Friday, December 19, 2008

Dead It Should Not Be

Sometimes we come to things in funny ways--the wrong way, so to speak, but it turns out to be the right way after all. I thought I didn't know how exactly I had come upon Adrian McKinty's work in the first place, because ordinarily, I am not someone lured in by blurbs like "Tough guy fiction at its gory, heart-stopping best." (The Miami Herald), or "peppered with enough violence to make Martin Scorsese wince" (Rocky Mountain News)

Such are the phrases on my paperback copy of The Bloomsday Dead, but of course now we come to the title and you have the answer to the mystery. Because of course a book that uses Bloomsday in the title means to have some traffic with James Joyce, and Ulysses, and having slogged my way through that fat tome, I feel entitled to all the Joycean reference perks I can get my hands on.

I'm not going to talk about The Bloomsday Dead, though. At least not right now. Or at least more than to say that after I started it, I realized that I was three books into a trilogy, which obviously isn't the best place to start, and yet I was already so sucked in that I decided to take my chances.

Well, you shouldn't follow my lead because you are going to get some major spoilers about the troubled saga of Michael Forsythe, immigrant/exile/fugitive from Northern Ireland if you do. So begin, as is usually wise, at the beginning. Find yourself a copy of Dead I Well May Be and hunker down with it.

That is if you can find it. I think you can, because there are used copies and library copies to be had, and it looks like you might be able to download it on Kindle, should you be so fortunate as to own one.But in print? No. Despite being the crucial first volume in a crime trilogy, the publishers have seen fit to take it out of print, which means you can't just walk into your local bookstore and pick up a copy, or even order it all that easily. I won't rant about that too much here, I'll only say persist. Find the book. It's worth the effort.

Despite warning you against this, I actually had a lot of enjoyment out of reading this book out of sequence. There is something to be said for reading the past while knowing what lies ahead. It allows you to be a bit more leisurely. You are not quite so swept along by the plot. (Though there are still plenty of surprises here even for one who, Cassandra-like, knows the future.)

Let's just say briefly, without giving anything away, that there is a kind of doom around young Michael Forsythe. Whether it's a Northern Irish doom, or a more personal one is hard to say. When, early on in the story, you get a glimpse of a real ruthlessness in him, and realize that this guy is not exactly like you and me (or at least he's not like me), you do actually have to find a way of reconciling that within yourself, because you've already identified with him and his situation. Still, there is some, what?--emptiness?--at the core of him that is never really explained, perhaps not really explainable, but which feels real, not cartoonlike. You see that he's been hardened, and yet you also see the cost.

There are many and various pleasures in this book. The action/adventure buff will certainly not go away disappointed. For me, though, two types of things stand out. There are the literary references, alluded to with a light and deft hand, which won't matter if you miss them, but will add to your pleasure if you spot them. And, more importantly, there is McKinty's power of observation in every setting, whether Belfast or New York or wherever, but especially of the nuances between different types of people and cultures. Let us just say he has not passed through the places on this earth that he's lived and visited with a veil drawn over his eyes.

So go track down a copy of this. You can probably find the copy I lost in Santa Cruz somewhere, for instance. Meantime, check out his always entertaining if highly opinionated blog. And then get yourself on some sort of waiting list for Fifty Grand, his forthcoming novel. It's a stand-alone, or at least the first in a series, and those in the know (which wouldn't be me, by the way) say it's his best yet.

Also, if you're interested in a slightly less meandering, more on point discussion of Michael Forsythe, check Brian O'Rourke's blog for his take on all this. And you can check out one of Peter Rozovsky's McKinty posts at the always scintillating Detectives Without Borders here, which will in turn lead you on to an interview with McKinty himself.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bad Blood?

I don't think of myself as much of a one for memoir, but I read Lorna Sage's Bad Blood for my book group and by and large enjoyed it. Her account of growing up in a northern Welsh vicarage, largely raised by her eccentric and embattled grandparents is probably the most striking part of the book. Her own early identification and preference for the man she sometimes refers to as 'The Old Devil' appears to be the issue she is still trying to illuminate for herself.
As a professor of English who taught in both England and the U.S., it perhaps goes without saying that she writes well and interestingly. But as sometimes happens with memoir, the reader may find her or himself arrested by parts of Sage's life that don't seem to strike her in the same way. 'Bad Blood', for instance, would seem to rate a much darker, more defective past than is really in evidence here. In fact, as the members of the group sought out this book, we learned that there were quite a few current books with the same title--a murder mystery, a romance novel(no doubt having something to do with fangs), a true crime account, and so on. The Sage family drama was by far the tamest of the lot.

Which isn't to say it's boring. I think the word I would use is 'inscrutable'. It is in some ways still hard to account for this family, even after all her description. I won't give too much away, as there is a certain level of suspense that comes into it all. I will say that I haven't heard her dismissal of the nuclear family described in quite the same way.

"The fact that I somehow belonged to them [her parents], and with them, had been obscured to me in my grandparents' divided dominion. For a husband and wife to get on together,to gang up with each other, seemed strange and unfair.(Perhaps this is why people dream back with nostalgia to the extended family? Not because you get more parenting, but because you get less? Who knows, perhaps we secretly long to avoid being eggs in just one basket, which is what you get if your parents build a nest on just one branch of the family tree.)"

Well, this doesn't seem to be a particularly secret longing on Lorna Sage's part.

The book isn't new. It fell out of print (I think) and has recently been reissued, but probably to the interest of a fairly small audience, at least here in the U.S. So it was with some surprise that I found myself approached in the laundromat by a young woman who asked me eagerly where I had gotten it. She and her mother formed a somewhat odd, not to say dysfunctional pair, and I was absolutely sure that she was really after the horror novel or whatever of the same name, which I ventured to her. "This one is about a girl growing up in Wales? In a vicarage?" To which she replied, "Yeah, yeah--I read the sequel. Well, not sequel it was more of an article in a collection."

Well, I am still not sure whether we were talking about the same book, or whether this 'sequel' exists, though it would make a certain sense, with Bad Blood ending where it does. (And a small failing of the book is that the ending does feel somewhat rushed and unexplored in comparison to the beginning--I'd say as a whole that Sage finds her own story less intriguing than that of her ancestors, even though the reader may not.) But I did learn that readers shouldn't be judged by their covers anymore than books should. In the book biz, you can get pretty jaded--thinking you can judge in advance what people are going to like--but every once in a while you're completely wrong.

This, by the way, is a good thing.