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Short Ride on a Fast Machine, by Magnus McGrandle

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A London cycle courier goes to Norway to pick up a stuffed owl

David Paul Morris/Getty Images

Short Ride on a Fast Machine, by Magnus McGrandle Title: Short Ride on a Fast Machine
Author: Magnus McGrandle
Publisher: Sandstone Press
Year: 2017
Pages: 356
Order: Sandstone
What it is: A London cycle courier goes to Norway to pick up a stuffed owl
Strengths: If you like your crime capers more scrambled than hard-boiled, pull up a slice of toast and enjoy
Weaknesses: The digressions can crowd out the central narrative

He sighed comfortably and said:
'Now, sir, we'll talk if you like, and I'll tell you right out that
I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.'
'Swell, will we talk about the black bird?'
~ Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

The bird was in fact white. And an owl, not a falcon. And stuffed, not cast from the things dreams are made of. But Sam did like to talk.

* * * * *

A London-based cycle courier, Sam Black is the principal narrator of Magnus McGrandle's Short Ride on a Fast Machine. The novel opens with him contemplating a visit to a shaman by the name of Mr Bembo:

I was twenty-one years old and had no marriage, business, legal proceedings or examinations to speak of and regarding love, well, the episode with Kelly Zimmerman was in the past. I had known bad luck and sometimes lacked confidence but I required no black magic to be removed, or black magic, for that matter. I had some bad habits but none that I particularly wanted to be rid of. And sexually I was fully functional, at least in the anatomical sense. I did, however, have a weakness for mumbo-jumbo and I'd been a little on the jittery side since Yelena Zykov had been run over by a truck a month or so previously. I felt a little vulnerable and was looking for clarity. I was also bored, waiting on a delivery that afternoon of a pair of new wheels for my bicycle, a Pinarello which was - sad to admit - the love of my life.

(Yelena Zykov had met her end on Tower Bridge Road, "just where the train lines pass overhead and at thirty miles an hour her eighteen-year-old self was catapulted into a one hundred and fifty-year-old Victorian brick wall and that was that." Except, well, of course, that was not that: in the months since her demise the ghost of Yelena Zykov had been spotted riding around London.)

Prior to the stuffed owl coming along, Sam Black's top five jobs had been:

1. Whole pig, frozen, thawed en route.
2. Bricks. Heavy, a dozen of them. But a £50 tip.
3. Urine samples, one batch, hospital to lab.
4. Salamanders, three, in takeaway boxes, pet shop to client.
5. Dildos, boutique, set of six, sex shop to client.

Mr Tecolote - the owl had a name - was straight in with a bullet: top of the pops. It belonged to Jon Sorensen and when Sam Black met Sorensen in a hotel in London, the owl was hanging on the wall of a mountain hut in the wilds of Norway, a couple of hundred kilometres from Bergen. The promise of fifteen hundred quid - and the prospect of a performance bonus on top of that - was enough to encourage Sam Black to go to that mountain hut in the wilds of Norway, remove the owl from its wall and reunite it with its owner in London.

However. Whereas Sorensen had suggested flying to Bergen and hiring a car to get to the mountain hut in the wilds of Norway Sam Black had decided to save a few quid and fly instead to Oslo. And instead of hiring a car he brought his Pinarello. And his mate Poyntz. Pushpendra Singh Poyntz, a Bianchi-riding fellow courier he'd bonded with over games of backgammon.

There's material enough there to make a whimsical BFF road-trip story à la the bloody awful Ventoux. But, of course, there's more to it than that: the owl is one of Hitchcock's McMuffins and so Short Ride on a Fast Machine is not a whimsical BFF road-trip story à la the bloody awful Ventoux. Short Ride on a Fast Machine is more in line with one of Shane Black's films: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a crime caper with more of an emphasis on the caper than the crime. A crime story that's more scrambled than hard-boiled. And served with lots of crosstalk:

There's something inside that owl and you know it.
I don't know. Money. Diamonds. Drugs. You tell me.
Someone's not telling and it's either you or him.
There is nothing inside that owl Poyntz.
How do you know? Have you given it a shake? Have you determined the average weight of a stuffed owl and weighed our friend to compare? Have you given him a prod or a feel. Have you ever touched up that owl? Does he look like he's holding something in? He looks like he's holding something in to me.
Seriously, I said, you're a joke. What does it matter either way? We don't question what's in all the other crap we deliver day in day out.

