I Got it at the Library: “By Gaslight”

That Stephen Price is a helluva storyteller.

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Steven Price

At over 700 pages, By Gaslight, the second novel by the Victoria, British Columbia-based poet and fiction writer might have been a doorstopper. But like many of the lengthier films I have enjoyed over the years, I was never bored or visually fatigued thanks to the author’s vividly realized prose and memorable characters.

The novel is set in 1880s London (with flashbacks to the American Civil War and the diamond mines of South Africa) and it is a credit to Mr. Price’s impeccable research and richly detailed narrative that I had to keep reminding myself that this novel was written recently and not penned a number of decades ago. (I haven’t read a novel this rich in period detail which transported me back in time since Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan which was primarily set in 1939 Berlin and Paris – the novel also flashes forward to the early Nineties.) 

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The story centres around William Pinkerton, son of the crusty, larger-than-life authoritarian who founded the famed investigative organization, and his hunt in foggy London town for an elusive criminal whose very existence is questionable. There is also a gentleman grifter named Adam Foole, his lady love, Charlotte Reckitt, a giant named Fludd and Molly, a ten year old girl who is wise beyond her years (to say the least).  Each of these characters are given humane and believable back stories, scrupulously sculpted by the author. The result is, yes, characters you both know and care about as well as (or better than) members of your own family.

You don’t have to be Fellini, to paraphrase an old George Carlin routine, to see themes of the often thorny relationship between fathers and sons, the futility and tragedy of war (any war) and the Rashomon – like nature of truth interwoven into the narrative.

Perhaps the ancient adage is true that a prophet (or, in this case, an author) is without honor in his own country because, in one of the first Canadian literary websites I logged onto, the highly respected quillandquire.com, while admitting that the novel is “an engrossing read“, the reviewer says  “… nothing carries us beyond the characters to give their stories thematic resonance of the sort that motivates the great 19th-century novels to which By Gaslight is so indebted … “(Perhaps the writer of this review has been hanging around stuffy Ontario academics too long,)

I much prefer the enthusiastic, uncluttered  response of America’s NPR (National Public Radio): ” … Intense …  threaded through with a melancholy brilliance, it is an extravagant novel that takes inspiration from the classics and yet remains wholly itself.”

Perhaps the best description of the novel is on the back cover of the book itself: ” … darkly mesmerizing,” writes author Jacqueline Baker, “worthy of the great Victorian thriller writers, but Steven Price brings to his prose a sensibility and dazzling skill all his own … perfectly grounded in period and rich in incident and image. Haunting and deeply satisfying. “

Come to think of it, Stephen Price and Esi Edugyan are husband and wife. Could they be CanLit’s new Power Couple (even if they are not based in Toronto)?

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Esi Edugyan and Steven Price: The Canadian Lit Power Couple?

A Dark Twist on an Old Story? Not Even Close

Okay, I know how I started writing about a 2010 movie based on a 2001 novel but I am not sure why I am posting an entry in my blog about them.

I guess it all started when I watched the Brit TV series based on the Jack Taylor novels by Irish writer Ken Bruen (an appreciation of Mr. Bruen’s unique – to me – prose style appears elsewhere in this blog.)

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I noticed a second hand copy of London Boulevard at a book sale and since I had become an aficionado of Mr. Bruen’s works I picked it up. Okay, it wasn’t a Jack Taylor novel but the protagonist, a wary, volatile ex-con named Mitchell, his run-ins with former criminal associates, his relationship with mentally unstable sister, Briony, his reluctant affair with the aging but still alluring  reclusive actress Lillian Palmer and her enigmatic butler, Jordan. held my attention.

Then I became aware of a movie adapted from the novel.  Since it was written by William Monahan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter who adapted the Asian box office hit Infernal Affairs for the Martin Scorsese-directed North American cinematic success The Departed (one of my favorite films) I had high hopes when the acclaimed screenwriter chose London Boulevard as his directorial debut. 

