Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Busker, Brian McNeill

Title: The Busker
Author: Brian McNeill
Rating: OK

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did, and that frustrates me. You see, I've met the author. He's a widely acclaimed musician, and (I think I have this right) he's Head of the Scottish Music Department at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. I've seen him play three times in very small venues and he is a wonderful performer. Amazing.

Some time back I learned he was an author, and since I liked his music so much I thought I'd try his printed works. He's written two: The Busker and To Answer The Peacock.

The Busker is a mystery novel set in Europe before German reunification. Alex Fraser - the hero, and a busker with an unfortunate criminal record - winds up in the middle of a complex set of relationships and crimes, the genesis of which dates back to a nasty event taking place before WWII. In trying to unravel these things for an old friend, he winds up going out on a limb to save the life of a child.

For those who don't know, a busker is someone who plays music for coins and donations on the streets. Brian McNeill has spent a lot of time busking, and he knows the trade well.

As I say, I really wanted to enjoy this book, but it was hard to do. I found it jumpy - cutting away from some scenes before I was sure what was going on, and coming into others too late to let me figure things out. It's also full of historical references and locations that meant little or nothing to me as a rather poorly educated (about international history, at least) American. In sum, it was difficult to follow. So difficult, in fact, that at times when I got lost I'd just set it down and do something else for a while. Not good.

As I ponder this, I wonder if there isn't an unusual reason for my reaction. McNeill writes wonderful song lyrics for his own works, and it is possible that the skill set needed to write lyrics is different from that needed to write prose. Song lyrics are - by nature - shorter and tend towards the more evocative, even mysterious. Perhaps the tendency to write in that style made The Busker hard for me to follow. I'm not sure, but it is a thought.

Beyond that, however, I thought there were too many coincidences in Alex's work on this mystery. He winds up with a wealthy backer, for example. That would be fine on its own, but he often gets help from total strangers who should - by all rights - turn him over to the police and forget him. I found him leading a bit too charmed an existence, despite the fact that he doesn't have an easy time of it in this story.

As I have said before, however, mystery novels aren't something I read a lot, so my expectations may not be quite right for the genre. Others may find it better, though the only reference to a book review of it I could find via google was a broken link to a review that panned the book. Oh well.

If despite the above you'd like to get a copy of The Busker or To Answer The Peacock do NOT order directly from amazon.com. These books weren't released in the US as far as I can tell, so the only copies available here are rare used editions at astronomically high prices. I ordered my copies from amazon.co.uk, and that worked out to much lower prices, and one of the books - when it arrives - will be new. I suspect there is a general lesson there as well: check a lot of sources before agreeing to pay $70 for a used book.

More information about Brian McNeill himself can be found here: http://www.brianmcneill.co.uk/, and if you get the chance to see him live in concert do NOT pass it up. He's warm and funny and charming. He tells great stories about the songs he's playing, and he can play Scottish music astoundingly well.

I hope To Answer The Peacock is more to my taste.