Thursday, December 29, 2011

Reading Philip Kerr's "Field Gray"

Field Gray is a realistic, tightly plotted, multi-level mystery novel, firmly grounded in detail--both historical and geographical--that accomplishes the primary objective of historical fiction: it recreates the past in order to illuminate the present and warns subtly not to commit the same mistakes yet again.And, although it is modern in its approach and structure and  does demonstrate an obvious agenda, it remains true to its subject, its milieu, its characters, and its historical framework.

Kerr, through the interrogation of his protagonist, Bernie Gunther, in five different prisons in 1954 recounts two stories--the lives of Bernie Gunther, ex-Berlin detective, and Erich Mielke, the minister of state security of the German Democratic Republic from 1957 to 1989.

The story begins in Cuba in 1954, where Bernie is working for Meyer Lansky, Jewish crime lord and one of the original founders of Murder Incorporated. Castro is active and Baptista's regime is in serious trouble. After meeting Graham Greene in a local brothel, Bernie sets sail to help a friend of a friend, a young woman, who has killed a police officer, with a United States sailor's stolen weapon. So begins a series of incidences that result in Bernie's incarceration in five different prisons, where he is interrogated by various intelligence agencies and remembers his past, until he finds himself back in Berlin and in the middle of a clandestine operation being conducted by the French, Russians, and the CIA. To survive and also mete out a bit of revenge, Bernie revisits his past and plays one country's intelligence service against another.

As the adage goes, the devil is in the details, and Kerr's command of early twentieth-century history is staggering. He knows what happened when and where; and, when I say "where," I mean he knows the street address. This attention to detail provides a sense of verisimilitude that is lacking in many historical crime novels. Kerr seems to be particularly well versed in legal matters and procedure, which in this novel in particular, is used to great effect.

Kerr dominates his corner of the historical/mystery genre.

As an aside, when I was working in Berlin in 1990, his second novel The Pale Criminal appeared and I quickly snapped it up, along with its predecessor March Violets. The novels were exactly the kinds of books that I loved at the time and still do. I was infected with German measles (metaphorically) at the time; I loved all things German, especially German literature and history. And the truth of the matter, after all, was that I was in Germany because of a book. That isn't really accurate: there was more than just one book that fueled my interest in Germany; there were hundreds of them--biographies, histories, and novels. It was a state of mind, an obsession that began earlier than my immersion in literature about the war. Maybe, it had to do with the return of my grandfather, father and two uncles from the war and their attitude of steely silence about it all. Maybe it was the way they held their cigarettes or drank their beers, staring off in the distance, holding their secrets close to their T-shirts. When I try to pinpoint the moment of my obsession, I can see toy German soldiers, or a pocket book edition of Cornelius Ryan's The Last Battle, Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, or Len Deighton's brilliant series set in Berlin. Or maybe it was The Blue Angel or the Blue Max or Cabaret or the poetry of W. H. Auden or Christopher Isherwood's novels and short stories. Eventually, it would become Einstein's Berlin or Döblin's Berlin or the German Expressionists' Berlin or Hitler's. By 1990, however, it was my Berlin; and through my Berlin filter, Field Gray seems both very real, very timely and extremely readable.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reading Roberto Bolaño's "The Third Reich"

One of my favorite novels of 2011 was Roberto Bolaño's The Third Reich. Anyone who has read my novels or my poetry will know why I found the book so sympatico, and why I find Bolaño not only a great artist--because he is--but why I feel an intuitive closeness to him: his concerns and obsessions are my concerns and obsessions; his tropes and metaphors are mine as well. Perhaps the reason I feel this way is that Bolaño and I were born just a few months apart. And, as we grew up, we eventually, after several moves, didn't really live that far from one another; the Rio Grande divided us, but in the fifties and sixties it was permeable, and we and all of our cultural memes crossed the border with impunity. Eventually, he moved to Spain and I started work in Germany and France. He was an autodidact who loved to read, as did I. And in our obsession we seem to have liked the same writers for the most part, although his passion and his hunger dwarf mine. There seems to be nothing he did not read and absorb into his world view, his Weltanschauung, which for the most part consisted of a Weltschmerz, formed by an understanding of the inherent and sinister fascism of the Capitalist world, which he experienced first hand in Chile. For him the Nazis immigrated to South America and continued their machinations. However, as the novel implies: fascism lives on in various forms, not the least being, in our obsession over its uses and forms during the second world war but most particularly in the Third Reich.

