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All the Birds Singing is the winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin Literary Award, given to a book judged to be ‘of the highest literary merit’ which presents ‘Australian Life in any of its phases’. I don’t have a very good history with literary prize winning books, and I’ve only read one of the other five short-listed booksEyrie, by Tim Winton (and you can see my post on that book here). But I think this time they’ve got it right. I can’t really say I enjoyed the book, but I found it utterly compelling.

The structure of this book is crucial to its power. In the first chapter, we meet Jake Whyte, a young Australian woman living on her small sheep farm on an unnamed island off the British coast. She welcomes solitude and avoids the locals as much as possible, her only company being a dog called Dog. But something is killing her sheep. The second chapter takes the reader, quite without warning, back to a sheep station in Australia, where Jake is working as a shearer. The next chapter is back on the island, the next in Australia and so on. The chapters set on the island deal with Jake’s life there and her determination to protect her sheep. She is the narrator, and the story moves forward in time, though it is told in the past tense. She also narrates the chapters set in Australia, but in the present tense. These, however, move back in time. They tell how Jake comes to be working as a shearer, why she has fled to Britain and how she got the terrible scars on her back.

This structure was a little confusing at first, but I quickly came to feel that the story couldn’t have been told in any other way – surely the mark of excellent writing. Instead of spoiling the tension by revealing what has happened, the Australian chapters incrementally increase the tension as each chapter hints at what happened earlier, leaving the reader hungry to know more, and increasingly anxious about what they may find. It also increases the poignancy, with the reader knowing that some hopes and expectations are doomed to be unfulfilled, as their outcome has already been revealed. And it turns out there is every reason to be apprehensive.

You know right from the start that there is a lot of pain in this story – though I don’t know what the quote on the front cover, that ‘Wyld has a feel both for beauty and for the ugliness of inherited pain’, actually means. Inherited pain? But the eviscerated sheep on the first page isn’t a one off; there are animal deaths of one kind or another in nearly every chapter, as well as human misery. Jake gives animals feelings, often enough of panic or terror. Her personification of Dog, on the other hand, is one of the delights of the story, though it is also an illustration of her loneliness and alienation from human beings.

Some critics, and the Miles Franklin judges, see in the story ‘perhaps, some form of redemption,’ but I didn’t really find much comfort amidst the bleakness. As Jake says, ’Stupid to think it wouldn’t all fall to shit.’ The incident that sums up all the desolation for me is the one where she hits a kangaroo while driving. At first she thinks the animal is ok: ‘I laugh out loud at how wonderful life is that takes a hell of a knock like that and it’s just fine,’ she says. But it isn’t. The kangaroo is fatally injured, and she has to finish it off with a crowbar. I suppose the point is that she takes responsibility for what has happened, rather than just driving away and leaving the animal to die in pain. But then there are the circumstances in which Jake gets the wounds to her back. Can the reader feel any optimism for her after what happened? Again, maybe it is the responsibility she feels for the sheep in her care on the island that will be her salvation.

When I recently read and reviewed Victoria Hislop’s The Island, my immediate response was that it was not well written. This time, the language feels just right. What’s the difference? What is good writing? The Miles Franklin judges, and other critics, emphasise the ‘deceptive sparseness’ of the prose. I think it’s also that the tone is just right – or ‘perfect pitch’, as another reviewer called it. Jake speaks and thinks exactly as she should for who she is. Thinking about what makes some writing good and some just ordinary, I often fall back on John Carey’s definition of literature: ‘writing that I want to remember … those particular words in that particular order’. That sounds about right for this book.

Having said all that, there are still a few things that nag at me about the story. While the British chapters are continuous in time, the Australian chapters jump back irregularly, so it is sometimes hard to get a sense of how much time has passed between the events being described. The practical part of my brain wonders how Jake became such a competent shearer in what seems like a relatively short space of time. And even though the reader knows she has been left some money, how is she able to buy the British sheep farm? How did she even get a passport? If the story is, as has been claimed, a ‘moral fable’, maybe this level of social realism isn’t relevant, but I still can’t help wondering. I guess it’s because Wyld has made Jake such a real person for me.

You can read more about Evie Wyld here. This is her second book. I’ll take a deep breath and read the first one, but I might look for a little bit of light relief first.

