Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Symbolic, but of what? 

🙂 🙂 🙂

Macon Dead III has grown up in Michigan, the son of a harsh, property-owning landlord and the local black doctor’s daughter. In the course of the book, he will travel to the South, to Virginia, where he will learn more about the history of his family, his metaphorical roots, and to some degree, find his own identity and the meaning of his life.

Sometimes it depends when we read a story how much we connect to it, and unfortunately I read this at a time when I probably wasn’t giving it the attention it requires. I’m not therefore going to try to write an in-depth review – these are simply my feelings about the book, which I found disappointing.

The prose is very good, of course, sometimes excellent, though never, in my view, with the poetry and power of some of the prose in Beloved. The story takes forever to kick off, well into the second half before I felt I had any clear idea of what the book was attempting to be about. The last third or so was considerably more interesting and enjoyable than the rest of the book which dragged along at a snail’s pace replacing narrative drive with heavy-handed and yet still obscure symbolism.

Most of the characters have Biblical names and I assume that’s supposed to have some significance. I freely admit that, as a lifelong atheist, my knowledge of Bible stories is sketchy, but I couldn’t tie what little I knew about the Biblical originals to the characters at all. Maybe this was a failing on my part, but I can usually cope with religious symbolism well enough. Here I found the names and my attempt to see their relevance a distraction. The symbolism regarding flight and African folklore worked rather better for me.

The other thing that bothered me may well again say more about me than the book; namely, that the lives of the people in this black community seem full of self-created ugliness and near bestiality. Everything is about sex or bodily functions – no-one seems to even try to lift themselves above the animal passions, intellectually or morally. Is urinating on other people normal in black American communities? I wouldn’t have though so, but it seems to be in this one. Maybe that’s symbolic too, but of what? Necrophilia, incest, women suckling their sons in a highly sexualised way, women wanting to kill or die for the loss of lovers, men beating women and each other – I longed for at least a couple of characters to connect on a rational rather than a physical level. To a degree in the early part of the book, Macon and his childhood friend Guitar achieve this, but their friendship gradually distorts into a strange and unconvincing kind of violent hatred.

Toni Morrison

I wondered if perhaps Morrison was trying to show how the history of slavery and subjugation had brutalised black culture, with perhaps even a call to arms for black people to support and lift each other rather than submitting to the characterisation and caricaturing allocated to them by the dominant white culture. But I felt maybe I was inventing that to give me some reason not to simply be a bit revolted by it all. I reckon if a white author had portrayed black people like this there would have been outrage, and in my view, rightly so. So I gave myself permission to be a little outraged anyway, since I’ve never fully bought into the idea that being part of a culture confers a greater right to abuse and demean it (which is why you’ll never see an Irvine Welsh book on my blog). I found myself asking: if African-American culture is really as universally debased and degraded as this portrayal suggests, how did Toni Morrison manage to rise from it?

And what on earth is the significance of Pilate having no navel?? (This is not a rhetorical question – if you know or have a theory, I’m interested…)

Nope, I feel I either didn’t understand this at all, or else there’s nothing much to understand beneath the over-heavy symbolism and the basic story of the resonating, brutalising impact of slavery and racism; although the eloquent prose made it readable and even enjoyable in parts. Apologies to all who love it. Maybe I’ll read it again sometime when I’m in a more receptive frame of mind. Or maybe not.

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Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles

A game of two halves…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Dr Edmund Bickleigh is married to Julia, a woman some years older than him and far above him in the social status stakes. Her domineering manner feeds into his inferiority complex, but he compensates by having a string of affairs with the surprisingly willing young ladies of his Devonshire village. Gossip is a problem, of course, but Julia is willing to look the other way since she’s not the least bit in love with Edmund herself. So all remains well, until Edmund meets the one woman that he knows is his real, true love – the woman he should have married, would marry now if only he were free. Divorce is a problem – reputation is everything for a professional man. So there’s really only one course left to pursue…

It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter. Murder is a serious business. The slightest slip may be disastrous. Dr Bickleigh had no intention of risking disaster.

Francis Iles is one of the several names used by Anthony Berkeley Cox, who under the name Anthony Berkeley wrote The Poisoned Chocolates Case, which I recently thoroughly enjoyed. This book, Malice Aforethought, was, according to the blurb, the first novel in which the name of the potential murderer is revealed from the beginning. (I’m not sure if that’s a fact – Martin Edwards doesn’t mention it in his discussion of the book in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Novels, and I’d have expected that he would if it were true. Anyway…)

The first half of the book tells of the lead up to the murder attempt and is full of rather sly mockery of Dr Bickleigh and all the other characters. Edwards lists it under the heading The Ironists, and this seems like a good description for the style. It’s written in the third person but told almost exclusively from the viewpoint of the doctor, so that the reader can’t be sure how distorted the picture of the other characters is by his perception of them. As often happens in books that set out to be ironical or satirical, there are really no characters in this that are likeable, and I must say I found the women in particular come off really badly – either silly, mindless girls desperate to be admired and loved, or gossiping middle-aged spinsters, or domineering/dominated wives. For a long time, I couldn’t decide if this was Dr Bickleigh’s view of women or the author’s, but when I remembered that I have in fact read other books by this author under different pen-names which didn’t strike me in the same way, I acquitted Iles and decided it was a rather clever indication of Dr Bickleigh’s compensation for his feelings of inferiority.

Challenge details:
Book: 80
Subject Heading: The Ironists
Publication Year: 1931

I enjoyed the first half a lot as we follow Dr Bickleigh through his various romantic entanglements until he reaches the ecstasy of total infatuation with the new girl in town. Julia behaves more like a stern mother than a wife, disapproving of Edmund’s behaviour rather than exhibiting any signs of jealousy. The odd thing is that everyone appears to like Edmund, and that seems to be more than his distorted perception. He appears to have an outward charm that conceals his narcissistic, selfish interior self effectively from the world. We are shown how he uses fantasies to bolster his self-confidence but that those fantasies seem to have gone so far as to over-inflate his ego. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say I liked Julia, I vastly preferred her to this obnoxious little creep, who failed to charm me in any way at all! So I found an unexpected sympathy for the proposed victim, which I’m not at all sure we are supposed to feel.

Francis Iles

There’s some doubt up to the halfway mark as to whether the murder attempt will come off or fail, and that added the necessary element of suspense to hold my interest, so I won’t spoil it by telling. But after we know whether Julia survives or not, the second half is spent with Edmund trying to cover up his plot, and I found it dragged interminably. Of course, largely this was because I disliked him so much I hoped he would be found out, but also the story spiralled further and further beyond my credulity line as it went on. The reasonable psychology of the first half disappears in the second, and from being mildly amusing, Edmund descends to being simply annoying. I spent the final third wishing it would hurry up and get to the end and when it did, it didn’t surprise me as much as it was intended to, I think.

So a game of two halves for me – I thoroughly enjoyed the first and was thoroughly bored by the second. But then, irony has never been one of my favourite things, so I have no doubt it will work better for plenty of readers.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Dover Publications.

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Murder in the Bookshop by Carolyn Wells

A messy romp…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When two men enter a locked bookshop through a window and one ends up dead, suspicion not unnaturally falls on the survivor. Philip Balfour was a fanatical book collector and his companion on his mysterious trip to the bookshop was the man he employed as his librarian, Keith Ramsay. The fact that Keith is also in love with Balfour’s wife, Alli, provides a nice motive. But Keith claims that a masked intruder came into the store, chloroformed Keith and by the time he came round Balfour was dead and the intruder had gone. The police are dubious but the owner of the bookstore (who seems remarkably unfazed by the idea of one of his best customers breaking into his shop) is sure that Keith could never have done such a thing, so he advises Alli to bring his friend, the private detective Fleming Stone, into the case.

