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After last week’s terror, the porpy and I fled to India to escape from all these English haunted houses. But alas! We forgot that Victorian India was full of British Imperialists, and it seems they had taken their ghosts with them! So here’s a chilling little tale of the fate that may await the unwary traveller, for this week’s…
The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor by B.M. Croker
(The helpful notes in my OWC copy tell me that dâk bungalows were a kind of hostel for travellers placed at staging posts on mail delivery routes.)
“And so you two young women are going off on a three days’ journey, all by yourselves, in a bullock tonga, to spend Christmas with your husbands in the jungle?”
Indeed they are – our narrator, Nellie Loyd, and her friend, Julia Goodchild, are young and romantic enough to find the prospect exciting. Their older friend, Mrs Duff, is wiser, and perhaps has been married long enough to find she can bear her husband’s absence at Christmas with fortitude. She asks the two young women if they know their route, and Julia replies that her husband has sent them a plan…
….“We go straight along the trunk road for two days, stopping at Korai bungalow the first night and Kular the second, you see; then we turn off to the left on the Old Jubbulpore Road and make a march of twenty-five miles, halting at a place called Chanda. Frank and Mr. Loyd will meet us there on Christmas Day.” ….“Chanda — Chanda,” repeated Mrs. Duff, with her hand to her head. “Isn’t there some queer story about a bungalow near there — that is unhealthy — or haunted — or something?”
Haunted! How the two secretly laugh at their friend! Haunted, indeed!
Mrs. Duff had set her face against our expedition all along; she wanted us to remain in the station and spend Christmas with her, instead of going this wild-goose chase into a part of the district we had never been in before. She assured us that we would be short of bullocks, and would probably have to walk miles; she had harangued us on the subject of fever and cholera and bad water, had warned us solemnly against dacoits, and now she was hinting at ghosts.
The first day’s trek goes well and, as pre-arranged, there are fresh bullocks ready at each stop to take them on the next stage. But on the second day, they find themselves in rougher territory, and Mrs Duff’s predictions begin to seem less silly. Finally they arrive at a stop where there are no fresh bullocks to be had so, leaving their servant Abdul behind to follow when he can get some, the women walk on ahead. After a few miles they arrive at a village…
There were the usual little mud hovels, shops displaying, say, two bunches of plantains and a few handfuls of grain, the usual collection of gaunt red pariah dogs, naked children, and unearthly-looking cats and poultry.
When Abdul finally arrives it is only to tell them that he can’t find fresh bullocks, so they must stay in this place overnight while the tired ones rest. But happily, he informs them, there is a dâk bungalow in the village, and so, although the villagers seem to be warning them not to, they make their way there,…
There was a forlorn, desolate, dismal appearance about the place; it looked as if it had not been visited for years . . . At length an old man in dirty ragged clothes, and with a villainous expression of countenance, appeared from some back cook house, and seemed anything but pleased to see us.
It’s worse inside, all cobwebby and mouldy and full of bats and smelling of earth. Thank goodness the women have some natives they can order to clean up and cook for them! And soon the place is all cosy and they retire to bed (while the natives sleep outside on the verandah). But, in the darkest part of the night, Nellie starts awake and, to her astonishment, sees…
There was a man in the room, apparently another traveller, who appeared to be totally unaware of our vicinity, and to have made himself completely at home . . . I leant up on my elbow and gazed at the intruder in profound amazement. He did not notice me, no more than if I had no existence…
Things are about to get spooky!
* * * * *
This is an enjoyable little tale, with a great mix of mild horror and light humour. The ghost story is pretty standard fare, but the setting gives it added interest, especially since the author pokes a little fun at the colonial arrogance of our heroines. Apparently Croker herself was the wife of a British official out in India, so her descriptions of Anglo-Indian attitudes feel authentic. Nellie and Julia are great fun – they enjoy their lives, they don’t fear this vast, strange land, assuming that their British superiority will protect them from all dangers, and they’re ripe for adventure. But they’re not expecting ghostly visions in the middle of the night – that’s a little too much even for them! However, they pretty much solve the mystery of the bungalow before their husbands turn up, and after a diet of woman-as-swooning-victim in my recent horror reads, these two made very refreshing companions. I’ve never come across Croker before but I would be happy to meet her again – though hopefully in daylight…
I read this in Late Victorian Gothic Tales, kindly provided for review by Oxford World’s Classics. So far I’ve only dipped into it but will review it fully later. But if you’d like to read this story online, here’s a link…
Guy Martin isn’t happy. It’s 1925, and he seems to be settled in a job as a bank clerk which gives him little satisfaction, either intellectually or financially. Thanks to a scholarship he’s educated a little above his class, but has failed to rid himself completely of the Cockney accent that gives away his humble origins. As a result, he feels he doesn’t really fit in socially anywhere except for the Socialist Club, which he has joined, not so much out of a love for the poor and disadvantaged, but for the access to people who don’t judge him by his class. But, of course, they do, especially the middle-class young woman on whom he has set his heart, whose egalitarian instincts don’t stretch to romantic liaisons with the hoi-polloi. It is in this mood of disillusionment about society that he finds himself suddenly transported to the 22nd century, where he finds that all humanity’s needs have been met by increased mechanisation and people are free to pursue whatever course in life they choose…
Jaeger was writing this in 1926 in response to the rash of Utopian fiction that was prevalent in that period. Her own introduction tells us that, to a degree, she buys into the idea of the socialist utopia, at least in so far as that she believes that soon, given the will, society will have the means to provide decent living conditions to all citizens, and that mechanisation will free people from the drudgery and exhaustion of repetitive and uninspiring work. However, she sets out to speculate what, in that event, would happen to humanity – how would we develop, individually and as a society? And she suggests that the Utopias that assume that, freed from poverty, suddenly all people will become good and kind and devote themselves to art and culture are perhaps not taking account of human nature.
While reading, I felt this owed more than a little to Wells’ The Time Machine and it also reminded me a little of Huxley’s later Brave New World, so I was glad to read in the short but very interesting and informative introduction by Dr Mo Moulton of the University of Birmingham that she sees this as a link in that chain too. She also says it alludes directly to Bellamy’s classic Utopian novel, Looking Backward, one I haven’t yet read but really must since it gets referenced so often.
However, I felt this had a more human feel than Wells’ far distant future, where humanity had evolved almost beyond recognition. Jaeger’s people are still very much like us – they smoke and drink and speak English, play sports, argue, marry, etc. (Though not necessarily in that order.) This makes them far easier to understand and empathise with than Wells’ Eloi. Also, by beginning the book in 1925 and letting us see the class and economic divisions of her own time, she avoids the odd kind of nostalgia that some dystopias indulge in, as if the past was somehow a lost idyll to which we should try to return. Jaeger’s depiction is nicely balanced – both her present and her future have good and bad in them, with the clear suggestion that economic and social changes will change our problems rather than rid us of them entirely.
At first, Guy is entranced by this new world. He finds himself living with the doctor who has, in some unexplained way, brought him to this time, and is introduced to the doctor’s nephew, John Wayland, who will be his initial guide to the society. Dr Wayland and John are both intellectuals, choosing to spend their days on scientific and artistic pursuits, and indulging in philosophical debate with their friends. But soon Guy begins to discover that this society is just as divided as in his own time. Many people don’t have either the capacity or the desire for an intellectual life. They are called the normals and, while all their physical needs are met, they are left somewhat purposeless, their empty lives filled with childlike emotions and pursuits. The intellectuals treat them kindly enough, but with an amused contempt at their antics. Guy finds himself again standing uncomfortably on the dividing line between two classes, and gradually begins to wonder if the advances of the last two hundred years have made things better or worse.
Despite its age, I found that this book is addressing questions which are perhaps even more urgent today. With increasing automation, we will soon have to decide what we as a society will do with vastly increased leisure time. While it’s easy to think that would be a great thing, as usual it will be the least skilled and least intellectually inclined people who will be affected most. Will we step up to the plate and find ways to give people a fulfilling purpose, or will we simply throw millions, billions, of people out of work and leave them with nothing to strive for? Jaeger doesn’t give answers but, although in her future people have not been left in material poverty, reading between the lines her society seems to be becoming depopulated – not in a healthy, planned way, but more as a response to the lack of purpose and hope; and with intellect as the new currency, there is still a major divide between rich and poor.
Well written, thought-provoking, and a rather more human look at utopian society than we often get. I thoroughly enjoyed this and, as so often, am at a loss to know why this would have been “forgotten”, since it seems to me as good as many of the ones which have been granted classic status. (I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that all the “classics” were written by men… 😉 )
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
Wakey, wakey, Porpy! The evening are lengthening, the ghouls are returning from their summer vacations having noticeably failed to acquire a healthy tan, the people out there have been lulled into a false sense of security. This little story should remind us all of the terrors that await us in the long, dreadful months of darkness ahead…
Eveline’s Visitant by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
It was at a masked ball at the Palais Royal that my fatal quarrel with my first cousin André de Brissac began. The quarrel was about a woman. The women who followed the footsteps of Philip of Orleans were the causes of many such disputes; and there was scarcely one fair head in all that glittering throng which, to a man versed in social histories and mysteries, might not have seemed bedabbled with blood.
Yeah, blame the woman! Our narrator, Hector, is quite annoyed when his cousin, André, proves to be more attractive to the woman of his choice than he. So he strikes his cousin across his face…
…and the welt raised by my open hand was crimson upon his fair womanish face as he stood opposite to me. The eastern sun shone on the face presently, and dyed the cruel mark with a deeper red; but the sting of my own wrongs was fresh, and I had not yet learned to despise myself for that brutal outrage.
André wasn’t in a forgiving mood either, and so the two men settled it in the gentlemanly fashion, by attempting to kill each other in a duel.
We fought, and I wounded him mortally. Life had been very sweet for him; and I think that a frenzy of despair took possession of him when he felt the life-blood ebbing away.
