Friday, December 19, 2008

O Fortuna

I read an interesting piece in The Times today about the life of Bavarian composer Carl Orff, the creator of Carmina Burana. This piece of music is one of my favourites despite the linkages to the Nazi Party.

“The fact that the Nazis liked Orff’s music is not in itelf proof that Orff was a Nazi, or approved of their methods,” Abraham says. “He simply lived in that generation of Germans when, unfortunately, everybody had a connection of some sort with the Nazis. Even the so-called good guys. Look at G√ľnter Grass. Two years ago he shocked everyone by revealing that he was in the SS.” At least one gets the feeling that Orff, waking up screaming in the night, knew exactly how badly he had behaved.

The final irony in his twisted and compromised life? When he died in 1982 this most unsaintly of men ended up, as he wished, buried in a monastery – just like the scurrilous medieval poems that brought him such fame.




A decade ago I spent a lot of time in Munich, the capital of the German region of Bavaria. I worked as a senior executive for a German Industrial Multi-national and at the time it looked I was tipped for the top. The problem was I was not good at the political game, nor was I ruthless enough to fight nasty to get the role. Instead I slipped down the slippery slope and lost my job.



While spending time in Munich I went to a few Beer Kellers, and while knocking back stein after stein of Pilsner, I imaged how terrifying these places were in the late 1930’s as black shirted fascists plotted their horrors. Orff’s famous tune has often being associated Nazism, as it had its premier in 1937 at a Nazi Party Gathering. It also seems that Orff himself was a conflicted personality, and one who betrayed a friend.

Next month, a spectacular touring production of Carmina Burana rolls up at the O venue in the former Millennium Dome. For the past four decades this bawdy oratorio has been performed somewhere in the world every day of every year. But this show is likely to eclipse all previous stagings. Besides a chorus and orchestra of 250, it has fireworks, giant puppets, cannon effects, and, according to its producer, Franz Abraham, “erotic scenes with naked girls imitating an orgy”.

For once it can be truthfully said that the composer would have loved it. And the show, which has already played to a million people on its 13-year global journey, is expected to attract huge audiences – upwards of 10,000 on each of its two nights.

I doubt whether many of those 20,000 punters, innocently enjoying this tub-thumping, thigh-slapping medley of pulsating choral numbers (based, incongruously, on a collection of poems by 13th-century monks, discovered in a monastery in Orff’s beloved Bavaria) will be aware that the piece had its premiere, in 1937, at a Nazi Party gathering. Nor that its creator had a dark secret that Palmer’s film highlights for the first time.

Orff had a friend called Kurt Huber, an academic who had helped him with librettos. Huber was also a brave man. During the war he founded the Munich unit of Die Weisse Rose (The White Rose), the German resistance movement. In February 1943 he and other Resistance members were arrested by the Gestapo, tortured and publicly hanged. Orff happened to call at Huber’s house the day after his arrest. Huber’s wife (whom Palmer tracked down for his film) begged Orff to use his influence to help her husband. But Orff’s only thought was for his own position. If his friendship with Huber came out, he told her, he would be “ruined”. Huber’s wife never saw Orff again.



Two years later, after Germany’s surrender, Orff himself was interrogated – by an American intelligence officer who had to establish whether Orff could be “denazi-fied”. That would allow Orff (among other things) to collect the massive royalties from Carmina Burana. The American asked Orff if he could think of a single thing he had done to stand up to Hitler, or to distance himself from the policies of the Third Reich? Orff had done nothing of that kind. So he made up a brazen lie. Knowing that anyone who might contradict him was likely to be dead, he told Jenkins that he had co-founded Die Weisse Rose with his friend, Kurt Huber. He was believed – or at least, not sufficiently disbelieved to have his denazification delayed.



The Times piece by Richard Morrison is a fascinating insight into the life of disturbed genius Carl Orff and his existential chant Carmina Burana– click here to read more

Thursday, December 18, 2008

I Was Dora Suarez

Derek Raymond [aka Robin Cook] has left a legacy of grim existential urban crime thrillers that still haunt me today. I was delighted to read Charles Taylor at The Nation write a lengthy essay on Raymond’s work – especially his factory series.

I mentioned Raymond’s work in an essay I penned when I started this blog on the importance of crime and thriller fiction, of which Raymond’s ‘Factory Novels’ featuring the ‘Nameless Detective’ [who works for the London Police’s Department of Unexplained Deaths] are crucial works of the genre, especially the grim existential work “I Was Dora Suarez”. As Serpents Tail / Profile Books have re-issued the series it is high time you took a look, but I must warn you that they aren’t pretty as Charles Taylor reports here -

Hard-boiled heroes are invariably loners. For No Name, loneliness is the personal hell of having a wife who has been institutionalized for murdering their daughter (perhaps the grimmest back story I've ever encountered for any hard-boiled detective). But that hell is also a result of the cursed role that Raymond has devised for him, turning him into something like a figure out of myth, eternally doomed to listen to voices speaking to him from beyond the grave.

And it's death to whom the victims in these books owe their voices. The alcoholic writer in
He Died With His Eyes Open--having, like No Name, lost his wife and daughter--spends his days in a pub enduring the insults of its patrons, pines for the prostitute who spurns him and upon his demise leaves behind a series of tapes to which No Name listens obsessively. The AIDS-infected prostitute murdered in I Was Dora Suarez leaves a journal that No Name doesn't so much read as flagellate himself with. In How the Dead Live, No Name overhears taped conversations between a doctor gone mad with grief and his now-dead wife, who had told him he was the only one she trusted to remove the cancers defiling her body.

Their stories are baroque, bizarre, even repellent. The characters inhabit the outer limits of the fringe of those who can be thought of as society's victims, and yet the extremity of their tales marks them as doomed messiahs, their suffering meant to stand for, if not absolve, the suffering of all victims. And while the books end with the cases solved, the evildoers either dead or destroyed, there is no sense of triumph, no illusion that justice has been restored. "My tears were not for me," No Name says at the end of
I Was Dora Suarez; "they were for the rightful fury of the people."

That line can be taken as either equal to the anguish that has preceded it--as the benediction to the horrific I Was Dora Suarez--or an example of overwrought writing. Because he wrote hard-boiled detective fiction, Raymond was prone to sentimentality disguised as the dirty, unvarnished truth about the world, and, especially when No Name is threatening an uncooperative witness or showing he's uncowed by a superior's rank, the books can show a relish for aggression. In his introduction to
He Died With His Eyes Open, crime novelist James Sallis tries gamely to bring up the perpetually unresolved question of literature as it pertains to the detective novel. It's a question that critics usually pretend to settle either by falsely elevating the work in question to literature or, equally falsely, by citing aesthetic flaws (like Raymond's sentimentality) and the reliance on formula to argue that a "low" genre can never touch us in the way that literature does.

Read all of Charles Taylor’s overview of Derek Raymond and his existential look at the darkness of his view of the world here but a final warning for those faint of heart, when it comes to I Was Dora Suarez

Reading the book made me nauseous. Rereading it for this piece, I found it necessary to restrict my time with it to daylight hours. Reading it after dark gave me nightmares. Nor do I want to play at listing the specifics of the book, thereby feeding the kind of interest that will send people to it for a kick, the way they go see the latest piece of horror-movie torture porn. I don't know if I Was Dora Suarez can be called literature at all. If it's possible for a book to be utterly repugnant and deeply compassionate at the same time, then I Was Dora Suarez is.