There are all kinds of mysteries here apart from the murder. What were the two men doing in the shop? A valuable book is missing – coincidence? What was the bookseller’s assistant up to at the time that he’s not prepared to reveal to the police? Who is sending mysterious anonymous letters? Why are the police willing to let Fleming Stone keep hold of vital evidence? Why does Fleming Stone say on one page that there’s a large pool of suspects and then a few pages later that there are very few suspects?

I must admit I thought this was all a bit of a mess. The author contradicts herself from page to page as if she just dashed the words down and never went back to read it over. For example, at one point Stone decides not to tell Alli about accusations that have been made against her in an anonymous letter, then promptly ten minutes later hands her the letter and asks her what she thinks! That’s just one instance – I could have picked many, many more. It all adds to the confusion, but not quite in the way the author intended, I assume. I believe she was hugely prolific, often churning out three or even four books a year, so I guess that didn’t leave much time for editing.

However, apparently she was also very popular in her day and I can understand that too to an extent since, despite the messiness, there is still some fun in this because of the element of humour the author introduces from time to time. Her characterisation is far from being deep, but it’s often quite slyly wicked, giving a neat summation of a person in a few words. The first lines of the book will give an idea of what I mean…

Mr Philip Balfour was a good man. Also, he was good-looking, good-humoured and good to his wife. That is, when he had his own way, which was practically always.

Carolyn Wells

The investigation gets bogged down in repetition for a bit in the middle and drags, but both the beginning, when the murder takes place, and the end, when all is revealed, are better, and in retrospect, yes, I think there were enough clues there for the reader to have had a fair chance of spotting whodunit and why. I didn’t – I was too preoccupied spotting all the contradictions!

Overall, not one to be taken too seriously, but an enjoyable enough romp for those times when something a bit lighter suits your mood. And I assume that’s the secret of her appeal. However, I don’t think I’d be seeking out more of her work based on this example.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.

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The Lost Man by Jane Harper

Fighting the flab…

😀 😀 😀

In the scorching heat of the Australian Outback, two brothers meet at the site of an old grave, where a man lies dead – their brother, Cameron. He is far from his vehicle and without water or anything to shade him from the broiling sun. But how did he get there? Is this some dreadful form of suicide or is there some more sinister reason for his death? Nathan, the brother closest to him in age but who has been rather detached from the family for some years, starts asking questions and soon begins to uncover tensions and secrets that make him reassess those closest to him…

This starts off with a brilliant first chapter that is creepy and horrific, though not in a gruesome way, and immediately places the reader in this vast isolated cattle-ranching country on the edge of the desert, where one mistake can mean death to the unwary, from heatstroke, dehydration or snakes. Then Harper gradually introduces us to the various family members and slowly fills in each person’s past so that we begin to understand the undercurrents that run underneath the outwardly united front the family presents to the world.

Nathan’s son Xander is visiting for Christmas. His home is with his mother in the city, so he provides another outsider view of the family, and an interesting perspective on the differences in lifestyle between these isolated ranchers and the urbanites. Bub, the youngest of the three brothers, has a chip on his shoulder about his brothers always seeming to be the ones in charge. The sons’ mother, Liz, has had a hard struggle to hold her family together despite her (long-dead) husband’s brutality and cruelty. Harry has worked on the property for so long he’s viewed as part of the family. And although he has fought against it, Nathan has always been strongly attracted to Cameron’s wife, Ilse. Throw in a couple of backpackers doing temporary jobs on the property, Cameron’s two daughters, and the folk from the tiny little local town, and there’s plenty of room for resentments and rumours, lies and secrets, to have built up in the claustrophobia of this small community.

Harper is great at creating settings, using some of the extreme conditions and environments to be found in the vastness of Australia as her backdrop, and showing how the fight to survive in harsh inhospitable conditions takes a toll on her characters, physically and mentally. Here she sets the book at the hottest time of the year, when the danger is at its greatest for anyone who doesn’t obey the rules of survival that all inhabitants are taught from childhood. If accurate, and I assume it is, it sounds quite literally like hell on earth (to my cold-seeking Northern soul, at least) and I couldn’t help wondering why on earth anyone would choose to live there. It’s not just the heat, though – Harper shows the isolation and loneliness that comes with living on huge ranches, some as large as small European nations, and suggests, again I assume with good reason, that suicide is another of the hazards of life there.

The plot is interesting, but the story comes to light only gradually, so I won’t risk spoilers by saying more about it. The weakness of the book is that it’s too gradual – it comes in at just under 400 pages and could easily have lost 100 pages or more and been a better, tighter book. After a great start, there are large parts where nothing seems to happen for ridiculously long periods of time – pages filled with mundane and repetitive dialogue and descriptions of the effects of heat that didn’t move things along at all. I considered abandoning it more than once, and skimmed many pages in the mid-section. However, it picks up again in the last quarter so in the end I was glad I stuck with it. I do wish authors (and editors) would work harder to tighten up their middles – there’s a bookish obesity epidemic out there! Especially in crime fiction.

Jane Harper

In summary, then, there’s an excellent book in here struggling to get out from under the flab. The interesting plot, good characterisation and great sense of place make it worth reading but it’s badly let down by being far too long for the story it contains. I think Harper is a talented writer (which is why I’m so grouchy!), so will be looking forward to her next novel, with my fingers crossed that she can learn when she’s done enough to set the atmosphere and get on with telling the story.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.

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The Shop Window Murders by Vernon Loder

How much is that body in the window?

😀 😀 🙂

In the run up to Christmas, Mander’s Department Store puts on an elaborate window display to attract the attention of passing shoppers. It turns out the display is even more elaborate than they intended, though, when onlookers spot that two of the figures aren’t mannequins – in fact, they’re corpses! One is Mr Mander himself, the brains behind the store, while the other is the strangely named Effie Tumour, one of the store’s department heads. She has been stabbed; he, shot. It’s up to Inspector Devenish of the Yard to work out who killed them, and how and why.

This falls mainly into the category of the puzzle mystery, or the howdunit, and unfortunately that’s never my favourite kind of plot. The detection tends to take the form of Devenish speculating as to how a piece of the puzzle could have happened, and then looking for evidence to prove or disprove his theory before moving on to the next piece. My mind doesn’t work that way – I’m never very interested in the kind of detailed physical clue that shows that someone must have been in such and such a place at such and such a moment and therefore must have been seen by so and so. So sadly I found a good deal of this somewhat tedious, even though I could see that it was good of its kind.

When it moved on to possible motive it worked much better for me, and although there’s not a huge amount of in-depth characterisation, what there is of it is very good, making me regret that Loder hadn’t concentrated more on the why and less on the how. Miss Tumour (why do you think he called her that? Most odd…) was engaged to the manager of the store, Mr Kephim (I suppose if you’re called Tumour, the idea of changing your name to Kephim might not be so bad). But it appears she’s been clandestinely meeting up with Mr Mander. Was it a case of jealousy then? But Mr Mander has other secrets too, including claiming an invention of another man as his own, and charming the elderly widow who is providing the financial backing for the store, which her son is not thrilled about. So plenty of people might have wanted to bump him off.

