Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Book review: The Twenty-Year Death

When I first heard about Ariel S. Winter's debut novel, The Twenty-Year Death, I felt it could've been subtitled 'A Book Written Specifically For People Like Joel'. Having now read it, that feeling was entirely justified - The Twenty-Year Death is imaginative, audacious, compelling and tremendous fun.

The Twenty-Year Death is effectively three separate but linked novels, one set in 1931, one in 1941, and the final in 1951. You could read one without the others without losing too much, but I don't know why anyone would do that. Each section - & here's where my interest hit new heights - is written in the style of a different crime novelist: Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson, respectively. So, it's separate crime novels (check), which are also linked (check), set across decades & different locations (check), and also a clever act of literary mimicry (double check). In other words, a book I was bound to love...

Part one, Malniveau Prison, is set in a small French town. Chief Inspector Pelleter has come up from Paris to speak to a serial killer (whom he caught) held in the nearby prison. While there, though, he gets pulled into helping the small local police force investigate the town's first murder in many years - a former prisoner found beaten to death and left on the side of the road. Pelleter soon uncovers a deeper problem - a string of not just unsolved but unacknowledged murders. He also encounters a local couple - American novelist Shem Rosenkrantz and his young French wife Clotilde. This couple becomes the linking characters between the three novels - sometimes in the foreground, sometimes relatively minor characters, but The Twenty-Year Death is fundamentally their story.

Winter captures Simenon's Inspector Maigret style well. Verargent, the town, is a suitably atmospheric locale - small town, but with a large prison full of some of France's worst criminals just a short drive away. The steady rain through most of the story adds to the gloom as Pelleter's initial reluctance to be there at all, or to get involved in the local crime, becomes an ongoing theme. He wants to leave - and regularly says he's about to - but always the case takes priority. Pelleter himself - the point of view character - while clearly a Maigret stand-in, is developed efficiently. Simenon wrote many many Maigret novels, and Winter somehow conveys the idea that this is just one in an ongoing series about this detective.

Ten years later, we are in the movie business in Hollywood, in The Falling Star. Chandler's Phillip Marlowe is here represented by Dennis Foster, a private investigator asked to keep an eye on aging star Chloe Rose, who believes she is being followed by a mysterious man. (Nobody else, including the studio security chief who hires Foster, believes she is.) Her husband, who wrote the film she is currently making, is cheating on her with her junior supporting actress. This young girl is killed; Foster discovers the body but is warned off investigating the death. Meanwhile, Chloe's male costar is secretly gay, and has asked Foster to help him find his partner, who ran off after an argument and hasn't been seen since.

Like the Chandler novels it draws on, The Falling Star is a complicated, tangled web of relationships and hidden agendas. (It does ultimately make sense, unlike a certain Chandler novel...) Chandler's style - one of the most influential & imitated in English-language 20th century fiction - is not as easy to pull off as many writers think, but Winter does a fine job here, not just in his labyrinthine plotting and in capturing the early 1940s west coast setting so central to Chandler's stories, but also in evoking the two most recognisable aspects of a Marlowe story - the detective's cynical, quippy exterior masking a genuine desire to do the right thing regardless of consequences; and the spot-on similies & descriptions (the first page includes 'It was just about noon on a clear day in the middle of July that wasn't too hot if you didn't mind the roof of your mouth feeling like an emery board', which is about as good as Chandler-aping gets).

And in Police At The Funeral, in 1951 washed-up writer Shem Rosenkrantz is in Calvert City for the reading of his first wife's will. Also there is his estranged son Joe, the latter's fiancee Mary, and Shem's mistress Vee. Shem had succeeded as a novelist, had moderate success as a film writer, but now hasn't written - let alone published - anything in years. He owes money to multiple people, and exists when we catch up with him on what Vee can scam from her other boyfriend, local gangster Carlton.

