December 8, 2017

WATCHING THE DETECTIVES:

Inspector Adam Dalgliesh

Cover Her Face, by PD James
288 pages, Faber & Faber

Review by Pat Black

What do the English do better than anyone else? That’s a question for our age.

I’ll start the bidding with “country house murder mysteries”. Cover Her Face, PD James’ debut in the Inspector Adam Dalgliesh series, is a perfect example of the genre. It was first published in the early 1960s, but its spiritual home is England between the wars.

The novel’s basic framing follows an exact template for this type of story. There’s a country manor; there’s a well-to-do family; there are secrets, lies, animosities and jealousies; of course, there is a body; and then, an inspector calls.

A maid for the Maxie family, Sally Jupp, has been murdered in her bed. She was strangled in the night, but it seems she was drugged first. It looks as if the killer could only have gotten in and out via a window. There’s little evidence to go on, but Scotland Yard’s man, Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, is sure of one thing: the killer was someone staying at the house that night.

There’s a fair cast of characters to choose from, within and without the Maxie family, all with a motive for killing the young, unmarried mother. There’s number one son Steven Maxie, the doctor, who proposed to the girl the night before she was killed - to everyone’s surprise. There’s his sister, Deborah Riscoe, nee Maxie, who confessed to hating the girl because “she has a child, and I do not”.

There’s Mr Maxie, the family patriarch – confined to his bed, but is he as much of an invalid as he seems? Then there’s Martha, the no-nonsense housekeeper who takes a dislike to the beautiful intruder on her patch. Felix Herne, a rakish, sardonic figure and friend of the family who was tortured by the Gestapo during the war, was also staying there that night. He’s so memorable and stylish, and so involved in the investigation, I imagined that he might have been the detective in an earlier draft of the story. Nigel Havers would have been a good bet to play him on the TV, at any stage of his career; Hugh Grant actually did play him in a radio adaptation.

Beautifully, there’s even a vicar, Mr Hincks. With this addition, you feel as if you’re reading a novelised version of Cluedo. These beats are so familiar that they’re cosy. This is a book to curl up with in your dressing gown as you sup a nice hot cocoa, despite its central subject of foul murder.

However, PD James writes in deadly earnest; this is no pastiche or parody. For the first few chapters she outlines the family and other satellite suspects, establishing motive and opportunity for the crime. The story really catches light when Adam Dalgliesh appears on the scene. He’s tall, dark and handsome, but also douce and somewhat humourless. What the inspector might lose in charisma he makes up for in method. Dalgliesh always has control.

There are sly moments – particularly the part where some of the characters make inquiries of their own, taking on the role of investigator as they try to clear up the various mysteries and sub-plots connected with the crime. Whose ladder was left outside the dead girl’s window? Who was the mysterious man seen hanging around the house during the village fete earlier that day? Why did Steven Maxie propose to a girl he hardly knew? And does the unknown father of Sally’s baby have anything to do with her death?

There’s also something I’ve noticed in many detective novels – a part where one or more of the characters dismiss some theory or other as being unrealistic, as if it was part of a whodunnit. “This isn’t some silly crime novel,” they say – resisting the urge to turn and wink at the camera, no doubt.

At the top I asked what the English could do better than most. Ironically, Dalgliesh has a very similar name to a Scottish footballer who was arguably the most famous of them all in the 1970s and 80s: Kenny Dalglish. Just as with the spaceman Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dundee United’s tough-tackling midfielder of the 1980s and 90s, it’s hard to resist drawing parallels between the two similarly-named heroes. So I won’t.

Like his near-namesake, who was famous in the shirts of Celtic and Liverpool, Dalgliesh shields the play well, before spinning and dispatching his finish with lethal accuracy. But unlike Kenny Dalglish, the inspector is a bit of a tart – calling all the suspects into the manor house’s drawing room, at eight o’clock sharp, perfectly punctual and precise, in order to outline exactly who killed Sally Jupp, and how.

The full cast list of suspects awaits judgement on plush cushions, with Dalgliesh orchestrating great tension, shifting suspicion several times before providing the answer. It’s so cute, like how a kid would stage the final act of a murder mystery. This is precisely how I’d have executed the denouement when I was 11.

Dalgliesh calmly throws back all red herrings, exposing and discounting motives and alternative theories. By the time he finally identifies the killer, we are made to understand that they are the only person who could have done it. Logically, there was no other conclusion. If you’ve paid close attention and filtered out the extraneous noise, you’ll know this. I’m happy to say I didn’t guess the killer, but I’ve come to understand that to dedicate serious thinking time to a mystery story is to spoil it a little, even to risk disappointment, like peeking at your Christmas presents.

Cover Her Face is as much of a machine as it is a story – a perfectly planned and constructed engine, making for a very smooth ride indeed. In a sporty little MG, I imagine, brand new, racing green, buffed to a glassy sheen. For a debut novel, PD James’s command of her craft is enviable.   

November 25, 2017

FIELD NOTES:

Country Matters on Booksquawk

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
304 pages, Canongate

Review by Pat Black

The Outrun is a patch of land on the sheep farm where Amy Liptrot grew up on the Orkney islands - a wild, wind-blasted archipelago off the north-east coast of Scotland.

When the author’s mother goes into labour and has to be airlifted to hospital, her father is carted off in the other direction to a psychiatric unit. They pass each other on the landing pad. Drama seems seeded in Amy Liptrot from day one.