A mixed bag for me, then, but on the whole the good bits were outweighed by the bits where my eyes were tending to glaze over. Regrettably, the solution when it comes is also mixed – it’s unexpected and interesting, which is good, but large parts of it are still speculative. Devenish may be right in his assumptions, but I couldn’t help feeling he could just as easily be wrong. I’m sure the puzzle aspects will appeal to people who enjoy pitting their wits alongside the detective to try to make sense of baffling physical clues, but personally, being more interested in motive and characterisation, I found it all rather unsatisfactory.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.

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Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

Under the Overlords…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The human race has taken its first tentative steps into space and is dreaming of visiting other planets, when its plans are changed forever by the arrival of alien spaceships. The aliens seem benign, although they quickly put an end to human space travel. They also end war and animal cruelty, and usher in a utopian period where no-one goes hungry and no-one has to work if they don’t want to. Known only as the Overlords, they don’t allow the humans to see them, communicating only by voice. It seems that they allow humans to organise their own affairs, but their influence over the United Nations (gradually becoming a world government) certainly steers things in the direction they want Earth to go. All the good results of their background rule mean that humanity is happy to go along, for the most part.

But some people are aware that, without the struggle for survival and advancement, creativity is being destroyed and science is becoming moribund. So they set up a small colony, with the willing consent of the Overlords, where they hope to allow music, art and science to flourish. Still, however, no-one knows what the Overlords’ ultimate plan is – all they know is that they have promised to reveal themselves to humanity in fifty years…

Book 38 of 90

This is a book I wanted to love, but found didn’t live up to my expectations. Unfortunately most of the things that disappointed me a little will take me close to spoiler territory, so forgive any vagueness caused by my attempt to avoid that. The first and major thing is that I didn’t believe for a moment that humanity would happily submit en masse to a race of aliens who told us what to do, however apparently benign their intentions. We don’t even submit to our democratically elected governments half the time! When I said that the unelected UN was turning into a world government, did you think “oh, that’s a good idea”? No, nor me. There are a few people who are against the alien rule, but they’re shown as fringe fanatics and pretty insignificant. So the fundamental premise of the book left me floundering around looking for my lost credulity before it even really got underway.

The second thing is that the hidden appearance of the aliens is made much of, and when the big reveal finally happened, it made me laugh. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to! It was clearly intended to be all metaphysical and philosophical and stuff like that, but it just struck me as kinda silly, especially when Clarke attempted to explain the relevance. I understand from my friend Wikipedia that the idea originated in an earlier short story of Clarke’s, but that, although he changed all the meaning for the book, he left in all references to a different meaning from the short story. This probably explains why I found it messy and unconvincing. Plus it was signalled so far in advance that the only surprise was that it didn’t come as a surprise.

The third thing may not be Clarke’s fault – the basic storyline felt as if I’d read and watched it a million times or so before. Still avoiding spoilers as much as possible, it’s the old theme of what will the end result of evolution be, and Wells was asking that question fifty years earlier. Clarke’s answer is different to Wells’ but similar to many others since then. Now maybe Clarke was the first – the book was published in 1953 – in which case I apologise to him. But it meant I wasn’t excited by it – I found it pretty predictable and it therefore felt as if it took an awful long time getting there.

On the upside, it’s well written and the ending is left ambiguous, which makes it thought-provoking. With all of these how-will-humanity-end-up stories, the question has to be if it’s a future we would seek, or seek to avoid. Often authors tell us – the future is either utopian or dystopian; it’s decided for us in advance. Here that question is open, allowing the reader to use her own imagination to, effectively, write the sequel. I feel many sci-fi shows, films and books may have been trying to write that sequel for years, consciously or subconsciously. And, indeed, it’s a theme Clarke returned to himself in the later 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was after reading Childhood’s End that Stanley Kubrick invited Clarke to collaborate with him on the project that would eventually result in the book and film of Space Odyssey, and together they created a much better and more internally coherent story, in my opinion, while retaining that ambiguity which lifts this one above the average, despite my criticisms of it.

Arthur C Clarke

Overall, then, it didn’t wow me as much as I’d hoped, but I’m still glad to have read it, partly because it’s considered a classic in its own right, and partly because I was intrigued to read the book that inspired Kubrick. The fact that Kubrick, who at that time was reading science fiction voraciously looking for inspiration, found the ideas original suggests to me that a major part of my disappointment comes from reading the book too late, after years of reading and watching other people creating variations on the theme.

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Death Makes a Prophet by John Bude

Quirky crime…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Eustace K Mildmann is the unlikely founder of a new religion based on Egyptian gods, new age mysticism, vegetarianism, short trousers and general silliness. Even more unlikely is that this religion – The Children of Osiris, or Cooism – has attracted thousands of followers, including some of the wealthier residents of Welworth Garden City. Now, however, Eustace’s position as Head Prophet is in danger, with the rise of the charismatic fez-wearing Peta Penpeti, who may (or may not) be the reincarnation of an Egyptian priest. Penpeti has the advantage of appearing exotically foreign, which appeals greatly to the female members of the cult. Poor Eustace risks losing not only control of the cult but also the woman he worships to this usurper. Factions abound, secrets are hidden, rivalries fester. And when the whole cult is invited to take part in a festival in the grounds of its wealthiest benefactress, Mrs Alicia Hagge-Smith, all this simmering passion leads to murder…

The first half concentrates on describing the cult and its various adherents, and is mildly amusing. But although it goes on for a long time – too long – I never got any real feel either for what the religion was offering its followers, nor why so many people were attracted to it. It seemed to need a heftier suspension of disbelief than I could summon up. The second half becomes more serious after the murder is committed and Bude’s recurring detective, Inspector Meredith, is called in to investigate. The reader is privy to hints about the backgrounds of various characters so to some extent is ahead of the police. The actual murder method is nicely contrived and provides more of a mystery perhaps than the simple question of whodunit.

John Bude is apparently one of the most popular of the “forgotten” authors the British Library has resurrected, but for some reason I never find myself loving his books. They are well written, and this one in particular has a lot of humour around the quack religion and the various eccentric characters who are drawn towards it. But I think it’s that very eccentricity that stopped me from feeling involved – these are characters to laugh at, not to care about. And while I can enjoy a supporting cast of quirky characters, I prefer the central characters to have a greater feeling of realism. Unfortunately, I also find Inspector Meredith a rather bland detective – this is the third book I’ve read in this series and I would find it difficult to give any kind of character sketch of him.

Not one that stood out for me then – in fact, I’ll admit to skim-reading most of the second half because I had pretty much lost interest in the outcome by then. But, since other people clearly enjoy his style more than I, I accept my reaction is clearly subjective. If you like your crime fiction to be laced with humour and especially if you’ve appreciated Bude’s other books, then I expect you would enjoy this one too. Personally, I’ve preferred him when he’s been in more serious mode, but I don’t think I’m ever going to become a die-hard fan.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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Heretics and Believers by Peter Marshall

From papists to puritans, and all points in-between…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In this massive history of the English Reformation, Marshall looks in detail at the people and events that gradually led England from Catholicism to Protestantism. He doesn’t fixate on the bickering Tudor Royals, although of course they played their part. Instead he focuses mostly on those of the ranks below – the lords, bishops and religious thinkers of the period, with the occasional nod to the common people. He therefore gives a picture of the Reformation as being fundamentally about points of difference in interpretation of the Gospel, rather than, as is sometimes portrayed, a largely political change carried out by and for the benefit of those pesky Kings and Queens. He suggests that the Reformation was bloodier than is often claimed, and that its relative slowness meant that people became accustomed to thinking about questions that had previously been simply accepted. He gives the impression that he believes the Reformation allowed the genie of individual thought out of the bottle, whether for good or ill.