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Peter Robinson is a very competent writer of police procedurals.  There are sixteen stories featuring DI Alan Banks before this one (2007), and three more after it. You can read my review of one of the newer Banks stories, Watching the Dark (2012), here. I enjoyed Friend of the Devil, but not as much as I usually do police procedurals. I don’t think this is Robinson’s fault; it’s rather that I’ve perhaps overdosed on the sort of story that seems a natural fit for the police procedural, and this one is a perfect example of it.

DI Banks works out of the imaginary town of Eastvale in Yorkshire. His former sergeant and occasionally on but mostly off again girlfriend, Annie Cabbot, now also Detective Inspector, has been seconded to a neighbouring force. Both are dealing with murder cases. These get alternate treatment until eventually they run together. Banks’s case is the rape and murder of a young woman. Cabbot’s case is more bizarre; a woman in a wheelchair with quadriplegia is found at the top of a cliff with her throat cut. If this sounds familiar, it may be because the book is the basis for one of the episodes in the successful TV series, DCI Banks (2010-14). It is also links back to an earlier book Aftermath (2001), which was the pilot for the main TV series.

Both cases are about sexual violence and murder. I’m not for a moment suggesting that such crimes aren’t horrific; they deserve the maximum of police resources to solve. But I am suggesting that psychopaths and serial killers are becoming the staple of British police procedural crime fiction. There are several reasons for this, all exemplified to some extent in this book. Such crimes are more suitable for police procedurals than they are for stories about private detectives. Police are the ones immediately on the scene. They have extensive scene-of-crime resources, giving them access to DNA testing, and post-mortem results. All these factors are important in this story – though Robinson is clever, and not all is as it seems. In Britain at least, there seems to be an extensive web of CCTV which can be checked for the movements of people and vehicles. This is also important here, and again, Robinson uses it well.  But these resources aren’t usually available to private detectives, so they often need to look at different sorts of crime – ones that the police have missed, or crimes in the past that reverberate into the present.

The psychopath is also useful for the police procedural writer because there is less need to provide a credible motive for the murderer. Murder is what psychopaths do. There are usually a range of suspects, all of whom could be the murderer; none of them can be drawn in any great depth, because giving them depth of character is difficult without giving away too much about possible motive. But any smiling face can hide a psychopath. And so it proves here. I’m not saying that Robinson doesn’t do a good job of hiding the identity of the killer; even after he has identified that the motive is revenge, he still has to make a lot of connections – which of course DI Cabbot is also making – to identify who the killer is. It’s a cleverly put together story – it is just limited by the police procedural form.

Part of what I miss in this form of crime fiction is the ‘state of society’ emphasis that I find in some crime fiction that has a private detective, or is simply a mystery involving someone outside law enforcement. The police procedural usually only does this through the private lives of the police involved, and their formal interactions with the public as witnesses or suspects. We learn quite a bit about Banks and Cabbot; Banks, for example, is reading Tony Judt’s Postwara very good choice. Robinson makes implicit social comment, but of only a limited kind. A writer such as Kate Atkinson, for example, is able to write much more explicitly about the society her characters operate in, to the point where in her hands, the crime novel is subsumed into a general literary category.

A further result of concentrating on the psychopath is that other forms of crime are neglected. Where is the police procedural about corporate crime, like large-scale financial fraud, or illegal environmental pollution? Presumably there’s not much of a story in going through bank statements and mobile phone records. A few police procedural writers have however brought such issues alive. DI Rebus has had run-ins with crime that is closely linked with politics. Gangs, drugs and people trafficking also make an appearance in Rankin’s work – which are technically police procedurals. Michael Robotham has also ventured into some of these areas, though the majority of his books aren’t really police procedurals and are anyway often about serial killers. Police forces can investigate only when they know there has been a specific crime; they aren’t usually the ones who identify the systemic problem. This is much more likely to be done by a private detective working for a concerned individual; Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski is easily my best in this area.

Readers can no doubt supply a list of police procedural crime stories which are not about serial killers and psychopaths. Probably I’ve just read too many that are in too short a time.

You can read more about Peter Robinson and DI Alan Banks here.

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One of the great things about being in a book club – besides the interesting discussions and wonderful food provided by my generous book-club friends – is that I get to read books that I probably wouldn’t otherwise come across. The downside is that what we read comes from a list of books held in multiple copies generated from a local library – and taking pot luck doesn’t always result in a satisfying book. After becoming Richard and Judy’s top Summer Read in 2006, this one went on to sell 1 million copies in Britain alone, and the author won the Galaxy (now Specsavers) British Book Award for the New Writer of the Year in 2007, so it seemed a good bet. Not so. I don’t know who Richard and Judy are, but apparently the award is more about sales impact than quality – and it shows.