The Orkney and Shetland Islands are so remote, they used to be represented in their own inset boxes on TV weather reports when I was a kid – as if they had tried to escape, and needed dragging back to mother. The Orcadian archipelago is an apostrophe to the mainland, and Orcadians feel a sense of detachment from the rest of Scotland; islanders, themselves excised from an island.

Perhaps the most famous Orcadian is the actor Robert Shaw, who lived there between the ages of seven and 12. He referred to being bullied on account of his English accent, or maybe just his plain Englishness. I’ve never been to Orkney, but it has an ends-of-the-Earth feel to it, and a strong Scandinavian influence clashes with the salt and flint of Scottish rural life. Every single photo could be a screensaver; every crashing wave wants to reach out and shake your bones.

People move there to escape. But you can imagine a teenager being desperate to go the other way, to the bright lights and big crowds. This is what Amy Liptrot does, heading – inevitably – for London and a party lifestyle, aged 20. After a full-blown descent into alcoholism, she bobs back, 10 years later, completely lost.

The Outrun is the story of Amy Liptrot’s ongoing recovery, and how she managed to transfer her love of alcohol’s brittle euphoria to a passion for the natural world.

The book clobbers you with metaphors for “the edge”. The Outrun is on the very edge of the planet, it seems, rocky and high above the sea, blasted with rain, seawater and high winds even on good days. Anything not securely fastened to earth has a good chance of leaving it when the conditions get really bad. They have to make sure the kindergarten children don’t get blown away. The sheep are, frequently. I imagine a handful of fluffy snowflakes being scattered off a cliff during the gale force winds. Liptrot makes an obvious connection with her mental state.  

She drinks. She has a talent for it. Tellingly, she reveals that when she experimented as a teenager, she was over-the-top from the very first, the one who always went from nought to noxious faster than anyone else. Her default position is “a bit much”. 

I have to confess to twinges of dislike for the author when she describes her proto-hipster lifestyle in London’s up-and-coming boroughs in her twenties. Although this charts her descent into an abject, bottom-of-the-fish-tank lifestyle, I can sense her relish for her crazy days. The language becomes flowery and a little bit pleased with itself. It reminded me of an open letter I read in a newspaper from a London scenester who was friends with Amy Winehouse, lamenting her passing. His attempts to turn the singer’s appalling tragedy into some sort of Byronic romance, both in his prose style and his recall of events, made me want to punch him in the head, more than once. I should stress, I never want to go there with Amy Liptrot, but her salad days chapters jarred.

This is unfair of me. It’s not really her fault. Perhaps it’s a little bit close to home. I recognise this impulse to turn partying into art. It isn’t. My lifestyle in my twenties seems hellish now – it probably seemed hellish at the time, in fact, but there were few other options available, and not much in the way of role models. My memories of squeezing into overcrowded nightclubs with sweat rolling down the walls are a vision from Bosch – something I can’t quite believe that I did voluntarily; that I paid to do. In my biggest highs, outside of my own head, I was an irritation at best, a menace at worst.  

Though her antics are refracted by the death of a relationship, Liptrot is honest enough to admit her behaviour was unacceptable. Her fella must have been a saint to tolerate her for as long as he did. This abandonment leads her into deeper water, ever more depressing and dangerous situations.

First of all – the dead giveaway for any out-of-control boozer – she starts losing jobs, turning up to work still drunk, having drinks on her lunch breaks, getting into high gear on the bus home, and then starting all over again the next day, escaping the shame of whatever mess she was in the night before.

She’s swimming in seas striped with shark fins. One drunken night she takes off on a bike ride through the dead city, and ends up in a canal. She goes to house parties and strips naked – about the most basic attention grab you can make, short of soiling yourself, or simply screaming. Finally, she encounters a psychopath and is seriously assaulted. This is rock-bottom, the classic point where substance abusers must decide whether to stay sunk, or start swimming. From here, she gets involved in rehab, takes the Twelve Steps, and sorts herself out.

It’s only when she arrives back in Orkney – single, sober, fragile – that the book finally takes wing. She finds a job counting rare birds for the RSPB, and gets herself the nickname of The Corncrake Widow (surely a strong contender for the book title). She drives around the island in the pitch dark, hoping to find nesting sites for the bird, one of many species which use the archipelago as a stop-off point. It’s weird, but thrilling work.

She joins the dots in the night sky, taking an interest in the constellations instead of igniting them at the bottom of a glass. She studies the landscape, considers how old the rocks are, and examines the wildlife surrounding them. And she heads into the dark sea itself, thrilling to the cold shock of wild swimming with a group of like-minded maniacs. She isolates herself in a cottage on an even more remote island, and writes – another addiction, perhaps even more deep-rooted than her drinking. She figures herself out, putting it all on paper. She reaches out to people through the internet, and begins to enjoy human company divorced from the bottle.

In the middle of this, there’s an inch-perfect examination of what it is that drives us to destroy ourselves with drink – the blessed relief, the initial rush of well-being, and deeper still, the love of mania, the craving of excitement. Liptrot likens mania to a wave, in its construction, its movement, its crowning glory, and its spectacular breakdown.

The Outrun is a natural history book, though it also serves just as well as a survival memoir. Every addict who’s lucky enough to break the chains has to play it cool, every single day of their lives, from that moment on. I can only wish them well. Liptrot is sceptical about the higher powers invoked during her time in AA – by that I mean the idea of a god – but the natural world is certainly a higher power she recognises. She does accept the things she cannot change.

