Stephen King’s The Outsider

I always feel frustrated when people tell me they don’t like the kind of books Stephen King writes, because invariably they don’t know what “kind of books” he actually does write.

He has written horror, yes, but throughout his productive 35-year career he’s also written fantasy, speculative fiction, crime  fiction and thrillers. Some works, such as The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and the Dark Tower series, are closer to literature, albeit with usually some hint of the supernatural (he can’t stop being fun altogether). As a writer he defies easy classification and smug dismissal.

Recent examples: Sleeping Beauties, with his son Owen King was nominally apocalyptic fantasy, but the epic was set firmly in hyperreal small-town America, like the earlier Under the Dome (which the TV series utterly failed to do justice to).

By contrast, Mr Mercedes marked a confident move into crime fiction, bringing the King characterisation and suspense into a straightforward, if horror-tinged, murder mystery (the Hulu TV series for this did a lot better). Finders Keepers loosely carried on this genre, storyline and characters, as does The Outsider; at least at first.

The official blurb:

An eleven-year-old boy’s violated corpse is found in a town park. Eyewitnesses and fingerprints point unmistakably to one of Flint City’s most popular citizens. He is Terry Maitland, Little League coach, English teacher, husband, and father of two girls. Detective Ralph Anderson, whose son Maitland once coached, orders a quick and very public arrest. Maitland has an alibi, but Anderson and the district attorney soon add DNA evidence to go with the fingerprints and witnesses. Their case seems ironclad.

As the investigation expands and horrifying answers begin to emerge, King’s propulsive story kicks into high gear, generating strong tension and almost unbearable suspense. Terry Maitland seems like a nice guy, but is he wearing another face? When the answer comes, it will shock you as only Stephen King can.

I won’t say how this novel begins to depart from the pattern set by Mr Mercedes and Finders Keepers. That way spoilers lie. Suffice to say it is set some years afterwards and, while borrowing a character or two, is a standalone story. Another glossy, fat, happily page-turning read that requires you only to surrender disbelief and enjoy.

And enjoy I did. If you read and liked the first two, I would definitely recommend it, but I do warn that like Finders Keepers, it doesn’t quite live up to Mr Mercedes. So if you’re new to Stephen King’s crime fiction, do start with that one instead.

 

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In which I snuggle up with an old Scottish lady

As a journo who covers and reads many stories of extreme real-life violence, my appetite for stories containing guns, beatings and murder has waned in recent years.

I’m hyper-conscious of domestic violence and psychotic mental illness and the sordid social ills that lead to them. I find myself wincing at the movies I used to love and even giving up the Netflix dramas I used to love. There’s enough drama in life. The most I can manage on a weeknight is a 20-minute giggle at Brooklyn 99 and I’d rather go back to Die Hard, which has mellowed with age, than watch the next John Wick movie.

But for some reason serial killer books remain the stuff of fantasy. There remains a level of safe remove, even of escape into unreality. That’s why one particularly grim night a week ago, after receiving some bad news about the illness of an old friend, there was no comfort like curling up with a new killer, from an old author I knew would deliver. Scottish writer Val McDermid has written 38 books over 30 years; she’s got the goods.

Insidious Intent (2017) is the latest in her most high-profile series, featuring detective inspector Carol Jordan and criminal profiler Tony Hill (you might remember, they featured in British TV series Wire in the Blood, which ran from 2002-2009).

There were unexpected evolutions for Carol and Tony in their last outing, Splinter the Silence, and I was keen to see where she took them next. I was not disappointed. Her genius lies in not just detailed, realistic police procedurals but in complex, flawed yet likeable characters. There is no point in a cracking plot if your characters fall flat, and McDermid has created a diverse and compelling cast in Tony, Carol and their motley team.

She develops them even further in this, and there is also AN AMAZING TWIST WHICH I WILL NOT RUIN FOR YOU in case you read it, which you should.

Actually you should probably read the series from the beginning in order to completely appreciate the twist. Book one was The Mermaids Singing (1995). Off you go.