The story begins in the present day with Alexis, who is visiting Plaka, the village on Crete where her ancestors once lived. Her mother, Sophia, has always been reticent about her family history, but now that Alexis is holidaying in Crete, she has agreed to put her in touch with an old friend who can tell her about the family. The friend, Fotini, agrees, and most of the rest of the book is about what happened to the family between 1939 and 1958. Alexis and Sophia return briefly at the end.

The story that she hears is partly a history of the island of Spinalonga – Greece’s former leper colony – which is located just off Plaka. It is partly a story of the German occupation of Crete during World War II, and partly a family saga of romance and tragedy. Of these, the history of the leper colony is by far the most interesting and even moving, perhaps because the least known. The war history is perfunctory; if you really want to know about the kidnapping of General Kreipe by British special forces, read Ill Met by Moonlight, the account written by one of the participants, W (Billy) Stanley Moss, or better still, see the classic film starring Dirk Bogarde. The family saga unfortunately doesn’t rise above a Mills and Boon romance.

One of the problems with the book is that despite the author saying at the beginning: ‘It was here that Fotini began to relate Sophia’s story’, and near the end: ‘As Fotini reached this point in the story’, Fotini doesn’t actually tell the story. Instead, it is written as a third person history of the family, and contains information that Fotini, a by-stander, could not possible have known. This makes the whole device of Alexis’s visit pointless. Hislop might just as well have told the story, without a modern reference, or alternatively, told it in Fotini’s voice. I don’t think she can have it both ways.

The second, and even greater problem for me, is that Hislop just doesn’t write very well. Some of the description is OK, but her weakness as a writer shows in the excessive use of adjectives, as for example: ’Dressed in the unfamiliar feel of crisp, ironed cotton, she wandered down the dark back stairway and found herself in the restaurant kitchen, drawn there by the powerful aroma of strong, freshly brewed coffee.’ And if she ‘found herself’ in the kitchen, she wasn’t ‘drawn there’. The adjectives are often banal; hair is ‘lustrous’ and roast meat ‘succulent’. Elsewhere, ‘the green fields were verdant’ – no doubt they were, since verdant means green. And ‘he was being pressurised by his parents to find a wife’ – I’m perhaps being picky here, but what’s wrong with ‘pressured’? This is disappointing from someone who read English at Oxford and worked in publishing and as a journalist.

Furthermore, Hislop has not succeeded in giving any depth to her characters. Circumstances ensure that the course of true love doesn’t run smooth, and some of the characters behave badly. But no one has any shades of grey, and each is absolutely predictable in their actions and emotions. The ‘good’ characters are just too noble. I know you can’t expect writers to come up with entirely new angles on romance, but Jane Austen did the one found here first, and better, with Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park. I’m simply not convinced.

One of the comments on the back of the book praises it for showing that ’love and life continue in even the most extraordinary of circumstances’ and this is perhaps the book’s saving grace. The information Hislop gives about the leper colony on Spinalonga and the disease itself is interesting and important, given the strong prejudice against lepers that has existed for centuries. That people managed to live any sort of normal existence in the colony – and she seems to have done her research on this – is indeed a testament to the human spirit.

Obviously other people don’t agree with my less than flattering estimate of this book; here’s the review that generated the blurb on the front: ‘a beach book with heart’. Hislop has written two further books, one of which, The Return (2008) is set in Granada during the Spanish Civil War. Given the Spanish emphasis of my current reading, I should try it – but somehow I don’t think I will. You can read more about Hislop here.

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A while back I reviewed Gillian Flynn’s third novel, Gone Girl (2012). I liked it so much that I included it in my five favourite books of 2013, and decided I should read Flynn’s earlier work. Dark Places is her second book, published in 2009 – though my edition says on the cover ‘from the author of Gone Girl’, suggesting that the third book is carrying the less successful second one. I think this suggestion is pretty right, though it may be a matter of taste rather than quality. Certainly it’s a very different book from the one that followed it.

