Highway Blue by Ailsa McFarlane

Running on empty…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Highway BlueSince Anne Marie’s husband Cal walked out on her a couple of years ago, she’s been living a kind of aimless existence, working in a bar, sharing an apartment with a group of women she doesn’t really think of as friends, having one night stands just for a brief feeling of connection. So when Cal turns up at her door out of the blue, it throws her into a state of confusion, and before she has a chance to think, they both get involved in an incident that ends up with them on the run together, heading off down the highway in a beat-up old car with no particular destination in mind. Now that her old life is over, Anne Marie will have to decide what her future will be, and whether Cal should have any role in it…

This is well written and the picture of two drifting people coming together again, perhaps briefly, perhaps to renew their old relationship, is very well painted. However, that’s all there is to it, and for me it felt too slight a story to hang a novel around, even although it is very short. The being on the run aspect feels extraneous since there’s no real sense of pursuit or danger. Basically they drive for days on end, while Anne Marie as our narrator gradually reveals snippets of her past to the reader so that we come to understand her ambivalence about Cal and about love in general. Along the way, they meet an array of characters, each for the briefest of moments during which what we learn each time is that they’re all alone and all lonely.

Ailsa McFarlane
Ailsa McFarlane

It feels more like a very good character sketch of Anne Marie than a novel. I found her believable and well drawn, but I kept waiting for something more and it never arrived. It seemed to me to be drawing from two classic strands of American culture – the road trip as metaphor for self discovery novel, such as Rabbit, Run or On the Road, and the more noirish tradition of people on the run, such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Postman Always Rings Twice, even Thelma and Louise. In other words, it has been done before and frankly doesn’t bring enough new to the table to justify doing it again. Its brevity also means that we remain inside Anne Marie’s head entirely, so that I felt it missed the opportunity to reflect on the America through which they drive. It seemed odd in a road-trip novel that the author chose to give her places fictional names – I couldn’t help my cynicism from wondering if this was merely so that she wouldn’t have to research actual places, though perhaps she wanted to keep the reader’s focus totally on Anne Marie’s dilemma without distractions.

It’s a debut novel and I feel shows that McFarlane has a lot of potential in terms of creation of atmosphere and building complex and credible characters. However, in order to be fulfilled, that potential requires a stronger story with more depth. I look forward to seeing how she develops in her future career.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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The Killing Kind by Jane Casey

Twisted…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The Killing KindThe law says that everyone has the right to defence in court, so sometimes barristers find themselves defending people they’d probably rather not know. So it was with Ingrid Lewis when she was just starting out, successfully defending John Webster from accusations of stalking and harassment. It wasn’t long after the trial before Ingrid learned to her cost just what it was like to be the target of John Webster’s games. Now, a few years later, a fellow barrister is killed and Ingrid becomes convinced that John Webster did the killing, mistaking the other woman for Ingrid. But can she persuade the police to believe her before it’s too late?

Jane Casey always writes entertainingly and well, and I love her police procedural series starring Maeve Kerrigan. This book is something of a departure from her, moving into standalone thriller territory, and it rockets along throwing twist after twist until the poor reader’s head is spinning. This poor reader, I’m afraid, found it went so far over the credibility line that I had to stop trying to take it seriously at all at a fairly early stage, when Ingrid begins to wonder if Webster is really the bad guy, or is he trying to save her? From there on it spirals into ever more ludicrous scenarios, in which the only constant to hang on to is Ingrid’s profound stupidity. She’s the type of heroine who, on being told a house is haunted by murderous ghouls, volunteers to spend the night in it. “I am in fear of a crazed stalker who I believe wants to kill me, so I’ll wander about the dark, lonely streets of London late at night, all alone, rather than getting a cab,” seems to be her general attitude to self-protection.

Jane Casey 2 - telegraph.co.uk
Jane Casey (source: telegraph.co.uk)

I know credibility isn’t considered a plus in contemporary thrillers, so I’m sure this will work well for people who generally enjoy the “I didn’t see that coming” impact of total lack of plot and character consistency. Unfortunately I do like plots to hold together and there are far too many holes in this one for me, and I don’t like when characters have a personality makeover halfway through, as both Ingrid and Webster do in this one. I felt that by the end both were unrecognisable from how they had been drawn at the beginning, not because they had been changed by events, but because they had been changed by the author to fit in with the plot twists. Plus, I regret to say it, but despite all the twists I did see that coming… I had very little doubt from quite early on as to where the story was going to end up, although it’s done well enough that I wondered from time to time if perhaps I was wrong. But I wasn’t.

Overall, then, reasonably entertaining but I think it’s fair to say it’s not my favourite Casey novel by quite a long way. I’d admit, though, that I am probably the wrong reader for the book, and I’m sure it will work better for the many people who love this kind of over-the-top twisty thriller.

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NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins via NetGalley.

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The Crow Trap (Vera Stanhope 1) by Ann Cleeves

Is there an editor in the house?

🙂 🙂 🙂

The Crow TrapThree women are staying at Baikie’s Cottage to carry out an environmental impact study on land which is earmarked to be turned into a quarry. Rachael is the leader of the team, and knows the area well – her friend Bella lives on the neighbouring farm. She knows Bella loves her life in this harsh landscape so when she arrives only to find Bella dead, hanged in the barn, she finds it hard to accept the official verdict of suicide. The other two women on the team are strangers to Rachael and to each other. Anne is an extrovert, and has had a string of affairs, most recently with the man who wants to turn the land into a quarry. Grace is the complete opposite – introverted, quiet, clearly unhappy. When a body is found on the land, it will be up to Inspector Vera Stanhope and her right-hand man Joe Ashworth to work out motives and opportunity, and to connect the dots between the murder and Bella’s suicide…

Sometimes I feel like a stuck record, but at well over 500 pages this novel is ridiculously over-long – repetitive and padded to the point where I several times considered abandoning it. The underlying plot is good and Vera is an interesting, if unbelievable, character – another of these detectives one feels would have been quietly shuffled to a desk job long ago since she is incapable of following rules and doesn’t mind putting herself, her colleagues and even members of the public at risk in pursuit of her case. But hey-ho! That’s modern crime fiction for you, and plenty of people seem to like these damaged detectives. At least Vera is functional.

The book starts off well enough, telling of Rachael’s arrival at the cottage, her finding of Bella, and then of the next few days as the three women get to know each other a little. It’s already far too drawn out at this stage, but eventually the body is discovered and we can hope the police procedural element is about to begin. Only for those hopes to be dashed! Back we go to the very beginning, this time following Anne through those same few days, learning more about her life, and seeing things from her perspective. And then… you’ve guessed, haven’t you… we do it all again, this time in the company of Grace. It’s not that any of the three women’s stories are uninteresting in their own right, but to cover the same period again and again had me feeling as if I was in Groundhog Day.

