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OK, it’s a young adult book. But it’s holiday time, and I can be forgiven for a fun and easy read. Which is what Percy Jackson and the Olympians, subtitled The Lightning Thief (2005) is. It’s also the first of a series of five Percy Jackson and the Olympians books, which have further morphed into a related series called The Heroes of Olympus, the whole oeuvre being entitled the Camp Half-Blood Chronicles. To say nothing of two films, and over three million Facebook likes. (To put this into perspective, Harry Potter, with whom Percy Jackson is inevitably compared, has over seven and a half million.)

The Olympians are not athletes. They are gods. Riordan is playing with the idea that the old Greek gods, and their entourage of heroes, satyrs, naiads, dryads and assorted monsters never disappeared, and have on occasion, taken a hand in human history –(eg Prohibition was a punishment imposed by Zeus on Dionysus). Early in the story, which is set in present day New York, Percy – short for Perseus – finds out that he is the son of a god – though he doesn’t initially know which one. He is sent on a quest to find Zeus’s ‘master bolt’ – the symbol of his power – which has been stolen. He is helped by Annabeth, another half-god, a daughter of Athena, and Grover, a satyr who hides his hairy hind quarters and hoofs under baggy jeans and sneakers. Together, they have a series of adventures, some of which resemble those of Perseus, some call Hercules to mind, and one even seems to come from The Odyssey.

You can read this book – and I’m sure that this is the case for most of the young adults who read it – without any knowledge of Greek mythology. Riordan has published a sort of handbook on this mythology – Percy’s personal take on the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece – called Percy Jackson’s Book of Greek Gods (2014), but this is for fans, not novices. This book can be read simply as a coming of age story of a boy capable of magic in some form – as in stories by authors as various as Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, J.K. Rowling, Lev Grossman or Alison Croggon to name but a few. And as in most of these coming of age stories, Percy has to learn how to use his magic gifts.  As one blogger puts it, it’s about ‘what it is like to come to grips with the utterly fantastical and impossible in what was previously a very ordinary life; about how it feels to have destiny thrust upon you, and how one goes about making that destiny for oneself.’

Alternatively, you can enjoy picking up the references to the feats of the mythological Heroes. If you’re like me, and read all that stuff too many years ago to really remember it clearly, half-remembering can be a bit annoying, but there’s always Wikipedia, or Tanglewood Tales for Boys and Girls (1853) by Nathaniel Hawthorne, available from the Guttenberg Project. It’s a clever device by Riordan to call upon an ‘existing’ source of magic power, rather than have to make one up, and the associations do make it more fun. Percy’s god relatives wrangle among themselves like the gods of old; they are jealous, capricious and proud. As Percy says of the gods of old: ‘If you like horror shows, blood baths, lying, stealing, backstabbing, and cannibalism … it definitely was a Golden Age for all that ’ – and it still is.

One criticism of the book is that it has rather too much in common with other stories about magic, particularly the Harry Potter books. Harry Potter has Hogwarts, Percy Jackson has Camp Half Blood. Harry has Hermione, Percy has Annabeth. In both, the magic world exists alongside the ordinary one, but cannot be seen by normal humans. Percy’s magical sword only works on monsters, but disasters caused by magic can harm ordinary humans and have to be explained away– think of the destruction the death eaters cause in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. And so on. But it’s probably sufficiently different, particularly in its American setting, with its gods rather than wizards, and different adventures, to appeal to a similar market.

Riordan seems to mass produce Percy and the various other spinoff series, and it shows in his episodic plotting and rather stereotyped characterisation. It’s all a bit too easy for Percy, and he can be annoyingly ignorant and brash. But some of the imagery of the underworld, and the role of the Harpies there, are good. They resonate for me not with scenes from Harry Potter, but with Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass (2000), where Will and Lyra descend to the underworld. Pullman’s book – the third in the trilogy His Dark Materials – is a much more polished and literary work than Riordan’s Percy series ever tries to be. But in this section, the books bear comparison.

Anyway, as I said at the beginning, this is holiday reading, and perhaps something to tempt the children or grandchildren with, once they’ve finished with Harry Potter.

You can read more about Rick Riordan here.

