Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Julian Assange, Robert Harris and Richard Beard.

Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography

"Australian WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and part Scottish novelist and ghostwriter Andrew O' Hagan ... [have] given birth to an unfinished draft ... published before its maturity under the wacky title The Unauthorised Autobiography," writes David Leigh in the Guardian's review. "The lack of a final edit does ... disservices to Assange's story. The narrative stops too abruptly ... It's padded out ... with unnecessary chunks of the cables themselves, which can be read elsewhere." Leigh concludes that "These marsupial memoirs of his seem unlikely to increase [Assange's] prospects of becoming the messiah of the information age. Maybe, sadly, even the reverse."

By contrast, Lloyd Evans writes in the Spectator that "the author of this book ... [has] produced a compelling portrait of a brave, complex, difficult, brilliant and essentially humane individual ... Assange is not easy to like but his intellectual gifts, his moral courage and his carelessness of his own physical safety make him impossible not to admire."

James Ball, in the New Statesman's review suggests that Assange's "desire to lash out against his enemies ... drains much of the immediacy from the book." Ball concludes that "this is a flawed and fractured portrait of a flawed and fractured character. That, at least, is fitting."

The Fear Index by Robert Harris

Emmanuel Roman writes in the Guardian that "In ... Harris's latest thriller ... we are cast into the dystopic world of finance where nerdy hedge fund managers and their computers may be the modern embodiment of evil ... Computer programmes predict fear as a motivation, and ... [use] this information to short-sell stocks."

In the Scotsman, Stephen McGinty observes that Harris "calmly [lays] out ... that a man with a knife is ... nothing compared to the terror of knowing the true volatility and cluelessness of the current financial masters of the universe." Roman notes that the novel's "upshot may be about as believable as Jurassic Park but ... I may be overly familiar with what computers can and can't do."

McGinty describes Harris as "our literary Alfred Hitchcock ... Harris is a 'thriller writer', but in time his canon will be viewed as something far greater." Charles Moore, in the Telegraph, is similarly complimentary, finding The Fear Index "hugely enjoyable" and arguing that it has "a Dickensian potential for a great novel, even more thrilling than a thriller, about the way we live now." In the New Statesman's review, Alex Preston finds that The Fear Index delves "into the heart of a complex, abstract world without oversimplifying or seeming clunkingly didactic." Harris has "woven some fascinating subplots into the novel."

Lazarus is Dead by Richard Beard

In the Observer, Tom Lee writes that, "The Bible says almost nothing about the life of Lazarus before and after he was raised from the dead. Richard Beard's fourth novel sets out to elaborate on what we do know from the Gospel of John." Adrian Turpin writes in the Financial Times that the novel "impressively spins an entire life story. Lazarus and Jesus are childhood friends, fellow exiles in Egypt ... Beset by a series of illnesses, [Lazarus] needs a miracle, but Jesus fails to respond."

Lee finds that, "The characters remain more or less the archetypes of biblical tale or myth, without psychological specificity or depth" and "the narration retains a plain, almost remote, quasi-biblical style ... At times, it drops into an essay-like register." For Turpin, although the book is "hardly as 'genre-bending' as the publishers suggest ... [it is] clever and original ... [and] keeps the reader guessing until the death- and beyond."

DES WILLIE/BBC
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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution