OR: Kissing the Beehive

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #21:-

KISSING THE BEEHIVE
Jonathan Carroll
Vista pb, 251pp, £6.99

As a child in the idyllic town of Crane’s View, Sam Bayer discovered a dead body, that of murdered cheerleader Pauline ‘the Beehive’ Ostrova. Her boyfriend was accused of the crime and later committed suicide in prison. Now a bestselling author in search of an idea for a new book Sam returns to his childhood haunts to investigate the killing, which was never solved to his satisfaction. But others have their own agendas, including possibly the real murderer, wanting Sam to finish the book at any cost. Not the least of Sam’s problems is Veronica Lake, his new girlfriend until the revelations about her past begin to mount up, a woman who desperately wants to be a part of Sam’s life but has no idea how to achieve that end, an emotional yo-yo who swings between moods of incredible generosity and acts of petty cruelty.

While it deftly builds an air of anticipation there are none of the surpanormal intrusions past experience has led us to expect from Carroll. This is his most down to earth novel, dedicated to Stephen King among others, and in part touching on themes raised in stories like Misery and The Body, an elegy for the lost innocence of childhood and exploration of the dangers of obsession, but Carroll deals with the material in his own unique way. Veronica describes herself as Sam’s biggest fan. However this is no leering psychopath in the Annie Wilkes mould but a far more complex and fascinating individual.

The book operates on two levels. In the foreground is a solidly constructed mystery story, complete with beginning, middle and an end calculated to satisfy the most demanding armchair detective. On another level it’s the story of Veronica Lake, so vital and alive, but also capable of acting in a way that sets every alarm bell ringing. How we react to Veronica is in some way a measure of how we deal with life itself. The paradox Carroll identifies is that often the most interesting people are also the most dangerous, ultimately to themselves if not to others. However you read it this is a compelling and deeply satisfying novel from a writer at the top of his form.

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OR: Razorjack & Monster Massacre

A couple of reviews that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 29th of July last year:-

A picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words, though I’m not sure my double review of these two books issued by Titan way back in 2013 will quite stretch to the two thousand word mark.

RAZORJACK (Titan Comics hc, 106pp, £14.99) is the brain child of artist John Higgins, who is credited as creator, writer, penciller, and colorist, everything in fact except script, an honour accorded to Mike Carroll (and the small print reveals a few other worthies, but we’ll put that to one side). Higgins’ back catalogue includes work on Watchmen, Judge Dredd, and Batman, among others.

Razorjack is a female entity ruling over the Twist, “an infernal dimension of molten pain, terror and screaming torment”. Only a being known as Lady Helen can resist her. To destroy Lady Helen, Razorjack must come into our world and to do so she needs somebody willing to house her in their body. Charged with preventing such a thing are homicide detectives Ross and Frame (and the latter, post-death, has bonded with Lady Helen), who must tackle the various cults intent on helping Razorjack. So far, so Lovecraftian, with a demonic female entity in lieu of Cthulhu and a spiritual female entity for the Elder Gods, oh and a soupcon of police corruption to move things along, plus echoes of Barker’s visionary horror in the Twist.

The storytelling all felt a bit rushed to my mind – one minute Ross is in hospital, then a page later she’s back on duty, with no real sense of seguing easily from one scene to another – and with various strands to the tale that feel like a matter of convenience or coincidental. The concepts however grasp the imagination and, even if the pace at times feels a bit frantic, the storytelling and main characters hold the reader’s attention. Frame and Ross are larger than life, but only pale shadows of the main baddies, with a wonderful buddy buddy act from men in black Mr. Jones and Mr. Kahn. Best of all are the visuals, with a wonderfully effective muted colour scheme and images that crash out of their panels and almost jump into the reader’s head.

There are a couple of bonus stories. ‘Deadfall’ has Frame as a trans-dimensional detective dealing with a demonic entity, Ross helping out in the end game. Again it’s the visuals that compel, with the story in this case nothing more than filler. ‘A Glimpse of Summer’ is set in feudal Japan and has a female demon carving her way through the country’s samurai elite in pursuit of a small band of fugitives. At the end we have a connection with Frame and Ross in the present day. It’s a nice piece, like a variation on Terminator as the demon attempts to kill one of Ross’ ancestors. Finally the book is rounded out with a series of sketches and finished artwork, showing John Higgins’ thought processes and working methods, making this a very attractive package (and a bargain when bought second hand on Amazon).

