Monday, 3 March 2014

REVIEW The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper

What if all of it isn't merely allusion but literal history, an account of actors performing verifiable actions, both long ago and reaching into the present?

Andrew Pyper's The Demonologist is a swift travelling, deeply thoughtful and highly enjoyable novel. This comes as no surprise to ShadePoint; we loved The Guardians a lot, and reviewed it here.

On the face of it, The Demonologist might be seen as something of a departure for Pyper. While The Guardians was in many respects a small town ghost story - and a great one at that - here is a story of movement that crosses the globe to Venice, across the USA, Canada. It is not a story about one isolated intervention of otherness, but potentially a struggle between Good and Evil at such a high level the terms themselves need CAPS, and the battlefield is enormous.

There are a few reviews that compare The Demonologist to The Da Vinci Code, or at least novels of that type. This is in large part due to the central character, Professor David Ullman, who just happens to be one of world's leading authorities on demonic literature - and in particular, 'Paradise Lost'.  He has something in common with the-weary-academic-thrown-into-mad-adventures genre. Dealing badly with a crumbling marriage, surviving mostly because of his 11-year-old daughter Tess and his friendship/unfulfilled romance with Elaine O'Brien (from the Psychology Department), Ullman's world is about to be thrown into an entirely different path when a mysterious visitor, The Thin Woman, materialises by his office, and offers to pay him handsomely to visit Venice, to view "a phenomenon". Ullman takes Tess to Venice with him, witnesses something incredible, there is a terrible tragedy, and on his return across the Atlantic the story plunges him into the demonology road trip to end all demonology road trips.

While this storyline, with its initial echoes of that macabre masterpiece 'Don't Look Now', may seem as we say a bit of a switch from The Guardians, it isn't really. There's plenty of small town, for a start, in one of the most vividly realised and breathless fictional road trips and chases we've read for a long time - with the descriptions of motels and diners, towns that seem inches from deserted yet pulse away with some indefatigable refusal to give in, the pizza and beer and perpetuum mobile lifestyle that part of us all craves in some way (without the demons and the damned of course). But it is a sort of damnation of its own, isn't it - the motel and six pack and the closed threadbare curtains to lock in despair, a release that feels like it might be found, but really can't be found in the solitude and dark? Ullman is running and running, but with real devils at his back it seems - from one eerie set piece to another. There's a dual reading here though as Ullman falls deeper and deeper into despair - is it all real? Is all this real?

When Ullman is joined on his lost highway by O'Brien, now on a desperate voyage of her own, the novel switches up another gear towards a thrilling chase (and unbelievably brutal struggle, by the water's edge, which will have you wincing) and an ending that despite some uncertainty ShadePoint has seen in other places, we found deeply moving and apt. Without giving away any spoilers, it would also seem entirely possible that there could now be a series of books set in this universe.

While Venice is undoubtedly the early focus, and 'Paradise Lost' a key driver for the storyline, The Demonologist isn't really a Da Vinci Code book at all, it isn't rooted in libraries and dusty archives - and there's nothing wrong with that at all - it retains a greater supernatural genre emphasis, and most of the book takes place on North American highways and byways. There's more pilsner and pizza than Ponte di Rialto in places - and 'Paradise Lost' is less a code book in the end, than something more personal. One section of the book is not unlike one of the best set pieces of Stephen King's Dr Sleep and retains the same hollow-eyed travelling through the night quality of that storyline. There is less of the ancient manuscript and uncovering of clues in remote monasteries and cathedral basements that some of the marketing (see the book trailer below) might have you believe - and the book perhaps has more in common with the thematic approach to a similar quest of that utter masterpiece The Dumas Club by Arturo Per├ęz-Reverte than it does with Dan Brown.

But The Demonologist retains the same core that made The Guardians so enjoyable - characters that struggle to hold on to their humanity, whatever the cost, who lead fairly ordinary lives but find themselves in extraordinary situations, enduring great batterings of fear, love and loss and striving to get things to make sense and just to live - in the face of the wordly and the otherwordly, and whether things really are the way they are and whether this really is all there is. The Demonologist knows all this stuff is scary enough, even before the Demons turn up.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

REVIEW The Missing File by D.A. Mishani

Avraham didn't know why he thought the things he did.

ShadePoint reads a lot of crime fiction in the course of a year. Much of it isn't reviewed on the site, and not always because it isn't enjoyable in some way, but more likely because it just wasn't terribly original - from samey stock-image covers of deserted basements, to predictable characters, disappointing endings or absent thematic purpose. It's not to say these books aren't escapist diversions for a bit, and there's nothing wrong with that at all, but they just don't stand out. They just don't ring and ring and ring and we don't answer.

But occasionally there is a different kind of crime fiction, writing that elevates the genre, transcends its predictabilities, possesses an emotional integrity and wallop that is simply greater than all others. A number of Henning Mankell's Wallander books are in this league, as is Leif GW Persson, or Fred Vargas. Writers like these create characters that resonate deeply with the reader, settings that are completely immersive and plots that work, and do so from start to finish. And these writers often produce work that is perfect, or close to perfect (in many cases ably assisted by quite incredible translation) which is really, really very hard to achieve.

The Missing File by D.A. Mishani is just such a book, and if a better crime novel arrives here for review this year it will either be astonishing, or it will be this one's sequel, A Possibility of Violence, which is published in the UK later this year. It is no exaggeration to say that this staggeringly effective novel is one of the best books ever reviewed on our site, and there have been some magnificent titles, and it may well turn out to be one of the best books this reviewer has read, in any genre, for years. This is strong praise, hyperbole even, but right now, with the denouement only hours old, it seems completely justified: The Missing File is a slow building, taut, intense triumph.

