The Week in Books
Boyd Tonkin: Is the etiquette of spoiler-avoidance a crime against critical standards?
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Friday 23 November 2012
Spoiler alert: this column not only discloses crucial details about the denouement of Ian Rankin's latest novel. It identifies the murderer in Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap - now celebrating its 60th birthday on the West End stage. So, if you genuinely care enough, au revoir and hasta la vista.
Those of you still here might wish to ponder the curious etiquette of spoiler-avoidance. Some readers and viewers do, I know, bitterly resent the pre-emptive leaking of carefully-laid traps and twists. I first discovered the vehemence of the thwarted punter when I unwisely ran a piece that revealed the big surprise in Neil Jordan's film The Crying Game, which is of course that… No: if you haven't, watch it soon. Since then, the explosion in critical blogs and social-media commentary has, in the fast-evolving way of net culture, led to fierce protocols about the safeguarding of narrative secrecy and exposed offenders to all the ignominy of the online pillory.
I understand the rules and why people think they count. All the same, I fear that - especially in crime fiction - the routine shielding of vital information has served to inhibit open discussion and lower critical standards. And beyond the chilling effect of such Sicilian-style omerta on reviews, we should remember that - according to loftier criteria - any work's dependence on suspense and surprise might mark it as second-rate. Art at the highest level can tell the best-known stories again and still make them thrillingly new. Look at Hilary Mantel.
Crime fans will know that, with Standing in Another Man's Grave (Orion, £18.99), Ian Rankin revives Inspector Rebus. Unlike Conan Doyle with the post-Reichenbach Falls Sherlock Holmes, he doesn't have to resurrect the gritty sleuth but merely haul him out of retirement and attach him as a civilian adviser to the cold-case unit in Edinburgh. As a meditation on ageing, loneliness and the experience of seeing your solid world swept away by youth and time, the novel boasts all the bittersweet melancholy that we know that Rankin can command.
It's especially astute on new technology as an index of social change and personal redundancy. In the age of Twitter, Rebus - a vinyl veteran in a download world - finds that "everyone's a reporter these days". Even decisive clues about the location of a series of slowly-unearthed murders - amid the raw beauty of the Highland coast - come via pictures preserved on the victims' mobile phones. Spooked by a digital revolution both in the investigation of crime and its representation ("the internet's killing us," laments a journalist), Rebus gets out of the city. Along the murder-haunted A9 road, the townie cop acquires a new taste for the continuities of the landscape, "a world unchanged and unchanging".
Yet Rankin is still putting his name to police procedurals. And here Standing in Another Man's Grave either betrays, or overtakes, its genre. For the serial killer we belatedly meet has no relation to the body of the action and serves as a plot-finishing cipher. This hole in the book's heart should surely form part of any judgment. Yet other strongly written strands - above all, the Godfather-like familial rivalry between a mobster boss and his hi-tech young lieutenant - leave us hungry for more. In future, might Rankin simply keep the police but axe the procedure?
With Rankin, texture and ambience not only flesh out but even replace plot-twists. For Christie (and this was her genius), only the skeleton of suspense truly mattered. Hence the antique yarn about London cab drivers' revenge when tourists get out at the theatre where The Mousetrap plays but fail to leave a tip. With a cheery wave, the cabbie drives off while bellowing "The detective did it!"
A high-altitude Booker may kill its rival off the infant 'Literature Prize'
Robert Macfarlane's appointment as chair of the next Man Booker Prize raises the question of how the rival "Literature Prize" can ever leave the ground. Proposals for a proudly highbrow alternative to the Booker surfaced last year after the bungling populism of Stella Rimington's crew. This year, Peter Stothard restored the literary clout of the brand, as he was meant to do. Writer, critic, climber, academic, Macfarlane will keep things serious. The window for a smart new pretender seems to be closing fast.
Should Michael Gove run libraries?
Could the man (and woman) from Whitehall save our libraries? Jeanette Winterson, in a lecture for The Reading Agency, made headlines when she called for back-taxes levied on Google, Amazon et al to sustain the threatened service. We wish. Further from fiction was her idea that library funds could fall within the education budget. "Libraries and literacy cannot be separated. I don't see how this can be classed as 'leisure' nor... how we have a choice between getting our bins emptied and putting cash into libraries."
In these Gove-ish days, such a transfer would probably mean a power-grab by the centre. Worse than today's municipal mess? As it happens, we now at last have a single named government adviser on library policy: Yinnon Ezra, former head of Hampshire libraries. By all accounts, Ezra's a firm localist. Still, desperate times can call forth desperate measures.
This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of The Independent's Radar magazine
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