 

The 10 books you must read in 2018

My records show I read 52 books during the second half of 2017 as Stu and I travelled the USA and Canada. That’s two books a week – not bad, considering what else we packed into 26 weeks. I’ve picked the top handful, the books that changed or moved me the most, to make this reading list for 2018, should you choose to accept it. It starts in March, given I got to this post rather later than I planned!

March: The Course of Love, Alain de Botton

Read in San Francisco.

Not so much a novel as popular philosophy novelised, a story examining modern love – not something natural, but something that occurs now, as it always has, within a particular social context. Alain de Botton has noticed that after the old “how’d you meet?” chestnut, no one ever seems to want to know what happened next – after the marriage. He talks about boredom, compromise, fighting, cheating. Childcare, and eventually parent care. The erosion of ideals of passion, perfection, grand romance. And then – what remains. He explores all the evidence that a lover can’t be everything, perform every function and fulfil our every need – and yet how we still expect them to be. This is a conversation society must have – indeed is always having, almost unconsciously and circuitously. De Botton gives it meaning and usefulness via a beguiling and very readable parable. Should be required reading for all adults.

April: The Ellie Chronicles, John Marsden

Union Reservoir, Longmont, Colorado

Read in Union Reservoir, Longmont, Colorado

The follow-up trilogy to John Marsden’s groundbreaking Tomorrow series, these books are riveting. I know I have now listed a trilogy as one book, but hey, they’re short. Together they make up one large book and they’re smarter than plenty of so-called adult novels. As well as satisfying the hunger to find out what happened to Ellie and her friends, they’ll remind you how blunt and delicate and evocative and honest John Marsden’s writing is. I’m so grateful this wonderful man gives us what we so badly need: our own country on the page. You can practically smell the eucalyptus wafting up from the page, yet above all these are stories of people: their loves and losses, grief and courage, the weird bonds that remain when everything else in a life changes beyond recognition.

May: The L.A. Quartet series, James Ellroy

Read in a poky room in LA.

I’m cheating again. This is actually four books. Four big, gloriously fat, difficult books. I had already read The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential. While away I completed The Big Nowhere and White Jazz. James Ellroy is known for his razor-sharp prose, hard and dense and staggering. It’s unlike any other author’s writing, ever, and you can’t really say you know crime literature or even American literature without knowing Ellroy. Be careful, though – this is the most violent stuff I’ve ever read (or seen onscreen, for that matter). It’s not for the fainthearted. It requires time and commitment and focus. It’s worth every minute. And I recognise that realistically you’re only going to finish the first one in May. That’s OK. Just make a start.

 

 

June: The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson

Echo Park, LA - a good place for reading

Read in Echo Park, L.A.

For fans of clever, classic sci-fi. So clever I confess to skim-reading some parts I just couldn’t understand (Stephenson is actually a scientist). But above all it’s a rip-roaring story. Nell is a smart but disadvantaged child in a supremely uncaring dystopia. She gets one chance to break free from her origins when she comes into possession of a stolen “book”, the world’s most precious technological creation: a copy of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. What she learns inside will change history as much as it changes her. This book is top-shelf. There’s a reason Neal Stephenson is as rare as hen’s teeth in secondhand bookstores. He is the real deal.

July: Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer

New Orleans

Read in New Orleans.

Modern literature from one of the world’s best. A family saga, an examination of modern Judaism, a visionary contemplation of the fragile peace between fraught nations, a deeply intimate look inside a crumbling marriage. A funny, sad, page-turning read, the kind you can’t put down even when your eyes get sore and you’re afraid to find out what happens. Do it for book club. Give it to anyone. Sink your teeth in. A solid bet.

August: All the Light we Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

Our first AirBnB, in Bangor, Maine

Read here in Bangor, Maine.

