Archive for the ‘crime fiction’ Category

Bordeaux visit (1) and The Black Eyed Blonde

May 24, 2017

We are not long back from a week’s holiday in Bordeaux, the beautiful city on  the river Garonne in the south west of France. It’s only a two hour flight from Edinburgh and we got through customs quickly. The hotel recommended that we get the Lianes 1+ bus, so we got that. We hadn’t realised that this bus stops everywhere and it took us 1 hour 10min to get to where we changed for the tram, because of rush hour traffic. So we just had to thole it. There is always an element of uncertainty when you travel to a new place and you never quite relax until you get to where you are staying. Where we did stay – the Hotel Vatel – was excellent in terms of comfort, staff and location.

From our hotel, we could see the River Garonne which flows around the city. It’s a wide river and some cruise liners (not the huge ones) parked on the quayside. There are a number of bridges across the Garonne, with the oldest being Le Pont de Pierre (good photos) which was ordered to be built by Napoleon and opened in 1822. It is a very impressive piece of engineering, with 17 spans, most of which you can see in the first photo below. You can walk or cycle across the bridge or cross it by bus or tram. Bordeaux has an excellent tram/bus service and you can get a ticket, which you can use on the tram and/or bus for 1Euro 50cents – this takes you anywhere you want in the city and lasts for an hour. There is a new bridge in Bordeaux, Le Pont Jacques Chaban Delmas (good photos) down river from Le Pont Pierre and it is a stunning example  of modern design, engineering and architecture. Unusually, the bridge has a vertical lift (see website) to allow the larger ships to pass under. You can see the bridge’s elegant towers in the second photo below and also, in the background, in the drum band photos below. The towers reminded us of the modern architecture we were used to seeing in Dubai when our son, daughter in law and twin granddaughters lived there.

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Le Pont de Pierre, Bordeaux (click to enlarge)

 

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Le Pont Chaban Delmas in Bordeaux

Another feature of the riverside is the promenade or quayside (good photos) where hundreds of people walk, cycle, roller blade and run every day. You have to watch carefully as some of the cyclists and roller bladers go at high speed, weaving their way in between walkers and runners. On the Sunday morning, we could hear the sound of drums further up the river, away from the centre. The drumming got louder and louder and the first of the drum bands approached. All the bands were brightly dressed and drummed with passion – it looked very hard work, so they must have been very fit to do the drumming.  This was a great addition to our Sunday morning stroll and very much appreciated by the many people on the quayside. Two of the bands are shown below.

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Sunday morning drum band on the quayside in Bordeaux

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Drum band on the quayside in Bordeaux

On the plane home, I finished reading Benjamin Black’s (aka John Banville) The Black Eyed Blonde, given to me by my good friend John. The book is written in the style of Raymond Chandler (podcast by John Banville) and features Chandler’s world-weary detective Philip Marlowe. It is a wonderful read, with a well-paced plot, interesting and believable characters, sharp dialogue and Marlowe’s accurate and often witty observations on people he meets and the world in general. Like the Chandler novels, this is one of these books that you can open at random and find something quotable. Marlowe is asked by a Miss Cavendish to find a man called Nico Peterson. Miss Cavendish is (like many women in Chandler novels) beautiful and Marlowe reflects on “.. the tip of her nose – and a very nice tip it was, to a very nice nose, aristocratic but not too narrow or too long, and nothing at all like Cleopatra’s jumbo snozzle”. This is typical of a Marlowe reflection – detailed and often containing wit. It turns out that Peterson was found dead but, on Marlowe’s second meeting with Miss Cavendish, she claims to have seen him alive. Marlowe follows a number of leads and meets a range of flawed (and sometimes unsavoury) characters and is subjected to serious violence at times in the story, like many detectives in novels. The ending is neat and not melodramatic. My (very literate) friend John argues that many crime novelists lose their nerve when it comes to ending their books and go for wildly dramatic and often violent scenes. Neither Chandler nor Black is ever likely to do that. This is a memorable novel, so get a hold of it any way you can.

