Tonight is the second meeting of our new book group and it will be interesting to see if the enthusiasm has carried over and we get as good an attendance this month as we did last. I’m also looking forward to seeing whether people will be a little less conservative in the choice of books they bring for discussion. The whole idea is that you talk about what you have read since our last meeting, but I was aware last time that some members of the group had selected on the basis of what they were prepared to admit to having read rather than what their real preferences might have been. With that in mind, I am going to take along two very different books in the hope that it will encourage wider tastes to emerge as the group grows in confidence.
One of these is the first in a new crime series, The Puppet Show, by M W Craven, a writer who has previously published as Mike Craven. This is one of the best police procedurals I have read this year and I am already looking forward to Black Summer due out next June. His chief character, who goes by the wonderful name of Washington Poe, is called back from suspension from the National Crime Agency to help in the investigation of a series of particularly nasty killings in the Lake District, an area of the country he knows well. Prominent people are being burnt alive in prehistoric stone circles, but other than their standing in the community nothing else appears to link them. With no evidence left after the immolations and without any obvious connection between the victims, it is difficult for the police to get a lead on who the murderer might be or to predict where he or she might strike next.
Poe has many of the features readers have come to expect in the protagonists of crime fiction. He has little regard for authority, the rules or those who stick too closely to them when he feels a short cut might catch the villain of the piece sooner, so I suppose you could say he is a bit of a cliché. But, you know, clichés are clichés because they work and I liked Poe’s style. I also loved Tilly Bradshaw, the young statistical genius, who has never been out of the office before but who, finding herself carted off to the Lake District to crunch the numbers and try to predict the killer’s next move, comes good in a big way. Tilly does literal like nobody else and given my Aspergers I really appreciated that. Reassuring her after a particularly nasty occurrence in a bar, Poe praises her reaction and advises her to look on the whole incident as a glass half-full kind of thing.
Bradshaw removed her glasses and polished them with a special cloth she kept in her bag. When they were back on, she tucked some hair behind her ear and said, ‘The glass isn’t half full, Poe. And neither is it half empty.’
‘What is it then?’
She grinned. ‘It’s twice as big as it needs to be.’
Oh yes, Tilly Bradshaw is my sort of person.
The other novel, I’m taking along is very different; it’s Pat Barker’s Costa nominated The Silence of the Girls. What with moving house and bouncing in and out of hospital over the last few months, I’m late coming to this, but managed to give it my full attention over the weekend and I have to say that I am in two minds about it. I’m sure anyone reading this will be aware of the premise behind the book. It is a retelling of the same time period as is covered by The Iliad, but in this instance narrating the story of the last two years of the Trojan Wars from the point of view of the women involved, with Briseis, the nominal source of the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, as their mouthpiece. It highlights the way in which women were treated as spoils of war and passed out to their conquerors like any other captured asset. And, although I’ve used the past tense there, as I read it always in the back of my mind were those instances where school girls in various parts of the African continent have been kidnapped and taken captive by militant forces opposed to the education of women. What happened in Troy should not be seen as history.
The point that Barker appears to be trying to make is that that is precisely what the Trojan War always has been – his story and that this is her attempt to set that straight. My trouble with the novel was that despite her foregrounding of the horrors that Briseis and her fellow captives face what moved me most was still the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus and the horror of the killing of Hector. I simply didn’t engage to the same degree with any of the women. Is this a fault in me? Is it because if Barker had written in the same sort of detail about the evil handed out to those women the book would have been unbearable? I don’t know. I just know that for me, while the book allowed the women to have a voice it still wasn’t the voice that came through loudest. As soon as this is available in paperback it will be up for discussion in one of my other book groups, probably both, and I am looking forward to having a reason to give time to read it again and to the opportunity to discuss it with others who have read it in detail.