Hello. Today we’re joined by Derek Farrell, creator of the highly stylised Danny Bird mysteries – described by Eric Idle as ‘quite fun’. He – Derek that is – lists his work history as burger dresser, bank teller, paper boy to David Bowie and investment banker and he claims that he and his husband own every Kylie Minogue record ever made (a bold claim, since it was hitherto believed that no one who bought the first two records bought the third, and vice versa. I am, literally, Shocked).
Anyway, his choices of under-rated books are ace, so let’s get straight to them:
The Aggravations of Minnie Ashe by Cyril Kersh
Minnie Ashe is a widowed mother who lives with her son (the narrator of this and its equally brilliant sequel Minnie Ashe at Wa’) in a terraced house in North London.
Around them are drawn a community from Uncle Mendel with his endless schemes to move to Hollywood, Esther Cooperman who dreams of men’s legs, Iron Foot Yossel with his outrageous quotations, Uncle Ben picking the tulips from the dining room wallpaper, Rachel Timmus who wraps herself in bicycle inner-tubes as a protection against lightning, the sage Rabbi Klothboltz and a cast of people who are simultaneously as real and surreal as only characters based in truth can be.
My father read this in the 70s and laughed so much, at one point, that he was asked to get off a bus because his hysteria was worrying the other passengers.
I read it first in the 80s, have re-read it many times since, and still laugh til I cry at some of the passages in it.
Kersh only wrote a handful of books, but if I could write something with the humanity, the humour, the pathos and the out-and-out life that this disgracefully out of print book is seeped in I would die a happy man.
The sense of community, the characters, the surreal clashing with the mundane all embedded themselves in my psyche and when I look at my own Danny Bird Mysteries I can see how much this book inspired me.
Unnatural fire by Fidelis Morgan
Unnatural fire is another book that mixes laugh-til-you-choke comedy with whip-smart plotting and pacing. This time, we’re in London in 1699 and our heroine is the perfectly named Anastasia Ashby de la Zouche, Baroness Penge, Countess of Clapham, former mistress to Charles II, an aristo on the last of her uppers – too rich to die, too poor to live.
Cast in into the notorious Fleet Prison by the bum-bailiffs, the countess is forced to turn to journalism: gathering salacious tit-bits for a scandal sheet. But she and her maid Alpiew (think Susanna from The marriage of Figaro but more foul mouthed) encounter more intrigue than they bargained for when a mysterious woman hires them to follow her husband Beau, whom she suspects of adultery.
Their pursuit of the possibly errant husband allows for a fantastically learned and hugely entertaining exploration of 17th century London and ends abruptly in a Covent Garden churchyard – leaving the Countess and Alpiew implicated in a murder.
But worse is to follow, for to unravel their only clue to the identity of the real killer they must penetrate the mysteries of alchemy.
These books (there are 4 in the series) should have been HUGE, and should absolutely be TV series, filled with lust laughter loathing, poison posing and profanity, and if you’re still struggling to imagine them think of a Peter Ackroyd novel that’s fun but wears its vast knowledge far less ostentatiously.
These gripping mysteries are London <even today> in a nutshell and I cannot recommend them highly enough.
At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill
At Swim, Two Boys is set in Dublin before and during the 1916 Easter Rising. It tells the love story of two young Irish men: Jim Mack and Doyler Doyle. Jim goes to school on a scholarship (for which he is looked down upon) – he is quiet, studious, thoughtful, and naïve. In contrast, Doyler is outspoken, rebellious, brave, and affectionate. Doyler might once have received a scholarship, like Jim, but Doyler withdrew from school to find work and support his impoverished family, leading the boys to grow apart. They have an additional connection through their fathers, who served in the army together during the Boer War, and were once best friends.
Some books sort of soak into your marrow, and become a part of you, of your outlook; or they remind you who you are when you’ve almost forgotten. This is one of those books. It’s also the only book I have ever skipped work for. I was about 200 pages from the end and I knew I had to finish the book, but I wouldn’t have time on the commute, and I’d have to wait all day to pick it up again, so I called in sick and sat in the park and read to the end then went home shellshocked, lost and yet filled with light.
It’s a challenging read in places – some people have told me that the stream-of-consciousness opening and the language (a lot of Dublin colloquialisms) put them off, but to them I say to read it like Ulysses. Imagine it’s an opera: You don’t always know exactly what the characters are saying but you get the emotions and – before you know it – your ear has attuned and you absolutely know what’s being said.
The scale of the book is epic – the characters range from Jim and Doyler, two boys whose names will vanish on the mist of time, all the way up to characters who appear in every 20th Century Irish History book. It features major historical set pieces including the 1916 rising with scenes in the GPO, but focuses on the humanity at each point rather than the spectacle.
It’s a novel that manages to be both meta and micro, to show us one of the most densely packed cities in the British Empire in all its hope and hopelessness, luxury and squalor, and to show us a love story that’s believable, beautiful, and heartbreaking in its simplicity.
I tell everyone I know to read this one. Not all of them do, but the ones who get to the end come back every single time and thank me.
*Hears sound of TBR lists being updated everywhere.* What a cracking set of recommendations – thank you Derek.
Now, the first in the Danny Bird mysteries is Death of a Diva, but the latest is Death of a Sinner which is part of Fahrenheit Press’s ‘69 crime’ series of tête-bêche – or flippable – double-bills, and is paired with Everything Happens by Jo Perry. You can get it directly from publishers Fahrenheit Press.
We’re also giving a shout out to Noir from the Bar, the anthology from those lovely folks behind the legendary Noir at the Bar who in just a month put together an anthology of 30 crime shorts. With the authors waiving payment, all proceeds are going to NHS charities. Derek’s own contribution, The Return, is described as:
The Oddysey. But with bankjobs, shooters, false eyelashes and explosives.
Who could ask for anything more? Get it here.
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