Author Archives: Edward Colley

Revisiting the king of legal thrillers

John Grisham

John Grisham: past his best?

With no reading material before a long flight I picked up a John Grisham potboiler in the San Francisco airport without much enthusiasm. It was the mid 1990s, the book was The Pelican Brief and, to my surprise – because Grisham was being hyped all over the place then– I thoroughly enjoyed it, while being aware that possessing such a novel would cause several noses to be looked down.

As with wine and antiques’ circles, there are many snobs around in the book-reading world, though they would perhaps say they are simply more discerning readers. Each to his or her own; there’s no cause to sneer at Mills and Boon fans, for example – at least they’re reading.

And weren’t the majority of contemporary readers of Austen, Dickens, Doyle and Hardy simply popular fiction readers who liked a good tale well told? 

After I devoured The Pelican Brief, I proceeded to gobble up all of JG’s wordy legal thrillers. The Painted House ended the run; I hadn’t read the jacket notes. It was a rambling sentimental tale of bygone Americana. Where were the hotshot lawyers? Where were the big showcase trials?

Something changed with Grisham at that point. Maybe his publishers urged him to go in other directions, maybe he urged himself. 

Leaving the legal world behind – his specialist area – may have won a few fans but must have lost many more. And then even his courtroom-based output began to take a twee moralistic tone with humble downhome country folk fighting those ugly, hard-hearted corporations. I bailed out.

King of TortsBut a recent unexpected hospital stay in New Zealand brought me back. I had nothing but a dull Maigret novel with me when the mobile hospital library (a trolley loaded with about 80 books, about half by Dick Francis) made a welcome visit.

Two Grishams presented themselves – The Pelican Brief (natch) and The King of Torts. I chose Torts. I couldn’t remember if I’d read it before. Having completed it, I still can’t remember.

But one thing I did learn  – after an interval of about 10 years, I’m over JG.

The King of Torts is an entertaining tale but it’s flabby and overwritten. Grisham writes well in his genre but he suffers from verbosity. Back in the 90s I was entertained by the detailed  descriptions of luxury yachts, fast cars, lavish dinners and private planes. This time round I found myself skimming bits. Millions and billions of dollars piled up in various tort actions until the figures became simply symbolic.

And those tort cases were essentially like Hitchcock’s McGuffins – devices to drive an otherwise simple story, in this case a moral tale about greed and consequences, pride before a fall – a very old theme.

Grisham has legions of loyal fans. Anything with his name on it will sell. I’ll pass for a while but maybe one day, while idling in airport bookshop, I might pick up his latest paperback and feel the magical pull once again.

Kingsley Amis in virgin territory

Take a Girl Like YouAccording to the Wikipedia notes on Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis, the author takes great care to describe minutiae in much detail. Such meticulous description, we are told, gives rise to humour and brings ‘the world of the novel as close as possible to the physical world of the reader’.

Well possibly. I see the point – and it may work for some readers – but for me this approach delivers tedious and rather boring passages. I’m afraid I had to jump ship after some 70 pages (my absolute minimum litmus test). 

Amis tends to squeeze the pips out of a scene and then jump up and down on the pulp. The impression is of a writer rather over-pleased with his verbosity.

Of course, allowances have to be made for the passage of time. Amis was one the Angry Young Men on the British literary scene in the 1950s but he was 38 when this book was published in 1960 and times were changing. As Amis’ friend Philip Larkin remarked:

Sexual intercourse began in 1963 (which was rather late for me) between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.

The coy and knowing way in which Amis deals with sex in Take a Girl Like You (and it is a novel largely about sex, though without much actual sex) is slightly exasperating to the modern reader.

Like many modern readers, I am not held by ‘will she, won’t she?’ passages (unless, of course, they done well by the likes of Austen). My reaction after a dozen or so pages of attempted seduction is: ‘For God’s sake just get on with it or play cards’.

The story concerns a comely (is one still allowed to say ‘comely’?) Northern lass of 20 and her determination to hang on to her virginity until her wedding night. Jenny Bunn has moved to lodgings in a London suburb to begin teaching at a local school. Her comeliness does not go unnoticed and soon the wolves – one in particular – are circling.

Patrick Standish is the sort of stock Leslie Phillips-type character familiar to anyone who has watched those formulaic British comedy films of the 1950s and 60s (‘Ding dong! I say!’ whenever a pretty girl hoves into view; lots of drooling, eye-rolling and pitiful chat-up lines – that kind of thing.)

Kingsley Amis

Pursuit of a desirable female by such a character was regarded as a kind of hunting game; one in which the ‘prey’ really wanted be caught but insisted on a bit of chasing around the Mulberry bush  before melting in the arms of a macho charmer.

If the depictions were cringe-worthy in those days they are positively laughable now, as well as being insulting to both sexes.

I’m not getting into revisionist territory here. I appreciate that this novel was of its time and perhaps even then offered up stereotypes for comic effect. 

Comedies of manners from previous eras, satirising contemporary social mores, ridiculing conventions and so on, can still be entertaining to the modern reader (Austen, Dickens, Spark for example). But tales of the tedious sexless sex games of the 1950s have not travelled well, as this novel demonstrates.