Derek Raymond’s work explores the darkest heart of reality, and for serious advocates of the existential – he is as essential as is Camus.

THE SIRUS CROSSING

My contribution to Patti Abbott’s Friday Lost Book Project is the debut novel by John Creed “The Sirius Crossing” published by Faber and Faber which won the 2002 Ian Fleming Dagger Award. I did a little research and discovered that John Creed was in fact Eoin (pronounced 'Owen') McNamee. The self same writer who's debut had been Resurrection Man, a deeply dark look at the violence of the Shankill Butchers (a sadistic loyalist gang that operated in Northern Ireland in the 1970's). He also penned the screenplay to the brutal but highly acclaimed film adaptation. Since then he has published The Blue Tango which made the Booker 'long list', as well as the brilliant Princess Diana conspiracy thriller “12:23 Paris. 31st August 1997”.


It is however his ‘debut’ thriller featuring Jack Valentine that bewitched me, and despite the Dagger win, this novel didn’t sell as well as I’d predicted – it is brilliant, and one that needs to be rediscovered. The bonus is that it has an existential air about it, but one that is hidden by the fumes of cordite that appear when you crack its spine.

The Sirius Crossing is a seriously good thriller from a writer who despite at times bordering on the literary certainly cooks up a real contemporary espionage brew. It grips from the introductory paragraph and keeps you clinging on like the characters battling the storm that lies at the centre of this tale. Jack Valentine is a British spy working for MRU a shady government intelligence organisation. He is sent into Northern Ireland to recover a file that vanished over twenty years ago by an aborted US operation. In so doing he runs into his former girlfriend, Deidre and her brother (and close friend) Liam Mellows. Mellows is an IRA enforcer on the run from both the Provisionals as well as the RUC following a rumour that he's become an informer. Valentine recovers the file and soon discovers that its contents are very sensitive and linked to some shady US Government types. He and Mellows go on the run pursued by a conglomerate of vicious acronyms consisting of CIA, RUC, IRA as well as Valentine's own organisation the MRU. Aided by a veteran smuggler Regan, they flee Ireland in Valentine's old trawler and head off into the North Sea. Not only are they pursued by a stealthy freighter but by a battering storm that would test George Clooney's sea-faring abilities to the limit. The real theme of the book is how friendships can survive when they are forged in the brutal world of death and treachery that forms the world of espionage and covert war. The story is told in first person which allows the cynicism of Valentine to flow and contrast abrasively with the brutality that he has seen in his life. The characters are well delineated and the skulduggery plausible in the world that Eion McNamee creates. The title is a nice play on 'crossing' which signifies more than just the journey from Ireland to the UK, and the US Dimension adds that edge of paranoia making the fingers sweat a little more on the triggers. The conclusion is full of pyrotechnics and gives the tale a cathartic flourish after much brutality and violence. Highly recommended and John Creed is a name to watch out for - if you like deeply character driven espionage tales.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Beats Me

Many years ago I discussed with a renowned bookseller about the most peculiar occurrences at his store, but nothing he told me beats this from Maryland thanks to Sarah Weinman’s Twitter Feed

The Maryland State Police arrested and charged a 34-year-old Pennsylvania man Monday evening for indecent exposure and disorderly conduct at the Barnes and Noble bookstore, in the Francis Scott Key mall.

At about 6:15 p.m., a trooper was dispatched to the Barnes and Noble for a report of a man masturbating and exposing his genitals in the store, a report stated.

When the trooper arrived, the suspect, later identified as Roger George Andras, of Gettysburg, Pa., attempted to walk by the trooper and leave, police stated.


Andras was ordered to stop but continued to walk away until the trooper took him into custody, police stated.

This world at times Beats Me....

Friday, December 12, 2008

2008 Cherry Poppers

Jeff Pierce [my editor at The Rap Sheet] has ‘tagged me’ to reveal some of my favourite 2008 reads by writers ‘new’ to me, and also to highlight debuts [with an *asterisk]. I went a tad off-tangent writing instead about ‘Breakthrough Novels’ as it was a little easier to recall them.

I must admit that I wish I kept better records of my reading; so this is going to be ‘off the top of my head’ – so here goes.

[Photo : Bob Crais reading Stav Sherez's debut novel 'The Devil's Playground']

Money Shot, by Christa Faust (Hard Case Crime) – Tipped by Sarah Weinman
*Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (Simon and Schuster UK) – Tipped by Lee Child
Robbie’s Wife by Russell Hill (Hard Case Crime) – Tipped due to an Edgar Nom
*Bait by Nick Brownlee (Little Brown) – Tipped by the publisher
*
Therapy by Sebastian Fitzek (Macmillan) – Tipped by crimeficreader
*Shock and Awe by David Isaak (Macmillan) – Tipped by Jeff Pierce
The Calling by Inger Ash Wolfe (Transworld) – Tipped by Linda Richards

All these novels rocked my world and were from authors I had never read prior to receiving recommendations – and interestingly I have indicated who tipped me off about the book.

As much as I love discovering new writers who rock my world, it means I have to keep up with their output which in itself is a challenge. The writers above all made a huge impression on me.

Now the secondary problem is the boxes of books that I have not been able to read for whatever reason, of which time being the main issue. So with a break over Christmas, I hope to clear some of my backlog, as well as escape the economic gloom that pervades reality.

So now I am going to Tag - Linda Richards and Sarah Weinman to give us your new[-to you] writer discoveries [unless you have already been tagged, you are on next].

Bringing the House Down

The US Auto Industry is going the way that the British Auto Industry went in the 1970's, but this time it could bring the house down. We just heard that the talks with the Auto men from Detroit and the US Government failed last night.

The result?

Market Crashes around the world as the US Auto Industry takes a long hard look at the reality of running out of road.

So what is happening?

I got this emailed to me from my brother in Singapore earlier this week, and is part of the problem in the game of Car Wars -

I saw something very amusing on TV last night on CNBC, the US Business TV channel.

In the evening here, they wrap up the news from Asia and Australia, and the also review the markets in Europe, and the then cross over the US for a pre-market update.

Anyway, they then went over to review the day from Sydney, and they interviewed an Aussie banker from Nomura Securities (Japanese Investment Bank) and the reporter asked this Australian guy, what was his opinion on the problems with GM, Chrysler and Ford.

The guy responded, "I will not give my opinion, but give you the facts, 1. They make crap cars, 2. No one wants to buy this crap, 3. These crap cars drive like a bag of spanners, 4. These crap cars all look hideous."

He said it with no emotion.

The shocked reporter then asked " you sound quite negative on the Detroit 3"

He then replied, " Would you drive a Dodge ?"

It was almost comical, if it was not so desperate


It looks like the US Auto Industry has hit the wall and the effect on the world is worrying, very worrying.


More Photos from gizmodo.com are available here

The Terror by Dan Simmons

My contribution to Patti Abbott’s Forgotten Books project is a book that I read two years ago, and was released in paperback last year. The reason why I have nominated such a recently published work, is that it did not make the kind of splash I had expected. It also is not a crime fiction novel, but a hybrid of the horror and adventure genre. I loved it, as it disturbed my sensibilities and made me look at the world slightly differently.

