Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith: Pan

Arkady Renko returns in Martin Cruz Smith’s latest Russian thriller, Three Stations. Renko, the Platonic ideal of the noir cop, is a Russian of the post-Soviet era, afloat in a corrupt force, constantly suspended or under threat of suspension, unloved, unwanted, a good man swimming in a sewer.
Arkady rescues his colleague in misery, Sgt Victor Orlov, from the drunk tank, and so becomes involved when a young prostitute is found dead - apparently of natural causes - in a workers’ trailer in the area officially called Komsomol Square but known to all Muscovites as Three Stations.
Here, at the conjunction of two Metro lines, ten lanes of traffic and the Leningrad, Kazansky and Yaroslavl train stations, feral children live off the unwary adults passing through. Some children are more innocent: Maya, a child prostitute who has escaped with her baby, only to have the baby stolen by the babushka who befriended her; Zhenko, Arkady’s adopted son, who plays chess for money and nests in an abandoned casino.
As Arkady investigates, more bodies turn up, each posed in one of the basic ballet positions. He follows the trail through the underworld of the poor, and that of the wealthy where a circus entertains millionaires donating money to help street kids, and through the home of every eccentric in Moscow.
Three Stations is a great page-turner. It’s fast, it’s constantly coming up with great turnarounds, it’s full of fabulous characters (the retired pathologist like a woolly mammoth in a white coat, the dog-loving street child and her guard dog Tito, the aged anthropologist devoured by curiosity).
It’s full of abstruse arcana (prison tattoos are a code: each barb on a length of barbed wire is a prison sentence cats show a career as a burglar, a web denotes addiction, a Madonna and Child means the criminal was born into a criminal family, not to the bourgeoisie; each teardrop is a murder victim.
These prison tats are done with a hook and a urine-soot mix. But the tattoo of a butterfly - denoting whoredom - on the first murder victim is clearly a professional job from a tattoo parlour, masquerading as the real thing.
All this should make the perfect thriller. And Martin Cruz Smith has written the perfect thriller before: the superb Tokyo Station, set in Japan in the five days before Pearl Harbour, with a protagonist who is a trickster and a player and a hero.
Here, though, everything’s too complicated. The story is awash with characters, many of them - like the aged anthropologist and the choreographer at the billionaire’s casino; and the mother who’s lost her child and the dog-loving street kid; and the billionaire Sergey and the former ballet star Sasha - too alike. It’s confusing. It’s hard to keep hold of the story when you don’t know the characters.
And Cruz Smith brings in a deus ex machina, in the form of a sudden influx of Tajik drug dealers, to solve a sticky plot point. And we never really discover how the original ballet girl died - only how she was knocked out.
So, if you want a gripping yarn to bring on the train and ferry, this is it. If you want a story that’ll rip your heart out the way Tokyo Station did, not so much. Not yet.
But it's gripping, it's fast-moving, at times it's even funny, and it's well worth buying for that tense train journey.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Ovolution by JJ Toner

If you liked those yellow Gollanz Science Fiction of the Year collections that brightened the middle of the 20th century, you'll love JJ Toner's Ovolution.
This collection of 10 stories brings us back to the world fondly evoked by Mad Men: a world of suited men who are still boyish, with short-back-and-sides haircuts - a world where mad scientists design the perfect woman, and aliens lurk.
Toner's edgy sense of humour lightens this world. In the best of the stories - Short Back and Sides, in which a barber describes an encounter with DNA-hungry aliens; the title story, Ovolution, in which a suburban wife absconds with her newborn egg - reality teeters on an edge of dry wit.
Dancing is great exercise, the sprightly barber tells his customer, not that you need it of course, lovely figure, very Brad Pitt if I may say so. He chats on about the bus journey, his colleague's varicose veins, and of course his abduction by aliens and release. Somehow, it's all horribly believable, and horribly funny.
The warmongers of the army - whose army? doesn't matter - rejig a dead scientist to turn him into a killing machine, but the machine turns out to have more morals than its makers, in Bartlett Rebooted.
In Ooze, humans scouting a new planet and aliens are uncertain about each other, each wondering: are they intelligent? Are they good to eat?
In Scouting Party the shoe is on the other tentacle; the aliens are scouting Earth, but a hideous confluence of golf, tape recording technology and American driving is set to foil their plan for world domination.
A Smashwords collection to while away a rainy day - while keeping a nervy eye out the window for silver spaceships.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

