….The magnate turned the frame around, revealing the image of a radiant blonde with green eyes who could have passed for a European actress. Though the pale, bottomless pools of her eyes and the glint of mischief behind them caught his attention first, Treviño’s gaze quickly wandered to the waves of hair that framed the perfect oval of her face like a crown. Her nose was perfectly sculpted, and it was hard not to want to stare for a long while at the remarkable curves of her full, sensual lips. This girl was born to eat the world alive. Like anyone seeing Cristina for the first time, Treviño was floored. ….“She’s sixteen,” said her father. ….“About to be seventeen,” her mother corrected.
* * * * * * * * *
….“You feeling better?” ….“I’m all right.” ….“Sometimes just some little thing will do it. Like a change of water, something like that.” ….“Probably too much lunch.” ….“What’s that?” ….Somebody was out front, rattling the door. “Sounds like somebody trying to get in.” ….“Is the door locked, Frank?” ….“I must have locked it.” ….She looked at me, and got pale. She went to the swinging door, and peeped through. Then she went into the lunchroom, but in a minute she was back. ….“They went away.” ….“I don’t know why I locked it.” ….“I forgot to unlock it.” ….She started for the lunchroom again, but I stopped her. “Let’s – leave it locked.” ….“Nobody can get in if it’s locked. I got some cooking to do. I’ll wash up this plate.” ….I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers. . . . ….“Bite me! Bite me!” ….I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.
* * * * * * * * *
….He conducted her about the lawns, and flower-beds, and conservatories; and thence to the fruit-garden and greenhouses, where he asked her if she liked strawberries. ….“Yes,” said Tess, “when they come.” ….“They are already here.” D’Urberville began gathering specimens of the fruit for her, handing them back to her as he stooped; and, presently, selecting a specially fine product of the “British Queen” variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth. ….“No – no!” she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips. “I would rather take it in my own hand.” ….“Nonsense!” he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in. ….They had spent some time wandering desultorily thus, Tess eating in a half-pleased, half-reluctant state whatever d’Urberville offered her. When she could consume no more of the strawberries he filled her little basket with them; and then the two passed round to the rose trees, whence he gathered blossoms and gave her to put in her bosom. She obeyed like one in a dream, and when she could affix no more he himself tucked a bud or two into her hat, and heaped her basket with others in the prodigality of his bounty.
* * * * * * * * *
Those are the days and nights when he misses what’s implicit, the shared assumptions, all the things that don’t need to be said. . . Days and nights when he has to explain everything and listen to everything. One of the modest pleasures of making love to someone from your own country is that if at some point (in that zero hour that always follows the urgency, the enthusiasm, the give and take, the up and down) you don’t feel like talking, you can say or hear just a brief monosyllable, and that little word becomes heavy with associations, implied meanings, shared symbols, a common past, who knows what else? There’s nothing to explain or be explained. There’s no need to pour your heart out. Your hands can do the talking: they’re wordless, but they can be extremely eloquent. Boy, can they be eloquent. Monosyllables, as well, but only when they bring with them their whole train of associations, implications. Amazing how many languages can fit into a single one, Rolando Asuero says and tells himself, contemplating his own reflection. Then he repeats, gloomily: Shit, those bags!
When Bill Masen wakes up in hospital, he’s surprised that none of the nurses have been along to get him up and ready for the day. It’s to be a big day – the bandages that have covered his damaged eyes for a week are due to be removed and Bill will find out if he can see. He missed the big meteor shower last night – amazing green streaks shooting across the sky in a wonderful light-show – but most everybody else in the world had watched them. Bill is about to discover he’s one of the lucky few…
Gosh, I had forgotten just how brilliant this book is! I’m sure everyone has an idea of the basic story even if they’ve never read it or seen a film adaptation, because it’s one of those books that has become a cultural reference point for so much later literature and film. When Bill removes his bandages, he discovers that the vast majority of people have been blinded by the lights in the sky. Only a small number of people like himself who, for various reasons, didn’t see them have retained their sight. It’s a tale of survival in a world turned suddenly dystopian. And with the breakdown of society, the strange walking plants known as triffids have been set free to prey on a suddenly vulnerable humanity.
First published in 1951 and set in a future not far distant from that date, it’s one of the finest examples of the science fiction books that grew out of Cold War paranoia. The world’s first nuclear bombs had been dropped just six years earlier, and the arms race between the US and the USSR was well underway, with each building up stocks of weapons which it was believed could destroy the world. Nuclear bombs were only part of that; Wyndham looks at another aspect, perhaps even more frightening – biological warfare, as scientists turned their brains and technology towards discovering new and horrific ways of destroying their nations’ enemies. Man hadn’t yet made it into space, but that achievement was on the near horizon, again as part of the race for superpower status between the two dominant military mights. And, in a seemingly more peaceful and benevolent manner, man was mucking about with nature in ways that were unprecedented – developing new plants, fertilisers and pesticides without much consideration of possible unintended consequences. All concerns that still exist, though we’ve perhaps become too blasé about them now, but that were fresh and terrifying as Wyndham was writing.
The joy of this book is that the science horrors are more than balanced by an exceptionally strong human story, with excellent characterisation. On leaving the hospital where he woke up, Bill soon meets a young woman, Josella, also sighted. The book tells their story, and through them of the various ways in which humanity attempts to survive. Wyndham looks at questions of morality and society – should the sighted people try to save the blind, hopeless though that task will be given the huge disparity in numbers? Or should they try to save themselves and create a new world for their children? Should they form small communities or gather together to forge whole new societies? How should they go about preserving the knowledge of the past? What knowledge deserves to be preserved? What form of government should be recreated? Are marriage and monogamy appropriate in a severely depleted population or does childbirth take precedence over all else? What role does religion play in this new world? Now that the flesh-eating triffids vastly outnumber the sighted human population, will man remain in his position at the top of the food chain, or has his time passed?
Josella has as strong a survival instinct as any of the men and an equal ability to adapt to new ways of living. She’s witty and amusing and occasionally a little wicked. She’s a true partner for Bill, rather than a pathetic encumbrance that he has to protect. She is, without exception, the best female character I can think of in science fiction of this era and indeed for decades to come. She feels utterly modern, as if she were written today. And Wyndham makes it clear this is no accident – he uses one of his characters to discuss the relative positions in society of men and women and how women’s perceived weakness has arisen out of convention – a convention that women have used to their advantage as much as men have to theirs. And he suggests strongly that if women want to be equal, they can be – they just have to decide that they will be and stop playing the feminine weakness card. A bit of tough love, perhaps, and the teensiest bit patronising, but… not bad at all for a man in the 1950s!
Book 30 of 90
For those of you who automatically dismiss science fiction as not your kind of thing, I promise you this book – any of Wyndham’s books, in fact – will make you change your mind. The writing and characterisation is first-class, and the science is in there because we live in a world where science is important, and where it can be a force for either great good or annihilation of the species. Questions we should all be aware of and thinking about, and all packaged up in a fantastic story – it’s as much literary fiction as any other book that seeks to examine the “human condition” and, frankly, better than most. Great book!
It’s 1857, and Audrey Hart has arrived on the Isle of Skye to assist an elderly lady, Miss Buchanan, to collect the old folktales before they are lost forever. The issue has become urgent because the Highland Clearances are underway, with landowners driving people out of their homes and crofts to make way for more profitable use of the land. With communities being broken, the old traditions are disappearing fast and with them the stories that have been passed down through the generations. But Audrey has another reason for going to Skye too – she spent some time there as a child with her beloved mother, who died on the island when Audrey was still very young. When young girls begin to go missing, the crofting folk believe it’s the work of the fairies. Suddenly Audrey finds herself caught up in a mystery full of folklore and gothic horror…
It took me a long time to get into this book, largely because I’m not an enthusiast for fairy and folk tales, and they play a big part in the story. Audrey is initially sceptical but seems very easily won over to the crofters beliefs, which made my inner cynic curl her lip and sneer a little, I’m afraid. However, the quality of the writing and storytelling kept me turning pages and gradually I found myself becoming absorbed. Audrey is torn – part of her is increasingly falling under the sway of the supernatural explanation, but her more rational side is still wondering if the reason for the girls’ disappearances might have more to do with humans than fairies.
Mazzola shows the cruelty of the Clearances well, although (and I could easily be wrong here) I felt her portrayal of the crofters as being still quite so steeped in superstition at this relatively late date might be a little anachronistic. It was as if they felt that everything that happened was down to the intervention of the fairy folk – no consideration was given to any other possible cause. The fairies here are of the evil kind and the folk stories tell of changelings and stolen children, and cruel punishments for those who don’t show proper respect to them.
Anachronistic or not, though, Mazzola gradually builds up an excellent atmosphere of growing horror, and Audrey’s descent towards an insanity born of fear is very well done. There are lots of nice Gothic touches – a big old house with empty wings and rooms shrouded in dust-covers, strange noises and tunnels, dark nights and graveyards, and mysteriously threatening flocks of birds appearing at unexpected moments. The islanders are initially hostile towards Audrey, seeing her as connected to the landowners who are behaving so cruelly towards them. Since she has cut herself off from her family, Audrey finds herself isolated and alone, dependent on the goodwill of her employer. Mazzola uses this to show the still subordinate and precarious position of women without means of their own, and we gradually learn of the circumstances that have driven Audrey to leave the home that may not have offered her much in the way of love but at least gave her security from poverty.
