You don’t know the monotony of infallibility!

Should you by any chance be a regular reader of my Unpopular witterings then it will surely come as no surprise when I tell you that I am not A Learned Man. I am certainly no academic. When I say, therefore, that there is a long history of multiple narrators in the English novel, stemming from the early development of the novel in letters, this is not backed up by any in-depth knowledge or vast breadth of reading. Rather it comes from observations of reading a bunch of crime and detective novels and identifying some similar threads of structure. Plus five minutes of reading some articles on the Interwebs. The desire to weave these observations with Serious Research in order to produce some kind of extended academic text is, not to put too fine a point on it, weak almost to the point of non-existence.  All I really want to do is (“baby be friends with you…”) tell you about some books I have read and (mostly) enjoyed.

As noted previously, L.C. Tyler uses the multiple (in this case dual) narrator structure to great effect in his Elsie and Ethelred (or perhaps it is ‘The Herring Collection’) series of books. All are tremendously entertaining and hugely enjoyable and I encourage you to explore without delay. Another contemporary(ish) author who was on my recently compiled list of comic crime books to sample was Suzette A. Hill, and I have taken the plunge with the first of her Reverend Oughterard series. First published all the way back in 2007 (the time of The Ancients, surely), ‘A Load Of Old Bones’ is a rather peculiar type of crime novel for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that two of the three narrators are animals, and the third a/the murderer (that last point is hardly a spoiler, in case you were wondering). Expectations are further confused in that it also strays from the expected structure of an inverted mystery. By which I mean there is no mystery for anyone to solve or to prove in court. Not really. Instead there is almost an inversion of the inversion, and questions of moral choices are similarly challenged and somewhat turned on their heads. It’s a tremendous comedic read, with the voices of the cat (Maurice) and the dog (Bouncer) being marvellously captured as cartoonish tropes that nevertheless develop subtly as individual characters throughout the book. This gives the book a pleasant sub-theme where Hill develops the idea of mutual need and trust triumphing over received/mediated divisive stereotypes. That Hill does so in a vibrant, marvellously engaging manner is to be applauded. Also to be cheered is the way in which Hill casts such a breezy air over a tale of such dark and despicable fact. This detachment between reality and fantasy seems to simultaneously grow and diminish as the book unfolds and the murderer seeks to cover his tracks and avoid detection. By the novel’s conclusion I admit that I came away feeling that I had read a marvellous piece of entertainment and yet was also left curiously troubled. There are, it seems, a further five novels in this series, all starring Maurice and Bouncer, and all but the latest (2016’s ‘The Primrose Pursuit’) featuring the Reverend Francis Oughterard and I admit I am intrigued to see how Hill addresses and develops the questions raised in this first outing.

Leo Bruce may not have used multiple narrators in his 1936 book ‘The Case For Three Detectives’ but he does rather marvellously weave in three other fictional detectives alongside his own Sergeant Beef (making his novel debut). I’ve previously only been familiar with Beef through short stories, and I very much enjoyed this first extended outing in which, typically, the sergeant is almost invisible for the entire novel. Almost from the off Beef tells us quietly via the narrator that he knows who the murderer is, but before we find out we must follow the tortuous paths taken by the thinly disguised  characters of Lord Peter Wimsey (Lord Simon Plimsoll), Hercule Poirot (Monsieur Amer Picon) and Father Brown (Monsignor Smith). I have no idea what Sayers, Christie or Chesterton thought of this curious ‘homage’ but I do rather hope they took it all in the deliciously lighthearted spirit in which the whole book reads. Bruce gleefully and perceptively picks up the crucial character traits of each of the fictional detectives and has a great deal of fun poking gently at their literary idiosyncrasies. Detective novels of the period are peppered with deft asides that self-mockingly dig at the very medium and genre they are written in, but for the most part this is done with sharp one-liners from any members of the police who may or may not be principal characters. In this case however the entire book is effectively given over to being a confection of raised eyebrows and self-knowing smirks. It’s also a neat method of covering multiple suspects, motives and solutions to the locked room puzzle, cutely puncturing the whole air of ‘look at how CLEVER I am as an author for plotting these devilishly confusing crimes’ that can hang like a depressing pall over some of these books. Metafiction in a comic detective novel of 1936. Who’d have thought.

Going back briefly to touch on the idea of multiple narrators now, it’s probably important to acknowledge that Wilkie Collins of course used this approach in ‘The Moonstone’, a novel which is cast as pivotal in the development of the crime/detective genre. Now I have tried several times to get a grip on Collins and with ‘The Moonstone’ in particular, but every attempt has drawn something of a blank. As previously noted I am far from qualified to cast aspersions on the academic claims to its Importance In The Canon, it’s just that I have always found it (and Collins generally) somewhat impenetrable and more than a little dull. Doubtless this says more about me that it does about the book (and doubtless too there are calls of ‘kettle’ and ‘black’ at this point), and perhaps in future years the blindfold will be removed and its genius fully revealed to me but until such times I shall continue to drift along with my stock response of ‘Wilkie Collins… meh…’

