Friday, October 24, 2014

Iain Sinclair

 The above is a little video blog about Iain Sinclair. I should stress that Sinclair's writing is definitely not for everyone and before you get any of his books you should read the first 3 pages or so first. Sinclair is a cult writer, but a cultist whose texts lie at the intersection of a number of counter cultural movements in poetry, film, photography, psychogeography etc. In various projects he's appeared with Jonathan Meades, Stewart Lee, William Gibson, JG Ballard etc. - who are all artistic heroes of mine. Perhaps the strangest appearance of Iain Sinclair anywhere is in Alan Moore's comic League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century 2009, where a slightly disguised Sinclair shows Orlando (from Virginia Woolf's Orlando) and Nina Harker (from Dracula) the secret entrance to the Harry Potter realm at Kings Cross Station. (In this version of the story Potter is the evil Moonchild, conjured up by Aleister Crowley, who then attempts to destroy the world, which, er, is not something you see every day.) Sinclair is the bald chap with the glasses.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


my review of Perfidia from last Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age. There's a little bit of a primer in the first paragraph for local readers who may have forgotten who James Ellroy is that you, oh knowledgable reader, may feel free to skip...
James Ellroy’s new novel Perfidia is the first volume in a projected quartet that will be a direct prequel to his LA Quartet which followed a group of police officers in the LAPD after World War 2. Readers unfamiliar with Ellroy will remember LA Confidential (the best book in the original quartet) which was made into the successful film that launched the Hollywood careers of Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce.
   Perfidia begins on December 6th, 1941, a relatively quiet Saturday morning in Los Angeles. Hideo Ashida, the LAPD’s sole Japanese cop, is staking out a pharmacy that has been robbed on several occasions in the past month. A forensic policeman ahead of his time Ashida has invented a robotic camera to take pictures of every vehicle parked in front of the drugstore. When the inevitable robbery occurs Ashida is able to get into the good graces of the Detective Bureau by identifying the heist getaway car.
Later in the day back in Ashida’s Little Tokyo neighbourhood a Japanese family is found dead in their home. A mother, father, their young daughter and their panty-sniffing son have all been ritually killed in a murder-suicide. Someone has left a note by the bodies: “The looming apocalypse is not of our doing. We have been good citizens and did not know that it was coming.” The note makes sense when the news from Pearl Harbor reaches Los Angeles the next morning.
America is thrust into World War 2 but for the detectives in the LAPD, the Hollywood moguls and the mafia kingpins the war is just another way of making money. The interlinking stories in Perfidia are told through four main POV characters: Hideo Ashida, Dudley Smith, Kay Lake and William Parker. Ashida appears first and has the most at stake as his family and the majority of America’s Japanese community are subsequently interned in concentration camps. The clinical, intelligent, William Parker was an actual LAPD detective who fought in Normandy, became chief of police in the 1950’s and was the reputed model for the character Mr Spock in Star Trek. Kay Lake is a young socialite who has shacked up with a corrupt cop, is flirting with communism and is, alas, not a terribly well drawn or interesting figure. Dudley Smith, however, the spider at the heart of LA Confidential, is in wonderful demonic form throughout most of Perfidia.
Ellroy remains one of the most exciting literary stylists in the English language. If David Peace’s iterative, repetitious, circular method lies at one logical end of the prose spectrum Ellroy’s dry, clipped, telegraphic style is its counterpoint. Verbless sentences pile on top of another in a way that will leave some readers thrilled and others utterly baffled. The page where Ellroy takes the young Dudley Smith from the war-torn streets of Dublin to Joe Kennedy’s Boston to a bootlegging run in Canada left me exhilarated and perhaps a little exhausted:

. . .He’s in Canada, that’s Lake Erie, he’s on a moored barge. He’s holding a tommy gun. Whiskey crates cover the deck. . .Switcheroo. Instant travelogue. He’s on Coney Island at the Half Moon Hotel. He’s hoisting the canary. Don’t cry, Lee Blanchard, it’s unmanly. Travelogue back to Boston. Young Jack Kennedy’s a Navy Ensign now. . .He’s at a table with Ben Siegel and Sheriff Biscailuz. Glenn Miller’s band plays “Perfidia.” Bette Davis dances with a fey young man. . . 

At 687 pages this is James Ellroy’s longest novel, but with so many characters and wordsmithery this dense it feels longer still. Ellroy’s vision is grandiose. When it is finished the two LA Quartets and his Underworld Trilogy will span the years 1941 – 1972 offering us a vast, polyphonic, alternate history of America (where the FBI and the mob conspire to kill JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King) that is not quite Balzac, not quite Philip K Dick, but much more fun than either of them.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

What's Wrong With The Booker Prize And How It Can Be Fixed

Last Monday former Booker Prize winner Peter Carey attacked the expansion of the Bookers to
include American authors. Carey was worried that hordes of Yanks would come over here with their slick talk, Hershey bars and nylons and ultimately the Bookers ‘particular cultural flavour’ would be lost. This was always an unlikely scenario for two reasons: firstly, Hershey bars are horrible and everybody knows it, secondly Brits are extremely protective of their native literature and this year’s two token Yanks on the shortlist were never going to win.
  No, the real problem with the Booker Prize is symbolised by Peter Carey himself: there are too many posh people on the judging panel and too many posh people on the shortlist. Julian Barnes, another former winner, once called The Booker Prize “posh bingo,” and that’s what it has become. Books about working class people and working class lives almost never win the Booker Prize even when they are clearly the best book of the year. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, White Teeth and Brick Lane were all famously excluded from the Booker. Write a book about a man from Hampstead having an affair in the Dordogne and you’ve got a potential winner, but write about a schoolgirl growing up in a council flat in Hackney and you can kiss your chances goodbye. That’s the theory anyway, but can I back any of this up with statistics? Actually I think I can.
       First of all how do we define poshness? Well, a useful rule of thumb is private school. In the United Kingdom only about 5% of the population actually goes to private school (this statistic always amazes the London based journalistic class, almost all of whom, it seems, er, went to private school). Now, if you do an analysis of, say, the last twenty years Booker judging panels you’ll find that a majority of the judges were educated privately, and the stats are even worse with the Booker Prize jury chairpersons. To find the last jury chairperson who went to state school you have to go all the way back to James Naughtie in 2009. Statistically there should be one privately educated Booker chairperson every twenty years or so, but in fact, in the last twenty years, fifteen or possibly sixteen (I’m getting this info from Wikipedia) of the Booker Prize jury chairpersons went to private school. That’s an over representation by a whopping 1600 per cent. (You have to go back over twenty years before you find a Booker jury chairwoman who went to a state school!)
       The stats show that the Booker Prize judging panels are almost always made up of posh people and their chairperson is almost always very posh indeed. Posh people naturally would be sympathetic towards books about their own class and resistant to challenges to the status quo, hence Peter Carey’s worry about vulgar Americans entering the fray. (Peter Carey boarded at Geelong Grammar, one of the most expensive and exclusive private schools in Australia.) In consequence the Booker Prize winning novel is often a safe middle class rather dull book.
       Not this year though. This year’s winner, Richard Flanagan, is a country boy from hardscrabble, rural Tasmania but crucially the hero of his terrific novel, The Narrow Road To The Deep North, is an officer and a doctor tending POW’s in Japanese occupied Burma. This was a wise move on Flanagan’s part. Novels about officers and doctors have a chance of winning the Booker, novels about working class enlisted men don’t. (Incidentally as with many of the disasters of World War 2, it was the posh, idiotic officers who let down the enlisted men when the British surrendered at Singapore - lions led by donkeys, indeed.)
       My favourite book of last year, Red or Dead, by David Peace was an extraordinary novel that invented an entirely new English prose style to tell its story; but Peace never stood a chance of winning the Booker because the world he was writing about was too working class, too northern, too socialist and the love of football in Red or Dead was sincere, communitarian and quasi religious – a million miles removed from the sophisticated, ironic, metropolitan stance of, say a Julian Barnes or Will Self novel.
       Is there anything that can be done to fix the Booker Prize, to make it more relevant and less exclusive? I know the Booker folks won’t listen to me but here are four ideas.
       1 No more posh Booker jury chairmen. A moratorium on private school educated men would still leave you with 97.5% of the British population to choose from and I’ll bet the resulting longlists will have more books from the north, more working class settings, more minorities and more female protagonists.
       2 Publishers should be allowed to enter more than one book per year. At the moment, unless they made the longlist in the previous year, publishers are restricted to one book per house. This encourages them to be conservative, entering only novels that resemble books which have won in the past and which they think might please the judges. Letting them enter 2 books will encourage them to enter a safe choice and a more risky choice.
       3 Encourage genre fiction. The best science fiction, crime fiction and romance writing is often as good as literary fiction but these books seldom make the Booker shortlist because they are considered to be a low form of writing.
       4 Don’t listen to Peter Carey, keep the Americans.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Book Club

