Sunday, 14 September 2014

Research Corner #7: Random Research

Well not random as such, it's just that I've reached a point now where I have so many novels in the works - at this point, four that I'm actively working on - that my research reading is bouncing between topics considerably more than it was at the beginning of the year.  This is actually proving to be a lot more fun, since you can only read so much about the First World War before your faith in humanity starts to flag; but it's also also a bit confusing, for reasons that will probably become apparent.  I seem to have accidentally stumbled across the literary equivalent of late night channel swapping...

Crossing the Line by Christian Plowman

 Having never read a great deal of True Crime before, I suddenly found myself tearing through quite a lot of it as research for current novel and my first attempt at writing (non-True) Crime, The Bad Neighbour.  Out of everything I read this was one of my favourites, in that the writer-protagonist wasn't a complete asshat - from my limited experience, this being a definite thing when it comes to True Crime.  (For which, see below.)

Plowman's definitely a capable storyteller, with a sense of humour and a good grasp of language, and if that sounds like faint praise then trust me, for this particular sub-genre it's pretty much declaring him to be the next Shakespeare. The experiences he relates were not perhaps that exceptional given the line of work he was in - undercover policing of one sort and another - but his outsider-looking-in focus is definitely the right way to bring this sort of material to life.  Plowman manages to keep things both interesting and suitably horrifying, and as with so many of these books, make you kind of resent the police - watch as your taxes are squandered in horrifying quantities to little noticeable effect! - whilst also being really glad that it's them and not you.

The Defence of the Realm by Christopher Andrew

If there's one thing I've never had much desire to read it was a history of MI5, so I approached this one with trepidation.  Misguided trepidation as it turned out, for the sections I read turned out to be an intriguing, in-depth, warts-and-all take on a vital part of British history and, more interestingly, a distinctively slanted interpretation of that period.  Given their particular concerns, the burgeoning MI5 didn't view the First World War through quite the same eyes as everyone else did, and as such their approach, for better or worse, was quite different.

I don't know exactly what access Andrew had but he certainly seems to know his stuff, and he does a great job of introducing the major personalities and then plunging the reader into their murky affairs.  There's a constant, fun vibe of being made party to something you probably shouldn't be hearing this much about, and also a solid sense of just what this kind of organization does and why and how it can go both right and drastically wrong.  Given that this was supposed to be research I couldn't justify reading beyond the end of WW1, which took me to about page one hundred out of six hundred ... it's a hefty tome.  But what I got through was a fascinating read, and I hope I find an excuse to finish it one of these days.

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

I based a lot of my To End All Wars protagonist Rafael Forrester on Siegfried Sassoon, whose journals were a huge influence on my early research.  But with all respect to Sassoon, if I'd read Graves first then it would have been him that I picked; in fact, given that I came to to Goodbye to All That too late for it to have a significant influence, it's uncanny how much Forrester feels modeled on Graves.  If only because Graves, with the advantage of writing long after the event, is a heck of a lot more open about his private life and particularly his sexuality.

At any rate, this is pretty much a glorious biography.  Graves is sharp, witty, self-effacing, endlessly entertaining, and always writing with a clear sense of what was vital about the times that he witnessed.  Where the first volume of Sassoon's biography was something of a slog for me, as a reader with less than no interest in fox hunting, Graves is pretty much brilliant from the get-go.  In short, a great read this, especially if you have even the faintest interest in the history and personalities of the first decades of the twentieth century.

The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer

I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't know a great deal about Gandhi before I read this.  And I haven't read a great number of biographies, so that when I say this is the best one I've read, I suppose you have to take that with a pinch of salt.  Nevertheless it is, and as such I recommend it wholeheartedly.  Gandhi was an astonishing individual, a truly unique, extraordinary, revolutionary figure of the kind that comes along perhaps once in a generation, if that.  He was also - and I say this with no intended disrespect, not to mention a healthy dose of understatement - kind of crazy.  And perhaps the main reason that this is a great biography is that it embraces both of those extremes, without ignoring the middle ground whereby Gandhi was a human being with the usual human concerns and frailties.  Fischer has no qualms about portraying Gandhi as a saint, nor about showing the occasions when his eccentricities did harm, as they often did, particularly to his own family.  But by the end it's hard not love and mourn the man, and to be saddened at the thought of the world we might be living if only he had been listened to a little more.
Running With the Firm by James Bannon

Ostensibly a book about an undercover cop masquerading as a football hooligan, Running With the Firm soon starts to look like the precise opposite: Bannon hints that he could have gone either way, and it seems more luck than judgement that he ended up at least nominally on the right side of the law.  Whatever the case, he sure does love pretending to be a hooligan, and doesn't seem greatly bothered by who gets hurt along the way.  What follows is a lot about Bannon's own life and thoughts and feelings and a largely insightless account into football hooliganism, (hooligans are just normally people, basically, except that they really like football and kicking the crap out of each other on a weekend), backed up with a whole lot of self-justification, whereby Bannon tries to convince that he was just doing his job, or else that it wasn't a job worth doing in the first place, but at any rate he's definitely a good guy.

By his own limited definition that's probably true, but by anyone else's maybe less so, and by the end I was really glad not to have to spend any more time in his company.

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