“Railsea” by China Miéville (2012)

Leave a comment

“This is the story of a bloodstained boy.”

It’s almost a shame that I used up my introduction spiel about trains for a film last year, when it would’ve served me well here. Never mind. Most books that give a prominent role to trains feature just the one. Something magical and impressive that captures the imagination. China Miéville, however, goes a little further than that, and envisions a world entirely populated by trains. Welcome to the Railsea.

Sham Yes ap Soorap is an assistant doctor aboard the Medes, a moletrain. He is new to the Railsea, but is now sure to spend the rest of his life touring the rails, hunting for giant moles, in particular the great southern modlywarpe, and getting to know the other riders of the rails. In this world, there are no oceans, just endless plains laced with endless tracks. Every kind of train patrols them, from huge iron wartrains to wooden trains with sails. There are those made of salvage, those running on steam, and even one-man traincycles that people use to get around the islands.

While on a hunt, Sham and his crew stumble across a wrecked train and set about searching it for salvage. Inside, Sham instead finds a camera. The flatographs it shows, however, reveal something far more interesting than holiday snaps. There are images of children from a distant country, rare salvage, and most bizarrely of all, potential evidence that the Railsea does indeed end. Captivated by the image of a single rail leading out to darkness, Sham convinces Captian Naphi to put aside her hunt for Mocker-Jack, the great white mole, and seek out the people in the flatographs, and then, perhaps, find the edge of the world.

But rumour travels quickly on the rails, and soon Sham is in peril, as salvagers, pirates, monsters and molers all seek him out. What he and his crew discover may change not only his own fate, but that of the entire Railsea.

I’ve read Miéville a few times before, and he’s continually proved himself to have an imagination beyond anything one could reasonable expect from a writer. Aiming to write a novel in every genre, here he turns his attention to the great adventure tales. Indeed, the whole novel can be seen as a parody of, or homage to, Moby-Dick, particularly with the Captain’s obsession with hunting down the ivory-coloured mole that took her arm. This is expanded to be part of the lore, as most captains have what they call their “philosophy” – a particular creature that stole a limb from them, and they commit their lives to finding and killing the beast. Indeed, the creatures of this world are perhaps the most fascinating aspect. With no oceans, lakes or rivers, the ground itself takes up the reins for producing enormous and terrifying beasts. Most everything that we know on Earth to live in the ground lives here, although often far larger and more bloodthirsty than we would remember. Moles grow huge, but so do badgers, naked mole rats, rabbits, earthworms, termites, antlions, burrowing owls and earwigs. These animals have never been so scary.

Miéville also works magic with the setting itself. A world where ships are replaced by trains might seem quite simple, but the level of detail included is wonderful. Trains are limited in their travelling patterns by rails, unlike ships which can steer any which way, but there are still plenty of parallels. Trains are besieged by railgulls, and many of them still have crows nests aboard. The moletrains work mostly like whaling ships, and there are pirates here too, just like in adventure tales set on the open waves. Some job titles change – there is a trainswain rather than a coxswain – and they still sing shanties, although with slightly different lyrics, such as the classic, “What Shall We Do With the Drunken Brakesman?” The world is full and while we still see nothing like all of it, you know that it’s all there.

The book also keeps a level of uncertainty as to when and where the book is set. At first it seems like it might be another world distinct from our own, but there are mentions of the society having been going for a very long time – there is an awful lot of salvage, some of which looks like contemporary technology – and there are obscure references to things that appear to have been passed down through folklore, such as a brief mention of the god Railhater Beeching. It also seems that the planet has been visited by beings from other worlds before now, so if it is Earth, it’s a very distant future one with little water.

Although the book at times chugs along slower than the London to Brighton train on Southern rail, by the end it’s a Japanese bullet train and the ending itself contains a laugh-out-loud moment that makes it all worthwhile. It ends on a note of promise, and I almost wish I could have kept on following Sham on his adventures. It’s not my favourite Miéville story, but it’s still a pretty remarkable read.

Advertisements

FILM: “Murder On The Orient Express”

2 Comments

“My name is Hercule Poirot, and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.”

Trains. Humans have invented all sorts of ways to move themselves around quicker than by foot, but there is something oddly captivating about a train. In the real world, we have such famous vehicles as the Mallard, and the Flying Scotsman. In fiction, there’s the Hogwarts Express, the Ada Lovelace, and who could forget Thomas the Tank Engine? But there is, to my mind, just one train that hangs large in both the fictional world and our own. And as a Christie fan of the highest order, as regular readers of my blog will know, there was no way I was going to let this film pass without a review. Ladies and gentlemen, please, all aboard, the Orient Express.

For the few who don’t know, this story takes place aboard the Orient Express, a luxurious train that, for over a hundred years, ran travellers – usually wealthy ones – from Istanbul to London across Europe. On this particular journey, Hercule Poirot finds himself aboard with a number of passengers, all of whom seem to be keeping something quiet.