The novel concerns a young German gamer, named Udo Berger, who travels to Spain with his new girlfriend, Ingeborg, to a seaside resort hotel, where he stayed as a youth with his family and fell in love with the wife of the German proprietor. His goal for the summer is to write an article about the game, The Third Reich, a table-top strategy game, obviously modeled on the Avalon Hill games popular in the fifties and sixties. While there, Udo descends into his obsessions--games, the past, crimes, police, detectives, fascists, women--and the novel has the feel, mood and pacing of a Patricia Highsmith novel. The sunny beaches and resort hotel take on a sinister feel like that of Mann's Death in Venice or one of Highsmith's European watering holes. Even a mystery author that Ingeborg is reading is Highsmith-like, emphasizing the obvious connection to mystery, obsession and madness. And there is sickness (Mann's great metaphor) and violence: the owner of the hotel is dying, and several derelicts haunt the hotel and the beach amidst rumors of rape and mayhem, while a fellow German disappears.

The mood of The Third Reich slowly darkens, as we read the notebook entries of Udo through the summer and into the fall. He is, of course, an unreliable narrator but Bolaño's strong voice, one of the strongest and most unique in the latter part of the 20th century, is consistent throughout the novel and leads us inexorably into Udo's descent into fear and failure until we arrive at the logical conclusion--the defeat of the fascist.

Throughout the novel, Bolaño refers to numerous German historical figures, battles, and games. His descriptions are always spot on. He also refers to many writers, which he always does, which shows his auto-didactic tendencies. Autodidacts always have to show off. But for our purposes he reveals his tastes and his influences. We must remember that Bolaño, like Keats, was writing posthumously. In some ways he was writing for himself or for posterity. Consequently, his novels are unique and satisfying in a quirky way. And for my taste, this novel, although not as grand as 2666 or The Savage Detectives, is my favorite of his short novels, equal in beauty and tone to his collection of short stories--Last Evening on Earth.

For more on Bolaño, see my review of 2666 here:, and his collection of poetry, The Romantic Dogs here:

Monday, December 12, 2011

Chuck Wendig's "Double Dead" as a Dialectic of Blood or How I got my Kicks on Route 66

As a kid I loved the television series Route 66, maybe because we traveled it, journeying each summer to my father's family home in New Mexico, or maybe because I just liked the idea of a couple of cool guys, speeding along in the hippest car ever made in America, a 1961 corvette, for the simple reason that they could.

Chuck Wendig in his plot-driven, zombie/vampire hybrid, Double Dead, calls upon some of that nostalgic as his vampire hero herds his human flock west to Los Angeles along Route 66 in search of an escape from the zombie apocalypse, not in a corvette but in a run-down, diesel-fueled RV. Rather than escaping their pursuers, however, the travelers, who undertake a quest of sorts, run afoul of the most bizarre, grotesque collection of zombies, cannibals, clowns, and demons, ever assembled in a zombie novel.

Double Dead, although heavily plot driven and grotesque (here I'm relying on the original connotation of the word), is not your usual zombie novel; it overflows with piss and vinegar (Wendig employs this phrase several times in the novel to describe various characters); the prose is super-charged; his chapters are tightly organized,  engineered to lead the reader inexorably into the next; and the story follows a satisfying arc (imagine a snake with its tail in its mouth, the alchemical symbol of wholeness) that begins and ends with the protagonist, the vampire, Coburn. More precisely, as the story unwinds, Coburn comes to understand that if he is to survive he must protect the few humans still alive. His realization is the exciting force of the novel and the girl Kayla, the one who implanted the idea, the reason for the (makeshift or ad hoc) family's journey or quest along Route 66.

