Sunday, January 27, 2008

Night Train: Martin Amis

There are quite a few things wrong with Night Train, chief of which is that it is a book that should not have been written at all. An Englishman trying to write American police procedurals, an over-present self-obsessed protagonist in the form of a woman cop called Mike Hoolihan with a past (alcoholism, an abusive father, so very clich├ęd), a death that is but a suicide, an investigation so pointless you wonder why the police service would even agree to take it up (though Mike might have a personal reason for doing so), two bullets (or was it three?) inside the head in a suicide (tell me how that works please), a cop-out of an ending (am not too sure I even understood it; if any of you has, please illuminate), random rants on drugs, suicide, etc…

I’ve panned quite a few books on this blog, but Night Train perhaps ranks right on top for one good reason: it doesn’t give you one good reason to read. The only saving grace is that it is a slim volume, so I just wasted one Sunday on it. And I don’t even want to waste any more time putting together a structured and detailed review of the book.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Admirable Carfew: Edgar Wallace

If Anthony The Brigand Newton made a living by gently taking some cream off the well-endowed and Jack The Iron Grip Bryce by handling difficult cases for a law firm through a combination of brain and brawn, the admirable Felix Carfew survives in spite of himself, and through extra-large portions of luck, “a man who attracted money to him by the exercise of one set of qualities, and repelled it by the employment of another set”. His broker, Parker of Parker & Parker, puts up with him as would the rich father of a benign idiot. Of course, Carfew has a different take on his life. He believes that “the division of responsibility as between Carfew and Providence was so arranged that, if things turned out well, Carfew had succeeded in spite of Providence, and if they failed, they had failed in spite of Carfew.”

Starting off with a lucky break after being mistaken for a famous reporter with the same last name, Felix Carfew mostly flukes through the fifteen stories in this collection, selling a dud invention here, befriending a lord here and a rebel brigand there and generally surviving bankruptcy and his own ineptness.

In The Eccentric Mr. Gobleheim, for a change luck walks into Carfew’s life in the form of the eccentric duo of Lewis & Gobleheim, who actually offer him an unbelievably good deal. And our admirable protagonist chooses precisely that moment to smell a confidence trickster. Thus losing a cool deal in the bargain.

Patriots is a bit of a mini-classic, pitting the US against the UK, specifically New York versus London, in terms of their appreciation of theatre.

Tobbins, Limited, the longest story of the lot, takes a dig at advertising and sales promotion, with the subtly named advertising agency, Exploitation Publicity Company. The tale is perhaps a reflection of its times, when advertising was not considered an above-board strategy. It is also one of the few tales in the collection in which Carfew actually succeeds consciously and without the benefit of accidents.

One and Sevenpence Ha’penny provides a delightful ending to a largely interesting collection. It has shades of the last episode of Jeffrey Archer’s Not a Penny Less, Not a Penny More. Carfew counts his fortune and finds himself one and sevenpence ha’penny” short of thirty-five thousand pounds. So he goes out to earn it. And in the process, his close circle, his servant Villiers, his broker Parker, an old associate Wilner and his business partner May Tobbin and her father all think Carfew has gone mad. And as with Anthony Newton and Jack Bryce, Carfew gets hitched in the end.

Dedicated and committed Plum fans may disagree violently, but in The Admirable Carfew, Edgar Wallace is as delightful as PG Wodehouse in terms of humour and protagonist characterisation.

Carfew’s view of life was that all the past had been ordered for his comfort.

Thus Edison had been born on a certain day in order that he might have his many electric appliances ready against Carfew reaching maturity. Stephenson had worked with no other object in view than that he should have railways shipshape by the time Carfew could afford to travel first class.

Carfew could perhaps have been as memorable a character as Bertie Wooster. A pity, then, that Wallace did not take Felix Carfew beyond this book.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Iron Grip: Edgar Wallace

Captain Jack Bryce, inscribed in the family records as John Richard Pantagenet, but better known amongst his intimate friends as Wireless Bryce, had dropped his army title, for he had discovered that it prejudiced rather than helped his chance of securing employment.

The similarity between Jack Bryce and Anthony The Brigand Newton is unmistakable. There is, however, one significant difference between Newton and Bryce: the Brigand succeeds in making a living through “the art of gentle robbery” using his brain and wit; the protagonist of The Iron Grip thwarts crime using his muscles, and, on the odd occasion, his brain and his looks.

The Iron Grip is a collection of ten stories, in each of which Jack Bryce is commissioned by Mr. James Hemmer of Hemmer & Hemmer, an eminent firm of lawyers, to address cases where the lawyers were “constantly getting into difficulties from which private detectives and the ordinary resources of the law cannot extricate” them.

