Sunday, April 17, 2011

Reading matters

The Redeemer, by M R Hall, needs a deus ex machina in the form of a confessional letter from a character who is only marginal in the preceding storytelling to give tha narrative a fitting conclusion.

This, in the final chapter before an epilogue, came as the first surprise of several. 

I discovered M R Hall and his heroine Jenny Cooper in 2009. At about the same time I had enjoyed Kate Mosse's Labyrinth and, as I seem to recall, Alexandria by Lindsey Davis. The Coroner was the first novel by a new writer and I found it quite excellent. While it certainly belonged to the procedural sub-genre I thought that the portrayal of a feisty coroner instead of the usual copper was innovative and vey welcome.

In due course a second M R Hall title caught my eye on the store's display and I grabbed it instanxtly. The Disappeared was another damn good read.

Now all this was before I had started posting under the heading Reading matters. Back in the day I paid little heed to the short author biographies sometimes included in the paperback editions and I felt no need to consult any writer's website.

But after reading The Redeemer and prepping for this post I felt obliged to dig a bit and thus discovered that MR Hall was not, as I had imagined, a woman!

Oddly enough my confusion is shared by an Amazon reviewer...

I had assumed, that like JK Rowling, M R Hall was a woman as the book is certainly written from a woman's viewpoint and is sympathetic to Jenny's unhappiness and vulnerability. However, I have just checked and have discovered that he is "a screenwriter and producer and former criminal barrister, a profession he left due to a constitutional inability to prosecute". 

Yes, surprised again!

But then I found Matthew Hall's experience as a screenwriter made the the confessional letter out of the blue in the final chapter of his latest book even more odd, a breach of all that we learn about writing for film or television from the preachers of structured story paradigms and carefully constructed 'plot points' like Robert McKee and Syd Field.

To my surprise I sent off an email to the author expressing my misgivings in this regard, an action quite unprecedented given that I am not the type to write fanmail (although I did queue to get a dedication from Ian Rankin when he was at a signing in Abu Dhabi!)

It was a further surprise when a reply from Matthew Hall arrived.

"That’s the beauty of books – you don’t have to tie it up in the movie way every time. [...] I guess you read Robert Harris. There’s a writer who doesn’t bother himself with internal and external conflicts and ‘negations of the negation’, but nevertheless tells a pleasing story (though not ones which stand up to the level of structural scrutiny that you and I would apply)."

Thankyou, kind sir! I shall no longer worry about the tricky 'negations of the negation' in my own current manuscript. [This, for the information of regular readers, is no longer titled Necrocognition but All Too Near, explained by the fact that the Hamburg district of Altona is one of the story's locales...] 

Speaking of locales and settings. The next book I bought last week was The Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer. Strange that his name was new to me since he taught a seminar about spy novels at the University of Leipzig. HIs clandestine world is populated by agents known as 'tourists' and indeed he whirls us with Baedeker authority from one exotic location to another. I thought he did rather well with Munich and Zurich. I share the amazement expressed by an Amazon reviewer... astonished by the detailed description of places all around the world that, according to himself, Steinhauer has never visited before. I guess I am not the only one relying on Google Street View to explore the terrain populated or visited by my characters.

As for Sheinhauer's story. Okay, I guess, if oddly convoluted and predictable at the same time. There is to be a further book to complete a trilogy and I do hope it also features the hilarioulsy obese lady spook at the headquarters of the Bundesnachrichtendiest in the Munich suburb of Pullach.

To close this over-long post I must quote Julian Barnes who is excercised about an increase of over-simplified English in popular fiction, language dumbed down to make the task of the translator of a best-seller into a foreign language less onerous. For Barnes it is a sort of international prose that is like an airline meal: it feeds all, doesn’t actually poison anyone, but isn’t noticeably nutritious. 

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