18 April 2014

The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty

I have just revisited this classic novel by listening to an audio recording made by the author in the late 1990s. I make no secret of the fact that I admire the 1973 movie and no book review would be complete without at least a passing reference to the film. I was one of the teenagers pretending to ignore the Samaritans as they stood on the cinema steps handing out leaflets. As a naive fifteen year old I was quite affected.

Reading in my mid fifties I can listen to large tracts on my iPod in the dead of night without (undue) alarm. We have to remember that the movie was an adaptation, a distillation of the plot into two hours. Inevitably it concentrated on the shocking. The novel stands comfortably by itself as a clever supernatural detective story which manages to explore faith, medicine and the overlap of psychiatric disorders with physical symptoms.
Three individuals lose their lives, a fact some might overlook. A detective working on the first death is inexorably drawn to events and rumours surrounding the house the victim last visited. When the only logical suspect is a twelve year old girl he is mystified. In parallel with his gentle but persistent investigations, the lives of the girl's mother and her household staff begin to coincide with medical doctors and Jesuit priests.
The doctors remain insistent on a physical root cause even when presented with extraordinary symptoms to indicate otherwise. This stalemate threatens to slow progress but sub plots are explored to fill the void. As a last resort the help of an exorcist is recommended and events move rapidly to a memorable climax.
Pacing is masterful, and matter-of-fact descriptions lend paranormal events an eerie plausibility. It's interesting to hear the author's interpretation of his own work and therein lies the audiobook's only failing. Blatty's delivery is deep and gruff for all characters, male, female, young, old. It's often tricky to identify the speaker in dialogue. Nonetheless the book is tidily written, neatly plotted and hard to put down.
I understand Blatty has recently committed something of an authorial sin. In 2011, to celebrate the fortieth anniversary, he wrote a new scene, introduced a new character, and generally spruced up the prose throughout the novel. Well, I listened to the original version and there is little wrong with that.

09 April 2014

The Long Walk, Richard Bachman

This was the second King novel under the Bachman pseudonym. Although published in 1979 King has since confided that he wrote it in 1966 when just twenty, and long before his more famous early works.

Both the premise and its execution are simple: an annual 'last man standing' walking race down the East coast of America during which King explores the physical and psychological effects of a gruelling challenge to the death. Walkers who slow below 4mph or infringe other rules will be 'ticketed', a euphemism for a more terminal penalty. TV cameras relay the entertainment, and the eventual winner will choose whatever prize he wants.
Although an undoubtedly good effort from a young author, it suffers from a limited storyline resulting in endless repetition. Whether intentionally or not, the novel's biggest success lies in its foretelling of the age of reality TV and the strange relationship between contestant and viewer. Spectators lining the route of The Long Walk would today be watching Big Brother.
The reader observes interaction between the walkers, their division into groups or loners, and their ability to endure suffering of both body and mind. It's interesting, but not fascinating. When I first read this, thirty years ago, I thought it an allegory for the walk of life but it's really less pretentious than that.

03 April 2014

The Gods of Guilt, Michael Connelly

I do enjoy courtroom drama, particularly if it is as accurately observed as the Mickey Haller series by Michael Connelly. Of course to detect accuracy you first have to be familiar with the US judicial system. It is based on the British adversarial method but without the wigs, gowns and general pomp. Procedures are the same, examination, cross, redirect, re-examination, objections etc. Penalties can be a tad harsher though!

Connelly's ease at describing the subtle maneuvering within court scenes brings authenticity. He knows how many looks, facial expressions, nudges and even secret text messages don't catch the judge's attention. Despite what TV would have us believe, witnesses don't make uninterrupted speeches, lawyers can't bring unexpected witnesses or suddenly produced undisclosed evidence. It's his adherence to this realism yet ability to spring surprises which lifts Connelly's dramas well above the ordinary procedural.

The titular Gods of Guilt are the jury and here, while sitting on a murder case, they have to learn how it is connected to an earlier wrongful conviction. Defence Lawyer Haller expertly dismantles and connects both cases while simultaneously repairing his damaged home life, chasing a new girlfriend and trying to recover from a failed run for District Attorney. To be frank, the plot is somewhat weaker than previous outings and if not for the distractions, would have barely carried the book.
I love how Peter Giles reads the audiobook. His Mickey Haller is sincere, earnest, hardworking and utterly dependable. I might be in a minority but I disliked McConaughey in the title role of the Lincoln Lawyer. Too self opinionated, too brazen. I wanted to see the humility with which Connelly endows his character. So, I was delighted to hear 'my' Mickey Haller again even if this case wasn't his toughest.