As with Shane Black, there's some nodding back to the masters of hard-boiled (in one of the story's many digressions there's a tale told about a man called Mullane - an oil worker who was "a borderline alcoholic, probably the wrong side of the border" - which nods back to Raymond Chandler and his life before he found fame amid the mean streets of Los Angeles) but there's also a lot of subverting of the rules: Chekov and Chandler's dicta1 about guns can go to hell, as far as McGrandle is concerned.

That said, McGrandle - like Shane Black - doesn't travel too far from Chandler: the crime story itself can be a little incomprehensible but you're enjoying the scenery and the smart one-liners too much to give a damn. But while the crime story is what drives the narrative along the real story is in the digressions: a story Poyntz tells about visiting his disgraced grandfather in India, who became a lingerie entrepreneur in order to pay for his third divorce; the stories Sam Black tells about his love life, first with Kelly Zimmerman and then with Bella Miekels and an imagined date in the Tate and Lyle Golden Syrup factory. Even when telling the crime story, McGrandle can wrap it up in other stories: in the novel's middle Sam Black's narration breaks off and new narrators come in, one of them telling the story behind the crime in a chapter that could almost be a stand-alone short story about love and loss.

The publishers call the whole thing picaresque: Sam Black is a right rogue - a proper picaro - and the story is all somewhat haphazard, episodic, with lots of those digressions. Some of that comes down to what floats the boat of the author, Magnus McGrandle. When I asked him who were the authors who worked for him, he came back with a list topped by Saul Bellow2, whose picaresque tendencies were noted by the Nobel committee forty-something years ago. Everything, though, comes back to the crime story.

While the debt to Raymond Chandler is wholly acknowledged by McGrandle, when I asked him if Shane Black had any influence on the novel he said no. Not even in Sam Black's name? "Black is just a very anonymous surname to give a character," McGrandle told me3. "As is Sam. I think I must have been keen to give him a fairly anodyne name, because a lot of the other characters have quite unusual names."

Those other characters with their unusual names include fellow couriers Salowitz and Joe Guzzman and Solomon Weisendanger, Fat Barry (Sam Black's boss at Zenith Couriers and a former track star who had Olympic ambitions), Leibniz (Poyntz's pet budgerigar, who Poyntz consults on all matters of importance), and Mashtots Hambartzumian (known simply as the Armenian). I had thought there might be something knowing going on with some of the names - wrongly when it came to Sam Black and wrongly when it came to his his ex-girlfriend Kelly Zimmerman4 - but mostly I wondered if McGrandle was just having fun, playing with sounds. His response when I put that to him:

On the names, when you're writing sentences, the words need to fit the sentences, and the sentences need to fit the paragraph etc. etc. and depending on character and style, sometimes you're quite limited in the words you can use. Pulchritudinous is a lovely word, but in what circumstances would you ever use it? It's archaic, it's pompous, you end up looking like a bit of a tit if you plonk it in your paragraph. But with characters, you've got a bit more latitude. Poyntz is surname of someone I met through work once. It's just such a good word, per se. There's an old English family called Poyntz. There's a Poyntz in the National Portrait Gallery. But you're right about the sounds. Lovely words make lovely sounds. And so, yes, I am playing with sounds. More that than showing influences. The names I chose with care, but more because of what they sounded like, than what they meant or signified. I can't for the life of me remember why I chose Zimmerman as a surname.

