Short Stories 2: “Blue & Sentimental”

A blog post or so back I wrote about the business of writing short stories and the first – my first – “Now’s the Time” – in particular. Well, the arrival from the States of the US edition of Ten Year Stretch, published by Poisoned Pen Press, brings me to my most recent published story, “Blue & Sentimental”. Title courtesy of Count Basie this time, rather than Charlie Parker. And in place of Charlie Resnick, the central character is my London-based private detective, Jack Kiley.

Stretch

 

Ten Year Stretch brings together twenty stories commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of CrimeFest, the Bristol-based festival of crime writing and writers. Edited by Martin Edwards and Adrian Muller and published in the UK by No Exit Press, it features a broad range of contributors, from Ian Rankin to Sophie Hannah, Lee Child to Simon Brett, Ann Cleeves to Mick Herron and James Sallis to Zoe Sharp.

My story had its beginnings in a lunchtime meeting in Dalston, East London, with a long-time friend, now living in Ireland, and her daughter Lucy, and is dedicated to Lucy and her partner, Anna. Just around the corner from our lunch spot is the Vortex, a jazz club I’ve been patronising in its different guises for some little while. Aside from the good music upstairs,  Nicki Heinen runs a monthly poetry and jazz session in their downstairs bar where I’ve read on a couple of occasions. All of which set the story in motion. This is how it begins …

Kiley hadn’t been to the Vortex in years. A celebration of Stan Tracey’s 75th birthday, December, 2001. Bobby Wellins joining the pianist on tenor sax, the two of them twisting and turning through In Walked Bud before surprising everyone with a latin version of My Way which, for the duration of its playing and some time after, erased all thoughts of Frank Sinatra from memory. Now both Tracey and Wellins were dead and the Vortex had moved across east London, from Stoke Newington to Dalston. A corner building with a bar downstairs and the club room above, which was where Kiley was sitting now, staring out across Gillett Square, waiting for the music to begin.

The call had come around noon the previous day, just as he was leaving the flat, his mind set on a crispy pork bahn mi sandwich from the Vietnamese place across the street from the Forum. The 02 Forum, as it was now less fortunately called, Kiley old enough to wish for things to be left, mostly, as they were.

“Am I speaking to Jack Kiley?”

He’d assured her that she was.

“You find people who’ve gone missing?”

“Once in a while.”

“That doesn’t sound too encouraging.”

“I’m sorry.”

There was a silence in which he guessed she was making up her mind. If he moved the phone closer he could hear the faint rasp of her breathing.

“Can you meet me?” she said eventually.

“That depends.”

“Tomorrow? Tomorrow afternoon? Somewhere around four? Four thirty?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“You know the Vortex? It’s just off … “

“… Kingsland High Street. Yes, I know.”

“I’ll see you there.”

She rang off before he could ask her name.

Out in the square a group of elderly black men were sitting quietly playing dominoes, oblivious to the cries of small children and the bump and clatter of skate boarders negotiating a succession of mostly successful pirouettes and arabesques.

Behind Kiley, the musicians who had been arriving, haphazardly, for the past ten minutes or so, stood chatting, shrugging off their coats, freeing instruments from their cases, starting to tune up. On stage, the drummer finished angling the last of his cymbals correctly and played an exploratory paradiddle on the snare. With the concentration of someone threading a needle, one of the saxophone players fitted a new reed into place.

Gradually, the composition of the ensemble took shape: rhythm section at the back, piano off to one side; three trumpets; two, no, three trombones; the saxophones, five strong, down at the front of the stage, one – the bartitone player – leaning back against the side wall.

The leader stepped forward, called a number from the band’s book, signalled with his hand: four bars from the piano then four more and the sound of fifteen musicians filled the room.

Smiling, Kiley eased back in his chair.

The repertoire mixed original compositions with new arrangements of the tried and tested; after an extended work out on Take the A Train, Kiley got up and made his way to the bar.

Only one woman sat alone amongst a scattering of couples and a dozen or more single men; smartly yet casually dressed, dark hair swept back, Kiley wondered if she might be the person he was meeting, but when he passed close by her table she gave no sign, and by the time he’d paid for his beer she’d been joined by a stylishly bearded thirty-something energetically apologising for being late.

Back at his seat by the window, Kiley saw that a woman wearing a bottle green apron over a brightly patterned floor-length dress had stationed herself behind the domino players and was busily cutting hair, a short but steadily lengthening line of clients waiting their turn. A quartet of youths criss-crossed the square on scooters, revving noisily, while on stage the band strolled its way into the interval number, a slow rolling blues that climaxed all of ten minutes later, electric guitar ringing out over a volley of brass.

As the applause faded, the musicians began to set their instruments aside, the taller of the two tenor players unclipping her saxophone from its sling before crossing the room.

“Jack Kiley? I’m Leah Temple.”

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Short Stories 1: “Now’s the Time”

It’s always a good day when an envelope falls onto the mat, the telephone rings (both of those events increasingly rare) or an email pings into my Inbox, asking me if I would like to contribute a short story to a forthcoming collection. This especially if it means my work will be published alongside that of other writers whose work I admire and if the person doing the asking as an editor or publisher who ranks high in my estimation. Oh, and mention of a small fee is always a bonus.

One such message arrived earlier this year from the esteemed Maxim Jakubowski – a man, who by his own admission, has been responsible for over a hundred anthologies over the years. But in the world of writing and publishing, all good things (as I well know) approach an end, and, according to Maxim, the volume of all-new crime stories he is currently putting together – provisionally titled Invisible Blood – will be his last. Could he, he asks, convince me to contribute a story? Could he stop me?

