, he supports the wrong team and slags the teams from my home town, Liverpool. Maybe the verbal aggro went to my head? Maybe even now I’m getting too steamed up again?
On reflection, a decade and a half later, I have to say that The Football Factory lives up to the blurb by Irvine Welsh: “The best book I’ve ever read about football and working-class culture in Britain in the nineties. Buy, steal or borrow a copy now.”
The nineties were a time when Great Britain was trying to put an end to football hooliganism after a series of disasters that had rocked public opinion at the end of the eighties: the Bradford stadium fire which killed 56 spectators; the Heysel disaster which led to an international ban on English clubs when another 39 died; the Hillsborough (Sheffield) disaster when 96 people lost their lives.
Tom and his rowdy mates are the (anti-)heroes of The Football Factory, which was a valiant attempt to get inside the (intelligent, but twisted) mind of the dedicated thug. They are boozers, sexists, racists, always looking for a rumble despite the increased number of police on patrol, the video cameras, and the changing mentality that the disasters had provoked. They have just changed their tactics.
And yet, things haven’t changed so much...
I was watching the news on Sky last night, and saw a remarkable video clip: a train pulled into a London underground station, and a young black man stepped aboard. A moment later, he came flying out of the door, followed by kicks and punches. A crowd of thugs wouldn’t let him on the train, didn’t want a black man in their carriage. They were Chelsea fans, the announcer reported. Just like the characters in The Football Factory, which was published twenty years ago.
“You have to fuck them before they fuck you,” wrote John King.
That’s the guiding principle of the novel.
By the way, the Excipit, Derby at Home, is exactly like the Incipit, Coventry at Home: plenty of booze, a mindless act of violence, then “It’s time to be moving, We don’t want to get boxed in by the Old Bill.”
Standalones – novels that don’t form part of a series – have a lot going for them.
Especially for the writer. They provide the opportunity to step into new creative territory and try things that the constraints of a sequence of novels built around a central character (and what often turns out to be a formulaic plot) do not allow.
After publishing four novels set in nineteenth century Prussia featuring our young and often inept magistrate, Hanno Stiffeniis, we decided that it was time to do something ‘completely different’ (to quote those lovely Monty Python chaps). The result was “Cry Wolf,” a standalone Mafia thriller set in Umbria where we have lived for almost thirty years. We were very lucky, I think. In our case, the experiment has paid off. We managed to create a new and intriguing central character and a conflict area which we look forward to exploring in at least another ten novels. Well, two or three at least. As a result, our first ‘standalone’ will soon be standing proudly alongside its fellows...
It doesn’t always work out that way, however.
Some standalones don’t have a natural sequel. They reach a certain point, and there they stop.
One of the novels I mentioned in the last blog turned out to be one of those. And, oddly enough, it is in the excipit (the final chapter) that all the weaknesses come to a head.
I began David Downing’s “The Red Eagles” (Old Street Publishing, 2014) with enthusiasm as the opening chapters ripped along. First we’re in Russia, then in Germany, then we swoosh across the Atlantic Ocean and we’re in the United States as the end of the Second World War approaches. A ripping yarn, right? (I won’t give away the plot, of course).
That’s where a lot of standalones come from. You have a great idea, so you have to go to work on it. This is fine, so long as you remember that it is an experiment – a kind of vacation – and that you don’t get too carried away. A novel and the dedicated reader – me in this case – can only take so much of a good thing. Moby Dick is a fabulous standalone, one of my favourite novels, because it tells you a whopping great tale, and examines every fin and bone of the subject of whales and whaling which lies at the core of the story. Every page adds something which will, sooner or later, explain or enhance the intensity of the final battle between the great white whale and the big black heart of the hunter, Captain Ahab.
“The Red Eagles” didn’t manage it for me, I’m afraid.
In the first place, there were just too many foreign names.
Does that seem odd coming from someone who has written a book set in Italy, in which all the names are foreign? The naming of our Italian characters and the description of their roles was one of the biggest problems in “Cry Wolf.” We wanted readers to know they were in a foreign country, but didn’t want to perplex them with strange sounding names which would send them scurrying to the cast-list again and again. In any case, we provided a list of characters at the start of the book, noting who they are and what they do.
While it’s historically well-researched, “The Red Eagles” calls up too many foreign (and often unpronounceable) Russian and German names, both real and imagined, and there is no cast-list to refer to. The result is some confusion and a loss of focus from which the story suffers.
Secondly, the characters are spies on a mission in which many innocent people die. Spies, by their nature, are rarely sympathetic, and it is difficult to find even one in this novel who wins the heart of the reader. As the novel builds to a breakneck conclusion and the body-count climbs high, David Downing lights on a device which is both improbable and hackneyed. The only survivors are both ‘traitors’ and they have both previously abandoned each other. And in the final line, one of them commits murder yet again. Can such a character be resurrected in a series?
This standalone will be standing alone for a long time, I think...
As for me, the reader, I look forward to a return to Downing’s familiar and sympathetic hero, the journalist, John Russell, and those intriguing spy-filled railways stations in wartime Berlin, which are some of the finest novels in the genre ever to have been published.