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Watching You (2013) is Robotham’s ninth book, and the fifth featuring clinical psychologist Joe O’Loughlin. His other series character, Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz, now retired, also has a role. Robotham seems to alternate them being the main focus of the story; Joe was central to the previous book, Say You’re Sorry (2012), and it was Ruiz’s turn in the one before that, The Wreckage (2011). The Ruiz books seem to me to address broad issues of power and authority – The Wreckage is, for example, set partly in Bagdad –whereas Joe’s stories tend to be more focussed psychological thrillers. This is one of the latter, and I do rather miss the wider reach of the Ruiz stories.

The book begins with an italicised first-person statement from an unnamed watcher, and we hear several more times from this person (presumably a male, though it doesn’t say so) throughout the book. The person he has watched from childhood is Marnie Logan. She is an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, with a teenage daughter, a young son with coeliac disease and a missing husband. He simply vanished one day, leaving his gambling debts behind him. Marnie can’t access his bank account, or even stop his direct debits. She is being threatened by the crooks he is in debt to, and the only way she can find the money is to agree to work for them as an escort. She sometimes feels someone is watching her. She is consulting Joe O’Loughlin in an attempt to come to terms with the loss of her husband, but he can’t help feeling there is something else worrying her at a much deeper level. Why is her file the one that is stolen when someone breaks into his office? And why are the police asking her questions when one of the crooks she has been working for is found dead?

O’Loughlin, banking on assistance from Ruiz, agrees that they will help Marnie establish whether her husband is really dead. But when they start looking into her past, they get puzzling responses from people she has known. The reader knows from the first-person sections some of what is going on, and may be tempted to guess the rest – but not all is as it seems. Can we really trust Marnie? This is where the psychology really comes to the fore, making it a clever, if uncomfortable read.

O’Loughlin is not a detective, but he shares with some private detectives the capacity to solve crimes by seeing things that others, including the police, miss. Ruiz says to Joe: ‘You understand more than most people. You look harder. You care more. You let things bruise your soul and question what’s wrong with humanity.’ Ruiz is prepared to help because as Joe tells Marnie: ‘He’s a good man.’ Detective Inspector Gennia takes a different view. ‘He doesn’t like psychologists. In particular he doesn’t like criminal investigations where psychology serves a purpose. Most crimes are straightforward and easy to understand …They kill for money, power or revenge – simple yet ancient motives that don’t require a psychological profile to unravel or comprehend.’ For Joe, ‘Human behaviour seems so random, yet can be plotted and graphed’ – though in this case, the behaviour is quite outside the normal range of expectations – in more ways than one. It could be argued that using psychology in the way Robotham does is cheating; it goes beyond insight and introduces factors that aren’t predictable by the average reader (well me, anyway). But surely looking at people on the psychological edge is at the heart of the psychological thriller. The other side of the coin of Joe’s psychological insight is his physical weakness, as the Parkinson’s disease he suffers from gets slowly worse.

I always enjoy Robotham’s writing. He was first a journalist and then a ghost writer of celebrity ‘autobiographies’ before he turned to crime writing. It’s perhaps this that has given him such a good grasp of the mechanics of story-telling, at which he excels. He know just how and when to ratchet up the tension, how to keep the reader on edge, never quite comfortable about how the story will develop. He’s also good at realistic characters and situations. Marnie is an excellent creation and Robotham does a good job of writing from a female perspective. ‘In terms of getting inside the head, inhabiting the skin of a woman, I’ve had to do that as a ghost writer. It’s still very challenging to do as a fiction writer as the majority of fiction readers are women. If you get it wrong, if there’s something that jars with them, if I’ve messed something up, readers aren’t very forgiving,’ he says. All the other bit part characters that make up the story, such as Marnie’s children, Zoe and Elijah, are also well drawn. I’m not so sure about the villain – you’ll have to make up your own mind on that. It is a psychological thriller after all.

You can read more about Michael Robotham here. And here’s an interesting interview with him. His most recent book, Life or Death (2014) breaks the O’Loughlin/Ruiz mould – as far as I can see, it isn’t about either of them. You can search the What Book to Read blog for my posts on earlier Robotham books.

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I read the late P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley when it came out in 2011. I enjoyed it – how could I not, being both a fan of P.D. James and Jane Austen? (Does this make me a Janeite? Probably. Too bad.) But I nevertheless felt that the problems of marrying a murder mystery to a story about early nineteenth century social relationships were too great even for P.D. James, and that in order to be true to Elizabeth and Darcy, the crime story had to suffer. You can read what I said here. But of course I was interested to see how the TV series deals with it.