Me on the ABC's Book Club with 4 prettier & smarter people. I haven't actually watched this but the missus says I didn't make a total arse of myself, which is half the battle isn't it?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

How To Make A Cup Of Tea

The Guardian stepped into the great "how to make a cup of tea" debate last week with its scientific "proof" that you must put the milk into the cup first and then the tea (which is hopefully after the tea leaves have been brewed in a tea pot). The comment thread under that article is a fascinating poke into the dark recesses of the British mind... 
There are many many blogs and websites relating to tea and tea making out there but if you want the genuine article I think you have to go back George Orwell's famous "A Nice Cup Of Tea", which can be read here, and was originally published in the Evening Standard in 1946. I'm not going to rehash Orwell here as you should just jolly well click the link and read the piece for yourself. It's fun reading and basically sound advice if you want to make tea the old fashioned way. Christopher Hitchens attempts (not entirely successfully) to update Orwell's tea making instructions, here, but at least Hitchens admits to the existence of something called a tea bag. The Guardian commenters and tea purists would rather see their sons and daughters run off to join ISIS than use a tea bag, but I am comfortable with the tea bag and use it myself much of the time. I agree with Hitchens however that tea bags should NEVER be left in a cup of tea and I watch the Big Bang Theory etc. aghast when characters are walking around with tea bag rat tails dangling down the side of their mugs. Get the tea bag out of the mug as quickly as possible is my advice. 
I make the best cup of tea in our house. My tea is a comforting brew that can be given to sniffly children or confused Jehovahs Witnesses* or people who have just had a road accident. Its not a purists tea. Its milky, often made with a tea bag (although sometimes leaves) and it contains SUGAR. Yes that's right, I said it. I put sugar in my tea. Orwell disagrees, the Guardian disagrees, Hitchens disagrees but I like sugar in my bloody tea. Tea with sugar was the drink that built and lost the British Empire. Tea with milk and sugar was the drink they drank while breaking the Engima code at Bletchley Park, that the pilots drank in the Battle of Britain, etc. 
Anyway, this is how I make tea in 2014. Like I say if you're a purist or some kind of tea nut STOP READING NOW. 
1. Boil kettle. 
2. While kettle is boiling, add milk and either Ceylon Orange Pekoe tea leaves or a strong tea bag (Twinings Assam Bold is a good one) to the mug. Let the tea and the milk mingle. (No one, and I mean no one, ever does this but I do and I explain why below). 
3. Add the boiling water to the milk. (In my opinion boiling water scalds the tea and ruins it but if you add the hot water to the milk it suffuses through the tea bag or the softened tea leaves and gives you a very gentle, pleasing drink.)
4. Remove the tea bag after about 45 seconds. 
5. Add sugar to taste. I prefer two tea spoons. 
6. Stir. Bob's your uncle: a mellow, comforting, delicious beverage....
*The Jehovahs Witnesses are always confused because I always invite them in and offer them tea (everyone else on the street is always rude to them but they're not all trying to dodge doing any writing...)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Only cheerleaders get anorexia. You're a ballplayer--you're having a spiritual crisis

Henry's glove Zero is now my second favourite baseball mitt in literature
(after Ally's glove in The Catcher In The Rye)
now that shortstop Derek Jeter has retired and the baseball playoff season is upon us, I thought I'd repost this from two years ago (it wasn't my favourite novel of 2012 but it was in my top ten)...
You ever read a book that was so good that once you finished it that you began it again immediately? No me neither. Well not for a long time anyway. I did this however with Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding which is the sweetest debut novel I've read since Zadie Smith's White Teeth. This is what good literary fiction should be: arresting, witty, passionate, with great characters and an elegant prose style. On the surface its the story of a young blue collar shortstop called Henry Skrimshander and a kid called Mike Schwartz who scouts Henry for a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. Schwartz works on Henry like a big brother mentor gone mad and turns him from a savant shortstop who can't hit or run into a legitimate baseball prospect. That's the surface but what the book is really about is loyalty and friendship and disappointment and love. You know, life. 
Just as Henry is on the verge of greatness he catches Chuck Knoblauch/Steve Blass disease, or as they call it in golf, the yips. There's a nice subplot about the President of the University, his daughter and a love quadrangle between her, Henry, Mike and Henry's gay room-mate Owen; but for me the book's heart was the relationship between Mike and Henry and how they become brothers. 
What makes Harbach a much better writer than someone like, say, Jonathan Franzen, (or Jonathan Safran Froer or Michael Chabon) is that Harbach writes with an authentic blue collar voice than doesn't sound fake and condescending. Most American novelists writing literary fiction are the victims of private schools and elite universities and the Iowa Writers Workshop which inculcates phoniness and renders them incapable of understanding or expressing what it is to be poor in America. I know nothing of Harbach's background except that he went to Harvard, but he writes as if he knows what its like to work in a foundry or get up at 5.a.m. to wash dishes. Whether he actually knows or is just very gifted is neither here nor there. He gives us characters in blue collar occupations who don't know where the next rent check is going to come from and these characters are utterly convincing. You can tell the difference Harbach dialogue and Froer/Franzen dialogue immediately. It's the difference between the authentic and the inauthentic, the real and the patronising. (If I was on the Romney campaign I'd slip this book to the candidate for immediate bedtime reading.)
Like all great baseball novels there is an element of yearning and transcendence in The Art of Fielding. Baseball is not America's past-time (that in fact is football) but if America were a more perfect place it would be. The Art of Fielding joins Shoeless Joe, The Natural, The Great American Novel, The Boys of Summer, Bang The Drum Slowly and Moneyball as one of the great baseball books. Baseball, like cricket, is an intellectual game, where intellect (and thinking too much) will kill you on the field. I liked this short conversation between Mike and Henry near the end of the novel: 
"This is the psych floor," Mike said.
Henry nodded. "Okay."
"Figured I'd give you a heads up. They're going to send in the shrinks to talk to you about not eating. 'Your anorexia', as they referred to it."
"I told them only cheerleaders get anorexia. You're a ballplayer--you're having a spiritual crisis." 

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Coming Irish Civil War?

I'm reposting this blog from June 4th this year after having read an incredible story from the BBC on educational attainment in the UK. One amazing stat caught my eye: working class Protestant boys in Northern Ireland attained the lowest levels of GCSE results of any group in the United Kingdom apart from Travellers and Gypsies (many of whom are functionally illiterate). Thousands of working class Protestant boys are leaving school in Belfast with no qualifications whatsoever and in a place with endemic unemployment they are clearly never going to get work of any kind. If you don't think this is going to cause a nightmare scenario in the future you've got a lot more misplaced optimism than I have...Anyway here's what I said in June after the Euro elections:
Last week's election results in Europe were extraordinary for a number of reasons but lost
in the big news about the rise of the right in Western Europe was the news that after 80 years of trying Sinn Fein had essentially become the third party in the Republic of Ireland and chances are it will become a major coalition partner after the next Irish general election. In the North of Ireland Sinn Fein consolidated its gains, topping the poll in the Euro elections and attracting 2/3 of the Nationalist (mostly Catholic) vote in the local council elections.
Sinn Fein of course want a united Ireland and have been intelligently playing the "long game" to get it. Unlike their impatient comrades in the Real IRA/Continuity IRA/New IRA who continue to murder and bomb with impunity, Sinn Fein have understood that demography is destiny and demography is going to bring about a united Ireland sometime in the next few decades or so.
These are the facts (via Frank Jacobs' Strange Maps blog):
In 1967, 60% of marriages in Northern Ireland took place in protestant churches, by 2005 this was down to 35%. In school year 2006-7, ‘declared Catholics’ made up slightly more than 50% of school children in Northern Ireland, while ‘declared Protestants’ numbered just 39,5% (down from 42,7% in 2000-1). Research conducted in 2007 shows that youths leaving Ulster to study are twice as likely to be protestant than catholic, with those who go to Britain more likely to stay there than returning after graduation. In contrast, the student populations at both of Northern Ireland's main universities are now majority-catholic (55% at Queens University, 60% at the University of Ulster).
• The brain drain of Ulster's protestant youth reinforces the existing dichotomy between the older segment of Northern Ireland's population, which is solidly protestant, and the younger segment, which is mainly catholic. Overall, the 2001 census showed that while 67% over-90-year-olds are protestant, only 39% of 10-to-20-year-olds are. Another way to enumerate the divergence of the age cohorts in either community: while there were an equal number of births and deaths for protestants, for catholics, births outnumber deaths by about 6,000 per annum.