Contrary to the heading above, MONSTER MASSACRE (Titan Comics/Atomeka Press hc, 160pp, £17.99) is an anthology of graphic stories edited by Dave Elliott rather than a novel. The cover illustration with its depiction of a woman who would make most exotic dancers look overdressed, suggests that this book is pitched at teenage boys whose parental controls forbid them access to genuine porn so they reach out to comics instead. It’s an unfortunate choice of illustration as, while some stories share a similar ambience, the majority of the material contained within the covers of this book has a broader, dare one say more adult, appeal.

Opening up the proceedings is a quote from H. P. Lovecraft about the wonders of dreaming, after which we get ‘The Angel of Death’ by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, in which a rural community is menaced by a creature released from a fossil by archaeologists. The idea is hardly original, and probably wasn’t even when the story was first published, which judging from the quaint style of artwork was back in the 1960s or earlier. It’s a nice touch of nostalgia, looking back to see where we have been, before moving on to other things.

Other things in this case is ‘Ira Gershwin Monster Puncher’ by Andy Kuhn, which is set in 1930s America and has Gershwin earning money on the side by punching monsters, though of course there’s a twist which I suspect everyone will see coming. It’s harmless enough, but hardly exciting, with Kuhn’s bombastic art style and borderline monochrome colouring the main appeal. ‘Pair of Rogues’, written by Ron Marz and illustrated by Tom Raney, has a roughly similar narrative schemata, but is set in a fantasy land and with a slightly different twist at the end. As a story it doesn’t offer any surprises, but the artwork is delightful, with an ethereal feel to the imagery and vibrant use of colour.

Eponymous muscleman ‘Sharky’ joins forces with a female iteration of Thor dressed as a porn star on the last lap before the money shot, and the two fight a big, ugly green something for reasons that never really get stated. Editor Dave Elliott’s story feels like an episode from something larger, while Alex Horley’s artwork takes the worst elements of work by artists like Frazetta and Corben, pushing them all to the foreground and ignoring everything else including practicality in matters of battle costume. There follows a gallery of Horley’s paintings, which suggest a greater range than the story implies, though the influence of Frazetta remains obvious and most of the women depicted are body builders in posing pouches.

‘Little Monsters’ was my favourite story in the book. Set in an idyllic and wonderfully off kilter version of utopia that put me slightly in mind of Le Guin’s Omelas, it shows how the perfect life can so easily be undermined through simple lack of forethought. A subtle and pointed story from Ian Edginton, with strikingly different artwork from D’Israeli. From Kendrick Lim we have a one page painting of ‘Valkyries’, and that’s followed by ‘El Zombo’ in which a selection of musclemen in spandex straining costumes fight assorted monsters, including female warriors in metal bikinis or less, with again the feeling that this story from Dave Wilkins is an episode from something else, and the most interesting feature the comedic banter of the homicidal Mr. Monster.

More interesting is ‘Seasons’ in which the four elements battle for control of the biosphere, Mark A. Nelson’s script carefully worded to capture a sense of monumental actions taking place and a mood of fatality underlying it all, while his black and white visuals convey the feel of classic Irish mythology. From Mike Elliott we have the anthology’s one prose offering, ‘The Thing in the Surf’, which is the most Lovecraftian of what’s on show, as a scientist summons a tentacled terror, to borrow from the story’s sub-heading. It’s okay, but I’ve read better, and so have you.

‘Monkey Business: A Tale of Hitch on the Road’ is set in a post zombie apocalypse reality and re-enacts a scene from The Wizard of Oz with a zombie biker in lieu of Dorothy. It’s as gleefully oddball as it sounds and the visuals are a delight, with black and white panels effectively ushering us in and out of the full colour action as well as conveying a sense of the transference between worlds, while the splash panels seem to strain against the boundaries of the page with their sheer exuberance and invention. Kudos to Dave Dorman for breathing life into this weird beauty.

‘Deep Six’ is as close to standard comic book fare as it gets, with deep sea divers encountering a monster on the sea bed and various subplots regarding the plight of an offshore oil rig. Like other stories here it suffered from “part of something bigger” syndrome, with various redundancies of plot and characters wandering in and out of the action for no good reason. The artwork by Jerry Paris and a somewhat restrained Arthur Suydam was more than up to the demands of the story, though there were moments when I felt the panels were a little top heavy with speech bubbles. There follows a ‘Steve White Gallery’ with some gorgeous black and white and colour illustrations from an artist with an interest in dinosaurs.