I have a similar attitude towards Mary Kelly, whose novels ‘The Christmas Egg’, ‘The Spoilt Kill’ and (most recently) ‘Due To A Death’ have all been reissued in the British Library Classic Crime series. Of the three my favourite is certainly ‘The Christmas Egg’, yet I say that whilst acknowledging also that it is probably the least ‘good’ in terms of literary worth. Here is (often) the rub with crime/detective novels: the apparently ‘best written’ and ‘most literary’ can also be the least engaging and entertaining. Kelly’s ‘Spoilt Kill’ and ‘Due To A Death’ certainly fall into this trap for me, with each being undeniably well crafted and full of a literary grit that is admirable. Both books use the foundation of the crime novel as a basis for exploring Bigger Issues, and unless you are a Right Wing Daily Mail reading Gammon (surely impossible if you are reading Unpopular) it’s hard not to sympathise with those. In the case of ‘The Spoilt Kill’ those issues are around class, industry, commerce, love and money. In ‘Due To Death’ these class/commerce issues are still there, working alongside questions of illegitimacy, unwanted pregnancy and patriarchal attitudes. Yet whilst ‘Spoilt Kill’ still quite obviously uses the crime novel structure on which to hang everything else, this is pushed to, or indeed beyond the limit in ‘Due To A Death’. It could be argued that it’s in the inverted mystery sub-genre, but that would be stretching things because the ‘mystery’ or ‘crime’ is initially so vaguely referenced that one wonders if it’s really a crime at all, and maybe it’s just me, but my mind was certainly wandering as the book went on, to the point of skimming and skipping to see if anything was really going to happen. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that it really doesn’t. Which might be the point, but… There is some exquisite use of language in the book that is very much to Kelly’s credit. I particularly like how she describes “squalls slashing up the estuary, streaming over the windscreen, curdling like smoke on the roads.” There are also some very eloquent and perceptive observations on power and class, such as when her narrator describes the site of a re-purposed Country House: “It was far enough from the river once to have been the home of the rich; but even here they no longer lived. Their large houses had become their utilities: schools, golf clubs, hotels, clinics.” Elsewhere the question of being wealthy enough to be beyond the law resonates particularly strongly in 2021: “They’ll hook you for your paltry two thousand. You must chisel in millions before they’ll let you get by.” Ah, the fluid standards of the hyper-capitalist societies we are forced to inhabit. And yet for me this sharply observed critique of late 1950s and early 1960s UK society is not quite enough, and whilst ‘Due To A Death’ might conceivably land on the pedestal of classic literary novel, it struggles to convince as a crime one.

Catching (up with) The Herrings

“‘I used to think that my life was an Agatha Christie novel,’ I said. ‘A little convoluted, but essentially well-ordered and civilised. I’m beginning to think it may be more Raymond Chandler.’”

Last time out I was talking about comic crime/detective stories and made reference to some that I was hoping to catch up on. Top of that list were the two most recent books in the Elsie and Ethelred series by L.C. Tyler, which I am rather ashamed to say almost passed me by.  I have said this before and I will say it again, but I do find it difficult to keep track of contemporary releases by artists, be that music or books. Mostly this is, it must to said, My Own Fault, for I have long since struggled to find the time to read journals (physical or virtual) that might alert me to such things. In the virtual world I recall there was a period where it was so easy to set up RSS feeds from blogs I enjoyed, but that all seemed to go the way of the Dodo when Whoever Decides These Things proclaimed that RSS was Old Tech (that was someone at Google no doubt, who canned Google Reader) and that everyone was Doing Social Media instead. There was probably some significant degree of truth in that decision, and Time Waits For No Geek after all, so blah. Or Blah. Or even BLAH.

So it took a reference to the form of the comic novel in a comment by the author Stuart David, a delve into a back issue of CADS, a subsequent spark of ‘oh YES, L.C. Tyler’ and a tangential waddle across to Goodreads to see what I might have missed for me to Get With It. At which point I realised I had missed not only the cosmic coincidence of a just published ‘Farewell My Herring’ being beautifully lined up for me, but also the previous entry in the Elsie and Ethelred series ‘The Maltese Herring’. And yes, since you ask, it is only now that I realise I could just have ‘followed’ Mr Tyler on Goodreads, or indeed on The Social Media to find out what he might have been up to. But really. The Social Media. It’s such a cesspit of gloom and bile (interrupted occasionally by videos of cute animals doing amusing things) generally, isn’t it? The temptation to permanently disengage is so strong these days.

By some strange coincidence that of course is no coincidence at all, there is something of this thread in ‘Farewell My Herring’, as Elsie and Ethelred find themselves snowed in at a Crime Writing Workshop high in the Yorkshire Dales, without phone signal or (gasp) Access To The Internet. Now if you are some (ahem) snowflake Millennial undergoing an endless identity crisis (I jest – some of my best friends are Millennials with identity crises) you will doubtless have to imagine such horror. Those of us who are old and more than grumpy enough will be able to remember such a thing with gooey-eyed fondness and will doubtless nod in appreciation of the observation, expressed by the marvellously prickly and chocolate addicted Elsie that “It’s only the twenty-first century that thinks it has to be online twenty-four seven in order not to miss out.”

So this thread of disconnection from the online world is one that permeates the book, yet it also goes hand in hand with another thread, which is about the propagation of conspiracy theory within ‘pre-Internet’ networks of local gossip and story-telling (the bonkers idea of one character being a CIA agent). Thus Tyler adeptly juggles themes and makes points by writing in character, making observations about The World without sounding insufferably dull and worthy. Inevitably too there is something of the very contemporary notion of Living Through Lockdown in the sense of the characters being locked into the same space and unable to leave without the very real danger of death or serious injury. Of course this might be a case of one of those cosmic coincidences dropping into the thread of the (my) world, and I do wonder if anyone reading the book at some point in the future will make this connection? Perhaps not.