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The Black Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

 

The Bone Seeker, views of St Abbs and the Number Four gallery

December 6, 2016

I’ve just finished reading M J McGrath’s  The Bone Seeker, a crime novel set in the Canadian arctic. This is a crime novel with interesting characters, including the heroine Edie Kiglatuk, a teacher who is seconded to help the police solve the mystery of a local girl’s murder. One the key “characters” in this novel is the arctic itself as well as the local Inuit culture. McGrath introduces us to Inuit words like  qualunaat – white people and avasirnguluk – elder, to create a convincing environment for her story. The history of the exploitation of the Inuit by outsiders, such as the US and Canadian governments, is  covered but with a light touch. McGrath is a story teller and the plot is well-paced. The reader does get a real sense of how people live in this (to most of us) extreme climate. Most of the novel is set in the summer where darkness is absent and the endless light can prevent people from sleeping, but winter approaches fast near the end of the novel and the transformation of the land and sea is well portrayed. Perhaps the ending features too much action in a short space of time in this book where the story builds to a complex conclusion. This is not just a book for readers of crime novels, so get it if you can.

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The Bone Seeker by M J McGrath

Regular readers will know that my wife and I visit St Abbs Head on a regular basis and these visits have featured on this blog many times. This visit was on a very cold and frosty Sunday morning but the sky was huge and Australian blue. Leaving the car parked at the number four art gallery (of which more later), into which my wife ventured, I walked along the path which leads to another path, which leads to one of the cliff-top walks. In this photo, you can see the cliffs in the distance, with sheep in the field and before that rows of winter wheat, which are a delicious green in the winter sun.

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Looking towards the cliff-tops at St Abbs Head

I crossed the road towards the village, with a large field on my right and the disused church at the top of the hill. What I liked about the field (photo below) was the bright yellow of the grasses at the edge of the field, and the way your eyes are drawn to the lines in the field, both the narrow crop lines and the wider tractor tracks. All seem to lead to the now abandoned church on the hill. The pink-tinctured clouds are also attractive.

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Stubble field at St Abbs Head

Across the road is the imposing Northfield House, with its head of St Ebba above the gates. I’ve photographed the gates from front-on and the head in close up before, but I’ve never taken a side-on shot of the entrance. In this photo, the impressive stone entrance is shown off by the field and sky. There is a large walled garden here, part of which is in view.

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Side view of the entrance to Northfield House in St Abbs Head

I walked to the St Abbs Visitor Centre (open March-October) and looking down to the harbour, I saw a strange sight – a tractor was reversing into the harbour. On a second look, I could see that the two yellow poles behind it were part of a platform. One of the wee fishing boats reversed and sailed gently on to the tractor’s trailer.

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Tractor in St Abbs Harbour

I walked back to the car in the fading afternoon light and you could feel the cold deepening, ready to freeze anything that didn’t keep moving. We’ve been to the number four art gallery many times over the years and have bought paintings and glassware for our home and for presents. With my camera at hand (and this blog already in mind) I took some photos, with permission. The gallery is part of a very well maintaned stone built row of what presumably were farm buildings and has a very attractive entrance – photo below.

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number four gallery in St Abbs

The inside of the gallery (photos below) is bright, well laid out and encourages you to walk around to view the paintings – some superb landscapes were on view on our visit – prints, glassware, ceramics, sculpture and jewellery. See examples here.  One of the reasons many people revisit this gallery is the warm welcome given by the staff, who are very helpful, informative but unobtrusive. The original works available here are of excellent value, so pay a visit if you are in the area.

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Inside number four gallery in St Abbs

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Inside number four gallery in St Abbs

Guardian article and the Quirke novels

August 8, 2016

I’ve been reading The Guardian newspaper for many, many years. I’ve had the occasional letter published but what I’d always wanted to do was to have an article in The Guardian. I’ve finally succeeded and although I was disappointed not to have the article in the printed edition, the online version may well get more readers nowadays. There’s a feature in the Guardian Magazine called That’s Me in the Picture which I see every weekend. I decided that one of the photos from my new book on the whales at Thorntonloch in 1950 would make a good feature, so I contacted The Guardian and sent them the picture below along with an interview I’d done with one of the people in the picture.

