Book Diary – May 2013

‘The Wanderers’ by Richard Price

Tuesday 7th May – Thursday 9th May

Another one of my Christmas presents, this is Richard Price’s debut novel. I’ve enjoyed all of the other Richard Price books I’ve read – Clockers, Freedomland, Samaritan and Lush Life –  as well as his work on The Wire. His eye for human nature and his ear for dialogue (as if I can tell authentic 60s Bronx teenage slang!) make his books very rewarding reading.

This was different from the other books of his, all superior-quality whodunits, in that it was a coming-of-age tale. I must admit I’m not a massive fan of this type of story. In my experience, they tend to fall into two categories: (1) something outlandish happens which causes the main character(s)’ transition from nominal child to nominal adult, or (2) a teenage boy or group of boys spends their time and energy trying to have sex with anything that moves (often unsuccessfully).This falls into the second category for a couple of chapters, but doesn’t dwell solely on that and so manages to escape the trap.

The interesting thing for me was that this book lacked the linear narrative of all his other work, and instead is comprised of a dozen chapters which could almost be read as separate short stories. Each contains some or all of a recurring cast of characters, with the focus shifting from one to the other as the chapters change.

As someone who harbours distant and probably never-to-be-realised dreams of maybe one day writing a book, it was encouraging to see that it was possible to get something published which lacked a standard plot, especially as it was Price’s debut novel and so there was nothing else to provide as evidence of his ability as a writer. Perhaps this paragraph is revealing the narrowness of my own imagination and my ignorance of what publishers look for in a writer, but I have always imagined that most start off with a safe, formulaic novel, and expand their scope once their reputation is more firmly established. Clearly not! There is hope for me yet…

‘Brown’s Requiem’ By James Ellroy

Friday 10th May – Friday 17th May

Yes, it’s the Demon Dog of American crime again! Following Richard Price’s first novel is James Ellroy’s début publication. It contains all the usual Ellroy trademarks – intricate plot, Los Angeles setting, death, drugs, sleaze, sex and violence in spades.

As such, it’s a pretty good book, however, I would also say that it is more flawed than usual. In some ways it is clear that it is his first book. To an extent, he has taken the maxim ‘write what you know’ too far – there are sections of the book which are utterly redundant and exist only as extended monologues on the joys of classical music and life as a golf caddy (both aspects of James Ellroy’s personal history), distorting the story somewhat as these aspects of the characters were given exaggerated prominence.

I like discovering an author, reading their masterpieces and then going back to read their early work and see if I can find the seeds of their success concealed within the pages of their first tenuous steps into the literary world. In this case, it is clear to see that James Ellroy had a clear idea of his own style and interests right from the very start.

‘The Suspicions Of Mr. Whicher, or, The Murder At Road Hill House’ by Kate Summerscale

Friday 17th May – Thursday 30th May

This was something of an impulse purchase having heard an interview with the author on a BBC books podcast. I left it on my shelf for a couple of months, intrigued by the synopsis but not overly desperate to start it in preference to some of the other books which I’ve read recently.

I neglected it undeservedly.

While it starts slowly, and with a little too much detail, it builds into an utterly fantastic book. The ‘excessive’ detail gives it the feeling of a proper police investigation, and I’m sure that was the intention.

The book’s greatest success is that it manages to be several things at once. It is, on the face of it, an account of the murder of a small boy and the subsequent investigation. However, it also manages to be a history of the police force and the early days of detectives, a social history of Victorian Britain and a guide to the early days of detective novels, and more than that an illustration of how all four subjects were closely interlinked.

When I read a book like this, in which the strands fit so neatly together, I always wonder whether this is because the author has spent a long time researching a great number of cases and picked the one which fits the theme of the book best (assuming he or she has chosen the them originally, rather than developing it as they write), or whether in fact it is a demonstration of their skill as a writer that they are able to join the dots so smoothly and the actual case they choose is almost irrelevant. I would love to ask Kate Summerscale if the opportunity ever arose.

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