No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

2017/64: The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal -- KJ Charles

“I believe that each haunting is an unfinished tale, of some kind,” Simon said. “If the story can be concluded, so is the ghost’s presence. The untold story is agony, whether it is the fact of a murder or the location of a will, or simply…unfinished business." [p. 58]

Simon Feximal is a ghost hunter and occult detective: Robert Caldwell, the ostensible author of the 'case notes', encounters him when the mansion he's inherited turns out to be haunted by a lustful, frustrated ghost. Feximal, whose skin is patterned with literal ghost-writing, is bad-tempered and taciturn. Caldwell believes he can see past Feximal's dour exterior to the man within. But his association with Feximal exposes him to dangers both supernatural and chillingly mundane.

There are many familiar names here: the Diogenes club, Carnacki the Ghost Hunter, the occultist Karswell (who gave Simon Feximal the runes on his skin), Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, Caldwell describes himself as 'your chronicler, your humble assistant, your John Watson'; and Feximal is the same species of brilliant eccentric as Holmes. This partnership, though, is explicitly a sexual and romantic one as well as a professional relationship, and Caldwell in his role as chronicler has written that 'secret' aspect out of their history.

I returned to this novel -- or, rather, anthology of connected stories -- after reading Spectred Isle, which is set in the same timestream and features some of the same characters. Secret Casebook is perhaps my least favourite of Charles' works and I think it's because it's told in the first person. Not that Caldwell is an unlikeable narrator: but Feximal is, despite Caldwell's insights, an almost impenetrable wall of silence, and that unevenness gave the book quite a different flavour to KJ Charles' other works.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

2017/63: Spectred Isle -- KJ Charles

"...when dawn comes, am I going to find myself bare-arsed on Burwell Castle’s remains, and a lady antiquarian belabouring me with her parasol?”
“I can only pray you will. First it would mean we were home, and second, I’d pay to see that.” [loc. 1815]

Disclaimer: I had an advance copy because I'm interviewing KJ at Nine Worlds, and it will be Fun.

First in a new trilogy, The Green Men, which is set in the same 'world' as The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal. (I bounced off that book on first attempt, so didn't get around to reading it until after Spectred Isle.) Unlike many of KJ Charles' other novels, it's set in the twentieth century -- in the 1920s, in fact, in an England which is still recovering from the horrors of a World War -- and where the Green Men have been defending England against occult forces since well before the Archduke's assassination. Though the War made things rather worse ...

Saul Lazenby is a former archaeologist and military man, disgraced and discharged: he used to work with Leonard Woolley, but is now employed by Major Peabody, an enthusiastic amateur (or nut job, depending on point of view) who's keen on 'magical powers, haunted temples and secret societies'. Saul is grateful for the employment, and keeps his reservations to himself.

Then one day he's walking along, minding his own -- well, Major Peabody's -- business, and an oak tree bursts into flames.

This event sparks his first encounter with Randolph Glyde, an irascible aristocrat with a glinting smile. (Lazenby does not take to him). Glyde, it turns out, is a Green Man, a magician charged with the investigation of a recent upsurge of unpleasant occult activity in London. After their encounter against a backdrop of spontaneously-combusting oak, Glyde doesn't expect to see Lazenby again: but Lazenby keeps turning up at occult flashpoints. Can it be coincidence? Or could there be something to Major Peabody's theories?

Both men are profoundly affected by the War: Glyde lost almost all his arcane colleagues, Lazenby his profession and his reputation. Glyde is staggering under the burden of his family's twenty-three generations of service: Lazenby's family has disowned him. ("Disowning, indeed. How bourgeois," remarks Glyde.) More than anything, perhaps, what they need from one another is empathy: they want to be understood, they need kindness.

The secondary characters are well-rounded, in particular Glyde's fellow Green Men, Sam Caldwell, Barney and Isaacs: I am furiously intrigued by the latter two, soldiers who are the sole survivors of a military experiment. And the War Beneath continues, with fen-grendels, a medieval turncoat, and an outclassed British Government who'd really like the Green Men to work for them.

