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Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Book review - The Veteran

Frederick Forsyth’s collection of five stories, The Veteran (2001) is definitely worth reading. [Beware that there is a single story with this title on offer too, and some readers have been caught out by this.]

If you haven’t read his breakout novel The Day of the Jackal (1971) or any of his other works, you might not appreciate his writing style. He’s an ex-journalist, so his tales – long and short – are mostly ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ from a writing perspective. That doesn’t matter, however, as he’s an engrossing storyteller (that is, not a storyshower!)

Whatever profession he writes about – the law, espionage, customs and excise, piloting an airbus etc. – he provides a wealth of insider information that puts you there. It’s as if we’re reading a slightly intimate documentary.
‘The Veteran’ is about an old soldier who is mugged on the street in London. The police are fortunate: they have an eye-witness and soon arrest the alleged culprits, who are to be defended by the lawyer Slade at the expense of the tax-payers. It looks like an open-and-shut case; they’ll get banged up for some years, at least. And then a high-flying barrister gets wind of the case and offers his services pro bono. Although the subject matter is grim, we’re given plenty of amusing authorial asides, too: ‘… two local men who were “helping the police with their inquiries.” This is one of those much-used phrases comparable with hospital bulletins that describe people in absolute agony as being “comfortable”. It means the opposite and everyone knows it.’ (p34) Forsyth’s writing, despite being omniscient, generates anger at the thugs who attack the old man and evokes frustration at the slipperiness of practitioners of law. This is an excellent twist-ending story.

‘The Art of the Matter’ was previously published as a single Original story (2000), the title playing on words. We soon get to the heart of the matter when we realise that the impecunious bit-part actor Mr Gore and the knowledgeable art assistant Benny Evans are taken for a ride by the duplicitous Peregrine Slade at the auction firm of House of Darcy. Here, too, we have an artwork blurb being broken down into layman’s terms: ‘… would include phrases like “charming”, meaning “if you like that sort of thing”, or “unusual”, meaning “he must have done this after a very heavy lunch”.’ (p95) There must have been a fixation on the surname ‘Slade’ since this also features that moniker. A superb twist-ending con artist scam story.

‘The Miracle’ takes place in Siena in 1975 during the famous horse race. (The Stewart Grainger 1962 film The Swordsman of Siena depicts this well, in colour!) Two American tourists are accosted by a stranger who relates a compelling and poignant tale of the siege of the city at the close of the Second World War, and the miracle that occurred in the courtyard where they find themselves. This is virtually all narrative from the stranger, interspersed with journalistic descriptive observation of the horse race that has no bearing on the tale. I found this moving yet ultimately unsatisfactory; the ending left me feeling cheated, as one might feel when a tyro writer ends with ‘and then I woke up, it was all a dream’. A magical story, spoiled by a cynical manipulative ending. (It would have worked with a double-twist ending, I reckon…)

‘The Citizen’ gives us an insight into the life of an airbus pilot and a Customs officer. The twist ending didn’t quite work, I felt, as the author had blatantly misdirected the reader with one character. Interesting, nevertheless.

The fifth story is a novella, ‘Whispering Wind’ and this too was published separately as an Original single (2000). Forsyth tells us about frontier scout Ben Craig, 24, who survived the massacre of the Little Bighorn on 25 June, 1876. Intriguing. It begins realistically enough, with in-depth reportage of the events leading up to Custer’s defeat, introducing Ben, who witnesses the indiscriminate slaughter of an undefended Indian village. Ben is instrumental in saving the life of a squaw, Wind That Talks Softly. Forsyth’s realisation of the situation, his description of the cavalry and the characters is, as you’d expect, well researched. It would be unfair to relate more, save that though history tells us that there were no survivors at the battle, Ben survived to live another day – and that phrase is significant, as the tale has fantasy elements. This is a bitter-sweet love story, handled with aplomb, and is suspenseful right up to the end. Worth the purchase price of the book on its own.

If you like short stories, these fit the bill. If you prefer longer pieces, then ‘Whispering Wind’ will serve very well.

Since this release Forsyth has published four more novels and an autobiography.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Book review - Time will darken it

William Maxwell’s Time Will Darken It (1948) is a quite haunting tragedy of manners and relationships. Set in the small town of Draperville, Illinois in 1912, this literary novel mainly concerns the lawyer Austin King, his wife Martha and their daughter Abbey.