By the time I got to the second half I was fully caught up in wanting to see how it would all be resolved. I had a pretty good idea of who were the goodies and baddies so the suspense really came from how it would be played out, and I found the ending quite satisfying. Considering all the folklore stuff isn’t really to my taste, Mazzola did an excellent job of gaining and keeping my interest and I’ll be interested to read more from her in the future.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Tinder Press.
I’ve been falling behind on this challenge because of all the other vintage crime books that have come my way recently, but it’s time to get back on track!
And since I’ve now read and reviewed all the books from the third batch of MMM books, here goes for the fourth batch…
The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley
This is a book that gets mentioned all the time by vintage crime enthusiasts so it’s well past time I found out what the fuss is about. I’ve only read a couple of short stories from Anthony Berkeley to date – I thought one was great, the other silly. Let’s hope the book is great!
The Blurb says: Graham and Joan Bendix have apparently succeeded in making that eighth wonder of the modern world, a happy marriage. And into the middle of it there drops, like a clap of thunder, a box of chocolates.Joan Bendix is killed by a poisoned box of liqueur chocolates that cannot have been intended for her to eat. The police investigation rapidly reaches a dead end. Chief Inspector Moresby calls on Roger Sheringham and his Crimes Circle – six amateur but intrepid detectives – to consider the case. The evidence is laid before the Circle and the members take it in turn to offer a solution. Each is more convincing than the last, slowly filling in the pieces of the puzzle, until the dazzling conclusion. This new edition includes an alternative ending by the Golden Age writer Christianna Brand, as well as a brand new solution devised specially for the British Library by the crime novelist and Golden Age expert Martin Edwards.
Book No: 22
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1929
Martin Edwards says: “As Roger [Sheringham, Berkeley’s detective] reflects…’That was the trouble with the old-fashioned detective-story. One deduction only was drawn from each fact, and it was invariably the right deduction. The Great Detectives of the past certainly had luck. In real life one can draw a hundred plausible deductions from one fact, and they’re all equally wrong.'”
* * * * *
The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
A re-read of one of my favourite Christies, narrated by Captain Hastings himself, Hugh Fraser. Joy!
The Blurb says: The Murder at the Vicarage marks the debut of Agatha Christie’s unflappable and much beloved female detective, Miss Jane Marple. With her gift for sniffing out the malevolent side of human nature, Miss Marple is led on her first case to a crime scene at the local vicarage. Colonel Protheroe, the magistrate whom everyone in town hates, has been shot through the head. No one heard the shot. There are no leads. Yet, everyone surrounding the vicarage seems to have a reason to want the Colonel dead. It is a race against the clock as Miss Marple sets out on the twisted trail of the mysterious killer without so much as a bit of help from the local police.
Book No: 24
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1930
Edwards says: “Christie’s sly wit is also evident in the presentation of village life. When Raymond West compares St Mary Mead to a stagnant pool, Miss Marple reminds him that life teems beneath the surface of stagnant pools.”
* * * * *
The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin
Next to London, Oxford must surely be the murder capital of England… in the world of crime fiction, at least!
The Blurb says: As inventive as Agatha Christie, as hilarious as P.G. Wodehouse – discover the delightful detective stories of Edmund Crispin. Crime fiction at its quirkiest and best.
Richard Cadogan, poet and would-be bon vivant, arrives for what he thinks will be a relaxing holiday in the city of dreaming spires. Late one night, however, he discovers the dead body of an elderly woman lying in a toyshop and is coshed on the head. When he comes to, he finds that the toyshop has disappeared and been replaced with a grocery store. The police are understandably skeptical of this tale but Richard’s former schoolmate, Gervase Fen (Oxford professor and amateur detective), knows that truth is stranger than fiction (in fiction, at least). Soon the intrepid duo are careening around town in hot pursuit of clues but just when they think they understand what has happened, the disappearing-toyshop mystery takes a sharp turn…
Book No: 49
Subject Heading: Making Fun of Murder
Publication Year: 1946
Edwards says: “The second chase culminates at Botley fairground, and an out-of-control roundabout; Alfred Hitchcock bought the right to use the scene for the film version of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.“
* * * * *
The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson
Courtesy of the British Library, who are republishing this one in August. I love the House of Commons as a setting for murder… in the fictional sense, of course!
The Blurb says: Originally published in 1932, this is the first Crime Classic novel written by an MP. And fittingly, the crime scene is within the House of Commons itself, in which a financier has been shot dead.
Entreated by the financier’s daughter, a young parliamentary private secretary turns sleuth to find the identity of the murderer – the world of politics proving itself to be domain not only of lies and intrigue, but also danger.Wilkinson’s own political career positioned her perfectly for this accurate but also sharply satirical novel of double cross and rivalries within the seat of the British Government.
Book No: 89
Subject Heading: Singletons
Publication Year: 1936
Edwards says: “A remarkable number of Golden Age detective stories were set in the world of Westminster, presumably because politicians made such popular murder victims. None, however, benefited from as much inside knowledge of the Parliament’s corridors of power as The Division Bell Mystery, whose author was a former MP and future minister.”
When the landlord of the sole pub in the village of High Eldersham is found murdered, the local police chief hastens to call in Scotland Yard. Partly this is because he doesn’t have the resources to deal with a murder investigation, but mainly it’s because High Eldersham has a strange reputation. And when Inspector Young of the Yard starts his enquiries he quickly spots something that makes him think that reputation may be well deserved. So, in true Golden Age style, he turns to an amateur friend to help out. Enter Desmond Merrion…
I’ve seen quite a few less than enthusiastic reviews of this one on Goodreads, so went into it with fairly low expectations, but actually I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think the reason for the negative reviews may be simply that it’s not really a mystery novel in the traditional sense – it’s much more of a thriller. Though there is the question of who murdered the landlord, the real bulk of the story is about the mysterious goings-on in the village, and what nefarious crimes they’re being used to cover. In truth, with my twenty-first century eyes, it seemed pretty obvious what the fundamental criminal enterprise was, but I suspect it wouldn’t have been quite so obvious back when the book was first published in 1930. This, of course, is a common difficulty for vintage crime novels – subsequent writers have reused and recycled the plots so often, it’s quite hard to know when they were first original.
But having a good idea of the underlying crime didn’t in any way diminish my liking for the book. The fun is in seeing how it plays out, and in the thrills and adventures provided along the way. Desmond Merrion apparently became a popular recurring character in later books and I can see why – he’s knowledgable without being insufferable, an action man without being Superman, susceptible to love without being a womaniser. He achieved that rare feat for Golden Age characters of not annoying me by his outdated attitudes – he’d work just as well in a modern context, I think. Merrion had served in the war first as a combatant then, after an injury, moving into intelligence work. His servant, Newport, served alongside him, and now works as his butler-come-sidekick. And a jolly good sidekick he is too, with skills of his own, and happily Merrion treats him as an equal – often the patronising way these ex-servicemen sidekicks are portrayed in the Golden Age puts me off the books, like Campion’s Lugg or Wimsey’s Bunter. Newport however is only devoted to his master to an acceptable degree and doesn’t speak with a “comedy” working-class dialect. And he’s perfectly capable of using his own initiative when need be.
Challenge details: Book: 33 Subject Heading: Serpents in Eden Publication Year: 1930
The book builds its tension mainly through the dark activities of the villagers, activities rooted in a more superstitious past. There are hints of the supernatural, but the story remains firmly within the rational world, while showing chillingly how bad people can use old traditions to achieve their wicked ends. There are occasional moments of melodrama, some fortunate coincidences, and stock situations like the woman-in-peril, but it’s all done very well and kept me turning pages. And I did like the woman in question – no shrinking miss, the lovely Mavis owns her own speedboat and is the rescuer as often as the rescued. A couple of the scenes are genuinely creepy and Burton manages to get across the real evils that are going on without ever feeling the need to be graphic or voyeuristic – a lesson that I’d be grateful if many a modern writer could learn.
It’s all a matter of taste, of course, but I think this one deserves more praise than it has received. Martin Edwards lists it under his Serpents of Eden category in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and I think that’s a perfect place for it – wickedness and true evil going on underneath the outwardly quiet life of an English village. Edwards tells us too that, although this is only the second book published under this name, Burton also wrote under other pseudonyms, most notably John Rhodes, and was therefore already a practised and successful writer, and I think this shows in the quality of the writing. Good stuff – I shall certainly be looking out for more in this series.
A year and a half ago I thought it would be fun to commemorate the centenary of the Russian Revolution by setting myself a challenge to read all about it. It’s a period I knew very little about, having forgotten what little I learned in school back in the dark ages. The plan was to read some history, some contemporaneous accounts and some fiction, both classic and modern. And I have to admit, at risk of sounding even weirder than usual, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience!
If you want to see the full list of the books I read, you’ll find it here. I decided against three of the books on my initial list of ten as I went along, and abandoned another too early to review. On the other hand, I added eleven – a combination of books that were published during the centenary year and books to which some other part of my revolutionary reading led me.
In total, then, seventeen books, of which seven are factual and ten fiction. I enjoyed the vast majority of them, with only a couple being quite disappointing. So to celebrate the end of this challenge, I thought I’d pick out what were the highlights for me – all books that I unreservedly recommend – and some of the images I used to illustrate my reviews.
Massive in scope and meticulously researched, this history of the Revolution is brilliantly written and well laid out, making it easy to read and understand despite the immense complexity of the subject, even for someone with no previous knowledge. It’s an exemplary mix of the political, social and personal, so that I came away from it understanding not just the politics and timeline of events, but how it must have felt to have lived through them. Should you ever be struck with a sudden desire to read an 800-page history of the Russian Revolution, then without a doubt this is the one to read.