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Loading whales at Thorntonloch in May 1950

In the photo above, the boy standing on the left hand side of the lorry is Sandy Darling who was 11 years old at the time. The paper wanted more information, so I re-interviewed Sandy who has a vivid memory of the event. The article was accepted and was due to be printed but the editor with the final say decided that it could only go online. The article has now appeared. Unfortunately, it has been edited and not very well in places and I think it’s a more clumsy read than my original. Despite this, I’ve enjoyed seeing it and even more now as above my article is the latest picture which has The Beatles in it! The photo is interesting not only because of the whales but the way people are dressed. In 1950, people of all social classes dressed much more formally when they were in places where others would be gathering. If a similar event occurred today, people would be much more casually dressed.

I’m nearly finished reading A Death in Summer by Benjamin Black which is the pen name of the well-known literary author John Banville. The book, like others in this series e.g. the outstanding Christine Falls, features the pathologist Dr Quirke who gets involved in the cases of the bodies he analyses in his laboratory. Quirke is curious by nature and he becomes a sleuth almost by accident and sometimes to the annoyance of his colleague Inspector Hackett. The books are very well written and well plotted but these are crime novels which take you languidly from scene to scene and interesting character to interesting character. Quirke is middle-aged widower whom women find attractive and he is romantically involved in all the novels. This is not your usual crime novel although there are murders, there are elements of police and medical procedure and there is a mystery to be solved. The books are very well written and Quirke’s reflections on himself and others are often quite humorous. The novels are set in Dublin in the 1950s and reading the novels means you get a sense of the city at that time e.g. everyone smokes and often they smoke untipped cigarettes – which also appear of course, in the Sandy Darling photo above. I would highly recommend these novels – they are much more than crime novels – to everyone, and in particular people who tend to shy away from “crime” novels. Finally, do read John Banville’s “interview” with his alter ego Benjamin Black – very clever.

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Death in Summer by Benjamin Black

Guardi painting and William McIlvanney

December 7, 2015

In a collection of essays on art – Keeping an Eye Open, the novelist Julian Barnes urges us to go to an art gallery and study one painting in detail and perhaps write down our thoughts. I took his advice recently on a visit to the wonderful Scottish National Gallery and studied the painting Santa Maria della Salute, Venice by Francesco Guardi.

Santa Maria della Salute, Venice by Francesco Guardi

Santa Maria della Salute, Venice by Francesco Guardi

So, here’s what I ask you to do. Click on the painting to enlarge it and then, before reading what my interpretation below, think about what you see in the painting.

This is what I wrote down on my viewing of the painting. There is 3/5th sky and 2/5th water, with the sky lighter than the water. The viewer sees a contrast between the hard working and poorer gondoliers and fishermen in the larger boats, and the grandeur and opulence of the large church. The people outside the church appear to be more wealthy and some may be clergy. The gondolas appear to be transporting goods or people, in enclosed cabins, as opposed to the normal view of tourists in gondolas. The gondoliers all have red hats and they all wear trousers which stop below the knee. The building next to the church looks to be in poor condition and there appears to be washing hanging from one window. The bell tower dominates the right of the picture as the mast of the fishing boat dominates the left hand side. This is a busy painting, depicting everyday life, and while the church is magnificent and imposing, it is not (for me) the main focus of the painting, despite the title, as it sits in the background with the other buildings. There are vertical lines on the ship’s mast, on the church front and on the bell tower. There are horizontal lines in the motion of the gondolas. The gondoliers appear to be straining to push their crafts along. There are statues on the church, and some appear to be pointing, as is the woman in one of the gondolas. So, my interpretation is about the content of the painting and not the style.

One of my all time favourite writers, William McIlvanney, died at the weekend, aged 79. He was perhaps best known for his crime novels featuring the enigmatic Glasgow detective Laidlaw but in literary circles, McIlvanney was recognised as one of Britain’s finest novelists. I remember reading his 2nd novel Docherty when it came out in 1975 and it had a profound effect on me as a reader. Here was a novel about a working class man in the west of Scotland and the rigours of his and his family’s life but it was McIlvanney’s style of writing and use of striking metaphors that separated this novel from others of its kind. In fact, it can be argued that Docherty was an innovative novel which challenged existing perceptions of the Scottish novel, although to class it merely as a Scottish novel is to ignore its universal themes and the book was widely admired in many different countries.