Maxwell employs the omniscient point of view, understandably, as he is depicting several denizens in this small township, and entering into many of their heads. It’s a slow, measured narrative, words and phrases clearly considered over months if not years, certainly not rushed out in a few weeks or months; he probably allowed the characters to gestate and conduct their monologues in his mind over time.

Austin King has reluctantly invited the family of foster ‘cousins’ from Mississippi to stay in his house, against his wife’s wishes. They have never met the Potter family, but Austin feels he must do the right thing. He is plagued by that condition, and is hostage to always wanting peace. With the first paragraphs we appreciate the tension between the married couple. This is not the first time they’ve been at loggerheads.

There are several instances where Maxwell gives us an authorial aside (and a number of these asides are surreal, observations made by furniture and such like!); not from any particular character’s viewpoint: ‘It was not his failure entirely. Women are never ready to let go of love at the point where men are satisfied and able to turn to something else. It is a fault of timing that affects the whole human race. There is no telling how much harm it has caused.’ (p12) This is a telling conclusion to a chapter, excellent foreshadowing of harm to come.

Mrs Potter’s first appearance is colourful and described with amusing wit: ‘… so small, so slight, here dress so elaborately embroidered and beaded, her hair so intricately held in place by pins and rhinestone-studded combs that she seemed, though alive, to be hardly flesh and blood but more like a middle-aged fairy.’ (p14)

Maxwell is good at conveying mood, too. ‘… and the clock threatened once more to take possession of the room.’ An awkward silence fell between them and the clock’s ticking again intruded. Another example: ‘The front stairs creaked, but not from any human footstep. The sunlight relinquished its hold on the corner of an oriental rug in the study in order to warm the leg of a chair. A fly settled on the kitchen ceiling. In the living room a single white wheel-shaped phlox blossom hung for a long time and then dropped to the table without making a sound.’ (p71)

Time will darken most things, perhaps; or fade them, if left out in daylight. Take this description, for example: ‘The rooms were large and opened one out of another, and the cherry woodwork, from decades of furniture polish, had taken on the gleam of dark red marble.’ (p1`59). Good visualisation, indeed; you can almost smell the age, and the polish, of course.

Austin’s father was ‘the nearest the town of Draperville had come to producing a great man.’ Unfortunately for Austin, he was forever in the dead man’s shadow, but acquiesced, rather than ruffle feathers and change things.

There’s a clever piece of flashback employed, too. When Martha spends time unpicking the sewing of her dress, an expressed favourite of her husband’s, she unpicks her courtship with Austin and her running away from him when he first proposed. ‘Although so much time and effort have gone into denying it, the truth of the matter is that women are human, susceptible to physical excitement and the moon.’ (p75) She yearned for a man ‘who would give her the sense of danger, a man who would look at her and make everything go dim around her’ (p73). But finally she settled for staid upstanding Austin.

While the township gives the appearance of being genteel, it isn’t. Another aside tells us ‘The world (including Draperville) is not a nice place, and the innocent and the young have to take their chances…’ (p53)

To the local townspeople, the Potters seem almost exotic, and before long Mr Potter is inveigling certain prominent folk into investing in his cotton business. Their daughter Nora is besotted with Austin and declares her love for him, and instead of telling her not to be foolish, he does nothing save allow her to stay behind with neighbours when the rest of the family return south. The neighbours have their own fascination, whether that’s deaf Dr Danforth who feels cut off because of his affliction and then finds companionship and marriage unexpectedly, or the middle-aged spinster sisters Alice and Lucy Beach, dominated by their mother, or Austin’s senior partner, the relatively idle pompous Mr Holby, or the rumour-mongering card club ladies, or the Kings’ Negro maid and cook, Rachel, who suffered domestic violence.

Slowly, inexorably, a crisis approaches as Martha’s pregnancy comes to term, as a disastrous accident occurs, and as a possible suicide looms.

The world and characters created linger long after the last page has been absorbed.

A highly regarded author, Maxwell was a famous fiction editor of the New Yorker from 1936 to 1975. He wrote six novels and a great many short stories. He died in 2000, aged 91.

Minor editing comments

Surprisingly, even an accomplished editor and writer such as Maxwell uses the dubious phrase ‘His eyes rested uneasily on the design…’ (p2) Nowadays, we try to avoid eyes doing these surreal things. His gaze rested uneasily, perhaps. Later, ‘Austin’s eyes wandered to the clock…’ (p10). Minor quibbles; in this latter scene we’re easily caught up in the strained relationship, only lightened by the appearance of little Abbey.