Trotsky’s own detailed account of the events of 1917 and analysis of what led to Russia being ripe for revolution at that moment. Dry and jargon-filled when discussing Marxist theory; sarcastic and even humorous when talking about Stalin or the bourgeoisie; angry and contemptuous when discussing the Romanovs and imperialists in general. But when he gets misty-eyed about the masses, describing a rally or demonstration or some other part of the struggle, he becomes eloquent and even inspirational, writing with real power and emotionalism, reminding the reader that he was a participant and passionate leader in the events he’s describing. Essential reading for anyone with a real interest in the period.
It is 1918, and Kiev in the Ukraine is at the swirling centre of the forces unleashed by war and revolution. The three Turbin siblings are White Russians, still loyal to the Russian Tsar, hoping against hope that he may have escaped the Bolsheviks and be living still. But there are other factions too – the German Army have installed a puppet leader, and the Ukrainian peasantry are on the march in a nationalist movement. This is the story of a few short days when the fate of the city seems up for grabs, and the lives of the Turbins, like so many in those turbulent times, are under constant threat.
Great and terrible was the year of Our Lord 1918, of the Revolution the second. Its summer abundant with warmth and sun, its winter with snow, highest in its heaven stood two stars: the shepherds’ star, eventide Venus; and Mars – quivering, red.
A truly brilliant book that, while concentrating on one small city, gives a brutal and terrifyingly believable picture of the horrors unleashed in the wake of bloody revolution.
This Nobel Prize-winning novel follows the members of one family, the Melekhovs, through the upheavals of early 20th century Russia, casting light on those events from the Cossack perspective. It’s divided into four sections – Peace, the Great War, Revolution and Civil War. The book has the added fascination that we’re seeing how it all played out through the eyes of those at the bottom of the society’s power structures, rather than via the political actors and intelligentsia whose opinions are the ones we normally hear.
Very similar were all the prayers which the cossacks wrote down and concealed under their shirts, tying them to the strings of the little ikons blessed by their mothers, and to the little bundles of their native earth. But death came upon all alike, upon those who wrote down the prayers also. Their bodies rotted in the fields of Galicia and Eastern Prussia, in the Carpathians and Roumania, wherever the ruddy flames of war flickered and the traces of cossack horses were imprinted in the earth.
A wonderful book, one that fully deserves its reputation as a great classic of the Revolution, and of literature in general. To be able to tell such a difficult and complicated history while simultaneously humanising it is a real feat, and one Sholokhov has pulled off superbly.
It is 1910 and a packed train makes its way into Astapov, a little village suddenly famous because Tolstoy is there, in the process of dying. Aboard the train are two men: Professor Vladimir Vorobev, a scientist who has developed a new method of embalming that can make corpses look strangely alive; and Nikolai Gribshin, a young film-maker attached to Pathé News. These two men will soon be swept up in events, as Lenin and Stalin create their Communist utopia…
According to secret reports from the Commissariat’s foreign agents, the movies had reached every burb and hamlet of America. This transformation of the civilized world had taken place in a single historic instant. Despite its rejection of Byzantium, the West was creating an image-ruled empire of its own, a shimmering, electrified web of pictures, unarticulated meaning, and passionate association forged between unrelated ideas. This was how to do it: either starve the masses of meaning or expose them to so much that the sum of it would be unintelligible.
The major theme of the book is about the development of propaganda techniques under Stalin, specifically using film. More widely, it’s about facts, presentation of facts, distortion of truth using facts, myth-making; and, as such, feels even more timely today than I suspect it would have done when originally published. Plus it’s brilliantly written and highly entertaining.
The story of three men whose lives become intertwined across decades and continents: the Cuban narrator who tells the story, Trotsky living in exile in Mexico, and a young Spaniard, Ramon Mercader del Rio, who has been recruited by Stalin. The primary story is of Trotsky’s assassination in 1940. Its purpose runs deeper though: to look at the corruption and failure of the utopian dream of communism and to inspire compassion for the people caught up in this vast and dreadful experiment.
He [Trotsky] whistled, demanding Maya’s presence, and was relieved when the dog approached him. Resting his hand on the animal’s head, he noticed how the snow began to cover him. If he remained there ten or fifteen minutes, he would turn into a frozen mass and his heart would stop, despite the coats. It could be a good solution, he thought. But if my henchmen won’t kill me yet, he told himself, I won’t do their work for them. Guided by Maya, he walked the few feet back to the cabin: Lev Davidovich knew that as long as he had life left in him, he still had bullets to shoot as well.
Padura’s deep research is complemented by his intelligence, insight and humanity, all of which means that the book is more than a novel – it’s a real contribution to the history of 20th century communism across the world, looked at from a human perspective. My only caveat is that without some existing knowledge of the history, it may be a struggle to get through. But for anyone with an interest in the USSR, Cuba or the Spanish Civil War, I’d say it’s pretty much an essential read.
* * * * *
So it’s a wrap!
Thank you for joining me on my journey and I hope you enjoyed at least some parts of my obsession with the Revolution – an obsession which I’m not sure has really ended yet, although the challenge has. The last word must go to Trotsky…
Suddenly, by common impulse – the story will soon be told by John Reed, observer and participant, chronicler and poet of the insurrection – “we found ourselves on our feet, mumbling together into the smooth lifting unison of the Internationale. A grizzled old soldier was sobbing like a child… The immense sound rolled through the hall, burst windows and doors and soared into the quiet sky.” Did it go altogether into the sky? Did it not go also to the autumn trenches, that hatch-work upon unhappy, crucified Europe, to her devastated cities and villages, to her mothers and wives in mourning? “Arise ye prisoners of starvation! Arise ye wretched of the earth!”
It’s May 1914 and war is looming over Europe. Richard Hannay has returned from South Africa and is finding England dull. He’ll give it another couple of days, he decides, and if nothing exciting happens, he’ll return to one of the outposts of Empire. But then a man he doesn’t know turns up at his door seeking help. Scudder tells him that he’s discovered a conspiracy, one that, if it succeeds, will shake the world. It’s four weeks until he can reveal what he knows to the authorities, though, and he begs Hannay’s help to keep him hidden till then. When Scudder is then killed, Hannay finds himself possessed of a secret and Scudder’s coded notebook, running from the conspirators who want to kill him and the police who want to arrest him for Scudder’s murder. And so the chase is on…
Buchan described the book as a “shocker” and that’s basically what it is – what we’d now call an action thriller. Published in 1915, its first audience knew that whatever Hannay did, he didn’t succeed in preventing war, so that couldn’t be the point of the conspiracy or of the attempt to defeat it. Not unnaturally, the Germans don’t come out of it well, and unfortunately neither do the Jews (no Jews actually appear in it, but they’re still referred to in what I wish were outmoded anti-Semitic terms) nor the Southern Europeans – thankfully, it’s been a while since I heard the word “Dago” being used. This is always a problem with books of this era and sometimes I find it easier to overlook than others, I think based on whether the author simply uses the words or whether it feels as if he really means to be derogatory. I found Buchan borderline – it bothered me, but not so much I couldn’t look past it and enjoy the story.
The story itself is mostly a simple chase round the moorland in the south-west of Scotland, a place Buchan knew well in real life. This centre section between Scudder’s murder and the dramatic dénouement forms the bulk of the book, and is divided into chapters each of which forms a little story on its own. (In the introduction, there’s an extract from a letter from an early reader, a soldier in the trenches in France, thanking Buchan for this format since it allowed him to read and assimilate a chapter any time he got a moment of calm. “The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”) Each mini-story involves someone Hannay meets during his travels – a road-mender, an innkeeper who would like to be an author, an aspiring political candidate, etc. Most of these are educated men, so that the bulk of the book is in standard English, but in the occasional working-class encounter Buchan gives us some excellent Scottish dialect.
The framing story of the conspiracy I found frankly incomprehensible for the most part, especially at the beginning when Scudder is clearly referring to all kinds of people and events that were probably familiar to a contemporary audience but mostly weren’t to me. It does become clearer at the end, although it also all becomes rather silly. However, I’m not a soldier in the trenches of WW1 nor even a worried mother waiting at home, so the thrilling aspects of trying to put a spanner in the works of the nasty Hun don’t resonate with me as they would have done at the time. In truth, I was finding it a bit tedious in the middle – there’s an awful lot of coincidence and near-miraculous luck, and it’s one of those ones where the hero just always happens to have the knowledge he needs: how to break codes, for example, or how to use explosives. But when it reaches its climax and I finally found out what the conspiracy was all about, I found myself nicely caught up in it (once I had switched off my over-heating credibility-monitor).
I’m a bit ashamed to say that I actually found the introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition more interesting than the book! Christopher Harvie, Professor of British and Irish Studies at the University of Tübingen in West Germany, gives the usual mix of abbreviated biography and literary context, and does so in clear and accessible English without any academic jargonese. What a fascinating life Buchan had! I had no idea! As well as writing a zillion books, he held all kinds of posts in his life, from Lord High Commissioner of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, to Member of Parliament, to Governor of Canada. Along the way, he also travelled extensively through South Africa, worked in intelligence and rose to be the Director of Intelligence in the Ministry of Information in 1918. (I know any Scottish readers, especially my siblings BigSister and ForeignFilmFan, are currently shaking their heads in disgust at my ignorance, but there it is. Neither of them can play Three Blind Mice on the xylophone – we each have our different areas of expertise in this life.)