A rather more likely reading of the book from the future, given the setting of a snowed-in Victorian house, is an expectation that this might, at any point, turn into a ‘Christmas Murder Mystery’. Well it hardly needs a spoiler alert to say that the book resolutely refuses to follow that expectation whilst simultaneously teasingly leading us on. As one of the characters points out: “as a crime writer, I am well aware how inadvisable it is to kill somebody when snowed in at a house in the middle of nowhere with no escape route.” and anyone familiar with the genre will immediately start thinking of all those snowed-in murder mysteries (re)published in November/December in recent years with their cover illustrations of Country Houses cloaked in the blue/purple hues of moonlit snowscapes. Step forward the likes of J. Jefferson Farjeon’s ‘Mystery In White’ (okay, this one has an illustration of a train stuck in a snowdrift, but didn’t the runaway success of the 2014 reissue of this 1937 novel kick this all off?), Francis Duncan’s ‘Murder for Christmas’ (1949) and Jill McGowan’s marvellous ‘Murder At The Old Vicarage’ (a relatively unusual late 1980s pleasure for me). Elsie would most certainly approve.

My own favourite amongst this sub-genre of Snowbound Crime/Detective Novels Set In Or Around The Festive Season however would be Lorna Nicholl Morgan’s wonderful ‘Another Little Murder’. Originally published in 1947, this is the book which I most instinctively thought of whilst enjoying ‘Farewell My Herring’, not least because the inclusion of the word ‘Christmas’ in the title of the reissues is at best a shrewd marketing ploy, for the story really has almost nothing to do with the festive season at all. Now although Tyler makes no specific reference to any of these books in his text, there is an offhand reference to Gladys Mitchell, whose ‘Murder In The Snow’ from 1950 would certainly be a delightful addition to any pile of seasonal reads. There are also numerous mentions aside to John Dickson Carr, but since I still find his books to be, on the whole, insufferably smug, I will pass swiftly on.

From the outset of the nine book series Tyler has used the technique of two different narrators, with Elsie and Ethelred each moving the story forwards from their own perspectives. As a technique it works well in allowing each character to develop and to firmly establish their relationships with other characters and inevitably with each other. It means that one of the many pleasures of the books are the exchanges of dialogue between the two. My favourite of these exchanges in ‘Farewell My Herring’ is almost certainly one where Ethelred leads with “He’d have been thrown out of the Crime Writers’ Association, if they ever do throw anyone out. If he’d stayed a comic crime writer he would at least have had some respect.” To which comes Elsie’s swift rejoinder of “Not much”. Ouch. In ‘The Maltese Herring’ meanwhile, there is a marvellous exchange under Ethelred’s narration:
“‘How many scheming dames with mouths like a scarlet gash have tried to seduce you for their own crooked purposes?’ ‘Just the one,’ I said. ‘I turned her down.’ ‘How many times have you been beaten up by a corrupt cop in a grimy alleyway?’ ‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘Just scammed by academics.’ ‘Doesn’t sound like Chandler,’ said Elsie. ‘Maybe Edmund Crispin on a quiet day.’”

The Crispin reference, as I have said many times in the past and will repeat ad nauseam in the future, is entirely apt, for it is Crispin’s effortless, featherweight lightness of comic touch that these novels of Tyler’s most resemble to my eyes. The similarities extend too into how both authors explore post-modern notions of metafiction within their stories. Crispin, writing from the 1940s to the 1970s, is deliciously knowing and relatively sparing in breaking the third wall. Tyler, meanwhile, as a 21st Century author is almost gleeful in abusing the form. In many respects I suppose it is meta-meta: Tyler knowingly poking fun at the very knowingness he has his characters display as the books unfold (from their titles inwards and onwards). Indeed, in a supreme moment of inverted self-mockery he has Ethelred proclaim (in ‘Farewell My Herring’) “I hate metafiction”. LOL.

It is inevitably true that most of us likely also hate metafiction when we are excluded (for whatever reason) from the in-jokes. As such it is impossible for me to judge how others might react to the comic knowingness of Tyler’s Elsie and Ethelred books, yet I suspect that there is more than enough to enjoy without any knowledge whatsoever of crime/detective fiction’s rich tapestry. These books are, like the early Flavia De Luce stories by Alan Bradley, deceptively light and breezy reads. Both ‘The Maltese Herring’ and ‘Farewell My Herring’ are, like all the preceding books in the series, hugely enjoyable contemporary comic romps that are shot through with more than enough marvellously rewarding jibes and referential homages for those who want to see them. Now I just need to figure out how best to be kept in the loop for future instalments.

Unpop 202

Ghastly mellow saxophones all over the floor – Download disc 1

Sir Orfeo – Alula Down (from ‘Future Folk: Friendly Faces; Different Spaces‘ LP)
Stopping Out (Concrete Antenna Reinterpretation) – King Creosote (from ‘Transmissions Volume One‘ LP)
Prayer – The Durutti Column (from ‘Another Setting’ LP)
Winter Moon (edit) – GNAC (digital single)
South Beach Kiosk – Looper (digital single)
Live Or Die – Jackie Leven (from ‘Straight Outta Caledonia‘ LP)
The End Of The World Is Bigger Than Love – Jens Lekman (from ‘I Know What Love Isn’t‘ LP)
Feel It Disappearing – MONNONE ALONE (from lathe cut single)
Sorry For Laughing – Josef K (from ‘Sorry For Laughing’ LP reissue)
Late Light Romance – Negative Nancies (from ‘Heatwave‘ LP)
Bluebird – Arab Strap (from ‘As Days Get Dark‘ LP)
Half a Feeling – Massage (from ‘Still Life‘ LP)
Cinematic – The Catenary Wires (from ‘Birling Gap‘ LP)
Runaway Jane – The Natvral (from ‘Tethers‘ LP)
Gutters of Love – Quivers (from ‘Golden Doubt‘ LP)
Hard to Fall – Love, Burns (from digital single)
Downhill – Days (on ‘Nice Try, Sunshine! A Swedish Pop Mixtape‘ LP)
All My Worries – SUPER 8 (digital single)
Albert The Painter – David Long (from ‘Moll & Zeis‘ LP)
What’s Shouted In The Dark (The Dark Shouts Back) – Alex Rex (from ‘Paradise‘ LP)
1974 – Robyn Hitchcock (from ‘A Star For Bram’ LP)
And The Lights Went Out All Over Town – Modesty Blaise (from ‘The Modesty Blaise‘ LP)

