I hadn’t heard of UK crime writer Derek Raymond until I was given a copy of his novel The Devil’s Home on Leave about two years ago. I enjoyed that well enough, finding it to be exceedingly gritty and bleak (and thus to my tastes) and in time I got my hands on the other novels in the Factory series, He Died With His Eyes Open, How the Dead Live, I Was Dora Suarez and Dead Man Upright. The first of these I liked best, the last the least, and I didn’t enjoy the much hyped Suarez as much as I thought I might, although perhaps that was the point. Raymond can be artless at times and there’s a certain repetitiveness to his work, but it’s genuine, powerful and oh so very sordid. Ideally I’d obtain the entire Factory series in either the UK Serpent’s Tail editions or the US Melville House, but as usual (as you can see from the above photo), I’ve ended up with a bit of both.
There’s more to Derek Raymond than the Factory novels; quite a bit more, in fact. Next cab off the rank for me was the excellent A State of Denmark, a remarkable mix of 1984 and some really vivid writing about country life in Italy. This would be close to the best of Raymond’s earlier work, originally published under his real name of Robin Cook (he chose the pseudonym in the 80s due to the popularity of the other Robin Cook). The other early novel published by Serpent’s Tail is The Crust on its Uppers, the author’s first. I didn’t enjoy this very much, and nor did I like the late, weak Nightmare in the Street. Raymond did have one more good shot in him, as it turned out, the posthumously-released Not Till the Red Fog Rises, which I’ve just finished reading today. This reads very much like the Factory novels except that here we see things from the criminal mind of Gust, a dangerous man to cross. Finally there’s Raymond’s memoir The Hidden Files, a combination of personal history, treatise on the ‘black novel’ and a lot of other oddities thrown in for good measure. Out of print, expensive and obscure, this is nonetheless an important and very interesting book.
So that’s the end of my Derek Raymond adventure, or is it? As Robin Cook, the author published four other early novels that are yet to be reprinted and may forever remain so, given that the author died more than twenty years ago. They are named Bombe Surprise, The Legacy of the Stiff Upper Lip, Public Parts and Private Places and The Tenants of Dirt Street. All are obtainable secondhand, but all are expensive. After finding The Crust on its Uppers a chore to get through, I’m disinclined to blow my money on these obscurities, but perhaps I’m making a mistake? If you know, let me know.
In summary, Derek Raymond is for lovers of British noir. He’s not for the squeamish, and perhaps it’s best not to read too many of his books in one go. His best work, in my view, can be found in novels like He Died With His Eyes Open, A State of Denmark and Not Till the Red Fog Rises. If you like your novels served black, then you’ll very much enjoy these titles.
I’d vaguely heard of American crime writer Jim Thompson (1906-77), but only because one of his novels, Pop 1280, was featured on a list of Southern Gothic novels on Goodreads recently. I meant to grab a copy at some point, but I intended to sink my teeth into Ron Rash first. On a recent trip to Melbourne, I came across a Thompson novel in a discount bookstore. Five bucks. The title was Savage Night, the publisher was Vintage Crime/Black Lizard and, when I read the first few chapters, I was in love.
Turns out that Black Lizard reprinted about fourteen of Thompson’s novels in the nineties, and I wanted ’em all. Most are out of print in these editions now, so I’ve had to content myself with a mixture of Black Lizards and Crime Masterworks. But I love the covers and designs of the Black Lizards best. My second Thompson novel was probably his most famous, The Killer Inside Me, and while I liked it plenty, I thought it a little tame compared to modern crime fiction.
Next came After Dark, My Sweet, which I enjoyed well enough but found even less remarkable, at a distance of 60 years since first publication. This is considered to be in Thompson’s upper echelon, but it didn’t quite do it for me.
But if my third outing into the world of Jim Thompson was a slight letdown, my fourth, Pop 1280, was the best yet. Similar in character and structure to The Killer Inside Me, this ‘last great novel of Jim Thompson’s career’ would be a great novel in anyone’s career. Dark, twisted, vulgar, revolting, and yet riproaringly funny, Pop 1280 may well be among the best satirical noir novels even written.
