Monday, 5 April 2021

Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien - Ruby Reviews The Midnight Library by Matt Haig


I was driving around Kilkenny when I heard a chap being interviewed on Ireland’s RTE Radio 1 about his latest novel. I couldn’t quite follow what the book was about but the British author seemed humbled by the runaway success of this latest book and was stoic about his writing career of more than twenty titles. I memorised the title of this latest book and the name of the author, determined to get hold of it at the first opportunity, also noting The Humans which one listener texted in as their favourite of Haig’s previous works.

A couple of days later I found myself Googling Midnight Rider by author xxx. As usual, I had only remembered one word – Midnight. After running for a while down a rabbit hole of early 70s rock music, I rediscovered the actual title and author. Then, breaking our house Covid-19 lockdown rules of ordering locally, I bought it on Amazon UK as it was amazingly cheap at £5.00. I told myself I wanted to test the post-Brexit function of importing goods from the UK to the EU, but it was really because I’m tight-fisted. While I was in mean mode, I added The Humans to the basket.

The first piece of good news is Brexit hasn’t impacted on Amazon UK book delivery in Ireland. Six days later the package arrived with no extra taxes or charges. The second piece of good news was the cover looked like a light and easy read. It turned out to be speculative fiction (yes, I discovered the term on the internet after reading) and was an enjoyable read. Unfortunately, Matt Haig’s style is so light and humorous that I devoured The Midnight Library in two days and was left wanting more. Like a delicious bottle of wine that you know you should savour but can’t help guzzling and regret not having made it last. And there we have it. Regret. That’s what The Midnight Library is all about, and the main character’s journey towards the title of this review. I won’t get any closer to a spoiler than that.

Parallel universes and alternative realities make for some good books, and this is one of them. Haig’s finger-light touch and gentle humour contrast strongly with other titles that my mind dredged up – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – but The Midnight Library compares very favourably. It allows audience participation. We all have regrets about decisions taken and not taken during our lives, those what if moments when our futures may have followed a very different path. The Midnight Library is all about this. In fact, The Midnight Library is solely about this.

Nora is the main character, whose viewpoint we follow throughout the book. My mind immediately cast the lead singer of the post-punk band Dry Cleaning in this role. With a hypnotic drone of self-obsessed streams of consciousness (“I've come to join your knitting circle … It's a Rio de Janiero bouncy ball … Why don't you want oven chips now?” – from Scratchcard Lanyard) and a touch of suggested depression, Dry Cleaning’s singer and Nora became inseparable in my mind. Anyway. Back to the regrets.

I regret not studying harder for my A-levels, but then I would probably not have met my (current) wife, had two beautiful children in Switzerland and ended up happy together in Ireland. I regret having married my first wife, but then probably wouldn’t have had my beautiful daughter from that marriage. I regret investing in Irish banks before the global financial crisis and losing the equivalent of a brand new family car in the crash, but then we probably would have invested in a second home and lost even more. This is how it goes. In an alternative or parallel reality, decisions changed lead to different outcomes. Nora, through a personal crisis, very quickly gets into an enviable position of being able to choose and experience these parallel universes and that’s the premise of The Midnight Library.

String theory and quantum physics, multiverses and all that, I don’t quite buy it myself. Perhaps it’s because I can’t grasp the concept. During the time of reading this book, we watched a film called Blinded by the Light about a Pakistani boy growing up in Luton, Bedfordshire, UK during the late 1980s. It fascinated me, as that was where I had grown up a decade earlier. I watched the characters in Luton Sixth Form College, and regretted not having gone there instead of the small sixth form of my Catholic school, where I well and truly screwed up my education, at least for a while. Regret is like a living dream with endless re-runs, some of them heart-breaking and others trite. Why didn’t I stay in closer contact with my good friend Pino in Switzerland, only finding out on facebook that he had inexplicably passed away? Why didn’t I keep my mouth shut outside that pub in Luton (where I subsequently met my first wife) and avoid getting my front tooth knocked out and having a bridging crown at the front of my mouth for the rest of my life? I don’t believe there are multiverses, alternative realities existing where I and everyone else have made an infinity of different decisions. But it’s sometimes a good use of time to muse upon them. Because then we retrospectively appreciate our mistakes and can give ourselves credit for the good decisions we’ve made and the luck we have enjoyed.