Basically the concept is this: more Catholics are born, more Protestants leave. In 1961 Catholics represented about 1/3 of Northern Ireland's population, now, in 2014, there is a rough parity and if demographic trends continue the way they've been doing for the last 60 years in the next decade there will be a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland. As we have seen nearly 2/3 of Catholics in the North vote for Sinn Fein who are committed to a United Ireland, while the SDLP (also committed to a United Ireland) still pulls in a healthy 20% of the Catholic vote. This is significant because enshrined in the 1972 Government of Northern Ireland Act and in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is the notion that Northern Ireland will only stay part of the UK "as long as a majority of its population wishes". Britain has been trying to get rid of the Ulster problem since at least the Ted Heath government (1970-1974) and a united Ireland "by consent" became Labour Party official policy in the early 1980s. Unlike the exit of Scotland from the UK, the amputation of Northern Ireland would be tremendously popular among the English electorate and would remove both a long standing irritation for Britain and a huge drain on the Treasury.
So what's the problem? The problem is that the vast majority of Protestants in Northern Ireland do not want to be part of a United Ireland and there are nearly a million of them. When I've blogged about this before unsympathetic - largely American - commenters have said, in effect, "too bad they can piss off back to Scotland then" which is a very silly thing to say indeed. Ulster Protestants have been in Ireland for four centuries (a little longer than white people have been in North America) and it is their home. They aren't going anywhere.
Mainstream Unionist (union with the UK that is) opinion seems to be burying its head in the sand about all this, pretending that the "demographic nightmare" isn't happening. Cleverer Unionists, however, are beginning the process of wooing middle class Catholics to the idea of Catholic Unionism for economic reasons (the UK for all its problems is still much richer than Ireland and a United Ireland would drain the Irish exchequer for decades). Although few Catholics seem to vote for Unionist parties the number of Catholic Unionists is definitely under reported. If a border poll were held today it would not pass. But still it's hard to argue with the demography. The Catholic population will represent a sizeable majority of the population in a Northern Ireland 15 years hence and it will be they who decide the result of the border poll. What happens after that? Most people have not thought this far ahead. Sinn Fein claim that all will be peace and light in a future united socialist paradise island that sounds eerily like a slightly wetter, slightly colder Cuba. Some geographically imaginative Unionists have begun talking about the repartition of Northern Ireland into ethnic enclaves a la Switzerland or Bosnia; seeing the demographic writing on the wall the UDA began an investigation into repartition as early as the mid 1990s; but repartition, as Frank Jacobs explains, is a complete non starter because the populations are too intermingled.
unless something is done now the disaffected Shankill Protestant boys
will become disaffected Shankill Protestant men... 
A United Ireland is probably coming, but will reunification necessarily be violent? I think it
probably will be. Very violent. I used to believe that sectarian differences were fading in Ulster but that was only wishful thinking. For 40 years under Tito everyone was a good Yugoslav and then after his death suddenly everyone again was either a Serb or a Croat or a Bosnian (etc.)  and either Catholic, Muslim or Protestant - with murderous sectarian consequences if you were the wrong minority in the wrong place. That's what will happen too in Northern Ireland following a border poll. You only have to look at the annual 'marching season' riots or the two years of riots that followed a decision by Belfast City Council to stop flying the Union Jack to see that there is a huge unhappy working class Protestant population in the Greater Belfast area who already feel alienated and angry. An almost overlooked result in last week's elections was the growth of the Traditional Unionist Voice party that rejects the Good Friday Agreement completely. Working class Protestants have seen few benefits of the Peace Process: unemployment is high, community development is low and without work to confer dignity and provide an income working class Protestant disaffection has grown since 1998. The UVF and UDA (Protestant paramilitary groups) remain strong and have successfully diversified into drugs, money laundering and protection rackets. Their membership is young and militant with no memory of the nightmare years of the Troubles. The UVF and UDA young Turks clearly will not go willingly into a United Ireland.
It took the British Army 30 years and nearly 20,000 troops to subdue the IRA in Northern Ireland. It will probably take the Irish Army similar numbers over a similar time period to subdue a UVF/UDA post border poll revolt. I wonder if the Irish Army is even capable of such a thing at all. At the moment its strength is a mere two infantry battalions. During the first Irish Civil War 1920-1924 (when it was battling the anti-Treaty IRA) the Irish Army expanded to around 50,000 troops and it would need to do that again - actually it would need to double that number so that soldiers could rotate in and out of the combat zone. Conscription would have to be introduced and we can safely assume that the Irish Army will not be getting help from the British or the Americans following their 13 year long Afghan campaign. It's going to be very very bad for a while and unless the international community steps in we could be looking at Bosnian style massacres and ethnic cleansing. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people will die. Most of them will be civilians.
Can any of this be avoided? A few years ago I thought so but now I doubt it. I used to believe that the poisonous meme of nationalism was dying out in Ireland and/or Europe but in fact it is as virulent as ever. As I say, little has been done to provide jobs and opportunities for working class Protestants and Catholics. Protestant and Catholic kids still go to separate schools and play different sports. The peacewalls are still up all over Belfast and the paramilitary groups have not gone away, indeed are as strong as ever.
At some point in human history, of course, nationalism itself will die out. I won't be around to see that happy day but when it comes it will be a triumph for the human race. Good riddance to a vulgar eighteenth century concept which has caused as much death and destruction as the invention of religion or the bogus pseudo sciences of race and ethnicity. And until then Ireland will weep and bleed. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Max Tegmark's Multiverses

Max Tegmark
Our Mathematical Universe by physicist Max Tegmark is a popular science book in which he unpacks his theory of the level 1,2,3 and 4 multiverses and then in the last third explains his theory of the mathematical universe. I understood the multiverse idea (the first 3 multiverses anyway) but I didn't really get his concept of the mathematical universe (he's either saying that all the laws of physics depend upon fundamental mathematical concepts which isn't very interesting, or he's saying that everything in the universe (suns, planets, you, me, our conscious minds,) is mathematics itself, i.e. we are living in a platonic universe of numbers that only thinks it's a physical universe - this is a very interesting concept indeed but seems completely crazy to me.) I don't have the competence to judge the last third of the book but I do want to talk about the multiverse idea which is fascinating.
The level 1 multiverse is very easy to understand. All Tegmark is saying here is that space is infinite and beyond the visible light boundary of our universe there must be other shit out there. Indeed there must be entire universes out there. This is the cool part: since space is infinite and the different way atoms in a universe can assemble themselves is huge, but, crucially, finite, then there must, logically, be universes out there with an exact replica of you reading this and me typing this. Indeed there are an infinite number of universes out there with exact replicas of you and me, and an infinite number of universes where we are slightly different, or you became President or I did. Infinity is a very powerful concept and creates some surprising results. Like I say, cool stuff. 
The level 2 multiverse is also easy to comprehend. In the expansion phase of our universe just after the Big Bang a 'baby universe' was formed that became our universe, an infinite number of these formed, some with completely different laws of physics than our own, but sentient entities like you and me could only exist in one like ours, the Goldilocks one where gravity, Plancks constant, the electro-magnetic force etc. balance perfectly. But again because an infinite number of these multiverses formed there are other yous and mes out there in slightly different physical realities.
The level 3 multiverse is a trickier beast to grasp. Tegmark and what he claims are "an increasing number of quantum physicists" are beginning to reject the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics that has been the dominant interpretation of quantum physics since the 1920's. If you remember the infamous "double slit experiment" from high school you'll recall that when an electron is fired through a piece of metal with a double slit in it sometimes the election acts like a wave and sometimes like a particle. No understands why this is so and it is deeply mysterious to this day. The Copenhagen interpretation basically says that the electron both goes through one slit and does not go through the same slit at the same time. When the election is "observed" by a conscious entity or by a machine (like a camera) its probability wave collapses and it picks one slit to travel down. This has lead to the Schrodingers Cat paradox wherein a cat is both dead and alive at the same time until it has been "observed" - a thought experiment meant to ridicule the Copenhagen Interpretation itself, which I think it did. One alternative to the Copenhagen Interpretation is the Many Worlds Theory. Here there is no need for dead-alive cats, because when the cat experiment is done 2 worlds are created, one in which the cat is dead and another in which it is alive. When you open the cat's box you don't collapse the cat's probability wave you just find out which universe you are in. Similarly when the quantum double slit experiment is carried out, many worlds are created full of scientists carrying out the same experiment. This, some people say, (smart people like David Deutsch) is how quantum computers work - an infinite number of computers exist in an infinite number of many worlds. I know this sounds crazy but I found this part of Tegmark's book very convincing and I now think that the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics invented by Hugh Everett is more logical than the Copenhagen Interpretation. Which would mean, if Tegmark, Everett, Deutsch etc. are correct, there is an infinite number of yous and mes existing in what is called Hilbert Space who can interact with one another at a quantum level. If you want to interact with another you in Hilbert space you can do so, here. 
The level 4 multiverse is the multiverse of Platonic mathematics that I didn't really understand. You can read Tegmark's short explanation of it on his MIT website here. Like I say, I didn't follow this in the book or on the website. An alternate level 4 multiverse is Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok's idea that the universe goes through an infinite number of big bangs, expansions, heat deaths, brane collapses and big bangs...(This is not mentioned in Tegmark's book but I just thought I'd throw it in here. If this is true then not only have I typed this sentence before and you've read it before, but we've all done this infinitely many times in the past, which I for one find depressing. (As did Nietzsche when he thought about the similar notion of eternal recurrence.))
Scott Aaronson
If indeed there are an infinite number of multiverses out there it raises some interesting questions. First of all it makes what I call Strong Atheism philosophically untenable. With an infinite number of universes there must, logically, be at least 1 universe in which a universal God spontaneously came into existence. It is impossible to say whether we are living in that universe or not. Its unlikely that we're in the universe with the God in it, but its impossible to rule it out. An atheism which denies the existence of all gods is therefore logically mistaken; however a more tempered form of atheism (Soft Atheism) which merely denies that there is evidence for the existence of God works just fine. There are other really fun consequences of living in a multiverse that this dude has catalogued here. (Seriously click on that link and it will blow your mind and then come back here and leave a comment about how your mind just got blown.)
Max Tegmark's book really gave me food for thought. I didn't get all of it, but I enjoyed reading it and I would recommend it for any of you who have ever, Douglas Adams fashion, wondered about the big questions of life, the universe and everything. It got good reviews in the Guardian and The New York Times among many other papers. The best take down I've read of Tegmark's thesis was done by Scott Aaronson on his vastly entertaining and informative computational science blog Shtetl-Optimized.(Tegmark himself gets sucked into the really rather geekily clever comment thread.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Gone Girl Good Dragon Tattoo Bad