And that’s where I’m up to. I’ve also just finished reading Robert Polito’s outstanding biography, Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson. I have no fewer than seven further titles enroute in The Grifters (I recently watched and very much enjoyed the film), The Getaway, A Hell of a Woman, A Swell-Looking Dame, The Nothing Man, The Kill-Off and Bad Boy (these last three in the Hardcore omnibus), so I expect to be revelling in the dark, dark world of Jim Thompson for some months to come. I binge on authors like this when I can, which isn’t all the time as I don’t always feel overly enthusiastic about devouring (like Nick Corey) every single available morsel. And I haven’t promised, not even to myself, to read every word of Thompson, but this enthusiasm reminds of how I felt about Philip K Dick, and J G Ballard, and William Burroughs, and Harry Crews, and …
Things that never happen: I loved the work of M. John Harrison when I was in my early twenties. Some of the Viriconium stuff I found a bit tedious, but I delighted in his final novel in this series, In Viriconium, as well as his literary novels The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life. But my favourite of them all was his least fantastical novel of all, Climbers, which may have been the book that turned me from a reader of speculative into one of realistic fiction.
I was working in the now-defunct Supernova Books in Perth in 2002 when a review copy of his brand-new SF novel Light came in. I read it immediately, but hated it intensely. What exactly it was that I loathed about the book so much I no longer recall with much clarity. I’m yet to re-read it to find out if my opinion on it has changed.
Twelve years passed, and in that period the only M. John Harrison I read was Climbers, for the third or fourth time, in 2008. I picked up a copy of Nova Swing, his sequel to Light, at around that time, but I didn’t immediately read and then I mislaid my copy somehow. I finally bought a replacement about two years ago, and there it sat unloved until Friday just gone.
Now, this is not to say that I think Nova Swing is the best thing going around, but I read it in two days and found it very enjoyable indeed, and exquisitely written. Either it’s different in some crucial way than its predecessor or I’m different in some crucial way to the person I was in 2002. I don’t read very much SF at all these days, but I will make an exception for Harrison the same way I’ll make an exception for Vandermeer (and yet Vandermeer’s new novel, Authority, has already been castigated to the back burner, unread).
I enjoyed Nova Swing so much that I immediately started re-reading The Course of the Heart, which I finished in less than a day (it was a wet weekend). This one I liked somewhat less than I remembered it, but I’ve just now finished re-reading Signs of Life, which I like somewhat more than I did way back when. So after a twelve year hiatus, I can say I’ve read three M. John Harrison novels in the past four days.
It could have been four novels in five or six days, had it not been for the fourteen books by other authors that just arrived from Better World Books today. I’ve got my eye on giving Light another try, and I’ve ordered a new copy of the third novel in this series, Empty Space, which came out in 2012.
Harrison is close to seventy now. He was the youngest punk of the British New Wave and now he’s a grand old man of SF. He deserves it; he clearly loves the genre a lot more than me, and he can write better than almost anyone. He’s an infuriating writer at times, obsessed with ill women, vomiting, ill women vomiting and all manner of bizarre phantasmagoria, but he’s a gem.
I read a lot of books and I’m always searching for ‘new’ authors to become obsessed by. Once or twice a year I find an author especially to my liking. Preferably they’ve written a fair few books (at least 5) but not as many as 20-30 or it’ll take me forever to read everything they’ve written (see Elmore Leonard). They can be living but it’s all the same to me if they’re dead. At least that way you’re likely to get a biography or two. ‘New’ authors have to follow my ‘1918 Rule’ which simply states that they must have published their books since the end of the First World War (the birth of the modern era). I am especially partial to American authors, but I’ve read writers from all over the (mostly Western) world. In recent years I’ve been especially enamoured with the works of Raymond Carver, Daniel Woodrell and Megan Abbott, to name but three. 2014’s best ‘new’ author for me is Mikhail Bulgakov, who died in Stalin’s Russia in 1940.
I’ve read a bit of Russian literature over the years but it has tended to be single books by famous authors such as Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak. I haven’t really bonded with a Russian author before. At one point I thought I was going to like Andrey Kurkov (okay, so he’s Ukranian) but 3-4 books later my ardour for his work has cooled. I hadn’t heard of Bulgakov until I read an essay on him in Overland magazine, and that inspired me to buy a copy of his best known work, The Master and Margarita.
