And now for something really different...
I was a bit flummoxed when I picked this book from my crime shelf on the way to bed the other night, especially as I read the short opening chapters.
Apart from the title “Being Dead,” Jim Crace (Penguin, 2000), I had to ask myself what it was doing in among the blood and the pulp. It certainly didn’t fit into the ‘crime’ genre bracket, yet I had clearly read the book and enjoyed it, as I had made a point of keeping it. As regular readers know, any crime book that doesn’t live up to my present expectations is going to be passed on. I can’t keep everything I read, and I need the space.
What struck me immediately about “Being Dead” was the ‘literary’ tone of the novel, the elaborate prose, the emotional detachment from the bloody crime with which the story begins. Now, literary writing is something that I dislike, the older I get. Even so, I found myself reading on into the night, enjoying the book more and more as I did so.
As a rule, crime novels begin with a crime.
In this case, the killing of a husband and wife. The crime itself is usually the crucial physical and psychological pivot around which the drama unfolds, as the author and reader move progressively towards the solution of the crime, and the cause of it (if such a thing exists). “Being Dead” begins with a murder, yet the violence of the killing (and it is brutal) and the unravelling of its genesis (the stuff of which so many police procedurals are made) appear to be of little interest to the author. Jim Crace is drawn instead towards the physical consequences of death, the mechanics of physical decay, and the analysis of the back stories of the characters who have died. It is a roundabout way of getting to the cause (or multiple causes and twists of destiny) which lead to death, but it works, engrossing the reader as the book progresses. In the end, we never do find out who the killer is – this is not a spoiler – but that is not what the novel is about in any case, and Jim Crace manages surprisingly well to enthrall us with the odd and idiosyncratic details of the humdrum lives of the two unlikely victims.
And so we come to the Excipit, the closing chapter, which is – may I say it? – a decidedly poetic valediction of the inevitability, and, indeed, the paltriness of physical death and human decay.
As I put it back on my shelf for re-reading in five, or ten, or fifteen years, I had a very strange feeling, and I have to thank Jim Crace for that.
Will I ever read this book again? Will I live so long? And, in end, does it really matter to anyone but me and maybe Jim?
Now that is an excipit!
Highly recommended *****
Ps: I apologise for having been so irregular with these postings recently. While you may have thought, okay, they’re off on holiday, the truth is that we’ve been working likes blazes to meet the deadline for our new novel, tentatively entitled “Marzio Dies,” which will be published this winter by Severn House.
Have you ever written a novel?
That may be a silly question, I know, because so many people have written one. So, let’s refine the question. Have you ever published a novel? And even better, has your novel been sold abroad in a foreign translation?
That’s when the fun really starts.
Then, cultures clash and you are slap-bang in the firing-line.
We were very lucky. The first novel in our Hanno Stiffeniis series, Critique of Criminal Reason, was published in the UK by Faber & Faber and St Martins Press in the USA, before being published in over twenty foreign countries, including Italy, Germany, France, Greece, Portugal, Brazil, Spain, Poland, Chinese (simple and complex), Japan, Russia, and many smaller countries, too.
Since 2006, the year that we became published authors, we’ve received many letters from all over the world from enthusiastic readers who want to know more about Hanno Stiffeniis and the Prussia in which he lived...
Lived? Here we must pause for a moment.
Hanno Stiffeniis is a literary invention. He is not a real magistrate. Indeed, we have no idea how magistrates worked in early nineteenth-century Prussia, despite all of our painstaking historical research. When Prussia was invaded by France in 1806 we have a better idea of how the law was administered, because the occupying French enforced the Napoleonic codes. Otherwise, everything ‘legal’ in our novels is pure invention.
Prussia, too, is an invention.
The country hasn’t existed since 1918, almost a century ago, when the remains of Prussia were dismantled and reassigned to Poland, Russia and Germany after the end of the First World War. At one book festival, an American lady stood up and asked us why we were so interested in Russia. Russia? She had never heard of Prussia!
Of course, the fact that a country doesn’t exist is music to a writer’s ears.
You can write what you like...
Or can you?
When Days of Atonement, the second in the series appeared, a librarian from a small town in Germany (not Bonn, though Le Carrè fans’ ears will have pricked up) wrote to complain that there had never been a Jewish pogrom in the town where he lived! As we always try to locate our stories within a real historical context, one in which facts run in parallel with fantasy, I wrote back saying that we would never have mentioned it if it hadn’t really happened, at the same time promising to find the reference. Well, weeks went by and I could not trace the source of our claim. In the end, I had to write and apologise. And of course there’s no redress for that particular reader: the book still says that it happened...
This morning brought a very nice email, asking us about the third novel in the Hanno Stiffeniis series, A Visible Darkness. The reader wanted to know whether Lotingen and Nordcopp, two places which feature in the novel, actually exist. I had to write back saying that we had invented them for the purposes of fiction.
A more serious enquiry on a similar theme came from Japan. A reader said that he was planning to tour Europe and that he “especially wanted to see the fortress of Kamenetz,” which appears in Days of Atonement. He had checked Internet and Google Maps and he couldn’t find Kamenetz anywhere. By now, I bet you’ve guessed the reason. It was pure fantasy, a Gothic-horrific representation of all that we thought was the very worst aspect of Prussian militarism!