The Midnight Library is a quick and easy read. Haig’s style is light and entertaining, although often dealing with heavy subjects. At no point did I want to put this book down because I’d had enough. In fact, I would happily have read an infinite number of pages of further alternative futures for Nora. Like one of the other travellers Nora meets, I think I might happily continue to slide between lives. The emotional vertigo that Nora experiences when she lands in the midst of an alternative reality is handled very well by the author, and I wonder if I could really cope with that.

No, I don’t regret anything. I’m going to stay in this life I have.

 

Thursday, 18 March 2021

Ruby Reviews The Making of a Detective by Pat Marry

 

True crime is a difficult genre to nail. A myriad of TV series and films attempt to rehash old crimes, using alleged expert talking heads and corny-voiced narrators to try and squeeze out entertainment from old material without any real insight. The viewer’s appetite is usually left unsated. The same is often the case with true crime in print. An author might gather together a number of similar historical crimes and then, based on research, attempt to serve them up as fresh. In other cases, a memoir can turn out to be disappointingly free of detail from actual cases and more focussed on the introspective views of the author. In the latter case, it is the memoir author’s prerogative to avoid sensationalism if they choose to do so, but it might not delivery the blood and guts a hungry reader thirsts for. Pat Marry’s The Making of a Detective - A Garda's Story of Investigating Some of Ireland's Most Notorious Crimes is a rare book in that it delivers unique insight, juicy true crime case discussion and enough life history to bring the author’s experience and character to the fore.

What often struck me when reading The Making of a Detective was how well it is written. The pace and depth of content are well-balanced. Marry does seem a bit of a strange and quirky character. I can imagine most of the GardaĆ­ who worked with him during his thirty year policing career in Ireland would have polarised opinions about him. Methodical, determined, analytical, a constant learner. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear he has OCD or similar. The man’s portrait is very effectively painted.

A frequent problem with true crime books is repetition. The TV series are terrible in this respect, assuming their viewers have such a short span of attention that there must be a recap after each ad break. Other true crime / crime sector memoir books I have read often cause me to flick back through the pages, trying to substantiate an apparent contradiction, to find where else the story has been half-told in an earlier chapter. The Making of a Detective avoids this. In my opinion, this is because Marry used a very skilled ghost writer to pen his book. He even goes so far as to thank and name her, Rachel Pierce, in the Acknowledgements. Even stranger, the Acknowledgments at the end of the book, a section which I usually skim or ignore, is interesting for its content as a standalone chapter.

The Making of a Detective has a strong structure, each chapter dealing with a different perspective on crime. Marry talks about The Dead Body Effect, A Disarming Killer, The devil is in the Detail and so on. These would make good titles for different episodes of a TV series. He reveals fascinating detail of police procedures, advances in forensics, the psychology of crime, and other matters, always referenced to real life cases in Ireland. Most of these cases are murders and Marry has had close involvement with many high profile Irish murder cases, which obviously helps. The reader is left with an impression that Marry is an effective detective who, once on the trail of a perpetrator, is likely to get his wo/man.

As a crime author living in Ireland, the real reason I chose this book was in the hope of gaining further insight of Irish crime detection procedural matters. The Making of a Detective didn’t disappoint on this count either. Marry’s career has brought him from the pre-DNA wilderness years to a current forensic environment which is highly hostile to the perpetrator. If the authorities have a suspect in the frame then it is increasingly difficult for them not to have left incriminating evidence.

If I have one criticism of this book, it is the lack of an index. I know it’s not a text book but there are so many interesting and useful references to aspects of crime that I wish I had labelled the pages while reading. So off I go now, to re-read The Making of a Detective.