MABS and the crisis

So the cousin's in trouble. He lost his job, couldn't meet the mortgage, got a loan from a moneylender, then a bigger loan. Now they're battering on the door looking for their money back.
"Look at all that expensive tech stuff you have," they say, peering over his shoulder. "You could sell that computer. What about those carpentry tools?"
"But I need them to run my life! I can't make a proper living without my tools, and the computer and internet connection get me customers!"
"Tough. Nobody forced you to borrow. Now it's time to pay us back."
This is the position Ireland is in with the IMF and the ECB: the moneylenders are peering past us into the hallway, looking for things we can sell to pay them back: our land (they want us to sell off the forest land that is 7% of the country's territory); our utilities (we already, disastrously, sold the phone company - now they want the electricity and gas, and even the water we drink, to be sold to private operators, greedy grinders for profit).
If the cousin came to you for advice, what would you suggest? Not selling the computer, I suspect. You'd take him to MABS, the money advice and budgeting service (not yet privatised itself...), and the MABS advisers would sit down with him and make out a budget plan to help him to order his money affairs.
They would tell him to talk to his lenders and make an arrangement to pay off his debts more slowly. The lenders will accept this, MABS would say, because they know it's more reliable.
Work is what is going to get you out of this problem, MABS would say. Take anything you can - a nixer painting the neighbour's house, a quick programming job setting up a database for your local school's scheduling of classes.
Grow your own vegetables: it won't get you an immediate result, but it will give you relaxing exercise, a way to think things through without being panicky, and then in the height of summer it will cut your food bills, and you can actually give something back to the friends who are helping you, with gifts of home-grown stuff.
If you have a skill, you can offer night classes to the same local schools and share your skill with others.
What MABS wouldn't say is "sell your tools to pay the moneylenders".
The European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund are also telling the government to cut wages at the bottom - to make our poorer people even poorer - but to maintain salaries at the top.
This is a disastrous plan for the country.
I loved the Celtic Tiger - oh, sure, the arrogance of a small country that has suddenly got rich was embarrassing, but that would have passed. But I spent the Tiger years doing interviews for business magazines, mostly talking to tech entrepreneurs.
I loved it when someone running a company said "My dad was a trucker, my mam cleaned houses. But when the free education came in I was able to stay in school, and I turned out to have a real gift for programming and management."
This is something that was seldom heard in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s or 1980s. Then, if your family was poor, you stayed poor. Because poverty smothers creativity. Poor people don't have the leisure or sense of relaxation - or the sense of ultimate possibility - that allows their children to dream, and to have the facilities to fulfil their dream.
I was in a suburb last night, an area that used to be dodgy when I was growing up. During the Tiger, it was gentrified, and the remains of this still show, in some beleaguered streets with gardens of penstemons and ceanothus and irises. But the sense of terror has returned. Turn a corner and the next street is filthy, with a group of teenagers jeering at the bus stop, a line of takeaways, and - I jumped to one side to avoid it - a syringe with blood clotted in the mouth lying on the street.
A wide division in salaries creates resentment and a dull anger that stops people working. "If that talentless swine is paid €300,000 a year and I'm paid €80 a shift, why should I bother working," people think. Even if they do work hard, out of pride in their trade, their simmering fury poisons the workplace.
(Even in the Celtic Tiger years, exploitation was rife, and not always at the bottom: for instance, one newspaper bare-facedly paid its casual sub-editors as "suppliers" to avoid PRSI and tax.)
In societies where incomes are relatively equal, there is not this resentment. You're valued for your skill rather than your earnings.
Ireland needs MABS thinking, but at the moment, the government is obeying the moneylenders' every instruction. If we look forward 20 years, what kind of country do we want?
The ECB and the IMF would like a privatised state run by capital for capital, with money as the motivator for all work.
I would prefer a country with relatively level salaries, where the bus driver takes enormous pride in his job, as does the surgeon and the childminder - and it's pride in the job itself, because the money is not an issue: because we all earn enough to live well.
Surely it's time for the government to take the MABS approach?