Along the journey, an avalanche derails the train and everyone is stuck in the middle of the mountains until rescue comes. To make matters worse, one of the passengers has been murdered. The stabbed body is surrounded by potential clues, and with Poirot on board, it seems inevitable that the moving finger will soon settle on the killer. But, the eternal question remains – whodunnit?

I’ll start positive. The film perfectly captures the lavishness and wealth of Poirot’s world. Christie almost never put him anywhere unsuitable, and he was forever found only in the most sumptuous surroundings, be they trains, boats or country houses. The Orient Express was the last word in luxury, and the beautiful scenery and set design of this film helps cement that. There are also some interesting directorial decisions made. The discovery and study of the body is filmed entirely from overhead. The film makes great use of the train’s length and the glass panels throughout the carriages. While in the novel, the drama takes place almost exclusively inside the train, here we venture off a couple of times, with each character questioned in different surroundings, leading to everyone lined up at a table in the snow like the Last Supper when the reveal occurs. Since the reveal is one of literature’s worst kept secrets, the real magic here lies in seeing how Poirot will solve it, rather than who is responsible. I will not, however, be revealing the ending here.

The characters are great, too, and while some don’t get quite enough screen time, everyone is pulling out the stops and many chew the scenery like there wasn’t time for lunch. Branagh, as Poirot, is still a decision I’ll never understand. The film industry apparently stopped saying “no” to him a long time ago. I like Branagh, he’s talented, but talent can only go so far and doesn’t mean you can play anyone.

Which leads me nicely onto my few very crucial complaints regarding the plot.

Firstly, Poirot is not an action hero. He does not run after criminals, and he does not engage first-hand in dangerous activities. He has never had a romantic relationship, and if he has, it is none of our concern and has no bearing on the plot. He is not as young as Branagh is playing him, and actually, whatever Christie herself said regarding the moustache, it does not look like that. It’s incredibly distracting.

Perhaps we were spoiled with David Suchet in the role for so long, but he provides, to me and many others, the pinnacle of a Poirot performance. Here, Branagh is not suited to the role. It’s a shame, because around him every single other member of the cast shines. The cream of the acting world is riding this train, including Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman, Michelle Pfeiffer and Leslie Odom Jr. I confess that seeing everyone arrive one by one did give me slight goosebumps.

It’s not a terrible film. It’s beautiful, and Christie’s original, wonderful plot is still in place, but it lacks something. I was quite happy to accept it as a one-off, but I shouldn’t have been surprised when the ending provided a sequel hook. Of course this’ll be run into the ground all the while it can make money. But all the luxury of a stunning train and all the wise deductions of a mustachioed Belgian can’t quite save it. I’m sure the film will do well, and I hope it introduces more people to Christie’s amazing novels, but Branagh is not and never will be Poirot, and I’m afraid I’m finding it hard to look past the facial hair.

#NotMyPoirot

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over two-thirds of the way funded – we’re nearly there! – and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Z Murders” by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1932)

Leave a comment

“Places, like people, have varying moods, and the moods of London are legion.”

As first lines go, that’s one of the best I’ve ever read. The opening paragraph describing the many moods of Britain’s capital should alone have given J. Jefferson Farjeon a place at the table of the great crime writers of the 20th century. And yet, odds are you’ve never heard of him. I hadn’t. He somehow slipped from the public consciousness despite writing over sixty novels that were, in his lifetime, highly regarded. Fans included the famously tough critic Dorothy L. Sayers, and it seems remarkable that someone so prolific could now be forgotten. Still, thanks once again to the British Library who are continuing to rediscover forgotten gems from the Golden  Age of Detective Fiction, and have brought to us here one of the alphabetically-last novels in the library. Ladies and gentlemen, The Z Murders.

We open in London, with a train pulling into Euston station at five o’clock in the morning. On it is Richard Temperley, come to London to visit his sister, and having had a disagreeable journey sat next to a loud snorer. Arriving in the city far too early to arrive at his sister’s house, he goes to a hotel over the road where he can sleep in the lounge until the dawn fully breaks. Unfortunately, the snorer comes too and is soon seen slumped in a nearby chair. But he’s not snoring anymore – he’s dead.

Shocked, Temperley examines the body and it becomes apparent he’s been shot. Is the incident at all related to the pretty but tense young woman who fled from the lounge mere minutes before the body was discovered? After the police have investigated, Temperley notices the woman’s purse forgotten in one of the chairs. He decides not to inform the police of his findings, and instead seeks the woman out. The police, however, are not stupid, and everyone is soon embarking on a game of cat and mouse that will take them all over the country, by train and taxi, on the hunt for a serial killer with a mysterious motive.