David Fincher's career as a director has taken a more conventional turn in the last couple of years with his adaptations of the crime dramas Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and now Gone Girl. Both books, of course, were international best sellers, but as James Patterson, JK Rowling & Benjamin Black show us selling millions of copies is no guarantee of a book's quality. But what made the movie adaptations of Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl inevitable was the fact that the books went beyond best seller status into a kind of cultural ubiquity. You'd see people reading them everywhere: not just the beach, but lifts, trams, on lunch breaks, squatting by the wall while waiting for the subway...As such they were very important books because they got people who wouldn't normally read a novel to look at one for perhaps the first time since high school. The Fincher film brought even more people to Dragon Tattoo and will kick Gone Girl into the stratosphere. I applaud the latter but boo the former and shall explain why below, after this spoiler alert. Spoiler, uhm, alert. 
Ok, I had 5 major problems with Dragon Tattoo: 1) As a locked room mystery it didn't work because the reader was not given all the information to solve the puzzle. 2) Cally Blomqvist's character seemed like nothing more than a middle aged male's wish fulfilment fantasy 3) Larsson wanted to have his cake and eat it too: deploring violence against women but giving us lots and lots of it in lurid sadomasochistic detail. 4) The use of magic to solve plot problems. (Whenever the plot bogged down Lisbeth would hack the information from the internet and the plot wd move forward again.)  5) The clunky prose, extreme length and heavy handed cliches made the book pretty dull (I give Larsson a pass on this one because if he had lived the novel would have been given a tighter edit). 
Gone Girl though is a different kettle of fish. (The following paragraphs continue major spoilers - if you plan to read the book or watch the film STOP READING NOW.) Ok, still with me? Good. Brief plot summary follows: Gone Girl takes place in rural Missouri where Nick Dunne has relocated after losing his job on a New York magazine (Gillian Flynn was downsized from Entertainment Weekly and after her dismissal also relocated to rural Missouri). Nick takes his flightly but sweet wife with him and they both try to adapt to living in a small town. One afternoon Nick comes back from work to discover that his house has been broken in to and his wife has gone missing. The cops suspect Nick knows more than he's saying and when they discover that he was having an affair they are convinced that he killed his wife, but we the reader know different...
The first thing I liked about Gone Girl was how unlikeable the two main characters were. Initially I thought this was authorial incompetence, but it wasn't: the husband and wife are both rich, spoiled, self involved yuppies and we're supposed to not like them. We're supposed to read the book despite Nick being a toady and a creep and a third of the way in we discover - in a major twist - that his wife, the beautiful sweet Amy Dunne, is an unreliable narrator (we've been reading her diary in alternate chapters) and she is in fact a highly functioning sociopath. Amy has staged her disappearance to get revenge on her husband for his affair and wants to see him squirm, get convicted and possibly get executed. I also liked Amy's backstory (she's the star of a series of children's books written by her chilly parents) and although I never warmed to Nick at all I did enjoy seeing him try to weasel his way out of the shit. Yes the book was too long (almost all books are too long) but it was also ironic, funny, off kilter. With unlikeable leads, self awareness and a brilliant downbeat ending Gone Girl is my kind of airport novel and I'm glad that it was and is a success. It's both a missing girl thriller and a satire of missing girl thrillers (there are many delicious digs at Nancy Grace and her ilk). If this is the entry level novel for many people into the crime fiction genre then a jolly good thing it is too. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

New Website

I've finally jumped on the website bandwagon. Big thanks to the hardworking and really rather brilliant folks at Profile Books who have developed this site for me. The focus is mainly on the Duffy books because people actually seem to want to read those ones. But there's tons of other stuff on there too. They've even made a limited edition of some Sean Duffy merch which they'll be giving away in competitions. Its cool shit. Duffy's warrant card. A Duffy Rubiks cube. Duffy Top Trumps. A Duffy Walkman with an 80s mixtape. They even gave away bottles of Duffy's favourite whisky. (Lagavulin 16 if you must know). If you've been following my blog for the last six years or so, you'll know that I usually give away a couple of galleys of the new book when that becomes available. I always loved doing that but I hated going to the Post Office and paying the ridiculous shipping fees from Oz. Profile are going to be doing that for me now too, which is great, so if you want to get a galley of Gun Street Girl go there, not here! As of Friday the website is up and running & you can check it out, here, mis compañeros...
The new website will also host the latest blog posts, but rest assured that I'll still be blogging here for the forseeable. When I started blogging in 2008 I thought that I would run out of things to say pretty quickly, but clearly I have some kind of graphomania or egomania or other mental disorder because there's always something getting on my nerves that I want to write about. Which means that until I achieve enlightenment or equanimity the blog will remain.  

Friday, September 26, 2014

Belfast Noir Is Here, So It Is

I received my copies of Belfast Noir this week from our publisher Akashic Books and I have to say that the volume looks absolutely gorgeous. That deep focus shot on the cover is fantastic and its the usual excellent print job from Akashic. I think the stories inside are all first rate but of course I'm biased because Stuart Neville and I edited the book, but fortunately we also got the first review of the collection by Peter Rozovsky of Detectives Beyond Borders this week too. Peter is famous in the international crime writing community for knowing his crime fiction onions. This is what he said about Belfast Noir: 
...Belfast Noir, out in November from Akashic Books, looks like one of the strongest, possibly the best entry in Akashic's "City Noir" series, and I don't say that just because the book's two editors plus one of its contributors will be part of a panel I'll moderate at Bouchercon 2014 in November.

Quite apart from the quality of the stories the pieces are well-chosen and the volume intelligently planned. Its four sections recognize not just Belfast's violent recent past, but the realities of its quotidian present. Most of the stories depict no violence directly, but violence, and the possibility or memory thereof, loom always. That's a lot more effective than whipping out a kneecapping or rolling down the balaclavas whenever the action lags.

