Category Archives: Crime

Review: Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson


So having read Gone Girl, I thought I might have stumbled onto a whole new love of popular crime fiction. Brilliant, I cried to myself from the rainy little caravan I’ve been holed up in all week. I finally get Holiday Reading! I can finally finish an episode of Miss Marple! And buoyed up with all this enthusiasm, I dived into Before I Go to Sleep, whose cover with the creepy eye has been staring at me from every WH Smith kiosk for the last year, promising me an intelligent, deeply disturbing thriller. Plus now every other thriller writer is being touted as the new SJ Watson, so there must be something in it, I thought.

Nu-uh. Friends, you might pretend to agree with him, but the Emperor is parading around with no clothes on, and he’s reading one shitty novel.

Christine awakes every morning with no memory of the last 20 years, the house she wakes up in, or her husband Ben. All she has is her journal as a link through her days. But it seems as through Ben might be lying to her and her secretive doctor is also shaky on the facts. So who can she believe?

Great, right? Clever! Read the ‘Book Group Questions’ at the back and you think ‘Yes! This is a book with some THEMES!’ Memory: check. Identity: check. Sexual power and control: check. Writing our experiences: check.

But spectacularly, it doesn’t actually deliver any of these. The idea that you could have the very experiences that make you You taken away from you, manipulated and moulded, is a highly disturbing one. For the reader to have to trace the ‘real’ narrative through her diary each day is an exciting possibility. But this bloody woman (and it turns out she wanted to be a writer, conveniently, why does nobody ever run a successful plumbing business or work in data entry?) is writing her own personal journal – the lifeline to her identity – as though it were some kind of novel already. It doesn’t read like a journal in even the most basic way. There is no immediacy to the narration of her days. And for a crime novel, which hinges on the detail, there was a lot left unsolved or unattended to.

At the time of writing, I have no way of checking whether the ebook I downloaded was inadvertently an early draft that somebody uploaded by mistake. She remembers a party where she sees some guy called Keith whom she one kissed. When she comes to, she can still taste his saliva. A. Gross, that saliva is 27 years old. B. you weren’t even kissing him. A half decent copyedit would surely have picked that up? Many of the sentences are flabby and stupid for a novelist never mind a women trying to cram as much urgent information onto the page as possible before she loses it. How much of the following sentence was really necessary?

Instead, as if fearing that any movement at all might result in my limbs betraying me, I stood perfectly still in front of the mirror, every muscle in my body tensed.

If you answered ZERO, well done, I guess nobody stumbles across your secret amnesiac journal!

There are sealed envelopes and hidden photographs galore, which would be fine except so much she discovers is put down to some ill-defined impulse. Memories and flashbacks come to her fully formed, exactly like a flashback in a TV drama but nothing like memory is actually experienced.

A memory flashed through me, tearing me suddenly back into the past. Everything was slightly out of focus and had a haze around it, and the images were so bright I almost wanted to look away. I saw myself, walking through these same corridors…

AAARGH! You haven’t described a memory, you’ve described a flashback from a straight to TV memory trauma movie! In fact the only part that rings true is the diary her old doctor shows her from her most severe period of amnesia,where she could only retain a memory of a few seconds and repeatedly writes ‘I am awake for the first time’. Sadly, this is directly lifted from the real life case of Clive Wearing, and I saw that documentary where they read from his diary too.

It is this total disregard for how memory actually operates, despite being a book that hinges on it, that so deeply disappointed me in this novel. Maybe I’m being a bit harsh. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever read, for example. The end is predictable after a point, but you still want to get to it (NOTE: I slightly changed my assessment of this when i got to the end and found it was the worst and most unbelievable bit of this terrible improbable dirge of a thriller). But being a good idea poorly executed in some ways makes it worse. And it almost put me off me whole crime genre. For a book this mediocre to have had so many prizes thrown at it – how shit do the rest of them have to be?

One other thing. Why does she never, not once, SPOILER ALERT try not to fall asleep?

In a tweet: You’ll wish YOU had terrible anterograde amnesia!


Review: Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

It starts with a Click, and George Harvey Bone is walking with no idea of where he is or what he’s doing.

It was a noise inside his head, and yet it was not a noise. It was the sound which a noise makes when it abruptly ceases: it had a temporary deafening effect. It was as though one had blown one’s nose too hard and the outer world had suddenly become dim and dead. And yet he was not physically deaf: it was merely that in this physical way alone could he think of what had happened in his head.