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Imagine my surprise when I looked closer at the back of the DVD dust cover and saw that Colin Farrell and Keira Knightley had been cast in leading roles. While reading the novel I kept picturing Liam Neeson and Helen Mirren or Charlotte Rampling in the roles. (On the other hand, the casting of Anna Friel as Briony and Ray Winstone as Mitchell’s criminal nemesis, Gant, was spot-on.)

I understand the need to attract “name” stars to secure investors. However, the casting – and rewriting – completely destroys Mr. Bruen’s original intent: to write a British version of Sunset Boulevard, or, as it says on the front cover of the novel, “a dark twist on a classic story.” Imagine a version geared to a youthful demographic directed by Zack Snyder and starring, say, Scarlett Johansson as Ms. Palmer (renamed “Lily”) and one of the Hemsworth boys as Mitchell (MC Mitch?)  

Mr. Monahan’s second attempt at directing, the dismal Mojave. didn’t fare much better (24% Audience Rating). Perhaps Peter Howell of Toronto’s Globe & Mail (quoted on RT) says it best:  “Writer/director William Monahan won an Oscar for penning The Departed and he obviously needs the discipline Martin Scorsese brought to that picture.”

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Declan MacManus Disappears Into Elvis Costello and Comes Back Again

“You don’t really need musical notation for rock and roll. I always said it was all hand signals and threats. I just didn’t specify who was doing the threatening.” 

That may be my favorite quote in a book full of them.

At over 600 pages, Elvis Costello’s new memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink (Blue Rider Press) may be a doorstopper of a memoir but the man born Declan MacManus in London England in 1954 keeps it interesting.

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It helps that he has a vivid memory, shored up (no doubt) by  family and friends.

One of the author’s favorite childhood memories includes watching his father,  Ross MacManus, perform with  Joe Loss and his orchestra. In fact, E.C./D.M.’s dad figures prominently in the book, dating from his tenure with  the Loss orchestra to his  brush with UK fame as a solo artist to, in a poignant chapter, his final days suffering from a combination of Parkinson’s disease and dementia. (Few fathers may have been fortunate enough to have a son as devoted, compassionate and admiring as Declan MacManus aka Elvis Costello.)

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Ross MacManus (courtesy of Britain’s The Guardian.com website)                 

Mr Costello also gives fans (I plead guilty) the inspiration behind some of his (often) cryptic lyrics. For example, “Alison” (perhaps his best known composition, at least according to the folks at watchmojo.com, who recently posted a list of Top Ten Elvis Costello Tunes) was inspired by “the sad face of a beautiful girl glimpsed by chance ” (Mr. Costello tells us later in the book that it was  a supermarket checkout girl) “and imagining her life unravelling before her.” As for the name of the song “it was almost incidental. I knew it couldn’t be the name of a glamorous, sophisticated woman, like Grace or Sophia, or a poetic heroine like Eloise or Penelope. I needed a name that sounded like a girl anyone would know, and Alison fitted the tune.” Mr. Costello also tells us how jazz legend Chet Baker came to play the horn solo on “Shipbuilding” (one of my all-time favorite E.C. recordings.)

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The late (great) musician Chet Baker

E.C./D.M also devotes a number of pages to his first marriage, to an Irish girl named Mary, and its eventual failure (reading between the lines he seems properly remorseful), his 17 year marriage to onetime Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan (reading between the lines – small wonder it took me so long to finish the book – it seemed to be an often tempestuous union) and he is positively puppy-eyed when it comes to his latest wife, Canadian jazz singer/songwriter/pianist Diana Krall.) His much-publicized ’70s dalliance with aspiring singer/model Bebe Buell is reduced to a few lines.

E.C./D.M. has met just about everyone he admired as a music-loving youth and yet I never got the feeling he was name-dropping to impress the reader.  Throughout the book his tone is  intimate, conversational and often self-deprecating. The author writes about his collaborations with artists ranging from Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach to fabled New Orleans music icon Allen Toussaint and legendary country singer George Jones. He has also worked with Britain’s The Brodsky Quartet (justly famed for their interpretations of Beethoven, Shostakovich and other classical music masters), Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and U.S. hip hop artists the Roots. (In fact, after reading his memoir, I am convinced that Mr. Costello is one those rare musicians that has no “comfort zone”.) 

