Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Blackhouse, by Peter May

The Blackhouse,

by Peter May

Published by Quercus

This is the first part of the Lewis Trilogy and the only one I've read so far, though I have down-loaded the others.  The Blackhouse is Tartan Noir - very, very Noir, so be prepared for some gruesome twists and turns.  A man is discovered hanged and mutilated in a boat shed at a small village on the Isle of Lewis.  Fin Macleod is sent to investigate, partly because it's a copy-killing of a murder he's been investigating in Edinburgh, and partly because Crobost is his home village.  The timing is bad - Fin is grieving for his young son, killed in an accident, and for the marriage that couldn't survive the loss.

Fin has rarely been back to his roots, for reasons that gradually become very clear in the novel.  But, as he investigates the brutal murder, he has to confront the fall-out from things that happened in his childhood - a youthful obsession with Marsaili, now married to his old friend Artair - and the strange events that happened on a coming-of-age trip to cull the 'guga' on a remote rocky island - events that have had long-reaching consequences.

The claustrophobic nature of the Hebridean island is perfectly evoked in the novel - you can smell the peat and feel the constant Atlantic wind tugging at your hair.  The roots of the crime lie in the nature of the island community, with its gossiping tongues and bleak Calvinist values, as well as strong codes of honour that protect both the innocent and the guilty.

Peter May is a Scottish author, born in Glasgow, who has written literally hundreds of television plays and episodes for series and also has a dozen best-selling thrillers on the shelves as well.  That kind of experience shows in the taut dialogue and the spare writing - not a wasted word. Definitely a must-read!

The Blackhouse, Peter May, Quercus

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Brian Moore by Patricia Craig

Brian Moore
by Patricia Craig
Published by Bloomsbury

The first adult book I ever read, (apart from classics), was Brian Moore's Feast of Lupercal when I was 12 years old.  It was my mother's library book and I read it secretly, the explicit sexual content giving me hot flushes.  But apart from the thrill of the illicit, I was aware even then of the quality of the prose.  It was set in a school and schools and school-masters were familiar territories.  The novel laid bare their secret lives. Even to an innocent 12 year old (and I was) the atmosphere of claustrophobia, thwarted lust and the humiliation of sexual inadequacy, was vividly conveyed.

After that I read quite a few of his novels, though they were all so different from one another that I didn't always like them.  The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The Black Robe, The Temptation of Eileen Hughes were the ones I favoured, but my absolute favourite by a  mile was I am Mary Dunne, which I still think is a masterpiece.  A day in the life of a pre-menstrual, unstable woman who isn't sure who she is - at the time I read it, the psychological profile fitted me like a glove. I couldn't believe it had been written by a man.

So I pounced on this biography of Brian Moore in a second hand shop, wondering why I hadn't noticed its publication.  Published by Bloomsbury, written by a respected journalist and editor, it held out high hopes which were quickly dashed.   How could a respectable publisher like Bloomsbury allow such a badly edited book?  The prose inclines to the academic, serious in tone, but contains phrases such as 'After the exhibitions  and gold-medals and what-not obtained during his schooldays ....'  'Socially, her background seems a bit of a hotch-potch . . .' etc etc.    

The first couple of chapters are an impenetrable maze of three (or was it four?) generations of Brian's family tree before he was born.  The families are large and many of the names are the same or very similar. Confusion had set in before the end of chapter one, but I pressed on.  The justification for this seemed to be that Brian drew heavily on his family for the characters in his novels, so I would need this information later on when the novels came up for discussion.  That didn't seem to happen.

I did learn more about Brian Moore's life and his complicated family politics, but never felt that Patricia Craig got close to his essential character, even though she knew him and he had given her hours of interviews before he died. He had a triple identity - Northern Irish Catholic, Canadian citizen, but living in America. Mind-boggling! She never gets to the heart of his novels quite, and this is a pity - I wanted to know and that's why I carried on reading. Most of the biography is concerned with Brian up to middle age - the last half of his life seems to be crammed into the final chapters of the book in something of a hurry, yet some of his later books are his most important. It was also the period when he was living shoulder to shoulder with members of the 'jet-set' - there's a brief glimpse of Bianca Jagger and David Hockney dropping in for an impromptu party, and a dinner with Hitchcock, but I'd have liked more.

She also skipped lightly over the period when he wrote about a dozen best-selling thrillers (under a pseudonym) in order to pay the bills and buy time to write the serious novels.  This was something I didn't know about and it must surely have been very important in the process of learning his craft.

The biography also infuriated me by referring to events before they'd actually occurred, giving vital information which, when the event did happen I had to skip backwards to re-read. Sometimes events weren't referred to at all until they were long-gone.  I only discovered that Brian had been a creative writing fellow at UCLA for 17 years, when his letter of resignation was referred to.  Time-hopping, I believe, is something the biographer should try to avoid for the sake of clarity.

This book is such a lost opportunity - a fascinating subject and one of the most important novelists of the twentieth century.  The author had all the material -  it just needed a good editor!

Note to self - must read The Emperor of Ice Cream.......