Mankell is a good touchstone, because the hero of this novel, Inspector Avraham Avraham has many of the qualities, if not the backstory, of Wallander - something of his flawed believability, his doubts and fears, the moments where his work and its meaning and impact seem to swamp him. The way life seems as much a puzzle as the crime at hand, and just as important to the reader. Avraham is as well created as Wallander, and Kurt in the very best of the Mankell Wallander series. Mankell himself even describes Avraham as a "quite remarkable man on the stage where detectives dance." Not since Wallander, or Jussi Adler-Olsen's Carl Morck (about whom we said we would "read about him starting a salmon farm") has a crime fiction character had such an impact. The minute, the second, this book was finished, the desire to follow the rest of his story - and critically, just his basic life and hopes - was like craving a drug. 

Avraham is leading on the case of a missing teenage boy in a Tel Aviv suburb. In a story reminiscent of Jan Costin Wagner's haunting Silence, events move in that snakes and ladders manner that Colin Dexter achieves so well, where differing viewpoints weave across each other and leads go nowhere, somewhere and nowhere, but relentlessly towards an end. The reader, like Avraham, begins to pontificate, to think, "I know how this is going to end" and then, also like Avraham, to start worrying, to fret "please don't let it end like this." For Avraham there is also guilt over perceived mistakes, anguish at slights from colleagues, competition from younger detectives. There is his father's illness, and his parents' concern for his wellbeing - missed calls to check his plane has landed. Avraham is a quiet wonder of a character - totally believable, immensely sympathetic and yet sustaining enough inscrutabilities to be compelling and exciting. He really is there with Wallander and Morck in the line-up of the very best. Stand by for the TV Series - this is incredible stuff.

The plotting is superb. Genuinely superb. ShadePoint almost immediately read the book again - startled by the way incidents and statements interlocked, pulled together, made sense. Seemingly mundane or unimportant things turn out in the end to be loaded with purpose. The novel is a master class in crime writing - not surprising really as Mishani is an editor of Israeli crime fiction and international crime literature, as well as a scholar of the crime genre. The ending is unforgettable and as clever and natural as the rest of the story. The sheer joy of a book that maintains its high quality right to the end is rare and The Missing File does not disappoint. It is heartbreaking in places, and completely unforgettable. Even now, writing this review, the pin tumblers are clicking away as elements of the novel switch in the memory and pieces are being put together. Like Persson, there is something beyond grasp in this story.

A recurring feature of the story is Avraham's own interest in crime fiction, which he reads in translation, or watches on TV. He likes to speculate on why there is very little crime fiction written in Hebrew. This is picked up again in a fascinating postscript interview with Mishani by Lidia Jean Kott. ShadePoint will speculate on this issue now. It may well be the case that if very little crime fiction is written in Hebrew the situation is likely to continue; any budding crime writer in Hebrew may read Mishani and throw their laptop out the nearest window. His Avraham is one of the finest creations out there, and this novel is crime writing in the order of genius.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

BOOK OF THE YEAR 2013: House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill

ShadePoint's Book of the Year 2013 is House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill.

Choosing the Book of the Year here at the Point is a very informal, unsober process, and roughly speaking it amounts to spending a few days over the festive season mulling back over all the books featured on the site that year with a view to deciding principally which one resonated the most, which one left so many little dark corridors and cupboards in the memory that stumbling into them from time to time now seems guaranteed. Some books are decidedly brilliant at time of reading, and they may be technically brilliant as well, but months later, with time passing something of them fades somehow.There is a recollection of a fine book, but just not a book that has got under the skin. So it is that Book of the Year at ShadePoint aims for the depths!

House of Small Shadows is so laden with powerful imagery, filled with memorable set pieces, that as time passes, it really increases in quality and impact - and that's saying something, as we gave it quite a good review here as it was. There are moments in the book which simply do not have the grace to leave - dark, macabre incidences, characters and locations that hang around like fog. Looking back, the hallucinatory drive of the description intensifies at distance, and the reader is left with a kind of dreamshot sense of things - fragments of storyline that have embedded themselves deeper than was understood at the time. It would be too much of a spoiler to list these, but for ShadePoint, something of central character Catherine Howard's initial trip to the village would be at the top. Do you remember Roy Ward Baker's movie The Monster Club from 1980 - the third short film in the sequence, 'The Ghouls'? If you had the misfortune to have viewed this at the time, as a kid, Catherine's wander around Magbar Wood will evoke familiar creepiness and dread.

Speaking of spoilers, a recurring feature of some reviews of the book centres on the main character and a sense of disappointment that she seems too passive, somehow too easily caught up in what goes on. Unfortunately for Adam Nevill, it is actually too hard to counter this without a fairly major spoiler - an interpretation of this character's actions that is dependent on the reader's understanding of the ending. Basically, ShadePoint had no trouble at all with this character. The world of House of Small Shadows is viewed as if through a filter, or perhaps a miasma, for both characters in it, and readers of it.  Once this clicks, or more accurately, shifts or slides, it's a different book.

Honourable mentions this year have to go to Peter May's excellent Entry Island, Neil Spring's tour de force The Ghost Hunters and Johan Theorin's The Asylum, which was actually a whisker away from greatness.

But, speaking of whiskers, it is Adam Nevill's trip into the dark heart of folk memory, with its haunted houses, grotesque taxidermy landscapes and ghoulish village of 70's nightmare that wins out.

From ShadePoint, very best wishes to our readers for a happy and peaceful 2014.