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The author is also straightforward and honest about some of the more highly publicized incidents in his career such as his thought processes about suddenly changing songs without warning on a live American television broadcast and the infamous night Bonnie Bramlett knocked him off a barstool for making drunken racial slurs (“Words had always been my friends. Now I had betrayed them. But never mind excuses. There are no excuses.”

And, since the book was copyrighted (by Declan MacManus) in 2015 the author also writes about the genesis of his excellent music and interview series “Spectacle” (My favorite guests were Richard Thompson and Lou Reed.)

Mr. Costello looks back to his “angry young man” phase with candour and the wisdom and regret that comes with age and hopes to  continue writing and recording. It’s all music to him and he is determined to experience it all.)

He also mentions in closing that he is the proud father of three sons (so far).

Taylor Made for Hard-Boiled Noir Fans

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Ken Bruen – The Irish Elmore Leonard?

Call Ken Bruen the Irish Elmore Leonard.  He would probably like that. After all, he includes a quote from Be Cool, arguably one of Leonard’s weaker efforts, in one book and a quote from La Brava,one of my personal favorites, in another. 

There are traces of Elmore Leonard in his books but like Mr. Leonard, Ken Bruen has developed his own style and found his own voice in his Jack Taylor novels, set in the Irish city of Galway, and Inspector Brant books, set in London. ( He has also written standalone novels and co-written a series of satirical paperbacks with Jason Starr featuring an unsavory character named Max Fisher.)

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Mr. Bruen favors blunt, clipped sentences which can carry the force of a sucker punch.  His chapters are usually brief (Attention ADD sufferers!) His writing style can be interpreted as wilfully eccentric – think of  modern poetry adapted to a prose style. There are numerous pop culture and literary references (everything from Flaubert to Jim Thompson). Mr. Bruen not only tells us  Jack  is a discriminating film buff but what his favorites are: (“I headed for my video shelf. It`s sparse but has my very essentials:

                                   Paris, Texas  

                                  Once Upon a Time in the West

                                  Sunset Boulevard

                                  Double Indemnity

                                 Cutter`s Way

                                 Dog Soldiers “

(No, there is nothing wrong with my keyboard. That is the spacing in the book.)

Ken Bruen  also tells us about Jack’s favorite authors and  TV shows (Breaking Bad is a particular favorite). Mr. Bruen is also musically literate. (In describing the repertoire of a young singer , Jack recognizes songs by  Chrissie Hynde, Alison Moyet, Neil Young and Margo Timmins, lead singer of The Cowboy Junkies). 

I would have posted a favorable review of the Jack Taylor novels for fans of hard-boiled noir but the best adjectives have been taken : “Bruen’s astringent prose and death’s head humor keeps this quest for redemption from getting maudlin, just as his ‘tapestry of talk’ makes somber poetry of the bar-stool laments that  serve as dialogue. ”  (Marilyn Stasio, New York Times)  or “… a potent draft of desire and hopelessness, conviction and surrender, inadvertent heroism and unexpected grace.” ( best-selling crime novelist T. Jefferson Parker) and (“there’s not a single drop or morsel of sentimentality to be found”) Oh, excuse me, that last quote (from Entertainment Weekly) is from the back cover of an Inspector Brant novel.

It is tempting to think  Jack Taylor’s tastes match those of his creator – and I’m not the only one to wonder. In a lead-up to an interview with Ken Bruen, Mary-Ann Kolton writes on the L.A. Review of Books website: “SLY, PROFANE, CHARMING, ALCOHOLIC, sensitive, lonely, handsome, addicted to drugs, ballsy, well read, wry, nasty, self-deprecating, savvy, vicious, darkly humorous, vulnerable, cunning, insecure, emotionally damaged, loves his music, melancholy, short-tempered, bookstore lover.

Jack Taylor or Ken Bruen? “

During the course of the interview Mr. Bruen asserts that he is categorically NOT Jack Taylor, although they may share some tastes in literature and music. (Mr. Bruen tells Ms. Kolton that the character of Jack Taylor is actually based on his alcoholic brother.)

