Helen Smith, Alison Wonderland (1999)
Now this, I think it’s fair to say, is a bit of an oddity. Alison Temple first came across the all-female-staffed Fitzgerald’s Bureau of Investigation when she hired them to find out whether her husband was cheating on her (which he was); now divorced, Alison works for Fitzgerald’s, her latest assignment being to investigate a sinister pharmaceutical company. Alongside this, her friend Taron is requesting information that will help her steal an abandoned baby; and Jeff, Alison’s neighbour and sort-of lover, writes poems for her and works on inventions like the formula for a single advertisement that could advertise any product.
I won’t pretend to have puzzled out everything that Alison Wonderland was trying to achieve, with all its digressions, and hints at extraordinary phenomena that might or might not be real; but I do appreciate the way that Helen Smith juxtaposes the bizarre and the mundane: however strange events become, the emotional issues that Alison deals with remain grounded in everyday reality; and some of the best-written passages deal with the more ordinary subjects.
Alison Wonderland might also be seen as an unusual take on the conspiracy story, in that the main conspiracies which the characters imagine to exist actually don’t; whilst the real secrets go unsuspected. Smith’s novel brought to mind the work of Sarah Salway and Aliya Whiteley in its sideways approach to everyday life – but it’s not quite like anything else I’ve ever read.
Paul Finch, King Death (2011)
After three contemporary tales, the fourth chapbook from Spectral Press takes us back to 1348. In an England ravaged by the Black Death, a mercenary named Rodric is strangely immune to the plague; styling himself ‘King Death’, he travels the land, making the most of his fortunate circumstances. A chance meeting with a page from a fallen manor-house apparently presents a new opportunity for Rodric – or it could be his downfall instead.
This is one story I’d love to hear read aloud; there’s something about Paul Finch’s prose which suggests to me the rhythms of oral storytelling. There are points where King Death gets a little too clotted with detail (such as the description of Rodric’s costume, which feels as though it’s trying to namecheck as many pieces of armour as possible); but there are also striking moments like the opening scene of a parade of coaches, their occupants all dead. For the most part, the story rumbles on inexorably towards its wry conclusion.
Anya Lipska, Where the Devil Can’t Go (2011)
Anya Lipska’s debut novel is set amongst the Polish diaspora of East London, where fixer-for-hire Janusz Kiszka is engaged to find a missing young woman. Meanwhile, the body another woman is found washed up out of the Thames – and DC Natalie Kershaw’s investigations soon lead her to Janusz, who will find himself travelling back to Poland in a bid to unravel what is going on.
Where the Devil Can’t Go is a fine crime story, but it’s also strong thematically. The main theme could be described as pragmatism in the face of reality: Janusz was once on track to become a physicist, but gave up his studies to join the protests against the Communist regime; now, he has a wife and son back in Poland, but circumstances brought him to London, where he does what he can to make a living. Janusz has a deep-rooted sense of dignity and propriety, but will not hesitate to use violence to get a job done; a similar sense of doing what one feels must be done in the situation goes right to the heart of the mystery. And it’s not just the Polish characters who have to make such choices: Natalie Kershaw also has to decide how far she wants to fit into the man’s world of the Metropolitan Police.
The novel’s main weakness, I think, is a technical one: the tendency to switch between character viewpoints without a scene break. This is annoying but tolerable when the characters are in different places; but, when Janusz and Kershaw are together, the dramatic irony of how they view each other loses some of its impact from how the shifts are handled. But, otherwise, Where the Devil Can’t Go is a solid piece of work which is well worth reading.
Although the novel is being published in Germany by Random House next year, it hasn’t been picked up by a UK publisher; so the English-language version is a self-published ebook. I’d love to see Lipska’s book get a full UK publication, though, as it really does deserve one.