Well, it would, wouldn’t it? The wounded André beckons Hector to come close, and with his dying breath, utters these words…
“Listen to me, Hector de Brissac,” he said. “I am not one who believes that a man has done with earth because his eyes glaze and his jaw stiffens. . . They will bury me, and sing masses for my soul; but you and I have not finished our affair yet, my cousin. I will be with you when you least look to see me,– I, with this ugly scar upon the face that women have praised and loved. I will come to you when your life seems brightest. I will come between you and all that you hold fairest and dearest. My ghostly hand shall drop a poison in your cup of joy. My shadowy form shall shut the sunlight from your life. Men with such iron will as mine can do what they please, Hector de Brissac. It is my will to haunt you when I am dead.”
Good curse, eh? However, Hector has killed men before in battle, and feels that his cousin deserved all he got, so he doesn’t worry. Men shun him for what he has done, and so he retreats to the castle which once belonged to André and is now his. A few years later he falls in love with sweet Eveline…
She loved me. The richest blessings of our lives are often those which cost us least. I wasted the best years of my youth in the worship of a wicked woman, who jilted and cheated me at last. I gave this meek angel but a few courteous words – a little fraternal tenderness – and lo, she loved me.
Isn’t that nice? He didn’t think to mention to Eveline that he was cursed, of course. For a few short months they lived a life of idyllic happiness. It wasn’t to last…
In her walks about the park and woods during the last month, she had met a man who, by his dress and bearing, was obviously of noble rank . . . I was at a loss to imagine who this stranger could be…
Now, who do we all think the stranger might be…?
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Well, I was willing to feel a bit sorry for André over being killed for a bit of flirting with a woman who sounds as if she was no better than she ought to be, but really? Haunting your murderer’s wife seems a bit misogynistic, if you ask me! Was it Eveline’s fault, I ask you? I think not! But, ah me! It’s always the woman who suffers! Men! Tchah!
I’ve never read anything by Mary Elizabeth Braddon before, but know her name as one of the leading Victorian sensation novelists. Though I’m no expert, I suspect suffering women are a pretty big feature of sensation fiction, and that seems to be borne out in the three stories I’ve read so far in this new anthology of her Gothic tales. I like her style a lot – it has that Victorian feeling of heightened emotion without tipping over into pulpy melodrama.
This one isn’t too scary – it’s more a tale of revenge and repentance. But it’s very well told, and the revenge goes a little deeper than Eveline simply being haunted by a vision – the ending has a touch of eroticism which, although extremely mild, still surprised me a bit in a story from this era.
“His image haunted me perpetually; I strove in vain to shut his face out of my mind. Then followed an interval in which I did not see him; and, to my shame and anguish, I found that life seemed dreary and desolate without him.”
I’m looking forward to reading more of Braddon’s stories… I think I could become a fan…
NB For the benefit of new readers since it’s the porpy’s first appearance for the season, the fretful porpentine reference comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, Thy knotted and combined locks to part And each particular hair to stand on end, Like quills upon the fretful porpentine
So the Fretful Porpentine rating is for the scariness factor, whereas the Overall rating is for the story’s quality.
It’s 1468, and young priest Christopher Fairfax is hurrying to reach the village of Addicott St George before curfew. He has been sent by his bishop to officiate at the funeral of the village’s priest, Father Lacy, who has died in a fall from the local landmark known as the Devil’s Chair. But once installed at the rectory, Christopher discovers that Father Lacy had been a collector of antiquities, some of them prohibited by the Church, and he soon has reason to wonder if there may be something more sinister behind the old priest’s death…
But… that isn’t really what the book’s about. And I can’t tell you properly what it is about, since that would spoil it! Makes writing a review kinda tricky. Suffice it to say, there’s a layer of depth that takes this beyond being a standard historical fiction novel. There are elements of apocalypse and dystopia, though I wouldn’t label the book as falling strictly into those categories either. It has as much to say about the present as the past, although we never visit the present. Are you intrigued? You should be!
Christopher has spent his young life in the Church, sent there as a boy to train in the priesthood. This is his first real venture into the world beyond the limits of the cathedral town he calls home, and he soon finds that the world outside has temptations, not simply of the body but of the mind. Heresy, he finds, is a slippery slope – somehow the forbidden exerts a pull on his mind, and the more he discovers, the more he begins to question all that he has been taught. Are the strict rules the Church forces on the population designed to save their souls, or simply to give the Church a stranglehold on power? At the same time, he is beginning to question his personal vocation – his faith is not in question, but as he becomes open to new thoughts and feelings, he wonders if he is able to go on preaching a religion he is beginning to question.
And he’s not alone in his questioning. Others have dabbled in what the Church calls heresy, although the punishments are brutal. Some tread a fine line, trying to disguise their research into the forbidden areas of the past as anti-heretical warnings. Church and state are inextricably linked, and those who fall out of favour with one must suffer the penalties imposed by the other.
As always, Robert Harris has the ability to create settings which have the feel of total authenticity. Here, there’s an added layer of subtlety as we discover that it’s all not quite as straightforward as it first appears, and he handles the ambiguity wonderfully. If there’s a flaw in his more recent books, it’s that his plotting takes second place to his portrayal of a place or time or event. In Conclave, it’s all about the inner workings of the Vatican and how popes are elected, and the actual plot is the only weak point; in Munich, the plot exists merely as a vehicle to allow us to be a fly on the wall at the Munich Conference of 1938. In this one, the plot revolves around Father Lacy’s death and Christopher’s growing interest in the beliefs of the heretics, but again it’s simply a device for Harris to show us this society from different angles – to let us see how and why it has developed as it has. For some people, I know this is a real weakness, and usually it would be for me too. But I find Harris’ scene-setting and the subjects he chooses so fascinating that I never feel the lack of a strong plot. Sometimes, as in Munich or An Officer and a Spy, he casts so much insight into a point in history that it’s enough for me. Other times, as in this one or, say, Fatherland, he uses a slightly off-kilter look at history to make us see it with fresh eyes – not so much as it was, but rather as how only very slight alterations may have made it work out differently – and I find those wonderfully thought-provoking.
I also find his writing so smooth and effortless-seeming that the actual act of reading is pure pleasure. I find him a very visual writer – he doesn’t go off into extravagantly poetic descriptions, but nevertheless I always end up feeling that I know the places and societies he’s shown me as well as if I’d visited them. And even when he’s making a “point”, he never beats us over the head with it – he respects his readers to think it through for themselves.
As you’ll have gathered, I loved this one – another rung on the ladder that is rapidly helping him climb to the very top of my favourite author heap. I do hope my vague review has intrigued you enough to tempt you to read this one…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hutchinson.
When Rowan Caine spots an advertisement for a nanny position, she’s staggered by the huge salary that’s being offered. So she’s willing to overlook the little detail that it’s a desperate bid by the potential employers to find someone who doesn’t mind that the house is reputed to be haunted. Because obviously ghosts don’t exist, right? The last four nannies who’ve all left in the last year must have been mistaken. Off she goes, way up to the north of Scotland to a house set in splendid isolation, to take on a family of four girls: two small children, one baby and a bratty teenager. Their parents are busy architects running their own business so are often away from home, leaving their brood in the hands of the nanny, with only a hot handyman and a grumpy old daily help for company. And then the strange noises begin…
The title is a give-away that this is based to some degree on Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw. The isolation, the nanny who may or may not be a reliable narrator, the children who may or may not be sweetly innocent, the absence of parents, the suggestion of evil and the doubts over whether the odd things that happen are human or supernatural in origin, are all there.
At the risk of repeating myself, I will say again – if an author deliberately sets out to remind a reader of a great classic, she needs to be sure her own work will stand the comparison. I wasn’t a wholehearted fan of The Turn of the Screw, finding it a rather unpleasant read overall, but I admired James’ technique and ability to create a deeply disturbing atmosphere. He had, I assume, worked out that horror is exceptionally hard to sustain over lengthy periods, hence the novella form, and used ambiguity to great effect to unsettle the reader, never letting us know whether we could trust what we were reading. Ware has gone for novel length, meaning that there’s much repetition of not particularly scary stuff and far too much detail over the “joys” of childcare – do I need to know what the children have for breakfast every day? The framing mechanism is that Rowan, in prison, is writing a letter to a barrister begging him to take her case, so we are told from the beginning that a child has died and Rowan is accused of murdering her. A 384-page letter. The barrister knows the case from the papers, so Rowan repeatedly says things like “You’ll know why they think that I…” without letting the reader in on it. As always, I found this technique utterly annoying, although I know many people enjoy it.
Having got my grumps over with, there are some good things about it. After a far too slow start, it does become a page-turner, and the quality of the writing meant that even during the excessive details about everything I was never tempted to abandon it. The house is well done – a nice mix of Gothic overlaid with ultra-modern, again, I felt, a nod to the fact that this is a modern version of a classic story. It’s a “smart” house with everything controlled remotely by apps, giving plenty of scope for spooky things with a contemporary feel, but it also has traditional touches like the closed-off attic and the poison garden in the grounds. The house has a history of a dead child and a father who was either an evil murderer or a heartbroken bereaved parent – depends which gossip you listen to. The handyman is either a lovely guy who wants to be helpful or a weirdo with an obscurely evil agenda. Rowan herself isn’t clear-cut either – mostly it’s easy to sympathise with her, but sometimes she doesn’t seem to like children much and we quickly learn she has secrets in her background (of course), though (of course) we won’t learn what they are until the end.
The last quarter or so is the best bit, when the suspense begins to build towards a chilling climax, where all the hints finally become clear and everything is explained. And that brings me back to The Turn of the Screw, where the effectiveness of the story – and the reason it’s a classic – is precisely because all does not become clear! The reader is left to decide for herself what happened, and thus, in a sense, becomes complicit in the creation of the story. I finished my review of it by saying “Generally speaking, I shrug off written horror as soon as I close the book, but I found myself thinking of this story when I woke in the dark reaches of the night, and I had troubled dreams.” With this one, although I quite enjoyed reading it, because everything was neatly tied up and presented to me as a finished story I was left with no shivery after-effects and slept like a log.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvill Secker.
