It already half-way through the year, and I thought a quick report on the highlights of my reading so far is in order. This is especially since I have a couple of big writing projects on the go and, as a result, will probably not have the time to do anything of the sort again before the end of the year.
So, let’s get to it.
The Sawdust House, David Whish-Wilson
Regular readers will have seen me talk before on this site about how much I rate David Whish-Wilson. I genuinely believe he is one of the most underrated crime writers working in Australia today and his latest does nothing to disabuse me of this view. The Sawdust House is Whish-Wilson’s second book to explore the lost Australian history of mid-19th century San Francisco. The Coves (2018) told the story of Australian criminals, many of them former convicts, who drifted to the San Francisco in the hopes of making a fortune amidst the gold rush gripping the west coast of the US at the time, and who assumed a major role in the lawless city’s criminal world. The Sawdust House focuses on the life of one of these men, Irish-born James ‘Yankee’ Sullivan, who has been arrested as part of the nativists attempt to root out and crush Australian criminal influence in San Francisco. Languishing in a jail cell, Sullivan recounts his life to American journalist, Crane, who has come to the city with a mission and secrets of his own. Sullivan is a former convict, boxer and publican, whose largely brutal existence Whish-Wilson portrays in jaw droppingly good prose. Indeed, one of the highlights of this book and, indeed, The Coves, is not only how sure the author is of his writing style, but how effortlessly he seems to inhabit the world he is writing about. Of course, writing of this quality is anything by effortless and, rather, is the product of hard work and meticulous research. Whatever the case, Whish-Wilson’s portrayal of Sullivan, his milieu, the people he meets and the events he has been part of is both gripping and, at times, intensely moving. I am not exactly sure how to classify The Sawdust House (maybe historical noir?) except to say that it is a must read.
Velvet was the Night, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
The setting of Velvet was the Night is 1970s Mexico during a dirty war between the corrupt right-wing government and its military and paramilitary backers, and the various left-wing student and guerrilla groups opposing it. Maite is a young, bored female secretary in Mexico City, whose comic induced daydreams of romance and danger start to merge with reality when she is caught up in the mystery of her glamorous missing neighbour, associated with the radical student movement. Maite encounters leftist dissidents, hitmen, Russian spies and Elvis, a young enforcer for a right-wing paramilitary group with fantasies and dreams of his own, who is also searching for Maite’s neighbour. Another book I liked but also found difficult to categorise. Romance noir with a tinge of magical realism probably comes closest. I had never heard of Mexican Canadian author Moreno-Garcia before reading Velvet was the Night, despite the fact she is a New York Times bestselling author, but I can safely say this will not be the last of her novels I read.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino
Terribly, TERRIBLY written but nonetheless a fascinating read. This book not just expands on the characters featured in the film of the same name, which some particularly great material about my favourite, Cliff Booth, it is a lovingly curated deep dive into the world of 1960s Hollywood. Seriously, one can pick apart Tarantino’s clumsy prose style and his habit of telling rather than showing the reader what is going on, but it is hard not to be completely charmed by the love and attention to detail in Tarantino’s history of the underbelly of America’s post-war film and television business. In much the same way that I could have easily watched another hour or two on the screen of Booth driving around Los Angeles, doing odd jobs for Rick Dalton and chewing the scenery, I could have effortlessly read another couple of hundred pages of Tarantino’s musings about obscure American television series, anecdotes about Aldo Ray’s chronic alcoholism, and how effortlessly Booth gets away with killing people.
How the Dead Live, Derek Raymond
It’s been a long time since I reviewed a Derek Raymond book on this site (He Died with his Eyes Open in August 2012, to be precise, and I liked it a lot). Anyway, on a whim, I picked up the third in Raymond’s four book Factory series, How the Dead Live. The unnamed cop from the Department of Unexplained Deaths at the Factory Police Station, is sent to a remote British village called Thornhill, to investigate the disappearance of a local doctor’s wife. What follows is a strange, at times bizarre, meditation on death, aging and crime, as well as an exploration of corrupt small town British life that reminded of Ted Lewis’s depiction of the bad noir town in his 1970 novel, Jack’s Return Home aka Get Carter. I enjoyed this novel so much that I instantly dived into the final book in the Factory series, I Was Dora Suarez, which interestingly did not work for me and I found it hard to finish. I had been warned that I Was Dora Suarez was a tough read, but it was not the violence that turned me off as much as the fact that I just found it too introspective. Maybe Raymond’s books are not meant to be read too close together.
The Newcomer, Laura Elizabeth Woollett
I have been a fan of Woollett’s work for a while. I rated her debut The Love of a Bad Man (2016) and her follow up, Beautiful Revolutionary (2018) highly. So, yes, hopes were high for The Newcomer and, I have to say, not completely met. Based on the real-life murder of a young woman on Norfolk Island early this century, the book opens with the death of Paulina, a mainland woman who has moved to the so-called Fairfolk Island. Paulina is a promiscuous, selfish, semi alcoholic fuck up, who is built, narratively speaking, to push the boundary of the reader’s sense of what constitutes a relatable victim worthy of our care and sympathy. The Newcomer has quite a complex structure that bounces around before and after Paulina’s murder, and features numerous points of view, including Paulina’s long suffering mother, Judy, who of course loves her daughter despite her faults and wants justice for her death. Woollett is an assured writer with a great ability to convey place and character and there is a lot about this book I liked (although it could have done with a much tighter edit and lost at least 50 pages without taking anything away from the story). But if I’m honest, the fact that I did not like this book as much as I wanted maaaaaaybe has less to do with the novel itself and more with how turned off I am by the current literary scene’s confected and largely incorrect notion around it that crime fiction focusing on the point of view of unsympathetic female victims is somehow a new approach. It seems to show how little crime fiction – other than their mate’s latest literary crime novel – many contemporary Australian literary critics appear to have read.
The Train, Georges Simenon
My obsession with the pipe smoking, bespectacled mid-century psychological crime writing force of nature that was Georges Simenon continues with what I would say is his best novel after The Snow Was Dirty, The Train. The Train opens just as German troops are pouring across the French border at the start of World War II. Caught up in the chaos is a petty-bourgeois clock maker, Féron, and his pregnant wife and daughter. They jump the first train that promises to take them away from the fighting but are soon separated. Féron engages in various adventures and, in true Simenon style, finds an intellectual and sexual liberation in the chaos. Stripped back noir in its purest form with an understated ending that really packs a punch. I could not help but see this book as one of Simenon’s more autobiographical outings, but that is just my supposition. I also could not help but see the historical parallels between Féron and the other train passengers and those swept up in a more contemporary war, Russia’s illegal invasion of the Ukraine, which occurred just as I started reading The Train. The more things change, the more they become the same.