My eyes are listening to some sounds that I think just might be springtime – Download Disc 2

Weekend (The Judas Triangle) [Dom Beken & Kris Needs Remix] – The Orb (from ‘Abolition of the Royal Familia (Guillotine Mixes)‘ LP)
Decoy Point (Live On Northey Island) – Ultramarine (from ‘Transmissions Volume One‘ LP)
Reaction Diffusion – Hannah Peel (from ‘Fir Wave‘ LP)
Fur & Feather – Penelope Trappes (from ‘Penelope Three‘ LP)
Jewel of the Blueridge – Sarah Louise (from ‘Earth Bow‘ LP)
Two Strong Legs – Wyndow (digital single)
Nightingale (a capella) – Me Lost Me (from ‘Future Folk: Friendly Faces; Different Spaces‘ LP)
Mobile – The Mountain Goats (from ‘Dark In Here‘ LP)
In Our Dreams – Teenage Fanclub (from ‘Endless Arcade‘ LP)
Come Clean – BMX Bandits (from ‘Star Wars‘ vinyl reissue)
Timber – Departure Lounge (from ‘Transmeridian‘ LP)
When You Last Heard From Linda – Field Music (from ‘Flat White Moon‘ LP)
Happy to Perform – Kane Strang (from ‘Happy to Perform‘ LP)
Days Of Our Life – Edwards Hand (from ‘Edwards Hand’ LP reissue)
Painting Box – Beautify Junkyards & Belbury Poly (from 7″ single)
The Mad Hatter’s Song – The Incredible String Band (from ‘The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion’ LP)
A Lenticular Slap – Ryley Walker (from ‘Course In Fable‘ LP)

Almost complete mix on Spotify

A bunch of Loopers

Last time out I was talking about Stuart David’s tremendous series of ‘Peacock Johnson’ books and I very much hope you have been tracking those down and enjoying them too. Now I do like the idea of crazy cosmic coincidences, and there have been lots of those cascading into my life just recently, not least of which has been the pleasure of being reacquainted with the terrific records made by David and Wee Karn (not forgetting Ronnie Black and Evil Bob at various points) in their Looper identity. I admit that I had lost track somewhat of what they were up to at around the time of 2002’s ‘The Snare’ and indeed, listening to that set now I’m convinced that even this one passed me by at the time. Particularly since it contains the track ‘Peacock Johnson’, which I’m sure I would have remembered on reading the books. This is how it goes with things though, isn’t it? We drift in and out as we move through life. I have this model of life being a series of ellipses (ahem) looping out from a centre to which we return every so often before flying off on a different tangent. Each loop is different, even if only subtly, in trajectory and length, whilst that centre is something to do with the sense of loss, or absence. A need for replenishment.

Anyway, that’s my cod-philosophical theory, backed up by nothing more than feelings, personal observations and experiences. You might well think it’s all nonsense, and that’s fine. There is perhaps something in the isolationist nature of existence that insists each of us has some theory that explains our existence, at least in part. And that’s mine.

So Looper loop back into my life, and that’s a pleasure for sure. I’ve been very much enjoying the 2015 retrospective collection ‘These Things’ which curates the work of some seventeen years into five discs of instrumentals, spoken word pieces etc. It’s a delicious treasure trove, a musical box of delights that transports us to a universe inhabited by electronic glitches snogging memories of childhood games of Dead Mans’ Fall on the Commando Hill. It takes me back too, to days of falling in love with Stuart David’s wee ‘Ink Polaroids’ for his Treehouse imprint, and my own ‘Belle Lettres’ stories and short pieces penned in that blurt of excitement around the mid 90s I suppose it must have been when we were doing our Living Room club in Exeter and pissing about with record decks, tape machines, slide projectors, TVs and video tapes. And in another of those crazy cosmic coincidences of course our Living Room friends Appliance would end up sharing the same record label as Looper on Mute. Crazy, crazy world.

The first Looper performance was in 1997 at the Glasgow School of Art, perhaps around the same time that a well-oiled Appliance were lubricating our Living Room in Exeter. It’s a nice touch of synchronicity, even if the particular truth exists only in my head*. Regardless, the Art School venue is another of those cosmic coincidences, for that place of wonder and powerful magic(k) continues to drop grenades of connection, memory, nostalgia and possibility into the/my world. How could it be otherwise? Well, just press fast-forward for two years, and a full Looper band played at the first Bowlie festival in April 1999. Now personally I could not make it to that very first Bowlie. I forget the reasons. Perhaps it was tied up with a general aversion to notions of festivals of any kind. Perhaps something else. I was, however, able to attend the pre-Bowlie shindig that Pam Berry and friends put on at the Betsey Trotwood the night before the gang headed down to Camber on a Routemaster, like some Indie Kid ‘Summer Holiday’ extravaganza. Upstairs at the Betsey I performed as The Duke Of Harringay for the first and final time, reading stories over rudimentary electronic collages cobbled together with computers and Pritt Sticks. Nicky Momus was in the audience, no doubt thinking I was a piss-poor attempt at something he did ten years previously. If Stuart David and Wee Karn had been in the audience they’d likely have sued for copyright infringement. Casting back it seems like a peculiar moment in time, a point at which the worlds of work and creativity could exist in parallel. Surreal.

