Yorkshire Post - YP Magazine

Unsealed melody

- With Ian McMillan

will be a place of horror. In short, even a novel as well made as this one is also full of clichés. It doesn’t often surprise.

That said, the hero, DI Duncan McCormack, is viewed with some suspicion by his superiors, and has something of the “soiled Galahad” which Raymond Chandler thought desirable for the hero of a crime novel. Recently returned from six years with the Met, McCormack has a side to his life so far unremarked by his senior colleagues, which is likely to cause him trouble in the future if, as I expect and hope, he is to have the starring role in further novels.

Enjoyable as this novel is, it cannot escape the common weakness of the genre. There is violence and horror galore, but there is little real sense of moral disquiet or of the way in which murder is like a cancer in the body politic. “So what?” you may say, “we read crime novels for entertainm­ent”. Indeed we do, and McIlvanney gives us fine entertainm­ent. Neverthele­ss, the best crime writers offer more than that, and he is surely good enough to delve deeper than he does here, good enough to pose disturbing questions about our society.

The fashion in crime fiction is for very long novels, and perhaps this works against such questionin­g, even makes for comfort reading. There is a fashion too for detailed and often superfluou­s descriptio­n. More often means less. One thinks how much writers like Simenon and Graham Greene could do to establish the mood of a novel unforgetta­bly in a few lines. Economy is something rarely found in certain crime fiction, and the genre is poorer for its absence.

Should the Taiwanese or Hong Kong version of a glyph be subordinat­e to the one used in the People’s Republic of China? Quite obviously, this has ramificati­ons. Even more than that, given that individual scribes in different countries at disparate times may have made a slip, is that counted as unique dialect or error?

China, it has been said, conquered its conquerors. Jing Tsu’s book may be as prophetic as it is historical.

Sometimes an ordinary event can take on the resonance of myth; a peaceful and productive afternoon in the garden can be memorable for the light through the trees and the sound of an ice-cream man in the distance, or a short journey on a bus can be an odyssey rather than a 15-minute ride into town to go to the market. Maybe it’s just me: perhaps I do this all the time because I’m a writer but I really do think that we are myth-making and epic-building beings.

Have a listen to anybody on a Monday morning telling the story of their Saturday night. To the onlooker, it might just seem like they had a couple of drinks and a late night wander through the revelling city in search of a party the protagonis­t of the tale thought they might have been invited to but, as far as the teller is concerned, the events would make a blockbuste­r movie. As I say, it’s the human condition: we extemporis­e and exaggerate, therefore we are.

Something like this happened to me recently when I went for a stroll round the back of the excellent Elsecar Heritage Centre with my mate Iain Nicholls, an artist who, like me, sees visual and narrative possibilit­ies in the most ordinary of jaunts or encounters. All this morning out really consisted of was two middle-aged blokes taking their time up and down a few muddy paths and then going for a cup of tea, but as we ascended the steep slopes and tried our best not to slip, I found myself in the middle of a fable or a fairy tale.

The woods helped, of course; woods are always good for this kind of story – think of Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks. The weather helped to set the scene, too, skittering through four seasons as we walked, sometimes throwing rain at us and sometimes dazzling us with low winter sun. History piled up around us as the hills are full (or empty) of the sunken remains of bell-pits which were tiny indentatio­ns in the earth that people had been digging coal out of for hundreds of years. As we strolled, Iain and I tried to imagine the sounds we would have heard if we’d been wandering around the area 500 years ago. We speculated on the idea of some kind of shouting from the distant past being captured in a sealed jar so that when the jar got broken you would hear, for a brief loud moment, the shouting that had been silenced for so long. I know that’s a ridiculous idea but on our magical walk anything was possible. A robin watched us from a branch; huge toadstools as big as dustbin lids (well, nearly) squatted in a tangle of tree roots.

Breathless at the summit of the amble, we looked across at the landscape; a story began to form in my head, of two men who come across ancient singing trapped in unshattere­d pots. By drilling into the pots, they can hear singing, just like when you drill into the ordinary, the extraordin­ary will always spill out.

 ?? PICTURE: CHARLOTTE GRAHAM. ?? DARK TIMES: McIlvanney offers little morality but fine entertainm­ent.
PICTURE: CHARLOTTE GRAHAM. DARK TIMES: McIlvanney offers little morality but fine entertainm­ent.
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