During the summer holiday, I caught up on the books I’d been meaning to read for a while, and a few I just bought on the spur of the moment. Because I probably won’t read that many books in such a short time until … well, next summer, here are the best of the bunch. Having quite a few books to go through, I’m grouping them into categories which depend entirely on my tastes and arbitrary whims. First up, to whet your appetite, are three books dealing with crime, punishment and justice (or the lack thereof)…
by Joseph Wambaugh (Orion, 1975, 362pp)
If I was pitching this book in five words or less, I would call it “Catch-22 for the LAPD”, as Joseph Heller’s blackly comic masterpiece was the first thing that came to mind reading this portrayal of a group of Los Angeles patrol officers and the difficulties they face on the job. Taking the form of a series of sketches of each pair of officers, Wambaugh (who was a Los Angeles police officer for fourteen years and published his first three books while still in the force) describes the amusing, outrageous and tragic scenes they encounter in the course of their work shifts. To relax, they engage in “choir practice” at night to relax, which mostly consists of heavy drinking in MacArthur Park and sex with “station house groupies”.
A tragedy which occurs on the night of the last choir practice and the resulting investigation frames the novel, imbuing even the funniest scenes with a sense of impending doom. The stress of the job, the inability of the choirboys to form relationships with civilians because of what they have seen while working, and the threat of suicide create a darker edge to the camararderie of choir practice, as extreme comedy and extreme tragedy mix in this accomplished and gripping novel. Be warned: this is the LAPD before the various post-Rodney King/Rampart scandal attempts to clean up its reputation in the 1990s, and the book is full of racism, sexism, homophobia, violence and general bad behaviour. That said, don’t let it put you off, for all the reasons listed above.
No Country For Old Men
by Cormac McCarthy (Picador, 2005, 340pp)
My first introduction to McCarthy, who generated large amounts of critical acclaim with this year’s The Road, No Country… is bloody good – with the emphasis on “bloody”. A dark, violent, neo-Western set on the Teaxs-Mexico border, it tells the story of Llewellyn Moss, an ordinary man who comes across the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, steals $2.4 million from the site and goes on the run, pursued by various interested parties including the terrifying hitman Anton Chigurh. Interspersed with this is a monologue by the decent Sheriff Bell, whose quest to give Moss and his wife some kind of happy ending becomes tied up with his own determination to defend good against evil.
To be honest, [SLIGHT SPOILERS WARNING] I felt slightly wrongfooted when McCarthy brought the seemingly “main” story to a conclusion before the end of the book, leaving the remainder to Bell’s meditations on his life and the violence which has overtaken his small corner of the world. But then you realise that McCarthy always meant the book to be more about Bell than the question of who would end up with the money.
In its device of an aging man reflecting on the changes undergone by his country, it recalls all the stories America tells about its history, and as such acquires an elemental, timeless feel. McCarthy’s deliberately sparse writing style (the man makes Hemingway look florid) and reliance on gnomic yet folksy Texan dialect (sample dialogue: “It’s a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff?” “If it ain’t, it’ll do till the mess gets here.”) only strengthen that effect. The small cast of characters dance around each other to great effect, McCarthy’s skill being to sketch out a character expertly with a single line of dialogue. Chirgurh in particular is coldly fascinating, a killer with a twisted moral code who puts a slaughterhouse bolt gun to innovative use in his relentless pursuit of Moss and the money.
The novel’s mix of furious plot-driven action and elegaic contemplation may leave readers wondering whether it’s a literary novel masquerading as a thriller or vice versa. I was content to read it as a blend of both forms, satisfying my taste for well-written, fast-moving narratives and thoughtful works that stay in my head long after the last page. No Country… has been adapted into a soon-to-be-released film by the Coen brothers, and I hope they are able to do the book justice.
When Red Is Black
by Qiu Xiaolong (Sceptre, 2004, 310pp)
Bucking the trend here, this book doesn’t contain lashings of blood, guts and violence. Instead, it’s a slow-paced, cerebral detective story where the overall aim is not just the anatomy of a murder, but the gradual dissection of rapidly changing modern China. Poetry-quoting Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police Bureau is asked to translate a business proposal for a Triad-connected businessman. At the same time his old friend Sergeant Yu is put in charge of investigating a murder which took place in an old shikumen house in a working-class district of Shanghai. Throughout the narrative, the two worlds – the prosperous China eager to recycle the glamour of the past for consumption by today’s elites, and the old China of working people struggling to get by – are contrasted, while in the middle the figure of Chen tries to make sense of it all.
This is a murder mystery where the murder seems almost beside the point. The investigation progresses very slowly, but it’s still pretty easy to guess who did it once all the information is revealed in the latter half of the book. Despite the political implications of the case (the victim was a writer disgraced in the Cultural Revolution), it turns out that politics was only involved in an oblique way. The legacy of the Cultural Revolution is explored here, and the revolutionary fervour of yesteryear is contrasted with the capitalist outlook of China today, but it all takes place on a very intellectual level. At no point in the novel is there a sense of urgency. Chen is entangled with the Triads, and Yu with the Party authorities, but no conflict or sense of danger arises from these situations. Chen meditates long and hard on the moral dimension of his connections with both the Party and the Triads, but in the end he’s fine with it. And he even uses them to get a sweet property deal for Yu. Trebles all round?
Now that lowly Shanghai public servants are more hopped up on property fever than a month’s worth of Daily Mail headlines, surely this represents some sort of victory in China’s transformation? Well, yes and no. I expected more tension and a lot more ambivalence, neither of which really shone through in the overly flat writing style. When Red Is Black works best as a slow-paced exploration of the contradictions and inequalities of contemporary China. Just don’t expect too many sharp questions, or too much excitement.