‘On the mantelshelf there was a brass clock with the works visible through panes of thick bevelled glass, and several family photographs.’ (p159). Perhaps it would read better thus: ‘On the mantelshelf there were several family photographs and a brass clock with the works visible through panes of thick bevelled glass.’

Many of the most dramatic events are off-stage, and that can frustrate some readers, but on reflection I don’t believe it matters too much, as it is the consequences these individuals have to deal with, not the actual occurrences that drive the narrative.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Writing - 'well written guide'

My non-fiction genre writing guide Write a Western in 30 Days is still picking up 5-star reviews.  The latest is:

'A definitely well written guide to help you through the writing process.' review, dated 7 March 2017. Thank you, Brian L. Smith. 

That was my intention, to help in the writing process. 

There are 17 positive reviews on and 9 on Amazon.UK. (1 month ago, C Mitchell said, 'Thank you Nik for pointers, inspiration and focus. Great read.'

Whether paperback or Kindle, the book has proved to be useful to beginner writers and even old hands who want to try a different genre.

                                                                    Available here

Just released: third volume of my collected short stories, Visitors... 9 stories about the Old West.

Available here 

A fourth volume will be released soon, with a fifth to follow in due course.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Book review - Investigating Murdoch Mysteries

The official companion to the TV series, Murdoch Mysteries (2015) is a lavish reasonably priced hardback with dozens of colour photographs. Ideal for any fan to own. The authors Michelle Ricci and Mir Bahmanyar were given much assistance from the cast and crew; this book covers series 1 thru 8, so there will be spoilers. As usual, Titan Books gives us an excellent book in every respect.

There’s a foreword by the author of the books, Maureen Jennings, enjoying how her characters are being brought to life. The introduction is by Christina Jennings (no relation!), Executive Producer and Chairman & CEO of Shaftesbury films, explaining that some twelve years ago Maureen Jennings’ publisher sent her the books to read, and she decided to adapt three books as TV movies. Although the adaptations were faithful to the books, there was one exception; the invention of another character outside her comfort zone, just like Murdoch, so coroner Julia Ogden was created. The films were successful and the broadcaster was keen for a continuing series to be produced. It was decided to depart from the darker tone of the movies, ‘more Jules Verne, less Dickens’, and introduce steampunk and humour, with knowing nods to the future, and of course there would be romance. Happily, the team assembled provided all that, and more, from good writing, brilliant Victorian and Edwardian sets, to excellent acting.

There are fascinating insights into the characters, Victorian Toronto, and the inventions of the time depicted.  The Toronto police were formed in 1859. By the time of the start of the series (1895) the police have all-night patrols, a mounted unit for outlying areas and to control speeding horses! Bicycles for patrols were introduced in 1894, and as we know Murdoch was a keen cyclist. Up to the early 1890s, the police were also the main source of ‘social services’, until humane societies came on the scene. 

We are presented with blueprints of Police Station No.4 and the morgue. And Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared as a desk sergeant. We’re given an insight into the music, too, which is an important aspect of the series, helping to create the mood. 

Yannick Bisson (Murdoch) does not, has never, and will never wear mascara or any eye makeup, we are told. Those distinctive eyelashes have been with him since he was born! It could have been a daunting prospect to audition for a character that had already appeared in three TV movies. However, executive producer Val Coons had declared he was looking for someone different, He read about three times to get the part – which he has definitely claimed as his own over eight series.

Considerable coverage is given to the costumes, which again have to reflect not only the period but the characters. The offices, and all the other sets, are painstakingly created to evoke that period feel.

All the main characters are covered in some depth – Julia Ogden, Constable George Crabtree, Inspector Thomas Brackenreid, and Doctor Emily Grace. Then we meet their friends and foes, too, all of whom grow in depth as the series moves forward, not least Chief Constable Percival Giles, tycoon James Pendrick, spymaster Terrence Meyers and arch-enemy James Gillies, among many others.

There’s an intriguing blueprint of Pendrick’s electric car, ‘The Pendrick Bullet’, which took four months to perfect instead of the usual two weeks for inventive props. And it worked, as shown, with the actors in the cab!

And of course we can’t forget the many historical figures who appear in the series: Prince Alfred, Alexander Graham Bell, Winston Churchill, Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, Jack London, ‘Bat’ Masterson, Annie Oakley, Theodore Roosevelt, H.G. Wells, and many more fascinating cameos.