The Iron Grip has its moments, especially in the cases where Bryce outsmarts the villains rather than batter them into submission. The story where he does the classic switcheroo by storing the Vlakfontain diamond in the pocket of the villain’s assistant is almost reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter. Equally gripping is the case in which Bryce disproves a bigamy accusation by figuring out the time difference between London and Onslow, Western Australia. The one in which he forces the villain to burn a cheque (which he had fraudulently obtained) to save his life is another nice touch. The stories in which Bryce plays the romantic card are interesting as well, especially in the last story, where the role goes beyond the case, the tale and the book itself. Again, an ending not unlike that in The Brigand.

However, you cannot get away from the fact that there is something lacking in The Iron Grip. Perhaps it is the glibness with which Bryce turns himself in an Australian (expertise obtained by spending “two hours reading an Australian novel to get the local colour”) in one story and a Canadian in another that dilutes his character and makes it a touch low on credibility. Perhaps it is just that Bryce tends to use his muscles so very often to sort things out, something which is not quite an Edgar Wallace staple. There is a certain charm about a typical Wallace character, a sense of sangfroid, a clever mind at work, a character that lends itself to memorable descriptions, that is conspicuous by its absence in The Iron Grip. Which absence shows itself in the plot and in the language as well. The Iron Grip would perhaps rank among the lesser works of this prolific author.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Brigand: Edgar Wallace

Anthony Newton was a soldier at sixteen; at twenty-six he was a beggar of favours, a patient waiter in outer offices, a more or less meek respondent to questionnaires which bore a remarkable resemblance one to the other.

Tony Newton struggled through eight years of odd jobs.

And at the end of the eighth year he discussed the situation with himself and soberly elected for brigandage of a safe and more or less unobjectionable variety.
The dictionary defines a brigand as a robber or a bandit, particularly from an outlaw band. But that definition is perhaps too harsh for Tony Newton; he focuses on “the art of gentle robbery.” And he succeeds, as he himself modestly admits.

The curious thing about me is that I’m never beaten. I’ve made money out of the greatest besters in town; I’ve diddled confidence men, and I’ve had money from a moneylender who went to bed Stahlstein and woke to find himself one of the proud Macgregors, and never even paid him back. I have met in single combat the Scot and the Armenian, and I have wrenched from their maws the wherewithal to live. The pup that other men buy licks my hand and develops into a pedigree show dog.
The Brigand is a collection of twelve stories, each an escapade of Tony Newton as he moves from one adventure to another, one gullible rich man to another, escaping a detection here, a marriage to a “plum pudding girl” there, a murder attempt elsewhere, even becoming a successful member of the House of Commons in one delightful episode.

The Brigand is Edgar Wallace at his best – simple storylines, a lovable character with whom you empathise even though you know that he not quite on the straight path, a bit of crime, loads of humour, some deceptively simple philosophising. Among the lesser known one-book-only characters created by Edgar Wallace, Tony Newton would probably be right up there on the top.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Council of Justice: Edgar Wallace

Whatever else they did or didn’t, the anarchists provided good fodder for crime fiction. G K Chesterton did a wonderful satire on the anarchists in The Man Who Was Thursday; and Edgar Wallace handled them as criminals in The Council of Justice, where the Red Hundred, a motley bunch of anarchists from the continent, are up against the precision and planning of Leon, Manfred and Poiccart.

The Four Just Men was the book that launched Edgar Wallace’s crime fiction writing, and his corresponding fame. The four men – Leon, Manfred, Poiccart and Thery – count among the more popular characters in British crime writing. Avid Wallace fans will recall that Thery featured only in the first book but all the subsequent books still refer to the other three as a quartet. The Council of Justice features Leon, Manfred, and Poiccart with a fourth, interesting-in-his-own-right, member, the Prince of the Escorials, who plays a small but significant role. Jessen, a reformed criminal who now dedicates his life to reforming other criminals with an original approach, is another minor role worthy of mention in The Council. As is the journalist Charles Garrett.

Systematically, as is their wont, the Council (as the just men call themselves in this book) go after the key people in the Red Hundred, eliminating them one after the other, in a style that is so very typical of them. The police, in one of those unusual situations, are as much after the Council as they are against the Red Hundred. With predictably low success.

A key and interesting character in The Council is the mysterious Woman of Gratz – the leader of the Red Hundred who subsequently gives them up and thus falls out of favour. She also plays a key role in the life of Manfred, in an affair tinged with unfulfilled romance, effectively leading to his arrest and therefore, the latter part of The Council.

It is this latter part that adds lustre to The Council. It demands great leaps of imagination to accept the elaborate preparations Leon and Poiccart make to get Manfred out of the jail, and the corresponding climax. But it is precisely this kind of plotting that characterises Edgar Wallace and more so, the four just men. As with most crime fiction, the “what” of the ending is rarely a surprise; it is the “how” that makes it enthralling reading. And The Council really scores on that count. The way Manfred escapes from prison is as unbelievable as it is riveting. And that alone makes The Council worth reading.