Libby Day is the sole survivor of a massacre at her mother’s debt-ridden Kansas farm, twenty four years ago when she was seven. She lost her mother and two older sisters. Her older brother, fifteen year old Ben, was convicted of the murders and jailed for life; it was Libby’s evidence against him that ensured his conviction. It soon becomes clear that the family was in a bad way before the murders; Libby now lives in a state of aimless depression. She has used up the fund that was created for her from donations by well-wishers, she has no job, no skills and no motivation to acquire any. Then she receives a letter from the ’Kill Club’, a macabre organisation made up of people with obsessions about particular crimes. They believe Ben to be innocent. They will pay her to talk to them, to sell family mementos to them, and above all to find out if someone else could have committed the crimes. Libby wants the money and knows that her carefully coached testimony as a child wasn’t true, but what sort of can of worms will she open if she has to go back to that time – a ‘Darkplace’ she tries never to think about? What if Ben really is innocent? Who else might have done it?

Half of the book tells the story, with Libby as narrator, of her search for the truth, which gradually becomes as important to her as the money. Alternate chapters tell what happened on the day leading up to the murders from the perspective of Patty, Libby’s mother, and of Ben, though in the third person; a series of events is recounted that spiral into worse and worse disaster. As in Gone Girl, there are multiple voices; each has its distinctive tone. Flynn has a very good ear for nuances of region, age and gender. This is a very clever narrative structure, as Libby’s story expands the possibility of arriving at the truth and even changing her life, while Patty’s and Ben’s stories can only close in, edging closer and closer to catastrophe we know is about to happen. And of course, ‘every single person in this case lies, is lying, did lie.’

Libby is certainly no heroine struggling for freedom from her messed up life. Right from the beginning she presents herself as seriously damaged. The book begins with the sentence: ‘I have a meanness inside me. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something is wrong with it.’ This is a theme she returns to again and again. Is it an explanation? Or an excuse? Her mother feels constantly inadequate; she has done the best she can, but the farm is mortgaged to the hilt, there’s never enough money, her ex-husband, Runner Day, is worse than useless: ‘wily and dumb at the same time’, dealing drugs, always on the scrounge. Her sisters are mean and whiney, and her brother Ben is an angry and hostile teenager. But Patty loves her kids, and would defend then if she could; can Libby be blamed for only occasionally glimpsing this? Can she actually change for the better?  The only reason you don’t thoroughly dislike her is that she is very self-aware; she knows when she’s being hateful. And some of her terrible habits turn out to be useful.

What happens during the final day before the murders, and the murders themselves, is actually very nasty, so nasty that I skipped over a couple of bits. I think Flynn describes Ben’s situation very well; you can see how it could happen, even if it is a bit over the top. A fear of the devil worship he is accused of did actually sweep the United States in the 1980s, crazy as it sounds. Communities  – especially poor rural ones? – can get caught up in mindless hysteria. Teenager boys do struggle to understand how to be men; we might blame Ben for some of his decisions, but Flynn makes them understandable. I’m not so sure about Patty, though.

I took some of the social relations in Gone Girl to be satirical, though I thought the tacky mid-west landscape the story was set in was realistic enough. There doesn’t seem to me to be any satire in this book. The social relations are a real reflection of deadening poverty, greed and selfishness – with only a tiny bit of love. And the physical landscape – the run-down farm, the failed tourist town, the toxic dump and the plastic bags blowing out of the landfill – also ring true. Libby’s self-deprecation may lighten the blighted tone somewhat, but is just that; it has no wider social reference. Overall I couldn’t help thinking that Gone Girl is nasty in a clever way, whereas Dark Places is nasty in a cruel and twisted way. They’ve made a film based on the book, but I certainly won’t be going to see it.

You can read more about Gillian Flynn here, and the film here. It is to be released in September of this year.

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It’s probably evident only to me that lately I’ve had a bit of an obsession with books about aspects of Spain. Recent posts include Robert Wilson’s crime fiction series set in Spain, with The Hidden Assassins and The Blind Man of Seville; then there was Moorish Spain, an historical account by Richard Fletcher and The Alhambra, by Washington Irving, a nineteenth century mixture of reportage and legend. OK, but what has this got to do with George Eliot? Well, Deronda is a name that would once have been de Ronda; though he doesn’t know it, Daniel’s family were Jews living in the Spanish town of Ronda before being driven out by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. I should in all consistency write a post on Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is set in the Spanish town of Segovia, and recounts events that actually took place in Ronda. But that’s for another day.