‘Daikaiju’ is set in a Japan menaced by a giant dragon and concerns the quest for a magical weapon to defeat the beast, though the trajectory of the story seems aimed at illustrating a Nietzsche quote (you know the one – about fighting monsters). Vito Delsante provides story and Javier Aranda supplies visuals, but I don’t think either will linger in the memory for very long.

Finally we have ‘Bandits’, a simple tale of a desert ambush, with the delight of the story in the irony of what happens and the striking artwork, which if I had to guess I would have said was down to Arthur Suydam, but was in fact Mark A. Nelson having a second bite of the cherry and showing another side of his considerable talent.

After each work are informative biographies of the relevant creators.

And as a bonus feature, scattered throughout the book are one page paintings of classic monsters, or their most famous counterparts – Boris, Elsa, etc. – by Rex Edwards, evocative portraits that capture the essence of those they portray.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I doubt that anyone will either like or hate all of this book. Perhaps the best way to approach it is as a taster volume, a way to decide which creators and characters you wish to see more from.

Titan issued a follow up anthology in 2014, Monster Massacre Volume 2 and judging from the cover the success of its predecessor meant more money could be allocated to the wardrobe department, though not that much more.

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OR: Mycroft Holmes & The Stuff of Nightmares

A couple of reviews that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 25th of July last year:-

Having started the week with a detective story set in the year 1815 (see previous blog entry), it seems appropriate to skip forward half a century or so and show some love to a couple of books featuring the adventures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar used to be a basketball player (Hall of Fame inductee, so I’m assuming he was a bit good at it), but then moved into the writing world, with books for both adults and children in the back catalogue, winning an award for one of the latter entries in his oeuvre. With MYCROFT HOLMES (Titan Books hc, 328pp, £17.99), the first in a trilogy (so far) of books chronicling the adventures of Sherlock’s older and even cleverer brother, Abdul-Jabbar joins forces with professional screenwriter and script consultant Anna Waterhouse.

At the time of this story Mycroft is a minor government official serving under the Secretary of State for War. News of the disappearance of children on the island of Trinidad is a cause of concern to the two most important people in Mycroft’s life, his bride to be Georgiana Sutton, who was born there, and his friend Douglas, a black man who secretly owns a cigar shop that Mycroft patronises. When Georgiana leaves for Trinidad with no explanation, Mycroft uses his influence to start an investigation into goings on in the British colony. With Douglas posing as his manservant Mycroft embarks for Trinidad, but even while shipboard there are attempts on his life. These continue and in more deadly earnest once he makes landfall. The game is very much afoot.

I rather enjoyed this while I was reading it, but three weeks later I couldn’t recall much about it. The pleasures of the book are mostly to be found in the way in which Mycroft displays his intellectual prowess, in the very opening chapter coaching Cambridge to a boat race win and then outrunning some thugs, with perhaps the highlight being a meeting with brother Sherlock in which the two compete for mastery. The greater mystery doesn’t quite ring true, with scenes that seem rather more to do with plot convenience than credibility and an unconvincing picture of both life shipboard and in a British colony. I assume the authors did their research, but for me at least it didn’t translate to verisimilitude on the page.

Of the two groups who help Holmes and Douglas bring the fight to their enemies, I was intrigued by the Merikens, a group I had never heard of before and a sterling example of that aforementioned research, but I wasn’t quite so taken with the Chinese martial artists, whose presence stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb and had echoes of a Jet Li movie. Both groups and the Merikens especially, provide welcome scope for criticism of the racist tendencies prevalent at the time in which the book is set, with a subtext that sadly is still relevant today.

In the final stretch the book read like something Wilbur Smith might have written in his heyday, with a firefight between slavers and liberated slaves, which made for an exciting ending, while the resolution with Georgiana added a bittersweet note to proceedings. It was, all things told, something of a feel good finale with the men behind the scheme getting their deserved comeuppance and the forces of good prevailing. I enjoyed the book, but it lacked the originality and sheer style of Conan Doyle’s creation, perhaps inevitably so.

The book seems to have done well for the publisher, with a mass market paperback edition released in July of last year, and a sequel imaginatively titled Mycroft and Holmes following in October 2018, while a third volume is planned for September of this year.