I already suspected that, before perusing the interview, after reading a Hard Case Crime paperback called PIMP.

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One of the Max Fisher novels co-written with Mr. Starr, it is a wannabe (now there’s an adjective that hasn’t been used, to my knowledge) R-rated homage to Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty (it even has a cop named Leonard in the mix) which takes satirical potshots at the movie and book biz.  Jack Reacher author Lee Child is satirized mercilessly. (One or two jokes may have been funny but a dozen or more? (Ever the good sport, Mr. Child wrote a blurb for the front cover: “I would have killed these two but I was too busy laughing.”)

I suppose if you were in the book business, or had some frustrating experiences dealing with Hollywood execs (according to his website Mr. Starr has several projects “in development”) the book may have been hilarious. The duo appeared to having fun writing it but to me the whole affair seemed to be a betrayal of Mr. Bruen’s voice in the Taylor novels.

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Ironically, I was initially intrigued enough to sample the novels after watching the British TV series based on the Jack Taylor novels (on Netflix in North America and also on DVD). But after reading the novels I found the series (there are six episodes) did not stand up to repeat views. Iain Glen does a serviceable job as Jack Taylor (I guess Ray Stevenson wasn’t available and they couldn’t afford Liam Neeson) but they radically altered The Guards (for that sin alone I cannot forgive them).

If Jack Taylor was a real person, though, I bet we would have much in common as far as our pop culture favorites were concerned. (Steve Earle is one of my favorites, too, especially the way he sings “Galway Girl” and  The Good Wife was must-see TV when it was on the air. )  We may not have been mates (I have a glass jaw when it comes to booze and I am a practicing Protestant) but we certainly could share a jar or two. 

PS Mr. Bruen’s novels are not recommended for devout Catholics (he directs a lot of shots at priests, nuns and the Church in general) or for those for whom profanity in literature is a dealbreaker (Mr. Bruen’s characters swear a lot.)

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Jason Statham plays Inspector Brant in BLITZ

Phillip Marlowe on Mexican Music Back in the 1950s – Everyone’s A Critic

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Raymond Chandler, creator of fictional detective Phillip Marlowe – Maybe he would liked the Tijuana Brass

” …. A three-piece Mexican band was making the kind of music that a Mexican band always makes. Whatever they play, it all sounds the same. They always sing the same song, and it always has nice open vowels and a drawn-out sugary lilt, and the guy who sings it always strums on  a guitar and has a lot to say about amor and mi corazon, and a lady who is  ‘linda’ but very hard to convince, and he always has too long or too oily hair and when he isn’t making with the love stuff he looks as if his knife work in an alley would be efficient and economical.”

Raymond Chandler, Playback (1958)

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Chuck It or Not: You Can’t Unread It

Chuck Palahniuk may be one of those rare authors who has built (for want of a better phrase) a cult of personalty which stems from his debut novel. Since then he has released over a dozen novels  but it is Fight Club on which his fame seems to rest (and a series of live appearances in which attendees have been known to faint while Mr. P reads excerpts from his works.)

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The controversial author released his first  volume of short stories last year.  The author goes out of his way to shock people (and it certainly worked for this reader.) I was trying to find a passage that (in my opinion) best exemplified what the author calls his “trangressive fiction” but I couldn’t find it. Perhaps it just as well. The title gives a hint as to the contents.

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If you happen to share the pitch black humor of Mr. Palahniuk then you should enjoy these stories. Otherwise, you have been warned. 

Like I said, the author likes to shock his readers.  There is no doubt that Mr. Palahniuk has a gift for vividly realized prose and a knack for witty sayings (“The French have a word for what you’re thinking.”)  Fans may praise him for his fearless breaking down of societal barriers and take-no-prisoners prose. Others (like this reader) may sense that the enigmatic expression on the back cover photo may actually be a sly smile. Like the naughty schoolboy who shocks his teacher by saying swearwords he learned on the playground. You decide.

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Mr. Palahniuk is right about one thing. though. You can’t un-read these stories. Some of them stick with you … like wading through a field of  weeds.