There is an interesting anomaly in this year’s Man Booker Long List. While for a very long time one hardly ever saw an historical novel on the list, long or short, this year, possibly after the success of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, one of only two winners that I agreed with, the other being Possession by Antonia Byatt, also an historical novel, though slightly different in that it was a complete fiction, we now have several and more extraordinary still, we have two thrillers, not quite in the same genre as say PD James or Henning Mankell, but both a story of killings.
In The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt, we have an historical tale of the California Gold Rush of the 1870s, and we follow the activities of two psychopaths from Oregon City across to San Francisco on the trail of a Mr Warm. What Mr Warm has done to deserve the interest of these two brothers remains a mystery, even to Eli Sisters, the younger of the two until quite late in the day when they have more or less caught up with Mr Warm. By this time, several quite unrelated people are dead for no better reason than they got in the way of the trail, or were simply on the way there and ended up dead! Eli is beginning to have doubts about his profession, but Charlie is as vicious a killer as ever, such that Eli is beginning to be fearful for anyone around, Mr Warm or anyone else, including himself. In between the killings we do get a view of Wild West America, and oddities like the invention of toothpaste, all of which are more Coen Brothers territory than anything else, and there is a lot of black humour, irony and grisly, ghastliness; also comically, Eli’s romantic streak keeps breaking out in unruly disorder, so even in the middle of the killing spree, he is yearning to set up a General Store and settle down with a plain Jane.
In Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman we have one or more psychopaths. Though many people would question this definition, to my mind young men who carry knives with or without the intent to kill must be seen in this light, especially once they have killed.
In this book we are almost in Damilola Taylor country, a young Ghanaian boy is sent to England, city unspecified, to get a better life; a sister is left with Ama (grandmother) until more money can be found to bring her over. The city housing estate is a jungle and there are gang-fights and school-yard fights throughout, but at the very beginning there has been a brutal knife attack and a young boy’s blood congeals on the pavement. Our little hero Harrison, gets nearer and nearer the truth, which he is seeking out with the help of Dean – who has watched too many CSI TV programmes for his own good, watched over by his guardian angel – a pigeon. His sister Lydia (who has the nickname Chlamydia – which says a lot about the society we are in) is peripherally involved and her friend Miquita knows more than she is telling – the adults, mostly women are also on a knife edge as most of them are illegals. This novel also has a romantic element as Harrison is in love with Poppy, about the only decent character in the school.
Both these novels are worthy of a place on the Long List, though I suspect that Bloomsbury, who published the Stephen Kelman (his first novel) were aiming no higher than book groups and possibly a TV endorsement, since the book had, to me, the annoying feature of ‘pertinent questions’ that a book group might use for discussion and in the absence of Mr McNaughtie to pull in the live author and audience, a Q&A with the author. Errgh!
In my opinion, they should not appear on the short list however, and if they do I think it will reflect badly on the Man Booker Prize. Though it is interesting to note that along the Book Group theme, there is a list in Pigeon English of other books that might be read, including Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle which did win in 1993.