Overall, then, a good read if not a great one. And, as I suspected, it turns out I hadn’t read it before – I just knew it from the various adaptations, none of which have stuck very closely to the plot of the book. I’m now keen to re-watch the ancient Hitchcock version to see how it compares – memory tells me I enjoyed it considerably more…
Book 29 of 90
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.
Alice and Lucy were once best friends, students together at the expensive Bennington College in Vermont. Now Alice is in Tangier with her newish husband. He loves the life there, the seedy bars, the feeling of danger in the streets as Morocco demands its independence from its French colonisers. Alice hates it, scared to go out alone and miserable when she goes out with her overbearing and unsympathetic husband (mind you, he’s also pretty miserable at having to go out with the whining, pathetic Alice). Suddenly one day, out of the blue, Lucy turns up at their door. This is the first time Alice and Lucy have met since that day… but no, of course we don’t get told what happened that day. As Lucy and Alice take turns at the narration, carefully ensuring their voices are indistinguishable to add an element of confusion, they each dance round the subject of what happened that day while being very careful not to tell the poor put-upon reader.
I made it to the 25% mark before deciding I could take no more. I don’t want to be unfairly brutal – this is a début, and it shows some promise. Regulars will know that I’ve spluttered with annoyance often over the whole “that day” faux-suspense thing that seems to be an essential part of so-called thrillers these days – presumably because the authors can’t actually think of anything thrilling to write about. (FF’s Tenth Law: having the narrator constantly refer to ‘what happened that day’ without informing the reader of what did happen that day is far more likely to create book-hurling levels of irritation than a feeling of suspense.) So Mangan is merely following the herd, and sadly it’s a big herd, getting bigger by the day. I was sucked in by the great cover – had this had the ubiquitous girl in the red jacket on it I’d have known to avoid it like the plague.
Had it just been the “that day” tedium, I would probably have stuck with it, though. The picture Mangan gives of Tangier at this point in time (1956) is quite well done, bearing in mind that we see it solely through the eyes of white colonials. This means there are some rather demeaning depictions of the locals that smack a little of good old white superiority, but I felt that was appropriate to the time and social status of the main characters.
Over a year now, and it was still cast in a hazy fog that I could not seem to work my way out of, no matter how long I tripped through the labyrinth. It’s better that way, my aunt had said afterward, when I had told her about the vaporous sheen my memories had taken on, how I could no longer remember the details of that horrible night, of the days that followed. Leave it in the past, she had urged, as if my memories were objects that could be packed away in boxes secure enough to ensure they would never let loose the secrets held within.
Unfortunately, however, I couldn’t tolerate the style of writing. Some people have praised it, so I’ll admit that’s a subjective thing. It’s well-written in a grammatical sense, and thankfully it’s in the past tense, except for the obligatory foreshadowing prologue. But it’s written in a kind of mock-Gothic manner, all overwrought and hyperventilating, that gradually began to drive me insane. I had company in my insanity however – in true Gothic fashion, both women have strange “nervous” conditions that cause them to have imaginary symptoms and so on, and we know from the prologue that at least one of them has totally lost her marbles by the time the story ends. It was at the point that one of them actually fainted – Mangan resisted the temptation to say “swooned” but I bet it was on the tip of her pen – that I gave up. I discovered when I looked at her author bio that Mangan did her PhD on 18th century Gothic literature, and was unsurprised. Nor was I astonished to learn she had then topped that off with a degree in creative writing…
I didn’t hate it and I don’t think it’s awful. It’s as good as most of these identikit “that day” thrillers and better written than many. It probably deserves three or even four stars. But it’s not for me, and since I couldn’t bring myself to continue reading, then I’m afraid one star it is. Oddly, I’ll still be intrigued to see how Mangan develops – if she can learn to match her style to her subject matter and free herself from the feeling that she must follow the herd, I feel she has the talent to evolve into an interesting writer. I wish her well in the attempt.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.
Another major fall this week – the TBR is down 2 to 224! I’ve really got the hang of this now! In fact, I’m enjoying it so much I think I’ll do it again…
Here are a few more that should slide off soon…
Classic Scottish Fiction
From my Classics Club list. The book is a collection of several of Willa Muir’s works but the one I’ll be reading first is Imagined Corners. I know nothing about either author or book, other than that it appears regularly on lists of great Scottish novels…
The Blurb says: Imagined Corners, Muir’s first novel, is set in a provincial Scottish town unwilling and unready for change. Ensnared by stifling religious and moral codes and adrift in her marriage, Elizabeth Shand feels increasingly isolated in Calderwick. However, the arrival of the charismatic and bohemian Elise begins to unravel the knots that bond and bind the townsfolk, offering a glimmer of hope for Elizabeth.
The story of Elizabeth’s evolving independence bears a stark contrast to Muir’s role as colleague and devoted wife to the poet Edwin Muir, giving insight into the mind of one of Scotland’s finest yet often overlooked writers.
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Courtesy of the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group. I’ve been enjoying Val McDermid’s return to a Scottish setting in her Karen Pirie series, so am looking forward to this latest installment…
The Blurb says: When a body is discovered in the remote depths of the Highlands, DCI Karen Pirie finds herself in the right place at the right time. Unearthed with someone’s long-buried inheritance, the victim seems to belong to the distant past – until new evidence suggests otherwise, and Karen is called in to unravel a case where nothing is as it seems.
It’s not long before an overheard conversation draws Karen into the heart of a different case, however – a shocking crime she thought she’d already prevented. As she inches closer to the twisted truths at the centre of these murders, it becomes clear that she’s dealing with a version of justice terrifyingly different to her own . . .
Number one bestseller and queen of crime Val McDermid returns with her most breathtakingly atmospheric and exhilarating novel yet.
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Courtesy of Yale University Press. This rather massive tome is the winner of the 2018 Wolfson History Prize. I’m pretty sure it’ll exercise my brain and absolutely certain it’ll exercise my biceps..
The Blurb says: Centuries on, what the Reformation was and what it accomplished remain deeply contentious. Peter Marshall’s sweeping new history—the first major overview for general readers in a generation—argues that sixteenth-century England was a society neither desperate for nor allergic to change, but one open to ideas of “reform” in various competing guises. King Henry VIII wanted an orderly, uniform Reformation, but his actions opened a Pandora’s Box from which pluralism and diversity flowed and rooted themselves in English life.
With sensitivity to individual experience as well as masterfully synthesizing historical and institutional developments, Marshall frames the perceptions and actions of people great and small, from monarchs and bishops to ordinary families and ecclesiastics, against a backdrop of profound change that altered the meanings of “religion” itself. This engaging history reveals what was really at stake in the overthrow of Catholic culture and the reshaping of the English Church.
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Courtesy of Canongate via NetGalley. Ambrose Parry is a nom-de-plume for the writing partnership of husband-and-wife team, Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. I find that idea as intriguing as the blurb…
The Blurb says:Edinburgh, 1847. City of Medicine, Money, Murder.
Young women are being discovered dead across the Old Town, all having suffered similarly gruesome ends. In the New Town, medical student Will Raven is about to start his apprenticeship with the brilliant and renowned Dr Simpson.
Simpson’s patients range from the richest to the poorest of this divided city. His house is like no other, full of visiting luminaries and daring experiments in the new medical frontier of anaesthesia. It is here that Raven meets housemaid Sarah Fisher, who recognises trouble when she sees it and takes an immediate dislike to him. She has all of his intelligence but none of his privileges, in particular his medical education.
With each having their own motive to look deeper into these deaths, Raven and Sarah find themselves propelled headlong into the darkest shadows of Edinburgh’s underworld, where they will have to overcome their differences if they are to make it out alive.
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or NetGalley.
Back in the last days of high school, Kit Owens became friendly with new girl, Diane Fleming. Beautiful, intelligent Diane encouraged Kit to rise above the modest ambitions she had for herself, and instead set her sights on gaining a scholarship to study biology at university. But Diane also told Kit a secret – something so shocking it ended their friendship and has haunted Kit ever since. Now Kit is working as a postdoc for Dr Severin, a scientist both girls had admired and been inspired by. All Dr Severin’s team are hoping for a coveted spot on a new study she’s beginning, into PMDD – Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder – an extreme form of PMT. But suddenly Dr Severin announces she’s taking on a new team member. Kit is appalled to discover that her old friend Diane is now to be her colleague and rival. Old secrets turn into new nightmares…
I always love the way Megan Abbott writes about the hormone-driven intensity of teenage girls and their friendships, but I’m also glad she’s beginning to take her girls into womanhood too in her last couple of books. This follows the almost ubiquitous pattern of current thriller writing of having sections set in past and present (with the past written in past tense and the present in present tense, which is at least slightly more appropriate than some uses of the annoying present tense). It also has a touch of “that day” syndrome (where the narrator keeps referring ominously to something that happened in the past), though in this case the reader is told what happened that day reasonably early on – before I got to full tooth-gnashing, Kindle-hurling mode, although it was close. Kit, of course, is an unreliable narrator. Surprisingly, despite all these stylistic clichés, I enjoyed the book, which is a tribute to Abbott’s writing.