The Looper collected on the ‘These Things’ box set are a bit of a collage burst of surrealism too, with threads of realities being pulled into their alternate universe taking on new and peculiarly delightful form. It’s a fine place to revisit or to visit anew, a richly rewarding trip down memory lane or a drift into avenues that may by turns evoke sensations of deja-vu and/or open up vistas of peculiar pop-art possibility. As one of the cuttings collected in the booklet (alongside excellent sleevenotes from Tim Burgess) suggest: “God bless Stuart and Karn – the Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Camberwick Green.”

All of which brings us up to the present day, and the delightful realisation that, like many artists during the period(s) of pandemic lockdown, Stuart David has continued to record and release a series of glorious golden nugget instrumentals. From a personal perspective (is there any other in the Unpopular universe?) the hazy shuffle beat strum of ‘South Beach Kiosk’ is the hook that draws me in; a literal and metaphorical strut on Troon prom past the war memorial and the bins where once we pasted up posters for The Sea Urchins debut single and flyers for the mythical, washed out Beach Party of nineteeneightywhenever. The cover photo shows a detail of the shuttered kiosk, a far cry from the chaotic abandon of the image that accompanied a Guardian article in summer of 2020 about the surges of (in)humanity to the beaches.

In a similar vein is ‘Heatwave’, with its cover shot of kiddies playing in the sand and its sound of Ben Watt’s ‘North Marine Drive’ dancing close with a drum machine caught in a timeloop of a 1930s dance hall. Short, sweet, and just ever so slightly sinister. Or what about ‘Wandering’, where we take to the dunes and gaze across the Firth at the Heads of Ayr cowering beneath low winter banks of cloud, shivering in our anoraks and daydreaming of car tyres rolling down the ballast bank, caught in interior Beatles movies. And ‘Blurred Stars’, sounding exactly as it ought: Ultramarine meets Felt on the Train Above The City. Or, most delightful of all, the two minutes and forty of the blissful ‘Faraway Near’ accompanied by its cover shot of lengthening shadows on the hill, eyes cast to the horizon and Arran sleeping lazily as the sun slips down and away. Like some kind of contemporary daydream to the ones we frittered away in our childhoods of listening to ‘A Distant Shore’ in the hillside grasses, it will break your heart whilst applying the most perfect balm imaginable.

And so it goes on. The endless ebb and flow of memory seeping, of time slipping and sliding. Future beams back to a past and tumbles forwards to a present. Concorde on circles and bumps. The Waverley on the horizon and a bunch of loopers in the dunes. Pure Magic, by the way.

*Intensive Research (looking at old flyers in boxes) suggests that there is some shade of fact in this truth, with Appliance playing at the Living Room in late March of 1997.

Comedic is not the same as Comedy

The other day a friend almost sheepishly admitted to reading (and enjoying) Richard Osman’s ‘The Thursday Murder Club’. Now I’m sure it is a thoroughly enjoyable book, but aside from admitting a degree of Unpopulist Elitism, the principle reality of my not adding Osman’s book to the already over-crowded and ever expanding ‘to-be-read’ shelves is that there are there simply too many already there, and that there are too many other things I’d put ahead of it on my list. One day, perhaps… one day.

It did make me think however about a couple of things. One: That we ought not to be sniffy when someone who may have gained ‘celebrity’ in one area of life explores other avenues. Unless the work in that new avenue is Not Up To Scratch, in which case, sniff away.
Two: That it is too easy to fall into the trap of being critical of Books As Entertainments and thinking that writing in a lighthearted and comedic manner is lightweight and easy.
Three: That all writing that may vaguely fall into the ‘crime and detective’ genre is All The Same.
And Four: Life is too short.

Point two got me thinking further about my own predilection for the more light-hearted and gently comedic end of crime/detective fiction. It has been said before, but it bears saying again that densely convoluted ‘technical’ or, that dreaded word, ‘scientific’ crime puzzles leave me cold and quickly bored. The Holmes books and stories just about get away with it for me because although Holmes is such an insufferably smug know-it-all character, the tales are saved by the foil of Watson, through whose narratives quite rightly Conan Doyle presents the cases. Sayers is adept at this also, as is Christie. It is a skill that ought not to be underestimated.

Following through on the train of thought about writing in the comedic manner has also had me delving back into issues of the tremendous CADS magazine for an excellent piece by Kate Jackson on ‘comical criminality’. There are so many suggestions of authors and books in Jackson’s piece that it can be quite a challenge knowing where to start, but as the case with these things, one of the first things I did is check to see if my own favourites are in there. And yes, there, present and correct, is Leo Bruce, whose Sergeant Beef stories are always a delight when included in those terrific themed collections in the British Library series. Ditto Richard Hull and Alan Melville, both of whom have benefitted from British Library reissue action with the tremendous ‘Murder Of My Aunt’ and ‘Death of Anton’ both being highly recommended reads. Some of Jackson’s other suggestions are more troublesome to track down without investing significant time and potentially funds in seeking out old printed copies, but then that can be part of the thrill. I managed to find reasonably priced copies of Joan Coggin’s ‘Who Killed The Curate’ and Delano Ames’ ‘She Shall Have Murder’ for example, and am very much looking forward to delving into those.