The problem I find with adaptations of books for film or TV is how far the adaptation should be viewed as a stand-alone product. I can’t stop myself comparing them. Here there is the additional complication that the book is an adaptation of sorts of the original Austen characters and some of the original situations. A double level of comparison! So not only do I compulsively compare the TV series with the book, I also compare it with the world of the original. This is unfortunate, as I would probably enjoy the TV series more if I didn’t constantly find myself muttering ‘Yes, but …’

The facts of the murder are essentially the same as in the book. Elizabeth and Darcy’s brother-in-law, George Wickham, is accused of killing his friend Captain Denny in the Pemberley woods on the eve of the annual Pemberley ball. What were they doing there? Why would he kill his friend? Will he be found guilty and bring dishonour on Pemberley? As the story progresses, some of what is only hinted at in the book is made much clearer on the screen, and I think this actually strengthens the plot. And in the TV version, Elizabeth is given a major role in the resolution, which takes away some of the deus ex machina element in the ending of the book. Naturally it is played for all the tension that can be screwed out of it, and quite successfully, too. But is this clarity is achieved at the expense of a violation of the social conventions operating in Austen’s world?

The relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy differs markedly from that in the book. In the book, Darcy has no doubts about his love for Elizabeth. In the TV version, they fight, and begin to question each other’s commitment. This version chooses to stress Darcy’s pride in the traditions of Pemberley, which is something present in the book, but not a matter of contention between Elizabeth and Darcy. On screen, the unpleasant side of Elizabeth’s family is played up, so we are reminded of how much he has married below himself. In both the book and the TV series we are shown Lydia Wickham as a hysterical and foolish woman – but her shallowness is more marked on screen (though I have to admit she has a moment of redemption). The TV series also gives us Mrs Bennett as a much more unpleasantly insidious character than in the original. She doesn’t actually appear at Pemberley at all in the book, where only Mr Bennett is present, as a source of calm and support. In the book, Jane, the presentable sister, and Bingley are present from the first; on screen, Jane comes in only briefly later. And the element of family pride is added to the relationships between Darcy’s sister Georgiana, her cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam who wants to marry her and Henry Alveston, the man she loves. Having Darcy and Elizabeth quarrelling, Georgiana torn between her suitors and contemplating putting duty to Pemberley before love, makes for high drama and good visuals. But it’s not in the book, and doesn’t add to the murder side of things – well not much, anyway. And having Elizabeth and Darcy at each other’s throats has more in common with one of the weaker romantic sequels to Pride and Prejudice than it does with the spirit of generous accord reached between them in that book.

The production is visually attractive, and the acting perfectly acceptable. Elizabeth seems to have risen to the occasion as mistress of Pemberley, but there is almost no place for her wit and playfulness – though there wasn’t in the book, either. We get a touch of it in her meeting with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, which is nice, as we only get a letter from her in the book. We can probably agree that Elizabeth would never be showy in her dress, but would she really wear more or less the same thing every day? A few bits of modern dialogue creep in, as when Darcy says ‘He’ll be fine’, but overall, the surface conventions have mostly been respected.

The deeper problem for me concerns Elizabeth’s role. P.D. James clearly felt that as Darcy’s wife and mistress of Pemberley Elizabeth couldn’t take an active part in the murder mystery. By limiting what Elizabeth can do, James has also limited the crime story. By expanding her role, the TV version has strengthened the crime story, but at the expense of the conventions of the time.  As for Darcy’s role in the TV version, it’s not hard to imagine that all that pride from the original book was still lurking around somewhere …

You can read more about P.D. James here, and see some of the tributes to her after her death in November 2014 here.

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Once again, I read a review of Littlemore’s second book, Harry Curry: the Murder Book (2012) and decided to read the first one, Harry Curry: Counsel of Choice (2011) first. It does set the scene, but by all means read the second one if you come across it first – I’m assuming it’s as much fun as this one.

The five chapters of the book cover five legal cases Harry Curry (presumably a pun on Hari Kari) is involved in. Other than that, there’s not much story. But there doesn’t need to be. At the beginning of the book, Harry’s licence to practise as a barrister is suspended by the Bar Association’s disciplinary committee on the grounds of alleged rudeness to a judge. He is approached by a young barrister, Arabella Engineer, who isn’t doing too well – we see her lose her case – with the suggestion that Harry act as legal strategist for her. The first three cases operate on this basis. Harry gets his licence back and the next two cases are joint operations between them. Of course there is the issue of their relationship, but for me, the interest is in what happens in the court room.