But she must have realised, as the waves go to work every day on the cliffs buttressing the Outrun, that given time and effort, everything can change - and eventually does.

October 28, 2017

HEX

by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
400 pages, Hodder

Review by Pat Black

Vampires do well out of books. They’re comfortably top of the monsters leaderboard. In browsing for books online, you’d go into a hall of mirrors just to avoid seeing the buggers for a while.

Werewolves don’t do quite as well, but there’s still plenty of interest in our not-so-friendly four-legged friends. I didn’t realise this until I punted out a werewolf novella on Amazon. It was like a junior school wolfie kid, in its wee uniform. I was a big wolfie mama, tearfully watching the little one scamper in on its first day.

I also discovered you could trip up on sexy werewolves/shapeshifter scud stories. They’re like a great big shaggy doormat.

But you don’t see so many witches. I’m surprised by this. They lend themselves so well to all facets of the horror genre. They can be scary; they can be sexy; they can summon demons and dish out curses. Most importantly, they’ve got some kind of grudge. In this, they’re relatable. But away from fairy tales, there aren’t too many in literature.

On the big screen there’s the Blair Witch, but of course, we never really saw her. The closer we get to that movie’s 20th anniversary, the more I see it for the con it was - and I applaud its makers all the more for that.

There was The Craft and Charmed, but one was a high school Mean Girls-style revenge drama (a very good one), and the other packaged witchcraft as a lifestyle choice. I’m looking at witches as Big Bads, here, not Buffies.

Step forward Dutch novelist Thomas Olde Heuvelt with Hex. Rewritten for an American market from the original Dutch version, this book is set in Black Rock, a modern-day town in upstate New York suffering a great big hangover from the days of the founding fathers: it is cursed by a witch.

Katherine Van Wyler was tortured and executed for perceived witchcraft in 1664, and her children perished, too. But she never really died. Now, Katherine – an undead physical entity, wrapped in chains with her eyes and mouth stitched up – dots around the town as she pleases, appearing and disappearing in seemingly random places.

She could materialise in the bathroom while you’re seated and pre-occupied. She could appear at the bottom of your bed just as you’re putting a move on your partner. She could pop up in the seat behind you at the movies, nudging you every couple of minutes with her big buckled shoes. Why do people do that? Stop it!

“Why don’t they just kill her?” Not so fast. She’s got skills. If anyone tries to harm the witch, horrible things happen. She can trigger aneurysms and heart attacks by remote control, killing people at random in the town if anything happens to her. She’s a cardiovascular killer. She’s a walking fish supper, basically.

Then there’s her most insidious trick: whispering. If you listen closely to what the witch mumbles through her sewn-up lips, you instantly want to kill yourself. Many people have.

“Why don’t they just leave?” They can’t. Anyone who gets too far away from Black Rock wants to kill themselves, too. Once you’re there, you’re stuck. Or you die.

The town of Black Rock copes. Fully backed by the US government, which does not want the menace to escape, or for the rest of the world to find out about her, the town has an elaborate system – HEX – set up to ensure no-one leaves town, and to manage the witch’s appearances as far as possible. Led by Robert Grim and answerable to the mayor, this taskforce cleans up the witch’s messes and makes sure no news of Black Rock’s unique resident leaves town. In the internet and mobile phone era, this is an increasingly difficult prospect.

Hikers are turned away by deputies monitoring the town’s wooded borders, citing various made up public order or health and safety problems. More difficult to persuade to leave are the people looking to buy property in Black Rock. Every effort is made to dissuade folk looking to settle in a seemingly pleasant arboreal town - including harassment. For those really, really stubborn people who can’t take a hint, they have to become Black Rock residents. They are given an induction; they are trained in the ways of this supernatural nightmare which must become part of their life. They become fully immersed in the town, unable to communicate the problem to wider society… and unable to leave.

Welcome to the Hotel California.

The author is about 30, though going by the dust jacket photo, if someone had told me he was 10 years younger I’d have bought it. How god-damn disgusting is that? These young and talented bastards, how dare they? But the main thing that struck me about Olde Heuvelt’s work was that we are now into a third generation of people who grew up under the spell of Stephen King.

Although its original version was set in the Netherlands, Hex is dripping with King’s Big Mac-style secret sauce recipe. It features small town America with all its little kinks and hang-ups - the country in microcosm - which we’ve seen time and again in King’s fiction.  The book focuses on regular families and ordinary Joes battling unearthly forces, the everyday turned horrific. Imagine trundling your trolley around Lidl, and you turn a corner into the “Death Star turret” section where all the booze lives, and oops – that’ll be your 350-year-old witch, blocking aisle four.

There’s a lot of potential for humour in this scenario, and Hex gleefully exploits it. Hallowe’en sees the witch used as a decoration, and people pose for pictures with her. Imagine how annoyed she’d be to come third in the “best witch” contest?

But there’s not too much laughter, as the Black Rock witch isn’t a thing of comedy. She’s terrifying, and her sudden appearances give you something to think about before lights out. The book is not short on scares – there are a load of “well you can shove that up your poky hat!” moments.