The most contentious element in our work was, of course, the way we treated Immanuel Kant, the philosopher who lived and taught in Königsberg. This was the very beginning of our relationship with Prussia, and many people took it the wrong way, serious Kant scholars in particular. Some of them thought that we had made Immanuel Kant ridiculous, which was never our intention. We simply pondered on what may have happened as Kant grew old. Our Kant was not the Kant that myths are made of. In Critique he was no longer teaching or publishing, approaching death – indeed, he dies before the book ends, tended on his death-bed by our local family doctor from Spoleto, Danilo Gioacchini, a wonderful man and the sort of doctor that any ageing philosopher would have loved to have at his bedside as his life ebbed away.
“Why kill off your hero?” the critics asked. (They never let you get away with anything!) “Why defile the memory of an immortal philosopher?” a big Italian newspaper demanded. “Michael Gregorio got Euler’s Seven-Bridges-of-Königsberg problem wrong!” a famous mathematician proclaimed in a book.
What the critics didn’t understand was that we were playing with history. Our Kant – like the real Kant – was in the final stages of senile dementia. When he mentions Euler’s problem, he not only gets the number of bridges wrong, he also claims to have TWO solutions to a problem which, in fact, even the great mathematician, Leonard Euler, couldn’t solve!
So, what is the truth about Hanno Stiffeniis?
The truth is that Hanno and his world are an invention from beginning to end and we hope you have enjoyed reading the books as much as we enjoyed writing them.
Then again, if you have any questions, please feel free to ask.
Nb. The illustration of Hanno Stiffeniis was a marvellous gift from our great friend, Enrique Breccia.
On my way to bed last night, I closed my eyes, pulled a book from my crime bookshelf, and I managed to surprise myself! Most of my serendipity finds turn out to be books that I bought and read a year or a decade ago. Last night, my fingers chanced on a book that I had read just the other week.
Which makes things easier, of course.
Or should do.
I should remember the story, the beginning, the ending, and the big chunk in the middle. Instead, I discovered something about myself – I’m getting old, my short-term memory* is fading, and it won’t be long before they put me out to grass. I could not remember a thing!
The Murder Bag (Arrow Books, 2015) by Tony Parsons was a great read, and I really enjoyed it, but I still had to check out the opening and closing chapters before I could write a word about it. One reason for this, perhaps, is that The Murder Bag is a procedural, and there are just too many police procedurals around. They all come similarly packaged, too – the hero who doesn’t quite fit in with the ‘team,’ while the ‘team’ has now boiled down to a partner cop who blindly backs the hero through thick and thin, a clever computer geek, a superior officer who wants to close the case at any cost in the name of economy, and a handful of macho rival officers who are jockeying for attention rather than hunting for the killer.
Having said that, DC Max Wolfe is a cut above most other protagonist coppers.
(I can’t stand all that DC, CI, CDI, SOCO stuff, by the way...)
The secret seems to be to find an ‘angle’ which makes your main guy a bit different. DC (?) Max Wolfe is immensely brave – even foolishly so – and daringly intuitive, but he also has a sweet tiny daughter, the family dog, and a wife who has dumped them all for a lover, yet ‘appears’ every time Max takes his dog and daughter for a walk or shopping in a supermarket. He ‘sees’ his wife in his child, and this hubby-wife relationship is a bit (a lot!) of a red herring as it doesn’t really take the tale anywhere...
(Stop grousing, Michael!)
The tale itself is a standard sort of mystery – the elimination one-by-one of the people who appear in a photograph connected with a crime committed many years before – and the identity of the killer is a bit too obvious for words, so I won’t spoil your reading experience by telling you who the guilty party is, except to say, remember the famous adage of Sherlock Holmes from The Sign Of Four: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
As a ‘Sunday Times No. 1 Bestseller’ the book has clearly captured the public’s imagination; it is both entertaining and well-written. The Excipit, the final chapter, Chapter 38, is a bit of a let-down, however. All the loose ends – except one – have been tied up: we know who killed whom, and why. So the Excipit kicks off with ‘Sunday morning...’ and we’re home with a mauled Max (his back is aching), a mauled Scout (the baby daughter, whose errant mother has decided that she hasn’t got time for the kid today), and a mauled Stan (the dog appears to be hungry, but doesn’t get any extra crunchies), and then the news comes on tv, and Max realises something (that had appeared to be the key to the killings, but isn’t), and the chapter closes with a tear-jerking finale as the little girl’s school play turns an audience of adoring parents into a bunch of wet-eyed ninnies.
I didn’t like the last chapter, I admit. Indeed, reading what I’ve just written, it sounds as though I didn’t enjoy the book. And yet, I did. I really did!
And it will be going back onto my shelves to be read again at some date in the future.
Ps: Talking of long- and short-term memory, Tony Parsons was the name of my maths teacher at De La Salle Grammar School, Liverpool, back in 1963.
We are very proud of this publication.
A special edition of a Michael Gregorio novella entitled Your Money Or Your Life was handed out free as a promotion tool by our publisher, Severn House, and Publishers Weekly at the annual Book Expo conference in New York and at the recent American Library Association conference.
It will soon be available as an e-book in the UK and the USA (Severn House).