Random Reading 3
David Langford

Yet more snippets, oddments, diary entries, anything to avoid the pain and suffering of writing a full-scale review....

Richard Bradford, Lucky Him: The Life of Kingsley Amis (2001). Here's how respectable critic Bradford describes Amis's explicit and acknowledged homage to Pavane by Keith Roberts: 'The Alteration (1976) invites comparisons with Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, with an echo of Swift's A Modest Proposal.' Roberts, a mere science fiction writer, isn't worthy of mention. Additionally, our biographer is highly suspicious of Amis's claim to be writing 'Alternative World' sf when of course The Alteration is about, and only about, the author's own loss of sexual drive. Again and again, Bradford favours the dangerous assumption that Amis's fiction does not merely draw on his life experience but is heavily autobiographical, leading to such tiresome suggestions as that Take a Girl Like You (remotely modelled on Richardson's Clarissa, with the siege of a naive heroine therefore ending in something close to rape) has dark implications about Amis's pursuit of his first wife. There is dodgy scholarship here, too. An important minor character in Take a Girl Like You is referred to as French when it's a crucial personality point that she only pretends to be French. Edmund Crispin's crime novel The Case of the Gilded Fly is identified as A Gilded Fly. Bradford must be the first reader to emerge from that dark borderline-sf thriller The Anti-Death League with the belief that Operation Apollo, a multi-layered Cold War stratagem whose inner nastiness is made abundantly clear, 'is never fully explained', or that the hero who retreats to bed in despair and consciously refuses to talk has 'gone into a coma'. Most deliciously, there's a chilling scene in Amis's supernatural novel The Green Man where God manifests in human form and – as a reminder to the narrator of his power – accepts a drink with a hand that is momentarily 'by no means complete, so that the fingers clicked against the glass', with an attendant stench of decay: very obviously the click is of bone against glass, but Bradford offers a bizarre gloss about this being 'as if Christ's nails are still there.' Nailed through the fingers, was he? I could, I'm afraid, go on and on.

Robertson Davies, that god among men, cheered me up no end with an aside about the style manual which so many people tell me I must regard as a holy text. 'This is a wonderful book, if you want to write like a White or a Strunk. But do you? I should hate to read a novel written in Strunkese. As for Mr. White, his style is a perfect instrument for what he has to say, but for my taste that sounds too often like a few wise, weary words written by a man who is on the point of retiring to bed with a heavy cold.' (1959; included in The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies, 1990.)

Keith Laumer, Retief's War (1966), a characteristically cheery mix of the slapdash and the slapstick, consulted when German translator Hannes Riffel – struggling in April 2002 to deal with the extraordinary linguistic inventiveness of John Clute's first sf novel Appleseed – found relief and not terribly helpful insight in this Laumer farce. 'Here and there a ... blue and white Clute hurried,' for example, while later 'a dummy abdominal section from a defunct Clute ... disguised the short Terran torso.' Later still we meet a whole bunch of these aliens, 'a cluster of blue and white Clute.' Hannes ponders whether anything in this example of sf's predictive power 'may give us just the smallest idea about the origins of one of the finest minds of our centuries.'

Philip MacDonald. One of my occasional detective-fiction binges involved a stack of 1920s-1950s novels by this generally inoffensive and modestly ingenious but now forgotten British crime writer. This led to the reflection that fictional serial killers, today vaguely regarded as having been invented in the 1980s by Thomas Harris, have a longish genre pedigree. I'm thinking of the truly insane random killer here, not the pretend version who fakes a pattern of deaths by way of distraction from a single profitable crime, as in Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders (1936), or who has compelling reasons to eliminate a whole seemingly unconnected crowd of people, as in MacDonald's The List of Adrian Messenger (1959), or as appears to be the case in Rex Stout's more devious The League of Frightened Men (1935). Macdonald invented a couple of interestingly 'genuine' killers, one with a grudge against policemen in X v. Rex (1933) and a less focused sadist in Murder Gone Mad (1931; a similar connoisseur of anguish appears in one of H.C. Bailey's 'Mr Fortune' stories). Elsewhere, Ellery Queen had New York plausibly terrorized by a serial killer in Cat of Many Tails (1949), and Ngaio Marsh dumped one into a rather small shipboard party – a kind of floating Isolated Country House – in Singing in the Shrouds (1958). Both the latter villains are provided with laboriously Freudian webs of motivation, marking a transition between the MacDonaldesque presentation of the problem as one of mobilizing society against an anonymous multiple murderer who's invisible in the crowd, and the more modern stress on how jolly psychologically interesting such monsters must be – the attitude that eventually foregrounds them as towering antiheroes like Hannibal Lecter, and which Neil Gaiman deplored by implication in the 'serial killers convention' sequence of Sandman. So the almost impersonal logistical problem of tracking or trapping a random murderer gives way to a quest for psychological intimacy verging on complicity; the serial killer subgenre drifts away from classic detective fiction in the direction of horror, and ends up with an entry – however Cluteanly disapproving – in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Perhaps a mini-thesis could be written here, but I'm disinclined to research fictional serial killers of the modern, gorily detailed persuasion. Also, my fondness for 'classic detective fiction' does not quite blind me to the counterargument that such fiction's handling of the serial killer theme is artificial and sanitized by contrast with the older, darker cult appeal of, notably, Jack the Ripper. Deep waters, Watson.