I seemed to read a lot of books about marriage, perhaps unsurprisingly given the opportunity to navel-gaze for six months in tiny rooms with the love of my life. The other emerging theme turned out, to my surprise, to be war and Judaism. Synchronicity perhaps, as we looked at so many museums of world history, with the Holocaust staining it all like red paint thrown across a canvas. In this vein I also read the older but still incredible The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak and the Victor E Frankl classic Man’s Search for Meaning. This book, All the Light we Cannot See, won the 2014 Pulitzer after taking the author ten years. I understood why it took so long. The quality and quantity of detail, its careful arrangement, the love and work that went into these parallel stories of a young blind French girl and a young German boy soldier in WWII glimmers from every page. An absorbing, original, readable, beautiful book to bring you to your knees.

September: The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron

Read throughout the east coast and finished somewhere around here, North Carolina.

Still flying off the shelves after 26 years in print. It’s a workbook above all else, an inspiring, amusing and practical book on loosening the pent-up creative artist inside every human – that artist most of us lock up sometime after childhood, and before adulthood. This is perhaps one of the most illuminating books I have ever read. It’s changed the way I see the world, the way I interpret every event. It ensured I not only left NYC having completed my manuscript edit, but that I spent the final few months of our trip churning out the manuscript of a second novel. And it ensured I spent all the intervening time jotting notes for the third. If you’ve ever buried a secret love of drawing, writing, painting, performing, or silently felt longing to write a screenplay or movie or play or just MAKE something, and that little ache just always stays in your heart… read this.

October: Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel

Read by the window in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

You’ve had your Alain de Botton primer and you’re ready for Lesson 2. For anyone interested in marriage, fidelity, sex and passion, healthy relationships and just the art and science of human communication, both are required reading. Esther Perel is a rock-star in the field. She has been interviewed on the Tim Ferriss Show and recommended by Dan Savage of the Savage Lovecast. A holistic, fascinating and vitally refreshing look at the poetry, politics and power of sex and the role it plays in modern relationships, it really changed my perspective. Our subsequent discussions on the topics it introduced deepened our understanding of each other and of society, and without doubt strengthened the foundations of our marriage.

 

 

November: On Writing, Stephen King 

Read on NYC subways. Lots of them.

I owe this writer so much for his inspiration and practical advice, as well as the hours of sheer pleasure of devouring everything he’s ever written. He has taught me not only that writing can be fun but that it should be fun. Yes, you can do it. Yes, you can make money. No, you don’t have to be a tortured soul or a starving artist or an alcoholic or suicidal or a drug addict to make good art. This, like all his books, is just a bloody good read. Part memoir, part deconstruction of process and part solid advice, it’s a must-read for all fans. In fact Gerald Winters, owner of the King bookstore in Bangor, Maine, told me the vast majority of King fans, writers or not, name this their favourite of all his works.

December: Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach

 

Read near Woodstock in the Catskill Mountains, upstate NY

Don’t hold the title against her. The publisher probably made her do it. Tara Brach, also featured on the Tim Ferriss Show, is an American meditation teacher. Don’t hold that against her either. Hell, just swallow all your judgy superior thoughts and excuses about why you don’t meditate for a minute, all right? This book is wise and powerful and compassionate. It’s a thoughtful examination of the role suffering plays in human lives. It offers an – dare I say it? –  enlightened understanding of the experience of being a thinking, feeling, loving, living, feeling, hurting person. It addresses that gap you feel deep inside yourself, the one that usually makes you go and get another glass of wine or handful of crisps rather than thinking about what’s bothering you. Reading this book made me do that thinking and it reverberates through my consciousness daily.

 

OK, now it’s December, you don’t have time for any more reading. Go do your Christmas shopping.