On a personal note it was also great to see Jackson giving a big thumbs up to Edmund Crispin. Crispin’s excellent series of books featuring the hugely entertaining Gervaise Fen were amongst the first English crime/detective stories that I read as I transitioned from years of consuming hard boiled American Noir, and as a result will always retain a special place in my heart. Really though Crispin’s books are, at their best, marvellously readable and remarkably post-modern period pieces with a timeless charm. As Jackson points out, it is the deliciously light and self-aware use of metafictional humour that Crispin does so well, and it is this quality that helps the books along at a terrific pace. It’s been said before and will be said again, but really if you are in any way interested in detective fiction, then Edmund Crispin is a Must Read.

Also amongst my personal list of Must Read’s are the two contemporary authors that Jackson also makes mention of in her article. L.C. Tyler’s wonderful ‘Elsie and Ethelred’ series has been one of my most enjoyed series in the past decade or so and I’m delighted to see that the latest instalment has just been published in the form of ‘Farewell My Herring’. One rather hopes that the title is only the latest in the series’ witty appropriation of classic crime story titles and not some signifier of An Ending, but regardless, the book has certainly leapfrogged many others to land on the top of the ‘to-be-read’ shelves.

As for Ian Sansom, well, I continue to await with great anticipation a new entry in the marvellous ‘County Guides’ series. I have written about Sansom in the past of course (in one of those strange circumstances of cosmic coincidences I realise this would have been around the time Jackson’s piece was published in CADS) so there is not much to add here except to say that if you have not yet delved into the County Guides, or the earlier series of ‘Mobile Library’ stories, then you are missing out on some real treats.

Other contemporary writers that Jackson suggests are Suzette A. Hill and Anthony Horowitz. From what I can ascertain, Hill’s stories sound quite whimsical and may, I fear, fall into traps of contemporary ‘cosy’. This may, however, be an entirely unfair assumption, and with her ‘A Load Of Old Bones’ available for less than the price of a coffee, is certainly worth an inquisitive punt. Horowitz, meanwhile, I admit I have avoided for much the same reasons of Unpopular Elitism as suggested for ignoring ‘The Thursday Murder Club’. Also, probably envy, but those are my own problems and I will deal with then in my own way and in my own time. By which I mean I shall Carry On Regardless.

One contemporary author that Jackson does not mention but who may fall onto a tangential ellipse of the comedic crime fiction arc would be Stuart David. Some Unpopular readers may be more familiar with David as a musician with his terrific Looper act and membership of the early (classic?) Belle And Sebastian lineup, but he’s also the author of the rather excellent series of ‘Peacock’ stories. In a rather glorious coup of metafictional theft, the Peacock character has been lifted from the pages of an Ian Rankin novel and given a new universe to inhabit. Now I will admit to being unfamiliar with the Rankin books, but this hardly matters I am sure, for David’s opening salvo of ‘The Peacock Manifesto’ is tremendous fun in its own right and needs not a shred of ‘context’ setting. Indeed, I did not even know of the Rankin connection until after I had devoured it in a couple of sittings. Its subtitle of ‘A beer-fuelled pursuit of the American Dream. Glasgow style.’ pretty much describes what you get and is worth celebrating for that fact. A recent survey noted Glasgow as the ‘sweariest’ city in the UK, and David’s book certainly lives up to this reputation in gleeful style. Its sequel ‘With Love From Evil Bob’ is an even quicker read but no less enjoyable for that. Written in the form of letters to Peacock from the titular Evil Bob (Peacock’s main Partner In Crime in the ‘Manifesto’), the book is by turns a hilarious caper and a witty metafictional romp in the post-modern rubble. Bob himself describes his letters as “junkyard jack-ass prose. Totally self-absorbed.” and that’s as good a description as any. Elsewhere, Stuart David has expressed a desire for the Peacock books to establish the genre of the Scottish comic novel. I’m already lining up the other titles in the series for consumption, but on the evidence of these two I’d say that Peacock and David are well on the way to achieving that goal.

Tiny Moments #216

The air is still filled with chill, but the sun is tricking some into believing that warmer days are coming. In the Lower Comberoy copse I spy the first blanket of Bluebells, whilst over the Killerton Clump floats the first hot air balloon flight of the season. It advertises Bath Gin, another hopeful cipher for a brighter future.

Tiny Moments #215

Up out of Tipton St John on the way to Sidmouth, just past the sign advertising fish and chips at the Golden Lion, the road kicks up to a 13%. I flip down the gears and pass a woman pushing an old Dawes ladies tourer, attached to which is a trailer carrying what looks like a Christmas tree. We wheeze a brief ‘hello’ to each other as I ride past, each bent to our task. At the top of the hill the landscape opens out and the road passes between two fields, each filled with Donkeys enjoying the sunshine. I think of my dad and how much he would have loved to see this.

In Sidmouth a couple of girls splash into the sea wearing summer bathing costumes. I sit on my bicycle on the prom, still dressed in winter cycling kit. I am not warm.