I especially like Brian McGilloway's "The Undertaking," which opens the collection with hair-raising humor and suspense.  Akashic's Dublin Noir also opens with a comic story (by Eoin Colfer), and that story was the highlight of the volume for me. I don't know if it's an Irish thing, but  comedy is a wonderful against-type way to open a collection of crime stories. Oh, and I'll also want to read more from Lucy Caldwell...
Belfast Noir is the first volume of its kind collecting crime fiction from the north of Ireland in the post Troubles era. It shows you how far we've come since The Good Friday Agreement that this book was even possible. Just to remind you we were delighted to get stories from Glenn Patterson, Eoin McNamee, Garbhan Downey, Lee Child, Alex Barclay, Brian McGilloway, Ian McDonald, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Claire McGowan, Arlene Hunt, Steve Cavanagh, Lucy Caldwell, Sam Millar and Gerard Brennan. A pretty impressive list I think you'll agree. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Watching The Detectives

A couple of years after I watched Pulp Fiction I read Bell Hooks's impressive critique of the movie where she lambasts Tarantino for his inappropriate appropriation of black culture. Hooks's criticism of Pulp Fiction is angry but entirely logical and smart so when I watched Pulp Fiction again I was prepared to like the movie a lot less. I didn't. When I watched it again I saw that although Hooks's critique works on one level the movie was still a contemporary masterpiece (apart from Tarantino's own cameo in the film which more than makes Hooks's point). But it was a very interesting experience watching the film from 2 different critical perspectives in my own head. 
I had a similar experience with HBO's True Detective. Before I watched an episode of the show I read Emily Nussbaum's take down of it in the New Yorker magazine. It's a long, pointed review that you can read here, but for me the most important 2 paragraphs are these: 

...but, after years of watching “Boardwalk Empire,” “Ray Donovan,” “House of Lies,” and so on, I’ve turned prickly, and tired of trying to be, in the novelist Gillian Flynn’s useful phrase, the Cool Girl: a good sport when something smells like macho nonsense. And, frankly, “True Detective” reeks of the stuff. The series, for all its good looks and its movie-star charisma, isn’t just using dorm-room deep talk as a come-on: it has fallen for its own sales pitch.

To state the obvious: while the male detectives of “True Detective” are avenging women and children, and bro-bonding over “crazy pussy,” every live woman they meet is paper-thin. Wives and sluts and daughters—none with any interior life. Instead of an ensemble, “True Detective” has just two characters, the family-man adulterer Marty, who seems like a real and flawed person (and a reasonably interesting asshole, in Harrelson’s strong performance), and Rust, who is a macho fantasy straight out of Carlos Castaneda. A sinewy weirdo with a tragic past, Rust delivers arias of philosophy, a mash-up of Nietzsche, Lovecraft, and the nihilist horror writer Thomas Ligotti. At first, this buddy pairing seems like a funky dialectic: when Rust rants, Marty rolls his eyes. But, six episodes in, I’ve come to suspect that the show is dead serious about this dude. Rust is a heretic with a heart of gold. He’s our fetish object—the cop who keeps digging when everyone ignores the truth, the action hero who rescues children in the midst of violent chaos, the outsider with painful secrets and harsh truths and nice arms. McConaughey gives an exciting performance (in Grantland, Andy Greenwald aptly called him “a rubber band wrapped tight around a razor blade”), but his rap is premium baloney. And everyone around these cops, male or female, is a dark-drama cliché, from the coked-up dealers and the sinister preachers to that curvy corpse in her antlers. “True Detective” has some tangy dialogue (“You are the Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch”) and it can whip up an ominous atmosphere, rippling with hints of psychedelia, but these strengths finally dissipate, because it’s so solipsistically focussed on the phony duet. Meanwhile, Marty’s wife, Maggie—played by Michelle Monaghan, she is the only prominent female character on the show—is an utter nothing-burger, all fuming prettiness with zero insides. Stand her next to any other betrayed wife on television—Mellie, on “Scandal”; or Alicia, on “The Good Wife”; or Cersei, on “Game of Thrones”; or even Claire, on “House of Cards”—and Maggie’s an outline, too.

These are all good points and largely unassailable. Furthermore, I am not a fan of satanic conspiracy movies or of child abduction/torture books and movies (I hated Girl With A Dragon Tattoo) and I really hate it when the child abduction is connected to a, yawn, satanic conspiracy. (The exceptions here being Ben Wheatley's Kill List and the original Wicker Man.) So you'd have thought I would have despised True Detective on every conceivable level...
And yet...I didn't. I loved it. True Detective S1 is a work of art. The temporal dissonance of the pilot episode was bold and visionary, the dialogue throughout the season was witty, sophisticated and completely authentic (yes skeptical New Yorker readers working class people do in fact talk about big ideas and philosophical concepts), and the Louisiana imagery of the entire season was extraordinary. Nussbaum's point about the female characters is worth saying but a little misplaced because that's not what the show is about, the show is about men - 2 men in particular attempting to cope with a world with no moral centre. The show reminded me of the Thomas Pynchon short story Entropy also set in Louisiana: in both the Pynchon and True Detective we get characters who know that entropy will always win - the universe will end in disorder and nothingness, but here and now in the present we can attempt to impose a little bit of local order on a sea of chaos. We're not holding up a middle finger to God, there is no God and there is no justice, what there is is a little temporary rectangle of order in a bleak rule-less world. The cops in True Detective are existential characters in search of meaning on a planet that has no meaning. But they find meaning in the quest itself. As Alasdair MacIntyre explains in After Virtue "the man who does what he ought moves steadily towards his fate and his death. It is defeat and not victory that lies at the end. To understand this is itself a virtue, indeed it is the necessary part of courage."
Philosophically and visually True Detective is rich and when you add in the extraordinary acting from Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughay and the music from The Handsome Family and T Bone Burnett you get a show that's ambitious, bold and exciting. I watched True Detective the way I rewatched Pulp Fiction with my critical faculties intact and with my antennae up. I watched with 2 different emotions in my brain (emotions is the right word here - remember what Hume said about reason being the slave of the passions). Although I cd see Nussbaum's POV ultimately I was much more convinced by the story telling of Nic Pizzolatto - the writer - and ‎Cary Fukunaga - the director. TV programmes aren't supposed to mirror the world, or improve us, they're supposed to entertain. Unlike Emily Nussbaum I do not find Scandal & The Good Wife and House of Cards to be entertaining. I won't say that Nussbaum missed the point of True Detective but I will say that this is not a show about families or white collar female professionals or lost girls, this is a show about maleness and perhaps only men (and maybe Camille Paglia) can truly appreciate the subtleties of its art.  

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Booker Prize Shortlist

The Booker Prize has changed its format this year, no longer are Americans excluded, now the prize is open to any novel that was published in English by a UK publisher (excepting vanity presses) in the previous 12 months. Presumably to avoid being swamped by novels each publisher is allowed to enter only 1 book unless it has had a book on the previous longlist in which case it is allowed to enter 2. (I may have misunderstood the rules here so please correct me if I'm wrong about this.) The important point though is that this first level of selection is done by the publisher, which is the reason a lot of books on the Booker Prize longlist look vaguely familiar: publishers - wisely - select the types of books that have won in the past, (which, alas, is why so many of them are about upper middle class people and their bloody problems). If the Booker Prize longlist really represented the best novels being published in the English language in the last year then contemporary English literature would be in really big trouble, but, of course it doesn't, it merely represents the books various British publishers and their PR people think have a chance of pleasing the judges: judges who almost always come from the same clubby London literary elite. Julian Barnes famously called the Booker Prize "posh bingo" and posh it certainly is. In the last 10 years only 2 judge chairpersons haven't gone to an exclusive British private school which is pretty amazing when you consider the fact that despite the Harry Potter mythmaking 95% of British people in fact go to state schools. This year's chief judge is AC Grayling a man who began his address at the Perth Writers Festival with these words "A few weeks ago I was reading Moliere in the bath in French," at which point I left...Sometimes the Booker judges get it right (Hilary Mantel, Pat Barker etc.) but often they perplexingly miss the mark (no David Peace or David Mitchell.) 
I've read 5 of the 6 books on the shortlist this year and I've written what I think below. (I haven't read Howard Jacobson's novel J because I vowed never to read another Jacobson after reading The Finkler Question which hands down is the worst novel I've ever finished (it won the 2010 Booker Prize)). 
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Fowler: This was my favourite of the shortlisted books. A coming of age story about a girl who grows up with her scientist parents in Indiana and a most unusual sibling. I can't say any more without giving you a major spoiler. Apparently everyone I've talked to spotted the big twist coming but I'm clearly slow on the uptake and did not. This was a charming book that I very much enjoyed. 
The Narrow Road To The Deep North - Richard Flanagan: My second favourite book on the list. A deeply depressing but weighty tale of British and Australian POWs working on the Burma railway. Remember the doctor at the end of Bridge on the River Kwai who says "Madness! Madness!"? Yeah? Well, it's sort of about him.  
To Rise Again At A Decent Hour - Joshua Ferris: This tied for second favourite on my list. A comic novel about a NY dentist having an existential crisis when someone assumes his identity on Facebook. There are several really great scenes, but this could have been funnier (of course you can say that about everything can't you?) 
How To Be Both - Ali Smith: passion, love, betrayal in the art worlds of the 1460s and 1960s. I liked this book's ambition and its certainly the cleverest and best constructed of the books on the shortlist.  
The Lives of Others - Neel Mukherjee: Politics and family rivalries in late 1960's Calcutta. I'm afraid this book didn't engage me much at all. It would be amazing if this book won the Booker and the far superior and geographically and thematically similar A Suitable Boy did not. Be glad I'm not in the book titling business as I wd have called this novel: Cat Torturers, Communists & Catamites In Old Calcutta which wd have been a PR disaster.  