It's less easy to talk about the plot of Police At The Funeral than the previous two parts without spoilers, but the story follows Thompson's relentlessly grim first-person style. It's a little harder for me to judge this section against Thompson since I've only read one of his novels, the gloriously bleak The Killer Inside Me, but Winter's tone here, through Rosenkrantz's narration, is certainly evocative of that novel's style. Thompson's harsher prose and themes serve this part well, as the story unravels in an increasingly desperate manner. Where Malvineau Prison deals with institutionalised problems, and The Falling Star with the darker side of the glamorous movie lifestyle, Police At The Funeral is a much more personal corruption and collapse.

Each of the three stories that comprise The Twenty-Year Death would have made a fine standalone novel. By combining them, Winter has shown not only an impressive ability to write in the style of these three writers - without ever stooping to parody - but a significant talent for crime novels in their own right. This is not just a faux-clever spoof of three key crime novelists. If you didn't know the three writers he was imitating, or that he was imitating at all, The Twenty-Year Death would still hold up as a compelling and ingenious book. Each of the three has a satisfying conclusion - always the make-or-break factor in crime novels - and I found myself racing through each story. When these are combined in the way that Winter has done here, the result is one of the best novels I've read so far this year. My high expectations for The Twenty-Year Death were more than matched.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Book review: Alms For Oblivion Volume 1

Simon Raven's Alms For Oblivion is a novel sequence - ten books - centred on a group of characters from Britain's upper (& upper-middle) class around the middle of the twentieth century. Rather than being a conventional series, following a group over time, or exploring the same timeframe from different perspectives, each of the novels is essentially self-contained. The plots, settings - and often styles - differ from book to book, but they all take place within the same world, with minor characters from one novel becoming major characters in another and events in some books being referred to in others (not to the extent that you need to have read the earlier one - you should, though, of course). Thus, over the course of ten novels, or even just the four here, Raven is able to build and populate his own little version of upper-class England.

This collection contains the first four books written in the sequence (over the course of the series, Raven jumped around in time, so these books are the fourth, fifth, third and first books respectively by that measure - but it's best to read them in the order they were written, I decided). The first, The Rich Pay Late, primarily deals with business and political deals in the mid-1950s London. Donald and Jude, who co-own a printing business, try to take over a political journal. That's basically all there is to the plot, although of course there are complications, but Raven uses that simple story to begin building his world. An astonishing array of characters is introduced, and with them, the complications of their various relationships - friends, enemies, allies of convenience, lovers, ex-partners, barely tolerated business colleagues etc. And Raven has tremendous fun with these relationships and complications, telling the story with a charming lightness of touch and an admirable ability to make his characters well-rounded and occasionally unlikeable.

Book two, Friends in Low Places, takes place not long afterwards and largely deals with the same set of characters, but with a different focus. Indeed, if anything, the spread of characters is even broader, with a plot revolving around various factions trying to gain control of compromising papers, the government's attempt to set up holiday camps, competition for political election, and the personal travails of a host of characters. At times it was hard to hold in my head who was who and how they all related in Friends in Low Places, but by the second half of the book all the threads are pulled together and the surprisingly intricate plotting becomes an asset. Some of the more prominent characters from The Rich Pay Late are reduced to secondary characters here, but we also get to see some of them from other perspectives, so they're painted more (or less) favourably than they were earlier, or different sides to their personalities are illustrated, or the toll taken on them by the events of that earlier book is evident.

The Sabre Squadron essentially introduces a whole new range of characters - although a couple from the first two novels make appearances. Daniel, a young mathematician, heads to Germany to try to unravel the final work of a man who was either a genius or insane (or both). He discovers that quite a few people are interested in his results, and in the novel's second half it becomes almost a spy novel as Daniel - and his findings - are jostled between different people, each with their own agenda, and he begins to wonder whom he can trust. The Sabre Squadron begins as a campus novel, becomes a spy novel, and ends on a quite unexpected note. The realignment of characters in the series is initally off-putting, I found, but Raven soon settles us into this new cast and this book makes clear that the whole Alms For Oblivion series is not going to be bound merely to the same (admittedly large) cast in the one setting.

