Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Jonathan Coe "Expo 58"

There are, in hindsight, some things that are strange enough to be true. It may come as a surprise to learn that thirty years before Expo 88 transformed Brisbane from oversized  country town to notionally cosmopolitan city something similar was going on in the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels.

Younger readers will probably find some of the world Coe portrays here quaint, but having lived through the Anglophile Australian suburbia of the fifties a few things here that cut pretty close to the quick.

The plot line is fairly straightforward exercise in innocent abroad set against a Cold War backdrop that will probably appear surreal to those who weren’t in the vicinity at the time.

On the eve of the 11th World’s Fair in Belgium, the first to be held since the Second World War, where the intention is to show off international achievements in arts, science and technology, and develop a genuine unity of mankind, the heads of the British Civil Service are looking for the best way to demonstrate the essence of Britishness.

There’s a rather accurate skewering of the official mindset in an introductory scene where one of the head honchos in Whitehall suggests a military tattoo, and it looks like a history of the water closet will be one of the centrepieces of the British pavilion.

The actual centrepiece, however, is the imitation English pub called The Britannia, complete with a landlord who is inclined to indulge himself in the merchandise. It is, however, a Government operation, and will need a government man to supervise things, which brings us to our protagonist, Thomas Foley, thirty-two year old copywriter for the Central Office of Information.

You and I might think a man whose main gig is writing pamphlets advising people how to cross the road safely isn’t likely to be the man for this particular task, but there are two factors that seemingly make him eminently suitable for the position. Foley’s father was a publican, and his mother is Belgian. Game, set and total match for the position.

Foley comes across as a thoroughly decent chap, handsome but unaware of it, aware the opportunity he’s been presented with should be good for his career, but not quite enthused by having to leave his wife Sylvia and infant daughter Gill behind in suburban Tooting.

Part of that unease is due to the fact that his intrusive next door neighbour Norman Sparks seems keen to be sniffing around the missus in his absence.

Prior to departure Foley is approached and assessed by Mr Wayne and Mr Radford, a pair of intelligence agents who make a habit of popping out of the woodwork from time to time as the plot develops. They’re a sort of cross-talking music hall Greek chorus, dropping by with news and observations every time the espionage-driven side of the plot takes a new turn.

Not that the spy side of the deal is immediately obvious. Foley arrives in Brussels to be met by the alluring Anneke, the pretty young Expo hostess who seems to be laid on as potential bed bait. He’s also smitten by the Expo site itself, by the gigantic structure called the Atomium, the 100-metre representation of an iron atom that supposedly symbolises the connectedness of nations and by the futuristic architecture scattered across the landscape.

At that point,  it’s obvious that Foley’s suburban British existence is about to be shattered by a combination of erotic opportunity and modernity, and it’s difficult to criticise him if he’s inclined to take advantage of the opportunity. Once he’s caught up in the day to day glamour of Expo he’s going to become alienated from the realities of suburban existence, The intermittent correspondence between home and semi-innocent abroad grows increasingly distant as he begins to suspect his wife is having it off with the neighbour.

The letters do, however, contain a degree of humour as he points out some of the little absurdities he observes. The platinum blonde barmaid who fortuitously turns up at The Britannia rejoices in the name of Shirley Knott, but turns out to be something other than what she appears to be. There’s a visit from the Fifth European Congress on Fluoridisation and Prevention of Dental Decay where a delegate breaks a tooth on the crust of a pork pie and a delegate from the World Congress on the Prevention of Accidents falls down the stairs.

What doesn’t get mentioned is Foley’s increasing attraction to Anneke, and the imbroglio that follows the disappearance of Foley’s roommate, who disappears after the star in Britain's scientific crown, the ZETA nuclear fusion programme, turns out to be a dud.

His roommate in Cabin 419 at Motel Expo Wemmel, Tony Buttress, is on site in connection with the ZETA machine, and goes when it goes, which presents a problem. He’s been seeing quite a bit of American Emily Parker, an out of work actress from Wisconsin who has landed a gig in the American pavilion to demonstrating the virtues of the vacuum cleaner and similar labour saving devices.

With Buttress gone, the jovial Russian handsome; almost dangerously so pseudo-journalist Andrey Chersky who had been befriending Foley in a supposed attempt to improve his English language magazine (predictably, Sputnik) starts sniffing around the apparently impressionable Emily.

The complication in that department comes wit the news that Emily’s alleged father is a leading American nuclear physicist, and there’ll be hell to pay if she defects. On that basis,  Foley is persuaded to turn his attentions directly towards the American.

A weekend visit home delivers what appears to be confirmation of his wife’s affair with the neighbour, and from there on we’re in spoiler territory.

