I know most people have the Bill Bryson version of London stuck in their heads instead of the stamps they should have in their passport. It is, however, one of the most atmospheric places on the planet. Walking up the South Bank of the Thames, you can watch the mudlarkers search for royal gold, chucked into the murky river during some ancient crime. Brave souls can find themselves in SoHo at midnight, every bit equal to the rainy sets of Blade Runner, where strippers and rent boys and drug addicts lurch from florescent spotlight to disappear down its narrow, dark alleys. Better yet is the more nebulous end of Shoreditch, which today is still not that far from the era when bloody Jack plied his murderous trade. The smells emanating from the stalls at Borough Market are as rich as the food descriptions in any culinary mystery. There’s plenty of absurdity as well and I’ll put a trip to a British post office up against of Carl Hiassen’s wacky adventures.
That’s just London. The wider realm of the United Kingdom has such rich possibilities for crime and punishment, be it hard-boiled, cozy or just savagely funny. From Edinburgh -- where Ian Rankin’s hammered Detective Rebus skirts the trail of Alexander McCall Smith’s more delicate Isabel Dalhouse -- to London and even the endless wars of Belfast, the entire region is rife with detectives, murderers, thieves and renegades with just as much fervor as their cousins across the pond.
One of the more delightful imports this month is David Bowker’s new comic novel, How To Be Bad. A solid little crime novel by itself, it’s a real treat for hip bibliophiles as the author both pays homage to and takes the piss out of modern “men’s novels,” from Nick Hornby to Chuck Palahniuk. His hero, a mild-mannered young bookseller named Mark, runs a fair business specializing in books highlighting “the spiritual crisis on the contemporary Western male,” such as Hornby and Tony Parsons as well as the usual collector’s items from “Patrick O’Brian, Tolkien and that bloody Rowling woman.”
Keeping up with that theme is harder than it seems, Mark finds, when he runs once more into his old girlfriend, Caro. Every man alive has a Caro still rattling around his fading skull -- those wild, winsome and deeply dangerous girls that you can’t possibly live with and would drive over your grandmother to see just one more time.
Luckily, Caro’s needs are simple. In return for her affections, she just wants Mark to whack her father. Er, and her ex-boyfriend. And her loan shark. As the bodies begin to pile up, Mark begins to suspect with the wonderful British knack for understatement that he might, perhaps, be in trouble. It’s as if one of the overly sensitive lads from Mark’s favorite books had stumbled into the old ultraviolence in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch. Add to the hyperkinetic plot chapter headings that riff on Hornby titles like “Hi, Infidelity,” and “Fever Bitch” and you have a full afternoon on your hands.
On the same comic note, but straying to Northern Ireland, I have to highly recommend the Dan Starkey novels written by former journalist Colin Bateman. Starting with Divorcing Jack and continuing through a series of novels set both in Ireland and later in other ports of call, Bateman has given a very funny drunkard’s eye view of the Irish troubles. It’s a fantastic portrait of a man given to exploring his own weaknesses for drink and the odd Irish lass. Its introduction is one of the best hooks I’ve ever read, too, as Starkey explains his odd tryst with a girl he meets while sleeping off a drunk in the park, who later ends up quite dead: “I was upstairs with a girl I shouldn't have been upstairs with when my wife whispered in my ear, 'You have twenty-four hours to move out.' ...If I'd broken off then, chased after her, perhaps things would have turned out different for everyone. But I didn't.”
They’re a bit hard to find outside of the UK but Bateman’s eight Dan Starkey novels, not to mention two books about Detective Jimmy Murphy and a half-dozen or so other comic novels including the inspired war satire Mohammed Maguire, are all worth the effort to seek out.
Back on London, there’s a pleasurable side trip to Greenwich to be had in London Irish, which Bateman recommends. Zane Radcliffe’s novel concerns Bic, another decent fellow who wouldn’t be out of place in the aforementioned bookshop run by Mark. He works his crepe business out near the park in Greenwich, a pleasant riverside town in the shadow of the Millennium Dome, and dreams of returning to fair Ulster to open up an ostrich farm. It’s not a bad life until Bic gets down the pub, as is likely to happen in these circumstances, and wakes to find himself Britain’s most wanted man.
Staying on the light side, I continue to flog Hugh Laurie’s The Gun Seller to readers like a fishmonger at market. It’s not like Hugh needs the money anymore, having somehow managed to sneak in to some sort of medical television program called House, but I still think his sole novel is worthy of more attention.
It never should have been published in the first place. Laurie, who came to enormous fame in the UK through his collaborations with fellow novelist Stephen Fry and in the television series Blackadder, submitted his very funny book under a pseudonym and only revealed himself as its author after it was already under contract to be published. Later, Laurie told a London audience that there would never be an American edition because, well, Americans can’t take a joke. Fortunately, he was mistaken about its appeal and it’s still possible to find copies here and there.
Nominally a spy novel, the book stars Thomas Lang, a tall, clever, motorcycle-obsessed spy for hire who points his oddball sense of humor at a conspiracy involving international terrorists and arms smugglers. As the book opens, Lang is mulling over the finer points of arm breaking.
Well, exactly. Of course. The right thing to do, the only thing to do, is to get it over with as quickly as possible. Break the arm, ply the brandy, be a good citizen. There can be no other answer.
Unless unless unless.
What if you were to hate the person on the other end of the arm? I mean really, really hate them?
This was a thing I had to consider.
I say now, meaning then, meaning the moment I am describing; the moment fractionally, oh so bloody fractionally, before my wrist reached the back of my neck and my left humerus broke into at least two, very possibly more, floppily joined-together pieces.
The arm we’ve been discussing, you see, is mine.
The Gun Seller is as good as comic novels get. Lang’s voice is original and Laurie’s comic timing combined with the good old gee-whiz technology and over-the-top James Bond action sequences make for a very satisfying read. My only complaint is that House is a hit, keeping Laurie from his rightful destiny of writing books for me to read on the Eurostar.
Finally, I have to throw a token American into the mix. Greg Rucka has been a solid thriller writer for years, turning out novels about professional bodyguard Atticus Kodiak and penning the occasional issue of Batman. A few years ago, though, he stumbled into writing about a female British spy and she has become, bar none, his most inspired creation.
Tara Chace first came to life in the pages of a graphic novel called Whiteout. The book was a brilliant stroke in itself, chronicling the story of U.S. Marshall Carrie Stetko. Carrie, not to put it too lightly, has fucked up and been castaway to McMurdo Station, a U.S. base on the ice of Anarctica, and finds herself chasing a murderer in an outstanding locked-room mystery.
Tara is a special operations officer, Minder One in the fictionalized Secret Intelligence Service. A borderline alcoholic and a self-punishing killer, Chace is far from the glammed-up world of James Bond. Taking his cues from masters like Ludlum and Le Carre, Rucka has built her up through the course of seven graphic novels into a fully fleshed-out operative who is capable of any mission.
In the last two years, Rucka has thankfully moved Chace into the world of fiction. She first emerged in last year’s A Gentleman’s Game, which predicted the London terror attacks on the Tube with horrible prescience. This month its sequel, Private Wars, is published, in which Tara is suffering from the death of her lover and myriad other troubles. Both books are meticulously researched, action-packed and centered by Tara’s damaged persona. A Gentleman’s Game also has a terrific line that seems appropriate to leave as our parting word this month.
"It's not the bullet with your name on it you have to worry about, Tara. It's all those damn other ones, marked 'to whom it may concern.'"