It was Maxim who first persuaded me to write a short story – a form I had spent a good many years avoiding – the result being “Now’s the Time”, which, title borrowed from  Charlie Parker, first appeared in the collection, London Noir, in 1994.

London Noir

This is how it begins …

“They’re all dying, Charlie.”

They had been in the kitchen, burnished tones of Clifford Brown’s trumpet, soft like smoke from down the hall. Dark rye bread sliced and ready, coffee bubbling, Resnick had tilted the omelette pan and let the whisked eggs swirl around before forking the green beans and chopped red pepper into their midst. The smell of garlic and butter permeated the room.

Ed Silver stood watching, trying to ignore the cats that nudged, variously, around his feet. Through wisps of grey hair, a fresh scab showed clearly among the lattice-work of scars. The hand which held the glass was swollen at the knuckles and it shook.

“S’pose you think I owe you one, Charlie? That it?”

Earlier that evening, Resnick had talked Silver out of swinging a butcher’s cleaver through his own bare foot. “What I thought, Charlie, start at the bottom and work your way up, eh?” Resnick had bundled him into a cab and brought him home, stuck a beer in his hand and set to making them both something to eat. He hadn’t seen Ed Silver in ten years or more, a drinking club in Carlton whose owner liked his jazz; Silver had set out his stall early, two choruses of “I’ve Got Rhythm” solo, breakneck tempo, bass and drums both dropping our and the pianist grinning, open-mouthed. The speed of thought: those fingers then.

Resnick divided the omelette on to two plates. “You want to bring that bread,” he said. “We’ll eat in the other room.”

The boldest of the cats, Dizzy, followed them hopefully through. The Clifford Brown Memorial album was still playing. “Theme of No Repeat”.

“They’re all dying, Charlie.”

“Who?”

“Every bugger!”

And now it was true.

The story I’m going to write for Maxim’s last anthology, it had better be a Resnick story, I think. One that involves him in some significant way, at least. Resnick in retirement, kicking his heels a bit. Harking back. Thinking of Ed Silver, perhaps …

SILVER Edward Victor. Suddenly at home, on February 16, 1993. Acclaimed jazz musician of the be-bop era. Funeral service and memorial meeting, Friday, February 19 at Golders Green Crematorium at 11.45 am.

A story that begins, perhaps, with the line …

“They’re all dying, Charlie.”

Get to Resnick’s age and they’re starting to fall like ninepins.

If anyone wants to read (or re-read) “Now’s the Time”, it’s included in the Arrow paperback of the same name, along with ten other Resnick short stories.

Now's the Time

 

CrimeMag on “Body & Soul”

BODY&SOUL

Alf Mayer’s review of Body & Soul appeared online in the June 2018 edition of CrimeMag.
Anyone wishing to read it in the original German, can do so here, otherwise you must contend with my faltering, but, I hope, basically accurate translation …

Here goes …

Often you sit there and all you can think is: Masterly!

On April 19, William Heinemann published John Harvey’s novel Body & Soul, the fourth and last book featuring former police detective Frank Elder. It is a swan song – in several ways. Harvey confirmed on his blog that this would be his last book. “Jump of your own accord,” he said, “before being pushed.”

Harvey will be 80 on December 21st of this year – something to be clearly stated and celebrated. In March, he made public that he is being treated for aggressive prostate cancer, and does not want to hide the fact that he receiving chemotherapy. “It’s important,” he wrote to me, “that you’re not ashamed of that. We need a different way of dealing with illness in our society, that is my clear opinion.”

Before Elder there was his detective Charlie Resnick, whom Harvey followed through twelve novels, one of which, Darkness, Darkness [Unter Tage, 2017], he adapted for the stage in Nottingham – see my CrimeMag interview from 2016.

Darkness, Darkness 1

 

Cover_Harvey_Unter Tage

Playhouse

But having set Elder aside, as he had thought for good, Harvey mentioned that he had a new idea for him which he wanted to develop in order to see what happened. And now that idea has become a farewell that has everything.

A hammer of a book!
Had John Harvey only written this one, we would remember him forever.
Jump before being pushed indeed!
Old and tattered but still full of juice.
Not a gram of fat too much.
Poetic and brutal.
An ending that freezes the blood.
Chords that reverberate for a long time. Like a masterly piece of jazz that will not be forgotten and which one knows on first encountering will always return.
Body & Soul.

John Harvey, like Elmore Leonard, began his career with Westerns. It’s been over 40 years now. He talked about it In his first column on CrimeMag. He was one of the “Piccadilly Cowboys”, with, amongst others, a series called Hart the Regulator, ten volumes published by Pan in paperback between 1980 and 1983. “In those days we wrote ‘em fast!” Hard, short, fast stuff. Pulp.

hart

But not only that. Not many crime writers, like him, have published three volumes of poetry. Not many people know and understand as much jazz and can write about it. [Recently here at CrimeMag: “Looking at Lester”] And not all of them have such slender-beautiful language. Pulp. Poetry. And jazz.

Ghosts

Whooosh, the brushes dabbed across the drum skin. Broiing, the deepest string on the double bass. And then the tenor saxophone. All this is Body & Soul. Harvey knows how to pluck strings, when to use which instrument. When and how the resonance chamber of his novel fills with strength-grief-pain-beauty-hardness-heart. Often you sit there and all you can think is: Masterly!