The final novel in this volume, but chronologically the series' first, is Fielding Gray, named for its protagonist (& narrator), who has also appeared in each of the three previous books. Set during his final year of school - in 1945, beginning just as WWII ends - and based around a few of his friends and schoolmates (several of whom are significant characters in The Rich Pay Late & Friends in Low Places), Fielding Gray is, in its first half, a fairly typical English boarding school novel - which is not a complaint, mind you, since I usually enjoy the genre - focusing on his relationships with his friends, his difficult and domineering father & meek mother, the headmaster and various teachers, and typical plotting for such books (first crushes, growing philosophical/political consciousness, sporting matches, squabbles between friends, plans for holidays etc). As has become the norm in this series, however, the second half of Fielding Gray takes some unexpected turns, mixing tragedy with comedy, action with introspection, and fleshing out the main characters, especially the title one.

These four slim novels (the four together run to just under 900 pages) are each a quick, compelling read. Raven is a master of narrative pacing, always encouraging you to read just a little more. That, along with his beautifully crafted prose, commitment to drawing out his characters and ability to keep the reader on their toes via shifts in direction, made me race through these four and look forward to the remaining six novels in the series. Raven is one of those authors who is not well-known now (he died in 2001, and most of his books - including, until recently, this series - are out of print), but who nonetheless has a group of devoted fans. This volume has added me to their number.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Book review: The Yips

Nicola Barker came to my attention courtesy of Darkmans, her 2007 novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I loved that book so much that I have subsequently read almost everything she wrote before then, along with her 2010 Burley Cross Postbox Theft, and so when I saw she had another new book out, I jumped on it. And then was very glad to see it longlisted for this year's Booker Prize.

Barker is one of the most distinctive writers in modern English fiction. Her style is one that I can understand grating on some people, but I personally find her novels hilarious, imaginative and wonderfully populated. The Yips in some ways pushes her style even further - most of the 550 page book is dialogue (I've seen estimates that it's up to 90%), much of which is overlapping, stylised and tangential.

In fact, that sort of describes the book as a whole. The action, such as it is, centres on Stuart Ransom, a past-his-prime but ludicrously egotistical professional golfer, and Gene, a middle-aged man who works multiple jobs, including at a bar where he meets Stuart. (The first scene begins mid-conversation as a tipsy Stuart holds forth to Gene and barmaid Jen.) We cut away from them to meet Valentine, who lives with her mother. Her mother has recently suffered an accident which has left her confused about who she is, and who Valentine is. No connexion between the two settings is evident to begin with, but of course we expect that eventually they will meet up. Barker takes that convention further, though, by gradually adding more and more relationships, so that each character ends up having no more than one degree of separation from any other character. Charting the relationships between the characters in The Yips would result in a cobweb with every point linking in different ways to each other point.

There's not really a plot, as such. Things happen, but they seem slightly irrelevant compared to sitting back and watching the ever-increasing cast of characters come to know each other (& themselves). Few novels could have, for instance, a major character forcibly abducted by another character, left in the boot of a car for a few hours before being rescued by third character (based on suspicions of a fourth!) and yet have that barely register as an important event in the book's world. In fact, several of the characters involved seem mainly to see it as a case of an inconvenient piece of plotting spoiling their story. (The book itself is not that meta.) Throughout all her inter-connected storylines and relationships, Barker takes evident delight in confounding expectations and taking the story in different directions to what the reader may expect.

And throughout it all, we're treated to Barker's talent for eccentric characters, oddball locations (few novels have been set in Luton before, I suspect) and comically overstuffed writing. The blurb, to give some idea, lists some of the characters: 'a man who's had cancer seven times, a woman priest with an unruly fringe, the troubled family of a notorious local fascist, an interferring barmaid..., and a free-thinking Muslim sex therapist with his considerably more pious wife'.

