The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

No_1_ladies_detective_agency I just finished reading Alexander McCall Smith’s The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and I can see why it’s proved so popular. It is different from the typical mystery or detective story. Precious Ramotswe is the first woman detective in Botswana. When her father dies, she uses her inheritance to set up her own little agency with just a secretary and herself as the sole private eye. The cases she investigates mostly involve missing people, from a man suspected by his wife to have eloped with another woman but who turns out to have been eaten by a crocodile to a boy abducted by a witchdoctor. Precious finds the boy and returns him unharmed to his parents. But she is not always successful. In one case, she is fooled by a schoolgirl.

There are no murders, no shootouts. The book follows her various cases and along the way tells her life story. The exotic locale combined with the complete ordinariness of the lives described gives the book a piquant charm. Precious and her friends are like people anywhere. I could empathise with her father who worked in the South African mines and returned home a rich man by his village standards and passed on his wealth to his daughter. Precious is ambitious and proves a successful businesswoman but she makes mistakes too. She fell in love with a musician in her youth and married him, despite her father’s misgivings, but he soon abandoned her after beating her up badly. The baby she had by him died soon after birth. But she has got over her personal tragedies by the time she sets up her agency. Precious the detective is a shrewd but good woman who is happy with her life.

There is a love interest too. Mr JLB Matekoni, the successful mechanic in whose car repair shop Precious drops in whenever she wants some company, proves more than a good friend. The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency may be a story about a woman detective in Africa but it combines the wit and the humdrum peaceful social life found in a Jane Austen novel. The result is charming.

Ed McBain

Ed_mcbain Ed McBain must have had one of the longest shelf lives as a crime fiction writer. I have been coming across his books ever since I started visiting bookshops and libraries. And no wonder.  Cop Hater, his first 87th Precinct book, came out in 1956, according to Answers.com. By then he had already had his first taste of success with Blackboard Jungle (1954) which he published under the name, Evan Hunter. I haven’t read that book or seen the film featuring Sidney Poitier. Nor did I know he wrote the original screenplay for the Alfred Hitchcock classic, The Birds, though I did see that film. Only from his obituaries did I learn he was born Salvatore Lombino but changed his name to Evan Hunter in 1952 because he thought readers wouldn’t much care for an Italian-American writer. Rather like Harold Robbins. But then he adopted the pseudonym Ed McBain for his 87th Precinct novels.

I can’t say I enjoyed his books when I started reading crime fiction. I preferred more literary writers: Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Sayers, Michael Innes. But lately I started appreciating him. The narrative is tight, the writing professional and unpretentious. The police work described in his books seems so realistic I was surprised to learn he was never a cop. His obituaries spoke about how he practically invented the police procedural and his influence on TV cop shows like NYPD Blue.  I recently read two of his books, The Frumious Bandersnatch (2003), which is funny and macabre in turns and ends with a twist, and Fat Ollie’s Book (2002).  That is entertaining too.  A redneck with a softer side,  detective  Ollie Weeks is an amusing  character. 

McBain  was no slacker like Ollie. " I write from 10am to 6pm, Monday to Friday. I try to write eight pages a day," he said in an interview five years ago which one can still read on the official Ed McBain website. "McBain had few vices beyond cigarettes, women and staying at Claridge’s, " said the Telegraph. Too bad he died of cancer. But hardboiled guys like him need their coffin nails — despite which he had a  long successful life. He was 78.

Sappho’s poem

Oddly enough, this surfaced in Yahoo! Odd News:

LONDON (Reuters) – A love poem written 2,600 years ago by Sappho, the greatest female poet of ancient Greece, was published on Friday for the first time since it was rediscovered last year.

Sappho’s verses expressing love for her female companions on the Greek island of Lesbos have either shocked or delighted generations of readers ever since they were first composed.

Her works once filled nine volumes and the ancients called her the "tenth muse", but little has survived to modern times.

The 12-line poem, only the fourth to have been recovered, was found on papyrus wrapped around an Egyptian mummy. It was published with an English translation in the Times Literary Supplement.

"She obviously had emotional relationships with women of her circle, quite possibly sexual," the poem’s translator, Oxford University academic Martin West, told Reuters.

"They seem to have had some sort of society in which they could be in each other’s company quite a lot, rather cut off from men," he said. "But the were clearly able to have plenty of fun."

The poem was rediscovered last year after researchers at Germany’s Cologne University identified a papyrus once wrapped round a mummy as part of a 3rd century BC roll containing poems by Sappho.

They noticed that some of the verse fragments on the crumbling Cologne material matched parts of lines already identified as Sappho’s on a papyrus discovered in 1922.