The playing with sounds, some of that goes back to the novel's title, which borrows from a John Adams orchestral piece, 'Short Ride in a Fast Machine'. Structurally, the novel doesn't take much from Adams: the pace isn't as frenetic though there are noticeable repetitions similar to the way Adams repeats musical phrases (as an example, the Mullane story mentioned before echoes an earlier tale Poyntz tells about a cigarette salesman in India). The main structural influence actually comes from backgammon, the game that holds together the friendship at the heart of the novel: Sam Black's part of the narrative is told in two sets of 24 chapters, representing the 24 points - spaces - on a backgammon board (there's a break in the middle with five chapters told by other narrators). Backgammon - a game of chance in which an understanding of probability offers a degree of control - is also used as a sort of counterbalance to all the crazy coincidences that make up the novel. Here's McGrandle again, when I asked him about this:

I like the idea of chance events / coincidence shifting narratives. Paul Auster is one obvious example. Also Dickens and Fielding. These are writers to keep in mind when one worries about the 'truthfulness' of plot etc. What is the chance of this or that actually happening? You end up asking yourself this question quite a lot. Of course the joy of writing fiction is that you can make anything happen, but of course you need to keep within the boundaries of the book you are writing. And that I suppose is where backgammon comes in. It is a game of skill / discipline primarily. But if you roll crap dice, the odds stack up against you. So yes, I would say the game mimics or nods to that tension in Sam between a life disrupted by chance (his meeting with Sorensen) and the more predictable life that he sometimes yearns for.

One of the ways cycling plays a role here is in the story of Djamolidine Abdoujaparov and his crash on the Champs Élysées in 1991:

He's riding like a fucking maniac, elbows out like razor blades but still boxed in by six or seven other riders until he takes the inside, riding as close as possible to the crowd. Then, about a hundred yards from the finish - just as he's nosing in front, just as he's getting ready to take it, just as he's heading back toward the centre of the road - he suddenly looks down at his wheels and in a split second he's lost his line and crashed into a giant inflatable Coca-Cola can and hit the steel barriers at whatever it is, thirty-five, forty miles an hour and the race is lost. La chute d'Abdoujaparov. It's inexplicable, the way he changes course so quickly, as if his brain has sent an obviously false command and in the heat and the noise he's blindly obeyed it. It's probably one of the best crashes ever but it's also one of the strangest. Abdoujaparov veers off the road in an extreme and single minded way, it's almost like an act of self-destruction.

The cycling, then, in things like the Abdoujaparov digression, in things like the death of Yelena Zykok, it serves to highlight the tension in Sam Black between chance and control.

There's cause and effect and there's random event. Abdoujaparov's crash on the Champs Élysées was cause and effect: he lost control and as a result he rode into an inflatable Coke can. Yelena's death was part cause and effect, part random event: she rode fast and unprotected but even if she'd worn a helmet and ridden at seven miles an hour, she might still have been struck by that dumper truck and catapulted into that Victorian brick wall.

Elsewhere, cycling plays a much more minor role. McGrandle explained the main point of the cycling to me this way:

I've not been a courier. Before I started writing the book, I went on holiday to Montreal, where the friend I was staying with had a friend who worked as a courier there. He had some amazing stories - of things he'd done in his work but also the whole subculture thing. I thought that's an interesting canvas, one with lots of possibilities.

Myself, I ride a lot and always have done. So there's a bit of my own experience of riding for fun (or more usually to get to places, work etc.) and the imagined experience of doing it for a living. The bicycle is an amazing way of getting around London, the quickest really. So from a narrative point of view, it's a useful way of getting Sam from one part of the story to another. Particularly in the final part of the book, which feels pretty much all on the saddle.

As with some of the better cycling novels then, Short Ride on a Fast Machine isn't really about cycling - think the likes of Vault or The Misfortunates rather than The Invisible Mile or The Rider - but it does serve up a highly enjoyable ride. Take it for a spin and see for yourself.

1 The one about a gun in the first act meaning a shooting the second and the one about a goon with a gat coming through the door when the action is flagging

2 The list also incudes Roth, Updike, Waugh, Greene, Powell, Wodehouse, Smollett, Fielding, Dickens, Murakami and Bolano.

3 Coincidentally, it's the surname the Booker-winning John Banville chose when he descended from Parnassus to slum it in crime fiction's mean streets, artlessly reinventing himself as the miserabilist Benjamin Black.

4 Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade meets Shane Black (Ross Macdonald borrowed Spade's partner's name when creating Lew Archer); Sean and either Urs or Arthur.