There are many readers who would probably read that description and recoil in horror. As I said above, I can understand why people wouldn't like Barker's style. For me, though, it's a perfectly composed comic novel - dense but quick to read, largely plotless but still convoluted and joyfully highlighting characters, occupations and locations that fiction rarely touches. Not all of Barker's books are perfect, but I've enjoyed her last few in particular so much that she's one of my favourite living authors.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Book review: The Expendable Man

Dorothy Hughes is probably best known these days as the author of the novel In A Lonely Place, made into the wonderful - & wonderfully bleak - Humphrey Bogart film. I've not read that novel, but when I saw this new reissue of another of her books, I jumped at the chance to read it. Mid-century American noir is one of my abiding loves, after all.

It's a Friday night in 1963. Young doctor Hugh Denismore is driving from his home in Los Angeles to a family wedding in Phoenix. On the highway after stopping for dinner, he sees a young girl, Iris, hitchhiking and decides, somewhat reluctantly, to give her a lift. He ends up, against his will, taking her all the way to Phoenix, even though she makes him nervous and is clearly lying about her reasons for going. Once they get there, he drops her off and hopes to never see her again. 24 hours later, her body is found in a canal. Someone has seen Hugh with her, and so he becomes the focus of the police investigation.

So far, so interesting. But Hughes has bigger things in mind, and there is a revelation partway through the book that puts Hugh's dilemma in context. I've no intention of spoiling that here, of course, but serious credit to whoever wrote the blurb (see here) on this new issue from NYRB Classics for implying that there's something else going on without giving away too much. So I'm not going to say too much more about the plot, other than that Hughes handles both this revelation - which could have come across as a cheat, but doesn't - and her story's conclusion well. The endings to crime novels are fabulously risky, as too many writers (& readers) have found to their peril, as failing on the conclusion can retrospectively ruin an otherwise enjoyable book.

While working within the bounds of a fairly well-covered genre, Hughes also includes some nice sideline touches. Hugh's family plays a small but important part, as he remains desperate for them to not learn that he is the major suspect in a murder investigation. Never the main theme of The Expendable Man, Hugh's family dynamics nonetheless provide both realistic and important context for his troubles. And simultaneously, Hugh meets Ellen, one of his fellow wedding guests, and the two instantly share an attraction. She, not dissuaded by him being a murder suspect, ultimately becomes his greatest ally as he tries to demonstrate his innocence to the police. Ellen is revealed as a strong, thoughtful comrade for Hugh - and somehow Hughes manages to make the unlikely combination of Man Accused Of Murder with Boy Meets Girl work to the advantage of both plots.

Critically, Hugh's character is perfectly drawn. Hughes strikes the right note in her depiction of him both before and after Iris' murder, conveying a realistic-seeming combination of desperation, anger and determination. Seeing him exclusively during a time when he is under pressure and apprehensive, we get a strong sense of what he must be like at all times: thoughtful, resourceful, determined. Her prose is unspectacular but atmospheric, and the third-person focus on Hugh's point of view is also judged well - we know everything he knows, and nothing more. We share his confusion over the motives of others and understand his angers and fears.

It's hard to talk too much more about the themes of The Expendable Man without spoiling the plot. I will say that Hughes' revelation felt like a punch to my gut - suddenly the slightly uneasy quality of the first part of the book made sense, small details all fell into place and the book took quite a different turn from what I had been expecting. It's rare that a novel can do that, can so effectively but quietly shift the ground beneath you, so that what you thought was going on turned out to only part of the story. Rare, and certainly to be applauded when an author does it as wonderfully as Hughes does here.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Book review: Ride a Cockhorse

'You can't judge a book by its cover' is an expression that's true as a metaphor but not as a literal statement of fact. We can't - & shouldn't - judge people by their appearance (although we do, all the time), but we (for 'we', read 'I') judge books by their covers constantly. Case in point: I first encountered Ride a Cockhorse when I noticed its cover & thought, 'oh, that looks lovely' (a frequent thought when I first see NYRB Classics books). I then read the blurb & thought 'I'd love that; I must read it asap' (ditto). I'd never heard of the book, or author Raymond Kennedy, before that, but the striking cover design convinced me to see what it was about, and that was enough to get me to order it.

