by Lesley McDowell
Theresa Munoz

Volume 7 – Issue 3 – Gallimaufry

August 12, 2011 | by Lesley McDowell
Theresa Munoz

DEAD SHARP: SCOTTISH CRIME WRITERS ON COUNTRY AND CRAFT

Len Wanner
TWO RAVENS PRESS, £11.99, 250PP ISBN 978-1906120580

Len Wanner’s interviewing skills are showcased in his collection of conversations with Scotland’s crime novelists. Ian Rankin is featured as well as interviews with other practitioners such as Stuart MacBride, Karen Campbell, Christopher Brookmyre and Louise Welsh. Wanner guides each author through an overview of their career while allowing his subject to sound off on pet hates and loves. Rankin discusses his dislike of academia and how it feels to be the “King of Tartan Noir”. Karen Campbell discusses her former career in the police force. A conversation with Louise Welsh reveals her ‘banker’s hours’ schedule of writing and the inspiration behind Rilke, the incomparable hero of The Cutting Room. Each lengthy interview combines biographical information about the author with pointed questions about the novel’s design. The pleasant flow of conversation between interviewer and subject is largely due to Wanner’s keen transcription skills. Punctuation smartly shapes the authors’ voices, and laughter is transcribed as a single ‘Ha!’ which provides gleeful interruptions to the lengthy conversations. TM

FRANCIS JEFFREY’S AMERICAN JOURNAL: NEW YORK TO WASHINGTON 1813

Edited by Clare Elliott and Andrew Hook
HUMMING EARTH, £14.95, 132PP ISBN 978-1846220364

When Edinburgh Review editor Francis Jeffrey headed off across the Atlantic, after a woman, Britain was in the middle of war with the United States. But he was highly placed enough not only to travel without danger, but to have an audience with the then President, James Madison, as well as with the Secretary of State. Elliott’s introduction warns us not to expect anything by way of romantic revelation in these journals, with respect to Charlotte Wilkes, the woman who would become his second wife. Instead, Jeffrey praises this new country’s struggle to build itself up. Much of the political debate between himself and the Secretary of State, James Monroe, is difficult to follow, but it’s an invaluable account of the time from a man with extraordinary access to the major players of the day. LM

SIDEREAL

Rachael Boast
PICADOR, £8.99, 82PP ISBN 978-0330513395

Boast’s first collection of poetry isn’t for the intellectually faint-hearted. Her notes may explain some of the allusions to the Bible and William Blake, and the use of some of the unusual words she alights on, but the quote from Coleridge that adorns the first page gives an indication of the level of impenetrability here (‘lank space and scytheless time with branny hands…’). That Boast can hold her own among the Romantic greats is quite something, and she does so fully aware of the distance of time between them. Distance appears to be something of a theme in poems like ‘Longhand’, ‘The Extra Mile’, ‘Blind Date’, where she merges the concrete with the more esoteric. This sense of distance draws her gaze upward towards the heavens; this is a collection full of soaring, flight, the ‘peregrine’s view’, ‘by air into air’. Gardening, working with the earth, brings her back to the sky: ‘Plant in me/the effort of your dark songs. Constellate them.’ LM

THE BEGINNING AND THE END OF THE WORLD: ST ANDREWS, SCANDAL AND THE BIRTH OF PHOTOGRAPHY

Robert Crawford
BIRLINN, £16.99, 272PP ISBN 978-1841589800

St Andrews may feel ‘on the edge of the world’ but it’s Crawford’s mission, in this appealing history, to remind it was St Andrews that became the first town to be comprehensively photographed, not Paris or London or New York. The new medium didn’t emerge from the Fife town but there lived there a collection of people fascinated by the science of photography. In The Beginning and the End of the World, one meets David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope, and Robert Chambers, whose work on evolution in many ways “scooped” Darwin’s. Their interest in photography brought together art and science, pre-empting Susan Sontag’s work on the links between photography and death; it was Brewster who in the Edinburgh Review presented ‘this new art-science as a kind of memento mori… suggesting how a photograph of a person invokes their absence, their loss’. Ironically, these early proponents of the art chose the one place perhaps, of all Scottish towns, that wouldn’t change much with the passing of time, as one still from the 1850s confirms when compared with the same view today. It is people, not place, that change. Photographs, included here, of the town’s poor and of professors posing in their gowns are surprisingly moving. LM

SITE WORKS

Robert Davidson
SANDSTONE PRESS, £7.99, 256PP ISBN 978-1905207633

Robert Davidson has perhaps created a new genre of “builders’ literature” with his interesting collection of stories about a construction site. The site in question is the Ness and Struie Drainage Project which plans to build septic tanks serving both towns. The interlinked stories describe a team of men working tirelessly morning and evening on the drainage pipes, with the reader learning more about drafting and building than one would expect to. Characters include John Kelly, a keen builder and womaniser; Harry, the meticulous and outspoken Clerk of Works, and Mac, a divorced father with domestic worries, trying to manage the project. Each chapter describes an incident in which the men come up against the company. As a former civil engineer in the water industry, Davidson is well-versed on the politics involved in working on a construction site. No surprise then, that Site Works is a meditation on power and hierarchy. As minions J.B. and Tammas graphically put it: ‘We’re the bottom of the pile. We’re just shite…. We are the heavy sediment of the shite…. The crème de la crème of the faecal matter.’ TM