This novel is like nothing else I’ve read in Russian literature, which normally seems to exclusively consist of bleak realism, not that I have anything against that. Fresh from that novel, I ordered a copy of a volume of Bulgakov’s letters and diaries, which also serves as a quasi-biography. I highly recommend it.
By now I was hooked and determined to read the rest of Bulgakov’s work. Luckily for me, Vintage has six volumes of his novels and stories (but not his plays), meaning that I could get uniform editions which look nice on the shelf with their red spines. A Heart of a Dog (also known, in a different translation, as A Dog’s Heart) was an amusing read, too.
Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel (confusingly, also known as A Dead Man’s Memoir) is an interesting, albeit unfinished and not altogether satisfying satire about the Moscow theatre of the 20s. It was worth a read.
A Country Doctor’s Notebook (or A Young Doctor’s Notebook) is my favourite Bulgakov behind The Master and Margarita. I thought this was some kind of diary from the author’s time as a rural doctor duing WWI, but it turns out that the stories were written in the 20s and are highly polished. This is very good and very accessible, probably a great place to start with Bulgakov. Apparently it’s been made into a TV series, too.
Bulgakov’s only volume of short stories, Diaboliad, was suppressed during the author’s lifetime along with most of the rest of his work. Confusingly, some editions (thankfully not the Vintage) DON’T contain the novella length ‘The Fatal Eggs’ which is also available as a standalone title. Seeing as ‘The Fatal Eggs’ represents about 2/3 of the pages in the Vintage edition, that would really suck. I didn’t much like the three later stories in Diaboliad, but I liked ‘The Fatal Eggs’ (a SF story reminiscent of H. G. Wells) and especially the title story, which is something of a prototype for The Master and Margarita.
The sixth and final book in Vintage (all translated by Michael Glenny) is Bulgakov’s first novel, The White Guard, which is based on the author’s wartime experiences. Bulgakov’s most famous and successful play during his lifetime, “The Day of the Turbins”, is based on this. I haven’t got around to purchasing this sixth Vintage volume yet, but I will.
In addition to these six Vintage volumes, there are a handful of other obscure titles not available in Vintage. There’s something called Notes from the Cuff which I believe to be more short stories, there are collections of Bulgakov’s surviving plays and even a biography of Moliere which seems to be out of print. Hopefully I’ll get to these one day. Let me know if you’ve read any of these more obscure titles (or indeed any Bulgakov). I’m finding it hard to pin down exactly what I like about Bulgakov so much. He certainly seems atypical for a Russian writer, more Continental in character. His work is very dark and very funny, and the story of his life is one of perseverance in the face of the harshest of adversity. There are only a few photos of Bulgakov floating around on the internet. This one of he and his third wife, taken shortly before his premature death in 1940, I find especially haunting.
I’ve recently discovered an American author by the name of Megan Abbott, whose work goes some way toward hitting the spot that the best work of Raymond Chandler hits. I don’t know quite what it is: something dark, something both hard hitting and slyly reflective. Anyway, The Big Sleep does it. The Long Goodbye does it even better. And Megan Abbott does it in her own way, too.
Abbott has five novels to her credit, as I’ve discovered, and it seems that recently she’s moved away from crime fiction, or at least noir set in 40s and 50s L.A. The other four are all period pieces. In order of publication, they are Die a Little, The Song is You, Queenpin and Bury Me Deep. So far I’ve only read the second and third of these, and it’s the third, Queenpin, that’s the knockout.
I did enjoy reading The Song is You, a tale about ‘Hop’ Hopkins and his search for a missing starlet. It was chock-full of period detail (Abbott is clearly not only extremely well read in the genre, but interested in the history of this period in general), but I felt it to lack something in the way of a killer punch. There was so much period detail, in fact, that I thought it actually bogged the narrative down a touch. Not so in Queenpin. Told from the perspective of a young woman plucked from obscurity by the notorious Gloria Denton, the ‘queenpin’ of the title, the novel has a sledgehammer effect. I read it in about three hours and Abbott didn’t miss a beat throughout. Our narrator has a down-and-out paramour by the name of Vic Riordan (tip of the hat to Chandler there, methinks, with that surname), and increasingly she becomes torn between his rough handling and Gloria’s icy cool. I guess the knockout comes about two-thirds of the way through, but the rest is just as strong too.
