Saturday SkandiKrime: Trapped 2 – episode 1

After the sheer risibility of Black Lake 2, the announcement of the long-awaited second series of the Iceland-set Trapped was greeted with whoops and hollers in one Stockport pokey little flat. Superior story-telling for at least four weeks: if the second series was only half as good as the 2014 first, I would be very satisfied indeed.

In fact, I have five weeks of delight to look forward to, as Trapped 2 eschews the recent Scandinavian trend towards eight episode series and adheres to the traditonal ten parts we came to know and love from The Killing onwards. And whilst BBC4 is showing them in the usual block of two episodes weekly, the first episode was so rich and deep, and the experience so wonderful, that I’m going to watch (and blog) only one at a time.

Last time round, Andri Olafson (Olafur Darri Olafson), detective, was the Chief of Police in a tiny, northern town, a little piece of nothing in a deep fjord. It was a place of vast whitenesses, a deeply attractive, entirely quiet place. Andri, who came from this unnamed town, had been posted there in disgrace, after failing badly on a case. But with the town cut off by blizzard and avalanche, he was left to tackle a complex murder case. Andri’s successful resolution, amidst substantial family problems, saw him regain his old post at the capitol, Reykjavik.

Four years have passed. The opening episode doesn’t waste any time: Halla, Minister for Industries, is walking with three aides in front of Parliament. She’s approached by a semi-derelict man, rough clothing, dishevelled hair, unshaven, anxious expression, red-faced. She knows him, she stops to talk to him but it’s only to tell him, not for the first time it appears, that she owes him nothing. He grabs her, holds her tight, produces a lighter. His clothes are soaked in gasoline. He sets them both alight.

It’s quick, it’s direct, it’s shocking. It’s the crime, and it’s the way into what, after only one episode, seems to be a potentially infinite web of secrets.

Andri catches the case. The man, Gisli, in Halla’s brother, her twin brother. She hasn’t had contact with the rest of the family for twenty years. He’s died. She’s severely burnt, in hospital. He, they, are from a town up north, where there are recurring protests against an industrial plat in the process of construction, as well as an obscure political sect calling itself Hammer of Thor (as you expect, they are extreme nationalists, Iceland for Icelanders, a bunch of racists). The town Gisli comes from, where all this is happening, is Andri’s old town.

Before flying up there, to be re-united with his old colleagues, the imperturbable, quiet and brilliant Hinrika (Ilmur Kristjansdottir) and the rangy, rather more negligible Aesgir (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson), Andri calls upon his ex-wife, Agnes, and younger daughter Perla, to let them know he’s off up north, but mainly to let us know that elder daughter Thorhildur (Elva Maria Birgisdottir), now 15, has gone to live there with her Aunt Laufey (Katla M Thorgirsdottir). Thorhildur won’t speak to either her mother or father and has a record of stealing things: a troubled teen.

Even before Andri arrives, we are pitched into things we don’t yet understand, and relationships we have to learn. The show simply drops us into them. It doesn’t telegraph anything, doesn’t put up cue cards so we don’t have to pick it up, doesn’t tie anything up in pink ribbon, which is why I think so highly of it. Even when Andri arrives and has people introduced to him, it’s difficult to work out just who is related to who, and in what manner, because nearly everybody seems to be.

There’s Vikingur, Gisli’s son, who is gay, by the way, and works at the plant, where the impressively bearded Finnur (his father’s brother-in-law), apparently a homophobe, is warning the black-skinned Ebo to stay away from Vikingur or get deported, because he doesn’t want something revealing to Vikingur. Gisli’s ex-wife, Steinum, Vikingur’s mother, divorced him ages ago and married his brother, whilst her sister is married to Finnur, and their son Aron, aged 17, is Thorhildur’s boyfriend (and probable bedmate: there’s a wonderfully dry line from Hinrika when Andri, dubious about whether his elder daughter’s virginity is still something for her to bestow, asks what she thinks: Hinrika asks what age Andri first had sex, then warns him, if he says it was different, he was a boy, she’ll lock him up!).