The true strength of the novel, however, is the Jamesian turn of the screw that Wendig gives the genre by introducing a vampire, who awakens from a long sleep to discover his food supply has been tainted and destroyed and Wendig's dizzily precise and sometimes comic prose that conjures up brilliantly a red-neck America in the throes of the zombie apocalypse.

As an aside, Wendig will gag if he reads this (because I suspect he is full of piss and vinegar and manly)but I found myself deconstructing the novel, something I rarely do, because I wanted to understand where his book stands within the genre. It was obvious he is well-read in both zombie and vampire literature and that he has a firm grasp on America pop culture. I was particularly taken with the theme of blood as the source of evolution or dialectic (and contagion à la Stoker and Matheson) within the apocalypse and thought it somewhat ingenious. There was, of course, subtle allusions to zombie capitalism, situating the zombies in Walmart, malls, and other shopping areas of America, and a nod to religious imagery and fanaticism in the Sons of Man. Nevertheless, although there is richness underneath the breezy prose and non-stop action, Wendig is too much of a pro to dwell on it and (I suspect) too full of piss and vinegar to admit.

This book demonstrates the usual high standard of editing that Jonathan Oliver and his team at Abaddon are known for and should definitely be on your reading list if you like zombies,vampires or both.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Reading Dan Abnett's "Triumff, Her Majesty's Hero"

I have been talking about my "cunning plan" for some time now to read and review all of Angry Robot Books' releases. The number is nearing fifty and I have reviewed only eleven. As you can see I am woefully in arrears, although I have purchased every book and with some titles I have two editions: big and little. I don't know what that means really except those I have ordered from England are big, i.e., trade paperback, verses, little, mass market.  In regard to Dan Abnett's first novel for Angry Robot Books I have two copies: trade paperback, big, and mass market, little. I chose to read the mass market edition so I could stick it in my suit pocket and carry it around, bend it back and break its spine. That's the way I like to read genre fiction--aggressively. With Triumff my usual methodology, however, was foiled (frustrated), because it is such a rich book, full of puns and literary allusions, characters and details that I had to slow down, read a bit slower, for after all I'm sitting here on the prairie, on the edge of the comancheria, north of the Rio Bravo, where the English language, although rich, is different from that of Elizabethan England and where our vocabulary is mixed with both English and Spanish. Consequently, it took me a while to enter the book, but once I did I realized how nuanced it was. Although I know it is played for laughs, there is a full-blooded mimetic world, an alternate or parallel universe, here, a geography that could be expanded upon, a vast container that could house other stories and other novels. And this created world, along with its rounded characters, is what makes the book more than just a linguistic romp. In this regard, Triumff''s alternate world is as rich and satisfying as Lavie Tidhar's in his The Bookman or Colin Harvey's created planet in Winter Song or, if we are being truthful, most of the Angry Robot titles. Created worlds, mixed genres, and good writing seems to be the common denominator.

In Triumff, the year is 2010; however, it is not our 2010. It is an alternate history in which Queen Elizabeth XXX sits upon the throne and rather than science, alchemy and superstition run the world. To understand the energy and verve of the novel, imagine then an episode of the Tudors, written by Richard Curtis, starring Rowan Atkinson as our narrator, William Beaver, with a young Kevin Kline (as in A Fish Called Wanda), playing Sir Rupert Triumff. Also imagine a teeming London, as dark and dank as any Dickens or Peter Ackroyd novel and then throw in magic and wizardry reminiscent of Terry Pratchett. Stir up the mix and add every clown or buffoon from a Shakespearean comedy or any ork from a Warhammer novel and you will begin to understand the tone and tenor of the work.

