You know the feeling. You’re reading a book, totally absorbed in the writer’s world, you suddenly realise there are only a few pages left, character-separation angst starts to hit, panic sets in– and then you remember – hey, there’s a Book 2! And 3. And 4 , and…(anyone interested in veering off course for a minute, this link gives some statistics, there’s one series called Longarm (no, I’d never heard of it either, but it’s a successful adult western series), which has 370 books and is still going. 370 books!!!)
My respect for such writers has increased mightily this year, having finally put to bed Villa Julia, the last book in my own series, (still on revision loop). There is now a poster on the wall saying ‘NEVER TRY TO WRITE A SERIES AGAIN.’ How do they do it, these people? Keeping a host of characters on simultaneous simmer, remembering all the personal trivia so essential for continuity (‘Anouk was wearing her signature perfume, Diorissimo…’ wait, was it Diorissimo? Miss Dior? Arpège? ‘His hand was trembling as he poured himself a hefty shot of his favourite…his favourite…’ Laphroaig? Glenfiddich? Where are my notes?) while forging ahead with other matters, like writing the damned story. Authors like George R.R. Martin must have computers in their heads the size of Deep Blue. Either that or a wall covered in a million post its. But I digress. Back to the two authors who inspire today’s piece.
Being an equal opportunity writer I’ll start with the gent. As blog readers will know I have a bit of a soft spot for Private Investigators. December 2015’s blog was in praise of three terrific Indie authors– John Dolan, Matt Abraham and Mike Faricy– who have invented very different but equally unforgettable sleuths. It’s not yet got to the point where there’s a blow-up doll in a corner of the study wearing a trilby and a trench coat, but it’s close. So when I was trawling the ‘thriller/hard-boiled’ category of Amazon e-books this year and glimpsed a hunched silhouette smoking endless packs of cigarettes on a tiny balcony in 1947 Tel Aviv, I just knew I had to find out more.
Meet the man with the haunted green eyes, the aptly named Adam Lapid. Distinguishing features: Hungarian ex-cop, chain smoker, caffeine addict, reader of Westerns, solitary chess player. Hero of the Israeli army, assassin of Nazi torturers. Also, unlike his wife and two daughters, Auschwitz survivor. He’s the archetypal 6ft 3-inch tough guy, but one who closes his window at night so the neighbours don’t hear his nightmare-induced screams. Those green eyes have seen the worst of human nature, leaving him a man obsessed, driven by a desire for vengeance. Starting a new life in a new country as a private investigator, his mission now is to help those in despair, those who have suffered loss, those who seek justice. A mother looking for a long-lost child, a man trying to find his sister’s killer, former inmates of concentration camps apparently driven to suicide…Working his different cases, Adam struggles to keep himself in the land of the living. His day-to-day life is a battle with recurrent nightmares, bouts of dizziness and disorientation and, worst of all, terrifying ‘hunger attacks’, a residue from his time in the camp, sending send him into uncontrollable ‘bestial trances’ where he crams himself with food like a starving animal.
His lifestyle gives new meaning to the terms ‘minimalist’ and ‘no frills’. In his tiny third-floor apartment on Hamacabbi Street is a battered bed, a set of mismatched furniture and a wardrobe containing four shirts, three pairs of trousers, a jacket, a coat and two pairs of shoes. In his kitchen are four plates, two soup bowls, two cups and a pan missing a handle. Oh, and a packet of margarine, some black bread and a tin of sardines. He does his job the old- school way, the only way, pounding the streets of the city, knocking on doors, calling in favours from his detective friend Reuben, travelling to far-flung desert towns on trundling buses, checking hotel registers, interviewing neighbours and employers, placing calls from drugstore phones, observing crime scenes, making notes, doggedly hunting down predators, sadists, torturers, the frightening inhabitants of the Tel Aviv underworld.
Contrasting with this starkness is the clamour, vibrancy and excess of his adoptive city. Tel Aviv takes on a shape, a smell, a feel, becomes real enough to touch. The scorching heat of summer, the lashing storms of winter, the inky, star-studded night sky; the crowded streets where all is noise and tumult, voices speaking in a ‘cocktail of languages and dialects and accents’, the blare of car horns, the cries of watermelon vendors, the clip-clop of horses and carts, the cacophony of radios and gramophones coming through open windows. The humid air is saturated with smells, landladies frying onions, street vendors selling sausages, housewives baking rugelach, the briny odour of the nearby sea. This is a café society, not the chic cafes of Paris or Rome with their gold-rimmed tables set elegantly under striped awnings, but dark, smoky places serving up whatever food can be got with rations or on the black market, goulash, chicken soup, powdered eggs. They are places where workers go to eat, where customers ‘starving for their lost families and their memories for culture’ gather to reminisce, to listen to music like that of the violinist of Auschwitz at the Café Budapest, taking his listeners ‘to another time and place’, drawing such emotion from his instrument that clients weep openly and Adam’s heart hammers in his ears.