The book begins with an excellent exposition of medieval religious rites and traditions, and how the Biblical stories were interpreted into daily ritual. The sacraments and sacramentals, the eucharist, transubstantiation, purgatory, etc., are all explained simply and without judgement or commentary. This is enormously helpful to those of us who are not practising Christians and so are vague about what these things mean today, much less half a millennium ago. Marshall points out that the pre-Reformation Catholic church had not been an unchanging entity for centuries, as it is often portrayed, and that even prior to the Reformation there was a growing number of people who were concerned that the rituals, relics and so on, were taking away from the simplicity of the core message of salvation through Christ.

The history is largely given in a linear fashion, starting with an in-depth look at the status of the Church prior to what would come to be seen as the beginning of the Reformation, then going through all the various stages of it, the advances and retreats, power-struggles, factions, purges, burnings and bloody executions. Along the way Marshall introduces us to the major, and many minor, players, and discusses the development of the theology underpinning the religious arguments and the political considerations motivating the powerful.

The book contains a massive amount of detail, and it is well written without unnecessary academic jargon. So in that sense, it is approachable for the general reader. However, this general reader often felt swamped by the hundreds of unfamiliar names trotted out once to illustrate a particular point. For me, with only a superficial knowledge of the period, I found the meat of the argument was often lost in the minutiae which surrounded it. I’m sure all the detail would make it an excellent read for people with a sound existing knowledge of the period who wish to gain additional insight, or particularly for students. But I don’t know that I’d wholeheartedly recommend it as an introduction to the subject, or even as a next step to the relative newcomer.

Peter Marshall

Having said that, I left it for a few weeks before writing this review to see how it settled in my mind, and now that my memory has expelled all the minor names and incidents, I do feel I have a much clearer idea about the broad sweep of events and, more importantly, about the religious arguments behind them. I find Marshall has also made me more aware that ordinary worshippers were more than simply pawns of the powerful – that these arguments mattered to them too and that pressure for change came from the bottom up as much as from the top down. So, although I admit I struggled at times with what felt like information overload, in the end I feel I have gained from the reading of it.

Peter Marshall is professor of history at the University of Warwick. Heretics and Believers won the 2018 Wolfson History Prize.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

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Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

Snuffed out…

😀 😀 🙂

Henry Cargate has offended just about everyone who has had anything to do with him, so when he takes a huge pinch of snuff unaware it’s been laced with potassium cyanide and dies, really anyone could be a suspect. But a person has been charged with the crime and is now about to be tried. As the lawyer for the prosecution lays out the investigation and evidence for the jury, the reader is invited to tag along. But unlike the jury, the reader is not told the identity of the accused until the end.

This is a rather fun conceit, where most of the story is therefore told in flashback through the eyes of the various people called to give evidence at the trial. Although the whole world had a motive (if being deeply unpleasant is a good enough reason to be murdered, that is), the poison that was mixed with the snuff was only accessible at certain very limited times in Cargate’s own study, so the actual pool of suspects is quite limited.

I’ve had a great run with these British Library Crime Classics recently, but unfortunately I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I hoped. I’d read and loved Hull’s other entry, The Murder of My Aunt, so had high expectations for this one. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the book. It’s just that it depends almost entirely on timing and alibis to discover who could have had access to the poison, and that’s never my favourite kind of crime book. I know loads of people love to try to beat the detective in this kind of puzzle, but my tastes don’t run in that direction. I prefer books that concentrate on characterisation and motives rather than on means and opportunity. I’m afraid as the detective began to make lists of who could have been in a corridor at a specific four-minute period, or calculate whether it would be possible for someone to be seen from a certain angle through a door and so on, my eyes glazed over. I didn’t know, but what was worse, I didn’t care. I eventually began to skip whole pages, though I tuned in again in time for the solution and the rather enjoyable twist in the tail.

Richard Hull

This is very definitely a subjective criticism – a case of wrong reader, wrong book. The quality of the writing is good, there are enough touches of humour to make it entertaining rather than grim and I’m pretty sure all the alibi stuff is very clever. So if that’s the type of puzzle that intrigues you, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the book far more than I did. But sadly, not my cup of tea.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

Orange sorbet…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Frances Jellicoe is happy when she is offered a job to survey the gardens of a decayed country house, Lyntons, for the new absentee American owner. Frances’ mother has recently died after years of ill-health, and for the first time in her adulthood Frances is free to make her own life. Leaving London and the flat she and her mother shared gives her a sense of liberty. When she arrives at Lyntons, she finds she won’t be alone. Peter has also been hired, to survey the architectural state of the house, and is there with his beautiful but mercurial wife, Cara. To Frances’ surprise, they befriend her and soon she finds herself caught up in their volatile relationship. As time passes, secrets from the past will be revealed that will impact on the events of that summer, the summer of 1969…

The first half of this book crawls along at a snail’s pace and I nearly abandoned it at the halfway mark. Looking at other reviews suggested, however, that it picks up in the second half, so I stuck with it, and indeed, it did hold my attention more as it went on. But, here I am, a few days later, struggling to think of anything to say about it. It’s one of those books that I neither loved nor hated, that filled a few hours in a reasonably entertaining way (in the second half), and that now, some three days after finishing, I can barely remember anything about.

It’s well written, especially the descriptions of the dilapidated old house, once home to a wealthy family and later requisitioned by the army to accommodate soldiers during WW2. The blurb tells us that Frances spies on Peter and Cara through a Judas hole in her bathroom, though in reality this forms only a tiny, insignificant part of the story. Mostly, she observes them directly, as they rather surprisingly choose to include her in all their activities. There’s also a totally unsuccessful attempt to introduce some ghostliness into the proceedings – this goes nowhere and adds nothing.

The three characters failed to convince me at all, though it’s enjoyable enough to read about them. Peter, a sensible, hard-headed type, seems entirely unsuited to the fanciful, fey Cara, and neither of them seem as if they would be interested in a dull middle-aged woman like Frances. Of course, Frances is an unreliable narrator (is there any other kind these days?) so who knows how much of what she tells us really happens? Not me, for one. There’s also what feels like some attempt to introduce a quasi-religious aspect to the story, which fell flat on its face as far as I was concerned.

Claire Fuller

Was I surprised by the big reveal? Not really. Did I care? Not really.

You know, I started out intending to rate this as four stars because, despite my unrelenting negativity about it, I did find it mostly entertaining once I got past that interminable first half. But I’ve realised while drafting the review that I can’t think of much positive to say about it, except that the writing was good enough to carry me through a rather pointless, unrealistic and ultimately forgettable plot. So a sorbet – enjoyable but not satisfying. Would I recommend it? Not really.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Fig Tree.

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Tuesday Terror! The Vampyre by John Polidori

Invidious comparisons…

One summer evening in 1816, a group of friends got to discussing tales of the supernatural, and challenged each other to write their own story. Two defaulted, Lord Byron wrote a “fragment” entitled Augustus Darvell, Mary Godwin, later Shelley, wrote Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, and Byron’s doctor, John Polidori, wrote this story…

The Vampyre
by John Polidori

Portrait of John Polidori
by FG Gainsford c. 1816

…there appeared at the various parties of the leaders of the ton a nobleman, more remarkable for his singularities, than his rank. He gazed upon the mirth around him, as if he could not participate therein. Apparently, the light laughter of the fair only attracted his attention, that he might by a look quell it, and throw fear into those breasts where thoughtlessness reigned.