In part my interest was aroused by the comparison to John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, one of the most scathingly hilarious novels of the 20th century. Like that book, Ride a Cockhorse is not constantly guffaw-inducing, but both are nonetheless deeply funny. Set in 1987 in small town New England, Ride a Cockhorse is the story of a few weeks in the life of middle-aged widower Frankie Fitzgibbons. Her husband has been dead for a handful of years, and Frankie has settled into her quiet existence as a loans officer at the local bank. As the book begins, however, she decides she's had enough of playing her passive part in life and becomes a fierce presence everywhere - seducing a student from the high school, dominating her disappointingly earnest daughter more than usual and, most importantly, running roughshed over her workplace, demanding a promotion to CEO, hiring & firing at whim and ruling her quiet little bank like an unpredictable dictator.

She makes enemies, of course, but Frankie also attracts a little band of loyal supporters - her hairdresser, a couple of young women at the bank whom she promotes and takes under wing, her son-in-law, and a couple of others. They fall into her step, doing her bidding, worshipping her and fiercely defending her against the small group at the bank who dare to oppose this mid-level officer who has taken it upon herself to usurp the power structure and declare herself boss. She also attracts media attention - not just for being a female CEO of a local bank, but also because of her immense quotability. The blurb says Ride a Cockhorse is a 'rollicking cautionary tale of small-town demagoguery'. That's true, but in a way the most interesting factor here is the devoted following Frankie builds. Her evolution makes sense in a fairly obvious way - a response to the tedium that her life up until this point had been. But Kennedy also sheds light on the ways in which we love to follow an exciting leader, how we can counteract the boredom of our own lives by getting caught up in the drama caused by someone else - someone else who appeared to be quiet and boring just like us, but who turns out to have hidden depths. Perhaps we hope that within each of us lies a charismatic leader just waiting for the right moment to reveal itself and blow away the cobwebs of our day-to-day living?

The title comes from an old rhyme:
Ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine lady on a white horse.
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes.

That's a good summary of Frankie's life through these few weeks - rings, bells, music everywhere she grows. But I suspect Kennedy was not at all upset that the title also sounds dirty...

Frankie is an awe-inspiring anti-hero(ine). For most of the novel we're torn - it's exhilarating to see her take some control over her life and get some enjoyment out of it. On the other hand, she's utterly dreadful and runs the bank - & everyone else she encounters - with tactics barely removed from those of military dictatorships. Kennedy - although he tells the story almost entirely from Frankie's perspective - never hides that his main character has become a thoroughly awful person and deserves a massive comeuppance. Does she get one? Well, you'll just have to read and find out for yourself...

As for me, I'm just glad that I continue to judge books by their covers.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Rereading project 2012: The Day of the Triffids

In the wake of rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four last month, I decided to continue in the English Dystopias vein for my June reread. Initially I tried Brave New World, which I mentioned in passing in writing about Nineteen Eighty-Four, but found it hard to write anything worthwhile about it. But that gave me the idea to return to John Wyndham's classic sci-fi, The Day of the Triffids. Unlike any of the other books I've covered so far in this series, I came to this novel fairly recently - I read if for the first time only a couple of years ago (for this and many other things, my eternal thanks must go to the North Sydney Public Library - I also saw the excellent miniseries version via their gracious benevolence).