Hercule Poirot is alive and well in The Monogram Murders

hannah-monogram-murdersI was dubious when I heard modern crime writer Sophie Hannah was approved by the descendants of Agatha Christie to resurrect her detective Hercule Poirot, beloved by many.
So dubious I avoided it on its release in 2014. I read positive reviews, which mentioned Hannah’s chops as a crime writer, her love of all things Poirot and her faithful promise she  would cut no corners in dusting him off for a new case.
This was good enough for the family, but inexplicably still not good enough for me, so I just eyed it suspiciously in bookshops every time I passed it, stroking the cover creepily but still not quite trusting.
I love Poirot, OK?
Dipping my toe in, I assessed Hannah’s skills by reading her Kind of Cruel, which I found highly satisfactory, twisty and mucky like all good crime.
Finally took the plunge on The Monogram Murders and – ! – was not disappointed.
This has the wit and psychological insight Hannah clearly already commands, and that obviously made her an ideal choice for the project.
It’s also, more importantly, so spot-on rendition of Poirot that – and I feel disloyal, but – I just can’t tell the difference. I can actually hear David Suchet speaking the lines. The rhythm, the cadence, the humour; all perfect.
It’s uncanny, as though the Belgian detective, quirks, mannerisms, wardrobe and all, has stepped prissily from the yellowed pages of Agatha Christie into another woman’s book, where he is rendered in loving, lifelike detail and doesn’t even have the grace to look embarrassed.
Strait-laced young detective Catchpool makes a good solid foil, just the kind Poirot needs to shine. The murders, too are very Christie. Three corpses are found laid out in three different rooms of the same hotel, each with a monogrammed cufflink in his or her mouth.
The plot is full of classic Christie tropes and features, though I will not say what they were for fear of spoilers, and is quite as convoluted and macabre as Christie at her nastiest.
Yet nothing feels contrived or formulaic. It does not feel exactly like Christie and yet I could not put my finger on any difference. You can feel the confidence and the the fun the author has had, and it is infectious. A joy to read.
I’ve caught up just in time – the family must have been happy, too, because her second Poirot mystery, Closed Casket, is now on shelves. Hurrah!

The difference between L.A. Confidential the book and L.A. Confidential the movie

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Firstly, apologies for my four-month absence, but I have been doing some editing for a friend and it sucked up a fair bit of blogging time. On the plus side, I now know how to edit a doctorate and I now know a lot more than before about the architecture of nations that have been colonised by the Portugese than I did before.
On-topic, it would probably be quicker for me to tell you what is the same about the book and the movie: “The first third. Kinda.”

An abandoned auto court in the San Berdoo foothills; Buzz Meeks checked in with ninety-four thousand dollars, eighteen points of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic, and a switchblade he’d bought off a pachuco at the border – right before he spotted the car parked across the line: Mickey Cohen goons in an LAPD unmarked, Tijuana cops standing by to bootjack a piece of his goodies, dump his body in the San Ysidro River.

If you’re a fan of the stylish, brilliantly cast neo-noir film do not waste a minute getting this book. You might think with the quality crime oozing from shelves these days there is no point reading a crime novel from 1990 that is set in the 1950s but you’re dead wrong. This is hands down one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read  (and dude, I have read a boatload).

And it is way, way, way different from the film. I finished this book, with lots of “oh my Gods” and goosebumps, wondering how the hell they were going to fit a plot like that into the movie (which I’d seen long enough ago not to remember the plot too well) so of course I immediately forced the Ministry to watch it with me, though he did not take a lot of forcing because it’s pretty rare to get me to sit still for two and a half hours these days.

So the answer to how to fit a plot like that into the movie was, of course, not to. You think you know the story of L.A. Confidential? What you know is basically a subplot of the grand, horrible, confronting, sordid, brain-teasing, almost impossibly complex story that spans decades. You’ll just about need to keep a notebook next to you. By comparison, it makes the characters in the movie look two-dimensional and the plot like child’s play, safe and tame. And this from a person who loved the movie.

On reading, you’ll not only be rewarded by not only a BONUS NEW ENDING and eye-popping violence but the inimitable, sometimes virtually incomprehensible but always awesome L.A.P.D lingo that plunges you headfirst into a time and a place that is long gone (and full of hinky hopheads) but forever exhilarating.

Bonus fact: this is part of James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, which also comprises The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere and White Jazz. I’ve only read The Black Dahlia, which was also dark and strong, but it didn’t knock my socks off like this did. The others I’ll get to, but next up for me is Ellroy’s My Dark Places: an L.A. Crime Memoir.

In which I tell you whether Lee Child’s 20th Reacher book has anything new to offer

More than happy to fork over airport prices for this baby.

