Tag Archives: The Long Firm

Six Degrees of Separation – from Pride and Prejudice to Under the Visible Life #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we’re starting with Pride and Prejudice. It would have taken a very determined person to avoid Jane Austen’s sharply observed, elegantly expressed novel on love and marriage among the English bourgeoisie over the last couple of decades. There have been a multitude of tributes paid to it, not least the BBC TV series featuring a wet-shirted Colin Firth emerging from a lake after a swim. Not sure what Austen would have made of that.

Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary is surely the best known of those tributes, all about a young woman’s trials trying to find the man of her dreams when he’s practically under her nose. He’s even called Darcy which might have given her a clue. In a clever bit of casting, the much-ogled Firth played Darcy in the Bridget Jones films which may even have eclipsed the books in terms of their success.

Bridget Jones began life in a newspaper column in the now defunct print version of the Independent which leads me to Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, originally a San Francisco Chronicle column, also all about relationships with a good deal of product placement and outlandish adventure thrown in. I loved them but not the TV adaptation which failed to capture the charm of the books for me.

Which leads me to another TV adaptation, this time a successful one. I posted an entry in my Blasts from the Past series recently on Jake Arnott’s tale of 1960s East End gangsterism, The Long Firm, which prompted me to seek out the DVD of the BBC’s excellent dramatisation, It turned out to be just as good as I remembered – Mark Strong fits the part of Arnott’s complex Harry Starks perfectly.

When I passed Arnott’s novel onto H, my resident contemporary historian, he was struck by the accuracy of its period detail. The only other novel I can think of that fits this exacting bill is Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club, so good H included it on his undergraduate reading list for the period. It’s about four school friends growing up ’70s Birmingham and facing strikes, IRA bombs and appalling fashion trends.

Coe wrote a book called Expo ’58 set in the same year as Roddy Doyle, author of The Commitments, was born. Doyle’ s funny, touching novel is set in working class Dublin and follows a group of disparate people who form a band, belting out classic soul numbers. While some of the members are there for lack of anything else to do its the camaraderie of making music that keeps them together despite their many falling outs.

Which brings me to my last book, one which I’ll grab any chance to write about – Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life about two very different women bound together by their love of music in a friendship that endures through love lost and won; marriage, arranged and otherwise; and raising children in the most difficult circumstances. Music is the breath of life to Katherine and Mahsa, running through their story like a constant yet ever-changing refrain. A memorable, beautifully written novel

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an early nineteenth century classic about love and marriage to a novel about friendship and a shared love of music. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Blasts from the Past: The Long Firm by Jake Arnott (1999)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Jake Arnott was featured in a documentary on the trials and tribulations of getting your first novel published back in 1999. The Long Firm later became a bestseller, dramatized by the BBC several years later. I’ve often wondered how the other writers felt about this personable, camera-friendly literary star in the making whose success was contrasted with their increasingly desperate efforts as they waded their way through their well-thumbed copies of The Writers and Artists’ Yearbook looking for an agent. Arnott’s debut is the first of three novels set in the gangster world of the ’60s East End. Sadly, the other two didn’t quite match its brilliance although I’m pleased to say that his new novel, The Fatal Tree, is every bit as good.

Narrated by five very different characters, The Long Firm follows the career of Harry Starks, a gangland boss with a weakness for stardom and a yearning for respectability. Each narrator tells the story of their dealings with Harry: Terry is Harry’s pretty suburban kept boy; Teddy is the corrupt peer who finds himself out of his league; Jack the Hat is a freelancer who flits dangerously between Harry and the Kray twins; Ruby is a fading Rank starlet and Lenny is a criminologist whose relationship with Harry leads him into the dark realities of the criminal underworld. Set in mid-60s London amidst enormous social change and written with a wit as sharp as the cut of a gangster’s suit, Arnott’s novel explores the dark underbelly of a period often recalled as vibrant and exciting, expertly blending fact and fiction in a vivid evocation of the times. Not only can Arnott write but my contemporary historian partner assures me that the period detail is spot-on – high praise indeed.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

The second novel conundrum

Cover imageI’ve been circling warily around Andrew Miller’s Costa Prize winning Pure for some time now. Miller’s first novel, Ingenious Pain, is one of my favourite books. Set in the 18th century, its main protagonist, James Dyer, is conceived on an icy night as a result of an adulterous coupling with a stranger. James cannot feel pain which appears to be a blessing but is, of course, a curse because he’s unable to understand the human condition. He attaches himself to a quack show, is abducted and kept in a rich man’s house as a curiosity, acts as an assistant to a ship’s physician and later, becomes a brilliant but supremely arrogant surgeon in fashionable Bath. His greatest and final adventure is to take part in a race to St Petersburg to inoculate the Empress of Russia against smallpox, and it’s on this journey that he meets his nemesis – a strange woman whose miraculous powers Puregive him the gift of pain. There, just writing that has made me want to rush off and read it for the third time. Ingenious Pain was published in 1997 and every time I’ve got wind of a new Miller novel I’ve looked forward to it eagerly. It’s not that they’ve been bad novels – far from it – but none has matched the magic of his debut for me hence the hesitation over Pure even though several people whose opinions I trust assured me that this one really did hit the spot. I’m half-way through the tale of the clearing of Les Innocents Cemetery in pre-revolutionary Paris and although not quite as smitten as I was by Ingenious Pain it’s a close run thing.

As a keen reader of debuts, always on the hunt for new talent, I’ve found that the second novel is often a disappointment. Jake The Long FirmArnott’s excellent The Long Firm is a case in point. Set in mid-60s London it explores the sinister underworld of gangland London and is written with a wit as sharp as the cut of a gangster’s suit, not too mention sufficient period accuracy to satisfy even my contemporary historian partner. Sadly the next two in the trilogy didn’t cut it for me. T C Boyle’s Water Music is Water  Musica rattling good yarn based on the 18th-century explorer Mungo Park’s compulsive quest to find the source of the Niger. It’s packed with extraordinary characters who never seem to have a dull moment and is very funny indeed but my copy of Budding Prospects, Boyle’s second novel, landed up in a charity shop. Of course, it’s not always the case – Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum was a joy as is everything else she’s written, and Audrey Niffenegger did a fine job with Her Fearful Symmetry after The Time Traveller’s Wife – but it’s happened enough to make me wonder why given that most of us get better at something the more we do it. Perhaps it’s the rabbit in the headlights syndrome – having laboured away quietly, some times for years, suddenly having so many expectations from both readers and publishers must weigh heavily. Perhaps it’s having the luxury of time to lavish on writing and research the first time around and being rushed the second. Or maybe I’m just being greedy.