Ann Cleeves
Ann Cleeves

Finally, about halfway through, this introductory stage is at last over, and Vera arrives on the scene. It picks up a bit after that, although there’s so much backstory about Vera’s life interspersed among the plot that the pace never gets out of second gear. Vera’s method is to set the women up to be bait in the hope the murderer will return, while sending these civilians off to ask questions of suspects and bring her back the information. Extremely odd method of policing, far more suited to the Golden Age of the amateur detective than the modern police procedural. However, it’s reasonably enjoyable, and well written.

Overall, I can’t say this one thrilled me much – a crime novel requires far more plot and less repetition to hold my interest for so long. However I see that the next book is considerably shorter (though still longer than a crime novel should be) so hopefully Cleeves reined in her desire to cover every detail three times. I’d consider reading more of them, but I fear Cleeves, with two less than enthusiastic reviews out of three from me so far, is perhaps never going to make it onto my must-read list. Given her huge popularity, I don’t expect that will bother her much!

People's Choice LogoBook 3 of 12

This was The People’s Choice for March. Thank you, People – I know you meant well… 😉

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Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie

Slàinte mhath!

🙂 🙂 🙂

Whisky GaloreDespite their remote location, the Hebridean islands of Great Todday and Little Todday are not untouched by the ongoing Second World War. Some of the islands’ sons are far away serving in the forces, while various servicemen are stationed around the various islands. Rationing is in force, although the islanders always have their livestock and fishing to fall back on. But when there’s a prolonged shortage of whisky, things begin to get serious! When, after a few weeks of drought, a cargo ship full of whisky is shipwrecked just off one the islands, the temptation to steal the whisky before the authorities get there is overwhelming.

Humour is one of those things that is entirely subjective. Many people, according to the Goodreads reviews, found this hilarious. I’m afraid I found it occasionally mildly amusing, but mostly repetitive and rather dull. It takes about half the book before the shipwreck happens, and for most of that time we are introduced to a variety of quirky caricatures – an English writer’s affectionate idea of what Hebridean islanders should be like – and listen while they tell each other how awful life is because they have no whisky. I grant you that alcohol plays a large role in Scottish social life, and even more in our anti-social life, but not to the extent of it being the sole subject of conversation. I tired of it long before the ship hove into view.

There are a couple of other strands, both regarding romances. One is of an English soldier who has returned to the islands to claim the girl he proposed to a few years earlier, before he was posted abroad. But before they get married, they must have the ritual rèiteach – a kind of pre-wedding party. This leads to the running joke that I swear must have been repeated at least fifty times – that the Englishman can’t pronounce the Gaelic word rèiteach. He’s not alone – nor can I, but nonetheless the humour wore thin after the first dozen times he attempted it and failed. The islanders can’t imagine a rèiteach without whisky though, and so the couple can’t wed till the drought is over.

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The other couple are both islanders, and the joke here is that the man is completely under his mother’s thumb, so much so that he’s afraid to tell her that he’s got himself engaged. He needs whisky to give him courage. (Mild spoiler: personally I felt the girl should be warned that the meek and mild model of sobriety she thinks she’s marrying turns into a bullying monster when he has a drink in him, but I think Mackenzie thought his drunken behaviour towards his admittedly irritating mother was admirable. Maybe that’s how men saw things back in those days…)

Mackenzie paints a picture of the lives of the islanders in which his characters seem to have endless amounts of free time and to do very little work, and, while he touches on the religious divides that have plagued Scotland for centuries, he does so in a way that makes them seem playful – I wish! However, despite its lack of realism it’s all in keeping with the cosy tone of the book.

Compton Mackenzie
Compton Mackenzie

I listened to the audiobook narrated by David Rintoul, who does an excellent job with the accents, and I assume also with the Gaelic pronunciations – I fear my ignorance of Gaelic means I wouldn’t know. There’s a fair amount of Gaelic sprinkled through it, which I would probably have found less annoying in a paper book with a glossary. But in an audiobook, not only did I not understand the words, I couldn’t work out how they would be spelled so that I could google them – it took me ages even to find the word rèiteach, despite it having been repeated umpteen times. Like a lot of Gaelic it is not pronounced how it looks! (My post title Slàinte mhath!, for example, is pronounced roughly slan-ja-va and means Cheers!)

Overall, then, a reasonably entertaining read, mildly amusing but, for me, not funny enough to make up for the lack of substance underneath. It could have made a great novella, but at full novel length there feels like far too much repetitive padding. Maybe I should have read it after a few drams of Glenfiddich…

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Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

Existential crisis…

🙂 🙂 😐

Red PillOur unnamed narrator, a writer of academic literary criticism, is going through a mid-life crisis. He is seemingly happily married and with a little child, but he’s finding it hard to write. So when he is offered a residency at the Deuter Institute in Berlin, he jumps at the chance to spend a few months working in luxurious surroundings, even though his wife is not thrilled at him leaving her to cope alone. But when he gets to the Institute, he discovers that they have odd and strict rules on how their visitors should work and associate, and he finds himself even less able to write than before. And so begins his existential crisis, tied in with the work he is, or isn’t, doing on the ‘lyric I’ as exemplified in the work of Heinrich von Kleist, a poet of the German Romantic school…

My reviews are entirely subjective and are rarely meant to be a quality judgement. The quality of this book may be wonderful if you happen to know anything, and care, about the philosophies underpinning German Romanticism. I don’t, and I don’t. As a result, I found some of this incomprehensible, and most of it tedious.

hari kunzru
Hari Kunzru

Kunzru uses his narrator’s philosophical musings and descent into madness to consider the current rise of the alt-right and to make comparisons to the totalitarian regimes of both left and right in the mid-twentieth century. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that this would have been more interesting if the book had come out in the pre-Trump era, as a warning – not unlike Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land, which met with harrumphs of disbelief from some quarters on its publication in 2013, particularly from Americans who then believed their democracy and fundamental freedoms were so strong they could not be overturned. The timing of this one, as the Trump era ends, or at least pauses, felt to me as if it had rather missed the bus. Most of us have been angsting for years over the question of whether America would pull back from the brink of fascism before it was too late, and so the questions raised in the book felt somewhat stale, as if looking ahead to a future that is already receding into the past (hopefully).