There’s very little I can say about the plot without spoilers. I found the setting of a biology lab intriguing – it feels very well researched and believable, as Abbott shows the teamwork that is essential but also the rivalries for the limited number of grant-funded positions that offer the best opportunities for break-through research and professional triumph. PMDD is a syndrome I hadn’t heard of before, and is mostly peripheral to the plot. But Abbott employs it as a kind of vehicle for using female biology as a theme, with much – too much – concentration on blood. There’s a kind of feeling of throwback to the days of women being perceived as witchy and dangerous because of their dark sexuality. Personally I felt Abbott over-egged that aspect a bit – her adult women seemed to be as intense as her adolescents and, while she clearly wasn’t intending this, it felt to me almost as if she were suggesting that her professional women were all driven to the point of obsession, with an odd unstated link to their femaleness as the root cause. It didn’t ring wholly true to me, though it made for a nicely warped and scary story.
Did I find the plot credible? Well, no, not in the end. But the things that went over the line for me only happened very near the end, so didn’t spoil my enjoyment while reading. As usual, there were one or two twists too many, but that’s another of these laws of contemporary crime writing, sadly. The employment of all these current trends – the present tense, the unreliable first person narrator, the incredible twists, the past/present storyline – prevented me from loving this quite as much as some of her earlier books. But the quality of the writing, the excellent pacing, and the interesting plot and setting meant that as usual Abbott kept me reading well into the wee sma’ hours, so despite my criticisms I recommend it as a thoroughly enjoyable read!
PS I know I’m a tedious pedant but… the past and present sections are headed Then and Now. Fine – simple, clear and means the reader is never left confused. Plus, Now gives some excuse for present tense. Imagine my pedantic surprise then to discover that the final section of the book is headed Ten Years Later. Ten years later than now? You mean, in the future? Are we seeing it through a crystal ball in Divination class? Or do you mean Now is ten years ago – in which case it really can’t be Now, can it? Words matter. Don’t they?
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Picador.
Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before…
I’ve gone off Ian McEwan in recent years, but I loved some of his earlier stuff, including Atonement. My memory of it now is heavily coloured by the film, but one day I’d like to re-read the book which I seem to remember being considerably more ambiguous. The blurb says…
On a hot summer day in 1934, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses a moment’s flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant and Cecilia’s childhood friend. But Briony’s incomplete grasp of adult motives—together with her precocious literary gifts—brings about a crime that will change all their lives.
Keira Knightley starred in the film of Atonement and I believe she’ll also be starring in the movie of my next pick…
The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell. It’s Prohibition Era in America and the police in Brooklyn have been tasked with closing down the speakeasies that have sprung up around the district. To help with the extra workload a new typist is hired, the charming and beautiful Odalie. At first, Rose, the narrator, is a little jealous of the attention Odalie receives from all quarters, but when Odalie decides to befriend her, Rose quickly falls under her spell. Even as she realises that Odalie might have some dark secrets, Rose can’t resist the new and exciting lifestyle to which Odalie has introduced her. This excellent début shot Suzanne Rindell straight onto my must-read list and she continues to improve with each book.
Another début that I loved recently is…
That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina. When a PI tracks Tommaso down in London to give him the news that he has been left a large legacy, Tommaso tells him he doesn’t want it and pleads that his whereabouts should not be revealed. To make the PI understand why his anonymity is so important to him, Tommaso agrees to tell him the story of why he left Italy – the story of his last summer in Puglia. That was the summer, long ago when Tommaso was young, that he met and fell in love with Anna…
The trail snaked through the vegetation, skirting tufts of ammofila – ‘sand lover’, or, more prosaically, marram grass – and shrubs. Now and then, the track ushered us into small clearings where we struggled to make out its continuation. L’albero magico – our magic tree, as we later called it – materialised before us. It was a squat oak – not of the kind familiar in Britain, but a distant cousin rooted in arid earth – whose branches arched downwards, forming a dark-green canopy over a bed of fine sand. It called to mind an apparition out of one of those fairy tales in which nature shields hero and heroine from the villains in pursuit, throwing obstacles – from brambles to boulders – in their way, while offering sanctuary and sustenance to the fugitives.
Puglia is one of the spots on the Main Journey of my Around the World Challenge. San Francisco is another and it’s where my next pick is set…
The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett. When Edgar Leggett’s home is broken into and some not particularly valuable diamonds go missing, his insurance company send along their operative to investigate – enter the Continental Op, the only name we are given for the first-person narrator. The CO soon decides that there’s been some kind of inside job, and that there’s more to the case than a simple burglary. Oddly, despite the fact that the plot is nonsensical, episodic, and barely hangs together, I still found the book entertaining.
“Are you – who make your living snooping – sneering at my curiosity about people and my attempts to satisfy it?” “We’re different,” I said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in jail, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.” “That’s not different,” he said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in books, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.” “Yeah, but what good does that do?” “God knows. What good does putting them in jail do?” “Relieves congestion,” I said. “Put enough people in jail, and cities wouldn’t have traffic problems.”
There’s a wonderful piece of horror writing in the middle of the book, and Hammett references the author of my next pick, which made me think Hammett was acknowledging his influence…
The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen. This is a collection of those stories of Arthur Machen that fit into what would now be thought of as ‘weird’ tales. Machen’s stories are set mainly in two locations, both of which he evokes brilliantly. His native Monmouthshire, in Wales, is depicted as a place with connections to its deep past, where ancient beliefs and rituals are hidden just under the surface of civilised life. His London is a place of dark alleys and hidden evils, with a kind of degenerate race living side by side with the respectable people, and often stretching out a corrupting hand towards them.
Machen was an influence on many later writers of horror and weird fiction, including the author of my next choice…
The Classic Horror Stories by HP Lovecraft. I have a kind of love/hate relationship with Lovecraft but there’s no doubting his influence on weird and horror fiction writing. This collection was my introduction to him a few years ago and since then he’s become a bit of a fixture in my semi-regular Tuesday Terror! feature. The editor of this collection credits HPL with being one of the main writers who moved horror away from the human-centric gothic tale, with its vampires, crucifixes and garlic, to a universe where man is an insignificant and helpless part of a greater whole. Not to mention his creation of the famous fish-frog aliens of Innsmouth…
The aforesaid editor, Roger Luckhurst, also edited my last selection…
The Time Machine by HG Wells. In Victorian England, our narrator has invented a time machine and has been on a trip to the far distant future. There, he has seen the result of millennia of evolution, with mankind breaking into two distinct sub-species – the peaceful, childlike, vegetarian Eloi and the cruel and evil Morlocks. The Eloi live above ground in the sunshine, spending their days in idle playfulness, but when night falls they huddle together for safety. The Morlocks live underground and can’t bear daylight, but at night they emerge from their tunnels… A fabulous book with so much to say about Victorians concerns with science and society, but first and foremost it’s a great adventure story.
And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers – shriveled now, and brown and flat and brittle – to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of men.
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So McEwan to Wells, via Keira Knightley, débuts, Around the World, horror writing, influences and editors!
Mademoiselle Mathilde Stangerson is attacked in her yellow bedroom by a murderer wielding a mutton-bone. When her father and the other people in the house break down the door, Mlle S is on the floor and her murderer is nowhere to be found. There are three exceedingly strange things about this – one: how did the murderer get out of a room in which the only door and window were securely locked; and two: why does everyone keep calling him a murderer when Mlle S is still alive…; and three: a mutton-bone???
OK, to my great disappointment I discovered a mutton-bone is actually the name given to a club-like weapon much used by villains of the day, so that solves number three. Number 2 – the murderer with the living victim – becomes progressively more hysterical as the book goes on and Mlle S stubbornly refuses to die. I couldn’t help wondering what she felt every time a newspaper or one of the characters talked about her murder.
The real meat of the thing, though, is not on the mutton-bone, but in the question of how the murderer got out of the room. Enter our hero, Joseph Rouletabille, (a nickname meaning “Roll Your Marble”, given to him, presumably, on account of his large round red head), a young journalist who at the age of eighteen has already acquired a reputation as an inspired amateur detective. He is introduced to us by our narrator, Jean Sainclair, a young lawyer and friend who acts as Rouletabille’s sidekick.
Off they go to the Château du Glandier, where they will meet Mathilde and her father, her fiance, her loyal and devoted servant, and various assorted estate workers and villagers, all with or without alibis and motives, and all behaving suspiciously in one way or another. Even Frédéric Larsan, famed investigator of the Sûreté, will find himself hard put to it to come up with a solution to this baffling mystery, and when he does, it will be entirely different from Rouletabille’s solution. Who will prove to be right? And how will he (the one who’s right) prove he’s right? And will they catch the murderer before the murder victim is finally murdered???
This is a fabulous little romp that is more and more fun as it goes along. First published in French in 1907, I can’t find anything to tell me who the translator was. At first, I felt the language was quite stilted and thought it could do with a modern update. But as the book’s general mildly melodramatic tone began to come through, I realised the style of the translation is actually perfect for it. It makes it feel terribly French and very old-fashioned – both things which add considerably to its charm.
The plotting is great, enhanced by a couple of detailed floor plans allowing the reader to try to get to the solution before Rouletabille. (I failed miserably!) The initial mystery of the locked room is only one of the “impossible crime” features – there is another halfway through which is not only baffling but quite spooky, and there are other sections where Leroux creates a beautifully tense atmosphere. But overall the book leans more towards entertainment with lots of humour, especially in the rivalry between Rouletabille and Larsan. I love that the title of the first chapter is In Which We Begin Not to Understand – sets the light-hearted tone superbly before the book even begins. The villagers are about as welcoming as the ones in The Wicker Man, complete with a surly publican and a witchy old crone with an exceptionally scary cat called Bête du Bon Dieu, so some lovely almost Gothic touches sprinkled into the story.
