The Switch – Elmore Leonard

Read Feb 2016

Elmore Leonard is a brilliant crime writer. Reading him is like reading a Tarantino movie. Great dialogue. Great plot. Menacing and fun characters. It’s surprising how few people write like him. Early George Pelecanos, maybe, but few others capture the reckless and entertaining violence of his books.

The Switch is the best of his novels I’ve read so far. *Spoiler alert* He tells the story of Mickey, an overlooked wife of rich but corrupt husband, Frank. Newly out of jail, Ordell and Louis decide to kidnap her and hold her to ransom. They are dodgy, but relatively harmless criminals, though unfortunately enlist the help of Richard, a psychopathic Nazi.

The kidnap itself goes as planned, but less so when they contact Frank to demand $1 million as ransom.Frank has just decided to divorce Mickey, and so doesn’t want to pay up. Eventually the blackmail fails and they let Mickey go, though not without crazy Richard causing problems that result in a shoot-out with the police.

But when Louis says she is free, Mickey doesn’t want to go home! In the best scene of the book, she hangs out for the day with Louis, drinking and smoking grass, letting herself go in a way she never does and determining to not go back to being the brow-beaten tennis mom Mickey.

After confronting Frank she ends up back with Louis and Ordell and – the final twist, the final switch – together they plan to kidnap Frank’s mistress, Melanie, and hold her to ransom ….

The Switch, more than anything, is great reading, great entertainment. But having said that, the characterisation is so strong. He captures, through dialogue rather than introspection, Mickey’s sense of being trapped and squashed by Frank, and Frank’s utter indifference to Mickey, in a way that many more ‘literary’ writers would struggle to do.

First class.

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The Ocean at the end of the lane – Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the end of the lane is many things – part fantasy; both heartwarming and, in parts very dark; part reflection on the wonder of childhood and the hazy memories adults have of those years; and part a look at what it is to be a child who feels feel distant from and misunderstood by their parents and the adult world.

A man (I’m not sure we even learn his name, actually, despite being the protagonist) visits his rural childhood home, which conjures up memories of a time when he was seven and entered into some surprising and terrifying adventures.

His parents had recruited a childminder, Ursula Monkton, who charmed everyone but the protagonist. It turns out her perfect body was a shell for a monster who wanted to devour him, and nobody but he could see her true nature. There is a shocking scene in which the boy’s Dad – who often shouts but is not normally murderous – tries to drown him whilst, it appears, under the thrall of Ursula.

He enlisted the help of the Hempstock family from the farm down the road, who it turns out are thousands of years old and have magical powers. Together they fought off the ‘hunger birds’, which wanted to kill the boy too. Gaiman has a brilliant concept here, with these birds who eat the very fabric of reality:

“Where it devoured the grass, nothing remained – a perfect nothing, only a colour that reminded me of grey, but a formless, pulsing grey… This was the void. Not blackness, not nothingness. This was what lay behind the thickly painted scrim of reality.”

One of these ‘vultures of the void’ as he calls them, kills Lettie Hempstock rather than the boy – or, not kills, but temporarily drains her of life and the she enters the ocean at the end of the lane to regenerate, which is where 40 years later he finds the Hempstocks, with Lettie still in repair.

It ends with an exchange in which Ginnie Hempstock says to him “Lettie did a very big thing for you. I think she mostly wants to find out what happened next, and whether it was worth the sacrifice.”

“Did I pass?” he aks

She replies: “You don’t pass or fail as a person, dear.”

It is these nuggets of brilliance combined with the story itself, which so subtly evokes the sense of being a child in adult world, of your imagination and inner life being beyond the grasp of your parents, that make this an incredible book. 

The Concrete Island – JG Ballard

Read Jan 2016

The Concrete Island is a fantastic premise. Maitland – a successful architect who divides his time between work, family and mistress – crashes into a large traffic island in the middle of a series of motorways and slip-roads. He is injured enough to get stuck and can’t get off the island. Despite being in the middle of the city nobody notices him, and because his life is so split it appears even those closest to him aren’t searching for him.

He eventually finds two misfits living on the island who are trying to get away from modem life. And, in fact, the book is quite hard going and descriptive until these characters turn up and some inject some life into things about a third of the way through. Initially he appears to be their captive but the life skills and material goods he has acquired through ongoing engagement in the capitalist world enables him to turn the tables on them.

In the end Maitland drives them away – one of them dies and the other leaves – creating an apt metaphor for how we corrupt enclaves of relative innocence when we touch them with capitalist society. 

Gradually, as he drives the others away, Maitland becomes accustomed to the island. It ends with him choosing not to leave the island immediately, with the help of the other two, but to do it on his own, in his own time. Again, what Ballard is presenting here is a nice metaphor for the individualism of modern capitalism, with Maitland refusing help and deciding that if he leaves the island it must be on his own terms and done entirely by himself. 

Little Green by Walter Mosley

Read January 2016

Another classic in the Easy Rawlins series, in Little Green we join Rawlins as he comes out of a coma caused by an alcohol induced crash at the end of the last book.

He immediately ends up on a case brought to him by his hard-man friend, Mouse. It’s a typically twisting Mosley plot, with racism and justice, capitalism and hippies, drugs and lowlifes. The lot.

As well as a really great idea – a young man wakes from a five day acid trip with hazy memories of violence and brothels, and a bag full of money next to his bed – what Little Green gives us is more insight into Rawlins and Mouse’s characters – their friendship, their histories, their worries.

Rawlins remains the cool PI but with more depth, and that makes Little Green one of Mosley’s best novels.