Daniel Deronda (1876) was George Eliot’s last novel. For the critic F.R. Leavis, it confirmed her greatness as a novelist. He initially suggested that the two story threads that make it up could best be seen as two separate books, one chronicling the fate of Gwendolen Harleth, the other dealing with Daniel Deronda. But he later concluded that what bound their stories together was more important than the seemingly disparate elements. In this I agree with him.

The book begins with Gwendolen, a spoilt young woman who wants to be independent – but not from any feminist desire for self-improvement or doing good to others: ‘She meant to do what was pleasant to herself in a striking manner; or rather, whatever she could do so as to strike others with admiration and get in that reflected way a more ardent sense of living’. She is a main character, but is she a heroine? Certainly she is no Emma; Austen Jane said that Emma was ‘a heroine whom no one but myself will much like’, yet everyone does so. This is not the case for Gwendolen. Yet the power of Eliot’s writing is to show Gwendolen as selfish and conceited, but at the same time to show that she has other, better feelings. You can’t completely dislike her.

Gwendolen is in the same position as other nineteenth century females in life and literature in that her life chances are drastically limited; there are few roles open beyond wife and mother. Her story in some ways echoes the form of the ‘romance’ of which Jane Austen was such a mistress; a man and a woman find they love each but obstacles arise and they must struggle to overcome them. (There are some interesting comparisons between Austen’s and Eliot’s preoccupations; see for example two quotations: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.’ And ‘Some readers of this history will doubtless regard it as incredible that people should construct matrimonial prospects on the mere report that a bachelor of good fortune and possibilities was coming within reach.’) But without telling you what actually does happen, I can say that this is not the case here; it is more a story about redemption than successful romance. This is probably one of the reasons a critic like Leavis approves the book; he thought literature should carry moral weight. But how Gwendolen comes to understand herself differently seems to me to show great psychological insight on Eliot’s part, and I certainly didn’t find any sense of there being a moral for morality’s sake.

Deronda is the protégé Sir Hugo Mallinger, a well-to-do English gentleman who has brought him up to be an English gentleman in his turn. Deronda himself, and most other people, think he is Sir Hugo’s unacknowledged illegitimate son. This belief has an unsettling effect on him; what are the implications of it for his place in English society, and as we would say these days, for his sense of identity? It seems at first that Deronda’s story is secondary to that of Gwendolen, and it’s true that Eliot could have written a whole novel about her fate, and Deronda’s part in it. But a kind act on his part leads the narrative into another path altogether where Deronda seeks to find out about his mother. In doing so, he finds he has quite a different heritage from the one he was brought up with. I guess I gave this away be saying that his family name was originally de Ronda, but knowing that (which may in any case have been be self-evident to some) doesn’t spoil the story of what he finds out. Unlike Gwendolen, however, Daniel is rather too much a paragon of virtue. Eliot occasionally gently mocks him, and we see his doubts and fears. But he is unvaryingly generous and thoughtful. In my view, being consistently nice makes him a foil for Gwendolen, rather than deserving the title role; his circumstances change, but he does not develop as she does.

These two stories are linked in many ways into an intricate pattern. Thinking about it in a purely objective way, there are too many coincidences, too many parallels. But reading the book, I really enjoyed these. There is so much insight, so much interest in Eliot’s narrative that somehow the twists of fate seem acceptable in ways they might not in the hands of a lesser writer.

I haven’t left much space to comment on Eliot’s writing. Yes, there were a few times when the long sentences seem over-burdened with qualifying clauses and the nineteenth century prose style makes reading seem like wading through treacle. Eliot writes with the ‘god perspective’ that allows her to know all, and reveal all about her characters, and to moralise, if you like, in ways that are quite unfashionable among modern writers. It took me a little while to get used to it, but Eliot in general writes with such a light ironic touch that reading her quickly becomes a pleasure.  I’ll give just one tiny example: ’Lord Slogan [was] an unexceptionable Irish peer, whose estate wanted nothing but drainage and population.’

The link with Spain turned out to be tenuous – but I’m really glad it prompted me to read the novel. You can find out more about George Eliot here, and about the book here. There’s rather more to it than I’ve indicated in this post. F.R. Leavis wrote the introduction to the edition I read; I found his prose far more opaque than George Eliot’s. A 2002 TV series based on the book sounds interesting.

