What I’m reading: Graham Greene territory

 William Boyd: TRIO

 

The three protagonists in William Boyd’s novel are linked by being in Brighton in the summer of 1968 while a movie is filmed. Elfrida, whose philandering husband is directing the picture, is trying to start a new novel about the last day in the life of Virginia Woolf (who went into a river not far from Brighton). Talbot, the film’s harassed co-producer, fears that his partner is trying to freeze him out; he also has mild urges to venture down new sexual paths. Anny, the movie’s self-obsessed American star, is juggling two lovers and having to deal with an ex-husband on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

 

William Boyd

This trio of diverse human dramas is a variant on familiar Boyd ‘territory’. The 1960s Brighton setting evokes Graham Greene, who clearly has been a major influence on Boyd’s writing life. The story teeters on the edge of both comedy and tragedy. None of the main characters is particularly sympathetic to the reader (to this reader), and the first chapters are a bit scrappy, but towards the end Boyd’s writing recaptures the quality of his best novels (Restless is the most outstanding of the last half-dozen).

 

What I’m reading: the new First Lady of spy fiction

Hillary Clinton & Louise Penny: STATE OF TERROR

 

The principal character in Hillary Clinton’s literary debut is – can you believe it? – a female US Secretary of State. With terrorist bus bombings in three European cities and a clear and present danger of outrages in the US, Ellen Adams, newly appointed to the new administration of President Douglas Williams, goes on the diplomatic offensive, jetting to Kabul, Tehran and Moscow to meet leaders who may help to defuse the situation. She is handicapped by hard-right ‘moles’ in Washington who are in league with those – a global group – orchestrating the outrages. It’s very gung-ho, very Jason Bourne; Ms Adams is frequently in the firing line, from fisticuffs in the Oval Office to shoot-ups in caves in the mountains of Baluchistan.

 

President Williams has a potty mouth which calls Richard Nixon to mind more than the current incumbent. His predecessor, Eric Dunn, presided over “four years of chaos” and now lives in kingly splendor in Florida – hmmm. Other world figures, up to and including Iran’s Supreme Leader, are lightly (very lightly) fictionalized. Russia’s President Ivanov was famously photographed shirtless on a horse!

 

The sheer geopolitical scale of this taut and tense thriller suggests that Mrs Clinton has contributed more than just her name to the project. I’m guessing it’s the Second Lady rather than the Former First Lady who’s responsible for the actual writing. Characters are pithily described. The pithiness extends to the staccato prose style: short sentences, short paragraphs – a style practiced by the late Jackie Collins, among many others. Not a style I warm to, but the exhilarating plot and the sheer pace kept me engaged through to the nerve-shredding (if slightly daft) conclusion.

What I’m reading: Ballard & Bosch back on the beat

Michael Connelly: THE DARK HOURS

 

With Covid restrictions in place and the “insurrection” in the post-Election Capitol, the latest case for night-shift LAPD detective Renee Ballard and retired cop Harry Bosch is about as on-the-button as you can get. A murder on New Year’s Eve has a ballistic link to an unsolved ten-year-old case of Harry’s. The pair are hamstrung by lazy and inept colleagues/superiors, a recurring theme in Michael Connelly’s books – and presumably a factor in real-world police work.

 

Ballard is also investigating an ongoing serial rape case – a creepy brace of rapists called the “Midnight Men”. Both cases require dogged detective work and interviews that occasionally reveal a tiny clue to move the team forward. Connelly writes the best dialogue in current crime fiction, which gives an edge – a “zing” – to all this routine stuff. As he always does, he ratchets up the tension to a nail-biting finale. Nobody does it better in Police Department thrillers.

What I’m reading: Another take on the plot to kill JFK

 

Philip Kerr: THE SHOT

Perhaps taking a leaf from Stephen King, espionage writer Philip Kerr invites us back to the Kennedy era. The Shot starts with Jack beating Nixon in the election in November 1960, narrowly and – Kerr repeats an oft-told tale – with some help from the Mafia in the key state of Illinois.
    A professional assassin (presidentially named Tom Jefferson) is hired by mobster Sam Giancana (who famously shared a girlfriend with JFK) to murder Fidel Castro, so that Cuba can revert to its previous Mob-dominated money-spinning status. But there are other pressures on Jefferson, and he diverts his attention to a plot to remove Kennedy before the inauguration.
     “Georgetown lay on his soul like a dead weight.” Philip Kerr, as we know from his WW2 and Cold War novels, has a neat way with words. His extended dialogue scenes reminded me of Robert Ludlum at his most prolix, but the assassination theme pulls the reader through the occasional slow patch. As with The Day of the Jackal, you think the end won’t spring any surprises – but it does!