Rouletabille’s ability to see through the fog of confusion to the truth that eludes all others is well-nigh miraculous, enhanced by Sainclair’s supreme admiration for his young friend. Rouletabille is the master of the enigmatic utterance, throwing suspects into terror while keeping Sainclair (and me) totally befuddled. But when all is revealed, we see that we have indeed had all the clues all along – well, all the important ones anyway – and it’s only our inferior brain-power that has left us trailing in Rouletabille’s brilliant wake…
Hercule Poirot wasn’t baffled, of course, when he read this book. He talks about it in The Clocks, saying…
“And here is The Mystery of the Yellow Room. That – that really is a classic! I approve of it from start to finish. Such a logical approach!… All through there is truth, concealed with a careful and cunning use of words… Definitely a masterpiece…”
… and Poirot (and Ms Christie) knew a thing or two about crime fiction. Poirot is not Rouletabille’s only admirer among the fictional detective classes – John Dickson Carr’s Gideon Fell refers to the book as “the best detective tale ever written”. I must say the physical book from the Collins Crime Club series is gorgeous too, with a great cover, including quotes from Poirot and Fell where normally there would be puffs from fellow writers. Made me laugh with delight before I even opened it.
I’m so glad to have had the chance to read this one, since I’ve seen it referred to often in my recent travels through vintage crime. And I’m even more glad to be able to say that I feel it fully deserves its reputation, both for the skill in the plotting and for the entertainment value in the storytelling. An essential read for vintage crime fans!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.
It’s 1948, and Eve Forrester is living a dull, restricted life in London with her staid, passionless husband. Out of the blue, she receives a letter telling her that a man she has never heard of has left her a legacy. To find out more, she’ll have to travel to the French Riviera. Once there, she discovers she’s been left a share in a lovely pink house overlooking the sea. The dead man’s family don’t know why he named her in his will either, and resent her very much. Pushed to agree to an early sale and division of the proceeds, Eve finds herself unwilling to comply until she can find out what’s behind it all…
Naturally, when writing a slow-burn book set in the fairly distant past, Rhys has used the present tense. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? No, nor would I. So, despite the fact that she does it as well as most, Rhys was always going to have to work extra hard to win me over.
To a certain extent she did, though it took a long time to really grab my interest. The first section in Cap d’Antibes is full of lengthy description that goes well beyond scene-setting. The house in particular is described in minute detail, putting me in mind of the kind of brochure that is produced for a house sale. But I was intrigued to discover the reason for the legacy and that kept me reading. I formed a theory fairly early on which proved to be completely wrong, so that’s always a major plus!
This is one of those books that works best if you switch off your credibility filters going in. If it weren’t for fear of spoilers, I could make a list of plot holes and inconsistencies, and little side mysteries that are left entirely unresolved and are completely illogical once the final revelations are disclosed. They add to the suspense during the read but are left hanging at the end. The story too requires quite a lot of suspension of disbelief. Within a week, this ordinary unremarkable woman is consorting with Princes and Hollywood stars, invited to their parties and weddings, and looked on as an intimate friend.
However, if you can buy into it, then it’s all quite fun. The rather faded glamour of post-war life in this playground of the rich and pointless is portrayed very well, with an underlying feeling of the desperation of people trying to party away the recent horrors of war. Rhys also shows the scars left after the Nazi occupation of France, with the lingering divisions between those who collaborated and those who resisted. And, in a time when the social order has been broken and reformed, she shows how it can be hard to know whether people are who they present themselves as, or if they have remade themselves to hide their unacceptable pasts. There’s a romance element which is quite enjoyable too, if a little clichéd, and there’s more action in the second half which speeds the thing along at a better pace than the slow first half.
I’ve struggled to rate this one. I don’t think it’s up to the standard of her earlier novel, A Dangerous Crossing, and I suspect that may be, as so often, down to rushing it out without the kind of firm edit that was really required to tighten up the various plotting weaknesses and unnecessary padding. (No, I’m not blaming the editor – authors have the ultimate responsibility for their own books.) The present tense feels entirely wrong for the story and was a running, if minor, irritation to me throughout. However, once it speeded up a bit, I found myself turning pages quite happily and was certainly interested in discovering how it would all play out. But afterwards, I found myself asking – “but what about…?” And “why didn’t she…?” And “who…?” And that’s never satisfactory. So three and a half stars and a recommendation as an overall enjoyable read but not one to be taken too seriously.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.
Well, things went slightly better this week, perhaps due to me bricking up the letter box and shouting “She’s emigrated to Australia!” every time the postman knocked the door. So the TBR has fallen by 4 to 226! I’m pretty sure I’ll be getting off the treadmill soon…
Here are a few more that should drop off soon…
Classic Club Spin #18 Winner
Number 9 was called and so this is it! In its favour, it’s short and I loved the film. Against, I really didn’t get along with Cain’s writing in Mildred Pierce (review still to come). So it could go either way…
The Blurb says: An amoral young tramp. A beautiful, sullen woman with an inconvenient husband. A problem that has only one grisly solution–a solution that only creates other problems that no one can ever solve.
First published in 1934 and banned in Boston for its explosive mixture of violence and eroticism, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a classic of the roman noir. It established James M. Cain as a major novelist with an unsparing vision of America’s bleak underside, and was acknowledged by Albert Camus as the model for The Stranger.
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Courtesy of Farrago via NetGalley. I’ve been enjoying revisiting a few of the Flaxborough Chronicles as Farrago have been releasing them for Kindle. This one has always been my favourite of the series so *spoiler alert* it will get a five-star review!
The Blurb says: As Miss Lucilla Teatime often remarks, there is no lack of entertainment in the delightful town of Flaxborough. What could be more wholesome than the Folklore Society’s quarterly “revels”, with dancing, a bonfire, and a quaffing bench? Well-upholstered matrons and town worthies enter most enthusiastically into the spirit. So it’s unfortunate when a younger woman, the freethinking Edna Hillyard, goes missing that night.
Then the manufacturer of “Lucillite” (gives your wash lightness, brightness and whiteness), filming a promotion locally, is dismayed to find a gruesome bull’s head ruining his key scene, while desecrations take place in the church, and the press begins reporting on Black Magic and a Town of Fear! Are DI Purbright and his team really battling against evil forces?
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Courtesy of Grove Atlantic via NetGalley. I’m not sure about this at all – it doesn’t sound my kind of thing. But somehow I have to get South and Central America on my Around the World map, and frankly books from there never seem to appeal to me! So I shall try to go in with an open mind and maybe this will be the one to win me over…
The Blurb says: From a writer whose work has been praised by Junot Díaz as “Latin American fiction at its pulpy phantasmagorical finest,” Don’t Send Flowers is a riveting novel centered on Carlos Treviño, a retired police detective in northern Mexico who has to go up against the corruption and widespread violence that caused him to leave the force, when he’s hired by a wealthy businessman to find his missing daughter.
A seventeen-year-old girl has disappeared after a fight with her boyfriend that was interrupted by armed men, leaving the boyfriend on life support and the girl an apparent kidnap victim. It’s a common occurrence in the region—prime narco territory—but the girl’s parents are rich and powerful, and determined to find their daughter at any cost. When they call upon Carlos Treviño, he tracks the missing heiress north to the town of La Eternidad, on the Gulf of Mexico not far from the U.S. border—all while constantly attempting to evade detection by La Eternidad’s chief of police, Commander Margarito Gonzalez, who is in the pockets of the cartels and has a score to settle with Treviño.
A gritty tale of murder and kidnapping, crooked cops and violent gang disputes, Don’t Send Flowers is an engrossing portrait of contemporary Mexico from one of its most original voices.
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Classic Fiction on Audio
For my Classics Club challenge. I loved Tess when I read it many years ago, and I also loved the 1979 Roman Polanski film. This audiobook is narrated by Peter Firth, who played Angel in that film, so I couldn’t resist…
The Blurb says: Hardy tells the story of Tess Durbeyfield, a beautiful young woman living with her impoverished family in Wessex, the southwestern English county immortalized by Hardy. After the family learns of their connection to the wealthy d’Urbervilles, they send Tess to claim a portion of their fortune.
Considered Hardy’s masterwork it presents a major departure from conventional Victorian fiction, causing controversy and mixed reviews on first publication due to it challenging Victorian sexual morals. The work was subtitled ‘A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented’ as Hardy felt that its heroine was a virtuous victim of a rigid Victorian moral code.
Hardy considered it his finest book and due to his enlightened and forward thinking, the story has captivated audiences since it was first released.
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.
When Earl Shaw wins two small planes in a poker game, he decides to put his skills as a showman to good use by taking the planes barnstorming round Depression-era California, tempting customers to go up for a scenic flight. One day, the pilots take up two young men, Louis Thorn and Harry Yamada. Daredevil Harry decides he will walk along the wing, and Louis, feeling challenged and a little humiliated, follows suit. Earl offers them both jobs as aerial stuntmen and so the act of Eagle & Crane is born – Eagle to represent the good ol’ US of A, and Crane to represent the villainous and untrustworthy Japs of Harry’s heritage. But the war is about to begin, and suddenly white America will begin to see its Japanese-heritage fellow citizens as more than a comic-book threat. And Harry and Louis will find their friendship altered and strained…
Suzanne Rindell has rapidly become one of my most highly anticipated must-read authors. This is only her third book, after The Other Typist and Three-Martini Lunch – both excellent. But she’s still improving with each book, and the joy is that each time she comes up with an entirely different and fascinating setting and story. I had mentioned in my reviews of both her earlier books that she sometimes gets so involved in creating an authentic setting that the descriptions can become overly long, creating a bit of drag in the mid-section. Not here! She achieves a pretty much perfect balance between scene-setting and plot, so that the pacing is steady and the forward momentum is maintained beautifully.