Phew! Last week the TBR had fallen dangerously low and I know a lot of you have had sleepless nights worrying on my behalf. Well, sleep sound tonight! Thanks to the unanticipated arrival of a box of books, the bookocalypse has been delayed – up 1 to 223…
Here are a few I plan to read before the end comes…
The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert
OK, this doesn’t sound my kind of thing at all, especially since lots of Goodreads readers have tagged it as romance, fantasy and magical realism – ugh, ugh, and oxymoronic! But Omaha is a compulsory spot on my Around the World challenge and you have no idea how hard it’s been to find a book set there! So buckle up – it’s going to be a bumpy ride…
The Blurb says: On the eve of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, Ferret Skerritt – ventriloquist by trade, conman by birth – isn’t quite sure how it will change him or his city. Omaha still has the marks of a filthy Wild West town, even as it attempts to achieve the grandeur and respectability of nearby Chicago. But when he crosses paths with the beautiful and enigmatic Cecily, his whole purpose shifts and the fair becomes the backdrop to their love affair.
One of a travelling troupe of actors that has descended on the city, Cecily works in the Midway’s Chamber of Horrors, where she loses her head hourly on a guillotine playing Marie Antoinette. And after closing, she rushes off, clinging protectively to a mysterious carpet bag, never giving Ferret a second glance. But a moonlit ride on the swan gondola, a boat on the lagoon of the New White City, changes everything, and the fair’s magic begins to take its effect.
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Enoch Powell by Paul Corthorn
Courtesy of Oxford University Press. Enoch Powell was the bogeyman for the left back in the ’70s when I became politically aware, hated and reviled as the arch-racist over his infamous 1968 Rivers of Blood speech, when he warned Britain of the dangers of uncontrolled immigration in extraordinarily incendiary terms. But he had had a long and important career before that, almost completely forgotten now because of that moment. I’ve often wondered whether he was really as vilely racist as that speech made him appear and have wanted to know more about what brought him to self-destruct in such a spectacular fashion. Hopefully this book might answer some of my questions…
The Blurb says: Best known for his notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 and his outspoken opposition to immigration, Enoch Powell was one of the most controversial figures in British political life in the second half of the twentieth century and a formative influence on what came to be known as Thatcherism.
Telling the story of Powell’s political life from the 1950s onwards, Paul Corthorn’s intellectual biography goes beyond a fixation on the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech to bring us a man who thought deeply about – and often took highly unusual (and sometimes apparently contradictory) positions on – the central political debates of the post-1945 era: denying the existence of the Cold War (at one stage going so far as to advocate the idea of an alliance with the Soviet Union); advocating free-market economics long before it was fashionable, while remaining a staunch defender of the idea of a National Health Service; vehemently opposing British membership of the European Economic Community; arguing for the closer integration of Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK; and in the 1980s supporting the campaign for unilateral nuclear disarmament.
In the process, Powell emerges as more than just a deeply divisive figure but as a seminal political intellectual of his time. Paying particular attention to the revealing inconsistencies in Powell’s thought and the significant ways in which his thinking changed over time, Corthorn argues that Powell’s diverse campaigns can nonetheless still be understood as a coherent whole, if viewed as part of a long-running, and wide-ranging, debate set against the backdrop of the long-term decline in Britain’s international, military, and economic position in the decades after 1945.
* * * * *
The Long Call by Ann Cleeves
Courtesy of Pan MacMillan via NetGalley. I’ve been talking about catching up with Ann Cleeves’ two existing series for years, but never actually get around to them. So I’m jumping aboard on book 1 of her new series – at least I’ll be up-to-date with it!
The Blurb says: In North Devon, where the rivers Taw and Torridge converge and run into the sea, Detective Matthew Venn stands outside the church as his father’s funeral takes place. The day Matthew turned his back on the strict evangelical community in which he grew up, he lost his family too.
Now he’s back, not just to mourn his father at a distance, but to take charge of his first major case in the Two Rivers region; a complex place not quite as idyllic as tourists suppose.
A body has been found on the beach near to Matthew’s new home: a man with the tattoo of an albatross on his neck, stabbed to death.
Finding the killer is Venn’s only focus, and his team’s investigation will take him straight back into the community he left behind, and the deadly secrets that lurk there.
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Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr
This sounds utterly dire – I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I put it on my Classics Club list! What would make anyone in their right mind want to read a book like this? Is the world not depressing enough without us choosing to pollute and poison our minds voluntarily? Not that I’m pre-judging it, of course… 😉
The Blurb says: Few novels have caused as much debate as Hubert Selby Jr.’s notorious masterpiece, Last Exit to Brooklyn, and this Penguin Modern Classics edition includes an introduction by Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting [FF says: that alone should have warned me not to touch it with a ten-foot barge pole].
Described by various reviewers as hellish and obscene, Last Exit to Brooklyn tells the stories of New Yorkers who at every turn confront the worst excesses in human nature. Yet there are moments of exquisite tenderness in these troubled lives. Georgette, the transvestite who falls in love with a callous hoodlum; Tralala, the conniving prostitute who plumbs the depths of sexual degradation; and Harry, the strike leader who hides his true desires behind a boorish masculinity, are unforgettable creations. Last Exit to Brooklyn was banned by British courts in 1967, a decision that was reversed the following year with the help of a number of writers and critics including Anthony Burgess and Frank Kermode. [FF says: Yes, this one’s already halfway to the abandoned heap… ]
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.
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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?
(I’m not sure I am… 😉 )
I’ve read lots of collections of vintage short mystery stories over the last few years, as publishers have responded to what seems to be a growing appetite for the style of the Golden Age authors. I’m always struck by how many of the major novelists of the period excelled in this format too, while it would appear that there were many other authors who more or less specialised in short stories. This collection of fifteen stories includes some of the biggest names of all, like Sayers and Christie, some of the authors who are currently being resurrected for a modern audience, like ECR Lorac and John Rhode, and some whose names were unfamiliar to me, though they’re probably well known to real vintage crime aficionados, like Helen Simpson or C.A. Alington.
Described as ‘forgotten’, the stories are previously uncollected and in several cases unpublished, so even those who have read quite widely in this genre will find some real treats here. There are two novellas – a previously unpublished one from Edmund Crispin starring Gervase Fen, and one from a writing duo I hadn’t come across before, who styled themselves Q. Patrick. Dorothy L. Sayers fans will be thrilled by the inclusion of a never-before-published Lord Peter Wimsey story, and Margery Allingham fans will enjoy her script for a radio play. Tony Medawar provides brief but informative literary bios of each of the authors, which throw up some interesting factlets, such as that “Peter Antony” was actually an alias used by the famous play- and screen-writing brothers, Peter and Anthony Shaffer.
This is one of the best mixed anthologies I’ve come across. There is the usual variation in quality, of course, but I gave 11 of the stories either four or five stars and found only a couple of them disappointing. And the five which got the full five stars are all great – they alone make the book a real treat. Here’s a flavour of them:
No Face by Christianna Brand – A psychic claims to be receiving messages from a bloody serial killer, known only as No Face. Is the psychic a fake? But if so, how does he seem to know where the murderer will strike next? This is excellent – it has a real atmosphere of creepy dread that is as much horror as crime, The characterisation of the psychic is very well done and there’s a delicious twist in the tail.
Exit Before Midnight by Q. Patrick – A group of eight people are trapped on the fortieth floor of an office building on New Year’s Eve as a murderer picks them off one by one. Carol is the central character and to add to her woes two of the men are vying for her attention. But could one of them be the murderer? Oh, and did I forget to mention? The lights have fused and they only have a limited supply of matches…This is novella length, with great plotting and real tension, while Carol’s dilemma adds a light element of romance to lift the tone. Loved it, and will be hoping to find more from this duo.
Room to Let by Margery Allingham – This is a radio script, so is given to us purely as dialogue with a few stage directions. It’s a first-class mash-up of a The Lodger-type story and a locked room mystery. Following a fire at a private asylum, a mysterious stranger rents a room from Mrs Musgrave, a crippled lady in a wheelchair. The stranger gradually gains control over her, her daughter, Molly, and their faithful maid, Alice. But… could he possibly be Jack the Ripper?? It culminates with a corpse in a locked room. The framing device is of the story being told years later at a dinner of detectives, whose spirit of competitiveness to solve the mystery gives a humorous edge to the start and end. Well plotted and highly entertaining.
The Adventure of the Dorset Squire by C.A. Alington – This short short story is a sort of country house farce and very funny. There’s no real crime but lots of screaming and confusion – great fun!
The Locked Room by Dorothy L. Sayers – Previously unpublished, it dates to the period before Harriet Vane began to infest the Lord Peter Wimsey books, allowing Peter the freedom for a nice bit of flirtation with a fellow guest at a country house party, Betty Carlyle. When the host apparently kills himself, Betty is unconvinced – she suspects the host’s wife murdered him. This becomes a problem some months later, when the wife decides to marry Betty’s cousin. So she appeals to Lord Peter to uncover the truth. Well plotted, the writing is up to her usual high standard, and the flirtation gives it a lot of fun. Yes, even although I’m normally an un-fan of Sayers, this one got under my guard!
If you’re already a vintage crime fan, then this is one to grab; and if you’re new to the genre, then you’ll find this a very enjoyable way to introduce yourself to some of the greats. Highly recommended!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.
Hurrah! I did it! I did it!! I DID IT!!! All twenty books read and reviewed within the time limit!
Oh, I’m so sorry – I shall try to calm down now. But in my defence, it’s the first time I’ve ever beaten this fun but surprisingly difficult challenge, hosted by the lovely Cathy at 746 Books.
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So here’s a little summary of how it went…
Of the original 20 books, I read 18, abandoned 1 partway through, and replaced one.
I stayed in Britain for part of the time, but I also managed to visit America, Mexico, France, East Germany, Turkey, India, Zululand, Australia and Papua New Guinea! Plus I sailed through every ocean in the world. Imagine how much post-vacation laundry has piled up! I travelled with murderers, detectives, prostitutes, spies, French Resistance fighters, John F Kennedy, Zulu warriors, and even witnessed the end of the world! No wonder I’m exhausted…
The combined star total of the 20 that make up my final list is a whopping 82! Or an average of 4.1 per book. Pretty stonking, huh?