Hex is almost a brilliant novel. It has an eye on many of the town’s residents – I particularly liked HEX chief Robert Grim, who seems to be an uptight rule book junkie at first, but turns out to be a decent, principled man doing a difficult job. The story comes into sharp focus with one doctor and his family. The doctor’s son, Tyler, is a senior student at high school. He and his friends find a way to circumvent Black Rock’s internet black-out, and, armed with GoPros and camera phones, they humiliate the witch in a series of escalating pranks, Jack-Ass style.

It looked like the gang were going to use brand new technology – video, blogs, vlogs, whatever – to break an ancient curse. This is a barnstorming idea, setting up a clash between the very old and the ultra-modern, but it doesn’t quite happen. In the service of his plot, Heuvelt abandons this terrific idea. It seems that the boys’ ultimate goal isn’t to destroy the Black Rock Witch, but to be guffawing arseholes. Though this is painfully true to life, it wastes a great concept.

The unfolding drama is triggered by Jaydon, one of the more troubled boys in Tyler’s group, who takes things a little bit too far with Katherine. “Fancy seeing a witch’s tits?” I didn’t need a crystal ball to foresee problems brewing with that one.

Already something of a vindictive soul, we might assume, Katherine’s retribution for the indignity she suffers is terrible. In turn, it triggers something unpleasant in Black Rock’s residents as they look to punish the teenage miscreants.

Another parallel with Stephen King is how convincingly Heuvelt writes young people. (As well he should, as he looks as if he’s still at school... terse grumble.) He captures the teenage boys’ interaction and their casual cruelty with switchblade-sharp precision. You’re having a good time with Hex, getting invested in the characters and family relationships, until Jaydon breaks a taboo.

The story escalates, and increasingly tragic events occur. There’s one death in particular which felt almost too raw, too close to the real thing, for comfort. It makes people lose their minds.

Hell follows, but it seems that Black Rock’s residents – like the good people of Jerusalem’s Lot, or Derry, Maine – might want to look to their own behaviour before they condemn the wicked witch.

October 17, 2017

WATCHING THE DETECTIVES:

Kurt Wallander

Faceless Killers
by Henning Mankell
304 pages, Vintage

Review by Pat Black

The first Wallander story, Faceless Killers, appeared in 1991, but its themes might have dated from the past fortnight.

The Swedish inspector’s first published case is a murder at a remote farmhouse, which sees an elderly man and his wife battered and garrotted by one or more intruders.

The only clue is revealed in the chilling opening chapter after a kindly neighbour realises the couple haven’t followed their usual routine, and arrives just in time to hear the dying wife’s last word:

“Foreigners.”

Heading the police inquiry is Kurt Wallander. Try not to roll your eyes, now (or eye, if you only have one): he’s in crisis, his wife having left him, and his daughter – who survived a suicide attempt - doesn’t speak to him. He drinks, and sometimes gets in his car afterwards. He is perhaps not best suited to such a high-pressure, responsible job.

Hmm. Any character tics or foibles? Yep, of the Morse-y variety: he listens to opera on cassette tapes.

I’ve noticed Scandie Noir detectives are bang into their pastries and coffee, and Wallander is no exception. At time of writing, this doesn’t half put me in the mood for pastries and coffee. I imagine the writers, tucking into pastries and coffee as they type – about pastries and coffee - chuckling as they imagine their readers also tucking into pastries and coffee, or wishing they could. It is a curious metaphysical symbiosis, akin to someone reading Bukowski poetry about getting blootered in a pub, composed when he was blootered in a pub, while they themselves are getting blootered in a pub.

Wallander is horrified by the crime. It’s seemingly without motive, and there are no witnesses. But matters take an even more sinister turn when the dying wife’s last words are leaked to the public.

In the context of the story, Sweden has been taking in refugees in great numbers, and this has already caused tensions among the established population. So the idea of “foreigners” coming to Sweden and slaughtering an old couple ignites nasty, white supremacist tendencies.

Wallander is warned in a series of anonymous phone calls that “something will be done soon unless you catch them”. Something is done – first, a cardboard village is torched, and then a black refugee is executed at random, in cold blood, his head blown off with a shotgun.

So our hero has two major inquiries to sort out – the double killing at the farmhouse, and then the asylum seeker’s shooting – and all while his boss is on holiday.

The late Henning Mankell wrote this book as a response to similar tensions affecting Sweden in 1990. Their parallels with the present day are all too clear.

Mankell was aghast at the racism which emerged in Sweden in response to the influx of refugees. At the same time, he advocated controlled immigration, rather than doors flung open to just anyone. On the face of it, that’s a common sense approach - except I’m not sure that the latter scenario marks the actual truth. “They’re just letting anyone in” sounds a bit like a myth spewed out at the pub by a boozed-up farmer who doesn’t live within five miles of anyone non-white – and he’ll tell you he still thinks Brexit is a good idea, while he’s at it.

Whatever the case, this is a view that Wallander shares, and makes explicit in the book.

His investigation, much like any real-life inquiry, is a methodical, logical process; speaking to witnesses, finding discrepancies in stories and tracking down Persons of Interest. Wallander is led down a few blind alleys, but by and large he follows reasoned steps to find his killers. He even gets a couple of action scenes - one while on stakeout, another as he chases down some bad guys.

I liked the procedural element. There are few if any credibility-stretching leaps of logic disguised as insight, and a wilful rejection of the guess-the-killer card game of most whodunnits. With detective stories, there’s a constant tension between a realistic depiction of police work and the need to create an engaging puzzle. Wallander is more on the side of the nitty-gritty than many of his contemporaries.

