Ian McEwan. Nutshell. Toronto: Vintage Canada Edition, 2017.
What a coup ... not exactly unexpected from an acknowledged literary icon. Murder and suspense, all viewed by an unborn child in utero. A child with remarkable insight to his (a boy, for sure) immediate surroundings that include mom Trudy, dad John Cairncross, and uncle Claude Cairncross. As well, his speculation about the world awaiting him swings from the caustic to eager anticipation. Yes, the story is baby-narrated, from conception of a devious plan to the natural end, which is another beginning. John the poet has aquiesced to Trudy's demand that he move out of their marital house and live elsewhere. Claude the opportunist moved in. The house is a decaying dump of a once proud family mansion. Elodie the girlfriend complicates the fallout.
Cleverly wrought satire the likes of which mystery fans will seldom see. Conspirators collude while baby hears and is affected by whatever his mother experiences. Including all the white wine she can swallow and her questionable general nutrition. An intellectual delight, the author ever liberal with lovely words: not sure one could confidently throw any of them into everyday speech.
sclerotic ‒ "rigid and unresponsive," unadapting
aubade ‒ dawn serenade; music or poetry suitable to early morning
purulent ‒ pustulous
palimpsest ‒ altered written material showing traces of original writing
exequy ‒ funeral rites
Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. (26)
Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves, Confucius said. (134)
Sarcasm ill suits the unborn. (146)
I'm on a slope, which suggests my mother is sitting up in bed propped by pillows. (158)
I kick my mother awake but she won't disturb her lover. Instead she clamps a podcast lecture to her ears and submits to the wonders of the Internet. She listens at random. I've heard it all. Maggot farming in Utah. Hiking across The Burren. Hitler's last-chance offensive in the Ardennes. Sexual etiquette among the Yanomami. How Poggio Bracciolini rescued Lucretia from oblivion. The physics of tennis.
I stay awake, I listen, I learn. Early this morning, less than an hour before dawn, there was heavier matter than usual. Through my mother's bones I encountered a bad dream in the guise of a formal lecture. The state of the world. An expert in international relations, a reasonable woman with a rich deep voice, advised me that the world was not well. She considered two common states of mind: self-pity and aggression. Each one a poor choice for individuals. In combination, for groups or nations, a noxious brew that lately intoxicated the Russians in Ukraine, as it once had their friends, the Serbs in their part of the world. We were belittled, now we will prove ourselves. (23-4)
A wine-y afternoon:
"Are you still at home?"
I can't hear him for her crunching.
"Well," she says, after listening. "Bring it here. We need to talk."
From the gentle way she sets down the phone I assume he's on his way. Bad enough. But I'm having my very first headache, right around the forehead, a gaudy bandanna, a carefree pain dancing to her pulse. If she'd share it with me, she might reach for an analgesic. By rights, the pain is hers. But she's braving the fridge again and has found high in the door, on a Perspex shelf, a nine-inch wedge of historic parmesan as old as evil, as hard as adamantine. If she can break into it with her teeth, we'll suffer together, after the nuts, a second incoming salt tide rolling through the estuary inlets, thickening our blood to brackish ooze. Water, she should drink more water. (44-5)
Place in space:
Certain artists in print or paint flourish, like babies-to-be, in confined spaces. Their narrow subjects may confound or disappoint some. ...
To be bound in a nutshell, to see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand. Why not, when all of literature, all of art, all of human endeavour, is just a speck in the universe of possible things. And even this universe may be a speck in a multitude of actual and possible universes. (61-2)
Robert Charles. Ancient Sins. UK: F.A. Thorpe (Publishing), 2007.A "filler" while waiting for TPL back orders, poor choice, waste of (my) time; it's not always apparent in the first few pages. Policewoman Judy Kane gets a case to prove her detective skills when an old skeleton is found in a ploughed field. Her cohorts are busy planning a simultaneous raid on three gypsy camps suspected of harbouring smash-and-grab thieves. The local pub and church offer old wartime gossip to egg Judy on; the dead man could be one of three candidates. My hackles rose at the first mention of and constant reference to the Red Indian (always capitalized) ... supposedly a Navajo in the US Air Force. The stereotype includes high cheekbones. My policy is to see a book through, even if cringing.
That's not the only unfortunate or misleading element. Plus, Judy works in a cop shop where she is totally respected and well liked; no sexual harassment from her warm-hearted colleagues. Life with her husband Ben — despite a road accident early on — is nothing but roses. A bar in Spain in their retirement future. How trite can it get? It's as if a cosy author tried to stretch, unsuccessfully, to a higher level of craft. Or a former Harlequin writer reaching for a new genre. The language is often that stilted or restrained Brit-speak such as "Madam Smarty Knickers" shouted improbably by a furious, potential killer to his victim. Another example is "There was an old local saying that even the dirtiest dog didn't mess on its own doorstep." Can't help comparing that with Olympia Dukakis' (1987) line in Moonstruck: "Ya don't shit where ya eat." You can see where I'm at. These things overcome any attempts at suspense or excitement.