One of the people I get directed to under the “also bought” banner when checking out Mycroft Holmes on Amazon is James Lovegrove. I’ve reviewed a couple of his previous books, apparently without any lasting damage to the writer’s career, and it appears that in recent years Lovegrove has carved out a niche for himself producing Sherlock Holmes’ pastiches for Titan. As you’d expect, given the writer’s pedigree, these books have a fantastic and/or horror bent to them, though at all times respectful to the canon. THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES (Titan Books tpb, 297pp, £7.99) from 2013 was Lovegrove’s first foray into these largely uncharted waters.

It’s 1925 and Watson has deemed it safe to release his “fictionalised” account of an adventure that took place back in 1890. London is beset by a series of bombings that move ever closer to Queen Victoria in Buckingham Palace. A worried Mycroft invites his younger brother to join the investigation, but Holmes is much more interested in the case of Baron Cauchemar, a mysterious figure who is despatching summary justice to the criminals of the East End. The two cases prove to be connected of course, and the scene is set for a climactic showdown.

This isn’t a book that is going to change anyone’s life, but it is a splendid piece of entertainment. It’s been a long time since I read any Conan Doyle, so I can’t honestly say if Lovegrove gets the tone and flavour of the original, but the work feels right. His prose is engaging and the story races along at a ruthless pace. Holmes is somewhat more approachable than I remember, with his affection for Watson obvious, but he still on occasion displays his uncanny ability to read people from outward signs, though not to the point where we find it tedious or simply showy. He is also prone to playing his cards a little too close to his chest, and at times this is the goad that stimulates the plot, making what might otherwise seem a tad too opaque grab our interest.

The book has a rather magnificent villain, one to rival Moriarty in his duplicity, with an oily manner and leaning towards perverse pleasures that solicits our animosity even if I did find the character’s exaggerated “chauvinism” a bit hard to swallow. If the book had been written four or five years later I’d suspect Lovegrove of sounding a rather obvious and unsubtle warning on the dangers of grotesquely twisted nationalism (but of course, you could argue that such warnings are always timely). Baron Cauchemar is the complete opposite of this monster, with an engrossing back story: an honest man and a little too naïve for his own good, but like a character in his beloved Jules Verne novels he is determined to put his scientific prowess to good use.

The plot is enthralling, giving us plenty of occasions for alarums and excursions, all of them leading up to the grand finale in which Cauchemar as a steampunk Iron Man takes on his nemesis in an epic battle royal between rival inventors, with Holmes and Watson on hand to provide assistance if required (at this point you could make a case for the detecting duo being supporting characters, though who gets to be steampunk Happy and who is steampunk Pepper I’ll leave others to decide).

With its steampunk trappings the book rather reminded me of the 2010 straight to video Sherlock Holmes starring Ben Syder, which has to be one of the most woeful attempts ever made to place the character on celluloid, but fortunately Lovegrove has a much better grasp of the characters and an ability to use the material with a flair and imagination lacking from that production.

I read The Stuff of Nightmares over the course of two days and had a thoroughly enjoyable time doing so. Lovegrove has written eight more Holmes’ pastiches and as soon as there’s a window of opportunity in my reading schedule I hope to check out some of them.

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OR: The Detective and the Devil

A review that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 22nd of July last year:-

Perhaps it’s the looming shadow cast by the Tory leadership election and the (real or not) threat of a post-Brexit move back to the 1950s, but I’m feeling rather historical at the moment, positively ancient in fact, which is my cue to give some consideration to THE DETECTIVE AND THE DEVIL (Simon & Schuster tpb , 328pp, £7.99) by Lloyd Shepherd, the fourth volume in an ongoing series chronicling the adventures of a detective answering to the name Charles Horton.

It’s London in 1815 and Constable Horton of the River Police is called in to investigate the horrific murder of a family that bears a remarkable resemblance to an earlier series of killings, one for which the culprit is thought dead. As the case progresses, Horton finds links to the powerful East India Company and the Elizabethan alchemist John Dee. There are attempts by those with influence to hinder his investigation, but a group of powerful men are on Horton’s side and, when his position as a policeman becomes untenable, they finance an expedition by Horton and his wife Abigail to the island of St. Helena. It is here that both ‘a killer who seems to be the very Devil’ and the solution to a great mystery await the detective.

