Writing on the Wall

Grim news for some publishers, some writers in the Nielsen BookScan figures for 2014 – those wishing to keep print books afloat in a growing ebook tide, at least. Sales of printed books are continuing to decline and none worse than adult fiction, which led the way downwards with a fall of 7.8% in numbers and 5.3% in revenue. Hardback adult fiction sales fell by 11.6%, though the Nielsen research director said this was “really more migration to ebooks rather than real decline.”

We’ll see.

What was interesting was the fact that while fantasy, horror, romance, eroticism, crime and all the usually successful genres of adult fiction were floundering, just three areas showed movement in the opposite direction – short stories, graphic novels and westerns.

Westerns!

Perhaps,while continuing to ignore those voices suggesting a return for Charlie Resnick or Frank Elder, I should think seriously about ploughing further back into my writing past and consider reincarnations of Wes Hart …

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Jared Hawk …

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or Jedediah Herne?

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Music for Not Writing

What do you listen to, people ask, when you’re writing? And the answer, boringly, is nothing. Nothing at all. The rhythm I’m trying to hear is the one inside my head: the words, their sound, repetition, rise and fall. Stop there before I talk myself into Psueds’ Corner.

But when I’m not writing, there’s almost always music playing somewhere. The iPod in the kitchen, for instance, with several thousand tracks on shuffle, anything from Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra to Eel’s Blinking Lights & Other Revelations. Radio Swiss Classic is fairly constantly playing over the internet in the library when I’m reading (or napping) – 24 hour music with no adverts and only the briefest of announcements (in German, which I don’t speak, so only the occasional word intrudes – “Mozart”, say, or “Hadyn”). When I’m out walking on or around the Heath, more often than not I’m listening to something through headphones, either a BBC Radio Podcast or something new that I’ve downloaded –right now, Girlboy’s cheeky little single, Jennifer Lawrence.

Most of the above is incidental: each month or so there tends to be a small group of CDs that I sit down and listen to more carefully – Music for More Carfeful Listening. This month there are four …

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  • John Tilbury & Philip Thomas: Two Pianos & Other Pieces by Morton Feldman
  • Louis Armstrong at The Crescendo 1955, Complete Edition
  • Jan Lundgren: All By Myself
  • Thelonious Monk: The Complete 1961 Amsterdam Concert

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The Aftermath of War

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Last year I was bowled over by the emotional force of David Finkel’s The Good Soliders, a work of nonfiction journalism in which he writes about the time he spent embedded with the US 2-16 Infantry Battalion, on front line duty in Iraq. I wrote about it here …

In Thank You For Your Service, he follows some of those soldiers back from Iraq to an America that seems, to many of them after what they have experienced, to be a baffling, often uncharitable place; a place filled, for them, with memories and nightmares that no regimen of pills, however powerful, can set properly  to rights, and where suicide has overtaken enemy fire as the biggest killer of army personnel. These are men who have been at the heart of a maelstrom of fear and violence and who are now struggling to reattach themselves to wives, children, families, ordinary lives; some – many of those here – do so with the aid of programmes of therapy and readjustment, some virtually alone.

Again and again, Finkel strips back situations in which couples fight, make up, fight, make up, fight some more, break up, get help, come back, walk away. Where women – young widows, wives – stumble, dazed and often close to the poverty line, from one seeming catastrophe to another. Where men are told, go back there in your mind, remember, work through it, write it down. Come to terms.

This is not a book without generosity and hope: the respect Finkel shows for those he writes about is, I think, absolute. But it is unflinching and hard to take in other than small doses, and I was ever grateful for the opportunity to mark the page and set the book aside, get up, get a little air. Thankful, yes, for what you’ve got.

New Resnick Project

For those if you who thought 2015, for me, was going to be a matter of sitting around between flat whites twiddling my thumbs, the news is that I’m currently working with Nottingham Playhouse and New Perspectives theatre company on a new stage play, “Out of Darkness”, adapted from the final Charlie Resnick novel, “Darkness, Darkness”.

More as it develops …

New Year’s Reading

New year, new books! Some from Santa, chimney soot still caught in the corners, others courtesy of a pre-Christmas shopping excursion to the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town. The order is the order in which I’ll probably read them … the Byrne is my current designated bedside reading, while the Finkel, which I’ve already started, and which it would be dangerous to read too close to dream time, is, like its predecessor, The Good Soldiers, cut so close to the bone – and perfectly so – that I can only take it in small doses, a chapter at a time.

  • Thank You For Your Service : David Finkel
  • How Music Works : David Byrne
  • Full Measure : T. Jefferson Parker
  • Infidelities : Kirsty Gunn
  • Circular Breathing – The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain : George McKay

Poetry

  • Ancient Sunlight : Stephen Watts
  • Ex-Ville : Rhona McAdam

… and I shall be slowly but pleasurably working my way through David Kynaston’s history of post-war Britain, with the second volume, Family Britain 1951 – 57.