     Most conspiracy buffs believe that Cosa Nostra did play a key role in the events in Dallas in 1963; Oliver Stone’s movie JFK included this and several of the other scenarios in a mash-up of the conspiracy to end all conspiracies. The Shot offers one more tense, imaginative chapter to the Mythology of “Camelot”.

What I’m watching: Is crime drama getting too sick?

 

Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen & Laurence Fishburne

 

 HANNIBAL

 
Clearly I’m very late catching up on this, the TV version of the crimes of Hannibal Lecter, our favourite cannibal. Three series – 39 episodes – of crime and punishment. Mostly crime. I found it terrifically watchable but deeply disturbing.

     The credits tell us this is “based on characters from Red Dragon by Thomas Harris”, but the “Tooth Fairy”, the family-slayer from that book, doesn’t appear till the last few episodes of Series Three. The first thirty-plus hours introduce other killers, other crimes – and, of course, Hannibal whose crimes are sometimes attributed to others.

     The ill-fated Florence detective and Mason Verger (and his sister) (from Harris’s third book) are featured, and there are scenes augmented from Hannibal Rising, Book Four – the “prequel”. Conspicuously absent is Clarice Starling and the whole storyline from Silence of the Lambs. Clarice is replaced by some new female characters, including Gillan Anderson as a shrink who is close to Hannibal and also close to psychosis herself.

     The big liberty taken in this version is that Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) is working with Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) at the FBI as a consultant; he’s also Will’s psychotherapist. We, the viewers, are shown his killer/cannibal side, but it takes a while for the others to catch on to the viper in their bosom. Will Graham bonds with Hannibal and learns what happens when the moth gets too close to the flame.

     Production values are high and the cast, down to the supporting players, are all on top form. Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is a lot creepier than Anthony Hopkins’s near-pantomime baddie. The screenwriters have pushed the envelope way beyond the Tooth Fairy (and even the absent Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs) to introduce their own bevy of serial slayers. Bryan Fuller is credited as creator/producer, so I guess this gore-fest is what he set out to achieve. One killer in the first series turns bodies and body parts into totem poles. This I found genuinely nauseating. This show takes us close to torture porn, of which we see increasing amounts on TV and in the cinema. I worry that this kind of thing gives nourishment to already sick minds.

     Yes, I found the whole 39 episodes relentlessly compelling – apart from a few longueurs (Dancy’s breakdown is over-extended and Anderson’s character becomes tiresome). But I think it’s time we reappraised the current definition of what is classed as Suitable Viewing.

 

(I watched this on DVD, but it’s also available on Amazon Prime)

Dinner at Hannibal’s. Who’s on the menu?

 

David at the Movies: Diana’s not-so-merry Christmas

 SPENCER

I wasn’t going to bother with this, since The Crown and all those documentaries have given us an overdose of Diana and the Princes, but Kristen Stewart has received such rave write-ups I thought I’d give it a go.

     It’s a blistering performance that blows all the other versions of Diana out of the water. During three days over Christmas in Sandringham when her sons are about 10 and 8, Diana’s bulimia escalates into a full-blown breakdown. She has visions of Anne Boleyn, whose life as a royal bride famously didn’t end well.

    

     Apart from the young princes and a starchy equerry played by a cadaverous-looking Timothy Spall, Stewart gets pretty well all the screen time. HMQ and Charles are almost background extras in this one-woman show. Sally Hawkins has a touching turn as a dresser with whom Diana is able to let her hair down.
     We’ve gotten used to seeing Diana as petulant and put-upon. Steven Knight’s screenplay for Spencer amplifies her into a histrionic diva, prowling the corridors and pastures of Sandringham like Lucia Di Lammermoor. Kristen Stewart will surely pick up some awards, though Charles probably won’t suggest a DBE.

     This is very much a ‘fantasia’ on the life of the People’s Princess. Worth seeing? Hmm, maybe wait till it’s on free-to-view.

What I’m reading: A hustler’s odyssey in pre-Aids America

 

John Rechy:
CITY OF NIGHT

 

Resuming my trawl through yesteryear gay fiction with this ‘classic’ from 1963, John Rechy’s chronicle – which we assume to be autobiographical – of a few months in the life of a nameless hustler haunting the cruising zones of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Mardi Gras New Orleans. It seems a bit dated today, but it’s one of the seminal books in the literary gay canon.

