Sunday, January 5, 2014

Beyond Naked Nepotism : A Biased and Unabashed Review of a Gem of True Literary Fiction

Today I am treating myself to the guilty pleasure of writing a review of the 132-page novella, The Mischief of Robert Kyd.  

 George Courtney Ward, permission of ITV .pl c.

Michael Marsh

The pleasure comes from that fact that I love everything about this book: the unabashed guilt comes from the fact that its author is my oldest son, the one to whom I read Marek Hlasko's Eight Day of the Week aloud in 1975 while he was still in the womb. I also read MacBeth and Hamlet, favorites that we share.   But enough of that. Other than the fact that I take some remote responsibility for its creation, what about the book?  

First of all, I love the cover, and not just because I am old enough to recognize it as a photocell from the 1963  black and white rugby film This Sporting Life, starring Richard Harris, to whom I light a candle on Irish  holidays.  To understand its selection, you have to understand the author.  Nothing about his work is casual.  Every word counts, every encounter is calculated, every calculation serves a purpose.  There is a passage early in the book where one of Kyd's acquaintances remarks that he bears a resemblance to the Irish actor Richard Harris in his youth, and that is not an accident.  The author has admired Harris all of his life, he grew up to the sounds of Harris singing James Webb's MacArthur Park from the album A Tramp Shining.It remains one of my two favorite CD's but the remastered is nothing like the thrill of hearing the original when there was still romance in popular music and the sentiments were valid in another time. 
My favorite CD's (except of course Lynyrd' Skynyrd's Platinum)
I not only indoctrinated Michael with Harris's little known identity as a singer. I also took him to his films; the first one I recall was  A Man Called Horse--or was it Camelot? But when he grew older  and studied film at UC-Santa Cruz, Marsh discovered Harris's  early works, most notably the 1969 black and white rugby film, This Sporting Life. And thus you have the mystery of the cover solved--Or, perhaps not quite.  While the cover is indeed  the youthful Richard Harris from a  movie poster, it is also a still shot of the enigmatic and unpredictable globe-trotting American iconoclastic photographer Robert Kyd, but it is also a glimpse into the persona of Michael Marsh, a thirty-something  American expatriate who presently lives in Berlin and dares to write genuine literary fiction instead of action thrillers or Scandinavian detective stories.  The cover photo was enough of an inspiration to him as he created his protagonist Robert Kyd to prompt Marsh to pay a king's ransom for the right to use of the photo. 

I have told you why I like the front cover image, but what about the back cover text? Many writers tend to clutter the back text with endorsements from other authors and lists of raves of the author's other works, including the number of copies sold, but in my mind, that is not the purpose of back cover text, which should give the potential reader a clue as to what the book is about without spoiling the story line or displaying  a photo of the author and his/her dog, (as I do in The First Marie and the Queen of Scots).  You will find no photo of the very private Michael Marsh on the back cover of Robert Kyd and no mention of his previous short stories and novellas ( Jinn, The Totheroh Club and The Chronist), which is a good thing, since Robert Kyd is nothing like his other works.

Books by Michael Marsh

What you find on the  back cover of Robert Kyd is a promise that while the story is a contemporary Mediterranean adventure, it is not of the ilk of a Clive Cussler or James Robbins, and certainly not a Dan Brown, and not just due to brevity. There are no dedicated archaeologists, no buried treasures, and no bones of Apostles or wood chips from the Cross to which Jesus was nailed in this adventure.  What is proffered  is a glimpse into the life of  a man who lives life to its fullest and chooses not to do it working on Wall Street, digging in ruins  or spying for the CIA.  The text discloses that the setting is in Malta and Sicily, and not in catacombs or cathedrals or the casinos of the Riviera.  In essence, this is a story of a man who chooses his milieu, his political entanglements  and his personal  relationships because they interest him, and short of committing personal or professional suicide, throws caution to the wind.  Almost.  The reader has to do a bit of trolling between the lines of the back cover text to get all this, but the clues are out there.  So yes, I like the cover, front and back.

I also love the setting. 
Photo by Tony Hisgett, Birmingham UK via Wikimedia

There is a well known and over-worn adage that authors should write what they know. While I do not entirely  ascribe to it, The Mischief of Robert Kyd would not work if written by anyone who lacked  an intimate knowledge of the locus of his story. The setting of the rising action and the key to all that follows is in Malta, an island nation that is a popular vacation spot for Brits but rarely visited by Americans, but a nation which Marsh, like Kyd, regards with  personal affection, insight and tolerance of its cultural idiosyncrasies that could only be reported by one who lived there. 

 If truth be told, a large chunk of Marsh's soul is Maltese. Having lived there off and on for roughly half of his adult life,  Marsh defines the country less by the architecture of its hundreds of Catholic churches or its historic harbor fortresses  than by the nature of its people and their penchant for survival and thumbing their noses at giants. I know because I have been there.  And while tourist brochures will tell you that Malta is a nation of two languages, Maltese and British English, that is only true when there are Brits about with either weapons brandished or  wallets open. Whenever things get hairy among Kyd's friends, they revert to Maltese.