My previous experience of Amis’ work is limited and mixed. Lucky Jim, his best-seller of the early 1950s, I found irritating, unfunny and dull while his 1980s Booker prize-winning The Old Devils is a masterwork which improves on re-reading.

Amis is regarded as one of the best authors of the 20th century and comes highly recommended by many writers whose opinion I respect. So I’m not giving up on old Kingsley just yet. I have several more of his novels lined up as well as a hefty biography.

But in the case of Take a Girl Like You, I’ll leave it thanks.

Life by Keith Richards #book review

I lead a gentleman’s life. Listen to Mozart, read many, many books. I’m a voracious reader. History, in  particular the British Navy, is my subject. The Nelson era and World War II are top of my list, but I do the ancient Romans too. I have a fine library furnished with these works, with dark wooden shelves reaching to the ceiling. This is where I hole up.

lifeThis is not perhaps how most people would picture the leisure days of one of rock and roll’s most famously debauched characters. Yet in his 2010 autobiography Life (there were surely more compelling title options than that!), Keith Richards comes across as a surprisingly erudite, intelligent and articulate individual. And yes, in his own way, he seems to be a gentleman – and a gentle man.

‘Surprisingly’ sounds condescending and perhaps a little naive – swallowing the druggie, dissolute showman image whole and not giving too much thought to the fact that that there is a person underneath this facade.

And this autobiography reveals a person who is thoughtful, perceptive, caring and seemingly completely without prejudices and the baggage of judgement. Naturally his background means that he is not a great respecter of ‘suits’ – the Establishment. The 75-year-old (67 when the book came out) has always been ready to ‘stick it to the man’ both in song, gesture, verbal exchange and – in previous years – in deed (he’s had a few punch-ups along the way and admits to habitually carrying a knife).

The writing style here is engaging. How much credit is due to the co-author James Fox is difficult to judge. The former Sunday Times journalist has been a friend of the rock star since the early 1970s and would certainly be able to bring an authentic authorial tone to the writing. But to me the voice (and certainly the view of life) belongs largely to the man himself. Fox is perhaps not so much ghosting and tidying up the prose – putting apostrophes where they should be and reworking sentences which lost their way.

First meeting with Jagger

We begin in 1940s Dartford, Kent, birthplace of Richards and a certain Mick Jagger. The family history background, often rather tedious in works such as these, is illuminating and entertaining. By sticking to the salient, Richards keeps the reader engaged. 

From a boyhood love of the guitar and hours of finger-bleeding practice, his story leads us through the famous railway station meeting with Jagger – where a profound affinity in musical taste is established – to the early days of playing for beer (or for nothing) in seedy clubs and grimy pubs. Band members come and go; Brian Jones appears and stays; Jagger and Richards really want a drummer called Charlie Watts and they manage to snare him; a bassist called Bill Perks completes the line-up under the name of Wyman.

Years of poverty (getting the deposit back on stolen beer bottles) in squalid houses and flats precede a sudden propulsion – under the management of Andrew Oldham – to modest fame, notoriety (urinating at the roadside) and ultimately world-dominating rock deity.

Keith Richards

The career-span of The Rolling Stones is unprecedented in the world of showbiz. In the 1989 documentary 25×5, Richards (then a mere 46 years old) said the band was travelling ‘without maps’. No other group had lasted that long; there was no model, no template to follow. Amazingly the Stones continue to tour to this day filling gigantic stadia the world over. They’ve gone from ‘Lock up your daughters’ through ‘Lock up your mums’ to ‘Lock up your grannies’ and still (replacing a guitarist or two) they rock on.

The rise-to-fame part of the story Richards tells without pretensions of grandeur. He knows the band is unique and very good at what they do. He doesn’t have to work the message. His engaging, chat-over-a-pint style is never affected. He is proud of his achievements but not boastful.

An unreliable narrator?

There is, however, a point in the book where Richards becomes less engaging and develops the feels of an unreliable narrator. For most of the 1970s he was catastrophically involved with drugs. Heroin, in particular, created turmoil in his life. Though he somehow managed to make the gigs and turn up in the recording studio, his life was formed around drugs and the necessity to have them available. It took several years, in and out of cold turkey, to free himself from smack. When he came round, it was the 80s.

It is in this passage of Life that Richards loses my good will. He complains about Jagger’s insistence on controlling the band and making the decisions – conveniently forgetting that for a decade he was more or less out of his wits and his band mate had stepped up to the mark to keep the show on the road. Until then Richards had always been the glue, keeping the best interests of the group at heart and pushing forward.

Though there had been some disagreements between the two before (an unavoidable clash of two massive egos) this was the start of a rift between the boyhood friends which endures to this day. Richards complains that Jagger became ‘a control freak’ but doesn’t acknowledge that there was probably good reason for Mick taking the reins – doubting, as he must have done, the mental capabilities of his junkie partner.