There are a couple of twists and turns before Foley’s job at The Britannia is finished, a return home and a quick zip through a couple of decades before a final chapter that ties most of the strings together.

As a spy story, Expo 59 almost works, and the whole affair is painted in a style that evokes the late fifties rather well. There’s a definite dash of Wodehouse, a twist of The Mouse That Roared, and enough ironic snippets scattered through the narrative to satisfy the train spotters.

I hadn’t read anything by Jonathan Coe before and based on the author’s affinity with Canterbury progressive rock I suspect I’ll be digging into his work a little further. Anyone who can name a novel after a Hatfield & The North album (The Rotters Club) has to be worth further investigation.

Garry Disher "Bitter Wash Road"

With Wyatt seemingly taking time out to recuperate and plan his next job and Hal Challis and Ellen Destry on hiatus it’s good to know Garry Disher is still churning out quality fiction.

I’ve tended to stick to a series once I find one I like, and both the above mentioned are right up there with the best of them, but based on what I read here I was straight out chasing other titles.

I couldn’t find Play Abandoned in iBooks or Kindle, so it’s off to the Libraries to chase them up, but Two-way Cut has duly been downloaded and added to the Read These list. The problem, based on the Bitter Wash Road experience, is that I’m likely to sit down to it one afternoon, have it finished before I go to bed that night and be up in the morning looking for another helping of tautly written, immaculately plotted quality crime fiction.

Set in the isolated South Australian wheat belt, an hour or so north of Clare, Bitter Wash Road runs with a fairly limited focus through the eyes of Constable Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen, a former Adelaide detective who has been returned to the uniformed branch and exiled to a one-man police station in the middle of nowhere in the wake of a corruption scandal. He’s a city cop pushed into a country lifestyle where his colleagues have their own way of running things and regard him, thanks to his involvement n the corruption case, as a whistleblower, dog, and maggot.

As things turn out, rather than being a whistleblower committed to justice Hirsch is a decent bloke who has chosen not to do the wrong thing, been caught on the edge of the investigation, which is ongoing through the plot line and adds a further degree of tension, and is being made to pay in much the same way as he would have been if he’d turned the wrongdoers in himself.

That’s a distinction his small town colleagues aren’t inclined to make, so things work out the same regardless of whether he actually blew the whistle.

Three hours north of Adelaide, Tiverton is a town south of the Flinders Range that’s doing it tough. Forty kilometres closer to the capital, Redruth is slightly larger and boasts a three man one woman police operation with Hirsch’s boss Sergeant Kropp and his male offsiders having carved themselves a nice comfortable niche, going about what they see as their duty with the casual arrogance of people who know and get on with everyone who matters.

The rest of the population, ground down by isolation, lack of opportunity and shrinking incomes won’t get in the way,

Or rather, they won’t, if they know what’s good for them.

It’s a community of haves and have nots, and if you’re one of the latter you don’t want a ticket for speeding, driving under the influence or (believe it or not) jaywalking.

At the start of the story, Hirsch is despatched to investigate gunshots that have been heard just out of Tiverton. He finds the culprits in the shape of a couple of bored kids taking potshots at jam tins with a .22, and is then redirected to the scene of what appears to be a hit and run on a back country road.

Teenager Melia Donovan is the victim, and as far as his colleagues are concerned it’s a clear case with an obvious explanation and enough time elapsed to make it impossible to track down a culprit. Hirsch, however, digs around, comes up with question marks, but is frustrated by the way crime scenes and associated evidence have been treated.

It’s much the same story when Alison Latimer, who has recently left her abusive husband and is seeking a divorce is found dead, in a location she detested in an apparent suicide. Hirsch has his doubts, but before he can do anything the scene, and her estranged husband’s homestead are rendered useless for anything approaching accurate forensic science.

But there’s enough there to keep Hirsch sniffing away, regardless of the hostility surrounding him, and he ongoing corruption investigation, with the internal investigations crowd determined to pin something on him and any number of disgruntled colleagues who’d be only too happy to assist in the attempt.

And, in the background, there are ongoing concerns regarding the overwrought media coverage of a couple of thrill killers roaming the outback in a black Chrysler station wagon.

As the narrative unfolds what looks on the surface like an exercise in low level small town corruption turns into an investigation with implications considerably higher up the pecking order and the picture becomes increasingly disturbing as the layers are peeled back.

Disher is a class act, and his books invariably exhibit strong plot lines, a diverse cast of characters who are rarely what they seem and enough twists and turns to keep the reader turning the pages.

Which, of course, is why I finished this one so quickly, and why I was out earlier this morning looking for more.

Hirsch’s situation might not be the sort of thing that can be parlayed into a series, but there’s definite potential there. The character and Disher’s narrative approach, which limits things to what you can see through his eyes have definite possibilities.