Lethal White

I’ve just finished reading Lethal White, the latest Cormoran Strike book by J.K. Rowling, aka “Robert Galbraith”.

The book is very long, nearly eight hundred pages in the paperback version I read, and far longer than its three predecessors (all three of which I also possess and have read with enthusiasm). I’m guessing this was a trick that JKR discovered when writing her Harry Potter books., which I seem to recall got ever more huge both in their size and in their popularity as that series proceeded. If your readers love your stuff, they just cannot get enough of it. As I neared the end of Lethal White, the desire to find out what the hell explains everything vied with the desire to slow down because I didn’t want to be in a position where there was no more of the story to read.

I won’t tell you what I think of the plot, because that would involve revealing the plot, which is not done with detective fiction. Is the senior villain a satisfactory senior villain? Ditto. Why is the book called “Lethal White”? Not saying.

What I can tell you is that Lethal White, like all the Cormoran Strike books, is based in and around London, and the book features a number of locations with which I am well acquainted, including Denmark Street (with its musical instrument shops) where Strike lives and works. Strike and his side-kick Robin Ellacott have one of their close-of-play evening debriefing and note-comparing sessions in a pub near St James’s Park tube (also mentioned) called “The Two Chairmen” (that a “chairman” was a man who carried chairs for a living is explained), in one of the upstairs rooms of which Libertarian Home used to have their speaker events, which I often attended and where I did a few speeches myself. And one of the people whom Cormoran and Robin visit to question has a house in Upper Cheyne Row, the rather off-the-beaten-track street in Chelsea where Samizdata had its HQ until a short while back. There’s no doubt that knowing a lot of the places where this tale unfolds added greatly to the fun of reading it. (The Rebus books must surely sell particularly well in Edinburgh.)

Local appeal to Londoners like me aside, I think that maybe the key quality the Cormoran Strike books possess, and again maybe this one especially, is that the stories are not too carefully contrived. JKR’s imagination, you feel, really flew, when she was writing this one, especially the bits about Robin’s newly acquired husband, that being all part of why the book is so long. (The book opens with Robin’s wedding and its aftermath.) In Lethal White, things get said and things happen, which, you get the feeling, surprised its author, let alone the rest of us. (I was too old to become a Harry Potter devotee, but I suspect that something very similar can be said about those books.)

If a fictional work seems too contrived, too carefully constructed, too mechanically perfect, so to speak, then suddenly all you can see is the mechanism, the formula, the conscious calculation of the creator or creators about what the “secret” of the success of the franchise consists of. At which point this secret is no longer any sort of secret. Disbelief is suspended. The mere characters degenerate into robots. And we readers stop caring about what happens, because it becomes impossible for us to forget, while we attend to the story, that it is all just made up. It no longer even feels real.

I am well aware that Cormoran and Robin are made-up people, and that a lot of contrivance and construction went into the making of Lethal White. But while I was reading it, it didn’t, to me, feel that way.

I like what Jake Arnott of the Guardian says about Strike:

Strike is a wonderfully complex creature, with just the right balance of contradictions to guide us through this labyrinthine world. An overweight former boxer with one leg amputated below the knee, ex-military police – and you don’t get much more authoritarian than that – he grew up in the counterculture of squats and communes with a groupie mother who died of an overdose. He’s one of those lost souls who joined the army in search of family, an outsider who knows the belly of the beast. And the time taken in describing the day-to-day workings of his craft ensures that he’s plausible enough in his occupation. One element of realism is that Strike, having solved many high-profile murders (not something actual private investigators do much in real life), has now become famous and compromised in his operations. His cover is blown and this predicament seems heartfelt to the author. For we now know Robert Galbraith as the nom de plume of JK Rowling, who intended to write her crime novels incognito until someone blew the gaff. The opening line, after a long prologue, is the most quotable in the book: “Such is the universal desire for fame that those who achieve it accidentally or unwillingly will wait in vain for pity.”

Yes, I’d forgotten that first line. Now, I remember liking it a lot.

Recently purchased books

Photoed just now:

Although, I should say that I didn’t actually purchase Kristian Niemietz’s book about
Socialism. I tried to buy it, at a recent IEA event, but they wouldn’t take my money and just gave me a copy. It’s very good.

Excerpt from We Now Know, here. Could have downloaded a pdf of the whole thing. But, don’t like pdfs. Prefer books.

There are more that I didn’t include. E.g. one by fake-antiques architect Quinlan Terry that is too wide. (Fake architectural antiques are a good thing. The world now needs more of this. Terry does them very well.)

Memo to self: A habit I must cultivate better is the ability to read a book, while seated in front of my computer, concentrating on the former and ignoring the latter. The internet is just too damn interesting. But books are extremely interesting also, and I love to read them. Or at least: I love to have read them.

