There are certain themes we always seem to return to on crime fiction blogs. We talk about social writing, about books that give us a sense of time and place, and about the ways people justify their dark or violent actions.
So this week I'm recommending something that's both totally different and yet, also, totally at home here.
Mark Thomas must tick a lot of boxes when he fills in the occupation section of a tax return. He's an author, a television host, a political commentator and an activist. He has worked with a number of charities and was a founder member of the campaign against the Ilisu dam.
Where I came in on all of this is that he started out as a stand-up comedian, and that's still probably his favourite box to tick. Stand-up was one of my first loves. Back when I knew I wanted to create things and put my words out there, but before I found that my voice worked best in prose, one of the things I failed most at was standing up in front of people and being funny.
I had the timing and the basic idea of how to structure a gag, but I had nothing to say.
I know people often have an in built reaction to wince or turn away when they hear someone described as a political songwriter or a political comedian. I have the same reaction to a degree. But what I learned along the way is that my tastes for social stories aren't limited to fiction. I like songwriters, filmmakers and comedians to have a point, and to have a way of capturing the stories of the haves and the have-nots. None of us like to be preached at, or told who to vote for, but deep down I think there is something very rewarding about performers and storytellers who can show us the issues that are at the heart of the matter.
Mark Thomas does this for me. Sometimes he goes further, sometimes he does tread dangerously close to crossing from social into political. But as he has gotten older, and gotten better at his craft, I think he's learned to pitch the balance the right way. His live acts show someone with a voice and an eye for the telling detail that would lead to great social fiction. Sure, he can still go on a ten minute rant about a governments latest policy, but he can then hit you off guard with some small moment of detail or insight into how people are being affected, and why it's important to them.
His most recent stage show was a two hour recounting of how he took one of the most British ideas imaginable -a countryside ramble- and combined it with an exploration of the tension between Israel and Palestine by walking the middle east. Israel is in the process of building a wall around the Palestinian territory, and Thomas set out to talk to people on both sides and to try and find some sense out of the mess.
The show was filled with some huge belly laughs, but also moments of stunned silence. I can think of few people labelled "comedians" who can produce a deep and profound silence in the crowd as part of the act. One minute he would be giving us a history lesson, the next he would be jumping into character as one of the many people he met along the way, from a fully dressed up mime being teargassed at a demonstration, to an ex Israeli soldier who begins handing out leaflets on the humans right acts of the Israeli army...to Israeli soldiers in the middle of a protest. He talks to people on the Israel side of the wall who lost loved ones to suicide bombers when there was no wall, he talks to families on the Palestine side who's lives are suffering as a result of the wall going up. We saw school children whose school is on the opposite side of the barrier to their homes, who have a daily walk through a tunnel filled with sewerage. In one instance he talks to a home owner whose house straddles the new border, with his bathroom in Israel and his bedroom in Palestine. And, yes, he's expected to get a permit to cross the border.
I had tears in my eyes of both joy and horror during the show, and wondered if he could pull off the same trick in the book.
Extreme Rambling came out a few months ago from Ebury and if you're down with the cool kids you can load it onto your kindle. Because, you know, we always needed a way to make travel books more portable. It's part travel journal, part comedy, part social document. Looming across each page are some huge issues, thorny questions of race, religion, democracy and freedom. Issues that I couldn't do justice to in this blog. But the impressive feat in his writing is that these themes never overwhelm us. The book remains focused and grounded in the people, rather than the politics. We get to meet a far more varied and complicated cast than he could put into the stage show. People young and old, on both sides of the wall, who each have their own stories to tell. He captures moments of joy and despair, and bundles them all up into a comedic and spirited narrative. It doesn't have the same extremes of emotion as the stage show. The different format, by it's very nature, leads to a more consistent tone, a slower and more introspective look at the same topics.
What struck me about the book, as apposed to the show, was how much crossover there was with the issues we discuss in our blogs. As I said right at the top, we tend to talk about setting, and social issues, and complex characters, and Thomas gives us exactly that. if this book was set in Detroit, or D.C., or London, and looked at street gangs, we'd be talking about a crime masterpiece. We'd be talking about the spiritual successor to The Corner or calling it "Pelecanos with belly laughs."
As it is, though, it's a touching and troubling story across the middle east, so we call it a political book and shrug our shoulders. If you're looking for something to read over the summer, and are sick of being told that summer means you should switch off your brains and read something forgettable, than pick this up.
And hell, if you want the summer blockbuster pitch, it's got explosions. It's got riots. It's got tear gas, despots, brushes with the law and more illegal acts than a night out at Eton. It's travel writing for revolutionaries, but comes armed with a Kendal mint cake rather than an AK47 and swaps anarchy for a nice warm flask of tea.
Next week I'll be suggesting something for your kindles, nooks, crannies, and other electronic devices.