“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review: THE REAL PLANET OF THE APES by David R. Begun

The idea that humans and the great apes evolved from a common ancestor in Africa is one that goes back to Charles Darwin. After all, chimps and gorillas, the closest relatives to humans, live in Africa today, and our earliest human ancestors are also African. It’s logical, then, to assume that the evolution of the ape into the common ancestor of human beings is a purely African story.
  Not so fast, says David R. Begun. A world-renowned authority on ape evolution, Begun – a professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto – argues in The Real Planet of the Apes (Princeton University Press) that the fossil record tells us that not only were there also early apes in Europe and Eurasia, but that the European apes represent far more than just an interesting side story. Indeed, Begun states in his Preface that his conclusion is that “it is Europe, and not Africa, that is the centre of origin of the ancestors of living great apes and humans.”
  It’s a bold move, contradicting Charles Darwin, although Begun does point out that Darwin, in The Descent of Man, argues for the probability rather than the certainty of the African origins of ‘our early progenitors’. Darwin then goes on to clarify his statement by saying that it is useless to speculate on the subject, given the remoteness of the period in question and how often migrations were likely to occur during such a vast time-scale.
  Begun, for his part, is cheerfully aware of how his theory flies in the face of received wisdom. “Few of the ideas and interpretations expressed in this book are exclusively my own,” he writes, before adding, “The few that are mine more less exclusively tend to be controversial.”
  His willingness to point up the potential controversies and flaws in his theory is just one of the reasons why Begun makes for such lively company in The Real Planet of the Apes. The book is as accessible as palaeontology is likely to get, and it’s peppered with examples of Begun’s offbeat sense of humour, as well as examples of his readiness to give credit where it is due.
  Essentially, and although Begun covers the story of ape evolution over the past 30 million years, his theory centres on the Miocene period from roughly 10 million years ago. It is at this point that the fossil record begins to reveal Dryopithecus, Rudapithecus and Ouranopithecus, among others, hominids which appear around the time of the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of the family that includes humans, chimpanzees and gorillas (the orang-utan, or Pongo, branched off from the hominids some five or six million years previously; despite its very human features, ‘the old man of the forest’ is much, much older than man).
  Primitive apes flourished in Africa about 20 million years ago, Begun tells us, although these were more monkey-like than ape-like. They later dispersed north into Eurasia to more seasonal climates, conditions that then selected for new adaptations in apes, which resulted in apes evolving novel features relating to diet and locomotive and positional behaviour (e.g., moving to an upright stance as opposed to horizontal, becoming suspensory apes who hang from branches as opposed to walking along the tops of them). Then climate changes drove the large-brained, suspensory apes south again, with the ancestors of orang-utans migrating towards South-East Asia and our common ancestor heading due south to the African tropics.
  Crucially, Begun tells us, “I was intrigued by the African ape features I found in European fossil apes and the complete lack of evidence for fossil great apes in Africa during the same time period.”
  It’s a fascinating theory, even if much of Begun’s book is taken up with the difficulty of establishing the theory based on the fossil record. “I am determined to falsify this hypothesis,” he tells us. “That may sound strange. But we cannot really prove anything in palaeontology.” The problem, of course, is not only that fossils are so difficult to find, but that intact skeletons of great ape fossils are vanishingly rare. Begun paraphrases Darwin, who described the fossil record as a book most of which has been erased by time. “It is a virtual certainty that we have not and probably will never find fossils of more than a small fraction of the species that have ever lived. In many cases it might even be less than 5%.”
  Compounding the issue, at least in terms of readability for the layman or laywoman (i.e., yours truly), is the fact that many of the fossils Begun relies upon for evidence are teeth. ‘Paleoanthropological nerds’ such as himself, Begun tells us, have looked at thousands of teeth, and many of the examples of species discovered have been identified on their dental records alone (one example of Griphopithecus, discovered at Engelswies in modern Germany, was identified on the basis of “only one half of a tooth, and a pretty worn one at that.”) The detective work is hugely impressive, certainly, but general readers might find themselves increasingly skipping over those pages dedicated to wear patterns, pointed cusps, dentine horns and crenulated molars.
  By the same token, the book is dotted with fascinating examples of how evolution works, or why a particular species, having evolved to a certain point, then dies out despite being perfectly adapted to its environment. Oreopithecus, known from fossil sites at Tuscany and on Sardinia, appears to have evolved in isolation on islands (as the Tuscan region would have been roughly eight million years ago), with little by way of competition from other animals or any predators to worry about. By comparison with its peer Rudapithecus, however, Oreopithecus had a brain less than half its size. “Reduction in brain size is fairly unusual in evolution,” Begun says, “but Oreopithecus is the exception that proves the rule […] Oreopithecus became the ape version of a tree sloth: large, suspensory, slow moving and not especially clever. It is not much of an intellectual feat to move slowly among the branches gathering leaves and other abundant forest resources, especially if you do not have to worry about predators.”
  The book ends on a downbeat note when David Begun turns away from sifting through the past and looks to the future. Chimps and gorillas, he reminds us, are both on the endangered list. “The future for great apes is grim,” he says, as a result of deforestation, the ‘bush meat’ trade and the trade in animal trophies. “Unless there is a concerted effort internationally to eliminate these markets and there are major changes in governance to provide local people in the countries in which great apes live with more resources to support their families, I do not hold out much hope for the great apes, or most primates for that matter.”
  Unless we can find a way to live with our great ape brethren, Begun concludes, we will be the last ape standing. It’s a conclusion that offers a stark inversion of the playful title of this book, as the human ape precipitates the potential extinction of its closest family relatives. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