A young gentleman by the name of Aubrey becomes fascinated by a rather older nobleman, Lord Ruthven, because he finds Ruthven’s character impossible to guess at. Ruthven is attractive but his eyes are strangely inexpressive, giving no clue to his feelings. The susceptible, inexperienced Aubrey…

…allowing his imagination to picture every thing that flattered its propensity to extravagant ideas, he soon formed this object into the hero of a romance, and determined to observe the offspring of his fancy, rather than the person before him.

Illustration by Anne Yvonne Gilbert

Discovering that Ruthven intends to travel abroad, Aubrey arranges to go too, and soon the men become travelling companions. But over time, Aubrey begins to realise that his friend is not necessarily a very nice man…

Aubrey could not avoid remarking, that it was not upon the virtuous, reduced to indigence by the misfortunes attendant even upon virtue, that he bestowed his alms;—these were sent from the door with hardly suppressed sneers; but when the profligate came to ask something, not to relieve his wants, but to allow him to wallow in his lust, or to sink him still deeper in his iniquity, he was sent away with rich charity.

Aubrey tries to give him the benefit of the doubt, even though he can see that Ruthven preys on young women, (in rather unspecified ways), leaving them and their families ruined and disgraced. Then Aubrey’s guardians warn him that Ruthven is a bad lot, and Aubrey decides to leave and travel alone to Greece. But here, tragedy strikes – and soon Aubrey will become convinced that his one-time friend is hiding a terrible secret…

There was no colour upon her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there:—upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein:—to this the men pointed, crying, simultaneously struck with horror, “A Vampyre! a Vampyre!”

Advertising poster showing Byron as the author

* * * * * * *

I can’t help imagining the two friends, Mary Shelley and John Polidori, getting together again a couple of years later…

Mary: So, did you write a story?
John (proudly): Yes, I did! Here it is! Did you?
Mary (taking the few sheets from John’s hand): Umm… well, yes, I did. (She holds out a massive manuscript.)
John: Oh! (pauses) So… what’s it about?
Mary: Oh, you know, the usual stuff. Mad science, ethics, perceptions of difference, man usurping God as creator, existential questions of loneliness and belonging, the essence of humanity… what’s yours about?
John: Umm… well, it’s about… umm… well, a man who’s actually a vampire.
Mary: Ah! I see! (She riffles through the tiny sheaf of pages.) That should be… fun!
John: I feel a bit embarrassed now.
Mary (kindly): Oh, don’t be! At least you wrote a story. Byron only managed a “fragment”…

Mary Shelley
by Samuel John Stump 1831

Mary was right – this is… fun! Not terribly well written fun, it has to be said, and not very vampirish either, to modern eyes. However, apparently it started the whole fictional vampire obsession, so it deserves praise for that. The introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition tells me that originally it was published under Byron’s name by an unscrupulous publisher looking to cash in on his notoriety, and I wonder if it would have had the same impact without that. I doubt it. I did find it amusing that some people said it was Byron’s best work – bet they felt a bit foolish when it came out he hadn’t written it! Polidori nicked the basic idea from Byron’s “fragment” (which is included in the book and is much better written) and expanded it into a full short story. He was apparently also taking a bit of a swipe at Byron himself – Ruthven being the name Byron’s cast-off mistress Caroline Lamb had given him in her own fictional portrayal in her novel, Glenarvon.

Lord Byron
by Thomas Phillips 1813

In truth, I found the story of the story more interesting than the story. Neither the porpy nor I found it scary, and while the porpy didn’t laugh at some of the clunky, over-dramatic sentences, I did. Clearly the porpy has a sweeter nature than I…

John: Mary, your book is wonderful! It’s destined to be a great classic! I predict it will become one of the foundation stones of modern literature! I shuddered, I cried, I got angry, I shivered in fear! Your creature will fire imaginations through the centuries! Bravissima!
Mary: Thanks, John! Er… your story’s quite good too!

If you’d like to read it online, here’s a link. I read it in The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre, which I’ll review fully at a later date.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀

Not a quill was raised…

* * * * * * *

Fatal Inheritance by Rachel Rhys

The pink house on the Riviera…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

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.

Rachel Rhys

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.

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The Old Religion by Martyn Waites

Strange marketing…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Tom Kilgannon has come to the run-down Cornish town of St Petroc to hide. That’s not his real name – he has taken on a new identity and it’s quickly clear that he’s in some kind of witness protection scheme or similar. Lila is a young girl living in a surfer commune on the edge of town – a surfer commune that is run more like a cult, with the rather nasty Noah at its head. As the book begins, Lila has been instrumental in abducting a young man on Noah’s instructions, and now she’s afraid of the consequences. When Tom and Lila meet, their lives quickly become mixed up with each other, and each puts the other in even greater danger. In the meantime, the mysterious Morrigan seems to hold an almost occult power over the townspeople, all in the name of the Old Religion…

This book is billed as being for fans of Peter May. I wonder why? I don’t remember Peter May ever writing anything with an occult storyline, nor using so much foul language including repeated use of the “c”-word, nor being unable to determine when to use “who” and “whom” correctly, nor filling his books with repeated episodes of violence, including rape, every few pages. Odd! Had I been trying to attract people who might enjoy this, I’d have been more inclined to mention Mo Hayder, or one of the other authors who specialise in violence and nastiness. There’s a market out there for this kind of book undoubtedly, but I’m not sure Peter May fans would be a big part of that market. This one sure isn’t, anyway.

It’s well written, apart from the too frequent grammatical errors, but I was reading an ARC so perhaps they’ll be sorted before the final version is printed. The characterisation is very good, especially of Lila. She left home young, and has no-one to look out for her. Having drifted into a bad situation she’s now trying to find a way out, and Waites does a good job of portraying her as a mix of vulnerability and strength. Tom is also done reasonably well, though with more of the stereotypical elements of the routine thriller hero – a troubled past, in danger in the present, well able to handle himself physically, but with a complete inability to fend off the women who find him irresistible. Uh-huh, well, not all women, obviously.

But everyone is unlikeable, even Lila, whom (or perhaps in the spirit of the book, I should say who) I really wanted to like. She’s quite willing to be just as horrible to everyone around her as they are to her – credible, undoubtedly, given her background, but it meant my sympathy for her situation wore off after a bit. Apart from Tom, all the men are drug-pushers or losers, violent and cruel, or occasionally weak and pathetic, and potential or actual rapists. There are very few women in it, at least up to the point where I abandoned it – around the 60% mark, and other than Lila they don’t play a significant role. I flicked ahead to the end and got the impression that may change later in the book.

Martyn Waites

At that 60% mark the three stories were still trailing along without us being any closer to finding out how they were connected – Tom’s past, the young man’s abduction, the mysterious Morrigan – with Lila providing some kind of vague link. I admit I was bored waiting, but it was really the constant episodes of violence that annoyed me – not in a squeamish way, they’re not overly graphic, but just because it all became repetitive and made the tone unrelentingly miserable. I prefer even crime novels to have some light and shade in them.

Despite abandoning it, I’m giving the book three stars. It’s not to my taste but I think it’s pretty well done for all that, and I’m sure people who like this sort of thing will enjoy it. In fact, it’s considerably better than the one Mo Hayder book through which I had the misfortune to wade. But as for Peter May fans, well, I’d suggest we all sit back and wait for the next Peter May book instead. Why do publishers do that?

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Zaffre, via Amazon Vine UK.