Docherty by William McIlvanney

Docherty by William McIlvanney

He was also an accomplished poet and when I got him to talk to my students at The Robert Gordon University in the mid 1980s, he told me, over lunch, that few people appeared to know that he was a poet. One of my favourite extracts from These Words: Weddings and After (1984) is his reflections on cats. “Indoors they are connoisseurs of sleep/Contortionists of ease…. Poses appear/ To melt into each other. They present/ A show of peace, are sculptors of content”.

 

Perfidia, Hopes Reservoir walk and autumn colours

October 2, 2015

I’ve just finished reading James Ellroy’s epic novel Perfidia – a huge, action-filled book, full of intrigue, plotting, counter-plotting, licit and illicit sex, violence, murder, racism, politics, jealousy and rage. There are no purely good characters in Ellroy’s novel, so don’t expect any here. There is a hero – Hideo Ashida, the Japanese detective – but he is flawed and corrupted by the system. The two other male protagonists Bill Parker and Dudley Smith who are more senior detectives, are ruthless and Smith is a murderous psychopath who gets away with his killings as he is protected by police. The action takes place in Los Angeles in 1941 with a Japanese family brutally and perhaps ritually murdered. The next day, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbour and there begins a round up of suspect Japanese citizens and a general distrust/ hatred of anyone who appears to be Japanese, by large sections of the public. As the Guardian review (link above) noted “from this point on, the entire cast of Ellroy’s city chase liquor and drugs with such savagery that, by the end, you’re murmuring about how Irvine Welsh is going to have to be re-shelved with the children’s books”. So, not for the squeamish but Ellroy is such a good writer and one who captures a range of different styles of dialogue amongst his characters, and whose plot structure makes the galloping pace of the novel addictive. It’s written in Ellroy’s distinctive staccato style, with short, dramatic sentences. He is one of my favourite writers and I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It is the first of a promised quartet. I bought this one in hardback as soon as it came out and will do so with the next one. Ellroy writes big novels, so a hardback does his novel more justice.

Perfidia by James Ellroy

Perfidia by James Ellroy

At the weekend, we went up the Lammermuir Hills for a 7 mile walk which is featured as a trail run in Susie Allison’s book Scottish Trail Running. We parked at the Hopes Farm and walked over the path on the low side of the Hopes Reservoir.

Approaching the Hopes Reservoir

Approaching the Hopes Reservoir

Looking over the Hopes Reservoir

Looking over the Hopes Reservoir

The route in the book takes you up over Lammer Law and we duly did this. The instructions in the book then become a bit vague and it’s not quite clear which track should be followed and where you are supposed to turn off. I’m sure that the orienteers among you will be scoffing – why didn’t we have a proper, detailed map? As it turned out, we took the wrong track and ended up crossing deep heather and coming back on part of our outward route. However, it was a beautiful, clear and warm day – Indian summer here this week – and we enjoyed the walk. It’s quite a stiff climb up to Lammer Law.

Path up to Lammer Law

Path up to Lammer Law

When you get to the top of the Law, you are rewarded with some spectacular views across East Lothian and over to Fife. There was a slight haze on Sunday and not clear enough for good long distance photos. There’s a clearer photo here.  We ended up doing 9.5 miles instead of 7 miles but on such a glorious day, with only a light breeze and hardly any other walkers, it was a delight. At one point, if you stopped, the only sound you could hear was the gentle gurgling of a nearby burn (stream). At another point, four faces looked suspiciously at us and identified us as non-sheep i.e. intruders into their territory. Having finished their disdainful look, the four faces turned and nonchalantly went down towards the burn.

It’s autumn now in Scotland but the mild weather has meant that most of the trees are still green although some have turned to reds and browns and their leaves are falling like snowflakes. This week’s summer-type days have produced some stunning colours in the sky just after sunset. There is no end to taking photos of the sky above our town when the sky seems lit up by rows of burning coals, in contrast to the black outlines of the buildings, as in these photos. I also love the pink sea in the 2nd photo.

Autumn sky over Dunbar

Autumn sky over Dunbar

Autumnal sky over Dunbar and reflection in the sea

Autumnal sky over Dunbar and reflection in the sea

Another source of vibrant autumn colour came in the form of a male red admiral butterfly in my garden and there’s a nice contrast with the yellow top and while petals of the daisy. It’s as if the butterfly was carrying its own evening sky on its back.

Male red admiral butterfly

Male red admiral butterfly