Yes, I know what I said …

… no more novels after the last, Darkness, Darkness, the final book in the Resnick series that was published in 2014, and certainly nothing more involving retired police detective Frank Elder, who last saw the light of day way back in 2006 in Darkness and Light [bit of a theme going on there] but it seems as if Frank’s retirement is pretty much as water tight as mine, and I’m truly delighted to be able to say the manuscript of a new Elder novel, the fourth, has been delivered and happily accepted, the deal has been done and William Heinemann will publish the new Elder novel, Body & Soul, in April, 2018.

Scan

flesh and bloodash-and-bone-2darkness-and-light-2

Reading Week …

… well, more Reading Fortnight, to be accurate. It was intended to have much the same function as I guess it does during university terms: a chance to take a breather, stand back from ongoing work and take stock – and actually read a book or two.

I’d reached somewhere around the 40,000 word mark in the manuscript I’m working on, a first draft of the new Frank Elder novel, Body & Soul, and needed some space in which to step away from what I’d done and consider what was to come. A chance also for a few trusted others – my agent, my partner and our daughter – to read through the existing pages and tell me what they think. Plus point out some basic errors, such as the  incorrect spelling of ‘vicious’. My other trusted and much-respected reader is, of course, my publisher, but her opinion is SO important, I have to get things in better shape before passing them before her well-honed eagle eye.

So, given the time, what was I going to read? A visit to Nottingham’s Bromley House Library provided me with Sarah Baume’s A Line Made By Walking and Eimar McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians; Waterstones’ hip Tottenham Court Road branch was the source of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, Speedboat by Renata Adler and Lee Child’s Night School.

All of which I read [well, almost all] and some of which can be dealt with quite swiftly. Although I’d found the Joycean language of McBride’s first novel, the prize-winning A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, difficult, its intensity lived with me in a positive yet disturbing way; by the time I’d reached page 77 of The Lesser Bohemians, however, I realised that I was finding the detailed accounts of her young drama student protagonist’s drinking, smoking and sex life of less interest than my recognition of the many north London street names that were frequently mentioned. Time to stop and move on.

I chose Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel, because I’d enjoyed – and admired – many of his short stories so much. The first few pages of the novel are pretty good, too. After which it becomes simply irritating, any attempt at narrative flow being cast aside in favour of a succession of brief extracts from the presumably fictional works of memoirists and biographers, so that, in reading, you find yourself stepping awkwardly down page after page as if participating in some half-arsed attempt to show there is no such thing in fiction as one true point of view. Really? I never would have realised. Back to the short stories, George.

Heavens, you must be thinking, you must have enjoyed something?

Well, yes. And I didn’t think I was going to like A Line Made By Walking at all [even though I do like very much the piece of land art by Richard Long from which the title is taken] and had, in fact, borrowed it so that my partner could read it. I mean, the story, told in the first person, of a former history of art student who retreats to her late grandmother’s country cottage because she’s finding urban life too difficult – and then takes pictures of dead animals which are reproduced here and there in the text – Come on!

Reader, I loved it! Well, okay, liked it a great deal. Without having the same off-the-wall, up-yours humour, it kept reminding me of Claire Louise-Bennett’s Pond, which, as anyone familiar with this blog will know, was my favourite novel of the past twelve months or so. Another book about a young woman who chooses solitude and writes about it. That aside, I’m hard-pressed to say why I enjoyed A Line Made By Walking as much as I did. It’s something to do with the clarity of the prose, the direct description of experience; something to do with the slow unveiling of her feelings; a great deal, I imagine, to do with the fact that inside me there beats the slow but strong desire to follow in Baume’s protagonist’s footsteps and hie myself off to an otherwise empty cottage in the middle of nowhere [the Penwith Peninsula and the North York Moors come to mind] and do nothing much more than tramp around and generally indulge myself in a greater degree of self-absorbed thought than is usually the case. [isn’t that why writers become writers anyway?]

As if to prove I don’t only respond well to books that are clearly written, relatively straightforward and non-experimental, I also very much enjoyed Renata Adler’s Speedboat. [Not to mention, in the past, and more than once – or twice – the novels of Virginia Woolf, clear, direct and, in their day, experimental.]

Like the later Pitch Dark, Speedboat comes close to not being a novel at all [or, at least, a novel as E. M. Forster or Walter Allen would have understood it]. Ostensibly following the jagged progress of a journalist across the United States, it does so by way of a series of not always clearly connected observations and anecdotes that ricochet off one another. A mode of writing that might seem to be in danger of falling into the same trap which swallowed up Saunders in his stilted peregrinations around Lincoln. But the writing is too sharp for that, the observations too brilliant, too funny, too savage.

In his Afterword, Guy Trebay refers to the French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud, who said that the dominant cultural figure of our time is the deejay (DJ?), an suggestion Adler apparently responded to positively. “It is easy to miss the point,” Trebay says.”that Speedboat got there well before e-mails or Facebook or Twitter. … Speedboat is a book without suspense or anything like a distinct plot, a novel whose protagonist is one whose telephone conversations often sound like dialogue from Beckett … a book in which time and tense are unstable, event is compressed, morality subject to constant revision … ”

Adler herself said ” “I wanted to write the kind of book I like to read – which is narrative, thrillers, with plots, suspense, and dialogue, with characters and things going on, things which you wish to happen and things you do not. I found I didn’t seem to be doing that. I thought, ‘Well, now what do I do?'”

