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

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Books 2016

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The reading year for me began more or less as the last one ended, re-reading my way through Virginia Woolf – soon to be joined, looking for a little balance perhaps – or is that ballast? – by Don DeLillo. By midway, I was convinced of the excellence of Libra and the brilliant assurance of Underworld‘s first 270 odd pages;  pleased to (re)discover that Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse and The Waves are every bit as good – as groundbreaking – as I thought when I read them previously and to hope that if I’m still around and compos mentis in another five year or so’s time I’ll enjoy reading them again.

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I hadn’t heard of Maggie Nelson before this year. Since when I’ve read The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, in which she follows and comments upon the trial of the man accused of sexually assaulting and murdering her aunt; Bluets, comprising 240 paragraphs containing her thoughts and memories devolving from the colour blue; The Argonauts, part-memoir, part-intellectual disquisition on the linked subjects of pregnancy, mothering, gender and sexual identity; and – still not finished – Women, The New York School and Other True Abstractions, which does more or less what it says on the tin. Of these, The Red Parts, while being in no sense an easy read, is the easiest to read and The Argonauts, though hard work in places, is the most distinctive and the most rewarding.

Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity will know how impressed I was by Claire-Louise Bennett’s collection of (mostly) linked short stories The Pond. As I said before …

I’m tempted to say Bennett’s method in these stories and, to a lesser extent, the style, remind me of Virginia Woolf (or Katherine Mansfield?) filtered through a contemporary sensibility, the internal thought – contradiction on contradiction – held steady by a precise description of the everyday that is so detailed and yet, somehow, shifting, that it verges on the surreal.

Pond

Along with The Argonauts, The Pond is  my book of the year. But there were other good things, too. A Manual for Cleaning Women, a nice fat collection of short stories by Lucia Berlin, contains a good few of them. James Sallis’ short novel, Willnot (he doesn’t do big novels, not Jim) is a perfectly pitched story of small town American life that somehow doesn’t seem to owe much to anyone else, save Jim himself. Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard (soon to be on your TV screens) is an expertly and tightly-wound story of sexual attraction and betrayal that dares you to set it aside and wins hands down. Otherwise, I’ve read and really enjoyed Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge,  three of Anne Enright’s novels set in Ireland – The Green Road, Yesterday’s Weather and The Forgotten Waltz – and happy submitted to the charms and excitements of Mick Herron’s series about the Slow Horses, a bunch of only oddball and occasionally competent spies put dangerously out to pasture.

And, right now, thanks to Bromley House Library, I’m about half way through Emma Cline’s The Girls, which is pretty compulsive reading and could turn out to be almost as good as many people say it is.

 

Last Batch of Books I Read

  • Willnot : James Sallis
  • Point Omega : Don DeLillo
  • The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial : Maggie Nelson
  • The Waves : Virginia Woolf
  • White Noise : Don DeLillo
  • The Crime Writer : Jill Dawson
  • The Argonauts : Maggie Nelson
  • Libra : Don DeLillo
  • Slow Horses : Mick Herron
  • Black Water : Louise Doughty
  • Apple Tree Yard : Louise Doughty
  • The Forgotten Waltz : Anne Enright
  • The Glorious Heresies : Lisa McInerney
  • Fortunes Neck : Kevin McDermott
  • A Manual for Cleaning Women : Lucia Berlin
  • My Katherine Mansfield Project : Kirsty Gunn
  • Intruder in the Dust : William Faulkner
  • White Sands: Experiences From the Outside World : Geoff Dyer

Poetry :

  • Maura Dooley : The Silvering
  • Edwina Attlee : The Cream
  • Rachael Allen : Faber New Poets 9
  • Helen Mort : No Map Could Show Them
  • Plus lots of Frank O’Hara and, always, Robert Hass

Currently reading :

  • Pond : Claire-Louise Bennett
  • Billie’s Blues : John Chilton
  • Austerity Britain 1945-51 : David Kynaston
  • Pierre Reverdy : NYRB Poets in Translation [Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery et cetera]

As the above suggests, I’m continuing to make my way back through Virginia Woolf’s fiction (aided by her diaries and Julia Briggs’ Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, which nicely links her life to the novels) while working rather haphazardly back through Don DeLillo. (Nearly succumbed to the latest in Foyles this afternoon, but, after looking a the price – £17 almost for a slender book with largish print – opted to wait for the paperback. Writing as good as DeLillo’s doesn’t date, right?)

I’ve avoided reading Louise Doughty for a while; she’s a friend of a friend and frequents some of the same North London cafés as myself – she’s usually working at her laptop or correcting proofs when I see her – and if she doesn’t look too engrossed I’ll say Hi and we’ll chat a little – all of which means I ought to have read her before now, but look, suppose I did and didn’t like what she’d written … ? But the thing is, I did. Read and like. Very much. The most recent novel, Black Water, is largely set in Indonesia, with a background involving the CIA, the Cold War and Civil Rights. If it reminded me of anyone else, it was Graham Greene – partly for the Asian setting, partly the mix of excitement and adventure with the questioning of an individual’s morality. Straight after that, I read Apple Tree Yard, a very cleverly plotted book about latter-day lust, obsession and  betrayal, told within an absorbing courtroom framework and – as it says on the jacket – absolutely unputdownable once you’ve begun.

When she saw me absorbed in Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts (more court room stuff here), the barista in the Rathbone Place branch of TAP Coffee told me it was the best book she’d read for ages, and that absolutely the best book she’d read since was Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, which was strongly recommended also by the nice chatty guy who works in the fiction department at Foyles, Charing Cross Road, and since he’d put me on to Lucia Berlin’s stories, I took him seriously. They’re both right: the stories are interestingly off-the-wall and surprising, self-indulgent but in  way that’s oddly acceptable and written in a style that doesn’t remind me of anyone else at all. Not only that, it is a lovely book to look at and to hold, beautifully published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Finally, the most delightful and unexpected book in the bunch was James Sallis’ Willnot.
Mainly known as the author of terse and elliptical crime novels, Drive amongst them, Willnot simply will not be pinned down. Woody Haut writes about it clearly and enthusiastically on his blog and I commend that to you.

Happy reading!

Books & Blues Italian Style

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Several years ago, Seba Pezzani – writer, translator, musician, facilitator – invited me to take part in Dal Mississippi al Po, the festival of American music – largely blues, with a strong country accent – and American or American-influenced fiction, held in and around Piacenza in Northern Italy.

I had a great time, sharing meals around a large communal table, the days punctuated by espressos standing at one or other café counter; the pleasures of hanging out with American author and guitarist James Sallis, whom I already knew a little, and with the Norwegian writer (and sheep farmer) Kjell Ola Dahl, whom I was meeting for the first time and who has since become a good friend.

Excellent, then, to be invited back this July, to preview the publication in Italy this October by Foschi Editore of the third Resnick novel, Cutting Edge, in a translation by Seba himself.  Two days in northern Italy, two days journeying there and back by train.

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