Gisli doesn’t seem to have been well-liked even among his family. He was a miserable, grumpy sod who seems to have thought the world owed him something. His sheep farm had just failed, his mortgage foreclosed, his home stripped by the bailiffs. That’s enough of a cause for anyone to crack up and make a futile, suicidal gesture, but things are not so simple. Gisli was friends with another farmer, Ketill (Stein Armann Magnusson), a reactionary with about a dozen grown sons, a farmer protesting the plant, protesting governments and Mayors who spout bllshit about the plant and how it’s going to mean money for everyone, because Ketill knows it will only released poison gas to kill all their sheep and spoil all theitr countryside, which will be sold off to foreigners like a cheap whore (overused phrase).

In short, Ketill is the fanatics fanatic. Gisli’s sheep are all dead in the barn, killed by a boltgun, same as his dog. The inference is that Gisli did it, because he was driven crazy by his insurmountable losses, but to Ketill, Gisli was both a victim and a martyr, and the dead sheep get dumped in the town centre as evidence of how he’s right (oh, this man is always going to be right, in his own mind anyway) about the plant.

He may not be entirely wrong: the drilling is causing quite substantial earthquakes.

So there’s a lot going on, on personal and criminal levels, and just plain secrecy. Back in Reykjavik, the Prime minister does question Trausti, Andri’s old enemy, as to whether they can trust him on a case like this: we’re going to have to, Trausti sighs. It’s going to be fun watching Andri and Hinrika unpick this.

One thing that worried me was that in series 1, everything was white, and now it’s green and brown. It’s not global warming, however, but simply the Icelandic summer. Last time round, people were physically trapped. This time, it’s psychological. I am already very, very pleased.


Film 2019: Comfort and Joy

Writer-Director Bill Forsyth made four Scottish films in the first half of the Eighties, all made on various lengths of shoestring, the first two of which being dominated by various members of the Glasgow Youth Theatre, who popped up in his later two in small parts. After that, he was poached by Hollywood, where he made the well-received Housekeeping, then seemed to disappear from public consciousness (two later films, at lengthening intervals, were flops).

Comfort and Joy is the last of those Scottish films. The first three, That Sinking Feeling, Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, all featured in Film 2018. I’d seen Comfort and Joy when it was in the cinema (probably my local cinema, the Burnage Odeon) and found it very funny, but it’s noticeable that I don’t think I’ve seen it again since, and it was only the watching of the other three last year that impressed on me that I’d never bought the film on DVD. So, here it is.

I remembered enjoying it, and thinking it was Forsyth back on track after the disappointment of Local Hero (which, three decades later, I thoroughly enjoy), and being under the impression that it had been as big a success as Gregory’s Girl, which I now find it wasn’t. And, three decades later, watching the film for what may only be the second time ever, I find it a tremendous disappointment.

Some of that is obviously personal. Bill Patterson stars as Allan ‘Dicky’ Bird, a local radio DJ, whose shows are as empty-headed and fluffy as you can imagine.  Not that we know him at first: in a cleverpiece of misdirection, Forsyth opens on a tall, elegant, well-dressed, gorgeous redhead (Eleanor David) shoplifting in a Glasgow Shopping Centre in the run-up to Xmas. Allan drifts in and out of the background, observing Maddie’s actions. As she leaves, he follows her, catches up to her, Store Detective about to arrest her, but no. He tells her she’ll be the death of him, they both pile into his car, they actually live together and have done for four years. They’re in love. I’d be in love with her (though I’d be a lot more worried about the kleptomania that Allan).

They fit well together. There’s an air of ease about them together, comfort and joy. They share a wavelength, their conversation is light and bantering, a pair who know each other and speak that private language all couples do, based in shaared emotion and happenstance.

And then Maddie starts going around their flat, removing ornaments from shelves and putting them in a box. Allan waches her amused for a while, Maddie’s eccentric, it’s part of why he loves her. Even so, eventually he has too ask what she’s doing. She’s leaving him. Tonight. She’d meant to talk to him about it for months but the opportunity never came up. There’s a truck due tonight, she’s taking all his things.

The abruptness of it all, in the midst of genuine content, the fact that the flat is practically stripped to the bare bones because everything is hers, and that Maddie won’t tell him why, it being a done thing, decided upon, it’s too late to talk now, is meant to be disruptively funny. It’s shocking, to the point of absurdity. It’s meant to be funny, I found it funny in 1984 but I don’t find it funny now. Because I’ve had a marital breakdown, I’ve been where Allan is here, being the one that was still in love. I don’t find it funny, becaue I can’t find it funny.