Wallander also tries to seduce his district’s new chief prosecutor. She’s a young, ambitious woman who rattles his cage with her attitude – read “competence” – before haunting his daydreams. He is punching well above his weight, here. It comes across as some last-beer-in-the-crate fantasy of a middle-aged, bang-out-of-shape man; the delusion that the good looking woman in the office wants his body.

It seems doubtful that anyone would want Wallander’s body - he is a mess, dishevelled, hung over most of the time, just about clinging to the cliff-face of life. Why a married, accomplished woman would want to get mixed up with someone who screams “loser” at you from a long way off is anyone’s guess, but we probably all know cases where this has happened.

This encounter was problematic as Wallander initially forces himself on her. He does, thankfully, take no for an answer, but even at a gap of nigh-on 30 years, I think he’d end up in trouble in real life for this. Eventually, though, he succeeds.

Maybe I’m a little bit too uptight on this score. Perhaps it’s all down to that mythologised Scandinavian openness over matters of the flesh. I once asked a Swedish person I studied with if this tabloid aspect of his national character had any basis in truth, and he assured me it did. Well, you would say that. There are some national stereotypes that people enjoy living up to. Like if you had a national trait that championed hard drinking or proficiency at violence; some folk would rather this assumption was made about them on first impressions than not.

Whatever the case, I thought Wallander was a wee bit out of line.

There are some fascinating side-characters, including a hard-working lieutenant who does a lot of the spade work for Wallander. This was true to life, as real murder investigations can use dozens of officers making hundreds of inquiries, and not just one maverick gumshoe on his own, eating pastries and drinking coffee, on a hangover.

I was intrigued by Wallander’s father, who lives on his own and suffers from dementia. I felt sure there was Meaning to be found in the old man. He’s an artist, famous for painting the same scene and figures, over and over again. The old boy, who lives alone, has taken to downing his paintbrushes and wandering off into the background, in one case vanishing for a day before the authorities pick him up.

Wallander is worried sick for his dad, and knows the time will come when a hard decision must be taken.

Should we read something into this? Should we see a more romantic notion of Swedish life and society grown corrupt, become sad and dysfunctional?

Even if you choose to read nothing into it, Wallander’s first case is worth checking out. 

October 6, 2017

FIELD NOTES:

Country Matters on Booksquawk

Being A Beast, Adventures Across the Species Divide, by Charles Foster
256 pages, Profile Books

Review by Pat Black

I wouldn’t like to ask for this one over the counter at Waterstones. Imagine having to repeat yourself to the person at the till:  

“No, it’s Being – A – Beast.”  

The inquiry would go out on the public address system across the entire shop (which, naturally, would be the busiest bookshop in the world at that point): “Gentleman at the till wants Being A Beast, that’s Being A Beast… This guy here wants to Be A Beast…”

I picture something going terribly wrong somewhere – or, an evil gremlin getting involved. Perhaps it would be sniggering Rob – there’s always a sniggering Rob – who wrote and illustrated the shelf-stack index card blurb for Fear And Loathing with his own marker pen.  

Soon, a beautiful girl appears at the counter. “Was this the book you wanted, sir?”

Front cover: Jimmy Savile.

But, this book isn’t concerned with that kind of beast. Charles Foster’s natural history effort seeks to go that little bit further than his peers in an increasingly crowded field. He wants to know what some of Britain’s most famous creatures actually experience. He wants to go as close as he can to the lives of badgers, foxes, otters, stags and swifts. He wants to run, eat, sleep, pee and poo like these animals.

Surely, you think to yourself, this is a wind-up.

It might be a wind-up. Foster’s tongue is firmly in his cheek throughout, but Being A Beast is not just a journey into English whimsy, guided by someone who has worn tweed on purpose.  

There’s some scholarship on show, a physiological examination of how animals process the world through their senses, and how they differ to us in that regard. Foster carefully steers between the Scylla and Charybdis of nature writing: anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism. He comes to the same conclusions as John Lewis-Stempel in Meadowland. We can never know precisely what goes through a badger’s mind, but there’s surely an equivalent, something both species can relate to. Most of us have eyes and ears and tongues, same as our fellow mammals. We share many characteristics with fish and birds. And we’ve all got to eat.

Foster says the experience of people who have synaesthesia (they might “taste” colours, or process sounds visually) is as close a match as we can get to trying to express the sensory world of the animals – the fox creeping through gloomy alleyways; the otter zipping after fish in the water; the badger prowling the forest floor by moonlight.

Sadly, Foster doesn’t engage with the animal kingdom by going Full Furry. It surely crossed his mind to don a giant badger or fox suit. When he heads into the forest accompanied by his son, I imagined them walking hand-in-hand in a cute parent-and-child badger onesie combo. Would that make it a twosie? Hmm.

Nor does he go naked, reasoning – persuasively – that most animals have highly specialised “natural” clothing that helps them survive the outdoor environment, which humans lack. This did beg a question from me: why are humans naked? But that’s for someone else’s book.

There’s something to learn in each of the sections. For example, badgers are highly social animals, with long-established hierarchies, even down to the generations that came before them whose bodies are incorporated into the walls of their setts. We are shown how the fox’s body is perfectly calibrated to the horizon to allow it to look around while it is depositing droppings. The otter’s world is always on fast-forward, its metabolism a nightmarish electrical crackle of activity. And then we are shown how far the swift travels in service of its unknowable rhythms.