By combining the two they were able to reconstruct the original, adding likely missing words in the gaps that remained.

The Reuters report contained only the first four lines. So I toodled off to the Times Literary Supplement to read the full poem. It was part of an article by the translator, Martin West.

The poem

("The words in square brackets are supplied by conjecture", explained West.)

"[You for] the fragrant-blossomed Muses’ lovely gifts
[be zealous,] girls, [and the] clear melodious lyre:

[but my once tender] body old age now
[has seized;] my hair’s turned [white] instead of dark;

my heart’s grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.

This state I oft bemoan; but what’s to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there’s no way.

Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn,
love-smitten, carried off to the world’s end,

handsome and young then, yet in time grey age
o’ertook him, husband of immortal wife."

Continue reading “Sappho’s poem”

Bugs in the story

Transmission: A novel by Hari Kunzru (First published in 2004)

Computer virus attacks, so often reported in the media, cross over into fiction in this novel. The Transmission of the title refers to the spread of computer viruses. Arjun, an Indian IT graduate, goes to work in the USA. Fired by the computer security firm, he creates a virus to infect computers around the world, hoping to get back his job by fixing the bug. But when his boss falsely claims credit for the security patch and refuses to take him back, Arjun mounts a wave of virus attacks and goes on the run, chased by the FBI. Sounds like a thriller, but it isn’t, quite.

The author, Hari Kunzru, is writing a Tom Wolfe-style novel that’s fiction as reportage. It covers computer viruses, body shopping (where a middleman recruits cheap labour, say, in India to be farmed out as temporary workers in the USA), cinema and the media. Arjun is body-shopped to the USA. His viruses are hidden in e-mailed attachments that are pirated clips from his favourite Bollywood actress’ biggest blockbuster. And they wreak havoc on the film world as well as the business world, which provide subplots for this novel.

Interwoven with the story of Arjun are two other stories, about his favourite Bollywood actress, Leela Zahir, and Guy Swift, an English PR flack. They don’t know each other but they are all affected by the virus. The PR agency collapses, the virus attacks generate a wave of international publicity for the young actress who can’t cope with it and disappears. And so does Arjun, to escape from the FBI. The novel ends with conspiracy-theory-style speculation on the Internet and in the media about what happened to Leela and Arjun. Kunzru refuses to give any definitive answer.

That may make for intriguing journalism. But I found it disappointing in this novel because it starts off like a novel of character. Arjun’s Indian background is so well described, his experiences in America so well told, this could have been a touching story of cross-cultural relations. Instead Kunzru ends up writing a parable about connectivity and the dangers of global dependence on the Internet.

That would have been all right too but for the ending. The mystery about where Leela and Arjun vanished seems a cheap trick. Of course, it happens in real life and can be exciting material for gossip on the Internet, but in this novel at least it seems the writer did not want to make the effort to take the story any further. He wants to tease the readers. That can be tantalising but also disappointing.

Yes, it lets down in the end but is pretty funny and entertaining much of the way. Kunzru, who went to Oxford like Amis, is as stylish a writer though mercifully less self-indulgent. He doesn’t quite get the ad scene right but is absolutely spot-on on Bollywood and computers.

Continue reading “Bugs in the story”

Giving Amis a miss

Martin Amis: 2

Yours Truly: 0

I tried reading Martin Amis’ novel, Money, for the second time, and for the second time I failed. I gave up almost near the end, though I did sneak a peek at how it ends.

Amis, for all his literary talent (and he is awfully good at words), can be very taxing. He is on a roll, pouring every idea, every image that strikes his fancy on to the page, considerably prolonging the narrative. Amis knows he is being self-indulgent but pleads helplessness. He writes:

I disclaim responsibility for many of my thoughts. They don’t come from me. They come from those squatters and hoboes who hang out in my head, these guys who stroll past me like naturalized, emanicipated rodents (passport and papers all in order), like gentrified rats, flapping a paw and saying ‘Hi, pal’ and I have to wait and not mind while they make coffee or hog the can — there’s nothing I can do about them.

— Martin Amis, Money

It’s hip and vivid and quirky, but it doesn’t take the story anywhere.

This book could have easily lost a hundred pages without hurting the narrative. But Amis, who was only 35 when this book was published in 1984, was apparently more interested in the storytelling than in the story itself, more keen to showcase his literary talent than his plotmaking.

I was impressed but finally lost patience and gave up. The book is like the period it’s set in — the yuppie 1980s. It’s one long orgy of sex, glitz, financial extravagance and bad behaviour that finally becomes a bore.