Turns out I hated the Kate Atkinson Jackson Brodie books which I had been expecting to be the highlight of the summer. Oh, well! Case Histories got 2 stars, One Good Turn got a generous 1 star even though I abandoned it at 11%, and When Will There Be Good News? was deleted from my Kindle unopened. I replaced it with Murder in the Mill-Race by ECR Lorac.
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones was astonishingly bad considering it was a Booker Prize nominee (though the fact that that still has the power to surprise me surprises me) – 2 stars
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These one rated as 3½ stars, meaning slightly better than OK – worth reading if the blurb takes your fancy.
An astonishing 9 books achieved Five Glorious Glowing Golden Stars! I loved the look of my list when I started out three months ago and am pleased that it lived well up to my expectations. All of these are highly recommended and several of them will be in the running for my Book of the Year Awards. Here they are, in no particular order:
So, a great summer’s reading! Hope you’ve enjoyed some of the reviews and that I’ve maybe even tempted you to add one or two to your own overloaded TBRs. Gotta go – got to start planning next year’s list…
It’s 1942 and tensions are running high in India. Britain, with its usual high-handedness, has decided that Indian troops will join the war effort without consulting the Indian leaders. Gandhi is demanding that the British quit India, even though that will probably mean that the Japanese move in. When the British arrest the leaders of the Independence movement, for a few short days the peace of Mayapore is broken as rioters take to the streets. And in that time one British woman will see her idealistic dreams destroyed while another will be brutally raped. Eighteen years later, an unnamed researcher will come to Mayapore to try to discover the truth of what happened in those days.
Scott starts by telling us:
This is the story of a rape, of the events that led up to it and followed it and of the place in which it happened. There are the action, the people, and the place; all of which are interrelated but in their totality incommunicable in isolation from the moral continuum of human affairs.
But in fact it’s the story of two rapes – the rape perpetrated on Daphne Manners, a white girl who made the fatal mistake of falling in love with an Indian man, and the rape perpetrated by the British Empire on the culture, society and people of India. Written at the height of the breast-beating anti-Colonial guilt experienced in Britain following the gradual letting go of their empire, Scott shows no mercy in his dissection of the evils committed, not so much by individual Brits, though there’s some of that, but by the imposition of one dominant culture over another.
The book is told in a series of sections, each concentrating on one character, and gradually building to create an in-depth picture of fictional Mayapore, which functions as a manageable microcosm for India as a whole. It takes a long time to get to Daphne’s story, deliberately, as Scott circles round, showing life in Mayapore from many different angles and over a period of years both before and after the event, creating a feeling of eventual inevitability about her rape as a thing that rises out of that ‘moral continuum of human affairs’, and feeds back into it.
Scott uses many different styles to tell his story. Some parts are first person “spoken” accounts told to the researcher, some are third person narratives, some take the form of letters between characters, or official reports, and some come from Daphne’s journal. In the third person sections, where it’s written, presumably, in the author’s own style, the language is frequently complex, rather spare and understated at the moments of greatest emotion, but often with lush beauty in the descriptive passages, creating a wonderful sense of this town and the surrounding country. In the other sections, Scott creates individual voices for each of the narrators, suited to the form they’re using, and he sustains these superbly so that one gets a real feel for the personalities behind even the driest and most factual reports.
Some of the sections are intensely human stories, like that of Edwina Crane, a woman who has devoted her empty and lonely life to the Church of England mission schools that teach the Indian children how to be good little English-speaking Christians. Her admiration for Gandhi has finally been destroyed by his recent actions and she has found that the Indian women she had looked to for a meagre form of social life are no longer so keen to be patronised by white women. Or the story of Hari Kumar, an Indian boy brought up in England and suddenly transported back to the country of his birth, where he is an outsider to both cultures – unable to speak the Indian languages and lacking knowledge of their way of life, but as a ‘native’ he is not allowed to be a part of the British community either, despite his impeccable English manners and education.
Other sections are told to the researcher and although their purpose is to shed light on Daphne’s story, the characters reveal as much about themselves along the way: Lady Lili Chatterjee, high caste and with a British title via her deceased husband, she is respected by the British but still subjected to constant, often unthinking, discrimination; or Mr Srinivasan, a lawyer who was involved in the Independence movement, and who shows us the Indian perspective on the political questions. The reports from the military and civil authorities are formal in style, but are accompanied by letters to the researcher, where the characters are able to look back on and reassess events with the perspective of time passed.
And in the last section we learn Daphne’s own story in her own words – not just the story of her rape, but of her life, of the choices she made and of her reasons for making them.
Scott creates a vivid and believable picture of the society, culture and politics that led to this moment in time, but he never forgets to put people at the heart of it. While some sections are focused very much on the political situation and, as a result, might be rather dry for readers who are less interested in that aspect, these are broken up by the often intensely intimate stories of the characters, many of whom become unforgettable. Since I’m fascinated by the British Empire, and India especially, I found the political stuff just as engrossing as the personal. Superbly written, intelligent at the political level and deeply moving at the personal – a wonderful novel.
Milham in the Moor looks idyllic to Anne Ferens when she moves there with her doctor husband, Raymond. This isolated village in North Devon has its own social structure and minds its own business. But Anne soon begins to realise that perhaps all isn’t as it seems on the surface. Some months earlier, a young girl, Nancy Bilton, drowned in the mill-race (the stream that turns the paddles of a watermill, in case, like me, you don’t know what a mill-race is) and, although it was decided she’d committed suicide, there are all kinds of rumour and gossip. Nancy had been a maid at the local children’s home, Gramarye, working under the formidable Sister Monica. The more often people tell Anne that Sister Monica is a “wonderful” woman, the more Anne’s instinctive dislike of her grows. And then Sister Monica is found dead, drowned in the mill-race…
ECR Lorac is becoming a regular in the British Library’s Crime Classics series, and her revival is well deserved. This is another enjoyable entry in the Inspector MacDonald series. Lorac’s settings are always one of her strengths, and here she gives a very credible picture of a village that has, in a sense, turned in on itself, preferring to deal with its own problems rather than letting the authorities handle things. So the local police are getting nowhere with their investigation, and when MacDonald is sent in from Scotland Yard he will have to break down the resistance of the villagers to talking to outsiders. As newcomers, Anne and Raymond are in the position of being half-in and half-out of village life – accepted, but not yet fully. MacDonald hopes they’ll be able to give him a clearer picture of the village personalities but, as the new doctor, Raymond doesn’t want to alienate the people who will be his patients.
Sister Monica is very well drawn as someone who likes to dominate others. She may be swimming in a small pond but she’s the biggest fish and relishes her power. It doesn’t do to cross her – she has her own ways of paying back perceived slights, often by ensuring that scurrilous rumours are spread concerning the offending party, sometimes true, sometimes not. So despite the villagers’ avowal that she’s a wonderful woman, when she turns up dead there’s a surprising number of people who might have had a motive. And can it be coincidence that the two deaths should have happened at the same spot?
Chief Inspector MacDonald is accompanied by his Detective Inspector, Reeves, another competent and dedicated officer. They’ve obviously worked together often and know each other’s strengths, each falling naturally into the role that suits him best – MacDonald as the more formal interrogator of the upper echelons of village society, while Reeves uses his easy manner to try to elicit gossip from those lower down the social scale. There’s a bit of the usual snobbery in their relationship, with MacDonald as the more cultured and better educated of the two, but it’s not as glaring as in some Golden Age pairings, and overall they come over as having equal respect for each other.
The plot is interesting, and leads up to a nice denouement. But it takes second place really to the characterisation of Sister Monica and the depiction of the children’s home, both of which are excellent and cast some light on the lack of monitoring of such facilities back in those days (post-WW2) which allowed nasty people to abuse the power they were granted over both children and staff. (Don’t worry, though – no graphic abuse is heaped on the poor children in this one, so it’s not a harrowing read.)
Overall, another very good read from Lorac – I like that each of the ones I’ve read so far have had entirely different kinds of social settings. I’m hoping the BL continues to re-publish more of her work.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
The amazing downward trend continues! The TBR has fallen by a massive 1 this week – down to 222! At this rate I’ll run out of books completely soon!
It will soon be time to wake the fretful porpentine from his summer hibernation and resume my quest to make his quills stand on end. He’s not easily scared, though.
So I’ve acquired a nice little selection of horror collections and anthologies which I’ll be dipping into over the next few months…
The Face in the Glass by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Courtesy of the British Library. I don’t think I’ve read anything by Mary Elizabeth Braddon before, though her name is familiar as a Victorian sensation novelist. So she ought to be good at creating chills…
The Blurb says: A young girl whose love for her fiance continues even after her death; a sinister old lady with claw-like hands who cares little for the qualities of her companions provided they are young and full of life; and a haunted mirror that foretells of approaching death for those who gaze into its depths. These are just some of the haunting tales gathered together in this macabre collection of short stories. Reissued in the Tales of the Weird series and introduced by British Library curator Greg Buzwell, The Face in the Glass is the first selection of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s supernatural short stories to be widely available in more than 100 years. By turns curious, sinister, haunting and terrifying, each tale explores the dark shadows beyond the rational world.
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The Invisible Eye by Erckmann-Chatrian
Courtesy of Collins Chillers. I actually received this one last year, read and enjoyed a couple of the stories, but ended up so inundated with horror anthologies that the porpy and I ran out of steam before we finished this one…
The Blurb says: Emile Erckmann and Louis Alexandre Chatrian began their writing partnership in the 1840s and continued working together until the year before Chatrian’s death in 1890. At the height of their powers they were known as ‘the twins’, and their works proved popular translated into English. After their deaths, however, they slipped into obscurity; and apart from the odd tale reprinted in anthologies, their work has remained difficult to find and to appreciate.
In The Invisible Eye, veteran horror anthologist Hugh Lamb has collected together the finest weird tales by Erckmann–Chatrian. The world of which they wrote has long since vanished: a world of noblemen and peasants, enchanted castles and mysterious woods, haunted by witches, monsters, curses and spells. It is a world brought to life by the vivid imagination of these authors and praised by successors including M.R. James and H. P. Lovecraft. With an introduction by Hugh Lamb, and in paperback for the first time, this collection will transport the reader to the darkest depths of the nineteenth century: a time when anything could happen – and occasionally did.