Two of my favourite films are ‘The Thing from Another World’ [1951] and its remake / reworking ‘John Carpenter’s The Thing’ [1982] which were based on a SF story ‘Who Goes There?’ by John W Campbell, all set in the Artic circle. So I was amused to read that Simmons dedicated his latest book to the cast, writers and directors of the 1951 film version. The reason for this dedication is that ‘The Terror’ shares the same theme, location and atmosphere to that frigidly terrifying movie. Simmons’ is a writer who I have followed for many years from his award-winning horror, science-fiction as well as his crime-thrillers. The Terror seems to be a culmination or apex to his work, and probably his most ambitious, because it is studiously researched, written in period flavour and rich beyond belief in terms of atmosphere. But this means that it is a whopping doorstop of a book weighing in at close to 800 pages.

The plot details a fictionalized account of a real British expedition in the 1840’s to find a northwest passage through to the Artic. Two ships set off - HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The cold and ice are only two of the terrors that the mariners face, for rotting food, disease, threat of mutiny and a howling creature trapped on the frozen ice start to cull the men on this unholy mission. The expedition is led by Captain Franklin [HMS Erebus] and Captain Crozier [HMS Terror] and interestingly features the class distinctions that were rife in those times. The most remarkable aspect of this novel is the style of writing and atmosphere. I had to turn the heating up when reading this book because it actually gave me real goosebumpy chills, reading about the icy cold weather that locked the ships to the ice. Then metaphysical chills appeared when the mariners leave the ships [when they become frozen to the ice], and encounter an Eskimo man and woman, who is mute as her tongue appears to have been sliced out. Then the sound of a monster out on the ice howls in concert with that of the wind. The mariners consider the Eskimo woman to be a witch drawing the monster on the ice toward them, but the mariners know that as their ships lie trapped in the ice of the polar cap – there can be no escape.

Despite its length, and heavy use of description, it moves at a fair pace but the most critical aspect is the atmosphere of impending doom that starts from page one and is unrelenting. I’d say this has to have been a labour of love for Simmons in inventing a fate for the two lost ships in their unholy journey, because it has pathos and mystery. If you want a book to trap you for more than a few hours, with an unconventional plot, the ‘The Terror’ is just that book. But I know that your heating bill will increase when you crack the spine of this hefty tome, because the chills in this book are real .

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Existential Issues of Time Travel

I just love novels and films that feature time travel.

When it comes to time-travel novels Dean Koontz’s Lightning and Time Thieves are both excellent, so I was pleased to see Dick Adler point out T.J. MacGregor’s Running Time a writer and novel that had missed my radar. And don’t get me started on Philip K Dick’s contribution to this subgenre.

Of course when it comes to existential musings on time travel, there are classics such as Jack Finney’s Time and Again, Richard Matheson’s Somewhere In Time, or perhaps Ray Bradbury’s timeless [forget the pun] A Sound of Thunder among others such as H G Wells’ The Time Machine.

It was of course cinema and TV that took up the time travel theme strongly. Harlan Ellison’s Soldier and Demon with a Glass Hand became Outer Limits Classic episodes. Ellison was also given a credit on James Cameron’s The Terminator a movie that explored a similar theme as did its sequels. Time Travel attracted the blockbuster types with Back to the Future and even Bill Murray got in on the act. Time Travel also appealed to the low budget film-makers, which my favorites are the 1997 curio Retroactive, the Jean Claude Van Damme cerebral actioner Timecop and the deeply existential and troubling The Jacket – These three lesser known movies are well worth exploring if you require challenge in your thinking about time. There are many other fine examples of this sub-genre, including Donnie Darko, The Planet of The Apes film sequence [pictured at the top], the best episodes of Star Trek as well as several other examples.

So with time, not in my hands, but in my mind I was excited to hear about the upcoming movie Timecrimes [Los Cronocrimenes] from Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo. The director spoke to the LA Times recently -

Vigalondo shot the movie in northern Spain, where he grew up -- and where he received funding. "You have to shoot where you are given the money," he says. "The problem came with the weather. We had a hurricane in the middle of the night, and it destroyed all the sets. We had to start it all again."Despite the movie being his passion, the filmmaker says he won't be involved with an American version of "Timecrimes." The rights to it have already been sold, with director David Cronenberg and producer Steve Zaillian attached.That's fine with Vigalondo. "I don't want to go back in time and make the film again," he says, laughing.

Nacho Vigalondo was also interviewed at SF website IO9 –

Why did you want to make a movie about time travel?

I'm a devoted science fiction fan. I'm really into that kind of stuff from novels to films. Into the genre of science fiction this sort of genre, time travel it was one of the most challenging genres you can work. Because you can not repeat the same thing that has been done already you're forced to be original. And at the same time you have to work on scary stuff that is funny at the same time. This for me is the quest that is making this kind of film.

What kind of science fiction inspired you to write this type of film?

For example my inspiration from this film came from the books of Philip K Dick and other writers that took it to the edge. But as far as movies the movie I have on my laptop all the time is Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock. Most of his films they have situations that are both pretty dark but also pretty silly. The Birds is a movie that can be a pretty dark horror film but at the same time it is a comedy because it's about birds attacking people. But if you're looking for closer examples to this type of film I must say that I was in love with Twelve Monkeys when it first came out. I love that kind of structure and I love that kind of film and I was impressed with how it was such a depressing tale but the whole thing was filled with jokes.

Read More

See the Timecrimes trailer here



Timecrimes has won several international awards and is one that I am watching out for as it missed my initial radar sweep.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Forrest that will be Missed -


I just got word from a contact in Los Angeles that a legend in the Horror and SF world just passed away. As a young SF / Horror reader this has hit me hard, especially as I loved the work of writer Ray Bradbury, a man most associated with the Forry-Monster, [as Fangoria Magazine liked to call Forrest J. Ackerman]. He remains a legend to golden-age readers of SF, Horror, Comics and Monster Magazines. As a young teenager, Forrest Ackerman’s creation ‘Vampirella’ from Warren Publishing was required reading. I’ll miss his contribution to the genre and his impact on my young imagination.

I’ll leave it to John Rogers of the Associated Press to detail Ackerman’s passing

Forrest J Ackerman, the sometime actor, literary agent, magazine editor and full-time bon vivant who discovered author Ray Bradbury and was widely credited with coining the term "sci-fi," has died. He was 92.

Ackerman died Thursday of heart failure at his Los Angeles home, said Kevin Burns, head of Prometheus Entertainment and a trustee of Ackerman's estate.
Although only marginally known to readers of mainstream literature, Ackerman was legendary in science-fiction circles as the founding editor of the pulp magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. He was also the owner of a huge private collection of science-fiction movie and literary memorabilia that for years filled every nook and cranny of a hillside mansion overlooking Los Angeles.
"He became the Pied Piper, the spiritual leader, of everything science fiction, fantasy and horror," Burns said Friday.

Every Saturday morning that he was home, Ackerman would open up the house to anyone who wanted to view his treasures. He sold some pieces and gave others away when he moved to a smaller house in 2002, but he continued to let people visit him every Saturday for as long as his health permitted.
"My wife used to say, 'How can you let strangers into our home?' But what's the point of having a collection like this if you can't let people enjoy it?" an exuberant Ackerman told The Associated Press as he conducted a spirited tour of the mansion on his 85th birthday.

His collection once included more than 50,000 books, thousands of science-fiction magazines and such items as Bela Lugosi's cape from the 1931 film "Dracula."

His greatest achievement, however, was likely discovering Bradbury, author of the literary classics "Fahrenheit 451" and "The Martian Chronicles." Ackerman had placed a flyer in a Los Angeles bookstore for a science-fiction club he was founding and a teenage Bradbury showed up.