With its River Police protagonist and his former nurse wife, this book can’t help but bring to mind Anne Perry’s William Monk series of Victorian detective novels (of which I’ve read quite a few), albeit those are post-Crimean, while Horton’s adventures take place more than forty years earlier, with George III on the throne and Napoleonic discontent still rumbling away on the continent as a backdrop. Horton and Abigail don’t have quite as easy going a relationship as Monk and Hester, with Horton rather too concerned to protect Abigail and her having to assert herself forcefully on occasion, even though she is obviously the better educated and well-read of the two. This adds a certain frisson to the relationship and the stories, as does Abigail’s history of mental illness and psychiatric interest in her personality “disorder”, which points to interesting future developments.

Intercut with the main story are scenes from the time of Doctor Dee and in the years since that add depth and lay the foundation to the story’s principle plot conceit, along the way involving an element of misdirection to keep the detective and reader guessing. Shepherd is excellent at capturing both the sense of Georgian London, a bustling metropolis with striking contrasts between the rich and poor, and the wildness and isolation of St. Helena, bringing them both to vivid life, with scenes that both shock and delight, squalor and elegance, civilisation and nature red in tooth and claw, sitting side by side on the page.

And he gives us a memorable villain in the form of a man as urbane and well educated as he is completely ruthless and with a murderous disposition, one who so easily fills the shoes of the Devil to Horton’s detective, evil incarnate in human form. A Ripper long before Jack was even a twinkle in his grandfather’s eye.

The other characters, such as crotchety old magistrate Harriott and his on the make rival Markland, street urchin Rat and the manipulative Mina Baxter, author Charles Lamb and East India functionary Putnam, are all well-drawn and convincing. They stand on their own two feet, distinct as individuals, but at the same time exemplary embodiments of personality types with which we will all be familiar.

At heart of the book is a theme that is timeless, the ways in which the rich and powerful seek to game life in their favour, those who already have more than enough wanting to possess even more. And given the importance to the story of what is, in essence, a multinational company, one that makes its own rules independent of nation states, there is something of a modern feel to the narrative’s subtext.

I would describe the writing as workmanlike rather than elegant or memorable, and the story’s flow on occasion is interrupted by gaps in the narrative that are brushed over simply with a few sentences, though to be fair it is hard to see how else Shepherd could have managed to move things along without turning it into a bore fest or losing credibility in the pacing.

I enjoyed the book rather more than not, and found it a work that should appeal to lovers of historical, detective, and horror fiction, and it required little effort to get a grip on the book as a standalone volume, though undoubtedly those familiar with the three previous entries in the series will have an easier time of things and possible derive more from the story.

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OR: Breakfast with the Borgias

A review that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 18th of July last year:-

BREAKFAST WITH THE BORGIAS (Arrow Books/Hammer tpb, 248pp, £7.99) is the first book I have read by DBC Pierre, a former winner of the Booker Prize for Vernon God Little, and it feels refreshing to find a writer with this sort of pedigree publishing under the Hammer imprint (in the biographical notes he registers an interest of sorts in the film studio’s output). With previous appearances by Jeanette Winterson and Helen Dunmore we are, thankfully, long past the time when the literati were at pains to put distance between themselves and genre work; on the other hand it seems that on any occasion when the great and the good dip a toe into the waters of genre, the gallery is ready to proclaim a reinvention of the wheel, claims which to the cognoscenti seem as risible as they are tiresome.

I digress, and so shall now step down from my soapbox to tell you about Ariel Panek, an American academic working on Artificial Intelligence, who is on his way to speak at a conference in Amsterdam, and also to hook up with Zeva, a student he has persuaded to share some time with him. Unfortunately his plane is delayed in London due to fog and the airline books Ariel into The Cliffs Hotel, a guesthouse on the Suffolk coast. With no internet connection, Ariel finds himself cut off from the outside world in general and Zeva in particular, and stranded in a place that feels like an annex of hell (I’ve visited the Suffolk coast quite often and it’s rather nice really, though there are parts of Lowestoft you might want to avoid).

Ariel’s discomfort is exacerbated by the hotel’s resident guests, the Border family. Leonard keeps trying to persuade him to invest in some grandiose museum scheme, while wheelchair bound Margot is knowledgeable about quantum physics to the point that she can undermine many of his theories on AI. Daughter Olivia seems the most sensible one, while son Jack is hooked on computer games to the exclusion of pretty much everything else and ward Gretchen is completely bonkers. Both Olivia and Gretchen seem to have designs on Ariel’s body, causing more complications. To make matters even worse the police are out in force to investigate an unspecified crime, with Ariel as a suspect.

Fantastic, not to mention absurd, as all this is, the truth is even more so.