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Snap by Belinda Bauer

Curate’s egg…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When eleven-year-old Jack and his two younger sisters are left in their broken-down car while their mother goes off to phone for help, Jack is left in charge. This is a responsibility that will weigh heavily on him over the next few years when first his mother never returns and then later his father too disappears. Meantime Catherine While, heavily pregnant with her first child, is terrified when a burglar leaves a knife beside her pillow with a note that says simply: I could have killed you. For reasons of her own, Catherine decides to tell neither her husband Adam nor the police about this episode – a decision she will learn to regret.

Following the outcome of his last case, The Shut Eye, DCI Marvel has been shunted out of the Met, and isn’t best pleased when he ends up in the countryside – not his natural habitat. He’s even more annoyed when the first case that’s handed to him is to investigate a series of burglaries by a perpetrator codenamed Goldilocks. Marvel sees himself as a murder detective and feels his talents are being wasted. But he gets his wish anyway, as he is soon involved in investigating the unsolved murder of Jack’s mother…

I suspect my reading of lots of compact, tightly plotted classic crime recently has made me even less tolerant than before of the over-padding of much contemporary crime fiction. This book unfortunately takes about half its length to reveal what it’s going to be about, and as soon as it does the whodunit along with the how become pretty obvious, so that the second half is mostly spent waiting to see how Bauer is going to handle the ending. The motive is still left to be uncovered which means that it maintains some suspense, though, and there are some little side mysteries along the way that add interest; and Bauer’s writing is always laced with a nice mixture of dark and light so that in the pacier parts it’s an entertaining read. But I found that I was skipping entire pages at about the thirdway point – never a good sign! – because I was tired of the endless, rather repetitive setting up and wanted to get to the bit where the two threads finally came together as it was obvious they would, and we found out what the book was actually going to be about.

Belinda Bauer

Unfortunately I also found I had lots of credibility issues with too many aspects of the book, from the idea of Jack managing to hold his family together in the way he does, to Catherine’s reasons for not saying anything about the threats she’s receiving, to Marvel’s policing methods. I tried my best, though, to switch off my disbelief and go with the flow. And, happily, from about halfway through when the two stories finally begin to converge, it becomes a more interesting read, and I found that finally I was turning pages quickly for the right reasons. The pace improves and there’s quite a lot of Bauer’s usual humour in the interactions between the various police officers on the case. Bauer is always great at making her child characters feel believable, and she does here too with Jack, even though I found his actions less than credible. While the main storyline itself heads on a straight line to exactly where one expects, there’s an intriguing subplot in the second half that kept my interest. But, unfortunately, the thrillerish ending fell off the credibility tightrope again.

So, although there are some enjoyable aspects of the book once it picks up speed, the slowness of the first half combined with the requirement to suspend disbelief more than I could manage left me feeling that it’s not really close to her best.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

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Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White

The long and the short of it…

🙂 🙂 😐

An insane murderer is rampaging through the countryside, killing young women. Helen, a young woman, has taken a job with the Warren family in their manor house right slap bang in the middle of where the murderer is doing his thing. But she’s perfectly safe, because there are lots of other people in the house with her. Except that, for one reason or another, gradually all the other people either leave the house or become incapable of helping. Soon Helen is on her own… or is she??

Fairly recently, I read Ethel Lina White’s short story, An Unlocked Window, in the British Library’s Murder at the Manor anthology. While I can’t find a direct reference to back me up on this, the book and the story share so many similarities that I’m convinced the story is a reworking of the book – the book was written in 1933 and the story six years later in 1939. I thought the short story was great – with a credible plot and really effectively scary. The book, on the other hand, has so many sillinesses that I found it quite hard to take seriously, and it’s so stretched out and repetitive that any scare factor disappeared long before the end was reached. Perhaps I’d have felt less critical if I hadn’t read the story first – having seen how well the premise worked in the short form, my expectations might have been too high going in.

There are good things about it and overall it’s a light, entertaining read for the most part, although I did find myself beginning to skim in the last third, feeling that I was more than ready for the thriller ending. It has a nice Gothic feel to it, with the rambling old house and a bunch of eccentric and not very likeable upper class characters, whom White, via Helen, has some fun showing up as arrogant snobs and relatively useless members of the human race. The servants come off much better, though they’re not exactly saints either. To call Helen curious would be an understatement – she pokes her nose in everywhere and always has to be where the action is. The cook likes to drink her employer’s brandy, while her husband’s main feature is his laziness. But still, they all have good hearts, which is more than can be said for the Warrens. On the whole, I enjoyed the characterisations although unfortunately Helen annoyed me intensely throughout.

Challenge details:
Book: 38
Subject Heading: Murder at the Manor
Publication Year: 1933

My first real problem is with Helen’s position in the household. I have no idea what she’s actually employed to do. She refers to herself as “the help” but beyond dusting the bannisters occasionally so she can eavesdrop on conversations, I couldn’t work out her duties. If she’s supposed to do housework, then how come she’d never been in the Professor’s study before that night? If she’s a maid, she most certainly wouldn’t don an evening gown and eat her meals with the family, as she does. In fact, I can’t think of any servant other than a governess or a companion who would ever have eaten with the family in a household like this one, and she’s neither of those. So right from the start, credibility was gone.

It is assumed by everyone that Helen is to be the murderer’s next victim – no idea why. Perhaps she was the only remaining young woman in the district. The assumption is also that he’ll come for her this dark and stormy night (despite him having committed another murder just that afternoon – prolific!). So Professor Warren puts all kinds of safety measures in operation which everyone then promptly ignores, even Helen, who doesn’t seem to be able to remember basic things like don’t open the door to potential murderers late at night. Gradually all the people who could have protected her either leave the house or become incapacitated in one way or another, until she is left only with horrible old Lady Warren, whose hobby is throwing things at menials, and Lady Warren’s even more horrible nurse, whose hobby is tormenting Helen. It’s a fun premise, but it takes far too long to get there. The ending when it finally came sadly didn’t surprise me (although it’s entirely different from the short story’s ending) – it had seemed increasingly obvious as time went on, both whodunit and what form the denouement would take.

Ethel Lina White

I didn’t dislike it as much as this critical review is probably suggesting – for the most part, it held my attention and was quite amusing. But in the end I’d recommend the short story far more highly than the book – it’s tighter and most of the extraneous stuff is stripped out, meaning that it works much more effectively as a chiller thriller. I can only think White herself must have felt that she could do better, so took the main plot points and created something much better. I find it interesting that Hitchcock chose to use An Unlocked Window for an episode of his TV series, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, rather than filming the full book, and he knew a thing or two about scariness! However, this book was filmed too, as The Spiral Staircase, and I’ll be watching it soon to see how it compares to the written version.

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Tuesday Terror! The King in Yellow by Robert W Chambers

Indescribable horror…

This is a short collection of four horror stories, all linked by a play called The King in Yellow which, we are told, reveals truths so awful that anyone who reads it will be driven to madness and despair. Sounds perfect for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Terror 2The King in Yellow
by Robert W Chambers

 

It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect.

The first thing to say is that it appears that Chambers’ The King in Yellow collection usually includes ten stories. For this new edition, Pushkin Press have extracted the four that are linked and omitted the other six, which reviews tell me are mostly of a different style.

Each story is very short, so the entire volume isn’t much more than novella length. In truth, I found it a rather disappointing collection, with only one story that stood out for me. The awful truths contained in the play of The King in Yellow are not revealed to the reader, so fortunately at least I was spared from being driven insane. But this technique of telling the reader that there is something so awful it can’t be described – a technique used frequently in weird fiction, particularly by my old friend Lovecraft – strikes me as a major cop-out.