Lastly, we’re given a year-by-year account of the attraction, disappointments, travails and on-off courtship of William Murdoch and Julia Ogden.

Every year, the writing staff  meet a number of months before the next series goes into production and they develop stories and ideas. We’re given a fascinating overview of how a storyline comes together – the 100th episode, in fact – and how the writers lay out a particular story with all the specifics – the beats – of what happen in each scene. They have to attend to logical progression, clues, red herrings, humorous interludes. The beat sheet is the guide; this becomes 15 pages of prose, scenes in paragraphs. It’s then read and revised and approved and then it becomes a 50-minute script.

As the back-cover blurb says, this is a treasure trove for fans of the series.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Book review – Doctor on the Ball

If you want an amusing gloriously politically incorrect comic novel, you could do a lot worse than read one of Dr Richard Gordon’s doctor series of books.

Gordon Ostlere was born in 1921, so he was sixty-four when he wrote his penultimate Doctor novel, Doctor on the Ball (1985).  He left the medical profession to concentrate on writing in 1952 and has produced many novels, screenplays as well as non-fiction. He’s now 95.

When we encounter his fictional doctor Gordon in this tome, he has been a GP in the market town of Churchford, Kent for twenty-five years and is probably ready for retirement and spending his time trying to catch fish. His first person narrative, delivered tongue in cheek, relates several hilarious or touching medical cases.

Mr Farthingale, the shop steward at the General hospital is one of his regulars. He was ‘shop steward for the Association of Confederated Health Employees (ACHE), whose complicated disagreement with his rival shop stewards for General Ancillary Services Personnel (GASP) and the Organisation for Unqualified Cooperatives in Health (OUCH) over deploying the new electrical floor cleaners had earlier kept the General’s brand-new Elizabeth Wing empty and idle for months.’ (pp80-81) It transpires that Farthingale has stolen a new bodyscanner – it’s in his front room at home, and now he wants to return it, without being caught…

This is not so unusual, as we all know. The parlous state of the hospital system is perhaps not helped by misappropriation of commodities: ‘Is there much thieving at the hospital?’ He guffawed. ‘You must be joking. Don’t you know, the National Health Service is Britain’s Sin City? Makes Chicago look like Lourdes.’ Items stolen include X-ray films for the silver, oxygen cylinders for the steel, for example, he relates.

Gordon’s targets are not only the NHS management, either. ‘The Foreign Office is for ever leaving top secret papers in bistros, the Army litters Dorset with unexploded shells, and the Exchequer loses millions of quid every time it tries to add up.’ (p90)

In the doctor’s rare spare time, he grows things: ‘In June the greenhouse became as rewarding as the end of a multiple pregnancy, cucumbers dangling as plump as green salami, aubergines as burstingly purple as nasty bruises, tomatoes pressing against the panes like commuters crammed into rush-hour trains.’ (p93) Unfortunately, it’s been a bumper year and he has too many tomatoes, and his wife Sandra has to be very inventive to use them all (which raises a chuckle or two).

The good doctor doesn’t like the women’s liberation movement or lawyers; concerning the latter, he says, ‘Perhaps because they are trained to be nasty to people and we are trained to be nice to people. And doctors are spared from growing pompous. We have to look up too many fundamental orifices.’ (p98)

There are plenty of amusing one-liners, too: ‘I’m a pathologist. All my patients have to be dead first.’ (p100).

And bearing in mind this was published in 1985, times haven’t changed much: ‘Everyone knows the NHS is tighter for cash than the Church of England.’ (p151)

Inevitably, many asides on once current personalities are no longer relevant – whether that’s mentioning politicians, TV personalities or sports people.

I imagine there will be a few PC individuals who could finds these books offensive; if you can’t appreciate a joke, then please leave the human race.

The doctor books are:

Doctor at Sea. 1953.
Doctor at Large. 1955.
Doctor in Clover. 1960.
Doctor on Toast. 1961.
Love and Sir Lancelot. 1965.
Doctor on the Boil. 1970.
Doctor on the Brain. 1972.
Doctor in the Nude. 1973.
The Sleep of Life. 1975.
Doctor on the Job. 1976.
Doctor in the Nest. 1979.
Doctor's Daughters. 1981.
Doctor on the Ball. 1985.
Doctor in the Soup. 1986.