Longtime reader/s, if any, will be aware of my somewhat mixed feelings about plot (in short: it's great if there is one, but plenty of potentially interesting books have been spoiled by the addition of a plot where none was necessary). I was somewhat surprised, especially given how recently I first read The Day of the Triffids, how little plot there actually is here. In short, seven years before the story begins, a new type of plant is discovered, eventually named the triffid. Though useful (it produces a sort of super oil), the triffid is dangerous - they come equipped with a powerful sting and a seemingly aggressive behaviour, including the ability to move. Our hero & narrator, Bill Masen, a biologist specialising in triffids, is stung in the eye & thus blindfolded when a beautiful series of comets streaks through the night sky. The next morning, he discovers that everyone who saw the display - almost everyone else - is now blind. He meets a girl (the appallingly named Josella) who was drunk and thus also missed the comets, and the two try to survive. The triffids, sensing the opportunity to take over, begin more overtly attacking and killing the blinded humans.

So, yes, in a way, a lot happens. But Wyndham handles it masterfully, making his whole book about the premise. What would you do if tomorrow morning you awoke and found that everyone around you was blind? Yes, now it would be a fair bit different to in 1951, when the book was published (and, more or less, set), but services quickly drop out. Electricity, fresh water, telecommunications, the chains of supply that bring food to us - all fall apart remarkably quickly. Wyndham obviously put a lot of thought into what effects his scenario would have, and in doing so, he creates a world that we can live in through Bill. Bill's an ordinary man in many ways, other than his professional knowledge of triffids which turns out to be vital, but otherwise torn: should he try to help the helpless people around him? Or is that merely delaying the inevitable, prolonging their misery while decreasing his own chance of survival? Stores can be looted in the short term, but if ongoing survival is your aim, a big city is no place to be. That fact is brought home - fully half of the novel is set in London, before Bill is finally able to leave and look for a suitable place to live in the country. Not only are supplies in short order, but everyone - blind or otherwise - is fearful, confused and desperate. Wyndham is unsparing in his descriptions here: The Day of the Triffids is never gory, it never revels in the misery of the world it creates, but it's impossible to read without thinking about what it would be like to be in Bill's shoes, or in the place of those less lucky than him who simply wake up one morning blind. (Within the first few chapters, several characters commit suicide, and many others turn violent, especially when they encounter the still-sighted like Bill and Josella.) Wyndham seems to actively encourage us to think about how we would react in Bill's place.

Bill is an obvious character for us to latch on to, and his narration is perfectly judged. I don't often include lengthy quotes in these reviews (mostly because my eyes glaze over them in others'), but this short paragraph (from just before Bill leaves London) wonderfully conveys the feeling of standing in the middle of a city and knowing that neither it, nor anything else you've known, will ever be the same again:

Above it all rose the Houses of Parliament, with the hands of the clock stopped at three minutes past six. It was difficult to believe that all that meant nothing any more, that now it was just a pretentious confection in uncertain stone which could decay in peace. Let it shower its crumbling pinnacles onto the terrace as it would - there would be no more indignant members complaining of the risk to their valuable lives. Into those halls which had in their day set world echoes to good intentions and sad expediencies, the roofs could in due course fall; there would be none to stop them, and none to care. Alongside, the Thames flowed imperturbably on. So it would flow until the day the Embankments crumbled and their water spread out and Westminster became once more an island in a marsh.

The Day of the Triffids is not a long book (around 230 pages), but it's a surprisingly dense one. Even my brief plot summary above should indicate that, but its main interest is not 'this happened, then this, then this...', but rather Wyndham seems to have come up with an idea and then decided not to complicate matters, just to think about 'what would happen if this premise came true?' In doing so, he's created a world, and dragged us into it. The book ends on a strangely lowkey note - another indication of Wyndham's real interest in this story. We're left with a lot more to imagine - knowing what we know to that point, what might happen afterwards?

What would we do? How would we cope?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Book review: Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky

Last year, I read & review Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square, a novel set in (just) pre-WWII London about George, a perenially near-broke young man who wastes all his money socialising with people he doesn't really like just because Netta, the object of his obsession, is in their group. While I loved the book, for some reason I had it in my head that Hangover Square was, if not Hamilton's only novel, certainly his major one. Recently, looking through the NYRB Classics catalogue, I discovered that they publish two of his other books - this one & The Slaves of Solitude (which I have not yet read, but will soon). Both, as is customary for NYRB Classics, have gorgeous covers too. So I ordered it quickly and read it as soon as it arrived.

