Readers of my earlier blogs might remember my admiration for Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano series. I’ve read all those that have been translated into English and have enjoyed them all. And I’ve enjoyed the series of TV programmes based on them, too, showing on BBC 4 on Saturday evenings. Luca Zinagretti is excellent as Montalbana and I’ve loved the Sicilian setting, the sun, the sea, the architecture,the food. But as I’ve watched the second series over the past few weeks, doubts have crept in. Camilleri’s plots are not his strong point, but the books are fairly short and it doesn’t matter all that much. It’s not what I read them for in any case. But the TV dramatisations – last night’s was an hour and fifty minutes – are beginning to seem over-leisurely even to point of boredom. I’ve found my attention wandering. And worse than that is the depiction of women. There are no women at all employed in the police station, indeed, few women in any professional roles and the last two episodes have included ludicrously seductive women, about as three-dimensional as the vamp in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. Maybe it’s the old 1970s femininist in me coming to the fore, but I’m finding this increasingly annoying, not to mention in bad taste. I don’t think this is altogether Camilleri’s fault as I’ve just compared last Saturday’s ‘August Heat’ with the book that it is based on and the emphasis is quite different. The novels are much better than TV versions. That’s often the case. They are such different forms. I don’t think any of the TV series of the Maigret novels have matched the original, though the Swedish Wallander series is pretty good.
our hero doesn’t call for back-up, but just goes straight in to tackle the bad guy. This happened in a novel I read in the summer (I won’t name names). There was no good reason why she (yes, I am afraid it was a woman) should not have waited, but she didn’t and one of her men got shot and she asks herself, ‘Why did I do this, putting my deputy’s life in danger?’ Yes, why did you, I found myself asking, even I know why. The author feels they have to crank up the tension and put their heroine in jeopardy, but it irritates the hell out of me when a female professional behaves so, well, unprofessionally. That’s the point at which I stop believing in the story. It definitely annoys me more when it’s a woman behaving in this way. I felt the same another crime novel that I read on holiday, except that this time it was a middle-aged female lawyer: I found it hard to believe that someone so disorganised and even at times downright silly could ever have become a partner in a law firm. I know it was supposed to be make her seem more human, but would a man be depicted that way (I should add that the writer was a woman)? A relief then to turn to Quentin Bates’s new novel, COLD COMFORT, and Sergeant Gunnhildur, who may well make mistakes, but is never downright foolish and doesn’t waste time worrying about whether she’s packed the right clothes. This was a good solid read and I enjoyed the Icelandic setting. I recommend it.
After I’d enjoyed working my way through Magdalen Nabb’s novels early in the year, I thought I’d do the same for Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. This Swedish husband and wife writing team wrote ten novels over ten years. THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN has probably been the most frequently reprinted of their ten novels and certainly it’s one of the best.It won the Edgar in 1971, the only translated novel ever to do so. The first, ROSEANNA, published in 1968, is, I think, the weakest, but then they were only getting into their stride. Reading them back to back largely in the order they were written allowed me to appreciate the development of the characters far more than I had in the past. They are the precursors of Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels as Mankell admits and they too feature a policeman who, when the novels begin, has a less than satisfactory private life. And like the Wallander novels, they were intended to highlight social problems, quite overtly in the case of Sjowall and Wahloo. Much as I have enjoyed Mankell, I don’t think I’ll want to reread his novels. I have reread THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN and another favourite, THE FIRE ENGINE THAT DISAPPEARED several times. THE TERRORISTS, published in 1976, is also very good. I love the Stockholm setting, the dour yet effective Martin Beck, his team of officers and the complex relationships between them, and the plots which are not only good, but plausible. The books are often funny, too, in a laconic way. Fourth Estate has recently reissued them with a quote from Michael Connolly on the cover: ‘some of the most gripping crime fiction ever written.’ I agree and I know I’ll go back to them again and again.
The summer holidays are over, school has started, and it is time to start blogging again. There’s a lot I want to blog about, and it’ll take me a while to catch up, but I’ll start with the Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters.I read these avidly at least twenty years ago and have dipped into them occasionally since then. It is the correspondence between Rupert Hart-Davis, publisher and all round man of letters, and George Lyttelton, who had taught him at Eton and was now retired. The range of literary reference is immense and that is what I most like about them. And yet in spite of that, I have never been quite sure that I really feel sympathetic towards Rupert Hart-Davis and I was musing on why that was – something overly clubbish? a bit stuffy and reactionary? – when I came across this. Hart-Davis reads the manuscript of ‘a short novel written in English by a Hungarian woman about a consumptives’ home in Hungary. Despite these disadvantages it has quality and I think I will publish it, though it won’t sell.’ Yes, you read that correctly: ‘I think I will publish it, THOUGH IT WON’T SELL.’ When I read this, I felt I could forgive him almost anything. This was in 1955.It is hard to imagine any publisher, except perhaps the smallest of independents, taking that view these days, when in mainstream publishing the bottom line is everything, a book won’t be acquired unless the marketing department like it, and hitherto successful authors who have made money for their publishers are dropped, not because their last book didn’t sell, but because it didn’t sell quite enough. A lot of good writers are turning to self-publishing these days and no wonder.