Apologies! I've been a bit slack in the last couple of weeks. Our latest novel, Cry Wolf, has just been published in the USA thanks to Severn House, so we’ve been doing some online interviews and promotions. I have also been busy reading more recent additions to my bookshelves, notably Val McDermid’s Fever in the Bone, and Hans Fallada’s A Small Circus (Penguin), both of which I would highly recommend. Plus, as the soccer season draws to a close, there have been a lot of distracting football matches on the tv. Still, on my way to bed a week ago, I closed my eyes and pulled out Porno by Irvine Welsh from my bookshelves.
The idea is to catch up on the start of the novel, then see how it ends...
In this case, that’s a sort of Page 480 Test.
It is, indeed, a big novel, the follow-up to the unbeatable Trainspotting (Vintage paperback, 1994). Wow, is it really so long ago that this novel appeared and changed the world of so-called literature? So long ago that the film came out in 1996? And did I say unbeatable?
Porno (Vintage, 2003) is billed as the sequel to Trainspotting. The major surviving characters from the earlier book – Mark Renton and Sick Boy Williamson – are back on the Edinburgh scene. ‘Nuff said? ‘Nuff said! We know more or less what we’re in for: a helter-skelter ride on a wild, fast rollercoaster that is constantly in danger of flying off the tracks.
Many ‘crittery-litics’ seem to have judged the novel as a bit of a comedown after Trainspotting, but I reckon that they underestimate a) Irvine Welsh’s ability to develop his characters over the course of a ten year time gap, and b) they have seriously under-rated his incredible sense of humour.
I began by intending to read only the first and the last chapters, but I soon found myself so caught up in the wild machinations of Sick Boy Williamson, Rent Boy Renton, Spud Murphy and ‘Franco’ Begbie that I just had to read it again from beginning to end!
Chapter One is entitled ‘Scam #18,732,’ which brilliantly sets the tone for the entire book as we follow Simon Sick Boy Williamson’s attempts to set himself (yet again!) on the road to success. By page 480, we reach the final chapter which is entitled ‘Scam #18,753,’ and that is more or less what we have been subjected to – a sequence of scams in which the characters try to redress the wrongs which being born in Scotland at the wrong time and place has brought down on their heads.
On the way, of course, we are drawn into the world of Porno – the central story and major scam – a scheme to make a high-class sexy movie provisionally entitled “Seven Rides For Seven Brothers.” The film and its making – the ‘porno’ of the title, if you like – is probably the weakest part of the novel. This sort of sophisticated take on the porn industry – all the self-justification, ‘I’m a big girl, grown man, free to do what I want’ stuff – had already been done, and done with more panache by Terry Southern in his under-rated 1970s novel “Blue Movie,” which is very, very funny, indeed.
At the same time, the one-liners on every page of Porno make for a lot of laughs, especially coming from new characters, Terry and Nikki (wow, she is a wonderful creation!), but what impresses me most is the cultural richness of the humour. Porno is about being Scottish, rather than being about sex. My favourite character, the nutcase, Frank Begbie, is released from jail and discovers that his ex-partner in business and crime has opened a Thai restaurant. His furious reaction is hilarious. “A fuckin Chinky in Leith! A tie restaurant, eh fuckin well goes. Well nae cunt in Leith’s gaunnae come oot fir a meal n wear a tie tae a fuckin Chinky...”
The language may seem tough, but you soon get used to it.
And so we come to the Excipit...
Frank Begbie is in a hospital bed, badly injured, apparently a vegetable beyond recall. Sick Boy Williamson, tricked out of his ill-gotten gains by Smart Boy Mark Renton and the adorable Nikki, is bewailing his fate and cursing the world while writing obscene remarks on Begbie’s plaster casts, and then, suddenly...
I can’t tell you what happens. It would be a spoiler, and a nasty one.
If you want to start imagining what may just happen in the sequel to Porno, you have to read to page 484, all the way to the very last dramatic line...
You’ll enjoy it, I promise!
“If you go down into the darkness, you must expect it to leave traces on you coming up — if you do come up.”
Derek Raymond was an unusual man, and an unusual writer.
You would, of course, expect his books to be unusual, and so they are.
I remember being blown away when I read The Devil’s Home on Leave, which I picked up by chance one day in Maxim Jakubowski’s bookshop, Murder One, in Charing Cross Road. I didn’t know Maxim at the time, though I met him many years later, and realised that he had become, by then, the literary agent of Derek Raymond.
Having read the first noir by Derek Raymond, I soon read all the others, and I was captivated by them. So, it was with great pleasure that I slipped into my study the other night, pulled a book at random from the bookshelves and read the title: Dead Man Upright, the last of the five ‘Factory’ novels, in which an unnamed detective sergeant working out of the A14 ‘Unexplained Deaths’ department goes in search of the author of a series of hideously (un)spectacular crimes.
The style of writing is cut down to a bare minimum in which words and actions speak for themselves, tempered only by the nameless narrator’s sardonic asides. We are on the track of a serial killer, Ronald Jidney, a secretive man and a psychopath, who seduces and murders rich, middle-aged women, and the first-person narrative of the detective sergeant leads us into a dark and sordid world of perverse desires.
So far, so good, but now we come to the Excipit...
This was the last ‘Factory’ novel by Derek Raymond, and it was not, by all accounts, his greatest commercial success. The end of the book tells us why. Then again, the word ‘end’ loses meaning here. The novel is 216 pages long, while the ‘action,’ the story of the tracing and capture of a man who may have butchered as many as seventeen women, ends on page 150.