“Oh Frank, it’s just a song.”

Frank Elder is the dark side of Charlie Resnick. His somewhat short-tempered patience tears easily. After a police career in London, a demoralizing divorce and a fierce family tragedy, he has retreated to far-off Cornwall, where he occasionally helps the local police. When his alienated 23-year-old daughter Katherine comes to visit – “No questions, Daddy! Otherwise I’ll be gone,” – he has to control himself so as not to stare at the bandages on her wrists. Even more, not to ask. He goes to a pub with her, maybe there’s music there. What kind? Jazz, probably, he says. But you don’t even like jazz, says the daughter.

Frank Elder is not Charlie Resnick, sitting on a park bench at the end of Darkness, Darkness, pondering on Thelonious Monk and how well he can paint pictures on the piano. Instead, Harvey gives Elder a scene in which he walks away from a bar singer called Vicki, who has taken an interest in him, and who sings, as if just to him, the Billie Holiday version of the book’s title, Body & Soul.

My days have grown so lonely
For you I cry, for you dear only
Why haven’t you seen it
I’m all for you, body and soul …

I spend my days in longing 
I’m wondering why it’s me you’re wronging …

My life a hell you’re making
You know I’m yours for just the taking
I’d gladly surrender
Myself to you body and soul.

A piece about perseverance, about spurned love in defiance. Charlie Resnick would ponder whether the instrumental version by Coleman Hawkings of October 11th, 1939, or the later version by Ben Webster would be better. Elder leaves as Vicki sings the lyrics, goes down to the water, his hands and thoughts numb until Vicki comes and stands beside him. Here is the beautiful passage …

A blues next, then an up-tempo chase through, ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do’, and then … 
 “This is a song I learned from a recording by Billie Holiday that she made way back in nineteen forty and which I first heard when I was eighteen or nineteen and I’ve been plucking up the courage to sing it ever since. So fingers crossed and here goes. ‘Body and Soul.’”
A few bars of sparse piano and the lyric … My days have grown so lonely … Nailing Elder from the first line, a threnody of helplessness, love and despair. Vicki’s voice by the final verse, the final chorus, beaten, defeated, little more than a whisper. Silence. And then the applause. Elder walked out in the night.
Walked towards the harbour, lights on the water.

Oh Frank, Vicki says to him, as she stands beside him and looks for his hand, it’s just a song, it does not have to be true love, at our age. When he puts an arm around her waist, he does not have to look at her to know she is smiling. Shall we go in your car, she says, or mine?

On another occasion, these two life-worn adults talk about how movies, books, and songs tell us about our own broken hearts, how they teach us what we should feel – Ernest fucking Hemingway, as Elder calls him, and all the others who have shaped our ideas of love and pain. And how, in the end, we are alone.

And all the more painfully, we experience through Harvey’s art a young woman being sacrificed again: Frank Elder’s daughter, kidnapped and tortured and raped at sixteen, barely escaping from death, saved by the father, though ultimately that was of little help; now she is twenty three and strangely ambivalent; sometimes seeking help yet dismissing closeness; rugged, leaping, vulnerable. And most importantly: just mute.

“That’s my daughter, you sick fuck!”

From Chapter 5, Harvey changes the narrative more often. We no longer follow only the ex-cop Frank Elder, but also his daughter, and then an increasing number of police officers, men and women, as the narrative strands increase, setting the heart racing. At first, the adrenaline rushes are isolated and controlled until, in Harvey’s hands, this tremendously taut book leaps alive like a wild animal. It is a long time since I have felt my heart beating as strongly when reading as here.

Frank’s daughter, Katherine, has been having an affair with a painter twice her age for whom she has been modelling and this has opened up old psychic wounds, throwing her off balance. Frank Elder travels from Cornwall, five and a half hours by train to London, wanting to be closer to Katherine. He visits an exhibition by this painter, Anthony Winter, and recognizes his daughter. Painted on large format canvasses. Exposed. Spread. Tied up. Like a prisoner. In front of one of these pictures his nausea rises as he stares at a thread of blood running from the young woman’s vagina.

“That’s my daughter, you sick fuck!” He roars, knocking down the painter. A few days later he is under suspicion of murder, the artist having been killed in his own studio. A father who sees his daughter naked like that in a painting – of course, he gets angry, says Elder at his interrogation. “It was the paintings. His. Winter’s. There on display. ”

Then there are new developments. Surveillance cameras show a female figure near the studio; it could be Elder’s daughter, suspicion weighs heavily upon her. The conflicts are piling up. But just half way through the book, when everything is already violent enough, once again there’s a strong drum roll. Adam Keach, the 30-year-old convicted murderer, kidnapper and rapist who previously assualted Katherine, has escaped in an accident involving his transport between prisons. And immediately he is on a mission. He wants to take revenge on Elder, who put him in prison seven years before, and he wants to grab his daughter again. Finish what he did with her then.

“No last minute rescue this time, Frank …”

So the past returns with lightning and thunder. The emotional mutilations of that time overlap with acute lines of conflict; Kate’s rude relationship with the despotic and now dead painter is but one of the unequal power relations in the book. Harvey, however, does not paint everything black and white, he varies his themes within the orchestration of his novel. There are other readings of unequal and uneven relationships, be it the ex-girlfriend of the murdered painter who has returned from Cyprus, be it Elder’s relationship with his own ex-wife or with former colleagues. In many shades the shadows and wounds of the past push into the present, reflecting the psychological costs of crime and the smaller malignancies that one experiences in everyday life. “How do you cope with this, how can you forget what this girl has experienced?” – “You cannot do it.”