So, unfortunately, the combination of lots of self-indulgent lit-crit which didn’t interest me, combined with political questions which I feel have been done and done again in recent years, meant that I didn’t enjoy this one nearly as much as I have enjoyed Kunzru’s previous books. I hesitate to use the word pretentious, because perhaps it only feels pretentious to me because it’s so heavily immersed in a subject about which I am profoundly (and yet happily) ignorant. I’m sure people who are interested in German Romantic poetry and philosophy will have a different reaction. My opinion is, therefore, even more subjective than usual – the book didn’t work for me, but may work for you.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

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The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale

Flying teacups…

😀 😀 🙂

It’s 1938, a peak time for fake spiritualists and psychical research. When poltergeist activity starts happening in her house, Alma Fielding contacts the Sunday Pictorial newspaper. Nandor Fodor is a Jewish refugee from Hungary, a psychical researcher who has worked with the paper in the past, so he gets in on the case from the beginning. The book tells the story of Alma’s “haunting” and of Fodor’s attempts to prove her story either true or false.

I have enjoyed some of Summerscale’s previous books, but I fear this one is the exception. It’s rambly and repetitive, with far too many descriptions of various frauds perpetrated on gullible “experts” like Fodor by Alma and other mediums. I also felt that Summerscale’s research wasn’t as sound as usual – her casual mention that Alma was taking antibiotics (in 1938) set up warning flags at an early point. She also lists the many breakages of glasses and cups flying through the air at Alma’s home – I found the concept of poltergeist activity marginally less unbelievable than the idea that a working class household in the 1930s would have possessed twenty-four wine glasses and thirty-six tumblers. Not impossible, but unlikely, and I was surprised that Summerscale seemed to accept these figures without question, or even comment.

In her usual style, Summerscale ranges beyond the mere facts of Alma’s case to look more widely at the society in which they happened. She discusses the anxiety the country was experiencing as they waited for the now inevitable war to begin; the rise of spiritualism at a time when traditional religion was on the wane; poltergeist activity as a means for women to be transgressive in a restrictive society, consciously or unconsciously. Fodor, she tells us, was intrigued by Freud’s ideas, and thought that such hauntings as Alma’s may be physical manifestations of psychological frustrations. To bolster this, Summerscale suggests that the earlier death of one of her children may have been at the root of Alma’s “manifestations”. The problem with this theory is that Alma was so clearly not having manifestations, nor could her actions have been subconscious since she was deliberately making elaborate physical preparations in advance of meetings with the researchers in order to fool them. Alma was not a deluded woman, however much her loss may have affected her mental state – she was a deliberate fraud, making money out of her deception. I felt that if Summerscale wanted to make the not unreasonable case that some “hauntings” may be the result of psychological stresses, then she picked the wrong subject.

Kate Summerscale

Where it is rather more interesting is in the description of the lengths gone to by the researchers to prove that manifestations were indeed true. While they would probably have argued that they were unbiased, in fact Summerscale makes it clear that they were strongly incentivised to find “real” cases – continuing publicity and contributions to funding, and hence, in Fodor’s case, his income, depended on ensuring the public remained gullible and enthusiastic about such stories, and a constant stream of proof that it was all nonsense wouldn’t have helped with this. Therefore, the researchers themselves were motivated, whether they realised it or not, to make allowances for subjects even when they caught them out in deliberate cheating. I felt the physical lengths to which the researchers went, strip-searching subjects, investigating their intimate orifices for hidden objects, pinioning their arms during sessions and so on, had a direct kinship with the old ways of testing women to see if they were witches; and I found myself angry that Fodor could believe that Alma’s case was caused by mental trauma and yet treat her so inhumanely. The fact that Alma was so clearly a fraud still didn’t justify the circus that they allowed to develop around her.

In the end, I didn’t feel there had been enough of interest in it to justify the time taken to read through the repetitive descriptions of manifestations and research methods. It might have made an interesting essay, but it needed far more substance and less waffle to make a worthwhile book. A disappointment, I’m afraid.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing.

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Tuesday ‘Tec! Bodies from the Library 3 edited by Tony Medawar

Mixed bag…

🙂 🙂 🙂

As with the previous books in the series, this is a collection of stories that have rarely or never been included in a collection before. There are twelve stories, plus a fun collection of very short shorts where several writers were challenged to come up with a story all using the same object – an orange. There’s the usual mix of well known authors like Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, alongside some that have recently come back to prominence during the current revival, like Christopher St John Sprigg and Josephine Bell, and a few from authors entirely unfamiliar to me.

The problem with these “never before collected” collections is that there is bound to be a finite number of great stories that fall into that category. I read and loved the second book in the series, and was surprised at the high quality of the stories in it. I’m afraid this one feels rather like the leftovers – the ones that weren’t good enough to be included in the earlier books. Only one achieved a five-star rating from me – The Hampstead Murder by Christopher Bush, which I highlighted in a previous Tuesday ‘Tec! post. A handful got four stars, but I found the rest disappointing and not really worth the bother of collecting. I feel the series has probably run its course, in this format at least.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the better stories:

The Incident of the Dog’s Ball by Agatha Christie – although this story was only discovered many years after Christie’s death, it has certainly been collected before since I had already read it! A woman writes to Poirot for advice, but the letter doesn’t arrive till some months later. Poirot discovers the woman died just after she had written the letter, a death put down to accident. But the letter makes Poirot think that there may have been a darker cause, so he sets out to investigate. This story forms the nucleus of the plot of what would become the novel, Dumb Witness.

The Case of the Unlucky Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg – it’s sad that Sprigg died so young, since the little I’ve read of his stuff suggests he had a lot of talent. This one involves an airman who lands to get an oil leak fixed. He taxies into an empty hangar, there is the sound of a shot and he is found dead. An intriguing take on a “locked room” mystery – well told and quite fun.

The Riddle of the Black Spade by Stuart Palmer – a man is killed on a golf course, apparently by a ball with a black spade trademark. At first, his son is suspected, until it turns out the ball was one of the victim’s own. The police captain investigating the death is “assisted” by a spinster lady, Hildegard Withers, who apparently was the star of a series of novels and stories, and popular in her day. This story is light-hearted and entertaining, with some surprises and a clearly explained howdunit solution.

Grand Guignol by John Dickson Carr – written while he was at University, this story formed the basis of his early novel It Walks By Night. I felt a bit smug about that, since in my review of It Walks By Night, I mentioned that the book made me think of the traditions of Grand Guignol! The basic plot and solution are the same but it’s done differently, and the dénouement here is all a bit silly and unbelievable. But it’s an interesting look at the beginnings of the style he would later develop into the decadent horror feel of the Bencolin novels.