The book begins with FBI Agent Bonner showing up at the Yamadas’ farm looking for Harry and his father, who have apparently escaped from one of the Relocation Centers (concentration camps) to which people of Japanese heritage were sent following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. From here, we are taken back to the past to learn how Harry and Louis befriended each other as children, across a racial divide and a family feud. We follow them as they develop into Eagle & Crane, seeing how their very different backgrounds (different in not quite the way you may be thinking – Rindell doesn’t do clichés) have made them the men they have become. We see how Depression and war affect California, and our young heroes in particular. And we get to know Ava, Earl’s step-daughter, who travels with the barnstormers and forms a firm friendship with both boys, gradually complicated by the growth of romantic attraction. Every now and then we flash back to the present of 1943 (the only part of the book written in present tense), where slowly Agent Bonner discovers what has happened to Harry and his father, and lets us see too how the other characters have fared.
It’s a slow-paced book that takes an in-depth look at the impact of the internment of Japanese-Americans. While it has some elements of the thriller, it definitely falls far more into the category of literary fiction for me. Rindell’s research is skilfully fed to us through the development of her characters and her story, so that we gradually get a real feel for rural Californian life and attitudes in this period. She is clearly making a point about the racism underlying the internment policy, but she doesn’t thump the reader with polemical rants. Instead she lets us see through Harry’s eyes – a boy who thought he was American even though he knew he would never be treated in quite the same way as other Americans who looked like Louis rather than him. We also see through Ava’s initially innocent eyes – gradually awakened to an understanding of how thoughtless, low-level racism runs almost unnoticed as a backdrop to every aspect of Harry’s life.
But don’t let me put you off with my usual concentration on the political themes of the book! It also has an excellent story and the characterisation is wonderful. I loved learning all about the stunts the boys do, and about barnstorming in general. I enjoyed watching the careful way Rindell develops the setting, and found it so absorbing that I would find myself looking up after an hour or two, surprised to discover I was in 21st century Scotland rather than Depression-era California. The three major characters gained all my sympathy, even though they’re very different from one another, and I grew to care deeply about the outcome for each of them. And I was equally impressed by the depth Rindell puts into the supporting cast of characters – Agent Bonner, Earl, Ava’s mother, Louis’ family, and most of all the Yamadas as they find their American dream turning into a nightmare.
If you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller, this isn’t it. But if you want a beautifully written and insightful story about a time when political America showed itself at its worst and yet still with love and loyalty and friendship running through the lives of the people affected by it; if you want to be absorbed by the hopes and fears of a set of superbly observed characters; if you want to spend some time in a wonderfully authentic historical setting, then I highly recommend this book to you.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allison and Busby.
The Classics Club is holding its 18th Spin, and my 5th. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before next Wednesday, 1st August. On Wednesday, the Classics Club will post the winning number. The challenge is to read and review whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by August 31st. A tight timetable and it will be difficult to squeeze another book into a month already filled to overflowing with review books but I’ll have a bash. I hope the punishment for failure isn’t too severe!
So here’s my list. I’ve selected it on the basis of mostly including books I already own, and have included some from all five of the categories in my CC list – American fiction, English fiction, Scottish fiction, crime fiction and science fiction. I’m kinda hoping number 20 comes up, since that means Laila will be reading The Gowk Storm, Margaret will be reading Three Men in a Boat and Chronolit will be reviewing the Kama Sutra, so I’ve juggled mine to put a goodie in that slot just in case…
I’d be delighted to read most of these. The Fair Maid of Perth might be a bit long to fit in, and The Jungle might be a bit depressing… so with my track record in these spins, I’ve no doubt one of them will come up! Wish for a short, cheerful one for me – Bath Tangle or Nada the Lily!
In 1917, the USA finally entered World War I after years of pusillanimous dithering, and Russia threw its revolution after years of poverty and imperialist wars. In this book, Herman looks at the two men who led those events, Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin, and suggests that out of their respective philosophies of power grew the 20th century and all of its horrors.
Normally, when reviewing a major history book, I find that even though I might not like the style or may feel the author hasn’t entirely convinced me with his or her arguments, I still feel at the end that I have gained enough from reading it to have made it worthwhile. Sadly, this is the exception. I have thoroughly enjoyed each of Arthur Herman’s books which I’ve read to date, so fully anticipated that this would be a great book to finish my Reading the Russian Revolution challenge. Herman is often biased, but usually openly, so that I feel the reader can allow for his bias in forming her own judgements. Here, however, his bias seeps into every analysis he makes and it seems as if he’s perhaps not even aware of it. American capitalism is good, Russian communism is bad. Wilson is an idealist, Lenin is a cynic. America is a shining beacon on the hill, the USSR is a blot on the escutcheon of history. I realise these are standard viewpoints on the other side of the Atlantic, and some parts of them would be accepted over here too, though perhaps less so after the last couple of years. But a history book with this level of bias teaches nothing, except perhaps that history should never be written by those with a dogmatic belief in the superiority of one particular nation or form of government.
It’s not that Herman is uncritical of Wilson and America – in fact, sometimes he’s almost sneeringly contemptuous of Wilson. It’s more in the language he uses. Some of his statements are simplistic and unnuanced in the extreme, and his facts are carefully selected to support his basic argument that both Wilson and Lenin were more interested in forcing their worldview on the rest of the world than in acting in their own nations’ self-interest. He speaks of “American exceptionalism” with a straight face, clearly believing the propaganda which has done so much damage in convincing so many Americans (but not many other people) that they are somehow intrinsically superior to other races, nations, etc. And yet this is exactly the kind of propaganda he condemns in his despised USSR. His conclusion, broadly summarised, is that everything bad in the 20th century comes from Russia, while America could have done better in the world, but did pretty well. An arguable stance, and I’d have appreciated an argument about it rather than it being presented as if it were an indisputable statement of fact.
Please don’t think I’m an apologist for the extreme communism of the USSR, nor the horrors carried out in its name. But nor am I an apologist for the extreme capitalism of the USA, complete with its own murky history of horrors. Unfortunately Mr Herman is, and appears to believe that America must stay engaged with the world to save it by exporting its form of capitalism to the rest of us. Personally, I think the world needs to be saved from all nations who think they have the right to force their views on other people and from all extremists who believe they are “exceptional” in any way. I find it difficult to recommend this one – the overwhelming weight of bias prevents it from adding any real insight into the subject.
PS Yes, I’m aware my own biases show here, but I’m not writing a history book. Nor am I advocating that the world should submit to the exceptional superiority of Scotland.
The Second World War is drawing to a close when the tenancy of a piece of land complete with thatched cottage falls vacant on the estate of Colonel St Cyres, in Devon. The Colonel is determined the lease shall go to someone who shares his love of the land and who wants to work it productively. However, his daughter-in-law June has different ideas. A Londoner by birth and a party-girl by nature, June is staying with her father-in-law because her husband, the Colonel’s son, is a prisoner of war in Burma. She wants the Colonel to give the cottage to a “friend” of hers, a Mr Gressingham, who would use it as a place to entertain his (and June’s) rather decadent London friends. Fast forward a few months, and Inspector MacDonald of the Yard is on his way to investigate what might have been a case of accidental death, or possibly one of arson and murder…
Lorac wrote many Inspector MacDonald books and apparently this is the 26th in the series. I’ve only read one other of them, Bats in the Belfry, which I loved. It was published in 1937 while this one came out in 1946. What a world of difference in those two years, reflected in the tone of these two books! This one has none of the light humour and romance of the earlier book; the delightful upper-class slang is all gone. Inspector MacDonald is the same painstakingly professional detective, but with a rather more sober attitude to life, befitting a man who has spent the last several years in a bomb-ravaged London with all its attendant horrors.
What has not changed, however, is the excellent quality of the writing and plotting. Transplanting her setting from London to Devon, Lorac gives an entirely convincing picture of rural life with a real understanding of the deep connection the local farmers have with their land. While there is plenty of description of the loveliness of the landscape, she avoids romanticising country life. These are men and women who work hard to produce a livelihood from the soil and from their animals, all the more important over the last few years during war shortages. Although farming was a reserved occupation (i.e., the men were exempted from compulsory military service), Lorac shows that, as in the rest of the country, there was an absence of younger men and few families remained unscarred by the war. Lorac also touches on the subject of the refugees from London who were sent out to the country for safety, welcomed by some and resented by others.
I’m not entirely sure that the plot is fairplay – certainly I got nowhere near the solution and found the actual details of how it all happened rather convoluted. But the story is excellent and, as with all the best crime fiction, is firmly rooted in human nature. I love Inspector MacDonald as a detective – he is a thoughtful and rather kindly man, strictly moral on his own account but with the capacity to make some allowance for moral weakness in others. Here, he is an outsider sent in to the local force as an expert, but he never sets out to prove his own superiority by finding fault with them. Instead he works closely with the locals, in a spirit of comradeship and mutual trust.
The other characters are all equally well drawn. Colonel St Cyres and his daughter are the kind of gentry that make one long for an earlier age, while Gressingham and his buddies make one want to slap the nouveau riche with a wet kipper (if nothing weightier is available). The young man whom St Cyres chooses as the tenant, Nicholas Vaughan, is an ex-military man, invalided out after receiving serious injuries. June, the daughter-in-law, is nicely unlikeable. But the skill of Lorac’s writing is that these characterisations change over time, so that I found my sympathies shifting as I got to know each of them better, some improving on acquaintance, others revealing a darker side than I first suspected.