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In his previous book, Standing in Another Man’s Grave (2012), Rankin brought together two of his series characters –John Rebus, at that time a civilian working for the Serious Crime Review Unit, and Malcolm Fox of the Professional Ethics and Standards section of the Lothian and Borders Police. They’re together in this book (2013) too. Rebus is back on the force. But he’s had to accept a demotion to Detective Sergeant, and Siobhan Clarke, now DCI, is his boss – or at least, as Rebus says, she’s under that ‘cruel delusion’. Fox has one last Ethics and Standards assignment to complete before he too returns to the CID.

Clarke and Rebus attend the scene of a car crash in which a young woman is injured. But is the crash as easily explained as it looks? ‘Why,’ asks their boss, ‘is it that nothing with you two is ever straightforward?’ Then the father of her boyfriend is found dead. Can this really be a coincidence? In the meantime, Fox is investigating a case some twenty years old where the police at one particular station, Summerhall, may have intentionally compromised the evidence so that a murder suspect got off – and one of them was the then Detective Constable John Rebus. The officers from that station called themselves the ‘Saints of the Shadow Bible’ – a reference to their disregard for proper procedures as outlined in the real ‘bible’ – the Scots Criminal Law. They believed in getting results – by any method: ‘get the scumbags off the street by hook or by crook.’ They promised allegiance to each other, but will that promise hold good, now that the old more brutal forms of policing are frowned on? Rebus is the only one still in the police force; will he cooperate with Fox’s investigation?

The plot is quite complex, as the police teams involved with several different crimes – both past and current – try and work out what if any connections there are between them, with Rebus floating in the middle of them, as always on his own personal crusade. The story is absorbing, with all the working parts finally fitting together – though I was perhaps a little underwhelmed by some of the mechanics of the resolution.

An important part of the interest of the story lies in Rebus’s own response to the changing culture of policing. He has little respect for modern approaches which rely heavily on computerised data collection, and sticks to his old methods. Clarke accuses him of stirring up stuff ‘for the hell of it’, but ‘sometimes that’s how we find gold,’ he replies. Besides, ‘stirring’s the fun part’. He still believes in working the streets, and is not above cooperating with dodgy characters if he thinks they can be useful. But he knows that the old ways – planting evidence, beating up suspects – are morally unacceptable. ‘Different times. Different rules,’ someone suggests. ‘It might be what we tell ourselves,’ Rebus replies. ‘I need to know whose side you’re on,’ says his former Summerhall boss. ‘Aye, it seems to be a popular question these days,’ Rebus replies. ‘We got results, if you’d care to remember.’ ‘Oh we got results,’ he says, ‘ – but at a cost. And it seems to me we’re still paying’. The resolution of the story makes it clear that the innocent are as likely to pay that cost as the guilty. Yet in a sort of prologue and epilogue, Rebus is essentially harassing a man he believes has murdered his wife, and so far got away with it …. The morality of the situation is never black and white.

I suggested in my earlier post about Standing in Another Man’s Grave that after giving him the lead in two books, Rankin was now being too hard on Malcolm Fox, presenting him as narrow and vindictive. That isn’t the case here. Rebus’s decision to work with Fox might initially have been to find out what he knows, but both characters warm to each other to some degree. Fox even begins to understand the way Rebus’s mind works. ‘Ever since I started hanging out with you, I seem to be seeing conspiracies everywhere – conspiracies, connections and coincidences.’ But he’s prepared to act on Rebus’s insights. And Rebus may not respect the role of ‘the Complaints’, but he doesn’t join in the condemnation. Asked ‘How can you hang around with this skid mark?’ he simply doesn’t answer. When Siobhan says ‘Lucky we’ve got Malcolm to keep us on the straight and narrow’, Rebus answers ‘Best place to be, Siobhan.’ But we know when he says this that he has just enacted justice in his own way; a way Fox would never approve of. It’s not a case of saint or sinner – Rebus is both. And Fox, with his conventional approach, plays second fiddle to him.

You can read more about Rebus on Ian Rankin’s interesting website here. My reviews of the Malcolm Fox books are here and here.

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The Alhambra (titled Tales of the Alhambra in later editions) was published in 1832, and now forms Volume 14 in the standard edition of Washington Irving’s complete works – and there are at least ten more volumes in the set. But who, these days, has heard of Washington Irving – except maybe to remember that he was the creator of Rip Van Winkle? Yet in his day, he was considered a major – possibly the major – American literary figure. A travel writer, a writer of tales and histories rather than a novelist, he fitted the now rarely used category of a writer of ‘belles lettres’, and his work was popular in both Europe and America.

