Thursday, March 26, 2009

Inspector West Regrets: John Creasey

Anthony Kelham, son of shady financier Andrew, is found murdered in his father’s library. Was the son killed accidentally; was the father the real target?

The senior Kelham’s secretary Blair is fiercely loyal to his employer though his father was apparently ruined by the financier. So did the ‘butler’ do it in revenge?

Griselda Fayne, Anthony’s now-off now-on girlfriend was off at that stage. And she had attempted to shoot Anthony before. So is she the real culprit?

The plump Mr. Alexander looms as a mysterious figure for Andrew Kelham, Griselda Fayne and Inspector West himself (not to mention his wife and infant son). What is his role in the murder? And did he commit the follow-up murders to cover his tracks?

Andrew’s wife seems to be so seriously ill that she can’t even be told of her husband’s accident, let alone her son’s murder. Where does this figure in the picture?

These and more questions are what Chief Inspector West and his New Scotland Yard colleagues answer in Inspector West Regrets.

A complete compendium of John Creasey’s works perhaps does not even exist (he apparently wrote more than 600 books under multiple pseudonyms), but it can be said with some certainty that Chief Inspector / Superintendent West was one of his more significant series, with more than 60 titles featuring Roger West. And while there is a certain aura that seems to justify the characters of the Baron and the Toff, the success of West is perhaps the most surprising, considering he is but a regular cop, the rather superfluous tag ‘Handsome’ notwithstanding. Regrets is another example of this role of West. Yes, he faces some dangers, yes he is courageous and relentless, but when you realise on closer inspection that many of the breakthroughs in the case are not quite West’s doing (except getting kidnapped perhaps), you wonder what makes him the hero. Of this book and more than 60 others.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Help from the Baron: John Creasey

Sergeant Worraby of the River Police, Westminster Division, could have ranked right up there along with some of Creasey’s and Edgar Wallace’s best characters; he kick-starts Help from the Baron in classical fashion.
Many things are said about Worraby, the most persistent being that he needs only to glance at a corpse beneath the demoralising light of the launch’s searchlight to be able to say—as he invariably does:

“Obvious case of felo de se, my lad”, or “Homicidal victim, no one ever did that to himself”, or “Lay you ten to one that wasn’t dead when he hit the water.” Like a doctor diagnosing childish complaints, one glance is all that Worraby needs. He is seldom proved wrong. At public expense, doctors who are already far too busy with the living are nevertheless employed to dissect certain parts of the anatomy of the corpse, write out extensive reports, then give evidence at long and often wearisome inquests; and the verdicts almost invariably concur with Sergeant Worraby’s original: “I can tell you what happened to him, my lad—hit over the head and thrown in. Give you ten to one they tossed him in from Gimble’s Steps.” Or Fisherman’s Bottom, Tickerton’s Wharf, Moss Lane or any of a dozen romantically-named places.
The man, who discovers the first ‘body’ in Help, is a character who could’ve carried an entire book, if not a series on his broad shoulders. Unfortunately, not for John Creasey, as the good sergeant disappears after the first 30 odd pages, making but a brief insignificant appearance towards the end.

The rest of Help is pure John ‘the Baron’ Mannering and Lorna, Superintendent Bill Bristow, diamonds, fences, murders, kidnappings and smashed skulls, naïveté and romance, and the inevitable build-up of the Baron’s image.
One man could take a car engine to pieces and put it together again, another could invent explosives, a third could amass fortunes, a fourth could grow onions; Mannering could open doors and force locks of all kinds. He had once been an expert par excellence. He had, in fact, once been a cracksman extraordinary, to coin a phrase, and in those days he had won much notoriety and not a little fame as the Baron, who always worked strictly incognito. He regarded them as the good or the bad old days, according to his mood, and always remembered them when, as now, he turned the lock with hardly a sound.
The Baron is perhaps Creasey’s best character. And Help is typical Baron fare. It takes a Creasey fan to recognise the compliment in that sentence.

But a serious character is lost in the form of Sergeant Worraby, who had only to sniff the river breeze a laden cargo-boat passed to say where she came from and what she carried, what her tonnage was, whether her crew were lascars, Chinese, Malays, white men, Dutch or Greek, French or Madagascan.

Ironically, even a Google search for ‘Sergeant Worraby’ today threw up precisely one result.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Kappa: Ryunosuke Akutagawa

When the cover proclaimed Ryunosuke Akutagawa as the author of Rashomon, I picked up Kappa immediately. Then I turned to the back of the book.

Patient No. 23 tells his story to anyone in the asylum who will listen: on his way home through the valley, he fell into a deep abyss while chasing a nimble creature with a face like a tiger and a sharp beak. The creature was a Kappa, and when he awoke he was in Kappaland.

I almost put the book back. But Rashomon won and the book accompanied me home. It turned out to be a good decision after all.

Kappaland is Akutagawa’s metaphor to comment on humankind and on Japanese society in particular. It is a Gulliver’s Travels from Japan, if you will. And just as satirical.

For the large part, Akutagawa uses the Kappa as an anti-man, a simple inversion.

The most puzzling of all was the confusing Kappa way of getting everything upside down: where we humans take a thing seriously, the Kappa will tend to be amused; and, similarly, what we humans find amusing the Kappa will take in deadly earnest.

Like this one on clothing.

The one thing that struck me as really amusing was the fact that the Kappa does not wear any form of loin covering. On one occasion, I tried asking Bag about this practice. He threw his head back and guffawed so loudly and so long that I thought I’d never be able to stop. His reply—once he’d managed to restrain himself enough to be able to talk—didn’t make matters any better.

‘I get just as much amusement from the way you cover yourself.’

There are similar takes on birth control, gene mixing and the relationship between man and woman, among others.

On other occasions, Akutagawa exaggerates typical human practices. Like the rather grotesque reference to unemployed workers being killed and eaten (by other Kappas) to ensure zero unemployment. Or the references to politics, war and unscrupulous businessmen. Or when he dwells on concepts like ends justifying means, life beyond life and organised religion.

The section where the poet Tok, who commits suicide, resurfaces as a ghost in a séance is perhaps the highpoint of the book. In particular, his responses to two questions: why he came back as a ghost, and what he will do if he wearied of the spiritual life.

This slim, brilliantly translated work (Geoffrey Bownas) is definitely worth a read. You will need just one sitting to finish it.