Forsyth never gives a reason or a hint of a reason, but then that’s not the point of the break-up. It’s not what the film’s about, it’s the catalyst, the MacGuffin. The point is to put Allan ‘Dicky’ Bird into a state of turmil, to empty out his comfortable life, to make him suggestible. It hasn’t affected his professional career, he’s just as empty-headed as usual on the radio. Mind you, we don’t hear him till after so we don’t get to do a before-or-after, which I think would have made the film stronger in that respect, maybe he is down.

The point is, Allan himself feels his show, his clownish on-air persona, to be empty-headed. He’s looking for something new, something to be a change of direction, a change of flavour as he and the film put it. And it comes at random, taking us into the meat of the film.

Stuck in a traffic jam, Allan finds himself next to an ice cream van, Mr Bunny, in which there’s a very pretty girl with long curly hair (of course she’s pretty, she’s Clare Grogan, here billed under her Equity name of C.P. Grogan). On a whim, and because she smiled at him, and despite her being in her early twenties and Allan being early Forties, he follows the van, out into the Wild West suburbs of North Glasgow. There’s even a railway bridge tunnel to go through or, in Alice in Wonderland symbolism, a rabbit-hole to drop down.

Because just after Allan succumbs to temptation and buys a 99, with raspberry, from talkative Trevor (Alex Norton, later of Taggart) and the silent Charlotte, two guys in ski-masks pull up and start attacking the van with iron bars: whee, we really are in Glasgow, aren’t we? And just before driving off, one of them wants Dicky Bird’s autograph.

What the film is segueing into is Forsyth’s take on the infamous Glasgow Ice Cream Wars (a topic introduced to him by Peter Capaldi, who comes from a Scottish ice cream family). It’s the old, established Mr McCool line, run by an impeccably Italian family who give off the old Mafiaair, and the independent, semi-cowboy Mr Bunny (formerly Mr Softy) upcomers.

Allan can’t believe that so violent a war is taking place in suburban Glasgow, under his DJ nose, and about something so trivial as ice cream. The McCool’s ask him to arrange a meeting, as a neutral, but all they’re doing is using him to find the Mr Bunny factory so they can smash it up. Allan’s trying to impress Charlotte, except that Grogan is being woefully underused in the film: she gets to hang around looking decorative, one lengthy speech all in Italian, and the would-be relationship dies an unstarted death when Forsyth seems to forget it.

Because the ‘twist’ is, and it falls as flat as everything is now becoming, that these two sides are family: Charlotte is Mr McCool’s daughter, Trevor – who comes from an old-established fisn’n’chip shop background – his nephew. Allan’s completely irrelevant.

But he’s also essential to solving this problem, by steering both families into a highly-profitable joint venture, ice-cream fritters. That’s it, a cold but intact ball of ice-cream in a deep-fried batter. Everybody goes nuts for it. And Allan gets 30% off the top on account of a) it’s his idea – even if he stole it from a station on-air recipe and a thriving Chinese industry and b) only he holds the secret of the ingredient that preserves the ice-cream from melting in the deep-fat fryer: the Chinese don’t give this secret out to just anyone, he points out, hoping to flim-flam the audience past the fact that Forsyth can’t come up with a reason they’d share it with him.

(I think we’re meant to assume it’s because he’s Dicky Bird, local personality, has his autograph requested everywhere he goes.)

So, that’s the war over. And we leave Dicky Bird in the studio on Christmas Day afternoon, volunteering to cover the shift of a colleague married with children, and just presenting a relaxed, unhurried, lightweight show. He’s still without the mysterious Maddie, he hasn’t tried to get anywhere with Charlotte, he’s just a local radio DJ again, without a thought in his head.

Which isn’t necessarily that bad. It’s not my sort of thing and you’d have to strap me onto a rack before you could get me to listen to it, but Forsyth slips in a scene, in a quiet and almost irrelevant section of the film, where Allan visits his surgeon friend, Colin (a laid-back to the point of being almost horizontal Patrick Mallahide), whilst he’s doing his rounds. He introduces Dicky to an eldeerly lady who’s been there two months. She’s quietly delighted. She listens to his show every morning, she’s always up early, and she enjoys it immensely.

It’s a reminder to us, and implicitly to Dicky, that even being an empty-headed local radio DJ isn’t meaningless, that there are folk for whom this is a welcome pleasue, a comfort and joy, and that they and he are not to be despised because our tastes and preferences are different.

