Wikipedia tells me that between them, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have published 38 novels since 1995. (26 together, 5 and 7 apart, respectively.) And I like them. They’re entertaining, easy to read, and contain one unforgettable character: Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, a modern-day Sherlock Holmes with an inexhaustible supply of arcane knowledge and a Batman-like ability to escape from every deadly threat.
But putting out more than one book a year has its drawbacks. The publisher’s deadline is looming and you have to keep the pages coming – the three volumes in this trilogy contain close to 500 each – and that can lead to redundant text because there isn’t time to sit, think… and cut what isn’t needed. So there were several passages in all three that I skimmed; not because they were badly written – none of them are – but because I could see what was coming long before I got there.
Dance of Death is the best of the trilogy, with a ridiculously complex robbery scheme that only God could pull off without a hitch, but which is also great fun. The first, Brimstone, has a bloviating villain who grows rapidly tiresome. The Book of the Dead puts Pendergast in prison (great reading how he survives) but gives too much time to his Mad Evil Genius Mastermind of a brother.
My favourite Pendergast story remains Still Life With Crows. But that could change because there are another 11 of his adventures I haven’t read. A prospect that makes me very happy.
Despite the fact that I’ve listed Neal Stephenson as one of my favourite authors, I’m not a fan of everything he’s written. (The accomplishments of Zodiac, The Diamond Age and The Baroque Cycle continue to elude me.) But when I like his writing, it borders on idolatry, and Cobweb* was as wonderful the second time around as the first, fifteen years ago. The characters are fresh and memorable, the Iowa and Washington DC settings are vivid. But what I really liked was the way you – the reader – discover what’s going on at the same time as the main character in Iowa, a policeman running for election as Sheriff and just going about his daily rounds. And as he begins to notice things so you, the reader, notice them too. Without being boring for a second, the plot creeps up on you, wraps itself around you and pulls you along with it – until you’re saying to yourself, ‘Just one more chapter. Just one more.’
* He actually wrote this one with his uncle. Which might explain why it’s not the doorstop most of his novels are. A restraining hand on the tiller? Just a theory.
The publisher of my book Storm Horse called it a little old-fashioned, a comment I never quite understood. After all, it was set in 1966. What else was it going to be? But reading More Than This, I began to understand why. The teenagers in that book are victims of child abuse, drunken stepfathers, people-smugglers. They’re gay, black, Eastern European and being pursued by a remorseless, deadly technological something through a post-apocalyptic world they don’t know how they got to. The pace is relentless. It’s really difficult to put down, in part because whole pages go by packed with one sentence paragraphs that make it extremely easy to read. Storm Horse, by contrast, is a gentle story about a 12-year-old boy who rescues a horse and gains some self-respect. There’s hardly a one-sentence paragraph in sight.
I’m not apologizing for my book, but compared to something like More Than This, it is old-fashioned. No argument there. (And one I couldn’t be bothered to have anyway.) What I’m trying to get at is that More Than This is very definitely modern. It takes teens, and their lives and concerns, their fears and confusions, seriously. It places them in a world where bad things happen and a happy ending isn’t guaranteed. It acknowledges chaos.
It’s absolutely riveting.
Since the only person in the world who hasn’t heard of Dick Francis is probably my seven-month-old great-nephew Toby, I don’t need to say much more than that this is one of DF’s better horse-racing thrillers. Actually, the horses in this are more in the background than usual, since the main character is a film director making a film about racing. But the mystery’s clever, the hero likeable and the villains – as ever – just leap right off the page. If you like Dick Francis, you’ll like this.
I enjoyed all three of these books, but they reminded me of nothing so much as the Golden Age of detective fiction of the 1920s and 1930s, in which amateur sleuths solve puzzling whodunnits. Like the Golden Age stories the settings are comfortable, the characters middle to upper-class and the writing often self-consciously ‘literary’. (A female voice was raised in a reboant cantillation of obscene abuse. That one’s from Exit Lines.)
What that ‘reboant cantillation’ really says is: ‘Now don’t go getting upset. People have been murdered, yes, but there’s no harm done. Sit back and enjoy the view.’ It’s a warm and cuddly view of crime, in which the puzzle takes precedence over emotion. There’s none of the bleak insight of Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. There’s no understanding of how middle-class frustration can lead to murder, as in PD James’ Death of an Expert Witness. There aren’t any of the cruel, selfish, very modern forms of crime in Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks books.
Dalziel and Pascoe are well-drawn characters who meet other well-drawn characters in entertaining mysteries. But all three books step back from the blood and mess of murder, from greed, fear, stupidity and loneliness, and lives left broken in the wake of crime. They live in Cosyland, where nobody ever really gets hurt.
I’m willing to bet there are hundreds – possibly even thousands – of more scholarly tomes on the subject of the British Empire. I’m afraid they’re not for me. Books packed with footnotes and quotes make reading them feel like homework; I always think I should be taking notes and getting ready for a test.
Jeremy Paxman’s Empire is terrifically readable, packed with great stories, and not so long you despair of ever reaching the end. (It’s a shade under 300 pages.) He hasn’t written a hatchet job on the empire, nor a hurrah for it. It seems to me to walk comfortably between the two viewpoints. Although, and at the risk of revealing myself as a pinko libtard Bremainer, I like his lament for a post-WWII Britain that never worked out how to go forward without an empire.
And it really is so very, very readable.
This description of 24 hours in 1943 and the experiences of those involved – German and British – in one RAF bombing raid of a small German town is so detailed, so meticulously researched, and so well-written, that you’re pulled right into all the lives and events described. Whether it’s the RAF crews collecting their sandwiches and thermos flasks of tea, and boiled sweets – and then nervously, nervously, waiting – for take-off, or the panic in a burning hospital with the patients still trapped inside, or what happens when a fighter plane is struck by a flock of birds in flight, you not only see it, you can practically reach out and touch it.
And that detail never lets up. The pain and the fear and the suffering, the panic and frustration and exhaustion are so vividly rendered that you long for it all to stop… and yet you can’t stop reading. Which I think is probably the point. You, the reader, can’t escape what’s happening any more than the characters on the page can. By the time you reach the final page you’ve come to know everyone involved – in all their human pettiness, greed, bravery and desperation – so well, in fact, that their death or survival lingers in your mind long after the book goes back on the shelf. It packs as much of punch now – after my fourth reading – as it did when I first finished it in 1972. There are very few books I can say that about.