So a few enjoyable stories, though often as much for seeing how these famous authors started out than as polished articles in their own right. I’m sure real vintage crime fans will find enough of interest to make reading the collection worthwhile, as I did, but for newcomers or more casual fans I’d recommend the earlier book, Bodies from the Library 2, as a more entertaining collection overall. I haven’t mentioned the first book in the series because I haven’t yet read it.

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

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Crime at Diana’s Pool by Victor L Whitechurch

Stabbed in the back…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Felix Nayland is hosting a garden party for the worthies of Coppleswick, and has laid on entertainment in the form of an Albanian band. Later that day, Nayland turns up dead, face down in the pond known as Diana’s Pool, with a knife in his back. The odd thing is that he is wearing the uniform jacket of one of the band, who is now mysteriously missing and therefore quickly becomes the prime suspect. But the local vicar, Reverend Westerham, has spotted some odd clues around the crime scene and he has his doubts. Anyway, even if the musician is guilty, why is the victim wearing his jacket? Nayland is a newcomer to the area, having spent his life as a diplomat travelling the globe and getting mixed up in all sorts of murky events – could it be that some incident from his past has somehow caught up with him?

This is another of the novels in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, in the subsection Murder at the Manor. Edwards tell us that Whitechurch adopted an approach which for the time was unorthodox – he wrote the beginning, including the murder, without knowing himself how the book would develop or who the murderer would be. I’m not sure how much difference this made to the eventual outcome – it reads like a pretty standard murder mystery of the time.

Challenge details:
Book: 37
Subject Heading: Murder at the Manor
Publication Year: 1927

Westerham is a likeable amateur ’tec and, as was the way in crime novels back then, the police quite happily include him in their investigations once they discover that he is a particularly observant witness. The policeman in charge of the investigation, Detective Sergeant Ringwood, gets a big build-up from his colleagues – “…he’s a demon for solving things” Constable Froome informs Westerman. Hmm, personally I thought he was more in the tradition of Japp or Lestrade, and that it was lucky for all involved that justice didn’t rest on the intelligence of the boys in blue!

Victor L Whitechurch

The plot gets a bit messy, which I suppose might be due to Whitechurch’s lack of planning ahead, and takes us into the murky world of South American politics. To be honest I found this pretty uninteresting, and since Nayland wasn’t given any time or space to develop as a character, it was hard to care much about his murder. There’s a side plot concerning the girl that Westerman is falling in love with, and because I liked him, I found I cared far more about the resolution of that strand. I don’t think it’s really fair play, although in fact I guessed the murderer quite early on, though not the motive. Just as an aside, I should mention that if you’re going to commit murder or participate in any other kind of dodgy dealings, it is not a good idea in general to have your initials embroidered or engraved on your belongings, but, if you must, then you should make every effort not to drop them at the scene of the crime. There were two instances of monogrammed items in this story, plus an identifiably foreign type of cigarette paper, all conveniently dropped as clues around the place, and it all felt a bit too contrived.

Overall, I enjoyed this well enough but didn’t think it had anything to really make it stand out from the crowd. It hasn’t inspired me to actively seek out more of Whitechurch’s work, but I’d still be happy enough to read another if it came my way.

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Tuesday Terror! Into the London Fog edited by Elizabeth Dearnley

A question of expectations…

🙂 🙂 🙂

An anthology of horror stories on the theme of London Fog sounds perfect – the porpy and I quivered in anticipation. The introduction is interesting, so long as you can tolerate the “woke” language, where words like “gender” and “other” are used as verbs. Dearnley discusses the “transgressive” nature of horror and how fog could be used either literally or metaphorically. It sounded a little to me like a compression of the discussion of how fog had been used in literature in Christine L. Corton’s book, London Fog, so I was glad to see that volume name-checked in this book’s bibliography.

There are fourteen titles listed in the index, although it transpires that several aren’t stories, but essays or extracts from writers such as Sam Selvon, Virginia Woolf, et al. Also, several – both stories and essays – mention fog barely or not at all, and occasionally barely mention London either. It’s a question of expectations – when an anthology is subtitled “Eerie Tales from the Weird City” and titled “Into the London Fog”, then my pedantic mind expects fourteen eerie, weird tales with something to do with London fog. Perhaps I’m being unreasonable. But the result was that I found this collection disappointing, even although there are a few good stories in it. Had it been described as a mixed literary anthology on the theme of London, I may have liked it more, though then I’d have been comparing it adversely to London: A Literary Anthology (another British Library publication), which does the same only better.

As always, here’s a flavour of the entries I enjoyed most (since I like to meet my readers’ expectations… 😉 )

The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen – this story about a woman returning to her closed-up London home during the Blitz is excellent – atmospheric, evocative and scary! I posted about it earlier in Tuesday Terror!

N by Arthur Machen – this lives up to the book’s subtitle, falling distinctly into the definition of weird. Three old men discuss a place in Stoke Newington called Canon’s Park. One tells of a man who saw it and described it as a place of great, almost impossible, beauty. But another of the old men remembers the place from his youth, and declares it to be nothing more than a district of streets and houses. The third man investigates, and finds the place is connected to strange and spooky events! Machen is a great writer, and here he gives some excellent depictions of old London and a tale that is odd, ambiguous and well told.

My Girl and the City by Sam Selvon – despite my annoyance at the inclusion of extracts and essays, I must admit I loved this piece. It’s a reflection on Selvon’s love of London, and the difficulty for a writer of finding a way to write about something that has already been experienced by so many and written about so often before. It is beautifully written – a love poem to his girl and to the city.

I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed loads of anthologies this winter, most of them from the wonderful British Library weird and science fiction series, and will be reviewing and recommending them over the coming weeks. This one didn’t hit the mark for me because it didn’t meet my expectations, but if the idea of a mix of horror and literary essays appeals to you, then it may work better for you.

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

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The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons

Bleak realism…

😀 😀 😀

Hugh Bennett is a young reporter, working on a provincial newspaper covering all the small-town stories. On Guy Fawkes night, he is sent to cover the annual bonfire in the village of Far Wether. But there’s been trouble in Far Wether recently, when a gang of youths caused a disturbance at a local dance and were roughly ejected by a local resident, James Corby. During the bonfire the youths return and, in the darkness, Corby is killed. There are plenty of witnesses, but none who can swear to having seen the actual stabbing. The police have to make sense of the conflicting reports, but eventually, after interviewing the members of the gang intensively, they build up a case against “King” Garney, the leader of the gang, and his faithful follower, Leslie Gardner. The evidence, especially in the case of Gardner, is pretty circumstantial, and one of the big national newspapers decides to pay for his defence…

This is well written and very believable, with a good deal to say about the alienation of youth and the psychology of young men who get caught up in gangs. Hugh knows Leslie’s sister, Jill, and is in the process of falling in love with her, so he finds himself becoming personally as well as professionally involved in the case and, having been at the bonfire, he is also a witness. Symons gives what feels like an authentic portrayal of the life of a reporter on a local paper, covering relatively trivial stories and dreaming of making the big-time on one of the national newspapers. Hugh finds himself working with Frank Fairfield, a major crime reporter from one of those nationals, a man with a reputation for good investigative journalism, but who has an obvious drink problem.