No, Comfort and Joy now doesn’t work for me, at all. Whilst the lead players are all good actors, there are two many awkward and stilted players in the minor roles, who bring a wooden aspect to the film, whilst the look of the film, from its film-stock to its sweeping vistas of Glasgow inner-city motorways, conveys the impression of a TV film, even though this was a full commercial cinema release. It’s definitely the weakest of Forsyth’s Scottish films (I have heard, from every source I’ve seen, that the belated sequel, Gregory’s Two Girls, is awfy bad, but as not even the rack could get me to profane my love for the original film by watching that, I’ll never have to decide).

So: almost fourteen months since I started this Sunday morning film series, and this is my first all-out disappointment, I shalln’t rush to give ita third spin.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s ‘Buy for me the Rain’

For years, decades even, the thought of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was of ‘House at Pooh Corner’ or ‘Some of Shelley’s Blues’. Then, a decade or so back, on a Saturday morning in that lost land of Brian Matthew and Sound of the Sixties, our old mate played this song, and I fell hopelessly for it.
‘Buy for me the Rain’ was the Nitty Gritties’ first single, in 1967. Like all their other singles except ‘Mr Bojangles’, it wasn’t a hit, though it only missed out on a Top 40 placing by a few stops.
This is not what I expect to hear when I think of the Nitty Gritty Dirt band. It is a pop single, fully, and sweetly orchestrated and given a higher level of production than the work I knew. But as you ought to understand by now, to me, pop is not a dirty word. ‘Buy for me the Rain’ may be uncharacteristic of the band, may well have been forced upon them as the price of a recording deal, but it is an utter gem, graced with flawless playing and harmonies to die for. If all pop were this good, no-one would think the word disgusting.
There’s a jangly, picked out riff that sounds like a combination of acoustic guitar and banjo to open the song, which runs like a river through the whole track but the main musical motif is provided by the strings, which dance and play. The sound is buoyant in its airiness, and the lyrics complement the sense of wonder and magic.
The song’s title is its first line. There are four four-line verses, no chorus or middle eight. Buy for me the Rain, the singer asks his darling. The first three verses follow this simple yet magical request. He’ll ask her to buy him the sun, and each request is expanded upon in the second line, the crystal pools that fall upon the plain, the light that falls when day has just begun. Things that are impossible to buy, impossible to hold.
But these are not to be unreciprocated gifts. For each one the singer will buy a gift in return, something else fantastic and impossible to produce, but which is a glory equal or superior than that for which he asks: a rainbow and a million pots of gold, a shadow to protect you from the day.
The third verse descends, if it can be said to descend, to the realistic. Buy for me the robin, the wing, a sparrow, almost any flying thing, for which he will buy her a tree, where a robin’s nest may grow.
What marks this move to the manageable? It’s that this song, so clean, clear and happy, carries within it a shadow, and it’s that shadow of which Andrew Marvell spoke in To His Coy Mistress: But at my back I always hear/Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near. The requests may be fanciful, but there’s a sense of urgency in the last line of each verse, emphasised by the echo, a single voice repeating the last few words after the band sing the line: Buy for me now, babe, before I am too old, Buy for me now, babe, before I go away, Buy for me now, babe, the years all hurry so.
Things are rushing on, to an end, time is the permanent enemy, the gifts lovers give to each other must be exchanged soon or not at all, when love is at its most powerful, or they may be exchanged never.
The rain, the sun, are magical things. As we fade, the things we want become smaller, more manageable. The power to give the ungiveable fades within us. And in its final verse, the song makes explicit what all leads to. The singer no longer asks for anything. Instead he is plain and honest at being unable to provide magic. I cannot buy you happiness, he tells her, I cannot buy you years. Time’s shadow is falling upon her and it’s growing dark. He cannot buy her happiness in place of all the tears.
But he can buy for her a gravestone, to lay behind her head, but that is only cold comfort and the song comes to its bleakest line, before the jangly guitars and the winding strings are all that is left, because gravestones cheer the living, dear. They’re no use to the dead.
In sixteen lines, surrounded by joyous music that uplifts the spirit, writers Steve Noonan and Greg Copeland and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band create a tuneful, romantic pop song that holds all the darkness attendant upon love. You wouldn’t think it from the sound. If that was all you listened too, life would be a sideshow, a funhouse, a promise. But life isn’t like that. The song and the band know. In the midst of happiness, we are in tears.
Noonan went on to record the song himself, a slowed down, stripped down version, built upon acoustic guitars and minimal bass, with drums. The aim and the effect is melancholy, an exact fit to the ultimate end of the words. But that reduces the song to one feeling. It takes away the joy, the sense of wonder, the contrast that brings that final verse alive. The gravestone comes as no surprise, because even the giving of rain and sun and robins has been unhappy. Shadows in the midst of light stand out.
Buy for me the rain, my darling, buy for me the rain.