For some reason I keep being surprised when books of this age are funny, like I forgot it was possible that our ancestors had a sense of humour. The book is heavy in silly moments and smart quips, and the heroes are easily likeable. Richard Temperley is a bit gung-ho but is the sort of chivalrous chap who won’t think twice about crossing the country to help a woman in need. The woman in question, Sylvia Wynne, is secretive and you can’t be sure, really, how involved she is in everything. The policeman in charge of the case, Inspector James, is also a great character, and reminded me of Christie’s Inspector Japp, but there’s a suggestion that it’s actually his colleague Dutton who really knows what’s what.

Ted Diggs, the taxi driver who gets lumbered with driving Richard and Sylvia around the country is also great fun, and deeply fleshed out, perhaps slightly more so than even the main characters. Much of the humour comes from the difference in class between characters like Richard and Ted, which is common to novels of the time. In fact, it really is the characters that make this story. The plot is fine, but hangs a bit loose for me, and it’s a tiny bit farcical. Also, several details of it are never quite fully explained, but the resolution is satisfying enough.

The British Library also published Murder in White by Farjeon which was an unexpected success, so I daresay I’ll be returning to him at some point. After all, sixty to get through? Sounds like a challenge to me.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Strangers On A Train” by Patricia Highsmith (1950)

Leave a comment

“The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm.”

While most people would never act on murderous impulses, should they have them, it’s fortunate that this is the case. Quite a fun (purely theoretical) exercise, however, is to come up with the “perfect murder”. I’ve discussed some true ones before, and my extensive time spent reading crime fiction and books on how to write crime fiction means I’ve got a couple of ideas. But don’t worry, you’re not in any immediate danger.

In Patricia Highsmith’s classic, Strangers on a Train, we open on a locomotive tearing across the American south. On this train are architect Guy Haines and alcoholic Charley Bruno. Guy is on his way to finalise his divorce with his estranged wife, Miriam, although admits to himself that it would just be easier if she was dead. Bruno feels similarly about his hated father – why can’t he just disappear? Buoyed by alcohol, Bruno makes a proposal – the two men should swap victims and kill for each other. There would be no evidence leading to either man, as no one need ever know they’ve met, making it a pair of perfect murders.

Guy thinks Bruno is talking rot, and ignores him, but Bruno is not a man who gives up easily, and when Miriam is found dead a few days later, Guy is convinced that Bruno is behind it all. His new acquaintance now seems unable to leave him alone and begins to insidiously creep into Guy’s life, and both men are driving to madness and into actions that they may come to regret…

I love a good murder, and this is a really clever twist on the whole thing. It’s not a horror by any means, but it’s definitely a creepy thriller. You find yourself in the minds of Guy and Bruno, both apparently very different men who seem to perhaps have more in common than they’d like to admit. The idea of “swapping murders” is a good one, and has been copied and parodied endlessly since. I’m aware that Hitchcock turned it into a film, but from what I’ve read of that, he changed several major plot details, and what happens in the book is easily better. It’s quite clear what attracted Hitchcock to the text though; it’s just haunting enough to lodge itself behind your ear and bug you for days.

One of the most startling aspects of the book, for the time it was written anyway, was the sheer amount of homosexual subtext. Bruno, in particular, seems to be infatuated with Guy, even going so far at one point to think about killing off Guy’s second wife Anne so that he and Guy can be together. Their personalities become entwined quite marvellously, to the point that I wondered if there was going to be a sudden twist that revealed one of them didn’t exist and the other had just gone completely mad.

While not the greatest murder tale I’ve ever read, it’s nonetheless interesting and worth a look if you like that sort of thing. Just don’t go getting any ideas.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Reader On The 6.27” by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (2015)

Leave a comment

“Some people are born deaf, mute or blind.”

The creation of books is, to my mind, a symbol of humanity’s hope for the future. It’s a sign that we think it’s important to put down all we’ve learnt and think we’ve learnt for other people to read. The act of destroying books, therefore, is horrendous to me. A task we had to complete during my university degree involved ripping up a book to reconstruct the text in a new order, and that was hard enough. The idea of destroying books en masse … I can’t bear it.

Guylain Vignolles, the hero of this tale, shares my view. He adores books and hates the idea of destroying them – which is unfortunate, as his job is to run the book pulping machine at a factory in France. Every day, lorry-loads of remaindered books turn up and are shovelled into the machine’s maw and reduced to sludge, which is then taken off to be recycled into new books. Perhaps that’s admirable, but Guylian takes no pleasure from it, especially when everyone around him seems to enjoy their work. Guylian’s single joy is, once a day, when the machine is turned off, he climbs into its inner workings and rescues the handful of pages that has survived. He takes them home, dries them off, and reads them to his fellow commuters on the morning train, regardless of what they say or where they came from.