Unfortunately, this one didn’t really work for me. The sordid type of crime and the array of unlikeable characters meant that I didn’t much care whether Gardner was guilty or innocent. First published in 1960, Symons concentrates on gritty realism and social issues, at the expense, in my opinion, of mystery and entertainment. The introduction by Martin Edwards tells us that Symons was inspired by a real crime and I rarely find real crime as enjoyable as imagined crime. However that’s a subjective opinion – many other readers will probably appreciate the emphasis on realism. The moral, upstanding Golden Age policeman has given way to the bullying, violent type who always leave me wondering whether they’re actually any better than the criminals. It may be a more accurate portrayal of the policing of that era, but again it meant I couldn’t find myself fully on the side of “law and order”.

Julian Symons

The latter part of the book covers the trial of the two youths, and this is the best part, with all the traditional surprises being sprung by the defence barrister, while the equally competent prosecutor smoothly responds. Gardner’s family is well developed too, so that we see the tensions among them even before the trial, with young Leslie and his father at loggerheads and Jill, the daughter of the family, trying to mediate. But again I found them all unpleasant people to spend time with, even Jill, whom I suspect we were supposed to like. For Hugh, it’s a bit of a coming-of-age story, as his youthful idealism about journalism takes some serious knocks as he sees the lack of compassion the top reporters have for those caught up in their stories.

So I appreciated the feeling of authenticity Symons manages to create, and am sure this will appeal to people who like their crime fiction to have an air of realism. But for me it was too bleak a read, lacking any elements of warmth or humour to lift the tone.

The book also includes a short story, The Tigers of Subtopia, again about disaffected youth and the reaction of a man who usually thinks of himself as liberal when he feels his own family under threat. I felt much the same about this as about the novel – very well done, authentic and realistic, but too bleak for me.

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

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Thirst by Ken Kalfus

The first collection…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Ken Kalfus has become one of my favourite authors in recent years, and I’m gradually working my way through his earlier works. This collection of short stories was his first publication, so I was prepared for it to perhaps be less polished than his more recent stuff. And, indeed, I found it very variable, with only around half of the stories rating as good or excellent, and some of the rest being really rather poor. It reads to me as if he was maybe still searching for a style, trying things out, some of which worked better than others. His trademark humour, insight and precise prose are already there, but many of the stories are too insubstantial to be satisfying.

I’ve read both of his later collections, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies and Coup de Foudre, both of which I loved, and I think the major difference is that the stories in them tend to have a more political edge or be more clearly about that nebulous thing we call the “human condition”, even when he’s being whimsical. So, on the one hand, I found this collection a little disappointing but, on the other hand, it was interesting to see this early stage in his development towards becoming a master of the short story form, as he undoubtedly now is.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I most enjoyed:

Suit – a teenage boy and his father are in a men’s outfitters looking for a suit for the boy. It’s for a particular occasion, although we don’t know what. We only know the father is not pleased about it. They are joined by a third man, and together the three reject every suit the poor assistant shows them – too smart, too casual, too old, too preppy, etc. It is only when the harassed assistant asks what the occasion is that we finally have confirmed what we have gradually come to suspect… This is whimsical and humorous but it’s very well done, and gives a light-hearted commentary on a specific aspect of privilege, about which I can’t be clearer without spoiling the story.

Night and Day You Are the One – a rather strange story about a man who is living two lives, inadvertently shifting between them each time he falls asleep. In each life he has a different home and a relationship with a different woman. Neither of these women knows about his other life, and indeed, it’s not clear if the two lives are real or if the man is suffering from some kind of delusion. In essence, it’s a love story, but done with a lot of originality and with a nicely satisfying ending.

Among the Bulgarians – this was my favourite story. A teenage boy has spent the summer in Bulgaria with his parents. Now he’s home, and in the narcissistic way of teenagers, he assumes the world will have stood still in his absence, his friends waiting impatiently to hear all about his adventures. But he’ll learn that they have had their adventures too – normal teenage ones, dating, and learning to drive and so on – and to them his Bulgarian experiences are only of mild interest. It’s a coming-of-age tale, beautifully done, and with the suggestion that the boy may have been inspired over the course of this summer to take a first small step towards becoming a writer. I wondered, as I often do with Kalfus, if it had an autobiographical element.

So enough in there to make the collection worth reading, but it wouldn’t be where I would suggest any newcomer to Kalfus should begin. I’m glad I’d read his later stuff first, since I may not have been tempted to investigate further if this had been my introduction to his work. But I recommend it for existing fans, since it’s always interesting to see how a favourite author started out.

Book 11 of 20

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Scotland’s Books by Robert Crawford

The poetry of literature…

🙂 🙂 🙂

In this lengthy and detailed tome, Crawford sets out to describe the development of Scottish literature from the earliest times to the present. It is clearly expertly researched, and laid out in a linear timeline that demonstrates how the writers of each generation were influenced by the ones before, as well as by the events of their own time.

Since I feel constantly ashamed of my ignorance of the literature of my own country (for which I blame the education system in force during my schooling) this sounded like the ideal read for me to discover new authors and to understand the various literary movements over the centuries. And to some degree it did achieve this, although it had the odd effect of showing me that actually I do already know most of the Scottish writers of note and have read many of the most revered books – an unexpected surprise, and a rather unwelcome one, since it made me realise the relative paucity of great fiction our nation has produced over the centuries. Of course, there are great books and great names, but nothing like the tradition of fiction writing in Ireland or England, for example.

In fact, though, despite the title and the blurb, both of which suggest firmly that this book will be mostly focused on fiction writing (the names mentioned in the blurb are Robert Louis Stevenson, James Kelman, Irving Welsh and Ali Smith), the majority of the book is a history of the poetry of Scotland, which Crawford, himself a poet, seems to suggest has a much more vibrant past and present than our fictional prose. He also talks about the philosophers of the Enlightenment, but doesn’t extend the non-fiction side to the present day, so that we hear nothing, for example, of the excellent work of modern Scottish historians, like Tom Devine or Jenny Wormald, to name but two.