A Man to be Respected: John Stalker R.I.P.

We of Manchester perceive very quickly that, despite it taking place over fifty years ago, the shadow of the Moors Murders hangs  over our city. You don’t have to have been born then to understand it, you just have to be Mancunian.

Back then, there was an implicit trust in the Police that for many of us has failed to survive the never-ending stream of revelations about their actions, large and small. Some Police Officers, however, transcend that suspicion.

John Stalker worked on the Moors Murders case as a Detective Sergeant, and has commented thaat no other case disturbed him so deeply. I, on the other hand,  remember him not for an investigation that took place when I lived in an area that might one day have made me a victim, though I was still younger than all the victtims. I remember Stalker as the Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester who had to balance out the mad religious fanatic, James Anderton, and as the man who investigated Police actions in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, only to be removed from his post in controversial circumstances that suggested he was dismissed for finding out things that people didn’t want found.

I bought his memoirs in hardback. It was the first thing I ever bought on my credit card, and I ordered it to be signed to ‘Martin and Mary’, our first joint signature. When we broke up, years later, I let her retain it: maybe she still has it?

Stalker was someone you trusted, someone you saw as straight: both honest and straightforward. No-one ever got to the bottom of his dismissal from Northern Ireland, but though it meant a failure, and ultimately led to the end of his Police career, it was a mark of honour.

Now he’s passed, aged 79. It’s been a bad week for losing the kind of people of whom there are already far too few in this world, and in this poor, insane country. I don’t see where the future John Stalkers are coming from. I wish I believed they’re still possible.

The Man Who… R.I.P. Eric Harrison

Youth team coaches are rarely famous outside the specislist interest of football club fans. Eric Harrison, who has died aged 81, was the glorious exception. He was the youth team coach at Manchester United from 1981 to 1999, and that makes him the man who brought through the Famous Five, the Class of ’92, the Can’t-Win-Anything-With Kids. Gary Neville, Phil Neville, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes. And, let’s not forget, their slightly senior team-mate Ryan Wilson, who then took his Mum’s surname, of Giggs.

Any one of these would be worth an entire career, but all of them? And at once?

Oh yes, United, and we, and Eric were all blessed that this quintet/sextet came along at the same time, that they had both the talent and the application to makewhere others of their generation, equally and in some cases reportedly better talented, never broke through for one reason or another. But Eric Harrison was the one who coached them, developed them, directed and enabled those talents to the extent we all saw and we all rejoiced in.

We owe you, Eric Harrison, and I owe you all those times I marvelled and shouted and jumped up and roared, and for the magic that was the ginger genius, the small, asthmatic who might not have made it, I owe you the memory of Paul Scholes, and I thank you and I promise you that yours is one of the names that will always be legends in our club’s story. Thanl you, and may whatever gods you believed in grant you peace and happiness.

Lou Grant: s01 e10 – Psych-Out

For some reason, this episode (which I initially feared wasn’t available) runs some six minutes longer than the other first season episodes on YouTube, 52 minutes as opposed to an average of 46. Given how the amount of advert time per hour has increased since those golden days of yore (1978 to you), it does get me suspecting that what I’ve been watching thus far have been episodes edited to fit modern timeslots. Not that I’ve suspected anything missing thus far, so if the previous and succeeding episodes are edited, it’s been done so skillfully that the storyline has been completely unaffected.

This was one of the ones I remembered, from a Saturday night in the BBC1 television lounge in Alexandra Court in Nottingham. Not in detail, but vividly enough for me to spot early on that I knew where this was leading.

The direction was nicely concealed, with the episode leading on a B story, Billie and Animal reporting on a censorship case featuring an extreme example of the Mary Whitehouse ilk, albeit male, trying to restrict what plays could be performed in their community (As You Like It was amongst those to be banned, because it’s title ‘sounds dirty’).