In many variants, it is always about how to deal with life. Father-daughter relationships are questioned, and also how parents and children move away from each other. As the epigraph of the book, from Grahams Greene’s Our Man in Havana,  states “The separating years approached them both, like a station down the line, all gain for and all loss for him “.

Charlie Resnick had jazz for such moments of nothingness and Harvey offers this kind of music to Frank Elder as well, but in this dark universe it is only of limited help. “No last minute rescue this time, Frank …”

You sit with this book and, as you read, marvel at how John Harvey, master and commander of language that moves between the dust-dry of the everyday and poetic oscillation, achieves his means. There are ultra-tough police interrogations and word battles, the agonizing silence between parents and children, the professional talk of police officers surveying their cases; there is the world of galleries, models and the genius of artists; and there is the sophisticated and soulful police novel – manhunt, thriller. There are discreet and hard sounds. There’s a lot of lacuna. Poetry. There are landscapes, city and provincial. There are many inspiring miniatures. Art galleries, art house cinemas, old colleagues, an investigator who is half of a lesbian  couple: all of these disciplined and economically set in an exciting style.

Glancing at her again, Hadley was struck by an image, a flicker of memory, one of those films from the sixties she and Rachel luxuriated in once in a while – or had before Hadley’s promotion to detective chief inspector cut their leisure time by half. Glistening black-and-white, 35-millimeter prints at the BFI Southbank or the recently refurbished Regent Street cinema, a cocktail in the bar beforehand, supper afterwards. Rachel, a film buff since her university days. Bergman, Bresson, Godard, Kieslowski and Kaurismaki. And Alice, Hadley thought, was almost a dead ringer for Jean Seberg in “À Bout de Souffle” : the wide eyes, the dark eyebrows and off-blonde elfin-cut hair. Alice wearing black as usual, black jumper, black trousers, black shoes. Glancing now at the GPS, two more turns before drawing up outside the Wilton estate.

… Then the two investigators are with Katherine and the tone of the book changes. As it does quite often. Again and again. Like a breathtaking concert with John Harvey as the conductor, guiding our responses.

F&B 1

The Body & Soul UK hardcover also features the first few chapters of Flesh & Blood, John Harvey’s first Frank Elder novel, which is now back in paperback. One will want to re-read everything immediately after finishing this.

Alf Mayer

John Harvey: Body & Soul. William Heinemann, London 2018. 304 pages, GBP 14.99.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barry MacSweeney : Hellhound on His Tail

Desire

Coming in at a little over 340 pages, Desire Lines,  Barry MacSweeney’s Unselected Poems, edited – scrupulously and caringly – by Luke Roberts, and published by Shearsman Books, pays testimony to a poet who was driven by his own devils; by the need to wrestle his verse into a shape that would allow him best to express his most loving and bitter feelings, his growing anger at the changing state of the nation, and the never-ending quest for an often savage and particular beauty. Even then, as Roberts acknowledges, there is no way in which this volume could hope to bring together all of MacSweeney’s work uncontained in the ‘official’ selected, Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems, 1965-2000, edited by Neil Astley and published by Bloodaxe in 2003. He simply wrote too much.

Wolf Tongue

Robert’s intention then, as he states in his introduction,  is to “give the reader a deeper understanding of MacSweeney’s achievements” and “restore to view the volatility with which MacSweeney composed, read, and handled his poems.” What we might also find here is an answer to the sad conundrum Roberts refers to in his opening paragraph – why it was that having emerged on the crest of “the great poetry renaissance of the 1960s, he died with hardly any of his work in print?”

One of the reasons for this can be found in the fact that much of his work was published – sometimes, it might be argued, too hastily and not very well – by independent presses, while other poets were following a more cautious and orthodox route. But MacSweeney had suffered from the treatment accorded from some quarters to his first collection, The Boy From the Green Cabaret Tells of His Mother, which was overhyped by its mainstream publisher Hutchinson in an attempt to jump onto the Mersey Sound bandwagon, with MacSweeney as some kind of youthful cross between the Beats and Roger McGough. But – no disrespect to either poet – another McGough, MacSweeney was not.

I first met Barry MacSweeney towards the end of the 1970s when he was one of the tutors on an Arvon Foundation poetry course in which I was a participant, and it was difficult not to be swept up into his overwhelming pursuit of what he saw as the ‘real’, the authentic, his absolute disdain for the fake or the weak. Along with the American poet, Alan Brooks [also met on an Arvon course] I had recently started editing and publishing Slow Dancer magazine and we were keen to include as much of Barry’s work as we could.

The first piece that we published, in Slow Dancer No. 4 [Early 1979], remains one of my personal favourites. “Blackbird : Elegy” dedicated to William Gordon Calvert, was one of three elegies MacSweeney had written at that time for his Northumbrian grandfather, some finding its way later into the poem sequence Blackbird that was published by Pig Press in 1980 – though this itself was pre-empted by, as it states inside its plain maroon cover, “a very limited preprint edition rushed out for a reading by Barry MacSweeney & Elaine Randell, Castle Chare, Durham, 8.00p.m. nov. 9th 1979.”