Earlier in the book Richards complains that Brian Jones had become unpredictable and unreliable because of his drug habit. Regarded as an embarrassment and dead weight, he wanted Jones gone. Jagger can’t be blamed for feeling Richards had become a similar encumbrance, though the loss of this gifted songwriting partner would probably have dealt a lethal blow to the band.

But Richards pulled out of his nosedive and the band played on. The group’s legendary globe-trotting tours continue to this day with all four frontmen well into their 70s, travelling without maps and, seemingly – bar the odd accident with a coconut tree – without care. As they once observed: it’s only rock n roll.

In a Free State by V S Naipaul #Bookreview

V S Naipaul’s In a Free State, which won the Booker prize in 1971, is set in an unnamed African country (the author later wrote that it was a mixture of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda) which has recently won its independence. Now there is conflict between the popular, but weak, king – who is in hiding – and the power-hungry president who runs the army. They are of different tribes and the enmity is old and deep.

free state coverThe power struggle, in its final throws, forms the backdrop to the story. But there are no obvious signs of these turbulent events in the capital, where the book opens and we are introduced to the central character, Bobby, who has been attending a conference.

He is driving south – where evidence of the unrest is all too apparent – to a government encampment where he lives and works as a civil servant. With him, hitching a ride, is Linda, the wife of a colleague. The pair belong to the white colonist class whose era is at an end and is now witnessing the dangerous divisions emerging in the new postcolonial nation.

The gated compound to which the couple are returning no longer offers the undisturbed security of the colonial years. As villages around burn and supporters of the king are rounded up, the increasingly fragile nature of the safety of their sanctuary becomes apparent.

The over-riding theme of the novel is one of displacement. In seeking, and winning, freedom the indigenous people are at odds with each other because of old tribal loyalties. The example of their former colonial masters won’t fit this new nation and this provokes resentment of the old regime and its representatives. As hostility rises to the surface the expats begin to pack their bags; Africa erupts around them, their idyll is over.

The principal characters, away from their native countries, experience an element of alienation aggravated by racial tension and sudden shifts of power around them. These elements feed into both the narrative and the exchanges of the road trip at the heart of this novel and have clearly influenced the personalities of the dysfunctional travellers over time.

Bobby is a troubled homosexual with a history of mental problems. His intense, unexplained, dislike for Linda bubbles under and sometimes boils over during the course of the journey. His companion’s superficial exuberance veils an unhappy marriage and a string of adulterous liaisons. An air of doom hangs over the whole as the drive becomes a race against time to reach safety as civil war threatens at every turn.

An encounter with an army convoy forces the couple to make an overnight stop in a crumbling lakeside hotel run by an eccentric retired British colonel whose nasty bullying of his native staff is redolent of the past relationship between colonial master and indigenous population. Pushing the symbolism further, it is clear that soon Africa will reclaim this decaying resort – abandoned by the expats who once saw a very different future there ­– and the raging colonel will fall at the hands of his resentful servants.

As the road trip continues it becomes clear that Bobby, Linda and all the other white expats can no longer rely on the status of privileged outsiders. Bobby’s brutal beating at the hands of one of the president’s soldier underscores the point that some of those who were once victims are now ready for revenge.

A sense of displacement

Naipaul’s biographer, Patrick French, offers this observation: “In a Free State is a disconcerting piece of writing, so taught and ambiguous that the author’s point of view is never apparent.”

Material for the novel came from Naipaul’s nine months in Uganda in 1966. At the invitation of the Farfield Foundation he took up the role of writer-in-residence at Makerere University.

The displaced international characters and restricted campus setting of the university are elements used in In a Free State and this sense of displacement was something the writer himself felt keenly on his return to London. Thousands of miles from his motherland – which he had left in 1950 – and between homes, Naipaul felt rootless. He began wandering the world.

In his introduction to the 2007 edition of the novel, Naipaul recalls how he often undertook the “spectacular day-long drive from Kampala in Uganda to Nairobi in Kenya.” The idea for the story came to him on one of the return journeys.

Memories of his Ugandan sojourn returned to him in 1969, when his wanderings had brought him to Victoria, British Columbia. Here he began writing the novel – a task that would be continued, and completed, in England.

free state naipaul

Naipaul: “Depression touches everyone in the novel.”

In 2007 Naipaul reflected: “In a Free State … was conceived and written during a time of intense personal depression that lasted two or three years.” The depression, he said, “touches everyone in the novel, the bar boys, the waiters and even the Africans seen on the road.”

The impartiality of the writing is deliberately contrived. The author said: “I was not responsible for the world I was discovering. I was recording what I had discovered. I had no point of view. I think I just laid out the material, the evidence, and left people to make up their mind.”


V S (Vidia) Naipaul, who died in August 2018 aged 85, was born in Trinidad, the descendant of Hindu Indians who immigrated to the island as indentured servants. His father was a journalist and author. Vidia won a scholarship to Oxford in 1950 and settled in England, though he travelled extensively. Knighted in 1990, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.

Recommended fiction by the same author: A House for Mr Biswas (1961), The Enigma of Arrival (1987), Half a Life (2001). Non-fiction: An Area of Darkness (1965).

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