Later, Ackerman gave Bradbury the money to start his own science-fiction magazine, Futuria Fantasia, and paid the author's way to New York for an authors meeting that Bradbury said helped launch his career.


"I hadn't published yet, and I met a lot of these people who encouraged me and helped me get my career started, and that was all because of Forry Ackerman," the author told the AP in 2005.

Later, as a literary agent, Ackerman represented Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and numerous other science-fiction writers – Read the rest


Read More as this sad news gets sent around the globe –
Forrest J Ackerman, writer-editor who coined 'sci-fi,' dies at 92
Los Angeles Times Blog

Friday, December 5, 2008

A RETURN TO SHUTTER ISLAND


As part of Patti Abbot’s Friday Book Project, I thought I’d talk a little about a favorite book of mine. It was a novel that really divided opinion. Using a British term, this novel is what we would term a ‘Marmite’ read. Some readers hated it, while others loved it. I think it’s time to revaluate it, rediscover it and understand the horrors of the reality we may live in. Reality is something that troubles me, and yes this book is Existential with a capital E.

Considering all the hullabaloo about Dennis Lehane’s ‘The Given Day’; let’s consider the book he published five years ago, the one before his Boston historical opus. This book was originally optioned for film by Wolfgang Petersen, but is now currently in production from Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio and re-titled ‘Ashcliffe’.

I am of course referring to “sHUTteR iSLaNd” by Dennis Lehane a novel that still haunts me and one that I nominated as one of my Favourite reads in January Magazine’s best of 2003 selection.

When Shutter Island’s release was announced in late 2002; I got very excited as I just love thrillers set in mental institutions, featuring the deranged. A great deal of my fascination with all things mental is due to my father being an psychiatrist [now retired]. My father is always amused at my fascination with Dr Hannibal Lecter, and the works of Thomas Harris. ‘Shutter Island’ looked like such a work that would appeal to my taste for thrillers featuring the mentally ill and deranged.

I recall that the US release by Morrow was planned for Easter 2003, while the UK publishers Transworld would not be releasing it until the autumn of the same year. I managed to organise a copy of a US Proof from my contact at Morrow [Lehane’s editor]; but by a fluke, another US contact of mine had somehow got a photocopy of Lehane’s manuscript [!] and as he owed me a huge favour airmailed it to me.

So as the Easter weekend approached I recall vividly that due to work constraints I was only able to have a few days off. My wife had decided to take to take our kids to Ireland to stay with her parents for a month [due to the stresses of a work project that had me away from home]. I prayed that one of the copies of Shutter Island would arrive for me to enjoy during my solitude over the Easter weekend. I needed the break from my day-job. So on the Wednesday night I took my wife and kids to the airport and returned home late. I was off work the following day, so I got up really early and brewed coffee and sat by my front door and awaited the postman. I reckoned by my calculations that at least one of the two copies of Shutter Island would arrive Thursday. I was worried as Friday was a public holiday, so there would be no post. I knew I’d drive myself demented for two days if the book didn’t arrive Thursday. When the doorbell rang, I sprang to attention and greeted the postman as if he were Lehane himself. Thanking the postman I grabbed the package and tore it open. Contained was a Xerox of Lehane’s manuscript. While I brewed coffee, I stared at the unbound pages and ran my fingers over the words as if it were the Rosetta Stone.

Then I sprawled onto my sofa and balanced the manuscript on my stomach and started to read it placing the spent-pages on the ground as I found myself lost within this very dark tale was just so hypnotic. When I finished I realized I had been crying. The plot featured the collapse of a marriage, and the ensuing madness that happens when people lose their minds. There were children also involved at the crux of the tale; and as a father myself [missing my wife and kids who were away], Lehane’s tale really upset me. The empty house was eerily quiet, with just me and this dangerous book and the thoughts it brought into my mind. The following day I wrote a review and emailed it to out. On the Saturday morning, the postman came with the Morrow proof copy of ‘Shutter Island’ and so what’s a man to do, but I read it again and again it made my head spin.

If you’ve yet to go to Shutter Island – here’s a guide -

Like the Hurricane that batters the island that gives this book its name, I feel battered and bruised by the complexity and ambition of this deeply disturbing novel. It starts simply enough with two US Marshals arriving on Shutter Island, an institution for the criminally insane off the coast of Boston. They have been assigned to find a missing inmate - a mysterious woman who murdered her children and was incarcerated for life at the facility. During their surreal investigation, it becomes difficult to distinguish the staff from the inmates. Rumours of mind control experiments with drugs as well as surgery abound, while all around a hurricane is gathering to smash at the facility. The journey that the two Marshals endure takes them right to the core of Shutter Island. They have to face up to the latent dark truths that lie waiting for them, hidden at the very top of the lighthouse which acts as a sentinel watching over the proceedings like an all-seeing eye.

Shutter Island is simply spoken my best read this year. This is all the more staggering in a year that has given us pure excellence from the crime/mystery genre. It is just amazing how Lehane snaps back the boundaries by combining the mystery genre with the sinister and paranoid world of Philip K Dick, and the whole question of reality, madness and evil. It is also deeply moving and written with a hallucinogenic almost hypnotic style. The structure of the novel is at times scary, at times worrying, and at times close to bringing you to tears, such is the beauty of his words. It is difficult to summarise the plot any further due to the problem of giving away the end.

The astute will listen to the crazy whispers that nibble at your earlobe throughout the book, but then the ending rips off your ear like the teeth of Mike Tyson. A robust and intricately structured story, full of insight and compassion about the dark side of the human dream, and a book that will really divide Lehane fans like a cleaver. Highly recommended for those who like challenge

One of the treats of Bouchercon Baltimore was finally meeting Dennis Lehane. I took time to thank him for all the pleasure and insight his work has given me over the years. I naturally told him how totally brilliant I consider ‘Shutter Island’. It was a magical moment. He recalled my letters I sent when he started out on his Patrick and Angie series in the 1990’s. The reason why he remembered my letters were the British stamps and my requests for signed bookplates [I mailed him each time a new book came out].

Afterward I was shaking and I remarked to fellow Boston thriller-writer Chris Mooney “I hope he doesn’t think I’m some kindda nut, like one of his characters from Shutter Island?” as I was conscious of gushing like a fan-boy. Mooney laughed, and replied “Ali, Lehane knows who you are.” In that moment I was completely Gone, Baby Gone.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Breaking Out

Having being tagged by Jeff Pierce my Editor at The Rap Sheet, for my favourite debut reads in 2008; I have to rely on my memory which is not really fair on my weary brain - so I will wait until tomorrow to allow me to check my BRP [Been Read Pile] later tonight.

Jeff’s tagging started me to think about debut novels, as well as ‘breakout’ novels. Most debut work by definition could be considered a ‘breakout’ novel. While there are some debut novels that just don’t sell, and these are not ‘breakout’ novels, so the writer then needs to take a hard cold look at what he/she is doing. The term breakout is one which causes a novelist to move in a different direction due to one particular books success in finding a readership or tapping into the Zeitgeist. With the dreadful state of publishing currently; I know some ‘mid-list’, or ‘starting-out’ writers are fearful of the road ahead. Without a breakout, their careers maybe under threat as things are not cool these days.

