Wednesday, May 7, 2008

My New Favorite Author - Iain Banks

After being a lifelong voracious reader, I went through a spell of not reading as much, mostly a few pages when I went to bed. I became set in my reading ways. I read mysteries, period, and even those had to be by tried and true authors that I already knew I liked. No adventure for me. Forget the Chicken Cordon Bleu (or what the hell ever), just give me a hamburger, please.

When I began trying to wean myself from political obsession, I started reading more again. My favorite authors couldn't keep up with my demand. I had no choice but to branch out but I still stuck with mysteries. Until one day, I could find absolutely nothing in the library that sounded appealing. (I don't like insipid little mysteries that contain recipes) so I got an actual novel, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, by a Scottish author named Iain Banks, who I'd never heard of up to that time despite his being, for many years, one of the top selling authors in Britain.

I almost didn't read the book because, in the mode I'd been in for so long, I thought I didn't want to read anything that wasn't a mystery. In the end, I thought, "well, I'll try it and if I don't get into it, I'll just put it down." Steep Approach to Garbadale became my new favorite book and that isn't a designation I extend lightly. Previously, my all-time best book was Lonesome Dove, (oddly enough, another book I almost didn't read because it was a western - there's a point here somewhere about not getting stuck in a rut). Lonesome Dove held its position for years, maybe close to a decade. I remember reading it some time when I worked at the Sheriff's Dept.

Iain Banks' first novel, The Wasp Factory, has been voted one of the top five British books of all time. In addition to his mainstream stuff, Banks writes hugely popular science fiction under the name, Iain M Banks. The next book of his I read, Complicity, I got from the library By now, I've ordered most of Banks' other novels - Dead Air, A Song of Stone, Walking on Glass and his only non-fiction book, Raw Spirit, and have loved all of them. The Crow Road and The Bridge should be delivered this week. When I've read everything else, I'm actually going to venture into science fiction in order to have more Banks books to look forward to (geez, Vic, let's really live life dangerously here!).

Banks has never quite broken into the American market in the same way he has in Britain. I've read interviews and bits in books in which he expresses some puzzlement as to why that should be. Not that I think he cares all that much. It seems to be more curiosity than anything else. I can think of a few reasons:

In general, I think Americans prefer directness - a straightforward plot told in relatively simple language with a main character who is essentially black or white. America doesn't go in much for complicated shades of gray. This isn't true in every case, of course. We've had famous authors who broke this barrier and I acknowledge that but still, generally, I believe this is true. Meanwhile, the British seem to enjoy complex twistings and turnings and doublings-back. This is even the case with mystery writers. One of my best loved authors is Reginald Hill, who writes a series about two Yorkshire cops, Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe. Some of his literary references are so high-brow, I haven't a clue what he's talking about, and I occasionally have to drag down my dictionary to define a word I don't think I've ever seen in my life before.

This is the case in spades with Iain Banks. I sometimes think the kind of writing I do is like building little two-bedroom ranch houses. I think, for the most part, they are well crafted. The floors are all level and the plans are well laid out. Sometimes, I even add a bit of carpentry - a whorl here or a scallop there - that I think are particularly eye-catching. Having said that, what Banks does is build word cathedrals. Some of his sentences can go on for a paragraph. His spires soar into the sky. Climb to the top of some of his verbal bell towers at your own risk. Visiting his cathedral, you stumble onto hidden rooms and secret compartments, cleverly disguised behind fireplace mantels. You find elaborately carved altars and breathtaking muraled ceilings. In my little houses, a kitchen is always a kitchen but Banks' rooms are almost never what they, at first, seem to be. And his appealingly quirky characters are the same, either quite hero nor quite anti-hero.

Because I have so fallen for Iain Banks' writing, my mother insisted she wanted to read something he'd written. The only book of his I had here at the time was The Wasp Factory. "Mom," I told her, "I really don't think this will be your cup of tea." But she insisted. She made it to page 20 which contains a paragraph that reads: "...perhaps I would ask for one of those LED alarm radios, though I'm very fond of my old brass alarm clock. Once I tied a wasp to the striking-surface of each of the copper-coloured bells on top, where the little hammer would hit them in the morning when the alarm went off. I always wake up before the alarm goes off, so I got to watch."
She never even got to the part where the main character, 16-year-old Frank, explains that - "two years after I killed Blythe, I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I'd disposed of Blythe, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That's my score to date. Three. I haven't killed anybody for years, and I don't intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through."