It is in one such café that Adam has his unofficial office and second home, Greta’s café. Here reigns the eponymous owner, big-boned, big-bosomed, big-hearted. In a series full of characters as vividly portrayed as those in a Dickens bestiary, Greta stands out. She appears in every book, solid and steadfast as a rock in the torrent of Adam’s life, his loyal friend, spiritual mother, confidante and moral compass. It’s here that our anti-hero can drink the best coffee in Tel Aviv, beat himself at chess and, as night falls and the customers depart, take a seat opposite Greta. From the darkness of Allenby Street, the two of them can be glimpsed through the lighted window, figures in a Hopper painting, talking about the news and the weather, discussing Adam’s latest case, reflecting on life, on loss, on love.
Ah, l’amour, l’amour…Adam’s terrible grief at losing his family has prevented him from moving on emotionally, finding someone else to love, to build a future with. It has enabled him to resist the women Dunsky throws in his path– long-limbed athletic warriors, soft, rosy-lipped widows. All of them except one. Sima Vaaknin is another stand-out character, an unforgettable, double-barrelled, double-capitalled Femme Fatale. Her seductive beauty, mysterious allure, troubled past and unfathomable soul draw Adam to her scented boudoir like a moth drawn to a flame. ‘She was the ultimate temptation, a woman no man should be able to resist.’ Only in her arms can Adam forget for a moment the ghosts of his dead wife and daughters. The two damaged characters enter into a tension-ridden relationship which becomes increasingly troubling, ambiguous and unpredictable as the series progresses.
Dunsky is a bold, unafraid writer. With seemingly effortless ease he switches between passages of highly-coloured emotional and psychological intensity and black and white cinematic actions scenes featuring anything from good old Philip Marlowe style punch ups to shocking violence. The series combines elements of vintage noir– sharp dialogue, pounding rhythm, high-octane suspense– with bigger themes, treated in a more passionate, dramatic style. Historical notes–the memory of the Holocaust, the birth of Israel– are an essential backdrop to the action taking place centre stage.
It’s thrilling, intoxicating stuff. So far the series has four books, but scanning the comments from readers, I am not the only one eagerly awaiting more. Checking out the author’s Facebook page yesterday I read that Adam will be back in a Book 5, 6, and maybe 7…Will he get as far as Book 370? Who knows. Although Adam doesn’t mention Longarm, we do know that he is a fan of Clarence Mulford, creator of the Hopalong Cassidy westerns, of which he wrote 27…
From the past to the future. From 1940s Tel Aviv we boldly go to 2024 and a small seaside town on a small island just off the Continent. This is the UK, but definitely not as we know it. Tipping Point, Terry Tyler’s first book of three in the Project Renova series, certainly starts out looking very familiar and Bill Brysonish. We’re in Shipden, on the Norfolk coast, where, in a pretty house overlooking the sea, live Vicky, her daughter Lottie and a rather dodgy boyfriend called Dex, one of those silly conspiracy theorist types who’s always banging on about government plots. The band is playing, folks are socialising and drinking pints in pub gardens, eating ice-creams and flippin’ the burgers in the back garden. It’s all so normal.
But hang on, why is the hair on the nape of our necks starting to prickle? What are those funny-looking clouds up in the innocent blue sky that look a bit like mushrooms? What’s this tummy bug that’s going around? There’s not a ripple on the sea, so why are we getting the distinct feeling there’s something out there, a Mega-Jaws tunnelling through the murky deep and heading straight for the whitewashed cottage? The unease builds, the pace accelerates and with unnerving speed the oh-so-normal degenerates into ghastly nightmare. The tipping point has been reached. Society breaks down and the world we believe in is turned on its head.
It’s a wonderful opening by a masterly writer. The series is listed on Amazon as ‘science fiction/dystopian/post-apocalyptic’. Again, readers of this blog will know this is largely unchartered territory for me. I’ve had a bit of a dabble in Asimov, flicked through some Philip K Dick, but anyone visiting our house and looking at the two ‘libraries’ would immediately spot the difference between His and Hers.
So why did I start Tipping Point, read it non-stop, grab Book 2, gallop to the end, then grab Book 3?
It began with a Twitter discussion in spring this year with readers raving about the series and pointing out what had just happened in the UK with the Cambridge Analytica revelations. My views on the digital revolution can be described in two words, delight and horror. The horror reflex had me changing all my passwords and sticking a post it over the computer camera in the wake of Cambridge Analytica. Whew, safe! But I thought I’d have a look at what Terry Tyler had to say in fictional form about data collection and its use by faceless organisations.