Then I also started to think about why some of these ‘break-out’ books changed an author’s direction, or didn’t in Jeff Deaver’s case. In David Morrell’s case, his debut haunted his future career [forcing him to work under the shadow of a creation who grew larger than its creator]. While for Joe Finder and Lee Child their breakout novels defined their future direction completely, with Finder writing high-tech business thrillers merging a techno-thriller with an espionage motif. While Child hit the Zeitgeist and found a huge audience [after a decade of hard work] with his loner Jack Reacher.

In the case of the last of my selected five breakout novels, The Straw Men even caused its author to truncate his name, though didn’t cramp his style in the genre that made his name.

Naturally there are many such great examples of ‘breakout novels’, but these five thrillers I've selected still haunt this reader today, and I recommend them very highly, very highly indeed.

Jeffery Deaver – GARDEN OF BEASTS [2004]
The reason why I respect Deaver’s work is that he experiments with the genre; producing audacious thrillers such as the award winning ‘Garden of Beasts’ which is a love letter to the golden age thriller epitomised by Maclean, Household and Ambler. This tale of espionage set against a Nazi backdrop defines the word thriller, because it thrills and is my favourite from his body of work. That says something, because Deaver is an exceptional thriller writer. I am so pleased that I witnessed Deaver win the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for Garden of Beasts in 2004. I have over the years bugged Deaver to write a follow-up, but he advised me that the change of direction in ‘Garden of Beasts’ was not commercially successful, even though it was the novel he’s most proud of. In fact we both consider that it will be the book he’ll be most remembered for. It is therefore a critical breakout novel, but not a commercial breakout.

David Morrell – FIRST BLOOD [1972]
I call David Morrell the ‘Daddy’ of the contemporary thriller. His debut ‘First Blood’ created an icon, but his talent is spread across the horror genre, espionage as well as thriller novels with many traversing genres such as his latest ‘The Spy Who Came For Christmas’; but it will always be this opening line "His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing by the pump of a gas station." That hit a nerve and broke him out from academia into commercial fiction.

Joseph Finder - PARANOIA [2004]
Joe Finder has carved himself a niche in writing thrillers set against the high-tech corporate world. It all started with ’Paranoia’ which features executive slacker Adam Cassidy agreeing to a Faustian pact to spy on a hi-tech rival computer company mixing the hip with the violent. An absolutely superb novel that had me at times on the edge of my seat, and other times laughing out loud. It proved to be Finder’s breakout novel, and if you’ve not read it, then may I urge you to do so.

Lee Child – KILLING FLOOR [1997]
Lee Child is well into his tenth decade as a published writer. The angry and claustrophobic ‘Killing Floor’ introduced his ex-MP investigator Jack Reacher and his altruistic journey across America. With each chapter, we see the vista broaden, but it is this debut that still electrifies as it is such an angry work. Jack Reacher is the classic loner looking in, and who helps those who can’t defend themselves. Stashed between the words, Child shows a hidden liberal value-system beneath the gleam of gun-metal. Lee Child is Britain’s greatest literary export since Ian Fleming, and Killing Floor broke him out.

Michael Marshall – THE STRAW MEN [2001]
As a crime writer [as opposed to Smith’s SF / Horror], Micheal Marshall introduced us to his ‘The Straw Men’ trilogy which gave the serial killer novel a big shot in the arm. Loosely based on a theory about mankind’s evolution and how killing people by a covert sect becomes an unholy purpose. John Zandt, an ex-LA homicide cop and partner Nina and CIA operatives Ward Hopkins and Bobby find themselves in the centre of this conspiracy. The adventure continues with ‘The Lonely Dead’ and the surreal ‘Blood of Angels’, however it was the shocking revelations behind the origins of The Straw Men and the link to humanity that terrified me in the debut work of the same title.

If the global economic woes are getting you down, flick your mouse to an online bookseller and grab one of these five novels and escape reality for a while. When you put the book down, trust me, your own woes will feel much lighter.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Chill Wind Blows


I spent as much money as I could afford on books at Bouchercon [Baltimore Book Room on Right] in October, and I'm out buying again, as we all need to do.

As much as I hate to pass on grim news, but the situation in publishing is chilly indeed, so really see if you can offer books as festive presents. Books make the best gifts as novelist Linda Richards eloquently puts it –

A book makes the perfect gift. Unlike a refrigerator, freezer, a barbecue or even something relatively small like a carpet shampooer or a ferret, books are quite painless to give.A book -- even a big one -- fits neatly into a symmetrical package. The flat sides of a book make it easy to wrap -- even an inelegant book looks elegant when it’s nicely packaged up -- and easy to stow until the time comes to give it away. All of this makes it a painless present to store, prepare and -- finally -- to give.

If you want further proof of the current state of US Publishing, then Publishers Weekly has this grim news -

Total sales for the nation's three largest bookstore chains fell 6.3% for the quarter ended November 1, with revenue falling to $1.93 billion. For the first nine months of the year, total sales were down 3.6%, and there is a strong chance that, for the first time since Barnes & Noble, Borders and Books-A-Million came to dominate the bookstore market, total sales for the three companies will fall for the full year. All three chains blamed a decline in customer traffic for the drop in sales, with sales particularly slow in September and October. Booksellers are certainly not alone in reporting declining retail sales. Last Wednesday, the Commerce Department reported that consumer spending fell by 1% in October, the biggest decline since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

While in the UK we have mixed news as reported by BookBrunch

There is good news and bad news from Book Marketing Ltd's timely report Book Lovers and the Economic Downturn, due out on 12 December. Book lovers say that they will spend less than usual on Christmas presents this year, that they will buy fewer books on impulse, and that they are likely to turn to cheaper sources of books than specialist bookshops. But some book lovers say that they are more likely to buy books in the current economic climate, and that they will reduce their spending on other products before cutting down on book buying.


You can make a difference – Books are the best presents so get your friends reading

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Answering one of life’s big questions


One aspect of life that has troubled me since a child has been, what the hell happened to Charlie Croker and his criminal cabal at the end of the 1969 caper movie “The Italian Job” ?

Well as we approach the films 40 year anniversary, we may have the answer thanks to insights from Sir Michael Caine [who played Charlie Croker], the film’s screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin [who incidentally also wrote the existential anti-war movie ‘Kelly’s Heroes’] and of all places, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). The solution to this intriguing existential puzzle is indicated at The Rap Sheet today.

But remember, according to Quincy Jones, this is a self preservation society and on days like these, it’s great to answer these key questions behind our existence.

Drawing © 2008 Jon Edwards from The Royal Society of Chemistry

Horror Returns to British Shores

As someone who enjoys the World of Horror Fiction, I am pleased to report that the genre is back with a vengeance. Recently Rap Sheet reported that J. A. [Joe] Konrath has written a horror novel under the pen name Jack Kilborn. Elsewhere the vampire novel is making in-roads into the teenage reading market, R L Stine continues to terrify our youngsters, including my ten-year old daughter; so I was excited to get an email from Stephen Jones about Horror coming to British Shores. Incidentally Jones’ annual Horror Collection #19 has just been released in Paperback and is well worth grabbing for some festive chills.



From Stephen Jones -

To celebrate its 20th Anniversary, The World Horror Convention will be held over March 25-28, 2010, in the historic Victorian seaside city of Brighton, on the picturesque south coast of England. This is the first time that the event will have been held off the North American continent. The theme will be "Brighton Shock! - A Celebration of the European Horror Tradition from Victorian Times to the Present Day", and the convention will host numerous panels, talks, presentations, readings, workshops and displays devoted to horror, macabre, mystery and thriller fiction and art in all its varied and fearsome forms.