I love Amazon. I miss remainder shops.

A musical metaphor is developed

In this blog posting, someone called Judge Ellis is quoted saying, somewhere in America, some time recently or not so recently, in connection with something Trump-related, this:

“You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud – what you really care about is what information Mr Manafort could give you that would reflect on Mr. Trump or lead to his prosecution or impeachment.

“This vernacular to ‘sing’ is what prosecutors use. What you’ve got to be careful of is that they may not only sing, they may compose.”

Good expression. Never heard it before, although it must have been around for decades.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

Just kidding

Niece Roz tweets:

Had enough of your relatives already? Don’t just think about murdering them – come along to @scarthinbooks tomorrow afternoon and talk about how you could actually– (Just kidding, Twitter. Just kidding)

Scarthin Books is, alas, in the Peak District, where Roz lives. This is impossibly far away from London, where I live. If she ever holds an event like this in London, I will definitely attend. I will make sure that all present know that she and I are related. Otherwise I will say little. I will concentrate on looking quietly attentive and quietly thoughtful.

Photo of Roz’s second Meg Dalton book here.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

Something I forgot to mention

There you were, waiting for a good time to con your way past the front door of my block of flats by saying you’re the postman, to climb my stairs, to bash in my front door and to plunder my classical CD collection. All that was stopping you was the fear of me bashing your skull to bits with my cricket bat, which I keep handy for just this sort of eventuality.

So anyway, there you were reading all about how my life for the last week has been complicated. But, I clean forgot to tell you that the reason for all this complication was that I was off in the south of France. Silly old me. I’m getting old, I guess.

Here’s how the south of France was looking:

Those are the Pyrenees at the back there. In the foreground, lots of little wine trees.

The weather looks slightly better in that than it really was, what with it having been so very windy. Especially on the final day of my stay, up on this thing.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

Me and my camera at the ENO

Today, thanks to GodDaughter2, who is a singing student, I got to see a dress rehearsal of a new opera being staged by English National Opera called Jack The Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel. I had my camera with me, but these places don’t encourage photography, so I was assuming I’d emerge from the Coliseum with only the memories of what we’d seen and heard.

The story was, of course, gruesome, and GodDaughter2 grumbled about the lighting, which was relentlessly dark and depressing. However, the music was pleasingly tonal, drenched in melodies, and most especially in harmonies, of a sort that seemed, in my youth half a century ago, like they’d vanished from the world of new opera for ever.

Back in that stricken post-Schoenbergian musical no-man’s-land, posh music was thought to “progress”, like science. And it had progressed up its own rear end into unmelodious, unharmonious, unrhythmic oblivion, and because this was progress, no way back was permitted. But then, that was all blown to smithereens by the likes of Philip Glass and John Adams. Iain Bell, the composer of Jack The Ripper, operates in the musical world established by those two American giants.

So even though we were about a quarter of a mile away from the action, up near the ceiling, and thus couldn’t make out anyone’s face, just being there was a most agreeable experience.

And then come the curtaln call at the end, there was another nice surprise:

That being the final surtitle of the show, to be seen in the spot up above the stage where all the previous surtitles had been saying what they had been singing. So I got my camera out, cranked up the zoom to full power, and did what I could.

The curtain calls looked like this:

I was particularly interested in the lady in the yellow dress, on the right of the four ladies (guess what they all had in common), because that lady was Janis Kelly, who is GodDaughter2’s singing teacher at the Royal College.

Rather disappointingly, for me, was that most of the photos I took of Ms Kelly were better of the lady standing next to her when they were taking their bows, a certain Marie McLaughlin:

But I did get one reasonably adequate snap of Ms Kelly, suitably cropped (the photo, I mean) to remove Ms McLaughlin, whose nose had been sliced off in the original version that had emerged from the camera:

My camera now has much better eyesight than I do, and the gap seems to grow by the month. Okay, that photo is rather blurry. But there was a lot of zoom involved. I only managed to decipher about a third of those surtitles. One of the key members of the cast was black, but I only found this out when I got home and saw her in one of my photos (see above).

I hope a DVD, or perhaps some kind of internetted video, of this production emerges. And I think it might, because this is a show full of pro-female messages of the sort that appeal to modern tastes, and featuring one of the most spectacular exercises in toxic masculinity in London’s entire history.

I’m now going to read the synopsis of the show at the far end of the first link above, to get a a more exact idea of what happened.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

A classic episode

Well, I sat down to do a blog posting for here after a hard day doing this and that, but, while I was doing that blog posting, I was also half telly-watching, and I chanced, on my television, upon the classic episode of Porridge in which Fletcher keeps on being disturbed and ends up pushing the padre off the balcony (into a safety net). Fletcher gets punished with three days in solitary, and the final line is him asking the governor if he couldn’t make it a fortnight.