In the ’70s

A quick search in my reading list archive tells me that I have read forty two George Bellairs novels in the past three years, and whilst most of them have been at the very least highly enjoyable, the latest on that list (‘Murder Adrift’ and ‘Devious Murder’, originally published in 1972 and 1973 respectively) have sadly been amongst the weakest. Written towards the end of a highly productive career, neither of these titles seem to go much of anywhere other than to idle around somewhat sedate plot lines. It’s a great shame, because when Bellairs is at his best he is a tremendously engaging writer. For what it’s worth, my favourites amongst those forty plus books featuring series detective Inspector Littlejohn are without doubt those set on the Isle of Man. Bellairs settled there after life as a bank manager, and his island novels really are thinly disguised love letters to the landscape. The crimes and the detection are almost secondary to the sense of place and local character, his fondness for the island and the people coming through with warmth and astutely observed detail. By the time of these 1970s novels, though, the places the tales are set in seem nondescript and the characters bland. If we were being kind perhaps we could say that’s just a reflection of the times, but they are certainly not books that I would recommend as starting points for exploring Bellairs’ work.

Also from the 1970s come a series of books by Anne Morice, newly republished by those fine folks at Dean Street Press, featuring serial character of jobbing actor Tessa Crichton and with cover imagery seemingly beamed direct from ‘sophisticated’ TV dramas of the period. Now our previous visit to the reissue action of the DSP had us enjoying four detective stories by Cecil Waye and rather wishing that the most interesting character (the terrific Vivienne) had not been married off and written out after the first. I’m delighted to say that Morice trips on only one of these hazards, and it’s hardly a spoiler to say that the charming young man that Crichton spots in the pub early in ‘Death In The Grand Manor’ has by the time of the next novel become her husband. Indeed, the title of that second instalment in the series, ‘Murder In Married Life’ rather gives the game away. As a Scotland Yard Inspector (I have not read further in the series, but I imagine that he Rises Through The Ranks and becomes at least a Chief Inspector) he is perfectly positioned to supply Tessa with juicy problems to which she may lend her charms.

Now let me say straight away that I am not a fan of the fashion for describing certain detective novels from any age as ‘cosy’. I understand the marketing strategies behind such a move, but it feels lazy, and reflects a thoroughly inaccurate reading (or wilful reframing) of older texts. With this in mind then, let me stress that Anne Morice’s novels are not ‘cosy’, but they are certainly hugely entertaining and witty. A contemporary review by Edmund Crispin describes the first Tessa Crichton book ‘Death In The Grand Manor’ as a “charming whodunit….full of unforced buoyancy”, going on to suggest it as a “remedy for existentialist gloom.” Let us not forget that Crispin himself was certainly prone to bouts of existential gloom, but that he also penned some marvellously entertaining detective stories featuring the tremendous character of Gervaise Fen. One wonders too if his frankly bonkers (in a good way) swansong ‘Glimpses of the Moon’ (published in 1977) was not at least in part inspired by the kinds of words Morice was penning for Tessa Crichton. Frances Iles is typically more restrained, suggesting that ‘Death…’ is “a most attractive lightweight”. If that feels somewhat close to being damned by faint praise, then it likely says more about Iles than it does about Morice.

Of course one is unlikely to be reading detective fiction from the 1970s for much more than entertainment value, and that is fine. Indeed it is one of its primary attractions. But Morice has a charming manner of cloaking quite barbed quips in comfortable attire. On marriage she has Tessa note that “One of the few snags I had encountered in married life was the obligation to account to one other person for one’s behaviour; and this was never more acute than in cases where the behaviour was unlikely to obtain the other person’s blessing and approval”, whilst at another point Crichton refers to a piece of sci-fi theatre with a description that feels uncomfortably prescient: “It was set in the year two thousand and something and the author’s comforting idea was that by then the computers would have taken charge of just about everything, from foreign policy down to bingo, with the result that Man had lost the power of self expression and was reduced to conversing in grunts and loosely connected monosyllables.” A more accurate description of Social Media interactions I have yet to read.

Then there is this uncomfortably amusing blast that reminds us how the BREXIT spirit of the 21st Century England ‘Daily Mail’ reader is nothing new: “there was nothing of the Dresden china about this particular little old lady. She was more of a retired Boadicea waging an implacable armchair-war against, predictably enough, immigrants, civil servants, motorists, pedestrians, abstract art, pop music and central heating.” Perhaps Morice had just seen Thatcher on the television.

Elsewhere she drops some delicious little meta droplets of knowing reference, with one character telling Tessa “for God’s sake don’t get the idea that you’re Miss Marple, and start asking all and sundry what they were doing between four and six o’clock, on Saturday, 3rd August.” before dropping the marvellous “‘I’ve lost the thread again,’ Toby said, appealing to Robin. ‘Have you any idea what this is all about?’ ‘Not a glimmer.’”

Losing the thread or not (and sometimes that is part of the pleasure), I admit that I have enjoyed these first two Anne Morice novels more than enough to explore further. And with eight more titles available in this current reissue flourish and a further ten due in July, there is certainly plenty in which to indulge.

Love Story

LOVE STORY

Alistair Fitchett on ‘My Rock’n’Roll Friend’ by Tracey Thorn.

Tracey Thorn has been on something of a creative roll in recent years, with a steady flow of books, newspaper/magazine columns, and (let’s not forget) a tremendous solo record in 2018’s, erm, ‘Record’. To someone of my age, who thrilled to the brittle charm of The Marine Girls, fell head over heels for the sparse yearning of ‘A Distant Shore’ and then settled into decades of ever-shifting, (nearly) always rewarding records with Everything But The Girl, it has felt like a positive flurry of pleasure. The world may have been going to hell in a handcart, but there’s always been something new from Tracey Thorn to pull us through. Okay, that’s maybe caffeinated hyperbole, but I swear down that on a level it is on the level. And now she’s written a book about everyone’s favourite Go-Between. Stop the world right here. We’ve reached the moment of perfection.