She had soon discovered that off duty she preferred firemen to policemen. (31-2)
"The Red Indian," Judy said at last. "Do you know his name?" (147)
"I know I look all bedraggled like something the cat dragged in, so I'm not at my glamorous best." (270)
"God help us, boy, a policewoman ain't no rabbit." (331)
They all say it:
"Anyway, we were all drinking. When Alice and Joe came in Archie saw red — " She giggled.
"Literally red, you might say, Red Indian, see. Archie wanted to fight Joe there and then. He swore he was going to kill him." (199)
From one idyllic life to another:
"Yes, I know I'll walk again, it's only a matter of time, but I don't think I'll ever be quite the man I was, not A1 fit for an active career. I'll have my pension, if our lawyers can keep it safe from the Peacheys' lawyers, and we've paid off a fair bit of our mortgage. We could invest in that little bar in Spain right now, and have the rest of our lives to enjoy it." (295)
Mick Herron. Spook Street. USA: Soho Press, 2017.
Lunacy reigns in Slough House, the dumping ground for misfit spies in HM's Secret Service. Jackson Lamb in charge, more absent than not. Moira, his new PA, is appalled at this chaotic bunch: Marcus the addicted gambler; Sandra taking Anger Fucking Management courses; air pianist JK Coe; River Cartwright grandson of a legendary spymaster; Louisa the fearless enigma; and dandified Richard Ho, butt of sarcasm from all. "Slow horses" these clapped-out spies are called. While London recovers from a suicide bombing, an incident in the bathroom of the growingly-demented grandfather David Cartwright sets off a wild chain of events that amount to a cracker of a thriller. River immediately creates his own mission to backtrack ("walking back the cat") a killer. Identities are one issue.
Meanwhile, internal security ("the Dogs") uncover a cold body protocol and the head of the Secret Service at Regent's Park is being blackmailed by his second in command. Is there an SS conspiracy to do away with retired old spooks? Let me tell you, this is delicious insanity! How I would like to write like this. Many threads mesh so beautifully. Everyone has smart, hilarious retorts to crazy observations. Everything gets resolved. Sort of. Then I learn there is a series by Herron about this asinine but lovable office group; where have you been hiding? I'm on it. But horrors: what if world security is really in the hands of maniacs like this??
gallimaufry ‒ a hodgepodge or jumble
trebuchet ‒ a catapult (and a font!)
apotheosis ‒ the peak of perfection (I knew this; just hard to throw into everyday speech)
Everyone here had problems, or what you now had to call "issues." (15)
"Probably takes two of him to scramble an egg." (31)
Her next phase of life involved domestic tranquility, and avoiding unwise shagging choices. (37)
Nothing more frightening, to someone who'd lived by his wits, than to be slowly losing them. (44)
Lately, Marcus and money had been undergoing a trial separation. (218)
An analogue man in a digital world. (15)
"Maybe not the right thing to do. But it's the right decision to make." (250)
"He means Lamb's text," Marcus confirmed.
"He sent it to me," said Ho. "What makes it your business?"
"I swear to God," said Marcus, "this is like being trapped in a special school. Ho? Read him the fucking text."
Ho sighed theatrically and produced his Smartphone. He'd just finished tapping the code in when Shirley snatched it from his hands."Hey, you can't—"
Ho reached for her, but had a wise moment and refrained. She might be shorter than him but they both knew—everybody knew—she could rip him up like confetti if she wanted, and scatter him like rice. (71)
"I'm sure we've all spent hours planning the best way of killing River," Lamb said. "But our assassin came all the way from France, which sounds more like a job than a hobby. So let's assume he was after Grandpa. Business before pleasure and all that."
"So who killed the killer?"
"One Cartwright or other. Does it matter?" Lamb slumped heavily into the nearest chair which was the absent River's. "What we actually need to know is what the hell's going on. And since young Cartwright's not here to tell us, and old Cartwright's lost the plot, we're going to have to work it out ourselves."
Louisa said, "Has he really lost it? The old man?"
"I've had more illuminating conversations with ducks," Lamb assured her. (106)
Traffic accident video goes viral:
The phone buzzed again, angrier this time, the way phones get. Emma sighed, and moved a few feet away. "Flyte."
"Tell me that's not you I'm watching. Along with half the population of the western world."
"I doubt it's that many," Emma said. "Most of them'll be viewing it twice. You have to factor that in."
Diana Taverner said, "Are you drunk?"
"How did this happen? How did any of it happen?"
"It happened because I wasn't given enough information," Emma said. "So when we were sideswiped by a professional hitman, we weren't expecting it. In the circumstances, we got off lightly. Unwelcome publicity notwithstanding."
"You call that lightly? What would heavy look like?"
"It would involve my body lying in the street." (239)