November 23, 2014
Humour and horror might seem unlikely bedfellows, but it’s a combination that can be scarily effective in the right hands. Lynne Truss is best known for her comic forays into grammar though she used to write novels. Cat Out of Hell, her first in 15 years, is the latest entry in the Hammer imprint series and it’s a hoot, as well as being genuinely eerie. Alec is grieving for his wife, a fellow librarian, when he’s drawn into a feline conspiracy connected to their library’s collection of occult material belonging to the sinister John Seeward. He committed suicide in the Sixties in the grounds of his stately home, but this diabolist’s power in the mastery of moggies lives on with his disciples.
What might seem silly ends up as a minor comic masterpiece thanks to the tricksy, self-aware structure of Alec’s story, Truss’s imaginative and grisly mythology for felines, and a talking cat called Roger. We know Roger’s smart – he even got to grips with Greek ferry timetables – but he might also be dangerous. Then there’s the threat from a shadowy black cat known as The Captain, who mentored Roger in the art of immortality, and the Grand Cat Master himself (appointed by Beelzebub). Fortunately, Alec has his faithful companion Watson, a dog he addresses with dialogue from the Sherlock Holmes stories. (“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” he says when the dirty dog returns from digging in the garden). The showdown at Harville Manor is straight out of Dennis Wheatley – with a dash of PG Wodehouse. For anyone who’s wondered what their cat is actually thinking, Lynne Truss has come up with some hilarious and horrible speculation.
July 19, 2013
Admirers of Adam Roberts have suggested his clever, playful prose might earn him a Booker Prize nomination if it wasn’t for the fact he writes science fiction. His latest book is a mash-up of SF and Golden Age detective fiction with the exuberance of Anthony Burgess and the self-aware intricacy of academic crime author Michael Innes. Teasingly, the novel is introduced with the revelation that Jack Glass is the murderer in each of its three ensuing mysteries, though his methods and ultimate culpability may be less clear-cut.
After that Dr Watson-style teeing up of our tale, the reader is propelled into a disturbing and ingenious narrative set on an asteroid that’s both prison drama and locked room mystery. As well as being a remarkable display of Roberts’s imaginative power and ironical tone, it also introduces some running themes: the burden or absence of gravity (try cleaning up blood in zero g), the meaning of murder when life is cheap, and a Marxian perspective on intergalactic economics that perhaps places Roberts somewhere to the left of Iain M. Banks. “We’re always the cheapest option, we’re losing absolute value with every generation,” is how humanity’s economic fate is summed up under the authoritarian, trade-obsessed Ulanov regime.
However, Jack Glass is ultimately a dazzling futuristic romp that adroitly negotiates theoretical concepts such as Faster Than Light travel alongside explosive action sequences and cunning crimes. Glass is a gnomic anti-hero with the steel-trap mind of Sherlock Holmes and sagacity of Obi-Wan Kenobi. In part two he comes to the aid of a teenage dignitary, who finds herself tasked with solving what is effectively a country house whodunit (with gravity a key part of the investigation). It’s another virtuoso novel by Roberts and a deserving winner of the John W Campbell Award in the US and the BSFA award in the UK.
February 28, 2013
Novels depicting cities tend towards prolixity – Edward Rutherfurd’s doorstop volumes are intimidating me from the Riverside shelves as I write this – but Sam Thompson’s debut is a perfectly formed narrative that relies on its idiosyncratic characters: you wander the streets in their shoes rather than having to swallow endless descriptions of historical buildings and byways. Thompson’s unnamed, imaginary city (Communion Town is just one of its districts) leaves you both mystified and awestruck over the course of 10 ‘chapters’; it’s not really a novel, though it did make the Man Booker Prize longlist, presumably because the writing was just too good to ignore.
There are loosely connected stories of odd couples, unequal friendships and isolated workers whose frailties are exposed by the city’s indifference. Communion Town is speculative rather than realist fiction and there’s a haunting, recurring image of the flâneur that lends a dream-like quality to the prose. Thompson’s trump card is his magpie approach to genre including Chandler-esque detective fiction, a Sherlock Holmes style adventure with a metaphysical twist, and the sort of visionary horror that Arthur Machen employed to turn London into a sinister dreamscape. Communion Town is a book that will benefit from repeated readings: each time you pick it up, the imaginary streets will feel as alive with possibility and strangeness as our own metropolis.