My monthly blog for Authors Electric (http://authorselectric.blogspot.co.uk/)linked the problems of writing big violent thrillers with the problems of living in a big violent age. My starting point was Chris Grayling and Theresa May jumping on the traditional Tory law’n’order bandwagon at the annual conference. Their wonderfully quaint idea of solving Britain’s crime problems is to allow householders to visit disproportionate violence on anyone who breaks (or even wanders) into their house, coupled with the idea that anyone transgressed against can choose the punishment to be visited on the perp. Neat, eh? Bloodbath follows…
It did spark a lively debate on the blogspot, though, which ranged through the problems of Amazon star ratings among other things. My book Killing Time at Catterick is coming under pretty sustained attack from people who don’t think anyone should criticise ‘our boys’ with a series of fairly sub-literate comments, which have brought the overall ratings down with a bang.
Among the ‘reverse comments’ was this from John A.A.Logan, author of The Survival of Thomas Ford a dark, bleak and compulsive ‘noir’ thriller set in Scotland. He wrote:
I’ve seen the barrage on Amazon for Killing Time at Catterick.
I think it’s just the same controversy you’ve faced down before. The group who disagree strongly with the book have found it first.
That powerful reaction is a sign that the book is strong medicine.
I know you just found out about the barrage this week too, and it will have been a shock.
But give this a month, or a year, time for others to find the book?
It could end up being a very interesting Amazon page indeed, as this almost “taboo” subject (especially in a time of active military deployment) is debated perhaps.
And you, after all, are still Jan-No-Stranger-To-Controversy-Needle!
You must expect these adventures…
The point about active military deployment is particularly poignant in a week when another five British servicemen have been accused of murder. But as I responded to Mr Logan:
Well, I knew I was cruising for a bruising with that one [Killing Time at Catterick]. Even my main source made me promise I’d never reveal his name in case any of his former comrades wanted to engage in literary discussions about it! And the reaction on the ‘squaddies website’ AARSE when it was originally serialised on OpenDemocracy (and in the comments section after every episode) was amazing. Paintstripper with added nitric acid.
The Kindle star system is a bit painful sometimes, though, because the sound of axes being ground is probably invisible to people looking for a book to read. (Do I mean inaudible? Discuss.)
Another of my books has also suffered recently from negative reviews on Kindle, with a three star and a two star review offsetting the five star it got at first. Then, yesterday, this appeared, to lift my self confidence back off the floor:
By Neil Sydenham
Amazon Verified Purchase
When trying to evaluate a book, I’m not sure that’s it’s a very good approach to criticise it for not being what it doesn’t set out to be. Nor does it help much to draw distinctions of value between prequels, sequels and re-presentations set in another century and in another society. Andrew Motion’s sequel to Treasure Island does not compete with Silver and Blood: it is a different sort of book for a different purpose. In the same way William Horwood’s sequel to Wind in the Willows is utterly different from and doesn’t compete with Jan Needle’s Wild Wood, his brilliantly retold and wickedly funny version of The Wind in the Willows from the Weasels’ point of view, which also involves a searing comment on Edwardian society and thus, inevitably, our own. Stevenson was writing an adventure story for boys. That it has so many depths and insights, such ambiguous characters, such profound questions of conduct and morality is because he was a great writer and simply could not write at one level only. Such books have to be revisited. Needle has recreated Silver in all his doubtful glory and heightened both his evil and his saving magnanimity and that to me is a wonderful thing. He’s seen and dramatised the grasping greed and hypocrisy of Livesey and Trelawney in a way which Victorian social restraints prevented Stevenson from doing, though he understands them perfectly well, and that’s a perceptive comment in an age when at last such revelations about the ruling classes are possible. He’s turned Jim from being a surprised, wide-eyed pawn in the game into a cynical, observant modern teenager. He’s taken violence away from the romanticism of chasing up the ratlines with cutlasses drawn and turned it into the sordid business of AK7s and death both indiscriminate and bloody. In short, Needle has written a book for our times, a new and realistic look at a great classic, a comment on a whole genre and also a book with all the narrative drive of the great RLS himself.
That reviewer gave it five stars, and also mentioned my not dissimilarly inspired version of the Wind in the Willows, Wild Wood, which I hope to get up on Amazon before too much longer. But I’ll quote the two-star review as well:
By Mr. C. R. Simmonds
Amazon Verified Purchase
A bit of a pastiche on the original “Treasure Island” – this book lacked “bite” and had a rather feeble ending as if the author had grown tired of the theme. Go back and read the original if you want action, suspense and excitement! This book spoils the original dream……
It’s easy to see where this is coming from, and I sympathise with it, as well. Some people just can’t bear to see their favourite classics messed about with. But in my defence I was only using Treasure Island as an inspiration (I think it’s possibly the best novel ever written). Stevenson knew damn well that he was writing about a moral cesspit, but the book has come down as a children’s classic.
A classic it truly is, and by all means reread the original – I often do. But think of John Silver with a 9mm automatic in his hand, and a Jimmy Savile cigar in his mouth. I doubt if that was the original dream. If so, let’s spoil it…