This is how the version published in Slow Dancer begins …

curlew chatter
crescent beaks
ragged wings swoop
snipe song

we catch a hen
playing lame
long way from Kent
to your rough ash slot
which pours
& fills this skull

schooled in grind
taught with pennies
tall on th’earth
purity strength
not fascist Aryan
dangerous claptrap
wild Allendale rosehip
whose fruit-blood dries
on my stones
lichen is amour
against those sores
moss grows
in cracks
we don’t know

Blackbird dedication

Blackbird

By the time of Slow Dancer No. 7 [late 1980] times – and MacSweeney with them – had changed. As Luke Roberts states …

After Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government was elected in 1979, MacSweeney’s work became more vicious and despairingly political. The three offcuts from Jury Vet printed here marked the first appearance of MacSweeney’s new style in print. Published by John Harvey’s Slow Dancer magazine in 1980, these punk-inflected odes herald the nightmare of the Thatcherite decade. They are violently problematic works. “Blood Money” also appeared in Slow Dancer [No. 12/13, 1983] and looks on with disgust at City Council politics in Newcastle.

In the context of the above it should not be forgotten that MacSweeney’s first job was as a reporter on his local evening paper in Newcastle – “Reporting gave me a sense of what words could be: economy and just get down to the needed things, with no frills.” His training as a reporter and a digger after facts lay close to the root of Black Torch, a major poem sequence about coal mining in the north-east that was published by New London Pride in 1978 and is included in Roberts’ selection. Reviewing it in Slow Dancer No. 7, David Murray, lecturer in the Department of American Studies at the University of Nottingham, had this to say …

Black Torch represents a poet giving rapt attention to his political and physical environment and at the same time facing and solving problems of formal organisation in a long poem. Using primarily written and oral accounts from the mining communities foe Northumbria and Durham, he combines and juxtaposes miners talking, historical documents and his own personal memories. Crucially, though, the personal elements do not subsume the rest.

MacSweeney’s reliance on local speech in the poem works brilliantly, Murray says, quoting the poet himself on his preference for its usage in this context …

… it is longer lasting, it’s durable, it’s harder, it’s springier, it’s more elemental, it comes out of all sorts of historical, geographical and social conflicts.

Or, as he says in the poem, his words …

have come from the north to feed you
iron voice brazen tongue red dust

Black Torch

Slow DancerNo. 14 [Autumn 1984] was, as declared on its cover, a MacSweeney Special,  with some 18 pages [unfortunately printed on purple paper and less than easy to read] given over to his work, preceded by an appraisal by the poet and visual artist Maggie O’Sullivan. Here we have the poem “Wild Knitting”, which begins with an epigraph from Elvis Costello – “Everyday, everyday, everyday, I write the book” and ends “This State of the Nation bulletin for Lesley MacSweeney, April – August 1983, Bradford.” There are extracts from “Jury Vet – Started  September 1979, Abandoned October 1981 – and, importantly, I think, sections from Ranter, a major work in progress which MacSweeney prefaced with …

Undefinitive takes
of Shivering Primrose
and the wind’s dark
beat & Ranter’s Reel
from the version of
the Ranter saga that
was started February
1984 and is soon for
publication in full

A promise fulfilled when it was published by Slow Dancer Press in 1985.

McSw Special

Ranter

Barry MacSweeney died in 2000. With the publication of Desire Lines, his work will further live on.

More Criminal Openings …

Going back to the opening of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest as I did in my last post, made me think of the distinctive ways in which other crime books begin. Some, like the Hammett, are short and punchy, grabbing the attention at the same time as having a close to perfect satisfaction of their own … others are longer, a deliberately complex sentence that winds you along its length and so into both the style and the narrative, others are paragraph length that draws you in more carefully and often then stays in the memory, sometimes after the book itself has been read, enjoyed and set aside.

Here is a selection of my favourite single sentence beginnings,some of which will be familiar, others perhaps less so …

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

James M.Cain : The Postman Always Rings Twice

Cain

Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.

George V. Higgins : The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Higgins

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

James Crumley : The Last Good Kiss

Crumley

Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake.

James Sallis : Drive

Sallis

When she was killed by three chest knife blows in a station car park, Megan Harpur had been on her way home to tell her husband that she was leaving him for another man.

Bill James : Roses, Roses

James

And here are two of my favourites of the longer variety, each humorous in its own way; the first is, of course, a well-known classic, the second by Brian Thompson, a writer whose forays into crime writing, Bad to the Bone [Viking, 1991] and Ladder of Angels [Slow Dancer, 1999] deserve to be better known and appreciated than I think they are.

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard set rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blu suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Raymond Chandler : The Big Sleep

Chandler

Mrs Evans was teaching me the tango. As it happened, I already knew the rudiments of this exciting dance, but never as interpreted by Mrs Evans, naked save for her high heels and some Mexican silver earrings – a present, she claimed, from Acapulco. The high heels were there to add grace and I suppose authenticity, but even with them on, the lady’s head barely reached my chin. We swooped about the room, exceedingly drunk, to the most famous tango of them all, the Blue one. It was past two in the morning and the rain that had been forecast had arrived as grounded cloud, moping blindly about the streets, tearful and incoherent. But we were okay – we were up on the third floor, looking down on the damned cloud and having a whale of a time. Mrs Evans was warm and sit to the touch and her make-up was beginning to melt. For some reason a piece of Sellotape was stuck to her quivering bottom, and as we danced I tried to solve this small but endearing mystery. It came to me at last; it was her sister’s birthday and earlier in the evening she had parcelled up a head scarf, some knickers and a Joanna Trollope paperback.

