Paperbacks: A Light-Hearted Look at Murder<br />A Pretty Face<br />Planet of Slums<br />The Third Heaven Conspiracy<br />Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus

Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski
Sunday 26 August 2007 00:00

A Light-Hearted Look at Murder, by Mark Watson (Chatto £11.99)

Alexandra works at a company making TV documentaries presented by ex-Olympic athletes. Since unsuccessfully proposing to her boyfriend via a radio show she's lived in a state of emotional hibernation with her wealthy but morally bankrupt brother and his obnoxious friend Gareth.

Chancing on an ad for an organisation called WriteToAConvict she decides to broaden her horizons by exchanging letters with a prisoner. Among the list of potential correspondents is a character called Andreas who describes himself as "German-born, university educated, introspective, melancholic, erudite. Jailed after a series of events too freakish and appalling to recount". He stands out enough for Alex to choose him and ends up sending her a manuscript, from which she discovers the freakish series of events Andreas referred to began thus: "Hitler moustaches are not popular in Germany as novelty items, but it is nonetheless with one of these articles that everything started".

As a friendless postgraduate student at Cambridge in the 1980s Andreas soon learned his uncanny Hitler impersonations made him popular. After falling in love with one of Britain's tallest women he launched a lookalike agency with himself as the star act. Unfortunately it wasn't long before his brother's far-right politics and an awareness he was living with someone others regarded as a freak played havoc with his conscience. His subsequent slide towards disaster is simultaneously heartbreaking and, like the rest of the novel, darkly amusing.

Watson is a gifted comic writer unafraid to juggle material many novelists wouldn't touch. Some of the book's coincidences and strokes of luck are a little hard to stomach; but they're forgivable in such an intelligent, humane and desperately funny tale.

A Pretty Face, by Rafael Reig (Serpent's Tail £8.99)

Maria Dolores is Spanish and frequently complemented on her "pretty face" – there isn't really much else for people to mention. Living in a re-imagined version of the very recent past she's one of the "terminal generation": Spain has been invaded by, and become part of, the United States; the world has run out of oil and Anglo has become the official language – people only dream in Spanish. The poor live in fear of being used by genetic engineers to develop a drug designed to conquer death.

Maria has also been murdered and Reig's wonderfully absurd little existential novel follows her progress as a spectator to the aftermath of her death. Invisible and intangible (a state not too far removed from the way she'd felt for most of her life), accompanied by a one-eyed teenage character from her series of successful children's novels, she enlists the services of Clot, a heavy drinking private eye, and tries to track down her killer.

If there's a problem with this novel it is Paul Hammond's translation. For a book that purports to examine the inauthentic nature of existence it's a shame there's occasionally a synthetic feel to the prose.

Planet of Slums, by Mike Davis (Verso £8.99)

At some point in the very near future a child will be born in one of the world's cities and, for the first time, the world's urban population will outnumber its rural one. Remarkable as that sounds, given the concentration of people living in a small area that it implies, it's the short period of time in which the growth has occurred that is most arresting. The population of Lagos, for example, has expanded from 300,000 in 1950 to 13.5 million today; a Congoloese diamond trading centre called Mbuji-Mayi has grown from a town of 25,000 inhabitants in 1960 to one of now 2 million.

Alongside this growth there's been a blurring of what is urban and what is rural. According to anthropologist Magdalena Nock, globalisation has "increased the movement of people, goods, services, information, news, products, and money and thereby the presence of urban characteristics in rural areas and of rural traits in urban centres". Whole regions have urbanised as cities expand along corridors of communication, creating slum areas housing a new urban proletariat cut off from the global economy. Davis concludes that it's a recipe for catastrophe.

The Third Heaven Conspiracy, by Giulio Leoni (Vintage £6.99)

In 1300 the poet Dante Alighieri became prior of Florence. He was exiled a couple of years later, but author Leoni here uses the brief period of savage intrigue when the poet was in office as the basis for a learned medieval thriller.

Things set off at a cracking pace with the Saracen destruction of Acre in 1291. Nine years later, shortly after his investiture as prior, Dante is called to the scene of a grotesque murder at a church being converted into a university. A man has been found suffocated, his head encased in quicklime. Dante becomes convinced that the murderer must come from one of the group of men destined to govern the university and, picking his way through much Renaissance backstabbing, learns of a secret organisation called the Third Heaven with dubious links to the Pope.

While Dante lovers will enjoy spotting references to his writing, other readers may find their enjoyment curtailed by dialogue as flat as the Fens, a slow-moving middle section and a pompous protagonist.

Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus, by Alex Halberstadt (Cape £14.99)

Jerome Felder was the son of middle-class Jewish parents but, aged seven, he contracted polio and all dreams of a normal future for him evaporated. Isolated from other children, he turned to music as a way of socialising and started to learn the saxophone. But again disaster struck: his hand was shattered during a snowball fight. Determined to express himself through music Jerome began to sing. It wasn't so hard; he'd developed a powerful voice yelling for his mother during all of the time he'd been confined to bed. Felder, or Doc Pomus as he came to be called, ended up singing alongside the great black blues singers of the 1950s, before forming one of the most successful songwriting partnerships of all time with Mort Shuman.

This biography draws on Pomus's own extensive journals. Perhaps Halberstadt isn't the worst intermediary, but there's an earnest tone to the project that inevitably starts to grate. Compare it to a book like John Szwed's biography of Miles Davis, So What; it feels tacky and sentimental.

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