Littlemore is a senior barrister – a QC – who works in the area of criminal law. The cases in the book are almost certainly versions of the real thing taken from his experience, though perhaps what he wished had happened, rather than what did. They cover allegations of drug smuggling, murder, assault occasioning grievous bodily harm and rape, there is an appeal against an extradition and a coroner’s hearing into deaths that occurred in a bush fire. The old Perry Mason tradition of court room drama involves the defence team getting their client off by doing the detective work of finding who really did it. These stories are not like that; they depend on the defence finding reasons in law that can be argued in favour of their client. Here, it’s rarely an issue of finding that someone else has committed the crime; ‘Harry’s rule has always been that you win cases by keeping evidence of guilt away from the jury, not be attempting to call alibis, or some other assertion of innocence.’ Littlemore pays meticulous attention to the court setting, details of procedure like choosing the jury, and the cross examination of witnesses; the court ‘feels like a workplace’. The setting and the cases feel real, not just because they presumably are, or could be, but also because of Littlemore’s skill in making his points simply and clearly. I find it easy to believe he is a very good barrister.

A major theme of the book is justice, for the innocent and the guilty alike. What do barristers do when they are certain that their client is guilty? They defend them by all available means. In real life, Littlemore responds to the question of defending ‘someone who you yourself believe not to be innocent’ by saying: ‘Well, they’re the best cases. I mean, you really feel you’ve done something when you get the guilty off. Anyone can get an innocent person off. I mean, they shouldn’t be on trial. But the guilty – that’s the challenge.’ Harry says in defence of his criminal law practice: ‘There is a point to what I do: I’m the only thing standing between those poor bastards and the might of the state.’ He’s also committed to the defence of the under-dog against the vested interests of big business like insurance companies. At one point, another lawyer says to him: ‘Get off the white horse, Harry. It doesn’t suit you.’ Harry ignores him. But one of my reservations about the book is whether Harry is a bit too good to be true.

Another slight reservation is whether Harry is a bit too much the stereotypical Establishment black sheep. His father is an eminent QC, now suffering from dementia. Harry, product of a public school and good university, knows everyone in the legal world; he just chooses not to share their lifestyle aspirations. He drives a Jag, but it belongs to a client doing ten years for importing drugs. ‘Harry’s minding it for him, but the client doesn’t exactly know that.’ Hmm. A little too insouciant? But maybe Littlemore knew of such a circumstance. Harry’s Establishment background enables him to indulge in some pointed legal snobbery; in a Queensland solicitor’s office a law degree from Bond University ‘hangs in pride of place, and Harry wonders at the wisdom of that. Would you want that to be generally known?’ This is insider humour, having a go at a relatively new, private university. His description of a ‘fascinator’ as something ‘shop girls wear to the races’ is plain ordinary social snobbery.

But these are trivial reservations. Overall, it’s a fascinating inside look at the workings of the law in ordinary Australian courts, where the cases have their own drama. I probably should have said more about Arabella – for that, you’ll have to read the book.

Australian readers who think they know the name Littlemore in another context are right. Stuart Littlemore was a journalist and broadcaster for some years, most notable for his creation and hosting of the ABC’s Media Watch, a forum for media analysis and comment, specialising in ‘conflicts of interest, bank backflips, deceit, misrepresentation, manipulation, plagiarism, abuse of power, technical lies and straight out fraud.’ Right up Harry Curry’s alley. These days Littlemore’s name might be familiar from his role as counsel for Eddie Obeid at the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption. Now there’s a challenge for a defence lawyer.

You can read a short account of Littlemore’s life here, and a rather more interesting interview with him after the publication of this book here. Asked if he is Harry, his response is ‘I would like to be that brave.’

I was amused to see that a writer for the online law students’ site, Survive Law, thought highly of the book. The reviewer writes: ‘The cases are gritty and the descriptions of the clients and proceedings so realistic that you could almost justify reading this book as study!’

 

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I read a review of At Last (2011) by St Aubyn, thought it sounded interesting, and finding it was the last of five books about Patrick Melrose, decided to start at the beginning – and if you’re going to read any of them, I suggest you do the same. The edition of Some Hope that I read is actually a collection of the first three books – which are all quite short, almost novellas – the trilogy consisting of Never Mind (1992), Bad News (1992) and Some Hope (1994). After a gap in which he wrote two non-Patrick Melrose books, the fourth, Mother’s Milk, was published in 2005 and short-listed for the Booker Prize. Lost for Words, satirising literary prizes, was published in 2014.