The World Horror Convention's prestigious Grand Master Award will also be presented at a sit-down Banquet during the weekend. Past recipients have included Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, Anne Rice, Ray Bradbury, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Brian Lumley and Ramsey Campbell.

The venue will be the historic Royal Albion Hotel, which dates back more than 180 years and is situated directly opposite Brighton's iconic Palace Pier and a stone's throw from the beach. There are plenty of alternative hotels and Bed & Breakfasts in the immediate surroundings, catering for all budgets, and Brighton is filled with restaurants, wine bars and clubs. Antiquarian shopping precinct The Lanes, the Sea Life Centre and the world-famous Royal Pavilion are also within easy walking distance. Brighton has direct transport links from Gatwick International Airport and the centre of London, and is easily accessible for overseas visitors, especially those from mainland Europe. And if you want to extend your stay, then Britain's annual National Science Fiction Convention, Odyssey 2010, isbeing held near to Heathrow airport the following weekend.

Come for World Horror and stay for Eastercon! Attending membership is currently just £50.00 UK pounds. This will rise incrementally during the run-up to the convention, so the sooner you join the cheaper it is! And with foreign exchange rates so strong against the pound at the moment, this represents a big saving for overseas attendees who book soon.

All information about the convention, hotel and location is available on our website including an easy to use PayPal Registration Form (which will automatically convert your payment at the current exchange rate). Or you can print off the form and send it with a cheque (sterling only) to: World Horror Convention, PO Box 64317, London NW6 9LL, England. Over the coming months we will be announcing an exciting line-up of Guests of Honour and information about how to book hotel rooms, along with regular updates via the website and our exclusive RSS feed.

With numerous writers, artists, editors, publishers and booksellers expected to attend from all over the world, this is the one event that the dedicated horror fan, author or collector cannot afford to miss!

Wish you were here? . . .

Well, now you can be.

WORLD HORROR CONVENTION.

MARCH 25-28, 2010.

BRIGHTON, ENGLAND.


I'll see you guys there as it's been a while since I've been to a Horror Convention

Monday, December 1, 2008

Burning Bridges

One Film that I love and watch at least once a year is Brian G Hutton’s “KELLY’S HEROES” – The 1970’s antiwar movie which does have a slight existential air. I wrote about it at The Rap Sheet last year in a post about British screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin.

One aspect of this movie is the superb and melancholic theme song, written and sung by Mike Curb and his Congregation. If the economic woes have you starting the week a little down in the mouth, click the link below and cheer yourself up.




A great song and movie if you need to be cheered up

Sunday, November 30, 2008

French Existential Novels Suffer

[Right : The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette Published by Serpents Tail]

I am alarmed to see that the woes of the global economy which have reached Publishing, have now spread to the shores of the Seine reports The Guardian from London.

They salvaged books from raids on aristocrats' libraries during the French revolution and hid resistance material during the Nazi occupation. Paris's bouquinistes - the hundreds of booksellers whose open-air stalls along the river Seine carry Unesco world heritage status - have survived four centuries of censorship, floods and political upheaval. But now they are under threat from a new enemy: cheap, plastic Eiffel towers.

Bouquinistes' sales have dived as their carefully collected stocks of rare and out-of-print books face competition from online dealers and a change in Parisians' reading and shopping habits. Many now sell tourist trinkets to stay afloat, cramming their stalls with souvenirs.

But Paris city hall, alarmed that the garish knick-knacks are damaging Paris's "cultural landscape", has launched a battle to protect the literary soul of the banks of the Seine. Bouquinistes have been invited to crisis talks at the city hall in an attempt to promote more intellectual merchandise. But some warn that if they cannot adapt to the changing market they will "die of hunger".

The stalls stretch for about 2 miles along both banks of the Seine, and about 200 sellers offer more than 300,000 books in the biggest open-air bookshop in the world. Since the 16th century, they have attracted literary Parisians. But what Balzac described as "catacombs of glory" that devoured the time of "Paris's poets, philosophers and scholars" are now so stretched for trade that some complain that in winter they might make only €20 (£16.50) a day.


I wonder what Jean-Patrick Manchette and Albert Camus would have thought with the fall of the Bouquinistes

Read the full story here

The Surreal world of Jim Steranko


I am huge fan of the surreal artist / writer Jim Steranko, especially his run on Marvel Comics’ NICK FURY: AGENT OF SHIELD during the late 1960’s. Some of his art and concepts were existential, blurring the psychedelic imagery of the times by combining the drug sub-culture, the James Bond / The Man from Uncle / James Coburn’s Flint films and the counter-culture rock n’ roll roar. Some of Steranko’s best covers are available here

My own favourite Steranko cover [pictured right] is from Nick Fury, Agent of Shield #7 published in December 1968 and features a curious blend of Salvador Dali with a 1960’s high-tech espionage motif.

Have a look at more surreal Jim Steranko cover art here

Friday, November 28, 2008

'Salem's Lot [The Illustrated Edition] by Stephen King




Hodder and Stoughton's : ‘Salem’s Lot [The Illustrated Edition] by Stephen King

In the spirit of Patti Abbott’s Friday Forgotten book project, let me add Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot :The Illustrated Edition”, even if perhaps it is not forgotten by the legion of King’s readers.

This illustrated edition is beautifully bound and a substantial book, and does justice to one of the finest novels of terror I’ve ever read. Making it additionally special is the new introduction and afterword by King, we also get some previously deleted scenes that didn’t make the original version. Unlike the re-issue of ‘The Stand’, these deleted scenes are not re-instated into the novel but appear as vignettes of which the gory rat-attack is an interesting piece [which was removed from the original text as the US publishers considered it to visceral]. Also included are the short stories, ‘Jerusalem’s Lot’ and ‘One for the road’ which are related to the novel [and were originally published in his first short story collection ‘Night Shift’]. The icing on the cake however is the array of surreal photographs [by Jerry Uelsmann] that capture the tense sense of dread perfectly; making this illustrated edition a must for your shelf.

Re-reading this masterwork over twenty years later in this new edition proved to me the power of King’s writing. Not only does ‘Salem’s Lot stand the test of time, but it felt as fresh today as it did for me in 1975, when the horror genre was blossoming. An updating and sort of love-letter to Bram Stoker, we have a vampire tale rooted in contemporary America, that would soon become the structure and trademark for King’s future work. It should also be noted that for readers of King’s fantasy cycle ‘The Dark Tower’, ‘Salem’s Lot is required reading.

The novel is a claustrophobic tale of writer Ben Mears returning to his hometown Jerusalem’s Lot and has to confront the fear of The Marsten House, where a madman resided. Mears watches the town change when the mysterious Mr Barlow and Mr Straker arrive. Soon a young child is found dead, and then the town really changes as the dead come back to life. Mears befriends a young boy Mark Petrie who is fascinated by scary monsters and horror movies and soon they find themselves in the centre of some real-life terror. Mears and Petrie then realise that the town is overrun by vampires and that the sinister Mr Barlow and Mr Straker are at the epicentre of the evil, and decide to take action. The final sections of the novel lead up to a cliffhanger that shows that evil can hide in plain view and to destroy supernatural forces may not be easy, if not impossible. This is nightmare inducing fiction, and I believe in future decades the novel - ‘Salem’s Lot will be become as infamous as Stoker’s Dracula.