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Late Victorian Gothic Tales edited by Roger Luckhurst
Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Roger Luckhurst has become one of my go-to people when it comes to horror anthologies – not only does he include some great tales, his introductions are always informative and highly readable…
The Blurb says: The Victorian fin de siecle has many associations: the era of Decadence, The Yellow Book, the New Woman, the scandalous Oscar Wilde, the Empire on which the sun never set. This heady brew was caught nowhere better than in the revival of the Gothic tale in the late Victorian age, where the undead walked and evil curses, foul murder, doomed inheritance and sexual menace played on the stretched nerves of the new mass readerships. This anthology collects together some of the most famous examples of the Gothic tale in the 1890s, with stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, Vernon Lee, Henry James and Arthur Machen, as well as some lesser known yet superbly chilling tales from the era. The introduction explores the many reasons for the Gothic revival, and how it spoke to the anxieties of the moment.
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The Weird Tales of William Hope Hodgson edited by Xavier Aldana Reyes
Courtesy of the British Library. I came across a story by William Hope Hodgson in another anthology and loved it, so this collection of his weird tales was irresistible. Xavier Aldana Reyes is the chap who edited one of last year’s favourite anthologies – The Gothic Tales of HP Lovecraft.
The Blurb says: The splash from something enormous resounds through the sea-fog. In the stillness of a dark room, some unspeakable evil is making its approach. . . Abandon the safety of the familiar with 10 nerve-wracking episodes of horror penned by master of atmosphere and suspense, William Hope Hodgson. From encounters with abominations at sea to fireside tales of otherworldly forces recounted by occult detective Carnacki, this new selection offers the most unsettling of Hodgson’s weird stories, guaranteed to terrorize the steeliest of constitutions.
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.
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So…what do you think? Are you ready to be terrified?
This is a new entry in Oxford World’s Classics gorgeous hardback series, which so far seems to be concentrating on classic collections of short stories. Like most people, I know some of the Grimms’ stories from childhood, though in a bowdlerised version, and from Disney, pantomimes, ballets, etc. However, I’ve only tried to read the originals once before, in Philip Pullman’s version. He’d modernised the language horribly and tried to put in some archly knowing little jokes, and I disliked it all so much I only got about a third of the way through. So when I saw that this collection is a modern translation too, I was a bit apprehensive. Of course, I needn’t have worried – as always the OWC have treated the stories with respect and the translator, Joyce Crick, has done an excellent job of using standard modern English, making the stories easily approachable and enjoyable, while still retaining the sense of antiquity which gives them part of their charm. She tells us she has striven to return the stories as far as possible to the Grimms, by stripping out the layers that some later translations and adaptations have added over the years.
The book includes the Grimms’ Preface to the Second Edition where they explain how the stories were collected, from where, and that the point was to preserve the stories before the custom of oral storytelling died out. However the interesting main introduction, also by Joyce Crick, reveals that some at least of the stories were not collected from peasants but from friends of the Grimms from their own social class, recounting tales they had been told in their childhoods. Crick uses the introduction to supply some historical context to the stories, an insight into the then-contemporary drive to collect folklore, and to give some background about the brothers’ lives, while also looking more academically at the relevance of the stories to their own time and place.
While many of the stories could be shared with children, either to read themselves or to have read aloud to them, others may be less suitable, either because of some fairly strong images of horror or simply because of the more adult themes they contain. This volume is clearly aimed primarily at the adult reader, with the introductions, appendices and notes, and also because it lacks illustrations. Crick explains: “The present edition has no pictures, though its conversations have certainly invited them, taking place as ever between a princess and a frog, or a wolf and a girl in a red bonnet, or two frightened children in the forest, but also between a disgruntled fiddler and a Jew, and between a boy-giant and an officious bailiff. So this selection finds itself aimed at readers who once read these tales in their childhood, or had them read to them, and are returning to them late, apple bitten, naivety lost, in history. It was Jacob Grimm who spoke of a ‘lost Paradise of poesy’.”
There are 82 stories in the collection, including all the best known ones, like Rapunzel, Snow White, Cinderella, although sometimes not going by those names – here we have the originals rather than the versions that have developed over time. So Cinderella appears here as Ashypet, and we have the spirit of her dead mother sending her aid rather than a wand-wielding fairy godmother. But there are also lots that I either didn’t know or hadn’t heard for many years, so I found it an excellent mix of the familiar and the new. There’s humour, horror, lots of poor girls finding their Princes and even some poor men finding their Princesses, animal fables, morality tales, supernatural intervention and human goodness and evil. There are quite a lot of stories that repeat or echo other ones, but each time with enough of a different take to allow them to stand as individual.
I loved the retellings of all the stories I already loved – Rapunzel, The Singing Bone, The Tale of the Boy Who Set Out to Learn Fear (some great horror imagery and lots of humour in that one), The Tale of the Fisherman, etc. But I found lots of new favourites too, including Cat and Mouse as Partners (a timely warning of the perfidy of our beloved felines), Faithful John (horrific in parts, but they all live happily ever after, even the beheaded children!), The Three Little Men in the Forest (which I’m sure I’ve come across before but for some reason particularly enjoyed the way it’s told here), Clever Hans (lots of humour enhanced by some lovely repetition). And on and on… too many to list. There were very few I didn’t enjoy – a couple that felt unnecessarily cruel, like Sensible Elsie whose fate seemed rather worse than she deserved, and a couple which had rather ugly depictions of Jews – of their time, but didn’t sit comfortably with me in today’s world.
Overall, I loved this collection, and will undoubtedly dip into it again often. I heartily recommend it to anyone who doesn’t know the stories and would like to, or to people who are already familiar with them but would have their appreciation enhanced by the great extras always found in OWC editions.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.
When night patrolman Sam Wood finds a dead man in the street, it’s quickly apparent the man has been murdered. The new police chief, Bill Gillespie, orders Sam to check around for anyone who looks like he might be trying to leave town. When Sam comes across a black man sitting quietly in the Colored waiting room of the train station and discovers he has a sizeable amount of cash in his wallet, it seems the case is closed. Until the black man reveals his identity to Gillespie – Virgil Tibbs, a homicide investigator with the Pasadena police, who’s passing through Wells on his way back north after visiting his mother…
I’d seen the film more than once before but quite long ago, so only remembered the main points of the plot while I was reading the book, and they seemed very similar. However, on rewatching the film, there are actually lots of differences, some minor and frankly inexplicable to me, while others add together to make a pretty major change to the tone.
The name of the town has changed from Wells to Sparta and we seem to have moved from South Carolina to Mississippi. As an ignorant Brit, I have no idea if there is some significance in this change of venue that may explain, or be caused by, the change in emphasis over the questions of race between the book and the film. Even more baffling to me is that in the book Virgil Tibbs works in the police department in Pasadena in California, while in the film he works in Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. None of these things matter to the story nor seem to make the slightest difference but perhaps there’s some subtlety I’m missing.
A bigger and more significant change is in the name and character of the victim, but here it’s easier to guess why Jewison did it. In the book, the victim is Enrico Mantoli, a famous musical maestro who is in the middle of organising a music festival which it is hoped will bring much need employment and generate income for the town. There’s no real race element to the Mantoli part of the plot – the racial tension is mostly about the personalities of Tibbs, Chief Gillespie and Officer Wood, and over the question of a black man working with the police. It seems to me that Jewison wanted to add a more overtly political race element to the story, and so in the film the victim is a man called Colbert, who was about to open a factory in the town which would have provided well-paying jobs, many of them for the black townspeople. Jewison has changed another character, Endicott, who in the book was a fairly liberal-minded secondary character, into a racist plantation owner who was violently against Colbert’s plans, as his factory would have attracted away the cheap black labour Endicott still used to pick his cotton just as they had in the days of slavery.
Although the book came out in 1965 and the film just two years later, there’s a feeling of the time gap being much longer. The book doesn’t specify a date but feels to me like it’s maybe the late ‘50s. Segregation was still legally happening, so that Tibbs had to use “Colored” waiting rooms and rest rooms, and quite clearly had no choice but to accept much of the racism that came his way. The film feels set firmly in its own time – official segregation has gone, and black people have rights, in theory at least. The bluesy score by Quincy Jones, the title track by Ray Charles and the title graphics all place the film squarely in the late ‘60s.
Gillespie is the least changed character, although Rod Steiger’s great performance makes him rather more likeable and certainly more humorous than his book persona. Poor Wood (Warren Oates) has been downgraded from a complex, evolving character in the book to little more than a comic turn in the film, and his big romance has been completely cut. It works in the film, but he’s a much more interesting character in the book.
But the biggest change of all is in the personality of Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier). In the book, he is outwardly calm and placid, accepting whatever slights and humiliations come his way as just the way things are. He has inward strength and a kind of passive resistance but he doesn’t overtly challenge either the rules or the rulers of this society, preferring to get the job done and then get on a train out of there. In the film, he takes no nonsense, frequently getting angry, giving as good as he gets verbally and even physically. Again he makes it feel as if there’s been a real shift in time and attitude between book and film.