I have very mixed feelings about this book. The central premise, the book’s big reveal, is pretty much old hat and something genre readers of any experience will have seen at least half a dozen times, and the attempt to put a quantum physics spin on it all didn’t really come off, was just a form of speaking in tongues for those, like me, who don’t have the scientific vocabulary. And Pierre rather telegraphs the fact that things are seriously awry by having an airline arrange for passengers stranded in London to be transferred to a hotel in Suffolk, with no real explanation.

More interesting is the attempt to equate death with a loss of connectivity, with the inference that if we don’t exist on the social media landscape then we might as well not exist at all, but this wasn’t really pursued to any great advantage, and the message was slightly diluted by having Gretchen play head games with Zeva. While the idea that we don’t really know who we’re interacting with on social media has some mileage, in context it all came across as a sort of distraction activity, something to keep the reader from realising what was really going on.

The pleasure to be derived from the book was mainly from the characterisation, with the Border family lush monsters with a line in dialogue that delights. To get the most out of this enterprise, you need to ignore the conceptual framework and supposed Gothic sensibility, and instead read it as a black comedy of manners, rich in verbal pyrotechnics and interplay between assorted oddballs, rather like a Wodehouse scenario as written by Pinter, or Whales’ The Old Dark House given a twenty first century/technological makeover. On that level, disregarding all the conceptual baggage, it goes down a treat.

Overall though Breakfast With The Borgias is not especially engaging, rather disappointing in fact, and does no credit to the Hammer brand except by association, being able to nail a Booker Prize winning writer’s name to the mast of genre, which in itself isn’t much of a recommendation as most of the literary set seem to be falling over themselves nowadays to climb aboard the good ship HMS Horror (I repeat myself).

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OR: The Nudist Colony

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #26:-

THE NUDIST COLONY
Sarah May
Vintage, £6.99

Fourteen-year-old Aesop is knocked down one evening by Ludwig James’ chauffeur driven car, and on a whim the older man adopts him as a kind of mascot. Ludwig has connections with organised crime. In the past he was the lieutenant of eccentric billionaire Mack, overlord of a Brazilian empire, but Ludwig’s stay in the jungle left him with borealis, a rare skin disease that requires constant treatment. When the past catches up with Ludwig it’s Aesop who’s left to take the fall.

Sarah May’s debut novel is great fun, a narrative packed with oddball characters and crazy dialogue, like a Marx Brothers movie given a surrealist twist. The pace is frantic, while May’s observations about people and society are a source of constant delight, pithily expressed and neatly slotted into a story fuelled by a manic energy and drawing on seemingly bottomless depths of wit. If I have a complaint, it’s that ultimately the components of the plot don’t interlock as neatly as they should. At the end there are too many loose strings left dangling, too many questions still begging answer, as if the author got swept away on the tide of her own cleverness and was having such a good time she forgot to give it a cohesive structure. A journey to be enjoyed for the scenery en route rather than the eventual destination.

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OR: Malaria

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #26:-

MALARIA
Susan Hillmore
Jonathan Cape, £10

Zoologist and TV personality Sir Alexander Haye comes to the former island paradise of Mannar, now ruled by a corrupt government and torn apart by warring factions. He acquires an elephant for London Zoo, a gift from the island’s PR conscious President, but off-loads onto twin brother Max, an island resident, the task of transporting it from Mannar’s hinterland to the airport. Max reluctantly agrees, but contracts malaria while completing the job and returns home to die. Meanwhile the disintegration of the island’s infrastructure continues and Alexander comes back to find not only his brother dead, but Mannar on the brink of collapse and the elephant herd killed by poachers.

This is a short novel, but it lands a solid punch. Max’s illness, which leads to fever, hallucination and ultimately suicide, stands as a metaphor for the spiritual malaise that plunges Mannar’s people into self-destruction, while Alexander represents Western indifference, the eye forever turned to the main chance and away from any unpleasantness. The writing is vivid and assured, deftly interweaving images of great beauty and fecundity with those of death and decay, giving it all a kind of telephoto news immediacy, so that you feel as if you are right there alongside the characters as they confront scenes of carnage then scramble to safety while the house of cards tumbles down all around them. Pictures stay in the mind once the book is finished, snapshots of the bodies of slaughtered elephants and children butchered at an orphanage. Hillmore has no answer to the book’s essential question of how we can rescue others when we seem incapable of saving ourselves, but she identifies the problem with authority.

 

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