This first Excipit concludes with the arrest of the killer, and the explanation of his personality is provided by a man who had worked with him on a building-site thirty years before: “He seemed a very ordinary bloke to me and the rest of the lads... Mind you, when the question of women came up especially, then he might freak and then, if he did that, you’d want to get out of his way fast, because he’d well, then he’d go fucking mad.”
This is a perfectly adequate interpretation of what separates the killer from his fellows, a perfect ending to the hunt for a serial killer. There’s just one problem: at only 150 pages, the novel is more of a novella. Clearly, this was not enough (for Raymond, his publisher, or both of them?), and so an additional ten chapters have been tacked onto the natural exit-point of the novel.
I am not going to ‘spoil’ the drawn-out finale, except to say that you can safely skip from pages 151 to 215 without missing anything.
Now, this requires an act of faith. If you want to know exactly where the idea for the novel came from, precisely how the back-story of Ronald Jidney originates, and understand fully what Derek Raymond was attempting to portray in this bleak portrayal of a blighted man, then you MUST read pages 151 to 215, as they set out the clinical and sociopathic nature of the psychopath.
In one sense, these ten dislocated chapters are a vindication of Derek Raymond’s notion of crimes which slip beneath the radar, ‘Unexplained Crimes,’ as he calls them. Here, he lays out the tenets on which the entire ‘Factory’ series is based. It sometimes comes over as being a bit pompous, pseudo-analytical, and even presumptuous, but it tells us far more about the writer than any other work of his ever will.
Unfortunately, Derek Raymond has gone down “into the darkness,” and he won’t be coming up again. Dead Man Upright may be the closest thing to a literary testament that we bereaved readers will ever have.
Meredith Kercher was murdered in Perugia, Italy, in 2007.
Within months, Amanda Knox, her flatmate, and Amanda’s boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were arrested. They were found Guilty of the murder in 2009, but appealed against the sentence. The Appeal Court found them Not Guilty in 2011. The Court of Cassation ordered a retrial. The second Appeal Court found them Guilty in 2014. And yesterday, the Court of Cassation overturned that verdict, and declared the pair Not Guilty once again.
How is that possible, you may ask?
Well, the Italian legal system is defined as being ‘garantista,’ which means that while you may be found guilty, you have the right to appeal against the sentence. If the trial and the appeal verdicts differ, the case is then referred automatically to the Court of Cassation, which analyses the technical aspects of the defence and prosecution in both cases which have created the conflicting verdicts, and it instructs a new appeal court to clarify the outstanding questions regarding the presumed guilt or innocence of the accused.
In the Kercher-Knox-Sollecito case, the third verdict was contrary to the second, which was contrary to the first, so the Court of Cassation was called upon once more to decide whether the evidence pointed to one or other of the two possible verdicts. As a result, Amanda and Raffaele are now, finally and officially, innocent.
Having exhausted the gamut of ‘guarantees,’ the final verdict is absolute and cannot be challenged.
So, what does this real-life case tell us about the Italian crime novel?
As a matter of procedure, it tells us a lot. If a novel ends with an arrest, then the reader has no way of knowing whether the arrested person is actually guilty, whether he/she will end up in prison or be released eventually. Indeed, a final chapter arrest in an Italian crime novel heightens the tension, and increases suspense. As we can see in the Knox-Sollecito case, the final verdict, which has only been reached after eight years and four trials, is totally unpredictable, and often surprising.
Equally, the process of reaching a final verdict seems interminable.
In this instance, because of the unusually high-profile status of the people involved – intelligent and good-looking university students from the USA (Knox), Italy (Sollecito) and Great Britain (the unfortunate victim, Meredith Kercher) – the names and the deeds, whether presumed or actual, have remained alive in the minds of the public for eight years, but this does not happen as a general rule. Many names of victims and perpetrators never reach the front pages of national newspapers or the banner headlines of the tv news. Their undulating progress from Guilty to Innocent, or Innocent to Guilty, and back again, is largely ignored by the media and public opinion, too. Indeed, it becomes increasingly a technical matter which involves only judges and lawyers. And, as happened yesterday, the accused is not even required to appear in the Court of Cassation.
Clearly, this is not the stuff of John Grisham or Scott Turow novels.
Finally, the fact that it does take so long to convict or redeem the accused in the Italian system means that the name of anyone who has been associated with a crime – whether innocent or guilty – is forever besmirched in the public eye. Things happen so quickly in the media world today that the majority of people don’t recall what happened last week. If they do remember a protagonist’s name, it is because that person has been found guilty at some point in their expanding case history. Thus, most Italians believe, and will continue to believe, that Amanda Knox is guilty, and that she ‘fled’ to America (after being found Not Guilty) to escape Italian justice.
This is bad for the Italian legal system, but also for the Italian crime novel.
It suggests that there are no hard and fast facts, that scientific evidence is questionable, and that there is always a smaller or greater degree of guilt in being simply associated with a crime, whether one has committed it, or not. Italian tv doesn’t help, as there is little restriction on what can be said while a case is sub judice (ongoing), and the excessive amount of air-time given to real-life crime on popular television leads to the wildest and most unscientific speculation about motives, modus operandi, and possible guilt or innocence. With such prolonged legal and public debate about the nature of the crime, the interpretation of the evidence, and the degree of possible guilt, together with the relative ‘weight’ which attaches to particular aspects of a crime at certain stages in the legal process, Italians are led to believe in the final analysis that all crimes are only partially explicable.
What it means for Italian crimes novels is that they are either too simple or too complex to convince the average reader.
Equally, the fact that Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito have been declared innocent after eight years means that Italy and Italian justice has a duty to answer two vital questions: a) did the ‘third man,’ Rudy Guede plead guilty to murder when he was really innocent to avoid a non-life sentence, and b) who did kill Meredith Kercher?
After eight years, we still don’t know...
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.