What she did, it seems to me, was to create a style more or less all her own, and, in Speedboat and Pitch Dark, two distinctive books that repay re-reading.

What she might have liked to have written, if her remarks are to be taken at face value, could well be something like the Jack Reacher novels of Lee Childs, of which Night School is the most recent and the twenty first. “I know I say this every year … ” Karin Slaughter is quoted on the cover … “But. Best. Reacher. Ever.” Her caps, not mine, and sadly, far from true.

I’ve read almost all the Reacher books and enjoyed them a great deal; you know what you’re going to get and what you get is pretty damn good. [For interest’s sake and since you’re bound to ask, my personal favourite is The Hard Way.] But Night School just doesn’t do it for me. Set mostly in Berlin in the mid-1990s, there’s a sub-LeCarre espionage plot that doesn’t quite convince and too many conflicting layers of US secret service and security from the West Wing on down than are usefully necessary. I appreciate the need Childs must feel to find new territories and different situations for his hero, but this takes Jack Reacher too far out of his comfort zone and somehow it doesn’t really work. Which won’t stop me reading number twenty two, the first chapters of which are conveniently packaged in the back of the paperback edition of Night School, and show Reacher back on more familiar ground.

Finally, since I’ve mentioned packaging, let me point to the New York Review Books editions of the two Adler novels, both featuring details from Helen Frankenthaler paintings. Beautiful, just beautiful.

S'boat

P Dark

New Beginnings …

flesh-and-blood

ash-and-bone-2darkness-and-light-2

“Now it is necessary to get to the grindstone again.”
Ernest Hemingway, 1938

“So there is this pressure now, on every sentence, not just to say what it has to say, but to justify its claim upon our time.”
Renata Adler : Pitch Dark

Two quotations which were very much in mind at the end a week in which I began writing a new book for the first time since I set out on the road to Darkness, Darkness back in 2013. Not another Charlie Resnick, of course, but what, if things go as planned, will be the fourth of the Frank Elder series, tentatively titled Body & Soul. Where Frank is concerned, it’s been a while. The third, and last up until now, Darkness & Light, was written in 2005, published in 2006; Ash & Bone was published in 2005 and Flesh & Blood, which I began writing in London and finished in New Zealand, was published in 2004.

Up until recently, my standard answer to the question, would there be another Frank Elder book, has always been no, no way: the central element in the books, for me, had been the changing relationship between Elder and his daughter, Katherine, and by the end of Darkness & Light that seemed to have settled to some kind of conclusion, a compromise, at least. A trilogy, over and done. But nothing comes from nothing and, a little over a year ago, the germ of an idea struck me. Not exactly an idea, an image: one which suggested a retread of the scene at the beginning of chapter two of Flesh & Blood, in which Elder meets Katherine after she has travelled down to Cornwall to visit.

As I say, nothing comes from nothing. That image wouldn’t let me go. What was she doing there? How long has it been since, father and daughter, they have seen one another? Why has she come?

I have a notebook in front of me now [Yes, all right, I’ve fallen for all the hype and it’s a Moleskine] which has Body & Soul in ink on the wrap-around cover and on the first page, the title again, with, underneath it, towards the bottom of the page, Dec. 2015. On succeeding pages are the notes and ideas that occurred to me in the ensuing months, some just a few words long, some longer and numbered into what could be a sequence; others, more elaborate and connected by arrows, the beginnings of a structure; then there are lists of the possible names of characters; things I need to find out, people it would be useful to talk to, what I need to talk to them about. I had briskly re-read the other novels in the series a couple of weeks before starting, making brief notes and marking passages I thought I might need to refer to. The next step was to process all of this into a different form. Armed with a white board and coloured markers I made as close as I ever get to an outline, not linear, but circular, beginning by placing the central event around which the action will be focussed at the centre and arranging the principal characters and actions around it.

My other preparation has been to go through my usual palate cleansing exercise of reading Hemingway – the first section of A Farewell to Arms and a selection of the short stories – the Nick Adams stories and some of those set in Europe, “A Simple Enquiry” for instance, and “Che Ti Duce La Patria”. Why? See the Adler quote above.

At some point, the reading has to stop  …

Monday, January 30th, 2017. Somewhere around 9.00/9.30am, having been at my desk since 8.00, hovering uncertainly over the crucial first sentence, the first line, I settled on this …

The house was at the edge of the village, the last in a row of stubby stone-built cottages backing onto fields leading down to the sea.

Not much, perhaps, but it felt right, it was a start …

After that, things moved along with, for me near the beginning of a book, almost worrying speed. Just short of 700 words on the first day, close to 1,000 on the second and third, and then 1, 300 or so on the fourth. I don’t know how that compares to other people, but for me, these days especially, it’s pretty good going. But now it’s another Monday, and the beginning of chapter 4.

She had first seen him …

elder-1

elder-2

elder-4