Wednesday, June 27, 2018

June Reads Part Three

Pact of the Fathers by Ramsey Campbell
Slow Horses by Mick Herron
Burley Cross Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker

It's been too long since I enjoyed a Campbell novel. He's such a unique voice in today's market; his version of "quiet horror," from a long lineage including Charles L. Grant and Robert Aickman, just doesn't seem marketable any more. My guess is that Campbell's horror isn't as "cinematic" as other horror writers such as Clive Barker or Stephen King. Even big upcoming horror writers doing Weird fiction (capital W) such as Michael Wehunt or Matthew M. Bartlett are more "cinematic" and thus easier to market than Campbell's quiet slow horror. The allure of Campbell isn't so much the horror aspects but the exacting poetic prose and his control of narrative. In Pact of the Fathers, nothing much happens and nothing surprises the reader. From the moment the plot begins, there is little that will shock the reader. Instead, I devoured this novel thanks to its masterful control and its stunning prose. In one instance, Campbell describes a cold glass of water as "musical with ice." This description has stuck with me for days! I'm never disappointed by a Campbell novel, but I still haven't read one which pushed into the realm of superb. He's just a comforting read.

Slow Horses and the rest of the Slough House series has been garnering some intense praise in the UK. One article, listing the greatest spy novels of all time, put the first book of the series at the end of the list(!). I had heard Herron uses the long lineage of spy fiction, especially Le Carre, to subvert, to interrogate. I can't say I was terribly impressed with the first 100 or so pages—too much quippy dialogue and too much exposition—but after the volta if you will, my interest was quite piqued. Herron has a great skill with plotting but shows off his hand a bit too much. I reread my review for The IPCRESS File, and I noted I found the novel tedious thanks to its interest in seemingly extraneous details. I think reading it now, I would find it a different experience, one more opaque and exclusionary (I can't seem to find a review or even a listing marking the exact month in 2012 I read Funeral in Berlin, which I remember adoring it in comparison to the first of the "Harry Palmer" novels), which I must admit interests me a bit more than Herron's expository style. If there's a spectrum, with the opacity of Deighton's IPCRESS File on one end (along with Le Carre's The Honourable Schoolboy), then Herron is almost at the opposite end, but not quite all the way. He withholds some details, enough to give jolts of surprise but only ever in the next scene. In other words, Herron is writing marketable spy fiction which upends much of the stalwart, stiff upper lip aristocratic tropes of Le Carre but is still resolutely within the bounds of marketable genre fiction. Herron's George Smiley, as it were, is a flatulent, corpulent grumbler, wearing still the same shabby overcoat with ludicrously deep pockets. Jackson Lamb, this character, is fun in the way Trickster characters, like the Seventh Doctor or Willy Wonka: the bumbling is only subterfuge. I think I'll read the next in the series. Let's see how Herron refines his approach.

 Another month, another Nicola Barker, this time her epistolary novel, Burley Cross Postbox Theft, which has the clever premise of a collection of letters presented as evidence in the investigation of the titular theft. The Byzantine plotting Barker is a fan of gets even more elaborate as the holistic picture is left to the reader to assemble. The solution to the mystery, if it can be called a mystery, is probably impossible to solve thanks to the plot's impenetrability. Still, I don't read Barker for clever mysteries; I read Barker for her prose, her wit, her weirdness; and this novel has these ingredients in droves. Populated by a gang of outsiders, weirdos, hippies, stuffy aristocrats, this village is teeming with the small (but not unimportant) drama of everyday life. Barker mines comedic gold from the dissembling and obfuscation in personal narrative, such as, in an extreme example, a translator's version of African French to English not matching the original letter, also included (but in English). This novel was a bit more slow going for me than her other books if only because instead of her usual tintinnabulation of conversation she opts for long paragraphs of first person narrative. Still, Barker's similes and obvious cleverness shine through each and every letter, making this a treat. Very few writers know their way around an adverb like Barker does.

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