Absolutely gripping, and also very funny, largely because Lazenby and Glyde share a dark and caustic sense of humour: one of my top five KJ Charles novels.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

2017/62: Touch not the Cat -- Mary Stewart

'Only you were reading my thoughts. Do you often do that?'
A pause, as long as four quickened heartbeats. Then he said, easily: 'Twin and I do it as a matter of course. Shades of Bess Ashley, the gipsy, didn’t you know?'
'It must save a lot of telephone calls,' I said lightly. [loc. 2067]
Bryony Ashley has grown up with an invisible friend: a member of her own family (though she's not sure which one) who communicates directly with her, mind to mind. The two start as friends, and come to love one another, though it is -- for the time being -- a necessarily unconsummated love.

Then Bryony's father dies in a hit-and-run, and her mysterious lover calls her home from Madeira to the crumbling splendour of Ashley Court, and the company of her twin cousins James and Emory. Still puzzling over her father's puzzling final words -- a cat on a pavement, a letter in the brook -- Bryony becomes aware of two things: firstly, that her father was murdered; and secondly, that the murderer might be her secret lover.

This is a charming and well-paced novel, with an element of the Gothic and the ability to laugh at itself. It's hard to tell when it's set (possibly the mid-Seventies, when it was written?) at least partly because of the sense that little ever changes at Ashley Court. There are flashbacks, too, to an earlier time in the family's history: 1835, when two lovers are trying to keep their relationship secret.

Though the romance is threaded through the novel (the chapter headings are quotations from Romeo and Juliet) it's not the sole plot: there is the mystery of Bryony's father's dying words, the identity of the person or persons who arranged his murder, the family's failing finances, the American tenants of Ashley Court, the overgrown maze in the middle of the garden, and the risk of further flood damage. A satisfying mystery and a comfortable romance, though I confess I didn't warm to the characters.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

2017/61: Single and Single -- John Le Carré

'...what the hell happened next?’ He was so warm! He could feel it! It was here in the room. It was across the packing case from him. It was inside Massingham’s skull and begging to come out – till at the very last second it turned and scurried back to safety. [p. 282]
Single and Single opens with the execution of a London banker, employed by Single and Single, on a windswept Turkish hillside. He has no idea why he's being killed: some idea why the killing is being filmed.

Back in the UK, a children's entertainer named Oliver Hawthorne is summoned to his own bank because over five million pounds has been deposited in his young daughter's trust fund. Can he explain this? No. But he knows a man who can help: a Customs and Excise officer named Brock, who has been after the charismatic Tiger Single (head of Single and Single) on charges of fraud and money-laundering.

Back in the golden days of the early 1990s, Oliver worked for Single and Single: he became aware of the firm's valuable Russian clients, and -- after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the attempted coup -- the slow restructuring of their import/export business as a crime syndicate. Oliver's left all that behind: he betrayed the firm, and his father, and went into hiding. But now the tables are turned and the Russians have a blood debt to repay.

Lovely writing, stereotyped secondary characters (a housekeeper weeps and wrings hands; a gay man says 'darling' a lot). Oliver tends to feel that women need protection, even when they are evidently at least as capable and competent as he is. The last few chapters felt very rushed, but then Oliver was rushing too ... I didn't enjoy this as much as other novels by Le Carré, but it's interestingly structured, well-written and full of fascinating psychology and spycraft.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

2017/60: Touch -- Claire North

Everyone needs a hobby, and everyone was mine. [p. 67]
Somewhere in London, in a dark alley, in the past, a woman is murdered. But she doesn't want to die alone: she reaches out and touches her murderer ... and becomes him, looking down at the corpse of his victim.

Now the entity known as Kepler is a ghost, moving between -- 'wearing' -- bodies, generally benevolent. A former host won't be able to remember the past few minutes, or days, or years: but chances are they'll have benefitted, either financially (Kepler likes to leave behind cash) or in other ways. Kepler can get a nervous patient to the hospital; get a terrified witness into court to testify; sit an exam; leave a lover ... Sometimes the 'host-ghost' arrangement is consensual, such as the arrangement that Kepler has with Josephine Cebula, a Polish prostitute. In exchange for three months' use of Josephine's body, Kepler will give her a new passport, a new identity, a fresh start and ten thousand euros. Oh, and Josephine will no longer be a smoker.

And then Josephine is killed in Istanbul: and Kepler, 'travelling by touch', fleeing from body to body, knows that they were the intended victim. But why kill Josephine when Kepler's already left?