Such is the power of this novel, that it went onto be filmed to great effect with David Soul and James Mason in 1979 as a TV Miniseries, and a sequel followed in 2004 featuring Rob Lowe. But you really must read the source material to understand its true power and this edition from Hodder & Stoughton is in my opinion the definitive edition of this wonderful book.

May the King never be forgotten.

Maslin's 2008 Top Ten Picks




Laura Lippman and Dennis Lehane at Bouchercon Baltimore


So first of all can I wish all of you a Happy Thanksgiving Day – and trust you all enjoy The Given Day; which is a subtle way of indicating that NYT’s Janet Maslin has listed Dennis Lehane’s opus THE GIVEN DAY as one of her top 10 reads of 2008

THE GIVEN DAY by Dennis Lehane. Shades of Doctorow and Dreiser color this fierce, sweeping historical drama, set in 1919 and told by the bard of Irish Boston. Mr. Lehane, the author of “Mystic River,” outdoes himself with something even bigger than a great detective tale.

Click here to discover the other nine books she’s selected.

I have a real passion for Dennis Lehane’s work and was so delighted to finally meet him in person at Bouchercon in Baltimore in October with my friend Roger Jon Ellory. Note that Lehane’s The Given Day is his first novel since the mind-altering Shutter Island.

Also for fans of Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro PI thrillers, you will be pleased to hear of this news.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

An Outsider Looking in




The Importance of Crime and Thriller Fiction
by Ali Karim

A little while back Kevin Burton Smith wrote an interesting piece on the
Akashic’s Toronto Noir collection, which provoked thought especially as it touched upon that old chestnut – literary vs. genre. Kevin wrote this line “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, “transcend.” The line is used to describe literary writers and their ability [or lack of ability] to write within the framework of the crime genre. It seems that people often used the term ‘transcend’ when describing a work that reaches above the confines of a genre. As Kevin stated in his piece, it may well be considered a ‘slight’ upon the very genre they purport to have transcended. Crime and Thriller fiction is the genre that probably unravels the human condition better than any other, due to it exploring the eternal struggle between the good and evil that lurks within us all.

I thought about the crime fiction genre when I struggled to understand my own obsessive fascination with Stieg Larsson’s work, especially the soon to be released Vol II of his Millennium series “The Girl Who Played With Fire”, Kevin’s article bounced around in my head. A line from Albert Camus came into my mind, a line that helped put these thoughts into some sort of context. Camus stated that "A novel is never anything, but a philosophy put into images." This line put some perspective into my thoughts, especially as Larsson’s journalism work was slanted toward revealing the evils of Neo-Nazism, as well the levels of brutality inflicted upon the most vulnerable in society, such as women, dispossessed, the marginalized, minorities and the underprivileged. Some of Larsson’s thoughts naturally found themselves into his novels as the line from Camus indicated. When looking at human beings we find that when we’re good, we can be truly remarkable, but when we’re bad, we can be horrifically evil. Recently I have been re-reading, and reminding people about the terrible events that occurred in Germany 70 years ago between 7th to 9th November 1938. These horrific events we refer to as ‘Kristallnacht’. In fact while at Bouchercon in Baltimore, Roger Ellory and I visited and paid our respects to the Holocaust Memorial. As human beings, when we are bad, we can be evil in the extreme as those events, and many other shameful events in the history of mankind illustrate.

So as I sat down to write my review of Larsson’s follow-up to ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, I got into some debate on the 4-MA mystery group where there is spilt opinion onto the merits of Larsson’s debut novel. I also realize that at times I come across as a reader / reviewer who gets somewhat excitable on certain books. So I decided to do a little navel gazing, and delve into why I am fascinated by crime and thriller fiction so much, and why I read and write obsessively. What resulted was an email post at 4-MA that grew into a long essay, and one that I realized I actually wrote for myself. However I posted it anyway, and then when I read it back, as well as receiving feedback from the 4-MA gang, I decided to re-edit and submit it to Jeff Pierce at The Rap Sheet. So before I write my review of Millennium II and publish the insights from Stieg Larsson’s father, I thought I’d write about why some books haunt me and make me want to tell the whole world about them.

I guess I spend a lot of time contemplating life, death and society, from the mirror that is crime / thriller fiction; that's why existential work strikes such a resonance in my psyche. I guess I am always looking for meaning, or purpose in the sheer randomness [or absurdity] of our existence. Every so often a line, a paragraph or perhaps a whole book has such insight. I consider as human beings, we are deeply flawed as I previous mentioned. Therefore crime / thriller fiction is a perfect art form to view [and reflect] the human condition; as crime novels link the good and bad within us all. The best fiction novels of crime offer the reader to take his/her own side of the moral compass. There are some novels that really help you understand the sheer comedy and tragedy of our existence. Larsson’s Vol II falls into this bracket. These books I consider as [quoting George Easter of Deadly Pleasures Magazine] "WoW Books"; as they are books that transcend entertainment, but not genre.

Of the two books from Larsson that I've read, he does provide a moral framework in his narrative. He examines evil but often that evil is banal and relates to the unleashing of base emotions released from moral constraints. I know that the Salander character irritates at times, as she is such a misfit, but like Camus' main character in The Outsider, perhaps we're all 'outsiders' looking in. Even beneath the gun-fetish world of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels; we find that Reacher is an outsider looking in. The best crime fiction in my opinion features an outsider as a protagonist looking inward, and reporting what he/she uncovers and then restoring order. In Larsson's Vol II, the unsocial and mentally unstable misfit, Lizabeth Salander is let loose to do what she does best. Salander’s story is just so hypnotic; I still think about it often as it does what all important art does, provoke thought and ignite passion, and therefore spilt opinions. No one is right in saying that Larsson's work is brilliant equally no one is right in stating that it is rubbish - but isn't it wonderful to have such strong opinions. ‘The Girl Who Played With Fire’ has a great story; it provokes thought about our motivations and how some people can't control their more bestial instincts. It also raises the perennial question how some men, allow their baser needs to harm others. You can get books that are worthy but boring, or irrelevant, but Vol II is a great story, filled with interlocking and quirky characters, but striated across the narrative is meaning, but this 'meaning' is so hidden from view that it permeates from between the lines, the paragraphs and makes one examine ourselves closely. Hey, I know that makes Larsson’s work sound so 'worthy', but his novels are very fine reads in themselves; the insights he reveals about our natures’ should be considered as a bonus. Larsson's insight into existence by way of a crime thriller - is most interesting. It is also hugely cathartic, as it is good to have the bad guys dispatched, when in real life, that often does not happen. But it often takes an outsider to carry out that retribution and restoration of order, that's why characters such as Jack Reacher, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Tom Ripley, Philip Marlowe, Harry Bosch, Nick Stefanos, Lew Archer, Patrick Kenzie, Spenser, John Rambo, et. al. are required - because that's what they do best, just like Lisabeth Salander [to restore order]. To defeat the grotesque evils these outsiders uncover require often employing the same tactics of the 'Bad'. That is why in all of us, we have the latent ability to be 'Bad'. You only have to read Ruth Rendell or Patricia Highsmith to see that. When I first read 'Gone Baby Gone' by Dennis Lehane I was shattered. I put the book down, brewed more coffee and sat in the 4am silence and thought, contemplated, and deliberated the moral dilema the book posed. I still often contemplate the moral dilemma that lies at the heart of that story, and why it caused a rift between Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. That book transcended the medium [not the genre] that it was crafted from. John Connolly's THE UNQUIET is another unsettling book, and one that makes us view our own lives through a prism. Shutter Island by Lehane also did that, but many got irritated by the mechanism of that particular prism.