KILLING THE MESSENGER

Christopher Wallace
FREIGHT BOOKS, £12.99, 288PP ISBN 978-0956613509

Literary imprint Freight Books’ first venture is a timely political thriller. Wallace has written an engaging tale about New Labour’s final days in government and an unscrupulous use of advertising and technology. A familiar Prime Minister with a ‘photo-call smile’ has returned to replace his rumpled successor. The goal of the new Prime Minister is for everyone in Britain to be “happy”. A rising star in public health, the duplicitous Dr. Greig Hynd, is the official spokesperson of this flagship policy. Various campaigns use subliminal advertising to encourage the public, but advertising agent Calum Begg sees through the smoke and strobe lights. Bravely and with difficulty, he attempts to stop the deception. Fast-paced and filled with more buzz words than an urban dictionary, Killing the Messenger explores the interrelations between mass manipulation and violence. The novel begins on the day of the launch of the happiness campaign where special effects used during the Prime Minister’s presentation enrapture the audience. The story then backtracks to a period a year earlier, and the reader follows both Greig and Calum’s parallel climbs to the top of their professions. Though Wallace relies too heavily on dialogue to carry the storyline, the novel’s depiction of political intrigue holds one’s attention. TM

THE ENGLISH GERMAN GIRL

Jake Wallis Simons
POLYGON, £12.99, 342PP ISBN 978-1846972089

Jake Wallis Simons’ first novel The Exiled Times of a Tibetan Jew established him as a writer who draws inspiration from Jewish history. His second, The English German Girl is a gracefully written and well-informed novel about the Holocaust. Fifteen-year-old Rosa Klein is lucky enough to escape a chaotic Germany via a Kindertransport train to England. Though she is much older than the other children on the same journey, she has been sent by her family to secure work permits for them. However, Rosa finds London strange and confusing, especially her new life with her second cousins Mimi and Gerald and their son Simon. As time passes and war becomes imminent, Rosa desperately tries to secure visas for her family, only to be met with her most brutal challenge yet. There is very little good news in this novel and each chapter saddens a little more. Simons deftly describes a crumbling Berlin under Hitler’s rule and, intriguingly, the secret societies which helped those in need. TM

THE SEA DETECTIVE

Mark Douglas-Home
SANDSTONE PRESS, £17.99, 320PP ISBN 978-1905207657

This debut novel by journalist Douglas-Home, once editor of The Herald and the Scottish edition of the Sunday Times, is, as the title indicates, a crime novel, set in the Scottish capital, a fictional island that resembles St Kilda, and the back streets of an Indian town. A young Indian girl is washed up on a Scottish shore, where severed feet are turning up too. Cal McGill is a PhD student in oceanography who is fascinated by these grisly discoveries. He also wants to know what happened to his grandfather, who was lost at sea many years before. Cal comes to the ineffectual police’s attention when he breaks into the Environment Minister’s garden as part of his quest. Some traditional beginner’s problems plague this tale. For example, the young Indian girl who begins the tale, Preeti, is taken by sex traffickers and soon dies, meaning her narrative has to be taken over by another trafficked girl, Basanti. Similarly, it’s Detective Inspector David Ryan who opens up a chapter that focuses on the police, when it’s his assistant Helen Jamieson’s point of view that matters. It creates a certain choppiness. Editing of repetitions and irrelevances would have upped the pace a little too. LM

CAN THE GODS CRY?

Allan Cameron
VAGABOND VOICES, £11.00, 256PP ISBN 978-1908251008

Allan Cameron adds short story writer to his existing accomplishments as publisher, novelist, poet and translator. The twelve stories have a political complexion, and a radical one at that. The Middle East features in three stories, while others concern themselves with the travails of immigrant workers, gypsies, and the dubious art of financial marketing. Cameron even finds time to take a swipe at the inanity of arts council supported authors, and in ‘I Am Not My Body’ he cleverly picks apart the politics of academia, ridiculing the self-serving guardians of higher learning. In ‘Aras and the Redistribution of Wealth’ the theoretical discussions of a Revolutionary Communist Group contrast unfavourably with the actions of one Algerian immigrant who takes more direct action in his boss’s restaurant. Paradoxically, Cameron is an ideas man himself. They fly from his stories faster than the reader can catch them. Occasionally, Cameron’s stories border on the polemical. He finally surrenders to this tendency in an author’s afterword where modern passivity, the state of political discourse, American gun culture, The Apprentice, and the slang term “loser” all get the treatment. TM

From this Issue

Trade Secrets

by Mandy Haggith

Electric Essayist

by Brian Morton

Why Did They Go

by Tom Nairn

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