There is, of course, no reason not to include poets and philosophers in a history of Scottish literature, but since Crawford had already written a history of Scottish poetry to which this book is described as a companion piece, I was surprised that this volume was so heavily weighted to poetry too. And since – go ahead, hiss if you must – I’m not terribly interested in most poetry, especially poetry written in either Gaelic or Latin since I can’t read either language, I found much of the book rather tedious, and found myself eventually skipping over large sections devoted to poets whom even Crawford himself was describing as not terribly good.

On the fictional side, Crawford takes us through from the earliest novelists, such as Smollett, to those writing at the time he published the book – 2007, I believe. He discusses the continuing exodus of Scottish writers over the centuries since the Union (1603), mostly to London but also as part of the diaspora throughout the empire. This is where unfortunately I found myself in disagreement with him again, although I accept that his stance is as valid as my own. Crawford feels that if one is Scottish by birth or heritage, then one’s books count as Scottish even if one chooses to live, work in and write exclusively about another country. I don’t. I spent a long time coming up with my own definition of a “Scottish Book” at one point, and here it is:

A novel written by an author who is Scottish by birth or choice and who has lived in Scotland long enough to assimilate its culture; and either set in Scotland or saying something significant about Scottish society or history. This means a novel may be set in a different country but must still be speaking to the Scottish experience, thus including the Scottish contribution to the British Empire and the Scottish Diaspora.

Therefore, for example, I do think Ali Smith and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are Scottish writers, but I don’t think that many of their books are Scottish books. Crawford thinks they are. This meant that many of the books he discussed were outwith my own definition of Scottish, so didn’t add much to my quest to read more Scottish fiction. On the other hand, I found his attempt to claim for Scotland some writers from elsewhere who happened to live here for a while, such as Byron, to be more than a bit of a stretch. I still found what he had to say quite interesting, though, especially the idea that it was largely Scottish Londoners who developed the literary imagery of fog-bound Victorian London.

As we got towards the present day, I discovered that our tastes are out of alignment – almost every time, authors he praised highly are ones I’m not enthusiastic about, like Welsh and Kelman, while he is completely dismissive of anyone who veers too far from the heights of literariness, such as McIvanney, Rankin, McDermid. Since Scotland is much better known in the modern world for its influential crime fiction than its literary fiction (or its poetry), this felt like intellectual snobbery to me. One doesn’t have to like all the grim and gritty contemporary crime novelists – I don’t always myself – but any history of Scottish fiction has to recognise their importance in our literary culture.

Also I fear Crawford’s clear pro-Independence stance and membership of the Edinburgh literati began to cloud his objectivity as we came right up to the present, and he became rather nauseatingly complimentary about writers with whom I’m certain he will hob-nob regularly at Edinburgh literary events. It would probably have been better if he’d stopped just prior to his own time as a Scottish poet.

Robert Crawford

Overall, then, this was a mixed bag for me. The extensive coverage of poets may be of more appeal to others, and I did like the way he tied the various writers to the events and cultures of their times. He had a good deal to say, and said it well, about the gradual Englishing of the Scottish language after the Union, and the depressing effect this had on our literature for many decades, perhaps centuries, thereafter. But I found much of it a rather tedious read, concentrating too much on listing names of forgotten poets, and not enough on prose fiction, though perhaps there just isn’t much of a Scottish hinterland in prose beyond our few weel-kent stars.

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Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville

There’s only one word for it…

🙂 🙂 😐

When Jim Henderson receives an invitation to spend the weekend at Thrackley, the country house of a man called Edwin Carson, he’s puzzled. Although the older man claims to have been a friend of Jim’s long dead father, Jim doesn’t remember ever meeting him or even hearing his name. However, Jim’s found it difficult to get employment since he came back from the war, so the idea of some free food and free accommodation are very welcome, especially when he discovers his old school friend Freddie Usher has also been invited. Carson is a collector of jewels, and it’s not long before the reader discovers his methods of collection aren’t always honest. Over the course of the weekend, Jim will find himself surrounded by thefts, missing persons, murder and attractive women.

When I say that I preferred this to the only other book of Melville’s that I’ve read, Quick Curtain, I have to qualify that by pointing out that I thought Quick Curtain was pretty awful. This one isn’t awful, but it’s not good either. The plot is a mess, full of inconsistencies, holes, continuity errors and coincidences. There’s no mystery aspect since we know early on that Carson is a villain, so it all comes down to whether he’ll escape or be caught. It’s redeemed somewhat by the enjoyable banter between Jim and his old school friend, and by the light-hearted romance that Jim has with Carson’s daughter, Mary. This keeps it readable, so that despite my harrumphing every time the plot took another leap away from credibility, I managed to stick with it quite easily to the end.

And what an end! Sometimes the word silly doesn’t cut it, while farcical implies a level of skill that is distinctly missing here. Throw in a lot of big reveals, have some terrible things happen and no one seeming to much care, have the police totally laid back about the various criminal acts that have been carried out by the guests, and really, what is the right word to describe this shambles? The one that seems best to fit is preposterous. And what’s even more preposterous is that it seems to have been quite a hit when it came out, even being made into a movie. (Note to self: don’t watch it…)

So not awful, but close…

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

Book 2 of 20

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The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Wedding from hell…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When domineering and narcissistic Jules is getting married to handsome and charming TV celebrity Will, she wants her wedding to be glamorous and unique, so she books The Folly, a newly refurbished old house situated on a small, isolated island off the coast of Ireland. But when the guests begin to arrive, we soon learn that many have secrets, and long-hidden tensions and resentments will soon come to the surface as the drink starts to flow…

The blurb of this and many reviews are comparing it to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, so I’ll start by saying it’s not comparable, either in plot or storytelling. This isn’t a deranged seeker after justice gathering together a group of potential victims – rather it’s a group of victims, one of whom will take revenge against another. The mystery is all in which of the damaged and bitter people will be the one to break and who will they kill? And, of course, in order to create “tension”, the author keeps all their past secrets hidden until near the end, merely hinting dramatically at them throughout.

The trend of “that day” novels surely must be approaching its end now. It feels increasingly tired with every new “thriller” that comes along. In this one, nearly every character has a “that day” incident in their past, reminding me of why wedding receptions should never be held in remote places where there’s no easy escape route for the few sane, sober guests. Not, I hasten to add, that there are any sane, sober guests at this wedding. From Aoife, the wedding planner who hints regularly at some tragic incident that has resulted in a well tended grave in the grounds of The Folly; to Jules’ half-sister, Olivia, having dropped out of university over some shattering experience involving an unspecified man; to Helen, married to Jules’ oldest friend Charlie and suspicious of their relationship; to Johnno, the best man, and the ushers – all school friends of Will and all constantly hinting at a terrible incident that happened back in their schooldays; every single guest is portentously weighted with emotional damage.