The Maltese have their not too subtle prejudices, some of them not so remote to anyone who lived as I did during WWII, and it is a tribute to my beautiful and talented daughter-in-law Dr.Christina Bocklisch that she is welcomed on Malta in spite of the fact that she is German. The Maltese have a strong historic memory of every power who sought to besiege them, whether they be Ottomans or Nazis. And since their independence from Britain, a fairly recent event, they have acquired a talent for dissent, which is a good part of what attracts an iconoclast like Robert Kyd.  A casual observer or a tourist who finds Malta quaint will never have the slightest clue of the passions of its people, but Robert Kyd knows.  So does the author, who in 2001  lived at #1 Our Savoir Street where it meets Trig Manwell Demeck, marked by a street sign in which Trig Manwell Demeck had obviously been painted over the previous designation ' Prince of Wales Street.'  An independent Malta is still as new as its relabeled streets, and like the Malta in Robert Kyd, it has its growing pains. 

The legitimacy of the depiction of Robert Kyd's Malta is greatly enhanced by the efforts of its discerning editor Andrew, to whom the book is dedicated.  He is the author's two best friends, a citizen of Malta who Marsh met in a Dublin youth hostel during the early 1990s when he was a drama student at U.C.-Santa Cruz and was taking a break to see the world of Dylan Thomas and James Joyce.  While meeting them,  he met Andrew. And it was Andrew who encouraged him to come to Malta.

So now I have confessed to liking the cover and the setting, but what about the theme and style?   As to theme, I have read the earlier drafts of the book, and the final version does a far more poignant job of revealing  Kyd as not quite as hedonist he thinks he is.  Ironically, for all of his love of freedom, Kyd  finds himself trapped, and not by the Maltese authorities who have yet to learn tolerance of political expression or to exercise patience in dealing with dissent, but something much less predictable and equally foreboding to a  man like Kyd.   He finds himself locked into an unlikely friendship with a young Saudi name Owais with whom he shares not a single character trait and whom he initially tries to swat away as if he were a pestiferous flying insect, but for whom he ultimately finds himself taking incredible risks which force him into playing the hero's role.  And thus he finds himself pitted against a force he finds more threatening than  either political suppression or the limitations of individual freedoms. He finally faces the more foreboding  threat of exposure of his inner self, for underneath the veneer, Robert Kyd is a man of compassion and soul no matter how skillfully he hides  it.  And thus, Kyd's friendship with Owias and his subsequent forced self-awareness are at the very core of the story.  The rest of it, I leave to the readers.  Trust that it is a blend of humor, suspense and adventure in an area of the world infrequently explored by prose fiction writers.  

It is easy for me to comment on the element of style.  I can do it in a phrase-- 'not at all like mine.'  Marsh tells Kyd's  story without the confines of genre and with far fewer words than it would take me to write a prologue and a couple of chapters of one of my epic historical novels. I read Robert Kyd word-by-word and I am in awe of it, regardless of my blood relationship to its creator. It is by far my  favorite of his books.  Robert Kyd is not the kind of casual reading popular to travelers on continental air flights, although it may appear so by virtue of its length. It is a story to be appreciated for the beauty of the words, each one carefully chosen. Even the overly-maligned 'f' word is  riskily but appropriately used in the first paragraph, and although Google Secure Search blocks the word wherever it finds it, so far Amazon does not censure it with a 'bleep' or an excision of the word and a substitution of a black space as the Nazis did to letters from POWs during WWII. I had to go to my old Merriam-Webster to confirm earlier research that it has been in usage in Scotland since 1495! A new years ago, it was easily found in a Google search. As a 15th century Scot might have said, 'Wha' the fuck is goin' on here?" Which brings up the huge  issue of artistic license and integrity, topics for another post.

Here is a Google proofed version of the first few sentences that give us a glimpse of Robert Kyd.

'The day after is so simple.

I wanted to fuck on the balcony. Anke smiled and asked herself if I meant it. Bless her, she was game. Afterwards she lay on the floor by the open balcony with her toothbrush glass of spumante  and sulked because I wouldn't drink with her. I crawled over and kissed her thighs.'....

And later in a coffee shop, when a middle aged woman who appears engrossed in reading while having coffee looks up  from her book to listen in on Kyd's conversation with the Arab boy he cannot seem to ditch, Kyd responds with his trademark mischievousness.  Instead of expressing his annoyance in simple narrative, this is how Marsh depicts Kyd's  conduct.  

'The lady in the corner eavesdrops.  I take a straw from out of a nearby glass and aim it at her.  It dives to the floor and I wink.  She returns to her book.'

There are two negatives that I could not overlook mentioning and still claim any degree of integrity, neither of them relating directly to the merit of the book.  First, it is a bit pricey for its length, a problem  common to small and independent publishers, and the second issue is its limited availability in the US where it is on Amazon but only available through a third party vendor, the Book Depository. The author is checking with his publisher/distributor  in an effort to make the book more readily available at All of his others are listed.

Thanks to all of you who joined me today. Considering that there are sites out there who permit authors to review themselves, a practice I find ludicrous, I am not the least embarrassed in reviewing Robert Kyd, and yes, I am hoping for a sequel.

~~I will be offering a giveaway of The Mischief of Robert Kyd on my Valentine's Day post, "Little Things I Love," so watch for it, or get a leg up and comment to this post. I will be mixing all of the responses together and I shall select two winners.~~

Author's note:  The Mischief of Robert Kyd is available in paperback as follows.
 1. at Amazon UK
2. at through third party vendors at

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