William Nicholson, The Wind Singer (2001), read in the course of catching up with children's-lit recommendations, this being a Smarties Prize winner which received lots of attention. Well, it's mostly interesting and worthy (although the point that highly regimented societies aren't nice to live in is made somewhat plonkingly), but the action gets dreadfully arbitrary towards the close. I've met a few too many of these inexhaustible fantasy armies which emerge more or less literally from nowhere when a culminating menace is required, and vanish even more literally into dust at a wave of the appropriate plot coupon.

Matt Ruff, Fool on the Hill (1988), campus fantasy novel set at Cornell University, featuring somewhat implausibly larger-than-life undergraduates and fraternity boys, secret wainscot communities of cats, dogs, and sprites, a writer in residence called S.T. George, an annual ceremony featuring a fake dragon, and a tiresomely ad-hoc Dark Lord figure whose special talent is to animate and make deadly such objects as a frat house's inflatable-woman mascot and (did you guess?) that dragon. Enjoyable and literate, although I have to confess that I tired slightly of the reiterated post-Little, Big stuff about all this being a Story whose plot requires repeated 'Meddling' by the divine author Mr Sunshine, very evidently Apollo. Otherwise it's an engaging read, and sometimes even touching.

Dorothy Sayers & Jill Paton Walsh, Thrones, Dominations (1998), that final Lord Peter Wimsey novel completed by Walsh from a smallish fragment that Sayers abandoned. It's nothing like as bad as I feared, but seems thin and dilute compared to the rich dottiness of the later Wimsey canon. Characters lack complexity, and some – notably Wimsey's mother Honoria Lucasta, Dowager Duchess of Denver – are visibly less acute and idiosyncratic than of yore. The central mystery is feeble and remarkably contrived, as is the prefiguring of some plot stuff about Victorian-era London sewers when Harriet Vane-that-was just happens to need this data for her current novel and consults the encyclopedic Wimsey – who instantly disgorges a vast info-dump about relief sewers and their geography, the engineer Joseph Bazalgette, and the Great Stink of 1858, without so much as glancing at a reference book. Also, in a story set in 1936, I'm not convinced that Wimsey's meticulous policeman brother-in-law Charles Parker would use such terms as 'GBH' for the crime of 'grievous bodily harm' (the earliest OED citation for GBH is 1958), or 'stroppy' (OED 1950).

Chris Wooding, The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray (2001), alternate-Victorian fantasy shading into horror: very effective and gruesomely inventive, much enjoyed, highly recommended. Though marketed as children's fantasy, it pulls no punches even when dealing with a serial killer who like Jack the Ripper concentrates on (as Terry Pratchett phrases it) ladies of negotiable affection. The 'haunting' is actually possession of the title's afflicted girl, by the returned spirit of a dreadful old woman called Thatch, which as a name for a revenant is guaranteed to give a frisson of political terror to innumerable Brits. One small cavil is that a certain amount of fast talking is needed to gloss over just why the story's occult Fraternity – represented as largely middle- to upper-middle-class Masonic types who are doing very nicely out of their power and influence – should be trying so hard to summon the Horribles from Beyond and end their own cosy world.