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John Carey’s autobiography (2014) is subtitled An Oxford Life in Books. It is, as he explains in the foreword, ‘a history of English literature and me, how we met, how we got on, what came of it,’ a case study in ‘what kind of upbringing produces a preference for some books rather than others’.  One of the things that came of it is one of my favourite books, The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992) by John Carey, so naturally I was interested to see the upbringing and outlook that produced it.

While it is true that the story of a life that is utterly different to one’s own can be fascinating and challenging, I tend to agree with Carey’s somewhat ironic comment that the autobiographies of ‘people who share your own views, are of course, the best.’ Not that Carey’s life has been anything like mine – for a start, he was way cleverer, which is why he gets to write an autobiography people might want to read and I don’t. But I was fascinated by the comparison of his student life at Oxford, and mine at a provincial university in the colonies, where Oxford set standards that were never quite lived up to. Though maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. Carey was a scholarship boy, the product of a good grammar school classical education; no one was exposed to that sort of education in post-WWII Australia, so a restrictive Oxbridge syllabus was fortunately never possible here. 1960s university Arts curricula may have cast wistful glances back at Oxbridge, but thank goodness we didn’t end our idea of ‘English Literature’ in 1834, as Oxford did when Carey was an undergraduate in the early 1950s. In later years he did much to change this, to the great annoyance of some of his colleagues. He also tried to ensure that students received better teaching, in terms of how to read, what to read and how to criticise – an area where some Australian academics might have benefited from following his lead.

Carey researched and taught at a number of Oxford colleges during his long academic career. From the first, he was aware of the class distinctions that operated in most of them, Balliol being an honourable exception. Of Christ Church, ‘just walking through it was an object lesson in how architecture can be used to make people feel small.’ At Keeble, he encountered one academic whom he loathed, seeing him as ‘a symbol of the monstrous injustice of Oxford, its crooked admissions policy and its shameless favouring of wealth and privilege.’ Of course he met with much intellectual honesty and generosity, as well as friendship. But it was the sense of superiority evinced by many of the academic staff that was the seed that germinated as The Intellectuals and the Masses.

Carey comes from a solid middle class background, of parents who had no particular aspirations towards high culture. His father was an accountant, understandably proud of his clever son. It occurred to Carey that people like the snobbish don he met at Christ Church – who pointedly refrained from ever addressing the young Carey – would despise his parents, and that thought eventually turned into The Intellectuals and the Masses. This is a study in cultural history of writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who created what is now called ‘modernist literature’. Carey argues that many intellectuals resented the ‘semi-literate masses’ produced by the compulsory education reforms of 1870. In response, they excluded them from high culture by creating a literature which the masses couldn’t understand, because it ‘cultivates obscurity and depends on learned allusions.’ Carey is not saying that this literature was necessarily bad; indeed he very much admires some of the work of D.H. Lawrence, one of the writers he uses as an example. Others he comments on are T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats and H.G. Wells.  Needless to say this analysis was met with howls of fury, but I found it wonderfully liberating.

Most of Carey’s early academic work is high quality commentary on Milton, Donne and Marvell; later he wrote about Dickens, Thackeray and William Golding. But he is more broadly known for his collections of reportage and science writing. More recently he again shocked his academic colleagues with a small book entitled What Use Are the Arts? (2005), in which he considers what is a work of art, and whether exposure to works of art makes you a better person? The answers he reluctantly arrives at are that anything can be so considered, and unfortunately ‘no’. But he concludes that what matters is whether a book – or a painting, a piece of music – gives ‘joy and satisfaction’, and surely there could be no better test.

You can read a little more about Professor Carey here, including a list of his major works, and an interesting profile of him here. If you don’t fancy the autobiography, try the Faber Book of Reportage (1987) – eyewitness accounts of history – or the Faber Book of Science (1995). Or, of course, The Intellectuals and the Masses.

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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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