Brian Thompson : Ladder of Angels

Thompson

Criminal Openings … Dashiell Hammett

Scan

A recent retweet by writer Megan Abbott took me back to the opening sentences of Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest, published in 1929 …

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit.

It’s all there: the directness, the way it buttonholes you instantly, a hand taking hold of the lapel of your jacket while the voice speaks confidently, not over-loudly, into your ear. And the poetry, the poetry of the vernacular, the rhythm of real speech.

The first sentence in his first novel. I wonder how many times he rolled the sheet of paper out of the typewriter, read it through, tossed in over his shoulder, lit another cigarette, set a fresh sheet in place and tried again? I wonder if he’d been testing it in his head at a little after four, four-thirty, those mornings it was impossible to get back to sleep? I wonder if he had it all pat from the start?

Hammett’s first novel, thirty-five years old. He’d been an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a private detective working for an vast organisation with government connections. He had twice enlisted in the army, WW1 & WW2, and it was during the first of these periods that he was diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would seriously affect his well-being for years. When he was no longer with the Pinkertons, realising, perhaps, that henceforth he would be physically less active, he enrolled at a Business College and set about learning the business of writing. The timing was right. A new pulp magazine called The Black Mask printed his first story, “The Road Home”, in 1922 and a year later the first of a number of stories featuring his nameless hero, the Continental Op. It is the Op around whom the action centres in Red Harvest and its successor, The Dain Curse, a bluff and largely unforgiving figure who would be to some degree romaticised as Sam Spade in Hammett’s best known novel, The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade, private eye:  shamus, a private dick.

For just twelve years, from 1922 to 1934, he wrote stories set firmly in a world he knew.  Then it was over. Whatever had drawn him, driven him to writing had gone. Perhaps it was simply that there was no longer any financial need. Perhaps, for a while, Hollywood fame following the success of John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, seduced him. Perhaps his on-again, off-again, alcohol-ridden relationship with the playwright Lillian Hellman, in some creative way, emasculated him. He tried to write ‘straight’ novels, but they faltered into failure,unfinished; he set out to write plays but only succeeded in assisting Hellman in shaping hers. Or was it, more simply, that he had done all he could as a crime writer, all that interested him, and after five novels and over a hundred stories there was no place for him to go?

 

“Body & Soul” Reviewed

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The fourth and final Frank Elder novel, Body & Soul, was published in hardcover by Wm. Heinemann in April. The Arrow paperback will follow in January, 2019. The majority of reviews have been positive, crowned, perhaps, by Marcel Berlins choosing it as his Book of the Month in The Times. This is part of what he had to say …

“The whodunnit plot is searingly effective in describing a bruised father-daughter relationship. The depth and conviction of emotion is also a hallmark of Harvey’s 12 novels featuring DI Charlie Resnick, a jazz-loving detective in Nottingham with a difficult love life. Elder and Resnick are both greats of British crime fiction.”

Read more here …

Laura Wilson: The Guardian

“Written in an economical style, this is an expertly plotted and moving final act for an old-school investigator of the best sort, from a true master of the genre.”

Read more here …

Mark Sanderson : Evening Standard

“Body & Soul is a clever thriller … that will leave you stunned and staring at the last page in disbelief. … It makes a brutal end to a brilliant career.”

John Cleal : Crime Review

“Harvey’s strength, apart from the superb reportage combined with a trademark sparse, but measured, lyricism and poignancy which make him a true master of his craft, is that his stories highlight the seediness of crime through superb characterisation and a complete lack of glamour.”

Read more here …

Geoffrey Wansell : Daily Mail

“This is wonderfully atmospheric crime writing – a tribute to Harvey’s exceptional talent.”

Read more here …

David Prestidge : Fully Booked

“Body & Soul takes an unflinching look at how love in itself is sometimes not enough – or possibly too much”

Read more here …

Michael Carlson : Irresistible Targets

“Harvey is very good at the small nuances of people’s everyday behaviour; alonside the tension of suspense comes the equally telling tension of their lives.”

Read more here …

Woody Haut ’s Blog

“Harvey’s characters are believable, his locales evocative, and his humanity crystal clear”

Read more here …

Aruna : The Literary Shed

“Harvey’s beautifully pared back writing, tight plot and careful characterisation raise Body and Soul above the bar of what’s merely good crime fiction … His prose seems effortless, the prevailing feeling of the book one of perfectly pitched melancholy, accented by a soundtrack of eclectic, carefully referenced music. Cornwall and London, the main settings for the book, feature prominently; the author’s evocation of rural and urban landscapes both detailed and true.”

Read more here …

 

My 30 (or so) Crime Fiction Favourites

Saturday’s Guardian Review, on the back of this year’s Theakston Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival – coming in July – asked the festival’s programming chair, Lee Child, and 21 other writers to nominate a crime novel everyone should read. Top writers, as it says on the front page, choose the perfect crime.

Undeterred by not being included in this merry band of 22 – after all, hadn’t the same publication called me “a true master of the genre” just the week before? – I set to and came up with a list of my own. Thirty (or so) crime novels I count amongst my personal favourites and which I pull down from the shelves and re-read with pleasure from time to time, and all of which I wholeheartedly commend.