The book is a great book and the film is a great film – if you haven’t already, it’s well worth reading one and watching the other. The book seems to me to say more about the human, individual reaction to race and racism, while the film is weighted slightly more, perhaps, towards societal and political questions, aggressively pro-Civil Rights with one scene that shocked the world at the time, when Tibbs slaps the racist Endicott. Overall, though, the film is lighter in tone with a lot of humour, and the great central performances make it highly entertaining. The book, for me, is more thought-provoking and, although Tibbs is still the central character, goes far more deeply into the attitudes and circumstances that lead the white people to behave as they do, including an insightful look at the question, still largely unaddressed, of how ignoring white poverty stokes the fires of racism.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
So not an easy decision this time but, while both get the full five stars and my wholehearted recommendation, by a small margin…
Following in the tradition of generations of his family, Kino fishes for pearls on the Gulf coast, earning just enough to provide for his wife, Juana, and their baby son, Coyotito. One day, Kino finds a huge and lustrous pearl, so valuable that it will change his life for ever. He dreams of new clothes for Juana, a rifle for himself and, most importantly, Coyotito will be able to go to school and learn the secrets that will enable him to help bring his small community out of their hard existence into the modern world. But when word spreads of his find, human greed will work its evil, dragging Kino into a nightmare…
OK, Steinbeck writes beautiful prose, I grant you. But oh my, he’s depressing! He’s the kind of guy that would look at a birthday cake and see it as a symbol of encroaching mortality. The only good people in Steinbeck’s world are the poor and ignorant. Give them wealth or knowledge and they are instantly corrupted by the evils of discontent and greed. I’m not sure what exactly his political philosophy was. It’s always suggested that he leaned, at least, towards communism, but (I speak of the philosophy, not the actuality, here) communism is exactly about trying to lift the poor out of poverty and ignorance. In this bleak little story, I’m guessing he’s maybe trying to say capitalism is A Bad Thing, but it comes over more as if we should all just stay wallowing in our ancestral dirt since any attempt to rise out of it will inevitably lead to tragedy. As I say, depressing – the kind of antithesis of the American Dream.
Book 6 of 25
In length, it falls somewhere between short story and novella, but the limited number of characters means there’s plenty of time for us to grow to care about what happens to the little family, while the simplicity of the fable-like story allows Steinbeck room to play to his major strength, of describing nature and man’s place in it in with great beauty and emotional resonance. In a very short space, he creates a clear picture of the lives of the villagers, largely unchanged for centuries, but with the modern capitalist world encroaching ever nearer. We see the bottled up resentment of these peasants, victims of wave after wave of invaders, each out to exploit. We see the outward deference that forms a thin veneer over their feelings of helplessness and bitterness. And we see how easily one event can break that veneer, releasing all the pent-up hostility of the oppressed for their oppressors.
I don’t exactly know why Steinbeck always annoys me so much. I always say it’s because he’s emotionally manipulative and I realise the vagueness of that, because of course all fiction writers hope to manipulate their readers’ emotions to some degree. I think it’s that he treats his characters so cruelly to create that emotional wrench. If they have a flash of joy, you know they’ll quickly learn to bitterly regret it. If they have momentary hope in their heart, they will soon be forced back to their natural despair. If they feel love, then you can be about 99% certain the object of that love will die, horribly. Dead dog syndrome taken to extremes, and somehow it all leaves me feeling angry and a bit soiled.
Despite that, I admire his prose, and I find it fascinating that such an anti-capitalist should be so revered in America, a country that, when it judges a man’s worth, is more likely to be considering his bank balance than the content of his character. A country where “socialist” is seen as the vilest insult you can hurl at someone, and yet Steinbeck is taught in schools. Why, I wonder? And I wonder too how much Steinbeck’s utterly joyless depiction of the apparent pointlessness of attempting to seek a better life for oneself and one’s family plays subconsciously into the American distaste for socialism. Just once, I’d like to see one of his characters succeed in improving their lot – not to become a fancy billionaire President with three wives and a porn-star mistress, perhaps; we can’t all achieve the American Dream – but to have a child grow up healthy and happy and educated and able to lead a productive, moral life. Is that too much to ask? Apparently, in Steinbeck’s grim view of the human condition, it is.
A great writer I wish I could love more, but I fear our view of the world is too different for that to ever happen. I shall continue to drink from my half-full glass while Steinbeck and his poor characters die agonisingly of thirst. East of Eden next. Must make sure I get in extra chocolate supplies…
An old man sits in the corner of a teahouse, endlessly twisting pieces of string into elaborate knots and mulling over the great unsolved mysteries of the day. Opposite him is our narrator, an unnamed female journalist who, despite finding the old man intensely irritating, nevertheless can’t help being impressed by the ingenious solutions he comes up with.
This is a collection of twelve short stories featuring the amateur ‘tec who was always known as The Old Man in the Corner until a radio adaptation decided, for reasons unknown to me, to change his title to The Teahouse Detective, the name also used by this new edition from Pushkin Vertigo. The stories were originally published in various magazines and later collected into three volumes. Chronologically this is the second batch of stories, although it was the first collection to be published, in 1905.
Each story takes the same format: the journalist, puzzled over a case in the newspapers, visits the teahouse where the old man sits eating cheesecake and playing with his string. He reveals that he knows all about the case in question, and then relates all the known details before adding his own solution at the end. He is dismissive of the police and is not a pursuer of justice – he never passes his solution to the authorities. For him, it’s the intellectual satisfaction of solving the mystery which is important. For a reader used to following a detective around watching him gather evidence and interview suspects, I found this a rather odd format – it’s like getting the beginning and the end of a mystery but missing out all the fun bit in the middle. It works, and she writes well so that the stories are entertaining enough, but I didn’t find them nearly as satisfying as traditionally formatted mysteries.
Challenge details: Book: 3 Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns Publication Year: 1905
After the first few stories, I also began to have feelings of déjà vu. I wondered if perhaps I’d read the collection before – I know I’ve read at least some of the Old Man stories in my teens. But then I realised it’s not the stories that are familiar – it’s the plot points and clues, and even character names in some of them. Regular visitors to my blog will know of my life-long devotion to Sherlock Holmes, and I suspect I shared that love with Baroness Orczy. We have a dog which doesn’t bark in the night; Mr Hosmer Angel appears with a different name and persona, but a similar plan; the King of Bohemia puts in an appearance. Occasionally it almost feels a little like homage – it surely can’t be coincidence that one of her villains is called Stapylton. The stories are different enough for me not to be hurling accusations of plagiarism, but I must say I found several of the problems remarkably easy to solve because they feature plot points from the Holmes stories too obviously.
Having forced me to make comparisons, of course this doesn’t work to Orczy’s advantage. Sherlock Holmes is a far superior creation in every way, as is Conan Doyle’s effortless writing style. These have none of the warmth and friendship of the Holmes/Watson relationship, and nowhere does Orczy achieve the layers of drama, tension, humour and even horror of the master. These are more like puzzles – like elaborate crossword clues where the only purpose is to find the solution. As I finished each story, the characters slipped smoothly from my mind, since I had never been made to care about any of them. The Old Man and the journalist too never come to life, since they don’t ever do anything – they are a framing device for telling a story, that’s all.
So overall I found this quite an enjoyable way to while away a few hours, but no more than that. I wonder if they’d be remembered at all were it not for Orczy’s much more famous creation, The Scarlet Pimpernel, keeping her name in the public eye. However, Martin Edwards tells us in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books that the collection enjoyed considerable popularity when it came out, and they’re certainly entertaining enough to make them worth reading. Mostly, though, they made me want to re-read some Holmes stories…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Vertigo.
And… down again! After going up by 2 last week, the TBR has fallen by 2 this week – down to 223 again. It’s enough to make a girl seasick…
Here are a few more that will be cruising my way soon…
Mother of Pearl by Angela Savage
Angela is a blogging friend of mine who has previously written three crime novels starring her Thailand-based Australian detective, Jayne Keeney. She’s been working on this latest novel for the last couple of years and it’s something of a departure for her, taking her into the field of mainstream, rather than genre, fiction. It has just been published in Australia but doesn’t yet have a date for a UK release, so Angela has very kindly sent me a copy, which I’m delighted about, being far too impatient to read it to want to wait!
The Blurb says: A luminous and courageous story about the hopes and dreams we all have for our lives and relationships, and the often fraught and unexpected ways they may be realised.
Angela Savage draws us masterfully into the lives of Anna, an aid worker trying to settle back into life in Australia after more than a decade in Southeast Asia; Meg, Anna’s sister, who holds out hope for a child despite seven fruitless years of IVF; Meg’s husband Nate, and Mukda, a single mother in provincial Thailand who wants to do the right thing by her son and parents.
The women and their families’ lives become intimately intertwined in the unsettling and extraordinary process of trying to bring a child into the world across borders of class, culture and nationality. Rich in characterisation and feeling, Mother of Pearl, and the timely issues it raises, will generate discussion amongst readers everywhere.
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The Noble Path by Peter May
Courtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. Another reissue of one of May’s very early novels from back before he became a star and I became a fan. I thoroughly enjoyed the last one they put out, The Man with No Face, so am intrigued to read this one, although I must admit the subject matter isn’t something that would normally appeal to me. However, May is one of the best thriller writers out there, so if anyone can win me over, he can…
The Blurb says: THE EVIL WRATH
Cambodia, 1978: Amid the Khmer Rouge’s crazed genocide, soldier-of-fortune Jack Elliott is given the impossible task of rescuing a family from the regime.
THE PAINFUL TRUTH
Eighteen-year-old orphan and budding journalist Lisa Robinson has received the impossible news that her father is, in fact, alive. His name is Jack Elliott.
THE NOBLE PATH
As Jack tracks the hostages and Lisa traces her heritage, each intent on reuniting a family. Yet to succeed, they each must run a dangerous gauntlet of bullets and betrayal.
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Political Memoir on Audio
Kind of Blue by Kenneth Clarke narrated by himself
To say Ken Clarke is on the opposite side of the political divide to me would be an exaggeration. He is the most centrist of right-wingers while I am more centrist than left-wing these days, so there’s a small rivulet between us rather than a wide gulf. Plus he’s amusing, intelligent and has a lovely, soothing, smoky voice that conjures up visions of comfortable armchairs, panelled walls, wood fires and an excellent vintage…
The Blurb says: Ken Clarke needs no introduction. One of the genuine ‘Big Beasts’ of the political scene, during his 46 years as the Member of Parliament for Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire he has been at the very heart of government under three prime ministers. He is a political obsessive with a personal hinterland, as well known as a Tory Wet with Europhile views as for his love of cricket, Nottingham Forest Football Club and jazz.