Kepler's pursuit of the assassin -- and then of the mastermind behind the assassination -- takes them from Istanbul to Bratislava, Vienna, Berlin, Paris. Along the way, old friends and enemies are encountered, and it becomes increasingly obvious that somebody is killing ghosts.

I've read quite a few novels about body-swapping -- body snatchers, if you like, or possession if you're feeling old-fashioned. (A few that come to mind are Iain Banks' Transition, David Levithan's Every Day, Stephenie Meyer's The Host, David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks.) I can't recall an entity so physically embodied as Kepler. Kepler notices, and loves, the flaws and graces of each body they inhabit: the gum disease, the tension in the shoulder blades, the bite of an over-tight bra strap, the dry itch of lesions. And Kepler's love for human beings, in all humanity's glorious variation, informs their former career: that of 'estate agent', or provider of carefully-selected hosts to other ghosts.

Touch is a labyrinthine novel: Kepler's story is told in frequent flashbacks (with a virtuousic ear for period- and setting-appropriate dialogue) and it takes a while for their character, and the experiences that have shaped them, to become clear. Each glimpse of another body's life, or of Kepler encountering another, effectively immortal, ghost, adds clarity and perspective.

Claire North explores many aspects of ghost-life. Gender issues are ... not ignored, but Kepler doesn't have much of a gender identity, and seems less interested in sex than some of their peers. More attention is given to the issues of immortality: suicide, death, murder, boredom, madness -- and offspring of the body versus those of the soul. Intriguing vignettes illustrate why 'normal' humans might want to hire a ghost to inhabit themselves, or someone close to them. The fight scenes, with Kepler flitting from body to body, are amazing. And some of the ways that Kepler devises to get around the problems of their situation (how do you carry something with you when you go? how do you keep a host from raising the alarm? how do you make yourself known?) are brilliant.

I really enjoyed this novel. It's beautiful, tragic, inventive and provocative: and it made me mindful, in several senses, of my own physical reality.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

2017/59: An Unnatural Vice -- K J Charles

Conscience makes flats of us all, Justin thought. How lucky I don’t have one. [loc. 1231]
Nathaniel Roy is an investigative journalist, the atheist son of an archbishop, and desperately lonely despite the good friends who've stood by him through love and loss. Justin Lazarus is the Seer of London, one of the most successful (and most expensive) spiritualists in the city, and determined that he'll never again be obligated to anybody. Nathaniel, of course, is keen to expose Justin Lazarus as a fraud. But Justin knows how to find a client's weaknesses, and he promises something that Nathaniel, against all reason, wants to believe in. As the two are thrown together by their shared involvement in a true-life melodrama of aristocracy, murder and disguise, each finds something unexpected -- and unexpectedly admirable -- in the other.

This is the second in the trilogy that began with An Unseen Attraction, and it weaves around the latter half of that novel, focussing on different characters. The melodrama advances; we see Clem and Rowley from a different perspective; the role of the Jack -- a place where men like Nathaniel can go 'to be true' -- is expanded; and the romance here has an entirely different, and much sharper, flavour.

I confess I like Justin Lazarus, even though he is objectively a fraudster who preys on the bereaved and needy: he is also intelligent, observant, and often very funny. (It's all right: Nathaniel likes him too, and makes the distinction between 'a bad man' and 'a good man doing bad things'.) And I sympathise more than I probably should with Justin's vow that he'll never again be indebted to anyone, never again have to beg or be grateful. I didn't warm to Nathaniel as quickly, but he is one of the most humane characters I've encountered in recent fiction: and his impressive self-knowledge, coupled with the gradual realisation that he's living his life around absences, makes for a satisfying emotional arc.

And as usual, I loved all the little details: the daily routine of a Victorian medium's household; the nervousness with which Justin ventures out on the first solitary country walk of his life; Polish Mark and his no-nonsense approach to Nathaniel's emotional turmoil; and Justin's sense of humour, which is as spiky as he is, and produces the immortal line 'my spirit guide's a fucking tart'. You can get it on a t-shirt now.

Also, though Nathaniel and Justin's story is ... well, not finished, but resolved -- there is a frightfully teasing conclusion. Is it time for An Unsuitable Heir yet?