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1. Megan Abbott: The End of Everything (2011)
2. Kent Anderson: Night Dogs (1999)
3 James M. Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
4 Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep (1939) The Long Goodbye (1953)
5. Andrew Coburn: Voices in the Dark (1994)
6. K. C. Constantine: The Man who Liked Slow Tomatoes (1982)
7. James Crumley: The Last Good Kiss (1978)

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8. Stephen Dobyns: The Church of Dead Girls (1997)
9. Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon (1930)
10. Jamie Harrison: The Edge of the Crazies (1995)
11. George V. Higgins: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1970)
12. Bill James: Roses, Roses (1993)
13. Dennis Lehane: Mystic River (2001)
14. Elmore Leonard: LaBrava (1983)
15. Laura Lippman: The Innocents (2011)
16. Ross Macdonald: The Way Some People Die (1951)

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17. William McIlvanney: Laidlaw (1977)
18. Henning Mankel: Sidetracked (1995) The Troubled Man (2009)
19. Bill Moody: Looking for Chet Baker (2002)
20. Walter Mosley: Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (1997)
21. T. Jefferson Parker: The Blue Hour (1999)
22. David Peace: The Red Riding Quartet (1995-2002)

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23. George Pelecanos: Shame the Devil (2000)
24. James Sallis: Drive (2005)
25. Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo: Roseanna (1965)
26. Neville Smith: Gumshoe (1971)
27. Peter Temple: The Broken Shore (2005) Truth (2010)
28. Ross Thomas: The Fools in Town Are On Our Side (1970)
29. Brian Thompson: Ladder of Angels (1999)
30. Daniel Woodrell: Give Us a Kiss (1996)

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Looking at Lester

There are several, often conflicted, ways of looking at Lester Young, the American tenor player who was born, one of six children, in Woodville, Mississippi, in 1909, and who died, a crumpled, sick man, in March 1959.

One comes from the poet, William Matthews, in an interview with Dave Johnson, originally published in the  High Plains Literary Review in 1995.

Young was the Donald Barthelme of saxophone storytellers. The work is elliptical, funny, smart, blithe surfaced, and endlessly sad.

Another, quite opposite, comes from another tenor saxophonist, Coleman Hawkins -tonally Young’s opposite, broad and hustling, where Young was leaner and less assertive, the two of them vying for prominence in the 40s & 50s.

That Lester Young, how does he get away with it? He’s stoned half the time, he’s always late, and he can’t play.

Planted myself pretty firmly in the Matthews camp [though I can stand a good amount of Hawk, too] I’ve always listened to quite a bit of Lester – 14 CDs worth at a quick count – and so it’s no surprise comes across as a favourite of Charlie Resnick, also,

He makes a first, fleeting appearance in book one of the series, Lonely Hearts, the first paragraph of chapter four.

The sandwich was tuna fish and egg mayonnaise with some small slices of pickled gherkin and a crumbling of blue cheese; the mayonnaise kept dripping over the edges of the bread and down on to his fingers so that Dizzy twisted and stretched from his lap in order to lick it off. Billie Holiday and Lester Young were doing it through the headphones, making love to music without ever holding hands. Resnick couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that he had lied to Skelton, wondering why.

After that, it’s chapter nine of the second book, Rough Treatment, in which Resnick refers to a photograph taken by the great photographer, Herman Leonard in 1956, three years before Lester’s death,

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Lester Young in France, 1956: Photo, Herman Leonard

Anyone in possession of a copy of Rough Treatment and keen (or sad) enough to want to check, will find a number of changes from the original; some of these have been made over the years, usually ahead of a reading – pencilled marginalia, underlinings and crossings-out – some were made an hour or so ago. A piece of work is (almost) never finished.

Miles met Resnick the instant his feet hit the pavement; the cat had recognised the sound of the car’s engine from the end of the street and come running. Now he made his welcoming cry from the irregular stones atop the wall, strutting, tail hoisted high as he presented, turn upon turn, his fine backside. Resnick reached up a hand and stroked the smooth fur of the cat’s head, behind and below the ear.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get something to eat.”

Once indoors, the other cats came running: Pepper, Dizzy and Bud. Resnick forked cat food from a tin into four bowls, green, blue, yellow, red, then added a shower of dried heaven-knows-what to each. Good, he’d once been told, for their teeth. There had been the usual mish-mash of junk mail inside the front door. From it he withdrew a single white envelope, card-shaped, and slid it between the containers for flour and sugar. The remainder he dropped into the bin. Next, he ground beans ready for coffee and, that done, felt relaxed enough to remove his coat, loosen his already loose tie, unfasten and ease off his shoes. In the living room he selected some Lester Young from the shelf and switched the stereo on low. Sides the tenor man had cut with Johnny Guarnieri in New York City, three days past Christmas ’43 and just shy of New Year. Back when everything must have still seemed possible: the future shining and plump like a fat, silver apple.

“I Never Knew”.

“Sometimes I’m Happy”.

Back in the kitchen Resnick lifted Dizzy away from Bud’s bowl before slicing bread, dark rye with caraway. He scooped the contents from a tin of sardines in soya oil, sliced a small onion and spread the rings across the fish; there was a large enough piece of feta cheese to be worth crumbling over the top. “Tried to get hold of you last night,” Jack Skelton had said earlier, the superintendent barely breaking his stride on his way back to his office. “Time you got yourself an answerphone, Charlie. One that works.”

Resnick stopped to listen as Lester bounced his way through “Just You, Just Me”, the first chorus almost straight, a trio of those trademark honks marking his place near the end of the middle eight, each perfectly placed, perfectly spaced, rivets driven in a perfect line. An intake of breath, just audible, smooth and quick over the brushes against Sid Catlett’s snare, and then, with relaxed confidence and the ease of a man with perfect trust in both fingers and mind, he made from that same sequence another song, another tune, tied to the first and utterly his own.