That’s bullshit, of course, because the world is still going to hell in that same old handcart and it’s got some dodgy wheels to boot, so what the… and did you know that everyone’s favourite Go-Between was Lindy Morrison? Certainly everyone I speak to recently is saying as much. And it might be true. It might be that Tracey Thorn’s gloriously celebratory and incandescently incendiary book about her friendship with Morrison has made everyone feel safe and secure about voicing that opinion. It’s like a ‘me too’ moment for Go-Betweens fans. It’s funny though, because almost everyone who I hear saying it is a man, and was probably at some point in their lives a journalist or a university student in Germany*.

Me? My favourite Go-Between is still Robert (Forster). Or maybe it’s that other Robert (Vickers) because frankly how can someone look so young for so long? We need to see the painting in the attic. Other days of course my favourite Go-Between is Amanda, and on others still it is Grant. But ah yes, of course my favourite Go-Between is Lindy. Has always been Lindy. Except when it hasn’t.

That’s a fucking clumsy way of saying the bloody obvious and that is that Life Is Complicated. And ever shifting. Marvellously, excruciatingly so. Thorn gets this of course, and so does Morrison. It’s just that Thorn also knows that if she’s going to write a book about Morrison (who, if she’s know at all is known as The Drummer In A Rock Band Than Never Sold Any Records Except To Three University Students In Germany**) she knows it needs to be something bigger and smaller than that. It needs to be a love story. And so it is.

So ‘My Rock’n’Roll Friend’ is in essence a love story between two women. But it is also by necessity a love story between women and men; between women and music; between men and music; between people and life. It’s also a story of the love (and hate) between writers and performers (we’ll maybe get into that particular can of worms later). Between performers and their audiences. Even if that audience is only three University students in Germany.***

It is also by necessity a story of pain, mistrust, anger, despair and betrayal. Speaking of which, Forster and Mclennan are in this book too. Of course they are. It’s just that they come across more as a couple of dicks than they do in any other story written about The Go-Betweens. It’s not wholly negative press (Thorn is too canny for that, and anyway, there’s the impression that behind the righteous indignation she still likes the odd Go-Betweens number) but it does throw the accepted worldview upside down rather, and that is fine. Others, Forster included, have written their versions of their stories and we are free to read them. That’s the way our world works, for better or for worse. Multiple narratives weave around us and we pluck the ones we fancy and fuck the ones we don’t. Or vice versa. And sometimes our perspectives on the ones we fancy switch around. So it always was and forever will be.

But ugh, hold up there a minute, because this notion of ‘so it always was and forever will be’ is also the crux of ‘My Rock’n’Roll Friend’. It’s a critical hinge point because Thorn recognises it as an essentially patriarchal one, rusty and greased with putrid excrement. So whilst the book is about Lindy Morrison and her life in and around the Go-Betweens, it is also an indignant assault on the macho male industrial machine. Punches are thrown and at times it’s uncomfortable reading (my own refusal to re-read anything I may have written about the Go-Betweens in the past few decades is one minor example of this discomfort). Thorn makes good points forcibly, which is how it should be. (An editor might now suggest altering my line to something like ‘so it always was but need not forever be’, but frankly that sounds a bit wanky and ugh, we’re really not that optimistic are we?)

So if Thorn essentially edits the issues around Morrison’s erasure from the Go-Betweens myth down to one of gender, then that is fine too. It’s an accurate point to be making, and frankly one would have to be blind and stupid not to recognise that. There is another point, however, that Thorn also almost makes, which is around the Rock world’s infatuation with the writer over the performer. Thorn does brush up against this when she refers to the idea that THE DRUMMER IS THE BAND, whilst elsewhere pondering the fact that almost all rock journalists immerse themselves in the lyrics of the songs at the expense of the playing. As a non-musician with an interest in words I can’t help but understand this approach (I’m resisting the urge to write the word ‘sympathise’ because frankly I’m too busy holding my hands up, pleading guilty as charged, it’s a fair cop guv etc.) but when you stop and think about it, it is a bit weird. But there it is. Maybe we really can blame Dylan and the Beatles and The Stones and the Swingeing Sixties for everything. And maybe if Morrison had been a drummer in a Jazz trio, or in a chamber orchestra (do they even have drummers in orchestras, or is that ‘percussion’? See, I told you I was no musician) then she’d have been written about differently. Maybe not.

There is much more to ‘My Rock’n’Roll Friend’ than rock’n’roll, friendship and feminism of course, but the coffee is cold, it’s getting dark and there are Other Things to think about. Tracey Thorn and Lindy Morrison might be thinking about them too, whatever they are. They’ll be writing and living, loving and dreaming. And the loves and the dreams will by turns be angry, compassionate, frustrated and celebratory because like we said, Life Is Complicated, and we make our sense of it by telling our stories. ‘My Rock’n’Roll Friend’ is Tracey Thorn’s.

And it’s brilliant.

*You probably don’t need to read the book to get the gist of the joke, but read the book anyway to get the joke. It’s funny because it’s true.
** It’s not my joke, so don’t blame me if you don’t get it or if you do get it but don’t find it funny.
*** It’s still funny.

‘My Rock’n’Roll Friend’ is published by Canongate.

This article may also be available on the International Times website.