This confusion, disjunction and disorientation serves as a framework for the novel as a whole. George has fallen in with a bad crowd, and spends his days getting drunk in various Earl’s Court pubs with a variety of shady characters in an effort to impress the beautiful, cold-hearted, slatternly Netta. But Netta is only interested in George for his money (of which he has very little, but more than the rest), his tenuous connections to an acting agency, and the opportunity to use him as dogsbody. The novel’s action is a litany of tiny acts of humiliation, all at ‘poor Bone’s expense. Little does she know that in his ‘dumb moods’, as these fugue states are termed by the gang, George’s sole impulse is to free himself of Netta – by killing her.

Participating so closely in George’s consciousness, we can’t help but desire Netta’s death, too, sharing his desperate idea that if she could only be got rid of, George could leave and go to Maidenhead – the childhood town he holds up as a talisman of better times. Hangover Square toys with our ideas of a thriller, and of a villain. It is also held up as a classic ‘pre-WWII’ novel, capturing the essence of the tension and bleakness of the months leading up to war in 1939. Various characters flirt with fascism including Netta (who is aesthetically attracted to it more than anything else – and in that she has some interesting parallels with Jean Brodie) and her occasional lover Peter. But it is not a schematic metaphor for the failures of appeasement and the advent of war. Whatever George does, whether he follows the path of peacefulness and submission, or violence and anger, he is damned. Maidenhead is a lost idyll, an unattainable ideal, that George will never be able to return to.

It is a hard read, often unpleasant, but it is not the hopeless dirge a novel with this kind of story could so easily have become. The writing is fantastic, atmospheric and encourages you to keep working at the character: one chapter ends ‘He felt his way down the stairs – slowly, staggeringly, blackly, cleverly.’ I’ve heard varied accounts of how realistic a portrayal of schizophrenia or split personality disorder Hamilton manages, but I found it singularly realistic in its warped logic and fixation.

What also struck me about is how relevant (is that a horrible turn of phrase?) this book remains to the London of today? Earl’s Court is perhaps not the den of iniquity it once was, thanks mostly to its notorious conference centre that just means that lost-looking tourists are constantly clogging up its incredibly confusing tube station, but this vision of a no-man’s land of a lost, unemployed underclass trying to get on with their lives in the shadow of an impending war certainly rings true in 2012. With the UK’s shocking levels of unemployment, its withdrawal of state support (particularly in areas of mental health) under the guise of Big Society, and the government’s struggle to create a coherent identity for Britain – Olympic good-time city, financial capital, cracking-down on corruption with Leveson while turning a blind eye to the never-ending banking crisis – it seems to have plenty of say about the country’s split personality 70 years on, and the pressures it places on a still unacknowledged, downtrodden section of society.

Earl's Court: still kind of a shithole.

In a tweet:
 Slowly, staggeringly, blackly, cleverly.

Death Kit by Susan Sontag

Not an enjoyable novel, perhaps, but a thought-provoking one. Sontag is known for her criticism and philosophy, and it would probably be fair to say that she has a certain cult appeal among adolescent literature students that’s based more on a love of precocious grey-bestreaked intellectuals with exciting love lives as it is an interest in her actual criticism. I guess that probably includes me. Until picking this up in a charity shop over New Year I didn’t even realise she had written novels, and the idea of something as potentially pulpy as a thriller (as this edition was classifying itself) was pretty intriguing. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t your average high-octane Michael Crichton.

Dalton  ‘Diddy’ Harron is your average 33-year-old American bachelor, with a reasonably good job promoting microscopes, an apartment in the city, and an innocuous charm that means he gets on with everybody without really knowing anybody. Or, in Sontag’s words, ‘Diddy, not really alive, had a life. Hardly the same. Some people are their lives. Others, like Diddy, merely inhabit their lives.’ For he is also barely recovered from a deep depression culminating in a suicide attempt. Taking the train to New York for work, he strikes up a flirtation with a blind girl in his carriage, and while they are stopped in a tunnel, he goes out to investigate and kills a railway worker. These two bizarre events become the points around which Diddy’s world rotates, as he tries to unpick why he killed the railway worker, whether he will fall under suspicion, and whether it even happened – Hester, being blind, can neither confirm nor assuage his fears. The writing is, as has often been described in reviews, very Kafka-esque – Diddy veers between perplexity at his own actions and paranoia at being discovered. Similarly, the difference between dream and reality becomes increasingly blurred as he shuts himself and Hester into a suffocating apartment in which vision becomes increasingly unreliable and is certainly no guarantee of truth.