What are these arms for?

What are these charms for?

Use your imagination.

The reason Resnick didn’t get an answerphone: how else to keep bad news at bay? The messages that you didn’t want to hear.

He remembered a photograph of Lester Young taken by in 1956. Herman Leonard. Lester is in a recording studio, holding his horn, not playing. The suit he is wearing, even for those days’ fashions, seems overlarge, as though, perhaps, he has shrunk within it. His head is down, his cheeks have sunk in on his jaw; whatever he is looking at in those eyes, soft, brown, is not there in the room. His left hand holds the shelf with which he will cover the mouthpiece, as if, maybe, he is thinking he will slip it into place, not play again. It is possible that the veins in his oesophagus have already ruptured and he is bleeding slowly inside.

The coffee would be ready. In the kitchen Resnick picked up the envelope, trying to work out how long it had been since he had seen that writing. How many years? He wanted to tear it, two and four and six and eight, all the multiples until it was like confetti. He left it where it was.

Back in the other room, he balanced the cup of coffee on the broad arm of the chair. Lifted Bud with one hand and set him in his lap. The first take of “I Never Knew” ended abruptly; some saxophone, a piano phrase unfinished. Lester is standing there, tenor close to his mouth, but now he is looking away. As if something has slipped suddenly through that door in 1943, unbidden, out of time. A premonition. A ghost.

It doesn’t end there. Much of the writing about Lester Young made its way, sometimes barely changed, into the poem “Ghost of a Chance”, which can be found in Out of Silence: New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014).

A Few Thoughts on Colm Toibin, “Brooklyn” and Adaptation

Brooklyn

I watched John Crowley’s film version of Colm Toibin’s novel, Brooklyn, again the other night, after reading an interview with Toibin in The Guardian Review. I was particularly interested in his remarks concerning the screenplay, written by Nick Hornby, and the ways in which the film’s ending differs from the original.

Unable to find suitable work at home, Eilis [Ey-lish] has emigrated from her home in south-east Ireland to Brooklyn, where a priest has found her both employment and  somewhere to live. Once settled, she falls into a relationship with Tony, a young man of Italian descent, and, though uncertain of her feelings, when she is called back to Ireland due to the death of her sister, she agrees to marry him, hastily and secretly, before she leaves. Once home, she  resumes her old life with a new maturity and greater self-confidence; a good job presents itself, along with a dependable man of a higher station, whom she likes and who would marry her. She has not told anyone – not the man, not her mother – that she is already married. It’s as if she herself has forgotten: has chosen to forget. Her husband’s letters are shut away, unopened, in a drawer. But gossip and rumour seek her out and Eilis has to decide what to do, which course to take. In this, her dilemma is not unlike that of Isabel Archer at the end of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady [both author and novel much beloved of Toibin] though Tony the plumber is, thankfully, neither as mendacious nor manipulating as Gilbert Osmond.

In both novel and film, she returns to America: there seems to be no viable alternative. But in the novel, her feelings about this are ambivalent at best; the film recasts this in the far more positive light of an inescapably happy ending. Eilis, unburdened by doubt, stands in bright light on the opposite side of the street from the building supplies store from which Tony and one of his brothers emerge, talking; it takes a few moments for the brother, and then Tony, to realise Eilis is there. Almost unable to believe his eyes, Tony, bedazzled, hastens into Eilis’ arms and the final clinch of an unambiguously happy ending.

What does Colm Toibin think of this?

“I’m interested in what Nick [Hornby] did with the structure of it,” says Toibin, “which is so brilliant; how much he left out, how he moved the drama on. But I tear up for the very last section, that I didn’t write.” He doesn’t mind that it changed the novel? “It’s gorgeous. And what were they meant to do, have an ending with her sitting on the train feeling smug: look what I’ve just done to everybody?”

This recognition that different forms of media have different requirements is something that writers perhaps find easier to accommodate than readers, whose reaction, more often than not, is less generous, less understanding; they are more likely to want the film, radio or television version to be as close to the original as possible and expect the author to feel the same.

Over the past years I’ve adapted the work of a number of authors: Arnold Bennett and Ruth Rendell for TV; Graham Greene, Paul Scott, Qiu Xiaolong and A. S. Byatt for radio. The majority of those, sadly, are no longer in a position to complain, and those that are, to the best of my knowledge, have refrained. When Antonia Byatt’s Frederica Quartet was being broadcast, and she was asked about it on Woman’s Hour, she was careful to make clear – before making comments which were, thankfully, positive – that’s John Harvey’s Frederica Quartet, not mine.

With other writers’ work, my process has always been to strip the story down it basic elements, then begin to build it up from there, with the demands – strengths and weaknesses – of the particular medium in mind. Where adapting my own work is concerned – two books for television, two books and three short stories for radio – I think I have been more successful with the latter. When I was writing the screenplays based on the first two Resnick novels, Lonely Hearts and Rough Treatment, I was guilty of forgetting my own rules at times and sticking too close to the originals; favouring a speech, a scene, an exchange of dialogue, because I liked it rather than because it contributed towards an effective piece of film. Which is why, whenever the Resnick books have been optioned by this or that television company since – as has fairly frequently been the case – and I’ve been asked if I would be interested in writing one or more of the scripts, I’ve always said thanks, but no thanks – someone else, experienced and coming to it with a fresh eye, will likely do it better.