There’s no disguising the foolishness of this enterprise, and Foster is happy to address that, recording the opinions of everyone around him as they tell him he must be off his head. Foster gets a farmer to dig him a trench near a forest, covers it over with branches and acts like a badger. He builds a den in his garden and comes out at night, like a fox. He dons neoprene and turns over submerged stones in rivers with his nose. He is chased through the Highlands of Scotland by friends with dogs, in an attempt to become a stag.

Sadly, he does not don Acme-style wings and leap off a cliff, Wile E. Coyote style, in an attempt to become a swift. They are things of permanent wonder, it seems. We’d best look to the poets for guidance there.

It’s very silly, but done in deadly earnest, and thankfully Foster gets the picture before he comes to any harm. Perhaps the most dangerous moment is when he becomes an urban fox, and a policeman comes across him while he is sleeping in some bushes. The conversation they have is straight out of a badly-dated sitcom (“Are you trying to be clever, sir?”), but Foster does come close to trouble more than once. Discretion might have been a better bet when he decides to stay in his badger sett during an immense, best-since-records-began storm. Later, when he mentions how lovely a woman looks through her bathroom window, as spotted from an alleyway, you’re bound to raise an eyebrow or two.

How animals eat, and how they go about obtaining their food, is the part that stuck out the most for me - but not for any palatable reason. If you’re squeamish, I’d recommend avoiding the next few paragraphs.

This book is disgusting. It opens up with the sensation of biting into an earthworm. Earthworms are a key part of badgers’ diet, and so they must become Foster’s, too. He ruminates on the different tastes of worms in different parts of the world. French worms are a gourmand’s delight, you won’t be surprised to hear, but some, unearthed close to urban landfill sites, taste of nappies.

Foster encourages his son to eat worms, too.

Scoffing creepy crawlies is not a problem. Biting into minnows which have bellies full of larvae similarly presents no difficulty. Foster can identify the types of maggot that can be found in different sources, whether that’s dead animals or dung, and encourages his children to do so as well. It’s all good nourishment.

So, too, is the stuff that humans throw away in the city, which foxes thrive on – half-eaten portions of rice in takeaway containers, chicken legs, spare ribs, and of course, dead pizza, enough to pave a city with. Strewth, we waste so much, Foster thinks, nibbling on a rancid spicy chicken wing.

As he roots through bins, Foster wonders at the human phobia of other people’s saliva. I think you might find basic hygiene reasons are behind that one, fella, which are similar to the reasons we don’t eat out of bins unless we really have to.

He’s undoubtedly playing with us here, but there is food for thought. Only, you might find you’ve lost your appetite somewhat.

Matters of dung are delved into with both hands – and kneaded, stretched, tenderised and sniffed. Foster seems to violate a basic rule by shitting where he eats in his sett, but I’d guess he had researched that one already and was quite happy with the decision.

While he lives as an otter by the riverbank, Foster and his four children take part in sprainting – leaving droppings, to mark territory. They all endeavour to identify each other’s spraints based on known characteristics of the members of the brood, as well as what the family was eating over the previous day or so.

The Foster pack’s momma bear is curiously absent from Being A Beast, but it’s not a stretch to imagine her thoughts and feelings on this and other matters.

And of course, in nosing through the long grass, Foster encounters a lot of dog turds. I half-expected him to stumble out of the vegetation like some English Rambo, smeared with the stuff as camouflage. “I wonder why we don’t use it as a natural skin cream? After all, it’s packed with nutrients.” He doesn’t say or do this, of course, but he is swimming along the same pipe. It would be no surprise if he did so.

So, the book’s an acquired taste, you might say. It led to one vivid nightmare where I was helping myself to squirming worms, as Foster does, like they were peanuts in a bowl at a party. I could well imagine their horrid final moments, their frantic struggle for life on my tongue. More tragic still (though slightly less disgusting) are worms who simply give up, just at the moment before they are crushed between two human molars. They stop moving, Foster informs us. They accept their fate, and their lowly place in the food chain.

In the stags section, Foster outlines his previous life as a hunter. After term time was over at his prestigious university, he would pack up and head to the Highlands. There, he would stalk and destroy magnificent red deer in sprawling estates, his progress steered and his shooting prowess flattered by tough but deferential wee Scottish men with terse accents and flat caps.

Now, Foster’s apology for this behaviour in his youth is explicit, and he is similarly transparent about his subsequent environmental enlightenment and his love for animals. He has no desire whatsoever to shoot anything now. Indeed, the section where he tries to be a stag could be seen as expiatory, as he reverses roles and tries to live his life as a hunted animal.

Foster is apologetic about his past life in blood sports, but he is not ashamed of it. He used to love it; he relished the sharpening of the senses, the tingling sensation of closing in on prey after hours of patient stalking.

I don’t know the guy. I don’t know where he came from. But Charles Foster appears to be a successful man in real life, a barrister, well-qualified with the relevant paperwork from Oxford or Cambridge. I presume he is paid well. Was it natural selection that allowed Foster to research, write and publish books about his crazy whimsical journeys through the British countryside and other parts of the planet? Some innate talent honed across the generations? Was it hard work - sheer graft - that pulled him up by the bootlaces? Did he survive and prosper by his wits, intelligence and raw instinct? Or was something else at play - some natural resource enjoyed only by a few?