Lucy Foley

It sounds as if I hated this and I didn’t, really. As what it is, it’s reasonably good – it’s simply that there have been so many of these identikit thrillers that I don’t see much point in them unless they’re real stand-outs, and for me this wasn’t. It relies hopelessly on piling up coincidence after coincidence until it loses any pretence at credibility, and frankly becomes a bit laughable. However, it’s well written, and, while I couldn’t really believe that anyone would build a wedding venue on an island that gets cut off in storms and is full of deadly bogs, quicksands and underground caves, Foley does use this unlikely setting well to develop an atmosphere of menace. Initially her characterisation is quite good too – she ranges through multiple narrators (of course) and their voices aren’t always distinct from one another, meaning that the chapter headings telling the reader who’s speaking are essential, but each has an interesting story to tell, even if they tell them at glacial speed. Gradually, as their stories are revealed, it all becomes overly dramatic and the characterisation dips a bit, but despite it being grossly overpadded as is standard with current crime fiction, it mostly held my attention and kept me turning the pages. I may have suspected the dénouement would be, as it was, unconvincing, but I still wanted to know how it all turned out.

So, not really my kind of thing but I enjoyed it enough to make the time spent on it worthwhile, and I’m sure it will work better for the many avid fans of this type of thriller, who I hope will not be deterred by my lukewarm, subjective review.

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

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Westwind by Ian Rankin

Eyes in the sky…

🙂 🙂 😐

When communications with the Zephyr satellite are suddenly cut, the monitoring staff at the Binbrook listening station work frantically to restore it. If it’s down for more than a few minutes, chances are it will be lost for good. Fortunately, it kicks back in after a couple of minutes, as mysteriously as the original breakdown. One of the technicians, Martin Hepton, is puzzled – even more so when a colleague tells him that he has spotted something odd, and then before Hepton gets the chance to ask him what, disappears from the base. At the same time, there is an accident aboard a space shuttle and all the crew are killed except one – a British astronaut, Major Dreyfuss. All this is happening at a time when tensions are high already, due to the imminent pullout of American troops from their bases across Europe. Soon Hepton will find himself in danger, and to save himself will have to work out what’s going on…

This is one Ian Rankin wrote many years ago when he was just starting out. It was first published in 1990 and sank without making much impression. Now there’s a little trend happening of publishers reissuing early books of authors who have gone on to become big names. I’ve recently read a couple of early Peter Mays – one I abandoned and didn’t review, and the other I loved. So there are gems out there – we’ve all read debuts we’ve thought were great and been disappointed when they didn’t break through. Sadly, while this one isn’t terrible, it’s not very good either.

It took me a while to figure out why it wasn’t working. It’s well written as you’d expect from Rankin, and although the characters are clichéd and the technology is seriously outdated, neither of these is unusual in action thrillers. I realised it’s the timing that’s off. In thrillers, there’s always a need to keep the reader in the dark alongside the characters as they battle against the odds to discover what’s going on. But there has to be something to hold the attention while the plot gets a chance to develop – usually the reader getting to know and care about the main character – and that’s where this one is weak. For several chapters, we keep meeting new people, most of whom are so underdeveloped that I found in the later stages I had no recollection of who they were or in what context we’d met them before, and each encounter is equally mysterious, constantly adding to the confusion. It bounces around so much that it was quite a while before I was even sure that Hepton was going to be the hero of the story. By that point my interest level had already flagged.

Hepton of course becomes the target of the baddies who are determined to kill him. This baffled me a bit, since he didn’t know anything and probably wouldn’t even have started looking into it if they hadn’t started chasing him around. A rather incompetent move, I felt, to actually inspire him to become suspicious! That wasn’t their only incompetence, though – I really felt that if their assassins were this bad at killing people, then the world probably wasn’t in too much danger from them.

And I’m afraid that when we finally find out who the baddies are and what they’re up to, I found it not only lacking in credibility but unfortunately all a bit silly. It left me feeling that Rankin was more interested in the action parts of the book than in ensuring there was a solid plot beneath them.

Ian Rankin

I’ve swithered over how to rate it. I suspect if it hadn’t been Rankin, my expectations would have been lower and therefore I’d have been less disappointed in it. But then if it had been written by someone else, I also think I’d be unlikely to seek out more of the author’s work based on this outing. I’m not convinced that this is a good trend – two disappointments out of three from two of my favourite authors of all time suggests that maybe their forgotten early books should be left to rest in peace. 2½ stars in the end, but I suspect that one of them may simply be because of my affection for Rankin’s later work…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion, via NetGalley.

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Death in Fancy Dress by Anthony Gilbert

Blackmailers and boyfriend trouble…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Tony Keith meets his old schoolfriend Jeremy Freyne in a bazaar in India and they decide to travel home together. Tony is a lawyer who seems to take on sensitive international missions and has contacts with the Secret Service. Jeremy is a kind of adventurer – a man with no profession and no money who survives on his wits, hurrying from one madcap scheme to another. But now he’s decided it’s time to marry Hilary, so thinks it would only be gentlemanly to pop home to England and inform her. But when they arrive in England, Tony gets two urgent messages – one from his Secret Service contact and the other from Lady Nunn, Hilary’s stepmother, both requesting him to go to the Abbey where Lady Nunn lives to avert a horrible danger. Jeremy of course tags along since danger and Hilary are the two things he cares about most…

There has been a recent spate of suicides, all people who were rich and well-connected. The authorities have concluded that blackmailers are at work, ultimately driving their victims to despair, and they think that someone who lives at the Abbey or in the surrounding area is involved. This is what Tony’s contact wants him to look into, giving assistance to the man they already have on the spot – Arthur Dennis, who at first impression is a soft-spoken gentle sort of man but who turns out to have a steely resolve and muscles to match. When Jeremy finds out that Hilary has become engaged to Arthur he is determined to win her anyway, but both men are a bit gobsmacked when she then informs them that she intends to marry someone else instead, her cousin Ralph. So when Ralph turns up dead during a fancy dress party, the two men are determined to find out who killed them, to save themselves from suspicion and to restore Hilary’s rather dubious reputation.

Anthony Gilbert is a pseudonym used by Lucy Malleson, who also wrote Portrait of a Murderer, a book I enjoyed very much, under yet another name, Anne Meredith. This one unfortunately didn’t work so well for me. While the set up is quite interesting, the plot feels loose and untidy with quite a lot of intuitive leaping required by our intrepid heroes. But it’s really the characterisation that lets it down, I think, with none of them developing much depth and most of them being quite unappealing. Tony might as well not be there for all the impact he has on the plot. Jeremy is more fun, especially at the beginning when we learn about his wild ways, but he seems to fade rather into the background as the thing progresses.