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

8 Seconds of Inherent Vice

As you probably know I'm a big fan of Thomas Pynchon. I'm also a big fan of director Paul Thomas Anderson, so the idea that both of them got together to turn Pynchon's Inherent Vice into a movie is pretty exciting. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix. I've been waiting for a trailer since filming concluded nearly a year ago but no trailer has been forthcoming...However a few days ago the NY film festival released a montage of all the films appearing at the festival later this year and in that montage was 8 seconds of Inherent Vice as well as Willem Dafoe as Pasolini, the Mike Leigh Turner film and some other stuff.

Now don't ask me how I know but I know that a lot of you out there have never finished a Thomas Pynchon novel; you've tried but it's never quite worked out. You sat down in a comfy chair with a mug of tea and a packet of McVities Chocolate Digestives and everything was great for a bit but then you found yourself hurling Gravity's Rainbow across the room in exasperation. This is a problem for me. I like Pynchon very much and I want you to like him too so I thought I would provide you with a little reading list primer that will help you get into the books...
1. Inherent Vice: read this one first. It's a crime novel set in a slightly exaggerated version of 1970's LA. It's full of stoners, groovy language, flower power with a crazy missing persons plot. Its got lots of pop culture references that anyone should be able to get if they've been paying attention at all for the last couple of decades. It's more or less Robert Altman's Long Goodbye crossed with a Cheech and Chong movie. Paul Thomas Anderson's version of this book will be out by Christmas...
2. The Crying Of Lot 49: after reading Inherent Vice you should be able to handle Lot 49 which is basically set in the same milieu and is only a little bit weirder and more discursive.
3. Bleeding Edge: a paranoid shaggy dog detective novel set in the Manhattan of 2001 just before the 9/11 attacks. It begins with a Westlake quote and its a spicy blend of Westlake, Hammett, DeLillo and Woody Allen. (With an unfortunate David Foster Wallace cruise ship rip off/homage thrown in there for good measure.) It's pretty funny and it concludes a thematic trilogy of sorts of that began with Inherent Vice and Vineland.
4. Vineland: America in the early 80's. Reagan, Star Wars, George Lucas, Brock Vond. And again most people should be able to get the refs. As I say Inherent Vice, Vineland and Bleeding Edge form a kind of paranoid alternative history contemporary trilogy that should be accessible to most general readers.
5. Gravity's Rainbow: Pynchon's WW2 novel which won the National Book Award. His best book? Probably, yes. It's quite a difficult text but by no means impossible to read especially in a trade paperback edition with big clear print. You'll need to know your mid twentieth century culture quite well to get all the refs this time. And just to warn you, amidst the humour and horror there is a pretty gross scene involving coprophilia.
6. V: my favourite Pynchon. A literary romp through early twentieth century history. Very abstract, strange and off putting for the uninitiated. But a great read once you get the momentum of the story. 
7. Mason & Dixon: the story of Mason & Dixon surveying the land that will become the North and South of the USA. This is my second favourite Pynchon. It's written in eighteenth century prose so it could be tricky for some people, but not for those with Clarissa, Tom Jones or even Neal Stephenson under their belts. 
8. Against The Day: This is for completists only. A dense, difficult story of turn of the century America. My favourite scenes were set in a beautifully crafted wild west Denver. 
Additionally: Mortality And Mercy In Vienna, a strange out of print novella that I read in the Columbia University stacks before it got stolen and Slow Learner a nice collection of short stories, the highlight of which is probably Entropy.  

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Sun Is God

I was at the Write Around The Murray festival in Albury at the weekend, talking about my book The Sun Is God. TSIG if you'll recall is about a 1906 murder inquiry amongst a group of German naturists led by a charismatic man called August Engelhardt. It's set in the Pacific island of Kabakon and it's more or less a true story. The events at the Murray Festival all take place in the Albury library, which, by an odd coincidence is just off Englehardt Street.
Also this weekend I got a review of TSIG in the Guardian. After a grumpy review in the Irish Independent (which basically said that everyone was waiting for a new Sean Duffy novel and that I had let down my readers by producing this wacky standalone) I got good reviews in the Irish Times and The Times. This review in the Saturday Guardian (below) was by the great John O'Connell:

Best known for his Sean Duffy novels, Adrian McKinty has permitted himself a stand-alone indulgence in The Sun Is God (Serpent's Tail, £11.99), an effortlessly entertaining historical thriller based on the true-but-scarcely-credible story of the Sonnenorden (Order of the Sun) – a sect founded on the South Pacific island of Kabakon by the German health reformer August Engelhardt, who believed that enlightenment could be achieved through naked sun worship and a diet of coconuts and heroin. It is 1906, and McKinty's hero, former military policeman Will Prior – a dead ringer, attitudinally, for Duffy – is helping the German police investigate the death of one of Engelhardt's followers, who was found with water in his lungs when he was supposed to have died of malaria. Prior travels to Kabakon and dwells among the emaciated, mosquito-bitten tribe. The mystery is overshadowed at times by McKinty's understandable urge to bring news of the broader lunacies of Sonnenorden life (you can't waste this sort of material.) But it all comes good in the beautifully structured final act.

Many thanks too to those of you who have taken the time to leave me a review on Amazon and Good Reads, the reviews there are looking pretty respectable now thanks to nice readers counteracting the grumpy readers and/or the trolls. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

My 10 Favourite Locked Room Mysteries

In light of my Ned Kelly win for a locked-room mystery novel, I thought I'd reblog this...Its the original edit of my piece on locked room mysteries for the Guardian newspaper that I published in January. I explain how I got hooked on the genre and why I wanted to write one of these in the first place. The piece below is longer than the original newspaper article with a little more exposition on my favourite books and my 'rules' about what makes a good locked-roomer...

My Ten Favourite Locked-Room Mystery Novels
Adrian McKinty

When I was ten years old I remember the first proper mystery novel that I read. It was a paperback of Agatha's Christie early classic Murder on the Orient Express. Orient Express, you’ll recall, is the one where everyone did it, which delighted me no end and I was immediately hooked. I began to work my way through the other Agatha Christies at Belfast Central library and it was probably the sympathetic librarian there who put into my hands The Murders In The Rue Morgue, the first real locked-room mystery that I came across.
     Since Rue Morgue I’ve read dozens of locked-roomers (or ‘impossible murders’ as some prefer to call them) and I have developed firm opinions about the genre. I have no truck whatsoever with the ones that have a supernatural solution or where the author doesn’t give you enough information to solve the case for yourself. Some purists don’t like locked-room problems that involve magician’s tricks (a staple of Jonathan Creek for example) but I’m of the opinion that as long as the mechanics of the trick are explained to the reader (or viewer) well before the solution, these can be permissible.
     A locked-room problem lies at the heart of my new novel, In The Morning I’ll Be Gone in which an RUC detective has to find out whether a publican’s daughter who fell off a table in a bar that was locked from the inside was in fact murdered and if so how. The first thing I had to do was to assure the reader I was not cheating about the facts: the pub was indeed locked and bolted from the inside, there were no secret passages, no concealed rooms and certainly no supernatural element. Then, of course, I had to give the reader all the necessary information so that she or he could solve the case at the same time or before the detective. And by all the information I mean: facts, psychology and motive. When it works you should be able to read a locked-room mystery twice, the second time spotting the clues and seeing how the whole thing fits together and, hopefully, enjoying the iron logic of the solution.
     When a locked-room mystery doesn’t work the solution makes you groan and the book gets hurled across the room. In The Murders In The Rue Morgue an elderly Frenchwoman is killed in a locked room on the fourth floor. The solution – spoiler alert – is that the murder was done by a tame orang-utan who climbed in through the open window with a straight razor. Even at the age of ten I wasn’t happy with that. (I think it was George Orwell who said that the even more ridiculous plot point in Rue Morgue was the idea that an edlerly Parisian lady would go to bed with the window open). More recently The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo found itself flying across my kitchen when I realised that the locked-room problem at its heart (actually a locked island) was a cheat because the reader had been clumsily misinformed about the essential facts.
     The golden age of the locked-room mystery in Anglo-American detective fiction has largely passed but in France Paul Halter has been churning out original impossible murder novels since the mid 1980’s and In Japan the great Soji Shimada virtually invented the Shinhonkaku “logic problem” sub-genre which is still extremely popular today.
     I think there are four elements that make a really good locked-room mystery novel: 1. An original puzzle. 2. An interesting detective and supporting characters. 3. Lively prose. 4. An elegant solution to the puzzle. Mixing classic and contemporary with no supernatural activity allowed these are my ten favourite locked-room/impossible murder novels:

10. The Moonstone (1868) – Wilkie Collins. Rachel Verinder’s cursed Indian diamond ‘The Moonstone’ disappears from her room after her birthday party. This is only a rudimentary locked-roomer, but as the first and still one of the best detective novels it had to be on my list.