That’s not to belittle his character, wit or intelligence. Foster is rough and ready enough, charging into canals with his clothes on after pub sessions, and making friends with live Glaswegians. But his progress calls to mind a treacherous observation I could not suppress about the lovely Roger Deakin: that it takes lots of money and spare time to become a gentleman author of natural history books. We’d all like to have a house in the country with a moat around it.

This, I am aware, is chippy on my behalf - my own flaw as a simple mammal. But the thought persists, and I have to let it run free. I can say no more without sullying my own happy experiences of nature writing, and those who write it.

Let’s not leave things on an uncomfortable note. This is a fine book, lots of fun with plenty of laughs. Crucially, it teaches without being didactic, a very difficult trick. It falters a little during the final section on swifts, but Foster has done enough by that point to allow us the indulgence of his travels in the bird’s slipstream.

I’ve read some truly great books as part of this journey through the fields and meadows, taken while there’s still some blue in the sky – and this was another one.

It’s colder, today. There’s a change in the air. Things are on the turn. 

September 24, 2017

READY PLAYER ONE

by Ernest Cline
345 pages, Arrow

(This review is of the audio version, read by Wil Wheaton. Yes, that one)

Review by Pat Black

Ready Player One. This is the dream we all dream of.

The phone goes: it’s Spielberg. You assume it’s a joke, a prank played by your pals. But after some pre-watershed-sitcom misunderstandings in which he chuckles at your growing consternation, you find out that no, it’s actually Spielberg.

He wants to adapt your book into a movie. Shall we draw up some paperwork? Sign here to become a total winner. Your official title is now Sir Victor de Jacquepotte. No, don’t bother going back to work on Monday. We’ll send a limo round to collect your P45.

This actually happened to Ernest Cline with Ready Player One. It’ll be a movie soon, directed by the most famous film-maker who ever lived. Ooh, you jammy bugger. Talk about finding the Grail.

Set in 2044, the novel tells the story of a teenage shut-in called Wade Watts who spends his spare time in a fully-immersive virtual reality world called the Oasis. Provided you’ve got the equipment, the Oasis is free to access. You can go to school in it, play games in it, “interact” with others in it, and do pretty much whatever you want in it, across countless virtual galaxies, in any realistic or fantasy setting you could wish for. You can create worlds; you can fight people; you can make love. You can hunt dragons, complete quests, direct space battles, become a kung fu master or a sports hero – anything you like, any way you like it. It even has a pseudo economy, a virtual currency system using experience points – basically a personal scoreboard after you complete games, pick up artefacts, pass exams, or whatever.

You control your 3D avatar with haptic gloves and visors. Some sensory information is added to whatever you can see, depending on how up-to-date your set-up is.

All of this happens while you are sat in your house, oblivious to the real world.

The inventor of the Oasis is a tech geek/punk baron called James Halliday, a composite of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and that guy who wrote Chuckie Egg. When Halliday dies, a great game begins – the search for the ultimate Easter egg, hidden somewhere in the Oasis, which will grant the finder Halliday’s entire fortune – hundreds of billions of dollars.

People who look for the Egg are called Gunters. These are the amateurs, and there are millions of them. But with all that lolly on offer, you can bet that corporate interests start getting involved. These are represented by the boo-hiss baddies of IOI industries, a tech firm with designs on control of the Oasis, monetising it, and doing all that bad old capitalist stuff.

People flock to the Oasis because the real world is shit. Cline posits a future where the Great Recession never ended. As time ticks on, this moves from an outrageous prospect to prescience. This is a vision of the western world in irrevocable decline. The environment is a nightmare, junk food is a normal diet, public services are almost non-existent, crime is endemic and… let’s just stick a big “dystopia” label on it.

Wade – who calls himself Parzival in the Oasis, a nod to his Arthurian quest for Halliday’s Egg – has one friend in the virtual world, a fellow 1980s geek and video game nerd called Aech (pronounced as the letter H), who you can be certain is not what they seem.

Parzival is obsessed with pop culture from the decade that Halliday became a teenager and got interested in computing. As a result of painstaking research, Wade/Parzival succeeds where millions of others have failed over the years, and uncovers a clue which will help him find one of three keys which he needs to claim the Egg.

Along with Aech, Parzival teams up with other virtual partners, including the geek Dream Girl trope, Art3mis, as well as two Japanese brothers, Daito and Shoto. With the villainous IOI agents taking a murderous interest in his activities, a classic treasure hunt is on.

This involves solving riddles and playing classic video games such as Joust and Pac-Man, but also includes Dungeons and Dragons modules, the back catalogue of Rush, the movie War Games, primeval text-based eight-bit adventure games, and many other pre-internet geeky touchstones.

I had a wee problem with this.

One thing which must exasperate authors is when readers hit them with criticism that boils down to: You didn’t write the novel I was expecting. Why didn’t you write your book like this (inserts own idea)?

I can’t avoid this with Ready Player One.

When I was a kid, one of my favourite comic strips was The Computer Warrior. It appeared in The Eagle, and came out during the Triassic era of British home computing in 1985. It has more than a hint of Tron about it, but if Edgar Wright ever wanted to adapt a British comic book property, The Computer Warrior is a perfect fit.

In it, a kid gets sucked into a virtual realm through his Commodore 64-type machine. Here, computer games become reality – you fight for real. If you lose, you are sent to The Nightmare Zone. 

