Just back from a sunny, Aperol-soaked week in Venice. In between the Biennale action I borrowed this Patricia Highsmith book from the apartment we stayed in and managed to read it all in one sitting while working on my tan at the Lido - score.
Those Who Walk Away is a bit of a tribute to Venice and the story is undeniably mysterious and compelling, so was the perfect holiday reading. It has all the rich-Americans-in-Europe glamour of The Talented Mr Ripley, and the setting of eerie narrow streets and swanky hotels is brilliantly evoked, but the core of the story felt weirdly unbalanced somehow. After the suicide of his young wife Peggy, Ray, an American art dealer, pursues his father-in-law Coleman from Mallorca to Rome to Venice, trying to convince him of his innocence in Peggy’s death. But Coleman - a sort of unhinged artist who, in my mind, looks exactly like John Goodman - is deranged with grief and tries to kill Ray, first by shooting him, then shoving him into the freezing Giudecca Canal - and yet Ray continues following Coleman around.
The claustrophobic setting is an amazing backdrop to this rather odd cat-and-mouse story of grief and revenge, but I found myself wondering the whole time why Ray didn’t just drop it and go home. There was a purposelessness to Ray’s character that just didn’t quite seem convincing – his actions, supposedly motivated by a desire to clear his name, all seemed a little half-baked. That said, I still enjoyed it hugely. Highsmith winds up the psychological tension with a perfectly steady hand and it’s a gripping read.
I’m in love with Belgravia Books, a brilliant independent bookshop in Ebury Street. It’s also home to Gallic Books, a publisher of French books translated into English, including the work of Pascal Garnier.
The A26 came out earlier this year, and it has an irresistible premise: a motorway, a murderer and a hermit coming together in a bleakly offbeat story set in a provincial town in Picardy. I won’t lie - the picture of a bulldozer on the front cover kind of drew me in too.
Garnier’s story begins with Yolande, a woman who’s refused to leave her house since 1945. Her brother, Bernard, is dying slowly from a terminal illness, and there’s a new motorway being built nearby: the A26.
As Bernard realises his days are numbered, he begins to act on his murderous tendencies. Garnier’s precise, spare prose style gives these scenes of roadside horror a surreal edge, as does Bernard’s rather laid-back and philosophical attitude towards the frailty of life and his victims:
'Vanessa, the motorcyclist, Jacqueline, all of them in the rear-view mirror, in one small piece of mirror which saw things back to front. A life wasn't very much, not much at all. Giving, taking away. It was so easy. Sometimes death spares people'.
At exactly 100 pages, The A26 is short and fast-moving, yet also rich in creepy descriptions of the siblings’ life together: the claustrophobia of their old house, Yolande’s manic and disgusting cooking habits. Theirs is a gloomy and unpredictable world, but Garnier’s bursts of black comedy prevent this book from feeling depressing. I loved it and can’t wait to read more of his books.
Pic: Tufty club safety sheet, c.1964, (c) Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents
I’m really looking forward to checking out the British Library’s new exhibition, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion, which just opened this weekend.
As well as historical materials it includes ‘everyday’ propaganda: banknotes, social media, and, um, the Tufty Road Safety Club (anyone else remember the board game? It was kind of like Snakes and Ladders in suburbia).
I’d like to think whoever owned this book before me motored across France for their holidays in St-Trop in a ridiculously glamorous and unpractical open-top car with this Michelin guide stashed in the glove compartment.
Buying out-of-date guide books is, of course, completely pointless behaviour, except when they’re as lovely as this one. It’s packed with gorgeous maps and in-depth listings of hundreds of restaurants and hotels across France, as well as illustrations of that loveable chubster, the Michelin Man.
If you love crime novels and have easy access to Euston Road, the British Library’s current exhibition, Murder in the Library: An A-Z of Crime Fiction, is well worth a look.
It’s a very brief but brilliant overview of the genre, featuring well-known and well-loved crime writers (Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Henning Mankell) as well as more surprising ones like Pele and Gypsy Rose Lee.
There are some fabulous rare old books on display, plus authors’ manuscripts, notebooks, and a heavily-doodled script from the film version of Murder on the Orient Express. It’s like entering a cabinet full of familiar police Inspectors, from Montalbano to Mr Whicher, and a lovely demonstration of the quirks and diversity of crime fiction.
Murder in the Library is open until 12 May 2013 at the British Library; admission is free.
I adore spy novels, especially if they’re by John Le Carré. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is one of my favourites. Set in London and East Germany, it depicts the spy’s life as one of reluctant ruthlessness, doubt and mundanity, with a ‘hero’ who’s at the mercy of the bureaucrats and is pretty much the opposite of James Bond.