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky is actually a collection of three linked novellas which were published separately in 1929, 1932 and 1934 before being collected together in 1935. Each focuses on a different character: The Midnight Bell is the story of Bob, a young bartender at the pub of that name who falls for a beautiful prostitute, Jenny. Her story is told in the shortest part of the trilogy, The Siege of Pleasure. And The Plains of Cement follows Ella, Bob's coworker at the Midnight Bell, who also has a crush on him.

As with Hangover Square (1941), the world here is of the young & impoverished working classes. The Midnight Bell can be seen in some ways as an early version of that later novel - Bob has little money, is very proud of the savings he has, but continually throws it away to impress Jenny. She is no Hooker With A Heart Of Gold, either - while her own story in the second volume fills in her character and presents her more sympathetically, she is clearly interested in Bob only to the extent that he can help her out of her financial problems and occasionally show her a good time. The problem is, of course, that he is barely richer than she is. Time after time she stands him, ignores or is rude to him and all-too-clearly (at least from the reader's perspective) grasps after his money while offering little in return. Apparently based on a period in Hamilton's own life, he brings both a sympathy and a clear-eyed perspective to Bob's story: we see every one of Bob's series of bad decisions, but at the same time that we dread everything he does and wish we could reach through the book's page and give him a firm shaking we also never stop hoping that it will work out for him.

In the brief The Siege of Pleasure (just over 100 pages), we jump back in time to see how Jenny went from being a sensible, indeed model, maid to a pair of eldery sisters and their infirm brother to prostitution. Here, rather than the several-months timespan of Bob's story, we see the shift in Jenny's life over the course of one night: after having landed her new job, she goes out for the night with a friend she doesn't particularly like. Lacking the willpower to do anything else, she ends up not only trying alcohol for the first time, but going on a rather impressive bender, along with her unlovely friend and two random men they meet. Hamilton leaves most of her subsequent journey up to us to imagine, but while the idea of one night's drunkeness leading to life as a working girl might seem simplistic or extreme, Hamilton's success here is that he sells the idea. Given the chance to focus on just a couple of days, Hamilton's gift for creating an atmosphere is in full flight.

Circling back to the same timeframe as The Midnight Bell, in The Plains of Cement, Ella's story largely avoids the trick of just showing us Bob's story from the perspective of his friend. That's what I'd expected - Ella moping while he's out wasting his money on that cheap floozy (it's worth noting that, from the moment Jenny first enters the bar, both Bob & Ella know exactly what she does for a living). Instead, we see Ella's life parallelling Bobs - she also meets someone at the Midnight Bell and her story mostly deals with that relationship. Mr Eccles is a relatively wealthy older man who takes a liking to Ella and begins taking her out, assuming a stronger and closer relationship than she is willing to enter into. While she likes him well enough, and is pragmatically aware of the benefits of attaching herself - and eventually marrying - a wealthy man, Ella is unable to commit to the idea. Partly this is because of her unspoken, unreturned, love for Bob, but she also finds Mr Eccles (she struggles to even call him by his first name) too eager, too ridiculous, too quick to assume that they are dating, then engaged. As with the first two entries, The Plains of Cement is told in a third-person perspective of the lead, and again Hamilton shows a fine talent for developing his characters. 

Across all three stories, Hamilton's genius is in describing his world. It's obviously a world he knew well - as noted, the story of Bob was drawn from his own life, but more broadly, these working people and their lives were what he lived in. At times when reading Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky - and especially the first part - I felt almost ashamed of not having a glass of booze in my other hand. In some ways, though, that would have been redundant - so effectively is this world recreated on the page that there's almost no way to get any closer to how the characters feel.