This is the invented world in which the action occurs but the book is more than an invented world or a comic bit. There is a plot here and characters. Triumff is back from the Beach, Australia, with his Ishmael-like companion--Uptil. The big secret, which Triumff is concealing, is that Australia is modern and technological, a modern paradise, compared to the teeming squalor of Europe. On one hand he is trying to conceal his discovery and the other, he is involved in trying to protect the queen from a dangerous conspiracy created by masters of mayhem and Goetia. To solve the mystery and defeat the sorcerers Triumff goes underground, masquerading as a French lutenist, as the Queen prepares for the anniversary of her coronation. In the investigation a panoply of Keystone-like police, agents, soldiers and mages appear from all over Europe.

For Abnett fans, the novel is a departure; but, in reality, I think we are seeing an almost full measure of the man. Like most of his novels, this one contains full-bodied characters, rich language, and panoply of arms,  but it also demonstrates or, perhaps better, shares his humor, his verbal intensity and range, along with his heart. Triumff, I think is Abnett's labor of love. It is what he wrote when left to his own devices.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Myth in the Age of Victoria or Steampunk in "The Bookman" by Lavie Tidhar

Setebos, Setebos, and Setebos!
'Thinketh, He dwelleth i' the cold o' the moon.
The Bookman, a mesmerizing tour-de-force, refreshes Steampunk, while adhering to its basic elements and demonstrating the author's encyclopedic knowledge of the genre and his endearing love of literature. Its major theme is myth; however, its subsidiary theme is books or, more, precisely literature. Structurally, it is a quest novel, situated in a Steampunk-like setting, but hiding a Childhood's End-like mystery. Ultimately, it is a novel about novels with the overarching theme being myth. As the character Gilgamesh says: "Oh Orphan. This is the time of myths. They are woven into the present like silk strands from the past, like a wire mesh from the future, creating an interlacing pattern, a grand design, a repeating motif." Succinctly it is a mystery set in an alternate history of England during a steam age in which automatons, giant lizards, and humans equally abide, while an orphan braves danger in order to find his lost love.

The genre known as Steampunk, strictly speaking, if that is even possible to do, concerns a period of English history from June 20, 1837 to January 22, 1901, or, more precisely, a period that runs from the birth of Queen Victoria to her death, and incorporates elements of science fiction, fantasy, alternate history and speculative fiction. Accordingly, Steampunk harkens back to the scientific romances of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Mary Shelley and emulates, or imitates, their style and content, while concentrating on certain identifiable memes and grand themes of the Victorian age: the industrial revolution, colonialism, revolution, nationalism, science, particularly biological science--Darwinism-- sociology, and the rise of the novel, as well as the flourishing of poetry and art, especially in France. The Victorian age also saw the emergence of the gentleman scholar in England and the rise of capitalism. With all these disparate but potent forces at work, the period is ripe for incorporation into the mise-en-scène of  modern artists.

Lavie Tidhar's steampunk universe is bit larger than the Victorian age. As we said above, it is a novel about myth but it is myth filtered through English or French literature. The exciting force and one of the chief images of the novel is Shakespeare's The Tempest. The ruling power of England comes from Caliban's island and they themselves are monsters in the sense that Caliban was a monster. Caliban is an apt image for Tidhar because he can incorporate through a type of shorthand all the wondrous tropes in Shakespeare's fantasy as well draw on the image of the magician, Prospero, whose powers rely upon books. Magic, after all, is only language spoken to control or change the world, and Prospero is one of the most potent images or symbols of that power. Remember, too, Prospero has a daughter and that The Tempest is a love story. So Tidhar's alternate history begins in the 17th century. At that time, an event occurs that creates the alternate history of the world: the appearance of an alien race. One of the major tropes of science fiction underlies the meaning of the novel. And this is just one of the thousands of threads within the novel. To describe each is to destroy its beauty and complexity. Suffice it to say that the book is worth several readings because the author's vast knowledge and love of literature is on every page. And in this sense the book is a meta-fiction.

The Bookman has not garnered the exposure it deserves. It is an intelligent, clever book, that creates a wonderfully complex secondary world. And most importantly, it is as well-constructed as a Swiss cuckoo clock and as readable as any genre fiction being written today.