More than happy to fork over airport prices for this baby.

Lee Child apparently writes one Reacher book per year and has done for the past 20 – he starts each September.

I love a good routine myself, so I like to read one Reacher book each year, starting around each September, when the new ones are released.

So I know what to expect from a Reacher book.

 

 

For those who don’t (inexcusable) – the books, like most crime series featuring a strong central protagonist or two, Reacher books are formulaic. Jack Reacher was born into a US military family and spent his childhood in temporary homes on military bases. Then he spent his adult working life as a military cop posted to more temporary bases. He has never known permanency or possessions.

A hulking bloke, a fighting machine born and trained for detective work, after his honourable discharge he can’t hack the thought of settled civilian life. So he treats the United States like another set of temporary bases, moving from town to town, hitching rides and catching buses in between, a perpetual traveller. He travels with only what he has in his pockets, buying cheap new clothes and junking them when they get dirty, living in motels, working casually from time to time – but never for long in the same spot. In each book, he hits a town with a dark secret, something fishy going on, and his unshakable sense of right and wrong (not necessarily matching the same compass points as anyone else’s sense of right and wrong) he gets embroiled in a mystery.

The books stand out not only for the supremely original and consistently drawn character but for solid, inventive plotting and – above all – minutely detailed fight scenes, detective work, military training and weapons knowledge.

These books require a little more suspension of disbelief each time (Reacher walks into trouble, something strange is going on in this town, it all starts in the local diner, he chooses not to walk away and there’s an eminently fuckable woman mixed up in it all) but the formula is all part of the fun, making these books like an annual birthday present when you know exactly what you’re getting but you never get any less excited.

The formula has won Lee Child fans across the globe. He is the crime writer that other crime writers read, one of the most famous working today.

To illustrate, when I’m walking home from the bus reading this I pass a lady checking her mailbox. We exchange smiles, then she pauses. “Ooo, my sister-in-law is reading that,” she says. Two days later I’m reading it on the bus and I’m the last passenger, so I’m waiting by the driver’s door to hop off. He looks at the book and says “ooo, I’ve read some of those. Is that a new one? Can I read the back?” And I wait for him to read the blurb, then we have a little conversation about how great Lee Child is. Just yesterday I saw a bloke in my office building carrying a Lee Child on the elevator. Pretty much whole family, regardless of age, gender or usual book taste, reads this series.

Party of five: Me, Lee Child, the Ministry, the dog and the pizza (not pictured. Got et.)

Party of five: me, Lee Child, Ministry, the dog and the pizza (not pictured. Got et.)

The 2014 release, Personal, got me so excited I begged off the usual Sunday night hangover movie and glued myself to it. Then I abandoned cooking dinner and ordered pizza so I didn’t have to stop reading, something that basically only ever otherwise happens in the Ministry’s wildest dreams. I thought while reading it that Child was at the top of his game. The humour was more pronounced than the faint dry humour usually present and it spoke of absolute confidence and a certain playfulness.

In 2015 I thought, can he do it again?

There are some differences in Make Me. The subject matter of this book is also darker than usual. The humour has not vanished, but it’s dialled right back down. It also gets into unfamiliar territory plot-wise, even for this most wide-ranging of series. There is a focus on technology, an entirely new direction for Child’s old-school protagonist. I’m amazed to tell you that Reacher encounters a woman who is not a tiny, willowy blonde. And we get a glimpse of vulnerability in Reacher we have never seen before, which adds unutterably to the suspense level. It all seems to add up to a new maturity and intensity for this series.

Best of all, it ends tantalisingly, with a question mark.

Do not, I repeat, do not watch the one movie made from this series so far (One Shot, starring Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher). It will ruin this series for you before you’ve even begun.

But there is no doubt Lee Child still has plenty up his sleeve. Do yourself a favour and check out this series.

