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.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Inspector Imanishi Investigates: Seichō Matsumoto

Considering the feet-on-the-street nature of a typical police procedural, it tends to afford a good view of the city where the crime (and the corresponding investigation) takes place. With Inspector Imanishi, it gets even better. Since the investigation takes the inspector (and his assistant in some cases) to different cities in Japan, the book gives the reader a broad sweep of Japan. Particularly evocative is the town of Kameda, famous for its cloth (the Kameda weave) and its dried noodles.

The two detectives visited the dried noodle shop. Next to it, bamboo poles were set with noodles draped from them. This made the noodles appear like white waterfalls when the sun shone on them.

Another reason to read Inspector Imanishi is the window it gives into Japanese society. (Though it is important to keep in mind that the book was originally written in the early 1960s, and hence be aware that some of these may have changed, especially the portrayal of the woman in a rather submissive role.) The habit of pouring tea into one’s rice I found particularly fascinating. As also the innate hospitality of the Japanese, even to strangers.

Purely from the perspective of the police investigation itself, Inspector Imanishi throws up a few surprises. There is absolutely no pace or urgency in the investigation. Which, contrary to what you may expect, seems to work in the book’s favour. After the initial flurry of activity, except for Inspector Imanishi, no one else seems even too interested in unravelling the murder. So while there is no real cooperation extended to the inspector (except at a very peripheral level by Yoshimoro Hiroshi), there isn’t too much expectation and pressure either. Perhaps this ensured that the investigation team did not cut corners, did not commit mistakes on account of time pressures.

The personality of the murderer is another interesting aspect of the book. Even when he starts sniffing the investigation, he doesn’t target Inspector Imanishi. Moreover, apart from the core murder, for which he has a good motive, the murderer is forced into some of the other murders just to cover his tracks. Which he does, without coming across as particularly bloodthirsty. Cold-blooded? Hmm, no. Logical is more the word that comes to mind.

Only when Inspector Imanishi starts holding things back from you does the book sag a bit. Until then, you are with him at every stage (even though, amusingly, Yoshimora never seems to be). Ultimately the pieces fall together and you are with him again.

The film version of this book, Vessel of Sand (also the Japanese title of the book), is considered one of the classics of Japanese cinema, and it is not hard to see why when you read the book. All things considered, Inspector Imanishi Investigates is a world-class police procedural on many counts – worthy of comparison with the best in the business.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Mammoth Book of Short Spy Novels: Bill Pronzini & Martin H. Greenberg (ed.)

The name of Leslie Charteris jumped out from the cover: it was both attractive and worrying. Attractive because any Saint adventure is unlikely to be uninteresting; worrying because the Saint is more a detective than a spy. The suspicion got stronger when I opened the book and noticed that the first story was The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans – one of those rare stories featuring the Holmes brothers, Sherlock and Mycroft. I succumbed nevertheless, or more truthfully, because I saw these names. Add to Charteris and Holmes Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden, a bit of James Bond and Modesty Blaise and an Erle Stanley Gardner piece (though not featuring that crack lawyer Perry Mason), and I reckoned it fair to expect some reasonable pulp here, even if I hadn’t read anything from any of the other authors featured in this collection.

To begin with, my suspicions were not misplaced. None of the twelve stories featured in the collection involve espionage, at least in the sense you would perhaps expect in the full-length Ashenden novels or the John le Carré ones. Yes, most of the stories involve a spy, but they don’t involve spying. And in the case of Holmes, the spy is not even the protagonist.

If Octopussy is not the weakest Bond adventure ever, then I would be hard put to understand the legend of 007. I remember the film being very different from the short story featured here, and the reason is not difficult to see. There is just no action worth a spy in the tale – Bond hardly does any spying, any racing or any death-defying stunts. And, horror of horrors, 007 doesn’t even kill Major Dexter Smythe.

The anti-climax in the Modesty Blaise starrer The Giggle-Wrecker, while funny, is just too daft to be believable; The Danger Zone suggests that Erle Stanley Gardner is clearly lost without Perry Mason; the Ashenden tale, The Traitor, is almost a family drama in its poignancy; and The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans is certainly not one of the better Holmes adventures, notwithstanding the presence of the almost unbelievably impressive Mycroft – the villain is captured and exposed a bit too easily.

The biggest disappointment of the collection has to be the Saint caper, The Sizzling Saboteur. But for the absence of techno-gadgetry and the aggressive cavorting with women, I rate the Saint a more interesting character than Bond. But in this novella, the real Saint just doesn’t show up. And the bartender being the “butler” as it were, while admittedly a nice twist, did bring down the intensity of the narrative, lacking as the bartender did the organisation to be a real threat to the Saint.

And then there are the one that make up the numbers. John D. MacDonald’s Betrayed is unbelievably amateurish, Cornell Woolrich’s Tokyo, 1941 too full of maudlin patriotism and Edward D. Hoch’s The People of the Peacock just has too many elements to make for a coherent tale.

Three tales in the collection could perhaps have progressed to a passable level if they had been treated as full-length novels: Bruce Cassiday’s Deep-Sleep, John Jakes’ Dr. Sweetkill and Michael Gilbert’s The Spoilers. However, the format (more short story than novella in most cases in the collection, except perhaps the Charteris one) makes them hurried, and all three fall into the same trap: a weak villain organisation though an unmistakeably strong villain.

Bill Pronzini and that other great aggregator, Maxim Jakubowski, did for a living what people like me do on the side – read crime fiction. They have spent most of their working life providing such collections. The usual trend with these collections is that they tend to be a mixed bag – some average works from well-known names, some hidden gems and some indifferent authors peddling some inane ware. But Pronzini and Greenberg are much more consistent in their pick here – all the selections are consistently disappointing.