Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Birdkill, Books And The Demon Drink

I suppose there is, one way and another, quite a bit of drinking in my books. Space, my silly first effort at writing, was originally packed with smoking scenes precisely because it was written in the throes of me chucking up my Olympian 60 a day smoking habit. I can't say the same for the other books. And while Space does feature the occasional drinkie, my personal favourite is the scene where daft sex-worker and Jessica Rabbit lookalike Kylie discovers the non-alcoholic French drink 'Montalow'...

Of course, thanks to hard-drinking anti-spy Gerald Lynch, there's a good deal of Scotch put away in Olives, Beirut and Shemlan. But it was Paul Stokes in Olives - A Violent Romance who started it:
I dutifully pretended it was, indeed, news to me and thanked him, hung up and poured more whisky into my glass, walking through the house into the garden, where I stood looking over the lights of the city. I went back and poured more until eventually, quite drunk, I held the heavy-based tumbler between my two fingers above the flagstone floor in the kitchen and let it fall, bright and scintillating in the halogen spots as it twisted through the air, shattering on the stone. A thousand reflective shards skittered across the floor. I went, unsteady on my feet, to bed where I lay in the darkness, trying to stop the room from spinning.
There was a hint of sulphur around the Jordanian family in Olives drinking, which provoked no small amount of sniffiness at the time. How could I possibly portray members of a Muslim family drinking alcohol? That never happens in Abdoun. Perish the thought.

I set myself the unenviable task of killing someone using a bottle of champagne in Beirut - An Explosive Thriller. Not battering them to death with it, but using the liquid. It's actually quite hard finding an untraceable poison that dissolves in liquid and I'm not quite sure why my Google life at the time didn't have the cops around with copies of the local pharmacy's poison book in hand. I eventually settled on a nice dose of potentiated chlorzoxazone...
Meier nodded graciously. He sipped his champagne, noticing how fine the flute was, holding the dry, complicated drink in his mouth and revelling in the fact that a lifetime’s work had culminated in this – a new identity, a new life of reward and luxury. The stress of the past few weeks was making itself felt now as he relaxed, a feeling of lassitude creeping over him. He placed the glass down on the coffee table, and Freij reached over to top it up.
‘It is a particularly fine champagne, no, Herr Meier?’
Meier nodded. ‘I have always preferred Sekt, of course, being German. But I have to confess, when the French get it right ...’
Freij sat back in his chair. ‘Lamiable is a small house, a grand cru, of course, from near Tours. Sixty percent Pinot Noir, forty percent Chardonnay. We can enjoy champagne because of the Levant, you know this, Herr Meier? The Chardonnay grape was taken back to France by the Crusaders. My ancestors.’
The champagne I chose to use to kill a man in Beirut was a relatively esoteric single-grower extra brut called Lamiable, which is solely imported into the UK by the excellent Charles Meyrick of Balthazar Wines. Otherwise dependable as they come, Charles turned fink and shared the book with the family who make the wine. They were reportedly somewhat bemused to find their very fine beverage applied in such a casually murderous manner. Sometimes this writing lark is SO worth it all. I'm still laughing, to tell the truth...

Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy had the occasional glass in it, too; Lamiable returned for a cameo role, but old Lynch was on the demon drink with a vengeance again... One of my favourite characters in the book was the tubercular old General in Aleppo, dying his death in a souq that, tragically, events have managed to ensure, at deaths door though he was, he probably outlasted.
The General sat in the middle of the room next to a pot-bellied stove, a dull metal table to his side carrying a bottle of whisky and an overflowing ashtray. There were two glasses, one half-empty. The table was scattered in coins as was, Lynch noticed, the windowsill. The General sat in a wheelchair, his twisted legs covered in a beige woolly blanket. He had withered, his great frame shrunken inside clothes that were too big for him.
The Sandhurst English voice was still strong. ‘Come in, damn you, you Irish bastard. There’s a chair over there.’
Lynch lifted the bottle out of the bag and onto the table. He pulled up the battered wooden schoolroom chair, its scrape echoing in the empty room. The General nodded appreciatively at the Green Label. He unpeeled the foil, pulled out the cork and poured Lynch a stiff drink. He fumbled for the pack of cigarettes and lit one, puffing smoke from grey-blue lips under his great yellowing white moustache. There was an unhealthy sheen on his forehead and he started to cough, a rumbling noise that ended in a great walrus bark.
A Decent Bomber, set in Ireland as it is, has the odd Guinness in it. Pat O'Carolan isn't much of a drinker, perhaps the occasional hot whiskey on a cold night up on the Cummermore Bog is pretty much the only glass he takes. The two Irish politicians, Driscoll and MacNamara, are quite fond of a pint, though...
He glanced at the door of the pub as it admitted sunshine and the clamour of the street. Brian MacNamara’s big frame blocked out the sunlight momentarily. The pub was empty save for the two of them and the young barman, who poured MacNamara’s pint unbidden.
‘Well, now Sean. How’s the man?’
‘I’m good, Brian. Looking forward to the win, you know yourself.’
MacNamara eyed the three-quarters full glass resting on the bar, the creamy froth billowing. The barman slid it back under the tap to finish it off. He laid the pint down with a diffident nod and took himself away to the other end of the bar.
Slàinte.’ Driscoll raised his glass and drank. ‘So what’s this great mystery that brings you galloping from campaign headquarters on a Sunday morning right before the election?’
MacNamara brooded over his pint, his keen eye on Driscoll. ‘Quinlan is dead.’
Birdkill has quite a few very intentional mentions of Ksara, that most excellent of wines from a monastically established Château just outside the town of Zahlé. This town, the capital of the Beqaa, nestles red-roofed and splendiferous in the foothills of Mount Sannine. It sits atop the Berdawni River, the banks of the torrent lined with restaurants and shisha joints. In the evening, it becomes magical in the way only the Middle East becomes magical at night. It is to Zahlé Robyn Shaw travelled to work as a teacher, and it was here something terrible happened to her and it was here, in her obliterated past, Robyn's appalling secret lies. And it is in the glasses of Ksara the dark, blood-red spirit of her past is echoed.
Warren delved into the drawer and pulled out a corkscrew. He stripped the lead from a bottle of red wine and pulled the cork. He twisted the label to face her. Ksara. Mariam stared at the cream label with its pencil drawing of the Château nestled in its vineyards, the letters picked out in gold. Her gaze flew to meet his brown eyes. He was smiling. ‘I make it my business to know stuff. It’s how you stay alive when you deal with bad people.’
Anyway, here's a glass to books... Slàinte!

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