One to Watch: MINDS OF WINTER by Ed O’Loughlin

Ed O’Loughlin’s forthcoming novel MINDS OF WINTER (riverrun) arrived in the post during the week, a physics-defying process that involved it simultaneously dropping through the letterbox and pole-vaulting to the top of ye olde reading pile. To wit:
  It begins with a chance encounter at the top of the world.
  Fay Morgan and Nelson Nilsson have each arrived in Inuvik, Canada - 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle - searching for answers about a family member: Nelson for his estranged older brother, Fay for her disappeared grandfather. They soon learn that these two men have an unexpected link - a hidden share in one of the greatest enduring mysteries of polar exploration.
  In a feat of extraordinary scope and ambition, Ed O’Loughlin moves between a frozen present and an-ever thawing past, and from the minds of two present-day wanderers to the lives some of polar history’s most enigmatic figures. MINDS OF WINTER is a novel about ice and time and their ability to preserve or destroy, of mortality and loss and our dreams of transcending them.
  MINDS OF WINTER will be published on August 25th. For reviews of Ed O'Loughlin’s previous novels, clickety-click here ...

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Review: THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER by Martin Edwards

I was very pleased to hear that Martin Edwards’ THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER won the non-fiction gong at CrimeFest over the weekend – it really is a smashing piece of work. I wrote a review for the Irish Times last year that ran a lot like this:

“Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” demanded Edmund Wilson in a New Yorker essay published in 1945. Taking its title from Agatha Christie’s Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? (1926), the essay describes the detective novel as ‘sub-literary’, a perhaps understandable addiction that ranked somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.
  Only a year earlier, however, John Strachey, writing in The Saturday Review, had declared that readers were living through ‘the Golden Age of English Detection’, describing detective fiction as ‘masterpieces of distraction and escape.’ So popular and pervasive were Golden Age mystery novels that Bertolt Brecht – tongue firmly wedged in cheek, no doubt – could claim that, “The crime novel, like the world itself, is ruled by the English.”
  The contradictions persist to this day. The Guinness Book of Records claims that Agatha Christie, with sales in excess of two billion, is second only to The Bible and William Shakespeare in terms of books sold. And yet the perception remains that Golden Age mystery novels were no more than bland exercises in puzzle-solving, comfort blankets for a middle class readership all too eager to be persuaded that while the country house defences might be breached, and the village green become stained with blood, such anomalies would be detected by ‘the little grey cells’ of superior education and the status quo quickly restored.
  “The received wisdom is that Golden Age fiction set out to reassure readers by showing order restored to society, and plenty of orthodox novels did just that,” writes Martin Edwards in the opening chapter of The Golden Age of Murder. Yet the best of the Golden Age writers, he argues, and particularly those members of the Detection Club who account for the book’s subtitle, ‘The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story’, defied stereotypes and were ‘obsessive risk-takers’ as they reimagined the possibilities and potential of the crime novel. “Violent death is at the heart of a novel about murder,” writes Edwards, “but Golden Age writers, and their readers, had no wish or need to wallow in gore … The bloodless game-playing of post-conflict detective stories is often derided by thoughtless commentators who forget that after so much slaughter on the field of battle the survivors were in need of a change.”
  Edwards, an award-winning detective novelist and the Archivist of the Detection Club, has written a fabulously detailed book that serves a number of purposes. A rebuttal of the ‘perceived wisdom’ that Golden Age mystery fiction was trite and clichéd is to the forefront, but The Golden Age of Murder also functions as a history of the Detection Club, which was formed in 1930 and over the years included in its membership Christie, Sayers, Berkeley, G.K. Chesterton, Freeman Wills Croft, Ronald Knox, A.A. Milne, Baroness Orczy, Helen Simpson, Hugh Walpole, Gladys Mitchell, Margery Allingham, John Dickson Carr, Nicholas Blake, Edmund Crispin and Christianna Brand, among many others.
  Through this framework Edwards weaves a mind-boggling number of plot summaries of novels (without, naturally, ever giving away the all-important crucial twists), the authors’ fascination with real-life crimes, and the way in which the Golden Age mysteries reflected the turbulent decades of the 1920s and 1930s and on into the Second World War, persuasively arguing that, “The cliché that detective novelists routinely ignored social and economic realities is a myth.” Equally fascinating is his documenting of the frequently tortured private lives of the authors, with Edwards turning detective himself as he explores how alcoholism, unacknowledged children, repressed homosexuality, unrequited passion, radical political activism and self-loathing – to mention just a few examples – found their way into the writers’ novels.
  There are also a number of intriguing digressions, such as when Edwards notes the relationship between detective fiction and poetry. T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis (who published his crime novels under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake) and Sophie Hannah are among those name-checked as critics or authors: “From [Edgar Allan] Poe onwards, a strikingly high proportion of detective novelists have also been poets,” says Edwards. “They are drawn to each form by its structural challenges.”
  As a novelist himself, Edwards can be cynically humorous about the publishing industry (“Allen [Lane] met Christie when she called at the office to complain about the dustjacket of The Murder on the Links, having failed to realize that when a publisher asks an author’s opinion of a jacket, the response required is rapture.”) and his quirky style is reflected in his chapter headings (Chapter 15 is titled ‘Murder, Transvestism and Suicide during a Trapeze Act’).
  For the most part, however, Edwards plays a straight bat with a sustained and impassioned celebration of the Golden Age mystery novel. The Golden Age of Murder is as entertaining as it is a comprehensively researched work, and one that should prove essential reading for any serious student of the crime / mystery novel. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Times.