Instead of a regular blog posting, let this be a recommendation.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

Total Surveillance photos

Following yesterday’s very generic, touristy photos of the Albert Memorial (although some of them did involve a breast implant), here is a much more temporary photo, of the sort most tourists wouldn’t bother with:

You obviously see what I did there, lining up what looks like a big, all-seeing eye with a clutch of security cameras, cameras made all the scarier by having anti-pigeon spikes on them.

And what, I wondered when I encountered this in my archive, and you are wondering now, is the provenance of that big eye?

Turns out, it was this:

So, not actually a photo about and advert for the Total Surveillance Society. It merely looked like that.

However, just two minutes later, from the same spot of the same electronic billboard, I took this photo:

So as you can see, the Total Surveillance Society was definitely on my mind. Terrorism, the blanket excuse for everyone to be spying on everyone else. The two minute gap tells me that I saw this message, realised it was relevant, but it then vanished and I had to wait for it to come around again. Well done me.

According to the title of the directory, and some of the other photos, I was with a very close friend. A very close and very patient friend, it would seem. Hanging about waiting for a photo to recur is the sort of reason I usually photo-walk alone.

I took these photos in Charing Cross railway station on April Fool’s Day 2009. I would have posted them at the time, but in their original full-sized form, they unleashed a hurricane of messy interference patterns. But just now, when I reduced one of them to the sort of sizes I use for here, those interference patterns went away. I thought that these patterns had been on the screen I was photoing. But they were merely on my screen, when I looked at my photos. And then, when I resized all the photos, it all, like I said, went away. Better late than never.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

Roz is now being quoted

This is not an advert for a book. Well, it is, but that’s not my purpose in showing it here. My angle is my niece, the crime fiction writer Roz Watkins, who is quoted here, enthusing about the book:

The point being that, with what seems to me like remarkable speed, Roz has turned herself into someone whose opinion about other people’s writing is considered worth quoting.

I found the above graphic at her Twitter feed, along with her thanks for having been described as “the great Roz Watkins” by a grateful publisher. Everything about Roz’s public and social media presence says to me, and I am sure to everyone else who is following her, that she is very serious about her writing career. Deadly serious, you might say.

This matters, because readers of crime fiction need to know that, if they invest their time and curiosity and shelf space, to say nothing of their cash, in a leading character, this investment will pay off. The energetic and upbeat way that Roz presents herself says that there will be plenty more books about her lead detective. There is already a second Meg Dalton tale coming out next April, and if several more Meg Daltons do not follow, at a speed no faster than (but no slower than) is consistent with the maintenance of quality, I for one will be very surprised.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

The paperback cover will be much more legible

The Devil’s Dice is a debut work of crime fiction, written by my niece (which I mention to make clear that I am biased in her favour) Roz Watkins, and published earlier this year. I enjoyed it a lot when I read it, but I did complain about the cover design:

Memo to self: If I ever design a book cover, make the title on the front either in dark lettering with a light background, or with light lettering on a dark background.

This earlier posting reinforced that point with a photo of a big display of books in Waterstone’s Piccadilly, from which you can only tell that The Devil’s Dice is The Devil’s Dice when you crop out that one title from that bigger picture and blow it up, thus:

This illegibility effect is also all too evident in this photo, taken by Roz’s brother.

All of which means that this (this being the relevant Amazon link) is good news:

That’s the cover of the paperback version of The Devil’s Dice, which which will be available in January of next year. Okay, it’s not a huge change, but putting the same orange lettering on a black background instead of a near white background is much more likely to get the attention of the fading-eyesight community, of which I am a member, and which is surely a quite large chunk of the public for crime fiction. This is also the kind of thing that just might sway a decision about whether to put a book in a bookshop window display.

I bet I wasn’t the only one grumbling about that earlier hardback cover, and it would appear that the grumbling has had exactly the desired effect.

I know little about book publishing, but I’m guessing that paperbacks are where the volume sales are, driven by those early glowing reviews (The Devil’s Dice got lots of glowing reviews) penned by the readers of the hardback version. And from that volume comes the magic of a serious word-of-mouth wave. Most readers are probably willing to wait a little in order not to have to devote scarce bookshelf space to great big chunks of cardboard, and for the sake of having something a bit easier to carry around.

And, if you really insist of your books being ultra portable, or if your eyesight is even worse than mine and you need seriously to enlarge the text, The Devil’s Dice is also now available in Kindle format, for just £1.99. I am biased (see above), but for what it’s worth I agree with all those glowing reviewers, and recommend The Devil’s Dice in all formats, even the hardback with its dodgy cover.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog