Reading Highlights

In any reading life there occasionally comes along a spell where everything picked up (or now, rather, downloaded) turns out a winner. That probably mirrors the broader life itself: for the most part things meander along neither exceptionally nor unexceptionably, sometimes they turn ordinary to mediocre or even poor, every so often abysmal, leavened now and then by the superb. It is frequently unpredictable: something looked forward to proves disappointing, something else taken on a whim emerges as excellent, the expensive turns out not worthwhile and the inexpensive the reverse.

By total chance, then, four excellent books got onto my e-reader around the same time, further evidence that the cheapness of the Kindle product in some ways proves expensive: you buy more books. Technically all these books appear in the “crime fiction” catalogues but like all brilliant works in that genre, they could just as easily be listed in several other categories. One of them has a bit of “age”, as they say in the antiques trade, but the others are new or very new. They cover very different subject matter and places but all share great stories and terrific writing. Above all, they indicate yet again that almost indefinable quality that marks the “great” out from the “good” writer and writing.

Here they are in no particular or ranked order.

Stav Sherez is an English writer with a couple of earlier novels and a degree from Leeds to his name, as well as a music critic stint, but A Dark Redemption has shot to the top of the Kindle lists and is the book making his name. ( ). DI Jack Kerrigan is an educated misfit in the London force, teamed up with an ambitious DS who herself has a checkered career. The death of an African student takes them into a different realm of the London seen normally by tourists, and connects into both the current Joseph Kony story and Kerrigan’s own tragic past in Uganda that now reappears to further reduce his already pockmarked personal life. The writing is taut, and so good that is covers for a plotline that is almost too coincidental to ring true. Sherez is able to blend the “real” London with current events in Africa, and create a compelling atmosphere.

Ian Ayris is described as having found his way to writing by some knockabout, undistinguished routes and occupations from his Essex origins. Abide With Me (as in the hymn sung at the antihero’s Dad’s funeral) is an astonishing depiction of a harsh life and social dysfunction in the London East End. ( ). Ayris has the astonishing knack of, and an obviously great ear for being able to effortlessly transfer the East End argot from the streets to the page so that you almost hear rather than read the words. He also conveys the tight social geography of the place, as his character describes going into areas “off his manor” but maybe just a mile or two away. When he is driven home from prison, he reflects that it is the only time he has been the “other side of the river”. In a global world this is an incongruously small patch.

Like Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch and John King’s The Football Factory, football provides a constant theme, in this case a life calibrated by the success or otherwise of West Ham, the “Hammers” or the “Irons” and the club whose history was told wonderfully by my American friend and colleague Charles “ Chuck” Korr (  ). Ayris tells of a grim life, a relentless grind with a lack of opportunity leading inevitably towards crime (a botched hold-up of a tatty local off-license shop) and a spell “inside” for the main character who sustains terrible physical abuse. An entanglement with a local crime boss has deadly circumstances but, in the end, a rough sort of retribution ensues. It is a terrific if gritty book and several cuts above the rest.

From the opening sentences of Parker Bilal’s The Golden Scales Mystery you know you are on to something extraordinary. ( ). Parker Bilal is the crime writer pseudonym for Jamal Mahjoob who was born in London of Sudanese extraction but then returned to Khartoum at an early age to grow up there. He now lives in Barcelona and has several earlier well received novels to his name. This book introduces (former) Inspector Makana, once of the Khartoum police but forced to flee by the lawlessness of the rebel uprising that killed his wife and daughter. He now lives in Cairo on a ramshackle house boat, making ends meet, sometimes, by working as a private detective. The world weary but savvy Sudanese is here swept into the world of Egypt’s wealthiest man, a former but not formally retired thug owner of a football team whose star player has gone AWOL. Makana threads his way through a series of tough situations and complex leads to reach a solution.

This is one of those “crime and place” books that really works. Bilal/Mahjoob captures Cairo in all its bewildering guises, effortlessly sketching out social and class difference, terrain change, the “touristic” and the “real”, along with a marvelous sense of character. He depicts people brilliantly, and along the way his characters are memorable set in a memorable context. One character is described thus: “He stood at the counter with a stack of sandwiches in front of him, putting them away as if a law might be passed at any minute, forbidding the consumption if food by overweight men”. Simple, direct, and brilliantly telling. This book will win a lot of awards.

Dirty Tricks, one of Michael Dibdin’s non-Aurelio Zen novels dates from 1991, but has not dated. ( ). Reading it now underscores just how much a loss it was when Dibdin died in 2007 at 60. His was one of the great “voices”. Born in Woverhampton but raised in Northern Ireland, he did an English degree at Sussex then a Masters at the University of Alberta, all the while becoming engrossed in the crime genre that led to Zen who remains one of the great figures in the field. Dibdin taught English in Italy for several years, then decamped to Oxford before going to Seattle where his third wife lived. A great stylist he could switch in colour and tone in a way matched by few others, and Dirty Tricks demonstrates just how well he could write.

It is written in a revelatory almost Joycean way, and tells the version of a crime as seen by its perpetrator, an amoral and pretentious, entitled chancer now fighting an extradition case from an unnamed South American location. With the action set in Oxford it becomes a sort of Tom Sharpe meets Inspector Morse amalgam but with Dibdin’s unique slant on things. The language is compelling, almost mesmeric, the observations of time, place and social type cutting and sharp. At the end comes a classic and satisfying Dibdin denouement twist that just adds to the satisfaction of the book.

These are all wonderful achievements and deserve to be well known, so read and recommend while we await the next great discoveries.

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