9. The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) – John Dickson Carr. Dr. Gideon Fell investigates an alarming number of ‘suicides’ at a remote Scottish castle. The deaths have taken place in locked or completely inaccessible rooms. Dickson Carr was rightly known as the “master of the locked-room mystery” and this entire list could, with some justification, have been made solely from JDC books.

8. And Then There Were None (1939) – Agatha Christie. (Originally published under two equally unfortunate titles.) Eight people with guilty secrets are invited to an isolated island off the coast of Devon where they begin to be murdered one by one. When there are only two of them left the fun really begins.

7. Suddenly At His Residence (1946) – Christianna Brand. In another part of Devon Sir Richard March has been found poisoned in his lodge. A sand covered pathway leading to the lodge is rolled daily by the gardener. Only one set of footprints is found leading to the lodge and they belong to Claire, who discovered the body. A witty and engaging mystery from a writer who was another locked room specialist.

6. The Big Bow Mystery (1892) – Israel Zangwill. Mrs Drabdump’s lodger is discovered with his throat cut, no trace of a murder weapon and no way a murderer could have got in or out. Arguably the first proper locked-roomer and still a classic of the form.

5. The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1908) – Gaston Leroux. Miss Stangerson is found severely injured, attacked in a locked room at the Chateau du Glandier. Leroux provides maps and floor plans showing that a presumptive murderer could not possibly have entered or escaped. Amateur sleuth Joseph Rouletabille has to figure out how the attack was done. Another early classic.

4. The King Is Dead (1951) – Ellery Queen (Frederic Dannay & Manfred Lee). King Bendigo, a wealthy munitions magnate, has been threatened by his brother Judah, who announces that he will shoot King at exactly midnight on June 21st at his private island residence. King locks himself in a hermetically sealed office accompanied only by his wife, Karla. Judah is under Ellery Queen's constant observation. At midnight, Judah lifts an empty gun and pulls the trigger and at the same moment, in the sealed room, King falls back, wounded with a bullet. No gun is found on Karla or anywhere in the sealed room. Furthermore the bullet that wounds King came from Judah’s gun which didn’t actually fire. Good, huh?

3. La Septième hypothèse (1991) – Paul Halter. In pre War London Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archie Hurst are visited by a man named Peter Moore, secretary to Sir Gordon Miller, a mystery author. According to Moore, Sir Gordon had a strange visitor who gave him a murder challenge. The two men tossed a coin and whoever lost had to commit a murder and try to pin the blame on the other. Peter Moore is subsequently found dead. There are only two possible suspects and both have ironclad alibis. Seven solutions present themselves in this ultra twisty novel.

2. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981) – Soji Shimada. The book begins on a snowy evening in the Shōwa period of pre war Japan. A wealthy artist, Heikichi Umezawa, is finishing up his great cycle of paintings: 12 large canvases on Zodiacal subjects. As he works on the last one his head is smashed in with a blunt object. The studio is locked from the inside and the suspects have alibis. Over the next four decades many of Umezawa’s family members are also gruesomely killed, most in ‘impossible’ ways. In a series of postmodern asides Soji Shimada repeatedly taunts the reader explaining that all the clues are there for an astute observer.

1. The Hollow Man (1935) – John Dickson Carr. Someone breaks into Professor Grimaud's study, kills him and leaves, with the only door to the room locked from the inside, and with people present in the hall outside the room. The ground below the window is covered with unbroken snow. All the elements are balanced just right in this, the best of Dickson Carr’s many locked-room problems.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Next King of Scotland?

The Scottish referendum next week is on a razor's edge and it looks like it's going to be very close. If independence happens the SNP have said that they are going to get a Scottish Prime Minister but keep Queen Elizabeth II as head of state; however others in the SNP and the Scottish Labour Party have said that they want a Republic. No one as far as I'm aware has mentioned an intriguing third possibility...I wonder if the Scottish people would be willing to turn back the clock to 1688 and take on the current Jacobite Pretender to the Scottish crown: this gentleman to the right, Prince Franz of Bavaria.
As you may know the Jacobites were denied the Kingship of England and Scotland (and Ireland) because they were Catholics and after the defeat of James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 they fled to France. In 1715 (the "fifteen") and again under Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 (the "forty-five") the Jacobite pretenders/kings over the water (depending upon your point of view) tried to raise the clans in Scotland and reclaim the throne. It didn't work and the English put down the rebellions and after the 45 Bonnie Prince Charlie fled back to France permanently. The Jacobites however didn't die out. Far from it. They married into European Royalty and prospered.
The current Jacobite Pretender/Heir, Prince Franz, seems like a decent chap. He's a member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and he collects modern art. He spent part of his childhood in Dachau concentration camp where he was sent because his family opposed the Nazis. Wikipedia has a good entry about him, here. The Scots really could do a lot worse if they have a hankering for a king. Franz (who the Jacobites title King Francis II of Scotland) doesn't have any kids so the succession would pass after his death to Prince Max of Bavaria and then to the charmingly named Sophie, Hereditary Princess of Liechtenstein. These royals are much more interesting than the dreary Charles and Camilla if you ask me (and if you're worried that Sophie's family wont be as charismatic as Harry and William, well take a look at 'em...)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Ned Kelly

Much to my amazement and delight my novel In The Morning I'll Be Gone has won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award. The award was announced at the Brisbane Writers Festival after a great evening hosted by the BWF and the Australian Crime Writers Association. I gave a speech but I have no idea what I said. (I have a vague recollection of doing a John Connolly impersonation and people laughing.) But I was happy. Many thanks to the Ned Kelly judges, to ACWA, to Michael Robotham who hosted the whole thing and to my British, Aussie and American publishers for steadfastly supporting me when nobody outside my immediate family (and not even many of them if I'm honest) was buying my books. Thank you Serpents Tail, Allen & Unwin, Seventh Street Books and Blackstone Audio who all had faith in me even though the numbers were telling a different story...
The Ned Kelly is definitely the coolest of all the crime fiction awards and if you think about it, its only the one that's given for an entire continent. I mean how badass is that? Coincidentally Sidney Nolan who painted the iconic image of Ned Kelly below went to St Kilda Primary School where both my daughters went. Last night was my daughter Sophie's school concert and Sidney Nolan was one of the characters in the story and when the school time travellers meet him (dont ask) he's in right in the middle of painting his famous series of Ned Kelly pictures. 
If you haven't read In The Morning I'll Be Gone, I reckon its a pretty good place to start if you're new to me and my books. Its set in Northern Ireland in 1984 but it isn't all depressing and everything. Parts of it are funny. And there's a locked room mystery. And Michael Forsythe makes an appearance. And Duffy burns down a drug den. Oh, and the IRA blow up Thatcher at the end. Spoiler alert. This is what the judges said about the book: “In his use of humour with the grim realities of Belfast in 1984, coupled with a wonderfully constructed locked room mystery, McKinty has produced something really quite extraordinary. There’s a fine line between social commentary and compelling mystery and not many writers, crime or literary, can do both.”