This strand provided a running gag in the form of a list: to avoid having to use offensive words in Court, the would-be censor numbered and listed them, leasing to some byplay about the numbers (best bit was when Mrs Pynchon was enquiring about no 31, looked it up in a dictionary, was seriously taken aback, then asked Lou to explain it to Eddie in the Compositing Room: she’d promised to enlighten him when she found out).

It also segued neatly into what was almost a C story, with Lou running up against a new and over-eager, over-cautious member of the legal team, attempting to effectively censor his stories, to avoid law-suits: Mrs Pynchon’s attitude was that as long as the Trib could win, bring it on.

But the meat of the episode, the A story, for once centred upon the much-maligned Joe Rossi. Damn good reporter, could be a great one, but doesn’t get involved in his stories, doesn’t get to the heart of them. Lou’s riding him over that, needling him. So when Rossi finds a story about a worker’s protest developing into a complex series of questions about mental health-care in California, edging towards the claim that patients, instead of being treated, are simply being doped to the gills to keep them quiet, I remembered where this was going.

Frustrated at continually being shunted around the edges, Rossi fakes anxiety symptoms (his car radio is talking to him, especially after it’s switched off, telling him to drive into the opposite lane) and gets himself checked in to Glenview. Under the name of Carl Woodward, no less.

Once inside, he’s observant, busy, active. He talks to fellow patients, or inmates as they prefer to call themselves, those who are not too out of it. He observes the staaff’s unconscious attitudes to the patients: in a room of men,  a female assistant hitches her skirt up to the top of her thigh to adjust her tights as if no-one is there, because she only sees patients, not human beings.

And when Rossi finally gets to see a Doctor, he learns he’s already been labelled scizophrenic by the first doctor he saw outside, that his revelations as to his true identity and his intentions to write a story based on his observations, are merely evidence of his mental illness. He is overcome by orderlies carrying a strait-jacket, and his medication is upped: way upped, and this time he can’t escape taking it.

Rossi’s disappeared. Back at the Trib, everyone’s starting to get worried, and Lou guilty, until a woman Rossi had spoken to, inside, who gave a low key account of the horrific double-tragedy of being refused release when her son was knocked down by a car, refused seeing him before he died, and not allowed her grief due to the medication, confirms his whereabouts.

Rossi emerges doped, placid, half asleep, a complete contrast. He writes a powerful story, identifying the danger of labelling people and then trearting the label, not the person. It leads Charlie Hulme to point out that they do that inside the paper: the tall, rangy, scruffy, unshaven photographer they call The Animal, or Animal for short, has a name, Dennis. It confuses the hell out of him when they start using it!

And there’s a neat wrap-up of the ‘C-story’, as lawyer Sackler objects to Rossi’s story (it’s only a story, so what, there are hundreds of others, he says). He’s just off to the racketball court, but Lou, having been instructed to communicate interdepartmentally, communicates. He wants to go over the story, sentence by sentence, see what Sackler objects to. It’s nine pages long. By nightfall, they’ve reached page three…

Agaiin, a very neat episode, very carefully written and composed to make all the points it wants and needs to make succinctly and effectively. Unless you’re a conservative of course. Shows like this are definitely in my socio-political wheelhouse.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘A Borrowed Man’