This is where his best mate ended up; so the kid has to complete several computer games in order to win his friend’s freedom. To begin with, the games were fictional, generic Space Invader-type battles. Then someone hit upon the idea of using real-world computer games as a promotional tie-in. So the Computer Warrior played Wizard of Wor, Gauntlet, Pastfinder, Desert Fox, Side Arms and many other now-classic, sometimes forgotten games, before completing his quest. The strip was a big success, and ran for a whopping nine years, right up until Eagle closed.

I expected Ready Player One would be something like The Computer Warrior. It isn’t.

During key moments, when Parzival has to play classic games in order to find one of the keys or clear the gates for the next stage, I thought we’d have a description of someone playing a real-world version of these digital relics. The thoughts and feelings of Pac-Man, as he chomps his way around the maze, avoiding ghosts; now that’s something I’d want to read.

But you don’t get anything like this – you read about a kid standing in front of a games cabinet, mashing buttons and hunting for quarters in his pockets. It’s not quite the same, nor is it anywhere near as exciting.

Why didn’t you write your novel this way?

I know, I know.

The treasure hunt parts were fun, although the increasingly smug, high-five eighties geek lore references did get on my wick. I’m not saying I was the cool kid at school or anything but there’s something horrendously lame about this kind of behaviour.

So we get lots of references to video games, movies, TV shows and board games - most you’ll get, some you won’t. (One big thing that was missing, for me, was adventure gamebooks – the Fighting Fantasy/roll a dice games, or good old Choose Your Own Adventure.) These things have a currency in their own right, as the geeks compete either consciously or unconsciously, testing themselves to see who has the most knowledge of digital arcana, fully referenced, sourced, dated, accredited and annotated.  You wonder if scientists do the same thing; or academics; or cloistered monks a thousand years ago, poring over illuminated manuscripts.

Away from the trivia, there are some very serious points to be made in Ready Player One, and it is here that the book works best.

For a start, this book has lots to say about a life lived online. At one point Wade comes right out and says it: I’m a fat, pimply recluse. A shut-in. A loser. The only reason he isn’t in his mom’s basement is because mom’s long dead.

The book’s best part is when Wade is made a legalised slave for IOI industries. He works in tech support, and hates it. His stinging comments to mouth-breathing Oasis users are filtered out automatically by AI, and his very tone of voice is modulated so as not to offend. There’s a delicious cynicism in these parts; the revenge of patronised IT workers the world over.

Cline explores the idea that, in the future, having accrued astounding levels of personal debt, young people will become indentured to big companies. Wade is given enough food and shelter to exist on, with the dangled carrot of “paying off” his dues through work, which he never will.

The book is excellent during these parts. It was almost disappointing to jump out of Wade’s real world and back into Parzival’s digital grail quest. In these sections, Ready Player One was exceptional.

Cline also warns us about the perils of meeting people online. Now I have met people online and am happy to say I’m friends with them, despite never having met them face-to-face. But when you cross the boundary into love, romance, or just plain old sex, Problems Can Occur. I know folk who have met partners online, either through dating sites or shared interest forums, and I say to them: well played. There’s good sense in filtering out personality elements or interests in a potential mate which clash with your own. But you still have that messy, awkward, social interaction thing to do in real life, with all its blemished wonders.

Sex will be a key driver of virtual reality, as it has been in lots of entertainment technology (John Waters’ infamous quote about the real reason VHS was invented springs to mind). To his great credit, Cline goes there, outlining exactly what a computer geek shut-in like Wade will do for teenage kicks in this wild digital frontier. Have you seen those weird lifelike Japanese dolls? They’re targeted right at the Otaku, you can count on it. This stuff is moving faster than Chuck Palahniuk can imagine it. People are doing this right now.

There is another moment where Cline pulls the rug out from under us, when it seems Parzival and Art3mis are going to fulfil the story’s romantic requirements at a virtual nightclub in the Oasis. It’s almost a John Hughes or Cameron Crowe movie moment, complete with soaring pop music epiphany… almost… Until Art3mis brutally rips the needle off the record.

This scene was the best in the book. It was a necessary collision between unbridled fantasy and harsh reality. These things happen to most folk in teenage life, regardless of technology, but it will be food for thought for anyone who is enthused about all the distractions and controversies virtual reality is bound to bring. The most basic of which is: none of it is real.

If you scoff at the idea of people spending their lives plugged into machinery and experiencing nothing of the world outside, you should consider how computers are already an indispensable part of our existence. Your working day; your shopping; your aimless babble on Twitter, your herd mentality likes and shares; the commercial-break reality you serve up for friends and relatives on Facebook; the porn you climax to; the book reviews you read. At the risk of donning a full Chicken Little outfit, there are surely grave dangers in making our online existence even more immersive than it already is.

Whiny nerd voice: Why on earth didn’t you finish this novel with the words Player Two Has Entered The Game?

Now, I’m off for a run in the sunshine. Time for fresh air and exercise.

During my run I will listen to music on headphones, to help me forget the pain, the tiredness, the sweat, and the tedium. Later on, I’ll write some fiction, in the hope of one day taking people’s attention away from what’s really happening in their lives.

Maybe one day I’ll get my own call from Spielberg - who knows? Then people can sit down in a darkened room and see my fantasies projected onto a screen for a couple of hours, lost in a world of their own.

Reality can be over-rated.