Friday, September 5, 2014

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie; The Martian by Andy Weir

I listened to 2 science fiction audiobooks recently: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie and The Martian by Andy Weir. Reviews of both below:
Ann Leckie has been hailed as an extraordinary new voice in science fiction. In a genre dominated by male writers, a largely male readership and a male perspective, Leckie's novel, Ancillary Justice, about a genderless society has been seen as a useful corrective. In a remarkable achievement the book won all the major science fiction awards this year: the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Arthur C Clarke Award and the Locus Award. This unification of all the belts will undoubtedly bring in many readers who don't normally bother with the genre. Ancillary Justice is space opera that deals with the consequences of a fairly benign hegemonic civilization taking over a world that dared to oppose them. Told from the perspective of a ship AI in a human body (the book never explained why the ships needed frail human bodies when robot technology was so advanced) it's a novel about guilt and regret with a unique view of gender tropes as a main subtheme. Female pronouns are used throughout Ancillary Justice and all the main characters are described as being female (although this isn't really the case). I think it's great that the major sci-fi award giving bodies are finally recognising the talent of female writers, writers who challenge the conventions of dull male sci-fi with its explosions and star ships and the like. The promotion and recognition of female sci fi writers is a long over due corrective in what is often a bit of a boys club. There's only slight problem with all this and that is the fact that Ancillary Justice, alas, isn't that interesting a book. Yes its Iain Banks style intelligent space opera but the story is a little slow even for me (& I dig slow), the characters are weak, the ideas have a recycled feel to them. If you've read a lot of sci-fi you'll probably recall that Ursula Le Guin was doing gender politics 40 years ago in the classics The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. If Ancillary Justice is as sophisticated and philosophical as science fiction gets in 2014 then the intellectual side of the genre is in big trouble. Fortunately this is only my opinion and judging by the reviews on Amazon the book has MANY fans who love it, so if you're at all interested you should probably check it out for yourself.
The Martian by Andy Weir is a different kettle of fish. It's the story of an astronaut on Mars who - through a series of disastrous accidents - is abandoned on the planet by the rest of his crew and must somehow survive without food or water or communication equipment with Earth. Reading like a Mars based version of Ron Howard's Apollo 13 meets the Mythbusters The Martian is an extended series of hard sci-fi engineering problems converted into drama. I mean this not as a criticism but as a compliment. The fact that Mars is an impossibly difficult environment for any human to live on makes every single mistake or accident a potentially fatal one. The Martian is an exciting book and is a classic of what is known as hard science fiction for people who appreciate the beauty of mathematics, engineering and...botany. Yes, botany. The scenes where our stranded Crusoe attempts to grow potatoes (so he won't starve to death) is one of the most fascinating things I've ever read. The fact that Weir tells this story with humour, wit, irony and a brisk economy made this a very enjoyable listen indeed. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Bone Clocks

My review of David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks from last week's Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age; Jason, my editor, wanted more of a career survey than just a regular review, which I was happy to do because I'm a David Mitchell completist (I'll read everything he publishes). When I wrote this review 2 weeks ago all the prepub on The Bone Clocks was reverential, bordering on ecstatic, and I was beginning to wonder if I'd missed some crucial aspect of the novel. The day after my review came out, however, the NYT & 1 or 2 other papers also expressed similar sentiments. Anyway here's what I thought:
David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

Some novelists take an uneasy book or two to find their voice, others say everything in an audacious debut and then subsequently disappoint; rarer are the cases of the writer who arrives seemingly fully formed, producing mature, thoughtful books from the get-go and then at decent intervals over their literary career. The English novelist David Mitchell is an example of this latter type.

Mitchell burst onto the world literary scene in 1999 with an extraordinary debut novel, Ghost Written. Largely set in Japan, where Mitchell was living at the time, it is an alluring polyphonic tour-de-force that brings in such themes as magic, animism, Buddhism, Japanese millennial cults and international terrorism. Mitchell followed up Ghost Written with the slightly more conventional Number9dream (2001), a Bildungsroman about a Japanese student and his complex relationship with his wealthy family.

Cloud Atlas (2004) was the novel that confirmed Mitchell’s place as one of British fiction’s most interesting talents. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize and spanning a multiplicity of genres and time periods, Cloud Atlas was a series of superbly intertwined short-stories that revolved around ideas of loss, betrayal, duplicity, racism and grief. It was in Cloud Atlas too that we began to see something of Mitchell’s bigger plan with intriguing call-backs to his earlier books and the reuse of previous characters and settings.

Mitchell’s fourth book was the more subdued, semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green (2006) about a year in the life of a 13-year-old English boy with a stammer in the small village of Black Swan Green in the West Midlands. Set in the early 1980’s, this was a more intimate novel although it too had its wider resonances with the appearance of characters from Ghost Written and Number9dream.

Mitchell’s next offering, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (2010), told the tale of Jacob De Zoet, a young Dutch merchant who falls in love with a Japanese woman in eighteenth century Nagasaki. A full blown historical romance with fantastic elements De Zoet was a triumph: dark, lyrical and wilfully strange, this was a seasoned and witty reflection on love and loss and good and evil.

In 2013 Mitchell translated a Japanese teen’s Asperger’s Syndrome memoir and wrote a powerful essay in the Guardian newspaper about coping with his son’s autism in austerity challenged rural Ireland.

David Mitchell’s sixth novel, The Bone Clocks, is a recapitulation of many of the concepts and conceits of his earlier works. It begins with the story of Holly Sykes, a lippy Anglo-Irish teen, who runs away from home in Gravesend, Kent, in 1984. Holly and her little brother Jacko both have supernatural abilities: Jacko has precognition powers and Holly hears voices (the Radio People) that appear to be the internal monologues of other people. While Holly is fleeing home sinister forces come after her and successfully kidnap Jacko. The action shifts seven years forward to 1991 where dissolute Cambridge University student Hugo Lamb has just met Holly Sykes, now a chalet-maid at a ski resort in the Alps. Hugo is abducted by a mysterious and somewhat prolix group who call themselves Anchorites of the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Monastery of the Sidelhorn Pass.

The Anchorites explain that they are not only able to teleport and see into the future but that they have also discovered the secret to eternal life. Hugo is offered a humdrum but safe existence with Holly or immortality (with a rather unpleasant murderous catch).

We jump forward thirteen years to 2004 where Holly is marrying her childhood sweetheart and then to 2015 where Hugo’s Cambridge chum novelist Crispin Hershey runs into Holly at the Perth Writers Festival. Holly has written a successful book about her childhood, The Radio People, while Crispin’s latest offerings have perplexed his audience. (There’s a very funny aside where Crispin takes to task reviewers who might dare to complain about serious English novelists writing fantasy books.) Holly and Crispin share a bizarre magical experience out on Rottnest Island, off Freemantle, before going their separate ways. We then slip back in time to a fascinating section of The Bone Clocks which takes place in an Aboriginal community just outside of nineteenth century Perth. This is the extraordinary moment when you realise that The Bones Clocks is a kind of sequel to Mitchell’s previous book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. Doctor Marinus, a delightful character from De Zoet, re-appears in The Bone Clocks in a way that, unfortunately for me, robbed him of some of his previous charm.

The Anchorites, it turns out, are the bad guys, who are in a war with the Horologists - a group of benign immortals who are trying to protect the human race from the Anchorites’ predatory ways. Hugo must decide whose side he’s really on in this battle between darkness and light. The final part of the novel skips into a gloomy dystopian future where the ice caps have melted, the internet has collapsed and China is the hegemonic world power.

Although sometimes described as a “magical realist” Mitchell’s vision is very much in the English school of modern fantasy writing following a template laid down by writers such as Michael Moorcock, Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman. Mitchell’s long tenure in Japan has given him an appreciation too for the gothic fables of novelist Haruki Marukami, whose recent IQ84 is particularly resonant in The Bone Clocks.

Already long-listed for the 2014 Booker prize It is unlikely that Mitchell’s new novel will disappoint many of his admirers, but on finishing the book I found myself a little let down. The internal logic of The Bone Clocks is not particularly rigorous and many of the magical battles felt rather silly and Harry Potterish. Like Gaiman or the British writer JG Ballard, Mitchell seems to have the most fun in the exploration of big ideas from fantasy or science fiction, but he clearly has the skill to dramatize the humdrum existence of every-day life. For all the showiness of Mitchell’s arcane set pieces and impressive ‘world-building’ the bits of his novels that I think are the most enjoyable are his funny, touching interactions between ordinary people in realistic settings. Perhaps Mitchell needs to become more of a miniaturist, a voyager into what JG Ballard himself called the ‘inner space’ of our contemporary existential predicament, rather than the outer space so beloved of futurists and sci-fi novelists.

At one point in The Bone Clocks the reincarnated Doctor Marinus speaks of his love of the German Romantic poets; the most precocious of those poets, Novalis, famously declared his intention of concentrating his craft on the interior life of man because “inward goes the way full of mystery.” This is still good advice and as dazzling as Mitchell’s new book is I hope that next time he will turn his powerful lens inward and focus it a little closer to home.