Never Mind takes place over one day when Patrick is five. He lives with his mother Eleanor and father David in a rather grand old house in Lacoste in the south of France. His father’s family can trace its roots back to the Norman conquest – the winning side, of course – and his mother is a rich American. Both are totally dysfunctional as parents, his father being alcoholic and cruel, his mother being alcoholic and ineffectual. ‘At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.’  We also meet Victor Eisen, a retired philosopher, and his wife Anne who live nearby, and Nicholas Pratt, baronet and man about town, and his girlfriend Bridget, who have flown over from London for a short stay. Amidst all the malicious comments, the snobbery, the misery – and to the reader, the cringe worthy embarrassment of it all – one comment by Nicholas stands out: ‘in my opinion, nothing that happens to you as a child really matters.’ Could he be more wrong? What are the consequences for Patrick?

We find out in Bad News. Patrick is twenty two. He’s just received the ‘bad news’ that his father has died in New York and is on his way from London to collect his ashes. He hates his father. ‘What instrument could he use to set himself free? Disdain? Aggression? Hatred? They were all contaminated by the influence of his father, the very thing he needed to free himself from.’ What follows from this paralysis is a drug taking binge, described in detail. Patrick is an addict; he is himself ‘bad news’. I read somewhere that this is one of the best descriptions of addiction ever written, not least because it can be funny. I guess there is a kind of black humour, as for example when Patrick has bought heroine, he parts from the dealer ‘with the genuine warmth of people who had exploited each other successfully.’ I found it excruciatingly difficult to read; I don’t really want to know just how it’s done. It raises for me the issue of rejecting writing because the subject is unpleasant versus reading something that is unpleasant because it is so well written. Or is the reader exploited along with everyone else? A couple of the characters from the earlier book make an appearance.

In Some Hope, we are back in the world of satire, snobbery and malice, this time in London and at a lavish birthday party at a mansion in the Cotswolds; ‘a world in which the word ‘charity’… was invariably qualified by the words ‘lunch’, ‘committee’ or ‘ball’. ‘Compassion’ nobody had any time for, whereas ‘leniency’ made frequent appearances in the form of complaints about short prison sentences.’  It is eight years later, and Patrick is off the drugs, but little happier. He cannot rid himself of the legacy left to him by his father – ‘sarcasm, snobbery, cruelty and betrayal ’ – and he fears turning out like him. A number of characters from the first book and one from the second, are, like Patrick, invited to the party, along with some other mostly pretentious and unpleasant new ones. Few have any redeeming features; only Anne, from the first book, and Patrick’s friend Johnny, stand out. Before leaving for the party, Johnny attends a Narcotics Anonymous meeting to strengthen his resolve not to take any drugs. St Aubyn’s description of the meeting is revealing; he can’t help poking fun at the ‘obscure and fatuous slang’ used by participants talking about their ‘recovery’, but Johnny nevertheless finds that however ‘ridiculous and boring’ the meetings are, they help him stay clean. He is also the one that gets to tell a simpering Princess Margaret at the party that he doesn’t ‘rely on an accident of birth’ for distinction, to which she replies ‘there is no accident of birth’. But the question at the heart of the book is whether there can be ‘some hope’ for Patrick – or anyone else caught up in this world.

Readers will probably not be surprised – though possibly horrified – to learn that under the satire, much in these books is autobiographical. Patrick’s childhood experiences were St Aubyn’s experiences, followed by years of drug addiction and mental illness. In an interview in The Telegraph, it is explained that at the age of 25 he underwent psychoanalysis, which took him, he says, ‘from suicide to creativity’. ‘By that point in my life I was completely ashamed of everything I’d been and done, and the contract I made was to write a book that gets published or commit suicide. It was not at all melodramatic in the state that I was in at the time. I thought about committing suicide every day.’ After the first book was published, he felt he had to keep going. ‘If I don’t write I’ll go mad, and if I go mad I’ll have to kill myself, so I must keep writing,’ he said. Just as well he turns out to be rather good at it.

You can read more about Edward St Aubyn here. There’s a long piece about him and his ‘inheritance’ in The New Yorker here. And you can read a review of his latest book here. It’s definitely on my Christmas list.