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 21: The Mystery of Swordfish Reef (Arthur W. Upfield, 1943)

Books left: 5. Weeks left: 8 (In the words of Douglas Adams, DON’T PANIC)

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Oh no, this was not his natural background, this heaving water which retained nothing on its surface for long. This was 11 January, and the genesis of the case, dated 3 October, was out here far from land. Life and the elements leave their records on the bush for years; but here on the sea life and the elements left no record for even such as he to read.
In all his bush cases he had many allies: the birds and the insects; the ground which was like the pages of a huge book wherein were printed the acts of all living things; the actions of rain and sunlight and wind. And greater than all these added together was his ally Time. And now of all his former allies only Time was with him.

Here lies another author I would never have discovered without working in ye olde secondhand bookshop and being familiar with its ‘literary crime’ section.

Books of this genre are characterised by their size, being neither the new-release “trade paperback” size or the pocket “A-formats” that generally follow. Literary crime novels are usually “B-format,” the same size as your literary fiction, and as they never fit in the general and crime fiction “troughs” so were generally poked into their own sad little section underneath that no-one saw. This was a shame, because these are some of the best books: a little off the beaten track in content as well as location, they represented the best of both worlds. Arthur Upfield proves that this holds true now as ever, a classic example of this rather unlikely genre: this Australian 1940s author’s hero is detective inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, investigator extraordinaire, bush tracker unparalleled and identified as was in those days called a “half-caste” Aborigine.

Upfield’s mysteries have earned their place as classics in Australian as well as crime fiction.

In this title “Bony”, as he prefers to be called, is asked to go to sea, a little swordfishing town called Bermagui on the coast of New South Wales, He must investigate a murder that appears to have occurred on the open water, and that has baffled the local and regional police.

I wondered for the first part whether I would be bored. I am not a particular fan of things angling or any stories that smell of the ocean – for someone who pities genre snobs, I sure do avoid general thrillers and seafaring fiction.

But the passion and suspense of hunting game fish, with all accompanying bloodlust, is masterfully done in this book. I, poor innocent, soon realised that swordfish were not the two or three-foot jobs I had imagined and I quickly became fascinated. I did a lot of Google-imaging before I was sated.

What begins as a charmingly dignified old-school mystery ends in a satisfying wash of adventure.
Without having even familiarised myself with Bony’s usual stomping-ground, I am delighted by the story of his being a fish (ha!) out of water.

When I am in my native bush, gentlemen … everything I observe, except the clouds, is static. On the sea nothing is static. A ship does not leave tracks on the sea.

And oh, the mystery! I was quickly sucked into this tale, with its distinctly Agatha-Christie type premise of a fishing launch, the Do-me, that vanishes without a trace, and the discovery of the murder of one of those aboard when we know she was seaworthy and those on her trustworthy. Like Marple or Poirot, Bony adores a puzzle such as this.

And so, having read all their reports and having gone through their collection of statements, I decided that this was a meaty bone on which to try the teeth of my brain.
It is certainly an out of the way case. I have to admit that I shy clear of crimes of violence where there are fingerprints and revolvers, bodies and missing valuables, and a nark or two in a thieves’ kitchen waiting to inform for the price of a beer. I like my cases minus bodies and minus clues, if possible. Which is why this
Do-me case so attracts me.

Bony is like my beloved Poirot, too, in his immaculate turnout, grand manner and “abnormal vanity” and lack of bother about things like procedure or the chain of custody; “his custom [much like Poirot’s] being to fade away after having placed the key-stone of an investigation into position.”

A note on historical context – apart from the occasional alarming use of the word half-caste, which is to the modern reader the equivalent of throwing a grenade on to the page; and a slightly hair-raising instance of Bony’s “Aboriginal instincts” rising up in a time of extremity to allow a “primitive” rage to rise to the surface, these instances are in exception to the general tone of the book, which has minimal reference to Bony’s origins, apart from the occasional pointing out the lack of prejudice other characters greet him with once they witness his “educated” voice and elegant manners. Perhaps in the other books’ more landlocked settings the racial elements are more pronounced.

Add to Upfield’s masterful mystery and delightful hero a pretty turn of phrase, and like a swordfish, I’m hooked. (Sorry, I’ll stop.).

I have found another crime writer I love… as if I needed one.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac here.