LA Crime Books of 2014

The Los Angeles Review of Books critic and commentator Woody Haut saw fit to include Darkness, Darkness in his list of favourite crime novels published in 2014.

Here’s the list, as Haut says, in no particular order :

  • A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • The Fever by Megan Abbott (Little Brown/Picador)
  • Perfidia by James Ellroy (Knopf)
  • The Death Instinct by Jacques Mesrine (Tam Tam)
  • Brainquake by Samuel Fuller (Hard Case Crime)
  • Half World by Scott O’Connor (Simon & Schuster)
  • There Ain’t No Justice by James Curtis (Jonathan Cape)
  • A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre (Crown)
  • Of Cops and Robbers by Mike Nicol (Old Street)
  • Darkness, Darkness by John Harvey (Pegasus)
  • Goodis: A Life in Black and White by Philippe Garnier (Black Pool Productions)
  • The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette (NYRB Classics)
  • Futures by John Barker (PM Press)

And here’s what he has to say about Darkness, Darkness

The world-weary, jazz-loving Nottingham copper Charlie Resnick is back, tracking down a case with origins in the UK’s 1980s miners’ strike. This is one of the always-interesting Harvey’s best, mixing, as it does, the personal and the political. If, as advertised, this really is Resnick’s final appearance, he goes out, after some three decades traipsing across the mean streets of Nottingham, in style. Harvey’s Darkness, Darkness, like Nicol’s novel, switches between the present — Thatcher has only recently keeled over at the Ritz — and the past. A heartfelt portrait of the East Midlands then and now, it’s further evidence of not only how the past affects the present, but how the present demands a revision of the past.

I should point out that Woody Haut is a good friend – we often pass one another taking our early morning exercise on Hampstead Heath, he’s the one running, I’m walking, and meet for coffee every so often to talk books and movies and bemoan the latest inconsistencies in the Tottenham Hotspur soccer team – but, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time one of my 20 or so crime novels has made its way onto one of his lists of favourite books. Might just be something to it, then. Other than cronyism, that is.

Books of the Year, 2014

The major discovery for me this year has been the work of the American writer Paul Hendrickson: having started with Hemingway’s Boat, his most recent book – a brilliant, spiralling accumulation of stories about Hemingway and, yes, his boat, but, more importantly, his family, friends and acquaintances – I read through his other work with equal enjoyment and fascination.

This was part of a tendency, unusual in my past reading history, to get more pleasure from non-fiction rather than fiction. David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, for instance, an account of being embedded with a battalion of American military personnel in Baghdad, I found utterly compelling, humane and, where individual soldiers were concerned, non-judgemental. Thank You For Your Service, in which Finkel follows some of those same people back into civilian life, is high on my list of books to read in the New Year.

Finally, to note that this list doesn’t include books I’ve re-read during the year and which, since they include such as Middlemarch, Portrait of a Lady, Colm Toibin’s The Master, Mrs Dalloway, and a pile of Hemingway short stories, would have just about taken over.

The list is organised in order of reading.

  • Tenth of December : George Saunders
  • Benediction : Kent Haruf
  • Fourth of July Creek : Smith Henderson
  • The Blazing World : Siri Hustvedt
  • Dare Me : Megan Abbott
  • Another Great Day at Sea : Geoff Dyer
  • Hemingway’s Boat : Paul Hendrickson
  • The Good Soldiers : David Finkel
  • The Living & the Dead : Paul Hendrickson
  • Lila : Marilynne Robinson

Book of the Year !

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Always a bit of a lottery, it seems to me, whether your book ends up in one of these end-of-year lists or not; and quite often the columns you had down as stone bankers seem to forget that rave review they gave you back in May and places where you doubted you’d flourish come through with guns blazing. And that’s quite enough mixed metaphors for the present.

So, hats off to Mike Ripley in Shots, to the Mail on Sunday, and to Felicity Gerry, QC – barrister, media commentator and author – in The Times

Finally, if the festive season is a time to remember old friends, this year is a bit tough for me reading “Darkness, Darkness”, as my late father’s friend John Harvey has decided it’s time to say goodbye to Inspector Charlie Resnick. This one is not dedicated to my Dad as “Cold in Hand” was. But it still triggers memories brilliantly capturing the evocative sounds, sights and smells of Nottingham in all its fascinating contradictions, against the background of Miles Davis and Polish food. I’m told John Harvey thought of bumping Resnick off; I’m not giving too much away to say he doesn’t.

There are standard strategies – old copper brought out to help young female fast-track, tertiary-educated detective – but the twists and turns through domestic violence and tortuous relationships, against the background of a cold case – a murder at the time of the miners’ strike – is an impossibly perfect way to capture a city that is hard to know and hard to leave. The detail of strike funding and divided communities means that, if you take the time to read it, you will wish the pits were still open, Resnick was real, Thelonious Monk was still alive and like me you’ll probably make a New Year’s resolution to read something more jolly.

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