I’m in two minds about this novel. It’s a thriller without any real thrills. The murder occurs relatively early on, and we’re not so much worried about whether Diddy should have done it, or whether he gets caught, as what the point is supposed to be. That seems to me to be the driving force behind the novel – what are we getting at? The ‘visual’ imagery – Diddy’s job working with microscopes, Hester’s blindness, the constant juxtaposition of vision and insight – sometimes seems to be heavy-handed but does feed into this constant question. It is more a rumination on philosophical issues, conveyed through a novel, and I think approached from that attitude, it’s much more successful than if you try to approach it as an entertaining or diverting read. As a narrative, it becomes rather tedious, but Sontag has loftier ambitions. However, it does mean that it’s quite hard to argue with more frustrated reviews like this one on Goodreads, or this from a contemporary New York Times reviewer, who complains that the novel ‘skips, shuffles and snoozes’ over philosophical notions of reality and perception. The revelation at the end isn’t much of a surprise, and if I’m being honest, was something of a relief.

In a tweet: Diddy is tired. Diddy is tiring.

The Dinosaur Feather by Sissel-Jo Gazan

The Dinosaur Feather

Great jacket, (only a) good book

I sat down to read this book wanting to love it. I liked it. But what could have been a completely absorbing debut fell just wide of the mark.

The premise is fascinating. Anna Bella Nor is a postgraduate student struggling to juggle the pressures of her impending PhD viva and caring for her young daughter, Lily, only to find these compounded when her supervisor is murdered and herself a suspect. The University of Copenhagen’s Biology department is likewise a great setting for a thriller, with oddball academics, underfunded projects and cut-throat internal politics providing a potentially explosive combination.

The narration is shared between three characters: Anna, Superintendent Søren Marhauge – the brilliant detective with a troubled past assigned to the case, and Clive Freeman – the murdered professor’s academic nemesis. Anna’s thesis, a scientific review on the evidence for and against the theory that dinosaurs have evolved from birds, puts her in direct competition with the increasingly unhinged Freeman, who holds fast to the increasingly discredited theory that dinosaurs evolved separately.

The novel is really more interested in the backstories of these 3 characters than in the resolution of the murder. This makes for a more gradual unravelling of the plot, and adds an extra dimension to your by-numbers whodunnit as you delve deeper and deeper into the stories that brought each of the characters to this point. You learn a lot about scientific method and review process, as well as dinosaurs, understandably given Gazan’s background in university biology.

There are some brilliant moments in the novel:

Søren was Denmark’s youngest police superintendent, he could identify a murderer from the mere twitching of a single, out-of-place eyebrow hair, he could knit backwards, and everyone he had ever loved had died and left him behind.

But there are also some terrifically stilted ones:

Anna knew perfectly well she hadn’t bumped into the World’s Most Irritating Detective in the supermarket by accident. […] She hated him! Since he had entered her life, less than a week ago, everything had started to unravel. How dare he buy a loaf of bread for Maggie, how dare he carry her daughter? She wanted him to leave her alone and she didn’t want to hear what he had come to say. […] Tears started rolling down her cheeks. The steamy mashed potatoes were in a bowl in the sink, and suddenly she slumped forward as if she had been stabbed.

This kind of frustrated outrage is characteristic of Anna’s tone, and while pop-psychologists might be able to explain it through some of her subsequent discoveries (I won’t spoil them here), I found a lot of her reactions were pretty unbelievable, and rang kind of hollow. Maybe this is partly down to issues of translation, but I get the sense it runs deeper than that.

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the novel. The science is well done, the characters interesting, and the narrative propels you forward making this ultimately very entertaining. But that propulsion is brought about by promises that the book seems about to deliver, and then shies away from. For example, the novel opens with a dream sequence about the discovery of the first feathered dinosaur fossil. It sums up Anna’s ambition, it gives us a bit of background to what is at stake in this academic debate, but it’s the last time we ever see into somebody’s subconscious, and as we get dragged into the petty squabbles of a university department and the characters’ apparently unsurmountable past traumas, we totally lose sight of it.

Likewise, Freeman had the potential to be a phenomenal character, bringing out as he does the uncomfortable truth that the academic’s single-mindedness is often closer to mania. But this, and his fraught relationship with Jack, is never quite brought to the fore. We are supposed to believe that Anna must, must defend her thesis at all costs, rather than postponing it another month in light of a series of horrific murders (I have done my time as an academic, and can tell you that another month is never, never an unwelcome prospect – grizzly murders or no).

I wanted to start SecondShelfDown’s reviews with The Dinosaur Feather because it contains a lot that I love about good commercial fiction: it puts a unique spin on a time-honoured genre, and doesn’t shy away from the science either (incidentally, in this it reminds me a bit of The End of Mr. Y – I’ll do a piece on Scarlett Thomas in due course as she’s a very interesting hit and miss writer). It was well-packaged, well-conceived, and in parts, well-written. And that’s why it was so infuriating when it didn’t deliver. But it was – as I hope all the books on my second shelf will be – worth reading.