Thursday, February 16, 2006

I spent the day

reading Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides With Samuel Johnson for a discussion this evening that was then canceled, leaving me with an unexpected chunk of light reading time. Boswell is rather delightful, though ("I was elated by the thought of having been able to entice such a man to this remote part of the world. A ludicrous, yet just, image presented itself to my mind, which I expressed to the company. I compared myself to a dog who has got hold of a large piece of meat, and runs away with it to a corner, where he may devour it in peace, without any fear of others taking it from him. 'In London, Reynolds, Beauclerk, and all of them, are contending who shall enjoy Dr. Johnson's conversation. We are feasting upon it, undisturbed, at Dunvegan'").

So I had an excursion to the bookstore (about which more shortly, it's a really nice store) and bought some stuff that seemed irresistible but really just ended up coming home and finishing a library book I had begun the night before, The Burning Girl by Mark Billingham. This book is of a kind I like but don't love--a very dark London police procedural series, of the mainstream rather than whacked-out indie kind (of course I secretly prefer the latter, I can't explain the difference other than to say you know it when you see it, the bestseller kind can be very good too but it is constrained by rules of decorum both stylistic and violence-wise and the indie ones aren't)--but I was marvelling throughout at what a good writer Billingham is. Really, really excellent writing here. I thought this was up to the standard of the very best few of Michael Connelly's Bosch books, in a similar vein only darker.

I have been smitten with Billingham's writing ever since I got his first one (I am 95% sure it was one of those 3-for-2 specials in the WH Smith shop at Kings Cross where I often drop in en route to the British Library, I remember at any rate reading it with dropped jaw & general enthrallment). It's a great book, but more particularly it's set in lots of parts of north London I know especially well. I think it's that one (or possibly the next one) that features multiple scenes in a place I know and hate, the Whittington Hospital just up the hill from the Archway tube station. My grandmother spent a lot of time there, it's got a Dickensian workhouse sort of Gustave Dore-type feel; I am sure the staff are all very good, but it is a chaotic and Kafkaesque place (I remember once racing round the hospital--it really could take you half an hour from one end or another--trying to find my grandmother, she was no longer where I had last seen her and not on the ward they subsequently sent me to and I was of course secretly convinced she had died and been whisked away elsewhere and when I finally found her--really perfectly OK--visiting hours were almost over and I could only stay for a few minutes...). And Billingham particularly well brings to life those seedier elements of the Kentish Town-Archway-Finsbury Park nexus. Book-biz readers will be interested to know that a number of important scenes in this one happen only minutes away from the Serpent's Tail offices.

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