What're You Reading Now Then?
I regret once finding myself in a bizarre and utterly absurd situation where a minor celebrity was asking about some words I once wrote. He suggested it would be difficult to be as passionate about someone who was not as passionate as Kevin Rowland, that it would be hard to be as obsessive about Graham Greene as I had been about Dexys. Unfortunately I agreed. I say it was unfortunate because I love Graham Greene, and since that interview have certainly spent more time with his books that my Dexys records.
I love getting absorbed in Greene's books. There are certain of his books I would take to a desert island. I particularly like what he called his 'entertainments': the ones that belong to that whole tradition of Conrad, Buchan, Le Carre, Ambler, Deighton. I do like a lot of stuff like that.
There is a lot to be learned there. For example Le Carre once said something wise about Punk Rock: "For an undeciphered moment Smiley wonderedÉ Girders held up the roof; earnest moral statements enlivened the flaking green paint. 'Punk is destructive. Society does not need it.' The assertion caused him a moment's indecision. 'Oh, but society does,' he wanted to reply. 'Society is an association of minorities.'"
I heard a great new Primal Scream track last night, a very dramatic instrumental. You have to stop yourself saying it would be great for a film soundtrack. We say that too much now, and probably everyone has been absorbing the film soundtracks now available once more. In these pages I've made reference to writing about the role of music in Deighton's 'Harry Palmer' books. I was partly joking, and I was partly serious, and I didn't mean the films. In the books, which are great and where the anti-hero is nameless, there are certainly references to music. For example in the Ipcress File, reference is made to Lee Konitz moving into 'Autumn In New York' and old Sinatra tapes playing in the background. Better still is Funeral In Berlin with its 20th Century composers theme. Bartok, Berg, Ives, Stravinsky and Shoenberg are all woven into the storyline, which is a lot more cool than George P. Pelecanos thrusting Elvis Costello and Martha and the Muffins down our throats.
Admittedly, the soundtrack of books is a tricky and prickly subject. I love Shena Mackay for mentioning The Clean and hate Peter Benson for mentioning The Waterboys. I'm funny like that.
Anyway, while I am quite happy to wade through Brian Fremantle's old Charlie Muffin thrillers, I would like to mention that there are plenty of good works being produced in the world of thrillers, detective spies, noir etc. besides Walter Mosley and Pelecanos.
Top of the league is still Lawrence Block, a man who knows a good musical reference, (Dave Van Ronk supplied the title for one book), and who has created a gallery of memorable literary creations. Perhaps most famous is Matt Scudder, ex-cop, ex-alcoholic, hiding from his own demons, solving murders very neatly. The Chandler comparisons are inevitable, but Block carries it off with aplomb time and time again. His Hitman stories about Keller are cool, the Tanner thrillers timelessly camp, and there's the burglar whose name I forget but I don't like burglars.
Another heir to the Chandler throne is John Milne with his Jimmy Jenner series on No Exit. Another ex-cop, Jenner is a great read, and remarkable for the absence of expletives in the stories. I think I once spotted an oblique reference to the Ramones too.
Another recent discovery on the No Exit imprint was Gary Phillip's Bad Night Is Falling. The comparison between the book's hero Ivan Monk and Easy Rawlins are sadly inevitable, and Mosley himself traces a line between Monk and Hammet's Continental Operative fighting corruption and big business/civic conspiracies. If you like the idea of a thriller that's so now it mentions Chechnia and Warren G, then Phillips is your man. I'm hungry for more.
Dating back the the '70s, but equally recommended is the Amsterdam Cops series by Janwillem van de Wetering, featuring de Grier and Grijpstra, and once memorably described as being what Simenon might have done if Albert Camus had sublet his skill. Very unique twists on the detective genre, and I have definitely noted a reference to electric-era Miles.
So, food for thought, I hope. Better still, it should cost you nothing if you visit your local library.
© Kevin Pearce Jan 2000