First, this series contains no robots, no aliens bursting out of people’s stomachs, no little green men landing at the bottom of the garden and (despite the author’s avowed predilection for The Walking Dead) no flesh-eating zombies crashing through the living room windows. There are just people, terrifying people, unbelievable-yet-all-too-believable people. People behind the latest social networking site, Private Life, who, unknown to its innocent subscribers, have come up with an idea called ‘targeted depopulation’, a vision of a new world order in which some members of society are not only less equal than others but are simply disposable, like razor blades or Tampax. It’s like Hannibal Lecter, smiling his smile and waving ‘Ta Ta’. It’s the Orwellian type of science fiction, the stuff that can get you, like Adam Lapid, remembering the horrors of the past and screaming in your sleep at night. But this time the baddies have a Super-Weapon, the good old Internet, already comfortably installed in most people’s homes, just waiting to betray them, allowing the self-appointed elite to choose who to save and who to kill off when they unleash–wait for it–Super-Weapon 2, a deadly virus (no guesses as to who’s got the vaccine.)
Conspiracy theorists have come in for their share of mockery in which I have often joined. But the laughter soon stops as we’re caught up with Vicky and Lottie, facing a world where the water’s gone off, the electricity’s gone off, the phone, TV and radio have all stopped working, the service stations have run out of petrol, the supermarkets are running out of everything and the neighbours are dying horrible deaths. Terry Tyler doesn’t proselytise or preach, she doesn’t get all hysterical and loud-pedal the exclamation marks, she is, quite simply, a brilliant story-teller who knows just what elements of description have most impact, just how manage the rhythm, upping the pace here, slowing it there, adding a touch of humour, a bit of optimism to lull and soothe, then scaring us to death with a spine-chilling baddie jumping out of the pages like a nightmare-jack-in-the-box. It all drips on the psyche like a form of Chinese water torture so that in the end you are totally convinced that this is a future which is definitely possible, and even worse, just around the corner. Like in 2024.
Throughout the series there are beautiful evocations of the world of ‘before’ which now seems so idyllic; pastoral landscapes symbolic of all that is familiar, safe and grounded in a country that hasn’t been invaded since 1066. You can almost see the haystacks and the millrace and the muslin-frocked damsels. These landscapes are now changing, becoming ruined, ravaged, despoiled by marauding gangs. We see them through the eyes of Vicky, our narrator and, as with Adam Lapid, we swiftly empathise with her as a character, sharing her fears, her disbelief, her hopelessness, her moments of fleeting happiness. From the beginning we are drawn into her world, where she and Lottie struggle to come to terms with an unthinkable truth, the realisation they must first escape the picture-perfect village where the death toll mounts, then try to reach ‘the safe house’ which has been organised by the not-so-stupid-after-all Dex. The difficulties and dangers they encounter, the glimmers of hope followed by despair as groups form and splinter, as odds are overcome and new ones arise, all make enthralling reading.
As each book ends, it’s impossible to resist the lure to find out what happens next. When the group arrives at the island of Lindisfarne and relative safety, different characters are added to the cast and different challenges, both practical and psychological, must be faced. The narrative viewpoint shifts and voices vary, giving added texture and richness to the bigger picture, reminding us yet again of how skilled this author is, how in command of plot and character development. The worst has been avoided, it seems, but has it? The human animal is a complex and unpredictable creature, as Tyler shows us so convincingly; difficulties arise as individual differences clash with the interests of the group as a whole, and as members of the fledgling community begin to realise just how hard it is to establish ‘a society of free and equal human beings’ while sustaining notions such as civilisation and democracy in extreme circumstances.
The third and final book so far is set two years after the first. Without revealing too much, let me just say that UK2 (my favourite book in the series) gives us a closer look at what’s going on with the masters in the south and their promised paradise; the tension, amazingly, rachets up even further; a bit of karmic come-uppance is satisfyingly doled out, and two secondary characters move heroically to centre stage.
The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, fascism and stalinism, sought to establish ‘slave empires’ (to borrow Orwell’s expression) where some were oppressors and others oppressed and where dissent and difference was punishable by death. In the Lapid series, we see a world emerging from six years of unspeakable horror, but where the fascist regimes of the thirties and forties have finally been overthrown and where a cautious spirit of optimism is in the air. Project Renova gives us the opposite, the disintegration of the relatively stable and democratic world we have come to take for granted in the west over the last seventy years, and the rise of a new form of totalitarianism controlled by an elite with the technological means to monitor the most intimate details of our lives, deprive us of our freedoms, and order society as they wish. But Book 3, UK2, reminds us also that humans are capable of extraordinary resilience in the face of adversity, and that history has many times shown us, to quote that great master, Victor Hugo, that ‘même la nuit la plus sombre prendra fin et le soleil se levera’. Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.
Will it? And how much more will the group have to endure before they see the first of those golden rays? To all Terry Tyler fans, I bring glad tidings. The Epilogue in Book 3 is not really The End. There WILL be a Book 4, as Kendall Reviews confirmed in a recent interview. Whew! .
Happy hard-boiled, post-apocalyptic reading to one and all and have a great literary weekend!
PS For anyone courageous enough to have read this blog to the end, a reward awaits: Biarritz Passion is FREE to download for three days 6,7 and 8 October! (Yes, I know you’d have preferred a £50 Marks and Spencer gift voucher. We do what we can.)