Guylian’s life takes on a new layer of excitement, however, when first he is invited by two elderly passengers to read at their nursing home, and then when he finds a memory stick on his usual train seat which contains the diary of an enigmatic and engaging lavatory attendant from somewhere in Paris. He begins to see that there may be more to life than he’d allowed there to be, and soon things begin to change.

The book’s own blurb describes the finding of the diary as a pivotal plot point, and while it is, it doesn’t actually occur until over halfway through the novel. The rest is equally compelling, though. Guylian is surrounded by a number of eccentric figures, including the plant’s security guard who speaks only in alexandrines and spends his time reading poetry aloud to an invisible audience in his little hut, and Guiseppe, a former colleague who is on a hunt for his legs after having them torn off in an industrial accident involving the book pulping machine. His story, particularly, is a beautiful one which I’m not going to go into here because I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s a great example of how white lies can be beneficial.

To return to where I began, the book is dripping with hope. The love of books and the written word is hopeful. Guylian manages to give Guiseppe a shot of hope just whenever he is most in need of it. Julie, the author of the diary, is hopeful for something that’s missing in her life. As always with translated books, you can never be quite sure how it would have read in the original language (unless you happen to speak both, and my French is practically non-existent). Kudos must go to Ros Schwartz who translated this one, which must have been especially difficult given the large amount of rhyming poetry present. Some things don’t translate, though. Guylian’s full name is a spoonerism pun that only works in French and while it’s explained here, the impact is less striking to an English reader.

It’s a quick, gorgeous read and one for anyone who needs a bit of hope in their lives.

“The Girl On The Train” by Paula Hawkins (2015)

1 Comment

the-girl-on-the-train“There is a pile of clothing on the side of the train tracks.”

Like many people I am a frequent user of trains … that is when there isn’t a strike on, nothing’s cancelled and there aren’t any leaves on the line. (I’m a Southern rail user, can you tell?) I’m also a nosy git, so if I’m not reading on my journey, which I often am, I find myself staring out of the window, looking into people’s gardens, wondering about those who live there. The writer in me conjures up all sorts of stories for these residents, and a little part of me has always wondered – what if one day I saw something I shouldn’t? That’s the set up for Paula Hawkins’ bestselling thriller.

Rachel Watson commutes back and forth to London every weekday, and in that time has begun to fantasise about some of the people she sees in their homes and gardens along the route. She is particularly obsessed with a young couple she has nicknamed Jason and Jess, since she doesn’t know their real names. She loves looking out for them, seeing them so in love. Also, if she’s focused on them, she doesn’t have to look four doors down to see the house where her ex-husband Tom is living with his new wife Anna and their baby.

One morning, though, Rachel sees something unusual going on in the garden. The next day there are reports that Megan (the real name of Jess) has gone missing after a row with her husband, Scott (Jason). As the police start searching for clues and Scott gets called in for questioning, Rachel begins to sense that she is the only one who can help, but given her current position as an alcoholic who keeps harrassing Tom and Anna, it doesn’t seem that anyone is going to take her seriously. Time ticks by and Rachel realises that she has to be more than just the girl on the train.

This book sold hugely and I was intrigued in it for a while before actually getting round to it, but it turns out that I thought I knew what it was going to be about. In my head, I’d rehashed it as a modern retelling of Agatha Christie’s 4:50 to Paddington, which it isn’t, although there are definitely some similarities. I won’t go into exactly what Rachel sees, but suffice to say that the novel basically boils down to being a murder mystery with five suspects, each of whom seems as likely as the other thanks to the three narrators, Rachel, Megan and Anna, all being entirely unreliable. Rachel is an alcoholic who suffers from blackouts, Anna sees the world through her hatred of Rachel, and Megan is telling us the events that lead up to the fateful day, but only the ones she seems to consider important.

All three women share certain other traits, as well as unreliability. They are each deeply flawed – Rachel is destructive, jealous and a poor judge of character, Megan is flighty, haunted and stubborn, and Anna is selfish, vain and unable to see what she doesn’t want to see. The male characters are nicely developed too, but it is the women here who really stand out. No one, with the possible exception of the other central figure, therapist Kamal Abdic, is a particularly pleasant person, but that’s life. There are very few angels in this world, most of us are broken and bruised in one way or another.

Some people I spoke to about this book called it predictable, some with real disparaging tones, but I actually found it quite the opposite. I was well over three quarters of the way through before I’d worked it out, which wasn’t much before the characters did. Thanks to the story being told non-chronologically, and having the characters all know different things (and be in varying states of sobriety), the clues and red herrings are satisfyingly mixed up and the traps are there to be walked into. I thundered blindly into several of them.

The ending is sudden, shocking and satisfying, making for a great trifecta, and as with all good books, there’s a sense of hope and continuation at the end. I don’t get quite why all the hype, I’ve read better, but it’s a hugely enjoyable read and more than a little full of tension and terror.

All aboard!