The most recent of Gene Wolfe’s novels, A Borrowed Man, published in 2015, is another first-person narrative, tending towards the incapable writer approach of which I complained last time. This is told by Ernie A Smithe, a reclone. The difference between reclones and clones is never explained, but as set out in the book, they appear to operate on a similar basis as Vanessa Hennesy in Home Fires, save that the reclones are grown before having a brain scan impressed upon them.
Reclones appear to only be writers. They have no individual legal status in a society that has all but foregone paper books. In effect, the reclone is the book, and is stored in a Library from which they can be checked out. Literally, they live on shelves, in small and spartanly-appointed ‘apartments’.
Ernie, or the original, flesh and blood Ernie, was a writer of mystery stories, unsuccessful in life, his books all but disappeared. He rarely gets borrowed, but then not many reclones do get borrowed, and it seems he is on the path towards eventual withdrawal from circulation which, just like an unwanted physical book, involves burning.
The world of the book is very different to ours, and as usual Wolfe makes few direct references to the distinctions. According to the book jacket, the story takes place in the Twenty-Second century, and humanity, at least in the equivalent of America, lives in towns of presumably smaller size, whilst the cities are ruined and abandoned.
We’re told that the Earth’s population is now about a billion, as opposed to the 57.7 billion of 2119, but that people still believe that to be too high and want to reduce it to half that size (Wolfe, a devout Catholic, makes no outward sign of disturbance at this). Reclones do not count in this number: they are property, not people. They are forbidden possessions, any form of independent life and, worst of all, given they are all writers, they are barred from writing: mental regulators prevent them from doing so.
Ern, or Ernie or Smithe, however you call him, exists 137 years after the life of his original. ‘He’ was once married to, then divorced from, poet Arabella Lee, who he still loves, and two contrastingly-behaving reclones of whom he meets during the story. Which starts with Ernie being borrowed by Collette Coldbrook, an attractive young woman with violet eyes to die for. She’s the daughter of financial wizard Conrad Coldbrook Senior, who has recently died naturally, and the sister of Conrad Coldbrook Junior, who has even more recently died unnaturally. The only thing in Conrad Senior’s highly secure safe, when it was opened, was a copy of (original) Ernie’s book, ‘Murder on Mars’.
Collette wants Ernie, a former writer of mystery fiction, to unravel the secret the book contains or represents. There are other parties interested in the secret, and at various points Collette and Ernie are attacked in Collette’s apartment and stripped naked, Collette is abducted, and Ernie borrowed by a pair named Payne and Fish, who beat him for all manner of answers about the Coldbrook family.
When it comes to Ernie’s book, it appears that not only may no other copy of it exist, but that it’s existence has been wiped completely from all consultable records.
Once Collette is apparently abducted – though this turns out to actually be taken into custody by Dane van Patten, another official ‘tough buy’ whose role is less cop than Tax Collector, Ernie obligingly checks himself back into the nearest library, before being sent back to his home Library. Payne and Fish borrow him, out for all manner of information on the Coldbrook family.
Ernie eventually escapes, and goes on the run, so to speak, picking up a couple of drifters along the way, Georges (a pseudonym for a former Police Captain) and his mute companion, Mahala who, if taken, will be committed to an institute because she cannot speak: apparently, the world requires protection from the sight of imperfect people.
Ernie takes them to the Coldbrook family home where, without ever taking hem properly into his confidence, he uses their skills to investigate the murder mystery. In an awkward twist, the mystery turns out to be that Conrad Senior has discovered or created a spacial portal to a distant planet, which he keeps in an upstairs room, where he has discovered an emerald mine. It’s simultaneously a stretch to incorporate such a notion, impeccably SF though it may be, into a dystopic future-Earth milieu, and actually a bit banal.
Unfortunately, and especially once Ernie, Georges and Mahala get together, there are yet more and more pages of conversations assessing means, motives and evidence for and against theories about what other people have done, or may have done. I was tired of it in The Land Across and my receptivity to it has not increased in A Borrowed Man, which is also a rather more lightweight, and shorter piece of fiction than its predecessor.
Along the way, and typically without attention being drawn to it, it becomes apparent that Conrad Coldbrook, Junior died after Senior, and not before, as Collette had led Ernie to believe. The book’s ending has Ernie explaining whodunnit, not to the cat in the Library, but to the murderess on her own: Junior thought Senior dead and went into his Laboratory, the angry Senior strangled Junior in front of Collette, who then poisoned him.
In order that this reveal not be exposed to the authorities, all Collette has to do is check Ernie out for a couple of days, once a year. That way, he’ll be kept indefinitely, and not burned. And so it ends.
A Borrowed Man was Wolfe’s 31st and, it appears, last novel. Soon after it came out, his Wikipedia entry was referring to a sequel, Interlibrary Loan, for publication in 2016, but that disappeared a very long time ago. A couple of years back, I heard that Wolfe was writing it, but not for publication. There are no new references to it online.
Gene Wolfe is now 88. He’s undergone quadruple bypass heart surgery, and lost his wife of sixty years, Rosemary, first to Alzheimer’s then to death. It does not appear that he will write anything more.
What we have is good enough for any one man’s lifetime. If some of the books towards the end are weak in comparison with his major works, if I’ve been critical of books that, for various reasons have not worked for me, everything Wolfe has written is worthy of investigation. He is at the least intriguing, and even in the weakest book, there are hidden puzzles for the reader to tease out, puzzles that Wolfe will take with him, unconfirmed, when we lose one of the greatest writers we have had.