"I can't read anymore of that book. It's crazy," which was sort of the reaction I thought she'd have and the reaction many Americans, who prefer either/or, definitively white hats or black hats, would most likely have.

Iain Banks also includes some political rants in his books and mostly, those rants don't favor America. He seems to have affection for the America that could be, and is meant to be, but a great deal of disaffection for what America has become under Dubya. Like many foreigners, he seemed hardly able to believe we elected George the second time (a view I hold myself). He isn't much more tolerant of his own country. He once cut up his passport and sent it to 10 Downing Street in protest of Tony Blair's (whom he calls Tony Bliar) slavish following of America into Iraq. (He's since gotten another passport now that Blair is gone). Again, I think many Americans, the majority of whom are apolitical by nature, probably don't appreciate the insertion of politics into their entertainment and the fact that, America is most often criticized may not endear Banks to a wide American readership.

And, lastly, Banks is an avowed atheist and in America, this may be the worst of all sins. We like all of our heroes, from politicians to authors to baseball players, to profess their belief in and love of God (even if they consistently fail to live up to what that God expects of them). We can't quite bring ourselves to take anyone seriously who doesn't accept the One True Way (which may be Christian, Jewish or Muslim so long as it includes an Almighty of some sort).

Anyway, I love his stuff. Flat out love it. Right now, if I won a "Meet Any Famous Person You Choose", contest, it would be Banks hands down. I'd travel quite a distance to go to a Banks book-signing but that's not going to happen. He doesn't tour America and I'm damn sure never going to make it to Scotland. So, in the meantime, I'll just read what he writes and hope I can make a few American converts for him along the way.

My other favorite authors -

David Fulmer, the absolute best of the mystery writers. His books, Chasing the Devil's Tail, Jass, Rampart Street, The Dying Crapshooter's Blues, and The Blue Door are all just wonderful. His latest, The Blue Door, just sold out its first printing and well did it deserve to.

The aforementioned Reginald Hill. Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe are characters to fall in love with. His writing is classy and humorous.

Charles Todd, who writes a series about a Scotland Yard inspector, Inspector Ian Rutledge. Rutledge returned from World War I shell shocked. He underwent treatment prior to returning to Scotland Yard. What no one knows is that he carries guilt, in the form of the spirit of one of his men, whose death he's responsible for, inside his head.

Lee Childs - the Jack Reacher series.

Ian Rankin - back to Scotland with Inspector Rebus, although my favorite of his books, Bleeding Hearts, was about an assassin, Michael Weston.

Peter Robinson featuring Inspector Alan Banks.

Minette Walters - Her latest, The Green Chameleon, was her best.

Lincoln Child - The Special Agent Pendergast series, which are horror mixed with mystery.

Martha Grimes, Elizabeth George, Janet Evanovich, John Sandford, Jonathan Kellerman, Stephen White, Jeffrey Deaver, Lawrence Block (especially the assassin series, I have a thing for assassins and this also includes Stephen Hunter's sniper, Bob Lee Swagger).

Of the oldies, I practically went into mourning when Ed McBain died and I knew there would be no more 87th Precinct books. The same with Trevanian, (died in 2005) who wrote The Eiger Sanction, The Loo Sanction and Shibumi. I like Robert B Parker's Spenser series, especially if you're in the mood for something quick and witty.


  1. Ok, you've sold me. I didn't like the last quarter of Steep approach but mainly because of the anti-american rant. However, having read your view of it, I now get it. Thank you.

    As a point, to you and your readers, Mr. Blair is referred to as Tony B. Liar - the emphasis on the Liar. I cannot explain here (there isn't enough space and I am not a good enough writer) how much we believed in Blair when he was elected. I think (I know) I actually cried the night he won. And then it went pear-shaped. The month after 9/11 I sat in a jacuzzi/whirlpool in Florida being toasted for being English - and I hated it.

    Anyhoo, Iain Banks. Will now give The Wasp Factory a go. Especially because of your mum's reaction.

  2. Would love to know your opinion of The Wasp Factory. It sure isn't for everyone.

    Maybe I give my readers too much credit. Thought they'd get the Tony Bliar reference without having to spell it out for them.

    I loved him too at first. He seemed like our Bill Clinton in the way of being caring and oh-so-articulate and able to connect with people. Oh, well, politics and disappointment go together like ham and eggs. Bill let us down too although I would argue in a less consequential way.

  3. Thank you! You often write very interesting articles. You improved my mood.I'll be back again.