 

Rechy sets the tone on the opening page: “One-night sex and cigarette smoke and rooms squashed in by loneliness.” Every other chapter explores the life and mindset of a fellow hustler or one of the punters (“scores”), those men who are part predator and part prey. There is some humour, especially in the full-on Attitude of the camper gays and drag queens – the most extravagant of these are Miss Destiny, the self-crowned Queen of L.A.’s Pershing Square, and Chi-Chi, a mixed-up Muscle Mary in New Orleans. But for the most part the tone is unremittingly bleak. Sylvia, the bar-owner haunted by a guilty secret, is given more depth than many of the scores.

 

John Rechy

The narrator portrays himself as the macho street kid who’s only doing it for money but occasionally, with another hustler or one of the scores, he almost feels the tug of involvement. But that tug has to be resisted, because it would undermine his conviction that he isn’t really a fag. These are some of the book’s most revealing scenes. He never admits to love and only rarely to desire. Desperation is what drives the denizens of the Cities of Night onto “the lonely, crowded, electric streets.”

John Rechy creates a syntax of his own, routinely omitting the apostrophes in words like “isnt” and “dont”. Fragmented paragraphs bristle with dashes and ellipses (…). Past and present tenses are randomly mixed. He sandwiches words together to create a vivid new vocabulary: “nightworld”, “malehustler”, “sexhungry”. The hallucinatory writing recalls Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, so much so that I wonder if either of them contributed to the edit. The fractured narrative becomes repetitive, but there’s no denying the powerful impact of this nightmarish journey through the Gay Underworld. “We’re trying to swim in a river made for drowning.

the original 1960s cover

 

This is not an erotic novel. The sex between hustler and score is rarely described and never detailed. Rechy’s second novel – Numbers – and its successors were a lot more explicit, and he abandoned the zonked-out Beat-poetry style for the pared-down prose of Harold Robbins or Mickey Spillane.

Reading City of Night in the 1960s, it seemed exotically different and daring. London’s gay scene was a pale echo of New York’s; Piccadilly and Leicester Square never quite had the lurid tawdriness of 42nd Street or Times Square. A few pages from the end Rechy seems to foresee the rich harvest the Grim Reaper will gather from this relentlessly promiscuous community two decades later: “death lurking prematurely in a threatening black-out”. In 1963 John Rechy was a kind of “Pied Piper” figure, and as we know, the Piper – one way or another – has to be paid.

David Gee at the Brighton Book Fayre: 20 November 2021

 

What I’m reading: An ending that will stay with you forever

DELIA OWENS: Where the Crawdads Sing

 

I’m a couple of years late reading this novel, which is surely set to become a modern classic. Abandoned by her mother and her siblings, Kya Clark grows up in a shack in the North Carolina marshes with only her brutal alcoholic father for company until even he disappears. Scorned by almost all the townspeople, she gives up on school after just one day. A local boy teaches her to read; they both become experts on the flora and fauna of the swamp and the ocean. When the boy leaves to go to college, Kya replaces him in her affections with a rich-kid lothario who we know from the beginning is destined to die under mysterious circumstances.

Delia Owens brings the marshes and the creatures that live there vividly to life. She has a wonderful way with words: ‘Barkley Cove served its religion hard-boiled and deep fried.’ Inevitably, Where the Crawdads Sing brings echoes of other great writers from the Deep South, notably Harper Lee and Truman Capote. The rustic courtroom scenes have all the drama and tension of To Kill a Mockingbird.

 

More than once this heartbreaking story of love and loss brought tears to my eyes. The ending is one that will stay with you forever. This is without doubt one of the finest novels this century is likely to produce.

LILLIAN AND THE ITALIANS: Two more reviews on my Blog Tour

Two five-star reviews I garnered during my US Blog Tour with Gay Book Promotions this week:

90086023

Juniper Greer-Ashe‘s review
Sep 23, 2021

 

it was amazing

 

There’s something about this book that just feels beautifully crafted: the world building is careful, deliberate, and thorough: it brings to life a glittering picture of Italy in the 1960s and the complicated codes of conduct that regulate it. The characters too are finely drawn: they’re each so much more complicated than they might seem at first glance, and their stories unfold through a series of revelations and insights that makes them, and their experiences, feel nuanced and real. Lillian gets more and more compelling, the more time she spends on the page, and her search for her son is an exercise in love and growth that it’s impossible not to get caught up in. The Andrew we see through her eyes at first both is and is not the one she finds herself looking for as the story goes on, and that just adds to the overall sense that this is a journey worth going on.

 

Susie Umphers

 

Reviewed in the United States

 

An excellent, serious book with the beauty of Italy acting as backdrop to a story 
about the mafia and kidnappings, but more importantly about family and how
we both know our family members and don’t know them. There are excellent 
depictions of m/m and m/f relationships here. This is an author I want to read
more of.