When reading these rediscovered vintage crime books, I often find myself trying to work out why some authors stay in print while others are forgotten. Sometimes it’s obvious – badly outdated attitudes and levels of snobbery that take away the pleasure for a modern reader, or plots that are firmly fixed on gadgetry or other features that relate solely to a certain time, long gone. But other times, as with Lorac, it beats me. The two books of hers that I’ve read outdo anything by Ngaio Marsh or Margery Allingham in plotting and quality of writing for me, and are far less snobbish and class-ridden than I find Dorothy L Sayers or even PD James. Her concentration on human nature as the foundation of her plotting makes them timeless in the way Agatha Christie’s are. Her observational skills give a real feel for what life was like in a given time and place, and she makes her “common” people as believable and sympathetic as her landowners and professional people. Her books aren’t easy to get hold of at reasonable prices, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed the British Library re-publishes more of them. I’ll be first in the queue if they do!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
OK, this is deeply awful, so I’m just going to take a deep breath and get it over with…
the TBR is up TEN to 230. But it isn’t my fault!! Even the postman admits I’m being harassed by unfeeling book pushers!! I’m beginning to know how Homer feels…
Here are a few more that should rise to the surface soon…
Courtesy of Allison & Busby. Having loved both of Suzanne Rindell’s earlier books, The Other Typist and Three-Martini Lunch, I can’t wait to get into this one… (Update: I’ve already started it, and so far it’s fab…)
The Blurb says: Louis Thorn and Haruto ‘Harry’ Yamada – the Eagle and the Crane – are the star attractions of a daredevil aerial stunt team that traverses Depression-era California. The young men have a complicated relationship, thanks to the Thorn family’s belief that the Yamadas – Japanese immigrants – stole land from the Thorn family. This tension is inflamed when Louis and Harry both drawn to the same woman, Ava. After the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor there are changes and harsh realities to face. And when one of the stunt planes crashes with two charred bodies inside, the ensuing investigation struggles when the details don’t add up and no one seems willing to tell the truth.
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Historical Crime, I think
Courtesy of Amazon Vine. I was intrigued by all the positive reviews for Anna Mazzola’s first book, The Unseeing, but as usual never managed to get around to reading it. So when I was offered this one, I thought I better snap it up…
The Blurb says: Audrey Hart is on the Isle of Skye to collect the word-of-mouth folk tales of the people and communities around her. It is 1857, the Highland Clearances have left devastation and poverty, and the crofters are suspicious and hostile, claiming they no longer know their stories. Then Audrey discovers the body of a young girl washed up on the beach and the crofters tell her that it is only a matter of weeks since another girl has disappeared. They believe the girls are the victims of the spirits of the unforgiven dead. Initially, Audrey is sure the girls are being abducted, but then she is reminded of her own mother, a Skye woman who disappeared in mysterious circumstances. It seems there is a link to be explored, and Audrey may uncover just what her family have been hiding from her all these years.
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Courtesy of Collins Crime Club. This popped unexpectedly through my letterbox a week or two ago, which suggests sometimes publishers are psychic! I hadn’t spotted that it was being re-published, but it’s a book I’ve seen mentioned again and again as being a major influence on other early crime writers, so I really wanted to read it. Love the cover too!
The Blurb says: Breaking down her door in response to the sounds of a violent attack and a gunshot, Mademoiselle Stangerson’s rescuers are appalled to find her dying on the floor, clubbed down by a large mutton bone. But in a room with a barred window and locked door, how could her assailant have entered and escaped undetected? While bewildered police officials from the Sûreté begin an exhaustive investigation, so too does a young newspaperman, Joseph Rouletabille, who will encounter more impossibilities before this case can be closed.
The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux, best remembered today as the author of The Phantom of the Opera, has been deservedly praised for more than a century as a defining book in the ‘impossible crime’ genre, as readable now as when it first appeared in French in 1907.
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One for my Five Times Fivechallenge. from the pen of the wonderful Robert Harris. I’ve seen so much praise for his Cicero trilogy, of which this is the first book, that my expectations are stratospheric. Oh dear… (Update: I’ve already started it and so far it’s fab…)
The Blurb says:When Tiro, the confidential secretary of a Roman senator, opens the door to a terrified stranger on a cold November morning, he sets in motion a chain of events which will eventually propel his master into one of the most famous courtroom dramas in history.
The stranger is a Sicilian, a victim of the island’s corrupt Roman governor, Verres. The senator is Cicero, a brilliant young lawyer and spellbinding orator, determined to attain imperium – supreme power in the state.
This is the starting-point of Robert Harris’s most accomplished novel to date. Compellingly written in Tiro’s voice, it takes us inside the violent, treacherous world of Roman politics, to describe how one man – clever, compassionate, devious, vulnerable – fought to reach the top.
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or NetGalley.
Although best known today for his Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote prolifically across a whole range of genres in his lifetime. This collection brings together thirty-four of his tales which have been categorised as “gothic”, although some of them are more gothic than others. Some are well known as classic horror stories and a couple have already put in an appearance on my semi-regular horror slot, Tuesday Terror! – The Horror of the Heights and Lot No. 249. None of the Holmes stories are included, although several of them would certainly count as gothic and have a strong element of horror – The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, for example, is one of his most Poe-like gothic horrors, I think.
The level of horror is variable from mild and even humorous to really quite scary. But the real joy of the collection, as always with Conan Doyle, is the sheer quality of his story-telling skills. Whether relating an Arctic adventure complete with ghostly apparition, or telling a tale of vengeance set in the wild frontier of old America, or forcing the reader to spend a night in a museum full of not completely dead Egyptian mummies, or taking us into the dark heart of the British Empire, his powers of description and ability to create atmosphere and tension are surely second to none. And his total command of a wonderful vocabulary and seemingly effortless writing style make the stories pure pleasure to read.
The range of stories is incredible, making it quite hard to single any out as representative of the collection. Some have a supernatural element while others concentrate on the horrors men and women perpetrate on each other, and yet others take their horror from the dangers of the natural world. We even get a couple culled from Conan Doyle’s life as a physician, including one about a young man with hereditary syphilis – I was astonished that such a subject was handled so openly in a story at this early date. I’m spoiled for choice, but here’s a brief look at some of the ones I enjoyed most…
J Habakuk Jephson’s Statement – based on the story of the Marie Celeste, ACD gives his version of what might have happened. A “quadroon” kills everyone and takes the ship to Africa. Although there’s some fairly strong racial stuff here that sits uneasily with the modern reader, Jephson is an abolitionist and the motive is revenge against white people for the cruelties they have perpetrated through slavery and colonialism. Powerfully told, it reminded me of Conrad’s stories in its reaction to colonialism.
The Beetle Hunter – the narrator is a newly-qualified doctor and beetle collector who answers an advert for the same. His new employer takes him to the home of a famous beetle expert, where the beetles will not be the scariest thing he has to face! Very well told and quite creepy in parts, especially if you’re squeamish about beetles… ugh!
The Retirement of Signor Lambert – a cuckolded husband takes revenge on the opera singer who seduced his wife. That’s all, but it’s told in a kind of understated deadpan that makes it deliciously horrible.
The Pot of Caviare – a group of Westerners trapped following the Boxer Rebellion await relief. But they have heard terrible stories of how the Chinese treat their captives, especially women, and so have a contingency plan should the relieving force not turn up in time. This is a dark and rather disturbing story, expertly told for maximum effect. The notes point out that it’s part of the Edwardian “Yellow Peril” genre, but it’s far more realistic and chilling than any of the silly Fu Manchu type of stuff I’ve read.
The Captain of the Polestar – an Arctic expedition to hunt whales comes to a stop when the ship is caught in the ice. Scary enough, but even scarier when the ghostly figure of a woman begins to appear and the Captain seems to recognise her. This is narrated via the journal of a young ship’s medic, a role ACD himself had undertaken in his youth. Very atmospheric, great descriptions and some first-rate Scottish dialect!
As always in the Oxford World’s Classics editions, there is an informative introduction and extensive notes, this time written by Darryl Jones, Professor in English at Trinity College Dublin. He gives a kind of biography of Conan Doyle’s thought development over the course of his life. He talks about these stories and Conan Doyle’s wider writings in the context of the various phases of his changing beliefs – his pro-Imperialism, his anxiety over the question of Irish Home Rule culminating in him changing from anti- to pro- after seeing the worst of colonialism in the Belgian Congo; and of course his loss of religion and the growth of his belief in spiritualism – Jones shows that he always had an interest in the subject but “came out” as a believer after witnessing the huge losses in the Great War. An interesting and informative essay, happily written without any lit-crit jargon, making it both accessible and enjoyable for the general reader. (Though I do wish he wouldn’t refer to him as Doyle – after he added Conan to his name (in tribute to his godfather) he was always known as Conan Doyle, he published under that name, his son refers to him that way in his biographical writings about his father, and his wife took the double surname Conan Doyle, so I don’t understand why some modern commentators have taken on themselves the right to change his name back.)
I loved this collection. Admittedly Conan Doyle can do no wrong in my eyes, so I’m not the most unbiased reviewer, but nearly all of these stories are good and many are excellent – masterclasses in the form. Perfect for dipping – one to keep on the bedside table in perpetuity, since stories of this quality will stand up to frequent re-reading.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.