In Kind of Blue, Clarke charts his remarkable progress from working-class scholarship boy in Nottinghamshire to high political office and the upper echelons of both his party and of government. But Clarke is not a straightforward Conservative politician. His position on the left of the party, often led Margaret Thatcher to question his true blue credentials and his passionate commitment to the European project, has led many fellow Conservatives to regard him with suspicion – and cost him the leadership on no less than three occasions.
Clarke has had a ringside seat in British politics for four decades, and his trenchant observations and candid account of life both in and out of government will enthral listeners of all political persuasions. Vivid, witty and forthright, and taking its title not only from his politics but from his beloved Miles Davis, Kind of Blue is political memoir at its very best.
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Queen of Crime
Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie
Courtesy of HarperCollins. This new edition popped through my letterbox unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago and, as regulars know, I don’t ever need much of an excuse to revisit Ms Christie! This was always one of my (many) favourites so I know the story very well, but oddly it never matters to me in Christie novels if I already know whodunit. I can read them again and again anyway. Isn’t the cover great? The colours are even more vibrant in real life.
The Blurb says: A sun-drenched story of desire and murder with a conclusion you’ll never see coming…
‘The best Agatha Christie since And Then There Were None’―Observer
The moment Arlena Stuart steps through the door, every eye in the resort is on her.
She is beautiful. She is famous. And in less than 72 hours she will be dead.
On this luxury retreat, cut off from the outside world, everyone is a suspect. The wandering husband. The jealous wife. The bitter step-daughter.
They all had a reason to kill Arlena Stuart. But who hated her enough to do it?
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
As Rebekka Vaark lies sick, possibly dying, of smallpox, her young slave, Florens, sets out to find and bring back the man the mistress thinks will be able to cure her. As Florens makes her difficult and dangerous journey through the still wild Virginia of 1690, where humans and beasts present different though equal threats, we will learn of the people who make up the household – how they came to be there, how they live, the relationships between them. And we will get a picture of the birth of America, built with the blood and toil of those who came voluntarily and those who were brought against their will.
I’m having a bit of a rollercoaster ride with Toni Morrison. Having been stunned by the power of Beloved, I was then a little disappointed by the heavy-handed symbolism of Song of Solomon, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from this one. Having now read it, I suspect it may have layers of depth that would require further readings to fully catch, but even on this one reading I found it a wonderfully insightful and nuanced picture of the early settlers in the New World, and a beautifully told story of the human spirit battling against hardship.
Jacob Vaark has inherited a piece of land and sets out to farm it, sending back to England for a woman willing to become his wife. Rebekka tells her story of sailing across the ocean to marry a man she has never met. She is lucky – he is kind and they grow to love one another. We see the overcrowded filth and poverty of the London she has left behind and her growing delight at the space, pure air, clean water of her new home. Jacob is kind in other ways, gradually collecting waifs and strays to work on the farm. Florens came to them as a child, traded as payment of a debt owed to Jacob. Lina, a Native American, survived the smallpox brought by the settlers which wiped out almost all of her village. Rootless, she too finds a home in the Vaark household. And Sorrow, turned out by her employers for the sin of being impure, is taken in by Jacob. But Jacob’s kindness is enabled by his investments in slave plantations in Barbados – the nature of America’s foundation is in the background but never forgotten.
….Just then the little girl stepped from behind the mother. On he feet was a pair of way-too-big woman’s shoes. Perhaps it was that feeling of license, a newly recovered recklessness along with the sight of those little legs rising like two bramble stocks from the bashed and broken shoes, that made him laugh. A loud, chest-heaving laugh at the comedy, the hopeless irritation, of the visit. His laughter had not subsided when the woman cradling the small boy on her hip came forward. Her voice was barely above a whisper but there was no mistaking its urgency. ….“Please, Senhor. Not me. Take her. Take my daughter.”
One of the things I appreciated about this is that Morrison doesn’t limit it to the story of African slaves. She shows that, while race is clearly already a dividing line, there are other factors – wealth and poverty, gender, competing religions – that define the hierarchies within this still-forming society. We hear about the indentured servants, often white, who are bought and sold much like the Africans; the women who are, if they are lucky, traded as wives; the Native Americans, their population already being ravaged by new illnesses even before they are driven from their lands. She also shows with a good deal of subtlety how kindness is easier in good times; that friendship between people wielding unequal power is fragile, perhaps too fragile to survive when times get tough. She shows how easy it is for good people to convince themselves that they have rights of ownership and control over the lives of others, and easier still to slide unthinkingly into abuse of power. In fact, in microcosm, she shows that the problems of today’s America arise from the circumstances of its conception and birth.
But these characters are not merely symbols of their race or place in society. In what is a very short book, each has time to develop into a fully rounded human being, complete with vulnerabilities and flaws, not always likeable but fully empathetic. Some tell us their own stories; others we are told about in third person. Florens has a dialect and uses a kind of stream of consciousness narrative, making her sections the hardest to read but also the deepest – she is the heart of the story. We learn about the men – Jacob himself and the two indentured servants who work on the farm – but the book is centred on the women, as individuals and on their relationships with each other. Motherhood is a major theme, and a difficult one at a time when infant death was a common occurrence. There are stories of the sacrifices mothers make for their children, the jealousies of those women who are childless for others who have healthy babies, the prejudices against mothers who bear children out of wedlock, even when this is as a result of rape, and the fulfilment that some women only find through motherhood.
Book 5 of 25
This doesn’t have the emotional impact of Beloved, but it’s a beautifully rendered picture of womankind in all her complexities, and of inequality, be that of race or wealth or gender or power, and how it distorts the human spirit. But Morrison offers the possibility for redemption. The stories of these women are hard, often bleak, and Morrison doesn’t provide facile, happy endings; but there is a sense that the love mothers have for their children gives hope for a better future. One day, perhaps.
I enjoyed reading Karissa’s interesting take on this tag that’s doing the rounds, so when she said “consider yourself tagged”, I considered! My answers to questions 2-7 share a common link. No prizes for guessing it, but if you do you have my permission to wear a smug expression for the rest of the day…
1. How do you define literary fiction?
I struggle with this all the time when deciding on what tags to use on reviews. I think I’d define it as indefinable! Generally, though, we all know it when we read it, I suspect. But I’m looking for great writing – and by that I don’t mean creative writing, I mean writing that uses a vocabulary that stimulates the brain without baffling (No to Nabokov!), that reads effortlessly (Fie to Faulkner!) and that creates wonderful images of places or people, or both, with beautiful descriptive prose (Kiss me, Hardy!). I want emotional truth – the characters might be realistic (as in McIlvanney) or exaggerated and even caricatured (as in Dickens) but they must fundamentally act in ways people would act. If it’s historical fiction, it must be true to the time in which it’s set. If it’s genre fiction, it must transcend the genre but must never forget its roots in its desire to be literary. If it’s contemporary fiction, it must say something intelligent and preferably profound about society, culture and/or the “human condition”. Please don’t ask me to define the human condition…
2. Name a literary fiction novel with a brilliant character study.
Although the story may be slight, the characterisation of Miss Brodie is anything but – she is wonderfully realised as an unconventional woman battling against the rigid restrictions of prim and proper Edinburgh society, yearning for art and beauty in her life, longing for love, desperately needing the adulation both of men and of her girls. Her beauty and exotic behaviour bring her admiration from more than one man and lead her into the realms of scandal, endangering her necessary respectability and her career. But perhaps Miss Brodie’s real misfortune is that in the end she isn’t quite unconventional enough.
3. Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing.
Docherty by William McIlvanney. Written partly in standard English, but partly in a beautifully sustained and authentic Scots dialect, this tells the story of Tam Docherty, a miner in the west of Scotland in the early 20th century who vows that his youngest son, Con, will work with his brains, rise out of the poverty of his heritage. The book covers the next twenty years or so, telling the story of Conn and his family, and most of all of Tam himself, a man who may be “only five foot fower. But when yer hert goes fae yer heid tae yer taes, that’s a lot o’ hert.”
“Son, it’s easy tae be guid oan a fu’ belly. It’s when a man’s goat two bites an’ wan o’ them he’ll share, ye ken whit he’s made o’. Listen. In ony country in the world, who are the only folk that ken whit it’s like tae leeve in that country? The folk at the boattom. The rest can a’ kid themselves oan. They can afford to hiv fancy ideas. We canny, son. We loass the wan idea o’ who we are, we’re deid. We’re wan anither. Tae survive, we’ll respect wan anither. When the time comes, we’ll a’ move forward thegither, or nut at all.”
4. Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. One day in 1869, young Roderick Macrae walked along the tiny street of his village and brutally murdered three of his neighbours. He is now in custody awaiting trial, and his defence lawyer is trying to get at the root causes that led him to commit these horrific crimes. From the review:
The novel is presented as if it were a true crime book with witness statements, medical examiner reports and so on. The first half is taken up with Roderick’s own account of events leading up to the crime, an account he is writing while in jail, at the urging of Mr Sinclair, his defence attorney. There’s then a shorter section told from the viewpoint of J. Bruce Thomson, an authority in the new discipline of criminal anthropology. He has been brought in by Mr Sinclair to determine whether Roderick could be considered insane under the legal definition of that word then in force. J. Bruce Thomson was a real person, as the notes at the end of the book tell us, and Burnet has apparently used his actual writings on the subject to inform this section of the book. Finally, there’s an account of the trial, presented as a kind of compilation of various newspaper reports.
5. Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes.
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. This first volume of Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, focuses on the life of Chris Guthrie, daughter of a tenant farmer in the fictional estate of Kinraddie in the north-east of Scotland, before and during the First World War. From the review:
The book is essentially a lament for the passing of a way of life. Gibbon shows how the war hurried the process along, but he also indicates how change was happening anyway, with increasing mechanisation of farms, the landowners gradually driving the tenant farmers off as they found more profitable uses for the land, the English-ing of education leading to the loss of the old language and with it, old traditions. Although the cruelties and hardships of the old ways are shown to the full, he also portrays the sense of community, of neighbour supporting neighbour when the need arises. And he gives a great feeling of the relative isolation of these communities, far distant from the seat of power and with little interest in anything beyond their own lives. But here too he suggests things are changing, with some of the characters flirting with the new socialist politics of the fledgling Labour Party.
6. Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition.
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison. This is the tale of three sisters, daughters of the minister in a parish in the Highlands of Scotland. From the review:
…the characterisation of these young girls is beautifully done. None of them is perfect – each has her flaws and idiosyncrasies. The two eldest, Julia and Emmy, are a little like Elinor and Marianne from Sense and Sensibility – Julia’s strong feelings masked by her outward calm, and with the intellect and strength of character to overcome the slings and arrows of her fortune; Emmy driven by emotion, unwilling, perhaps unable, to accept society’s restrictions. Lisbet is clear-sighted about her sisters, and about herself. Although she is young during the events of the book, it is written as if by her older self looking back, giving her narration a feeling of more maturity and insight than her younger self may have had at the time.
And a quote:
The carriage moved forward. We turned the bend in the road where we used to stand to see if any one were coming. I heard the immeasurable murmur of the loch, like a far-away wave that never breaks upon the shore, and the cry of a curlew. All the world’s sorrow, all the world’s pain, and none of its regret, lay throbbing in that cry.
7. Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel.
The Long Drop by Denise Mina, based on the true story of Peter Manuel, one of the last men to be hanged in Scotland, in the late 1950s. Part true crime, part crime fiction and wholly literary – a wonderful book. From the review:
The book has been longlisted for this year’s McIlvanney Prize [it won] and, though I’ve only read a few of the other contenders, I can’t imagine how any book could be a more suitable winner. Scottish to its bones, it nevertheless speaks to our universal humanity. Crime fiction where the quality of the writing and insight into a particular time and place would allow it to sit just as easily on the literary fiction shelf. Not only do I think this is one of the books of the year but I suspect and hope it will become a classic that continues to be read for many decades to come, like Capote’s In Cold Blood or McIlvanney’s own Laidlaw. I hope I’ve persuaded you to read it…
8. What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?
I love literary genre fiction so would be happy to see more of it in all the genres I enjoy, especially crime, science fiction and horror. Come on, authors – get multitasking!
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Your turn – I tag you!
And if you don’t blog, then I tag you to reveal all in the comments below…
A devastating nuclear war has been fought across the world, wiping out almost all life. Only in the far South have people survived, so far, but they know that the poisonous fallout is gradually heading their way and the scientists have told them there is nothing they can do to save themselves. We follow a group of characters in the city and suburbs of Melbourne as they figure out how to spend their last few months of life…
Shute’s depiction of the end of the world is a bleak and hopeless one, but it’s shot through with the resilience of the human spirit. This stops the read from being quite as bleak as the story – just. In most dystopian fiction, there are options even at the worst of times: will humanity rise again, or sink into savage brutality? Will some feat of courage or science stave off the end and bring about a resurrection, perhaps a redemption? There’s none of that in this. Any time anyone hopes that survival may be possible, that hope is promptly and definitively dashed by the scientists. So all there is is one question – how will the people choose to live and die? As civilised humans or as terrified beasts? It’s the ‘50s, so take a guess…
Born out of Cold War fears of nuclear holocaust, this is a terrifying look at how easily humankind might bring about its own destruction. While that fear no longer consumes us to the same degree – oddly, since our combined nuclear arsenal now is even greater than it was then and a narcissistic moron has control of the biggest button – we have replaced it with other terrors: new pandemics, the failure of antibiotics, soil exhaustion, over-population, water wars, and of course our old friend, global climate change. We are uniquely creative in finding ways to bring our species to the brink of extinction, so the question of whether we will face our communal death with dignity is ever present. Shute chooses to suggest that we will. I’m not so sure.
It’s very well written with the characterisation taking the forefront – the war and science aspects are there merely to provide the background. Peter and Mary Holmes are a young couple with a new baby. Peter is a man, therefore he understands the science and has accepted the inevitable. Mary is a woman, therefore the science is way beyond her limited brain capacity (it’s the ‘50s) and she’s in a state of denial, planning her garden for the years that will never come. Peter is in the Australian navy, and has been assigned as liaison to the last American submarine to have survived, under the command of Captain Dwight Towers. Dwight knows his wife and two children back in America must be dead, but he is clinging to the idea that they will all be together again, in some afterlife that he doesn’t quite call heaven. Peter and Mary introduce Dwight to a friend of theirs, Moira Davidson, a young woman intent on partying her way to her end. These four form the central group through whose experiences we witness the final months. Gradually, one by one, more northern cities fall silent as the invisible cloud creeps closer.
If you’re expecting action, then this is not the book for you. The things that happen are small – difficulties with milk supplies, decisions having to be made about how to deal with farm animals, the heart-wrenching subject of what to do about domestic pets, whom the scientists think will survive for a few weeks or months longer than humans. Is suicide morally permissible when death is inevitable? Do people pack the churches or the pubs, or both? How long do people keep going to their work, to keep the streets clean, the shops open, the lights on? It’s a slow-moving but fascinating and rather moving depiction of an undramatic end – all the bombs and war and destruction occurred far away; for the people of Melbourne, nothing has outwardly happened and yet every part of their existence has been irrevocably changed.
Book 50 of 90
I found myself wondering how such a book would be written today. I imagine it would be filled with roving gangs, pillaging their way through the remainder of their lives, raping and murdering as they went. There would be desperate attempts to dig shelters, stockpile resources, store seeds and genetic material against a possible distant future. Perhaps people would be looking to escape into space, or build protective suits or find a way to place themselves in stasis. Refugees would flood southwards in advance of the cloud and turf wars would break out over territory and food. Rich people would be holed up in gated communities with armed guards to protect their useless hoards of gold and jewels. And poor people, just as stupid and greedy, would be looting everything they could lay their hands on. There would be screaming, hysteria, fights, panic, drunkenness, crazy cults and orgies. People would be leaping like lemmings from cliffs. No doubt thousands of young people would be recording it all on their iPhones, hoping against hope that they’d go viral just once before they die, while TV executives would have turned it into a mass reality show, complete with emoting diary room scenes… “So how do you feel about knowing you’re going to die horribly…?”
But in Shute’s version, there’s an acceptance, a kind of politeness about the whole thing, where everyone remains concerned about each other more than themselves, and people continue to pay attention to the instructions of the authorities. No refugees – people simply stay where they are until the fallout gets them, and then they quietly die. Were people’s attitudes different in the ‘50s because of books like this, or were books written like this because people’s attitudes were different? It’s this kind of stoic decency that makes me so nostalgic for that world, even though I suspect it never really existed. If humanity succeeds in bringing about our own extinction, then I’d love to think we could face it with this level of dignity. But I don’t.
A thought-provoking and intelligent portrayal of one possible end – well written and with excellent characterisation, and which, as so much early science fiction does, tells us as much about the time in which it was written as the future it’s ostensibly about. Not perhaps the most cheerful read in the world, but thoroughly deserving of its status as a classic of the genre.
When young newspaper editor Frank Spargo happens upon a murder scene late one night, his journalistic instincts lead him to follow the story. Fortunately the police detective in charge of the case doesn’t seem to have a problem with sharing all the evidence with a journalist and soon Spargo is taking the lead in the investigation. The first thing is to identify the victim, but this turns out not to be as easy as might be expected. The man’s wallet and papers have been removed from his body, and even when they begin to trace him, he seems to have a mysterious past. Spargo will have to go back into that past to find out who the man is, what he was doing in Middle Temple late at night and who had the motive and opportunity to kill him.
All that is found on the victim’s body is a scrap of paper with the name and address of a young barrister, Ronald Breton. Breton has never met the man, but since he’s just starting his first case and is yet to make his name in legal circles, it seems unlikely the victim would have been looking for him in his professional capacity. When it turns out the man had met Stephen Aylmore the evening before – an MP and the father of Breton’s fiancée – it all begins to look like the motive is more likely to be personal, and Aylmore quickly becomes the chief suspect. Fortunately for Aylmore he has two daughters and Spargo finds himself falling for the other one, giving him an incentive to clear Aylmore’s name.
It took me a while to really get into this one but after a slowish start it begins to rattle along at a good pace, and the plot is that great combination of being twisty and complicated without ever becoming hard to follow. Spargo does his detection the old fashioned way – by talking to people, noticing discrepancies between the stories of various witnesses and using those to prise open the secrets that some of them are hiding. First published in 1919 in the age of the gifted amateur detective, the idea of a journalist being so closely involved in a police investigation doesn’t seem as unbelievable as it would today, and Spargo mostly shares all the information he finds, although eventually he and Rathbury, the police detective, find themselves on opposite sides – Rathbury trying to prove the guilt of Aylesbury and Spargo trying to prove his innocence.
Challenge details: Book: 14 Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age Publication Year: 1919
Most of the action takes place in London, around Fleet Street and the Middle Temple, but the story takes Spargo out of the city too, first to a small market town where he uncovers some long past scandals that seem to have a bearing on the case, and then up to Yorkshire for a finale deep in the moors. Fletcher describes each setting well, giving a real feeling for the different ways of life in the various places. None of the characterisation is particularly in-depth, but it’s done well enough so that I soon found myself rooting for some of the characters to be cleared while others I was prepared to see go to the gallows. Fletcher, anticipating the Golden Age style, gave me a solution that meant I could feel justice had been done. I must say it’s a sudden solution, though! Boom – here’s the final piece that makes it all fall into place, and we’re done. My brain could have done with an extra three or four pages to give me time to process what just happened! But I didn’t think it was unfair or illogical – just abrupt.
All-in-all, I enjoyed this one a lot. It does feel rather dated in style (which I don’t mind, but some people might) and frankly could have done with a stiff edit to get rid of one or two little discrepancies, but they weren’t enough of a problem to bother me nor to affect the overall outcome. I was disappointed to read in Martin Edward’s entry in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books that Fletcher never revisited the Spargo character in later books – I reckon he could have made a good series detective. However apparently Fletcher did create another series detective later, Ronald Camberwell, and I’d happily try one or two of those if I can get hold of them. Meantime, this one is recommended as well written, cleverly plotted and entertaining.
NB I downloaded this one from wikisource. The formatting is very good.