…it set me thinking of what my architect’s books say about the custom in early times to consecrate the choir as soon as it was built, and that the nave, being finished sometimes half a century later, often did not get any blessing at all: I wondered idly if that had been the case at St. Barnabé, and whether something not usually supposed to be at home in a Christian church might have entered undetected and taken possession of the west gallery.

* * * * * * *

Here’s a brief idea of each of the four stories:

The Repairer of Reputations – a story told by a madman, driven mad obviously by having been foolish enough to read The King in Yellow. He is convinced he is entitled to become a King which involves him having to bump off the man he believes stands in his way. All very weird, but not really in a good way. I gave this one a generous 2½ stars.

The Mask – a sculptor, Boris, has discovered a solution that turns living things into the purest marble (including sweet little bunny rabbits – you have been warned, animal lovers!). Meantime Boris’s friend, the narrator, is in love with Genevieve, Boris’s wife. There’s lots of gothic drama, high, exalted love, madness and despair, mixed together with some nice horror and just a touch of weirdness. Good stuff! I gave this one 5 stars.

….Although I knew nothing of chemistry, I listened fascinated. He picked up an Easter lily which Geneviève had brought that morning from Notre Dame, and dropped it into the basin. Instantly the liquid lost its crystalline clearness. For a second the lily was enveloped in a milk-white foam, which disappeared, leaving the fluid opalescent. Changing tints of orange and crimson played over the surface, and then what seemed to be a ray of pure sunlight struck through from the bottom where the lily was resting. At the same instant he plunged his hand into the basin and drew out the flower. “There is no danger,” he explained, “if you choose the right moment. That golden ray is the signal.”
….He held the lily toward me, and I took it in my hand. It had turned to stone, to the purest marble.
….“You see,” he said, “it is without a flaw. What sculptor could reproduce it?”
….The marble was white as snow, but in its depths the veins of the lily were tinged with palest azure, and a faint flush lingered deep in its heart.

In the Court of the Dragon – a man goes to church just after reading The King in Yellow. He becomes obsessed by the organist – a dark figure who keeps appearing wherever he goes. Is he paranoid, driven to madness by the play? Or is there a more sinister reason behind the organist’s appearances? Hmm – I found this OK-ish, but nothing special, and gave it just 3 stars.

The Yellow Sign – An artist and his model seem to be sharing a common nightmare about the artist being in a coffin in a hearse. Needless to say, they’ve both read The King in Yellow, thus allowing evil and madness into their lives. This one has some quite good horror aspects, though, and a nice sense of creepiness to it. I gave it 3½ stars.

“Do you think I could forget that face?” she murmured. “Three times I saw the hearse pass below my window, and every time the driver turned and looked up at me. Oh, his face was so white and – and soft? It looked dead – it looked as if it had been dead a long time.”

* * * * * * *

So a mixed bag. The question is – would I recommend it? In truth, not for the quality of the stories themselves on the whole, but I’m led to believe these are considered to have been influential on Lovecraft and others, and are often referenced by later writers, so I guess I’d recommend them to people who are interested in the development of weird fiction.

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀

The porpy doesn’t understand why people would find yellow scary…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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The Long Arm of the Law edited by Martin Edwards

‘Allo! ‘Allo! ‘Allo! Wot’s going on ‘ere, then?

😀 😀 😀

Another of the British Library’s collection of vintage detective stories, this one takes us away from the amateur detective beloved of Golden Age authors and gives the downtrodden policeman* his place in the spotlight.

(*Yup, no female police officers, of course, in these older stories, so I’m not going to attempt to be pointlessly politically correct with lots of he/she-ing, etc.)

The book is informatively introduced by Martin Edwards as usual, plus he gives a little introduction to each story telling the reader a little about the author. He points out that although policemen were somewhat overshadowed by their amateur rivals, they were still there throughout the period, and not always as the simple stooge or sidekick.

The stories in these collections always tend to be variable in quality, and that’s the case in this one too, with several of the fifteen stories getting an individual rating of three stars (OK) or below from me. However, I also gave three stories four stars (liked it) while another four achieved the full five stars (loved it). Overall, that makes this one of the weaker collections for me, and I found I was having to plough through quite a lot of mediocre stuff to find the gems. Perhaps I’ve just read too many of these collections too close together, but my enthusiasm certainly wore a little thin halfway through this one.

There are fewer of the usual suspects among the authors, presumably because most of the well known ones who’ve shown up in previous collections concentrated on their gifted amateur ‘tecs. But Edgar Wallace is there, along with Freeman Wills Croft, Nicholas Blake and Christianna Brand, among others. There are several I haven’t come across before and one or two who I felt didn’t succeed quite as well in short form as in their novels (always bearing in mind I’m no expert and am comparing tiny sample sizes – often one story versus one novel) – ECR Lorac, for example, or Gil North.

Here’s a flavour of the stories I liked best:

The Man Who Married Too Often by Roy Vickers – an excellent “inverted” mystery where we know whodunit and the story revolves around how the police prove it. A fortune-hunting woman tricks a man into marriage only to discover he’s a bigamist when his wife shows up. Murder ensues. It turns neatly on a fair-play clue and a quirk of the law, and it’s perfectly possible for the reader to get the solution before it’s revealed. But I didn’t.

The Chief Witness by John Creasey – a story of secrets within families and their sometimes tragic consequences. A child lies in bed listening to his mother and father argue. Murder ensues. The motivation is a bit weak in this one, but the writing is good and it’s very well told, especially the opening with the child discovering his mother’s body. Plus I liked the policeman in this one – he’s one of those ones who cares about the people as much as the puzzle.

Old Mr Martin by Michael Gilbert – Old Mr Martin is a sweet-shop owner, much loved by generations of children to whom he often gives free sweeties. (No, no, it’s not what you’re thinking, I promise!) But even so, murder ensues. When he dies and his premises are sold, a body is found buried in the cellar. The police assume it must have been a previous tenant, because it couldn’t have been nice old Mr Martin. Could it? Again I liked the writing, and this one had an intriguing plot point based on how people sometimes disappeared without trace in the chaos of the wartime bombing of London.

Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill in the film version of Green for Danger

After the Event by Christianna Brand – easily the highlight of the collection for me, starring Inspector Cockrill whom I’d met before in Green for Danger. In this story, an old detective is recounting one of his past cases to a group of admiring listeners, but Inspector Cockrill keeps chipping in and stealing his thunder. During rehearsals for a stage production of Othello, murder ensues. Othello’s wife is strangled – that is to say, the wife of the actor playing Othello. The old detective charged someone for the crime but the accused got off. Cockrill then takes over to show where the old detective went wrong and to reveal who actually dunit. Lots of humour in this one, a nice plot with some good clues, and very well told.

So plenty here to interest vintage crime enthusiasts even if it wouldn’t be the first of these collections I would recommend to newcomers. (Capital Crimes, since you ask, or Miraculous Mysteries.)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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At the Loch of the Green Corrie by Andrew Greig

Timor mortis conturbat me, part 2…

🙂 🙂 🙂

At his last meeting with renowned Scottish poet Norman MacCaig, MacCaig laid a charge on Andrew Greig to make a journey after MacCaig’s death to his beloved Assynt in the north west of Scotland, and there to fish in the Loch of the Green Corrie. This is the story of that trip, mixed with Greig’s memories of and musings on MacCaig and his own life.

I’ve said this before, but my rating system is not an indicator of quality but simply of my enjoyment or otherwise of a particular book. In terms of quality, this book deserves more and plenty of people have loved or will love it. So I’ve gone with 3 stars even though I didn’t enjoy it at all.