So what’s the difference between Queenpin and some of Raymond Chandler’s best novels? In terms of quality, very little. You could say that there are fewer twists and turns here than in Chandler, but that’s neither here nor there. The characterisation, dialogue and settings are just as good. One thing that needs to be said is that Abbott is writing what might be termed ‘feminist noir’, in that she offers strong female leads where in Chandler and those of his era most of the ‘broads’ were just there to be killed and/or fucked. I think I’m right in saying that our heroine is never named, which isn’t to say she lacks definition. But Gloria Denton and Vic Riordan steal the show, as they’re supposed to.
Queenpin won something called the ‘Edgar’ Award, which I’m guessing is a crime fiction prize, so it’s not like it hasn’t received some attention. Still, I wouldn’t have heard of the book or its author if I hadn’t picked up a copy of The Song is You at a discount pile at the front of a local bookstore the other week. Long live the discount pile. Queenpin is the best novel I’ve read this year, and I’m not just saying that because 2012 is, at the time of this writing, two weeks young.
I’ve been meaning to watch this short documentary concerning Harry Crews for some time now, but I hadn’t been able to for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it appeared that you could purchase and download it on a site called bside.com for about $2, but whenever I tried to add it to the shopping basket nothing happened. Then I realised that the film is now hosted on another site, indieflix.com, which may explain why it wasn’t working on bside. I didn’t really want to order the dvd, simply to download it, so I was pleased today to see that indieflix are finally allowing people to buy and download the film. You pay $2 for 30 day access to this 30 minute film. Here’s the youtube trailer:
And here’s the page on indieflix:
So what is it like? Well, if you are looking for anything to do with Crews the writer you’ll be sorely disappointed here. I don’t think he mentioned a single one of his books in the film, or his writing career at all. For the most part, this is about Crews’ early life. There are a number of harrowing anecdotes, most of which had been written about in A Childhood. So I guess I’m saying there isn’t much new information here. But I don’t care. Watching Crews rail against the world in his seventies is triumph enough for me.
I was listening to one of my favourite songs from one of my favourite albums on the drive home from work today, Belle & Sebastian’s ‘Wrapped Up in Books’ from their Dear Catastrophe Waitress album. The central line of the song is “Our aspirations/are wrapped up in books” and I was thinking that it might be true for them, but it must be doubly true for me. The feeling I get when reading a new author I especially like, as has been the case so far with Harry Crews and Alan Warner, is ecstatic. Reading A Feast of Snakes the other day, I had to read several pages or passages a second time, not because I had lost the thread of the narrative, but because the writing was so good that I wanted to relive the experience of reading it. I don’t think I get that sense of exhilaration for any other activity, which I suppose is a strange thing to say about reading, but it’s true for me. I love reading even more than I love writing, and although I do read in part to learn from other writers, my major reason for reading is in the pleasure of it. But I’m such a picky reader that I rarely get that feeling now. I get it from Harry Crews and Alan Warner, which is why I did a stupid thing today: I ordered a few books by these authors from fishpond.com.au on my credit card, even though I’m basically broke at the moment. You know you’re addicted to something when you have to have it, even when you can’t afford it. I’m addicted to reading.
And I’m especially addicted to finding new authors. Not necessarily new new authors, but authors that are new to me. Harry Crews’ first novel was first published in 1968, but I hadn’t heard of him until a few days ago. Alan Warner is more contemporary, but he still started publishing his novels in the mid-nineties. Take a look at these suckers:
Warner looks fairly normal to me, but Crews? My God, look at that man’s face. I mean this respectfully: he’s a fearsome sight. The books I’ve ordered are Classic Crews (a compilation of two novels and one autobiography), Morvern Callar (prequel to These Demented Lands, already reviewed) and The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven. I can’t wait to read them.