Amis is too clever for his own good. He introduces himself in the story as a supporting character. The hero-cum-narrator, John Self, gets Martin Amis the writer to write the screenplay for a film he is making. It’s a clever idea, and amusing at first, but the joke wears out in the end.

In Nick Hornby’s novel, How To Be Good, there’s a minor character, a book publisher’s salesman, who considers Amis a "smart-a***" That’s rude — Hornby letting one of his characters badmouth his rival, Amis. He is rude but right. Amis is one heck of a talent who is not necessarily one whale of a read.

Rankin’s lovers

She yanked the padlock free, the chain coming with it. Pulled open the gate.

And was picked up off the ground by Rebus, his hug enveloping her.

‘Ow, ow, ow,’ she said, causing him to ease off. ‘Bit bruised,’ she explained, her eyes meeting his. He couldn’t help himself, planted his lips on hers. The kiss lingered, his eyes shut, hers wide open. She broke away, took a step back, tried to catch her breath.

‘Not that I’m not overwhelmed or anything, but what’s this all about?’

— Ian Rankin, A Question of Blood

"What’s all this about?" Ah ha, that’s asking. That long, slobbery smooch was just a snog waiting to happen as every reader knew from the sexual chemistry seething on every page though the guy and the gal never even let it into their thoughts. No, they sublimated it. He wants to protect her, she tries to mother him though he is much older than her — and there lies the rub. Theirs is a mutual attraction that dares not give itself away because of the generation gap: who wants to be a sugar daddy, or a Lolita, especially on the police force? As it is, they happen to be partners.

And that’s how Detective Inspector John Rebus and Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke play it — partners, friends, but not lovers — until almost the very end of this thriller when Rebus rushes to Siobhan’s rescue. He finds her alive and is so relieved he forgets himself — and plants that long, wet kiss. And, breathless, she asks "what’s this all about?" as if she doesn’t know — and she a detective! Is she being naive or coy?

The author, Ian Rankin, doesn’t explain. He cuts away to the last chapter where Siobhan is in hospital, recovering from a slight injury, with Rebus at her bedside. But we know they can no longer pretend to be just partners in the cop shop.

They certainly make an attractive pair. Rebus is a modern Philip Marlowe. Siobhan is feisty and caring, smart and devoted. It is their relationship which finesses the Rebus stories. Mystery is not the right word for Rankin’s novels. He may be Britain’s most successful crime fiction writer today but he can’t be compared with Christie or Conan Doyle because he doesn’t write typical whodunits. One reads him as much for his description of people and places as for who killed whom and why.

Going through A Question of Blood, I realised I had read it before. But that didn’t stop me from carrying on. Unlike the typical whodunit, where you want to get to the bottom of the mystery, here I wanted to linger among the people and the places and the music that accompanies Rebus and Siobhan wherever they go. A police procedural as full of character as a traditional novel and also a literary jukebox — that’s how I would describe this book.

Mistresses of crime

Men don’t read women authors, says Moorish Girl quoting an Observer report. I  wonder whether that’s really true when it comes to crime fiction.

There are so many women crime writers it’s impossible to ignore them. And some of them are devilish good at it. Think of the queens of crime of the Golden Age: Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham… Each and every one of them was a bestseller. Christie was the most successful mystery writer since Arthur Conan Doyle.

Pdjamesphoto_2Women are still doing well on the crime scene. PD James (left) reigns supreme, Ruth Rendell is another highly regarded veteran, Anne Perry has been both prolific and successful with her Victorian mysteries. Barbara Nadel, who has just come out with her sixth book, has already made a strong impression as a major talent. And they are all British. We haven’t come to the Americans yet. Patricia Cornwell is immensely popular though I haven’t read any of her books myself. Sue Grafton with her alphabetically titled mysteries (A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar) and Elizabeth George are eminently successful. There are plenty of others. One writer I particularly liked is Francine Mathews though I have read only one of her books (Death in a Cold Hard Light). I wish I could read her Jane Austen mysteries.

Other women writers may not always appeal to men. I would rather read Graham Greene and John Updike than Margaret Drabble and Margaret Atwood for a simple reason. I can identify more easily with a man than with a woman. The sex, however, doesn’t matter so much in crime fiction. It’s about crime and detection which can be equally appealing to men and women.

(I checked The Tangled Web while writing this. It has an invaluable list of crime writers.)

*(My previous entry, "Gahmen agents infiltrate Singapore bloggers’ convention", was a spoof inspired by a Singapore meme game called Sgblogconspiracy.)