I often recycle the titles I use for reviews, and I knew what the title for this one would be before I was more than a few chapters in: Timor mortis conturbat me – the fear of death confounds me. I also knew I had used the title before, so checked to see when. Turns out it was when I reviewed the only other book of Greig’s that I have read, In Another Light.

Greig writes of MacCaig’s declining years, of the loss of his mountaineering friend Malcolm Duff, of his own near miss when he suffered from a cyst in his brain, of his father’s death. He tells us of his breakdown following a failed relationship, when he ended up in a psychiatric hospital after attempting suicide. I found the whole thing deeply depressing.

Andrew Greig

Most people of my age have lost people we loved and recognise that we’re closer to death than birth, and we all deal with it differently. Greig writes it out of his system and does so very well. Many people read about it and find comfort and strength from the recognition of common experience. I know already how grief feels and that it passes or lessens in time, and find no benefit or comfort in reflecting endlessly on my own past losses or anyone else’s. Timor mortis has never confounded me particularly – I’m more of an eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die type. So Greig and I are simply not a good match. And that’s not a criticism of either of us.

I abandoned this one at 30%, and won’t be attempting to read any more of his books. But I’m still happy to recommend them to the many people who find some kind of comfort or insight in having the experience of mortality and loss reflected back to them.

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(P.S. TBR Thursday has moved to Friday this week so it can include the result of The Classics Club Spin #17!)

Rasputin: The Biography by Douglas Smith

Saint or sinner…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Douglas Smith starts his biography of Rasputin by laying out the two competing claims about him that were current during his life and still rumble on today: that he was the ‘mad monk’, the ‘holy devil’, debauched and wicked, practising profane religious rites, and with an unhealthy grip on the Tsar; or, that he was a true holy man and visionary, so much so that some groups within the Orthodox church are attempting to have him made a saint.

He begins by telling us what little is known of Rasputin’s early years in a peasant village in Siberia. Smith shows how difficult it is to sift through the layers of later accounts to get to the truth, especially about someone who lived in a largely illiterate milieu. Some accounts describe him as dirty and uncouth, a thief and a horse-thief, but Smith says the original records don’t support these claims. What is true is that he married and had several children, of whom many died. In his late twenties, he took to going off on pilgrimages, apparently a common occurrence in the Russia of that time. However, he looked after his family in financial terms and continued to return to his home village throughout his life. He gradually acquired a reputation as a starets, a kind of religious elder sought out for spiritual guidance.

At this early stage, the book is very well written. Notes are kept out of the way at the back, so that the main text maintains a good flow without too many digressions into the minutiae of sources.

Smith then takes the tale to the Romanov court, giving the background to the marriage and relationship of Nicholas and Alexandra. He gives a fascinating picture of the various strange religious sects that grew up in late 19th century Russia, and how susceptible the Romanovs and high society in general were to the latest ‘holy man’ to come along. Rasputin was not the first visionary to be taken up by the Royal couple. But because of the timing, when the state was already cracking, war was on its way and revolutionary fervour was building, he became a focus of much of what people despised about the ruling class.

Rasputin with Tsarina Alexandra and children

Unfortunately, once these excellent introductory chapters are out of the way, the rest of the book gets bogged down in a morass of rather repetitive detail. It tends to take the format of Smith telling us about reports of some unsavoury episode in Rasputin’s life, and then going back over it to show that either it couldn’t be true or that it can’t be proven. As is always a problem with this period of Russian history, there’s a constantly changing cast of characters near the throne, so that names came and went without me feeling I was getting to know much about them. When the book concentrates specifically on the Romanovs it feels focused, and I did get a good impression of how detached they were from the Russian people’s opinion of them, especially Alexandra. But Rasputin himself felt ever vaguer as every story about him was shown to be at best misleading and at worst untrue. I felt I learned far more about who Rasputin wasn’t than about who he was. Maybe that was the point, but it made for unsatisfactory reading from my perspective.

There is a lot of information about the various efforts to persuade the Romanovs to give Rasputin up. For years he was under investigation and being tracked by the authorities, while the newspapers were printing ever more salacious details about his alleged debauchery. Again Smith goes into far too much detail; for example, on one occasion actually listing the names of the eight secret service men who were detailed to monitor him – information that surely should have been relegated to the notes if it is indeed required at all. And again, far more time is spent debunking false newspaper stories than detailing the true facts.

I found this a frustrating read. Smith’s research is obviously immense and the book does create a real impression of the strange, brittle society at the top of Russia and its desperate search for some kind of spiritual meaning or revelation. But the same clarity doesn’t apply to Rasputin – I felt no nearer knowing the true character of the man at the end as at the beginning; if anything, I felt he had become even more obscure. Smith often seems like something of an apologist for him, although he never openly says so. But when, for example, he treats seriously the question of whether Rasputin was actually a genuine faith healer, then I fear the book began to lose credibility with me. The question of whether Rasputin was a debauched lecher living off his rich patrons or a holy man sent by God to save Russia seemed relatively easy to answer, and I found the book tended to overcomplicate the issue in an attempt to portray both sides equally. A bit like giving equal prominence to climate change deniers as to the 97% of scientists who know it to be true.

Rasputin with his (mostly female) aristocratic acolytes

The book has won awards, so clearly other people have been more impressed by it than I was. I do think it’s an interesting if over-long read, but more for what it tells us about the last days of the Romanovs than for what it reveals about Rasputin. For me, the definitive biography of this uniquely intriguing life remains to be written.

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The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

Adolescence is lousy…

😐 😐 😐

A rich, privileged teenage boy moans, whines and whinges for roughly forty-eight hours.

I had high hopes of this one. Either it would stun me by being wonderful and achieving that rare feat for a mid-twentieth century book of actually deserving its status as a classic, and I’d have the joy of writing a glowing review; or it would be as dire as I anticipated and I’d have the even greater fun of mocking it mercilessly.

Sadly, it’s neither. It’s merely a lengthy character sketch of a depressed teenager. Fine, but not scintillating fun, as anyone who has had to spend much time in the company of depressed (or even undepressed) teenage boys will know.*

It’s very well done. The character of Holden Caulfield feels believable and Salinger maintains his (annoying) voice without a blip throughout. It made me laugh – well, sorta smile, at least – several times and even made a tear spring to my eye… once. But mostly it bored me.

JD Salinger

I could, I suppose, chunter on about how it says something about the time of writing – like, for example, that it foreshadowed the beginning of the post-WW2 cultural upheavals, or that it was the era when authors began to mistake the parroting of verbally-challenged swearing for literary merit, or something. But that would be kinda phony, goddam** it, because really I don’t think it says anything terribly deep about anything much. Or else I was just too bored to notice.

Well, that’s a little unfair, maybe. I think it does say something about how rotten it is to be a teenage boy, especially when forced to deal with one of life’s tragedies. But I think it’s a bit sad (and perhaps typical of the then American obsession with psychoanalysis) that what seemed to me like Holden’s perfectly normal feelings and mini-rebellion were implied to be some form of mental illness. If so, then I guess we have to assume that being a teenager is a form of lunacy… hmm!

Yep… got nothing more to say about this one.

Book 19 of 90

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* That comment’s a bit phony – I worked with teenage boys for years, depressed and undepressed, and found them all far, far, more fun than poor Holden. And less whiny.

** That’s the way Holden spells “goddamn” – odd, isn’t it? Makes me think of some kind of weird matriarchal sheep deity…

The Queen of Sheepa by Will Bullas
Yes, there truly is an image of everything on the internet…