Several French novels often deploy these themes, as in France, crime fiction is often lauded as a legitimate art-form as opposed to a 'guilty pleasure' as it is in the UK and US. Two years ago, I spent two weeks over Christmas in Ireland with my family. Despite saying that I loved spending time with my kids, wife, relations etc etc, the real treat [if i am truly honest] was discovering Jean-Patrick Manchette, and reading two remarkable novels by him -The Prone Gunman and Three to Kill - These two novels still resonate in my mind. Both are slim and pithy tales, and each can be read in a few hours, but those hours spent have given me many more hours of contemplation [and I mean many, many further hours]. The stories and characters still haunt me. They are Existential with a capital 'E'. Both these novels have a very strange way of looking at life and death as well as love. I can not recommend them highly enough. And as for Derek Raymond’s Factory Novels, well reading them is like becoming a rabbit trapped forever in the headlights of an oncoming truck. Just don’t look for a warm feelgood ambience when you put them down, as they will haunt you and make you question what you see around you.

I must warn those of a more sensitive disposition that Raymond, as well as Manchette's work is brutal, and very violent. But who ever said that when we internally inspect our inner-self, it would be pleasant because of the flaws within ourselves [if we are truly honest]. It's not pretty looking into who we are, because for us to have escaped from the cave, we would have to have traits that in a civilized society can raise real issues.

I guess I read so much; write so much; and observe life, trying to find out more about myself and the world that surrounds me. Every so often I discover something from the viewpoint of another person that makes me challenge my own thinking, and makes me look at the world in a different way. Larsson does that for me. He challenges me, and makes me see things from the prism of his mind, not mine. I used to work in the Middle-East in shipping [during the first Iran / Iraq war], and spent a lot of time on massive crude oil and chemical ships that went through the Straits of Hormuz. It gave me a lot of time to meet mariners from all points of the globe, and to think about life and death. I also read crime fiction furiously. I was young at the time, so not as scared being in a war-zone, as I would be now [in the same situation]. As the years roll on, life becomes so much more precious. I recall with clarity reading all night, and then watching the sun rise on the deck of a ship in the Arabian Gulf; putting my book down [‘The Silence of the Lambs’ by Thomas Harris] and then seeing the sun under a different light, from a very different viewpoint – precious, seeing the same stars as Clarice Starling. I have traveled around the world but wherever I travel, you will always find a book in my back pocket or my luggage. Being a bibliophile one insult often thrown at me since childhood has been –

"Reading is like experiencing the world second-hand".

It used to annoy me, but now, being older and hopefully a little wiser, I feel perhaps that I have a much more interesting outlook upon life, because I have seen it from so many different viewpoints. The most perceptive being the one from the edges of existence, like those viewed from a crime novel. The view from the crime fiction vantage point I find the most revealing about life and death. So now when confronted with the ‘living life second hand’ jibe, I reply coolly -

"Just because it's your viewpoint, doesn't make your view right; it's just another way of looking at it; in fact your own viewpoint is shaped by what has happened to you, your prejudices and agenda. Reading helps clean the lens that you view the world through as well shifting the angle of view.”

I read to live, and I live to read, because in my journey to try and understand what surrounds me and how I fit into this random chaos we term as life and the consequences of death - books are always my guide.

So what else could one ask for from one’s entertainment? And to add to my pretentious mood this morning I will quote Albert Camus again -

"After all manner of professors have done their best for us, the place we are to get knowledge is in books. The true university of these days is a collection of books."

That is why I spend so much time reading, and why I consider a life without books as meaningless, and why I get anxiety if not surrounded by books, and why crime thrillers reveal more about life than any other genre - In my very humble opinion [and I qualify that statement by making it clear that I do read widely, not just crime], in crime fiction I find all of life’s rich tapestry.

Oh, boy this is yet another exploration of me trying to understand why I have become so obsessed by the words of the late Stieg Larsson, and justifying myself on why certain books have knocked my viewpoint ever so slightly, and that is why books are dangerous, but dangerous in a good way - they alter the way that you think. Larsson's work does just that.

But remember that the sword cuts two ways as all totalitarian regimes burn books, because books are dangerous and in the wrong hands they can be used as tools of manipulation as evidenced by the term propaganda.

Even Politicians read, and those from the left have a greater leaning toward Crime and Thrillers.

I should delete this self-indulgent essay, as I only wrote it for myself; trying to justify and understand why I read crime fiction so obsessively; and why some novels I read make such a deep gash into my psyche. "The Girl Who Played with Fire" sits in my mind like a knife wound that won't heal. I apologize for inflicting my injury upon you – Ali Karim

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Global Economy Hits Publishing Hard


I indicated recently at The Rap Sheet that as readers, we need to support our publishing industry as the economic downturn is now hitting publishers and booksellers hard. Today, Publishers Weekly broke some ominous news

It’s been clear for months that it will be a not-so-merry holiday season for publishers, but at least one house has gone so far as to halt acquisitions. PW has learned that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has asked its editors to stop buying books.

Josef Blumenfeld, v-p of communications for HMH, confirmed that the publisher has “temporarily stopped acquiring manuscripts” across its trade and reference divisions. The directive was given verbally to a handful of executives and, according to Blumenfeld, is “not a permanent change.” Blumenfeld, who hedged on when the ban might be lifted, said that the right project could still go to the editorial review board. He also maintained that the decision is less about taking drastic measures than conducting good business.



Last week we heard that Random House, America’s largest trade publisher announced some chilling news

Random House Inc., the world's largest general-interest book publisher, has frozen its pension plan for current employees — and eliminated access to it for new hires.

"Effective Dec. 31, benefits in the Random House Inc. Pension Plan will no longer grow — but they will not be reduced," a spokesman for the publishing house, Stuart Applebaum, said in a statement to the Associated Press. He also said that effective January 1, no new employees will be enrolled in the Random House pension plan.


It is vital that we as readers, go out and buy books as presents during the holiday season, and yes I know we are all cash-strapped currently, but we must support the industry. The San Francisco Chronicle puts the problem into context here -

Elaine Katzenberger, executive director of City Lights Books in San Francisco, which operates both the bookstore and a publishing division, said she has seen the major chains begin to order fewer books.

"One side of the argument that I hear is that books are impervious to a recession because they're small purchases," Katzenberger said. "On the other side, though, you are aware that people are buying less of everything. So you look around and you're not feeling optimistic."

City Lights publishes 20 books a year and might have to scale back to 17 or 18 titles a year, she said.

Still, Katzenberger noted that with any downturn, there's always some upside.
Certain books seem to be benefiting from the white-knuckle economy. This week's Amazon.com best-sellers include the Warren Buffett biography "The Snowball"; Donald Trump's "Trump University Commercial Real Estate 101: How Small Investors Can Get Started and Make It Big"; and "I.O.U.S.A. One Nation. Under Stress. In Debt" by Addison Wiggin and Kate Incontrera.

Other books were not so well timed, including "Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Banker," published in August. The book jacket features a preppy banker in Hermes tie and French-cuff sleeves, seated at a desk littered with a wad of cash, Dom Perignon on ice, a Rolex and a statue of a charging bull.