Sep 5, 2012 § 5 Comments
Ashraf Farouk is a police lieutenant in Cairo. His job is to stop his countrymen fleecing the tourists, and he is good at it. He is also good at lining his own pockets.
Crime on his patch is a chaotic mix of ancient and modern: bogus moneychangers, rigged scales in the gold and silver shops, pickpockets and distraction thefts; but also drug dealing, pornography and the odd riot. Police equipment is state of the art – surveillance vans borrowed from the CIA (unfortunately not designed for the midday heat of Egypt); gas and rubber bullets for the riots. Farouk, though, prefers to crack heads with the unofficial teak truncheon he carries under his jacket.
Mark White’s stories are exotic and original, and he skirts cleverly round the comic opera clichés of the casbah while still giving a sense of a shambolic post-colonial world. Labyrinthine laws are supported by mind-numbing bureaucracy. Police are corrupt and accountable to no-one but themselves. Farouk presides over his squad like Gene Hunt over the Life on Mars CID crew.
These are not short stories in the literary sense. More like well-told smoking room yarns: linear, event-driven and generally with a small twist at the end to round them off. The style is unpretentious – smooth and literate, but lapsing occasionally into a jocular irony which I found mannered:
When the supply of criminals dried up Farouk betook himself to that staple of police work: the persecution of motorists. Any suspect vehicle that fell under his eye was subjected to a thorough inspection, and the clerks at the local courts despaired at the sudden influx of paperwork that resulted.
Not quite satisfying, perhaps, as individual stories. Taken together, though, they build a compelling picture of a bewildering city, modern in some respects, in others a place of timeless savagery. Farouk scuttles though it like a malicious imp of mischief, ugly, lazy, incompetently dishonest and very appealing. It might be fun to have a drink with him. But after shaking hands you would be wise to count your fingers.
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Apr 19, 2011 § 1 Comment
The Fiction Desk
Paperback 192pp. £9.99 ($16.38) ISBN 9780956784308
Kindle £4.99 ($8.17)
Various Authors is the first issue of a new literary journal from The Fiction Desk. It will be appearing quarterly in paperback and Kindle formats.
The authors of the dozen stories in this debut volume do not include any household names, but several can boast respectable track records, with novels or short story collections already in print. This is serious stuff: literary fiction of a high calibre, the contributors not genre writers but artists of the pen. (Though is there any reason why a genre writer shouldn’t be an artist too?)
Interesting to see what the themes of literary fiction are nowadays. In spite of the editor’s claim (in the Fiction Desk blog) to have laughed out loud at How to Fall in Love with an Air Hostess by Harvey Marcus, there are not many deliberate attempts at humour here. Marcus’s story, though wryly told, is actually concerned with missed opportunities and the failure to make connections. The only piece to make me laugh (but it did – yes, out loud, I confess) was Rex by Jon Wallace. This is about a woman who brings home a stray dog. To her husband it is clearly a man in a home-made fancy dress costume. (Rex is the husband, by the way – the “dog’s” name is William.) Celia and Harold by Patrick Whittaker plays with a whimsical idea – a Midwich Cuckoos village in which all the lovers morph into identical couples – but the author doesn’t quite know where to take it.
No, serious writing is about serious issues. Characters are poor or old or young or alone, or three out of the four. Families are dysfunctional. I don’t think this has anything to do with this particular collection or its editors; that’s the way it is. Shabby for literary writers is real. Maybe it’s a Brit thing. The three stories that stand out here all have overseas settings and two of them are written by Americans. All I Want by Charles Lambert is about English teachers spending an uneasy weekend with an Italian family by Lake Garda, and is stiff with unspoken feeling. Nativity by Adrian Stumpp addresses the rarely described anguish of fatherhood. Topping the lot for me is Dave Tough’s Luck by Matthew Licht. This occupies familiar Licht territory in 1970s New York, but transcends the grubbiness and slease with a poignant account of an idiot savant drummer who can reproduce all the riffs of the jazz and rock greats but never create a thing himself.
An impressive start, I’ll look out for the next issue. One last thought, though: only one female contributor. Were there really so few good submissions from women?
Charles Lambert – All I want
Lynsey May – Two Buses Away
Matthew Licht – Dave Tough’s Luck
Danny Rhodes – A Covering of Leaves
Ben Lyle – Crannock House
Ben Cheetham – Sometimes the Only Way Out is In
Harvey Marcus – How to Fall in Love With an Air Hostess
Jason Atkinson – Assassination Scene
Patrick Whittaker – Celia and Harold
Adrian Stumpp – Nativity
Jon Wallace – Rex
Alex Cameron – The Puzzle