Born in 1783, and named for a hero of the recently successful American Revolution, Irving travelled extensively in Europe, and lived in Spain in 1826-9. There he wrote a book about the life and journeys of Christopher Columbus and a history of the conquest of Granada by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. In 1829, he lived for some months in the Alhambra, and as a result, produced this mixture of journal, social commentary, history and legend.

The Alhambra palace and fortress complex was constructed in something like its current form in 1333 by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada, a place, Irving says, ‘of grace and beauty’. When Irving saw it in 1828, and lived in it in 1829, some of it was in ruins and much of it was deserted. According to him,  it had been saved from the ‘absolute ruin and desolation that were overwhelming it’, not by the Spanish, but by the French forces that occupied it during the Peninsular War of 1808 -14; they had fixed leaking roofs and restored the water supply, the fountains and the gardens. On leaving they had also blown up some of the watch towers around the walls, which is perhaps why some Spanish commentators blame the French for all the decay. Irving also gives credit to Granada’s governor of the day, who was beginning the restoration which would slowly bring the site back to life. But it is in their very dereliction that Irving sees the abandoned halls and gardens as full of ‘poetry and romance’.

The tales Irving tells about ‘this Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land’ are written with a light touch, with humour and acute observation. Some of them are about his day to day experiences, such as his journey to Granada, moving into what had been the Governor’s quarters, exploring the halls and gardens and the country round about; he finds the Alhambra to be ‘an elegant memento  of a brave, intelligent and graceful people’. There are a number of legends, which he embroiders from the tales told to him by the locals. There is often a touch of magic to them, reflecting the fancies of the locals who view the faded magnificence of the Alhambra with superstitious awe and believe that there must have been magicians involved in its creation. These legends echo the Moorish tradition of tales such as the Arabian Nights. My favourite is ‘The Legend of Ahmed al Kamel’; I like how Ahmed can’t control his magic horse.

Some of Irving’s ‘tales’ are musings on the history of the Alhambra; for example he traces the route taken by the ‘unfortunate’ Boabdil, the last Emir of Granada, when he left his beautiful palace to go into exile after the conquest of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. ‘You do well to weep as a woman,’ his mother said, ‘over what you could not defend as a man.’ By Irving’s account, this was an unfair comment; the Moslems that still remained in Spain were fighting among themselves as well as against the Christians, and Boabdil’s only option other than surrender was to die in a losing battle. Perhaps that was his mother’s point. But Irving sincerely feels for poor Boabdil. ‘He was personally brave,’ writes Irving, ‘but wanted moral courage … [and this] deprived him of the heroic grace which would have given grandeur and dignity to his fate, and rendered him worthy of closing the splendid drama of the Moslem domination of Spain.’ Again, a very romantic view of these events.

In fact, Irving is a thorough-going Romantic. He sees Spain in general and the Alhambra in particular as almost part of a fairy tale; ‘there is a romance,’ he says, ‘about all the recollection of the Peninsular dear to the imagination.’ It might be thought from this that his interest in the exotic remnants of Eastern culture he found in Spain were part of the movement in nineteenth century Europe that has been called Orientalism. Following the thesis of Edward Said’s seminal book Orientalism, critics have claimed that the nineteenth century western visitors and writers who established that the East was glamorous but outlandish, played to the idea that the East was both ‘other’ and ‘inferior’, indeed by definition, the opposite of the West. It’s true that Irving does occasionally slip into the common stereotype whereby the east is supine and impractical, as when he talks about the ‘voluptuous lords of the Alhambra’ indulging in ‘that dreamy repose so dear to the Orientalists’. But for the most part, he admires the Moors far more than the Spanish peasants who have replaced them at the Alhambra. His aim, he says, is both ‘to record the regal and chivalrous traditions concerning those who once trod its courts and the whimsical and superstitious legends of the motley race now burrowing among its ruins.’

When we recently visited the Alhambra, our guide told us that Washington Irving’s interest in the Alhambra, and the interest in it generated by his book, helped persuade the Spanish government to pursue its restoration. It seems that the move to restore it began before Irving’s book was published, but I like to think he may well have contributed to the impetus that has produced the magnificent World Heritage site that exists today.

You can read more about Washington Irving here. The Wikipedia entry for the Alhambra is here, and if you want to follow up on Washington Irving and Spanish Orientalism, try this and this.

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