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Some time ago I wrote about Sue Grafton’s alphabet crime stories featuring Kinsey Millhone – A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar and so on up to U is for Undertow. Now we have V is for Vengeance (2011) and W is for Wasted (2013). I have no doubt X,Y and Z will follow.

The earlier stories were all written in the first person from Kinsey’s perspective. In S is for Silence, T is for Trespass and U is for Undertow, Grafton introduced the stories of other characters, told in the third person. V is for Vengeance follows this pattern. The book starts with a prologue in which a young man is setting off for a gambling session in Las Vegas. The story proper starts two years later with Kinsey witnessing two women shoplifting. Grafton then introduces Nora, a socialite who discovers her husband is having an affair with his secretary, and Lorenzo Dante, rich and outwardly respectable, but deeply involved in crime. What have all these to do with each other? Who is wreaking vengeance on whom? I like Kinsey’s take on it: ‘I’m a big fan of forgiveness,’ she says, ‘as long as I’m given the opportunity to get even first.’ Most of the story still belongs to Kinsey, but in the other sections, Grafton introduces quite different social settings and mind sets, allowing her to probe relationships and feelings quite foreign to Kinsey. This is an interesting experiment; is Grafton perhaps practising for a writing life after the alphabet series?  But I can’t help feeling she is still more at home with Kinsey. On the bonus side, we get a rare, brief glimpse of how someone else sees her.

W is for Wasted also follows one other character besides Kinsey, but much more briefly than in the previous book. The story begins with Kinsey’s statement ‘Two dead men changed the course of my life that fall’. She pursues the circumstances of the death of one, a homeless man named Terrence Dace, who had her name and phone number on a slip of paper in his pocket when he died. The other is Pete Wolinsky, a private detective she knew slightly, who was apparently shot in a robbery. His story is told through the somewhat clunky device of a third person narration starting several months before his death. What, if anything, have these stories to do with each other? ‘I don’t know how I get caught up in shit like this,’ says Kinsey.

One of the interesting things about the series is the way that Grafton always finds a new story to tell. I think she is able to do this in part by using the stratagem mentioned above of introducing the third person narratives of major new characters into books. She also reveals piecemeal the circumstances of Kinsey’s life. Grafton was either very far sighted at the beginning of the series in making Kinsey an orphan, or very clever at spotting an angle later on, for this has had the undoubted benefit of allowing her to find out more about her family as the books progress. Previous books have introduced her mother’s family; in W, we find out more about her father’s family. This is interesting because we care about Kinsey, but also has major relevance to the plot. We also learn a lot about Kinsey’s life; for example she isn’t sure she likes having family, and wonders if she was better off without one. ‘Aunt Gin hadn’t fostered feelings of connectedness and I hadn’t had occasion to develop them on my own.’

Grafton also fills the pages with an extremely detailed account of Kinsey’s activities. To take a random example from V: ‘I arrived at my office at 9.00 the next morning, unlocked the door, and gathered up the pile of mail the postman had shoved through the slot the day before. I tossed the stack on my desk, and went down the hall to the kitchenette, where I put on a pot of coffee. When the machine had gurgled to a finish, I filled my mug.’  These 65 words could easily be replaced with 15 words, as in: ‘When I got to the office I picked up the mail and made a coffee’. It’s as if Grafton were actually seeing life through Kinsey’s eyes – and for me, the detail is one of the pleasures of the series. As she says, ‘it’s better if you experience it just as I did, one step at a time.’ I can see the detail might annoy some readers, though.

Of all the other things that could be said about these books, I’d like to mention the attention Grafton pays to Kinsey’s craft as a private detective. ‘What I lack in brute force,’ she says, ‘I make up for in persistence and sheer cunning.’ She solves mysteries by following things up and talking to people, and then seeing connections others haven’t. ‘I could arrange the facts in any order I liked, but the bits and pieces would only come together when I perceived their true relationships,’ she says. She knows her limits, and is specific about one of the issues common to all private detectives stories. Once you know who the baddies are, what can you do about them? As she says, ‘The problem was I had no authority to act. At best I could make a citizen’s arrest … If I managed to collar a crook, what would prevent him simply laughing it off and walking away?’ What indeed? Grafton finds ingenious ways to deal with this too.

