For some reason I had taken it for granted that Bill Bryson wasn’t my kind of writer. (Too popular, perhaps? And to anyone who accuses me of intellectual snobbery, I have only this to say: THE DA VINCI CODE). But then I caught him reading from THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE THUNDERBOLT KID on Radio 4 and liked what I heard. Now I have read the whole thing.
The story of Bryson growing up in the fifties in Des Moines, Iowa, is not just the account of a childhood, but the portrait of a whole decade. Bryson has done his research and what he uncovers makes hair-raising reading. The ways in the Americans were developing and testing their nuclear deterrent and the extent of cold war paranoia make Kubrick’s DR STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I LEARNED TO LOVE THE BOMB look like a work of sober realism. The development of fast-food, the rapid rise of the consumer society, the doubling of the number of cars on the road in just a decade: fascinating as all this was, what I most love about the book are the parts about his family and friends. There were times when I was helpless with laughter. He refers in the acknowledgments to ‘his incomparably wonderful, infinitely sporting mother’ and so she is.
This is a work of comic genius and like most such it has darker tones that prevent it from being too sentimental or nostalgic. I truly didn’t want it to end.
. . . they just lose the plot. Which I am afraid is what has happened in the case of a recent novel by a writer I have often enjoyed – and have very much admired – in the past. I was well into the book, when I stopped and put it down a sigh. I simply did not believe a word of it. No senior police officer would behave as this one was behaving, even allowing for the fact that fictional detectives often don’t behave like real ones. This was just too implausible. The poor old boy would have been put out to grass long ago. And there was something else: the young people in the novel didn’t ring true. This can be a problem for any writer over forty if they don’t have children or otherwise rub shoulders with the younger generation, but it is something that has to be overcome by the conscientious writer. Perhaps this writer just didn’t have the energy or appetite to do the research. Writers don’t have to retire – it is one of pluses of the writing life – but sometimes they should.
However, one writer who has been in the writing game for quite a while and who just goes from strength to strength is Martin Cruz Smith. I read GORKY PARK when it first came out years and years ago, but hadn’t read much more by him until I picked up another of the Arkady Renko series, STALIN’S GHOST, at an airport bookshop a couple of years ago. It was excellent, and even better was WOLVES EAT DOGS, which I have read more recently. It is set in the blighted hinterland around the Chernobyl nuclear power station. Superbly researched, gripping throughout, convincing in every detail, sad, yet exhilarating: I put this novel down with a sigh, too, but this time it was a sigh of admiration. WOLVES EAT DOGS is a great read and a masterclass in writing crime fiction.
PS. Sorry to have absent: technical problems which it has taken a while to sort out.