You can read more about Sue Grafton here. I think she should run a competition for the naming of the last three books. X is for X-Ray, or maybe Xenophobia, is the best I can do. Y is for Yellow (as in cowardly) perhaps? And Z is for Zapped. But I’m sure Sue Grafton will do better than that.

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This memoir, published is 1995, is subtitled ‘A Black Man’s Tribute To His White Mother’. The edition I read has an Afterword marking the 10th anniversary of the first publication which brings the reader up to date with the family. McBride has also published three novels, of which Miracle at St Anna (2002) and Song Yet Sung (2008) have been made into films. His third novel, The Good Lord Bird (2013) won the American National Book Award. The memoir is considered a classic.

The story is told in two voices which alternate throughout the book – those of McBride, and of his mother, Ruth. The sections in which his mother recalls her life – italicized in this edition – are told in her voice. Perhaps McBride recorded interviews with her, or perhaps his ear is perfectly attuned to her cadences, or both. However he did it, the result is masterful. You can almost hear her speaking.

She tells the story of how she was born to Jewish immigrants from Poland. Her father seems only to have married her mother in order to get sponsorship from other members of her family to allow him entry into the United States. A Jewish Rabbi, he set up a grocery store in Suffolk, Virginia, exploiting his black customers, whom he despised. She presents him as a cruel and unpleasant man, who ill-treated and abused his wife and children. Ruth left home as soon as she could and moved to New York. There she met and later married Andrew McBride, a kind and loving African American man. Her family completely rejected her. Ruth converted to Christianity when Andrew felt called to establish a Baptist church. They had eight children before he died at the age of 46 of lung cancer. Ruth later married again, this time to Hunter Jordan, also an African American, and had another four children, some of whom were still very young when her second husband died.

McBride tells his own story alongside that of his mother. For many years he felt uncertain of his identity. As a child, he wondered why she looked so different from him, and from the parents of all his friends. He talks about how his mother slaved to keep her children clothed and fed. He tells how she valued education above all else except Jesus, and how she struggled to get them into good schools – where, inevitably the majority of children where white, and often Jewish. She took them to every free concert, museum or community event she could find in New York, determined that they should acquire cultural capital (not that she used that phrase) to make up for their decided lack of material goods. ‘We thrived on thought, books, music and art, which she fed us instead of food.’ Ruth was intensely private; she thought that never accepting government assistance was a badge of honour – though the family lived in what I take to be public housing for a time. But accepting private philanthropy was OK. Although inevitably there were some bumps in the road – for example, one daughter ran away and James got hooked on booze and drugs for a time – all twelve of the children graduated from university and took up professional careers. Persuading his mother to talk about her past helped McBride come to terms with his own life.

Successfully raising twelve children is clearly an amazing achievement, even if there wasn’t the question of racism mixed in – and the strength of racism in America in the 1950s, 60s and even into the 70s still has the power to shock. McBride makes it clear how unusual his parents’ marriage was in 1940s America; in the South, it would have been illegal. Ruth and her family experienced prejudice and discrimination as Jews; at school, Ruth was called ‘Christ killer’ and ‘Jew baby’, and rejected by most of the other students. Being white, with a black husband and black children, caused comment and often abuse –such as being called ‘white trash’ – where ever they went. The only people who didn’t reject her were African Americans; ‘That’s why I never veered from the black side,’ she says. The main reason that she was able to ignore racism and insults was the strength of her belief in God. ‘It’s not about black and white,’ she says. ‘It’s about God, and don’t let anyone tell you different.’ When James asks her whether God is black or white, she explains that God is a spirit, and that like water, doesn’t have a color. ‘God is the color of water.’

So what is it about this remarkable story that makes me slightly uneasy? I guess it’s the way it can be assimilated into the ‘log cabin to Whitehouse’ myth – that in America, if you work hard enough, you will succeed. This was not true then and is even less true now. Ruth McBride Jordan’s struggle was exceptional. Millions of other Americans, particularly African American ones, could work hard, be thrifty and honest and honourable in their relationships, and still fail to rise out of poverty. Children shouldn’t need their parents to have remarkable drive and persistence for them to have the chance of a good education and the motivation to succeed. This is not something that McBride questions in the book, and why should he? I just would have felt more comfortable if he had acknowledged somewhere that systemic failures are overwhelmingly what keep people poor, not personal ones.

You can read more about James McBride here. Make sure you have the sound on – I forgot to say that he is an accomplished musician. I think I owe it to him to read The Good Lord Bird.

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