Arthur – well, it’s an odd thing, but I often find women writers in those far off days (it was published in 1933) are far more forgiving of their male characters than male writers of the same era. Arthur frankly bullies and threatens Hilary and she admits to being frightened of him, but I think we’re supposed to find him attractive! When he orders her around as if she were a disobedient child and then grabs her so violently he bruises her arm, I rather went off him, I’m afraid. But Hilary is drawn as a wild child who needs a strong man to control her, and seems to accept that need herself, though she can’t decide which bullying tyrant to pick – there are so many! I’m sure none of this would have been problematic at the time – after all Cagney was shoving grapefruits in women’s faces to great acclaim in the cinema at roughly the same period – but it makes it feel rather more dated than most of the vintage crime I’ve been reading recently.

However, the working out of the plot is entertaining – not totally convinced it’s fair-play but then I rarely manage to work them out even when they are, and I certainly didn’t get close to guessing this one. The book also includes two bonus short stories, Horseshoes for Luck and The Cockroach and the Tortoise, and to be honest I enjoyed both of them more than the actual book! Overall, then, not one of my favourites from the BL Crime Classic series, but still an enjoyable enough way to while away a few hours.

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

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The Mugger (87th Precinct 2) by Ed McBain

Second book syndrome…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The detectives of the 87th Precinct are trying to catch a man who is mugging women in the streets of Isola, a district of the city that is clearly a fictionalised version of New York in which the series is set. The man is becoming more violent, often hitting the women even after he has stolen their valuables, and has the strange habit of finishing his assault by bowing and saying “Clifford thanks you, madam.” So far the detectives have little to go on, and the pressure ramps up when one girl, assumed to be Clifford’s latest victim, is found dead.

Having loved the first book in the series, Cop Hater, when I read it a couple of years ago, my expectations of this one were high. It is very readable, but suffers a bit from second book syndrome – McBain seems to be working out what to do with the characters he introduced us to in book 1, and there are so many detectives flitting in and out that it’s quite hard to keep track of who’s who. McBain’s plan was to have the series work as a kind of ensemble, with different detectives coming in and out of the spotlight in each story, and from my memory of reading several of the books long ago, he does succeed in this to a degree. But eventually he succumbed and made Steve Carella the recurring lead – the detective who was the main character in Cop Hater. Carella isn’t in this one, being off on his honeymoon, and his lack is felt.

As the story progresses, Patrolman Bert Kling comes to the fore. He was friends long ago with the brother-in-law of the dead girl, and the girl’s sister asks him to look into her murder. Although this is not the job of a patrolman, Bert feels obliged by friendship to try at least, and he also hopes that it might help him in his ambition to be promoted to detective.

The major problem with the story is that the solution is screamingly obvious. Maybe it wouldn’t have been back then – it’s always a problem to know with older books whether this was perhaps the first time a writer took a plot in this direction, but I fear it’s a plot we’ve all read too often now. My secondary problem was with the amount of violence in the book and its lack of credibility. My dad, who was a boxer, always used to scoff at Hollywood cowboy films where a man would be punched repeatedly in the face, hit over the head with a chair, be thrown over a bar and crash head-first into a wall lined with glasses and then get up, jump on his horse and gallop off after the bad guys, stopping only to kiss the heroine on his way out. While there are no horses nor indeed chairs in this book, the effect of the excessive violence and the characters’ reaction to it had the same effect on me. McBain seems to be using violence and police corruption to give the book its noir tone, whereas in Cop Hater he relied much more on creating an edgy atmosphere through great descriptions of the city.

So one for fans, but not one I would suggest as an introduction to the series for newcomers. The series ran for approximately ten thousand books – well, OK, over fifty – so there are plenty of others to choose from.

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Something to Answer For by PH Newby

The first Booker winner…

😀 😀 🙂

It’s 1956, and Townrow has returned to Port Said, a place he first visited when serving in the army in WW2. This time he’s there at the request of Ethel Khoury, the English widow of an Egyptian man who had befriended Townrow on his earlier visit. Mrs Khoury believes Elie, her husband, was murdered and wants Townrow to… well, actually I have no idea what she wanted Townrow to do, so, moving swiftly on…! Anyway, Townrow is a bit of a small-time crook and his plan is to con Mrs Khoury out of the possessions the wealthy Elie left her. But on his first night in Port Said, Townrow is attacked and is left with a head injury which makes his memories confused, and then Nasser, the President of Egypt, announces he is nationalising the Suez Canal – one of the last outposts of the dying British Empire. When the British and French decide they must retaliate to keep the Canal under Western control, the situation in Port Said will soon be as confused as the thoughts in Townrow’s head, though not quite as confused as this poor reader.

At the halfway point I would happily have thrown this in the bin except for the fact that I needed to fill the Suez Canal spot on my Around the World challenge and I couldn’t find any other books for it! It redeemed itself a little in the last quarter when finally Townrow begins to live in the present rather than in his jumbled thoughts and memories. It won the first ever Booker Prize in 1969, beating Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark amongst others. I imagine that lots of people decide to read the Booker Prize winners in order, get halfway through this one, and decide not to bother…

Sifting through the general incomprehensibility of it, Newby is satirising the British imperial mindset, and examining the effect of the Suez crisis on the British psyche, I think. It’s clearly aiming at humour some of the time, and even veers towards farce occasionally, but not very successfully – it’s too messy. Although not terribly moral himself, Townrow has a profound belief in the decency of the British in their dealings with their citizens, allies and colonial dependencies. The first sign of a crack in this belief is when he is accosted at the airport by a Jew from Hungary who insists that in 1942 the British deliberately failed to warn Hungarian Jews not to board the trains that would take them to the Nazi death camps. Townrow denies this could possibly have happened (did it? I don’t know), but the question remains in his fractured mind. Then when the British bomb Cairo after the annexation of the Canal, he is shocked to the core. This is not the way the Britain in which he believes would act, apparently. (I find that strange, because of all the things we did in the Empire era, was that really the worst? Perhaps it’s a time dilation thing – to Newby it was pretty much current affairs; to me it’s part of a long history.)

The underlying suggestion, I think, is that it was the Suez Crisis that changed the British attitude from hubristic imperialist pride to the kind of breast-beating shame that followed in the second half of the twentieth century. Again he may well be right, although I’d have thought the loss of India was a bigger milestone on that journey. To me what Suez represents is the British realisation that it no longer dominated the world, politically or militarily, and that America had become the new superpower. So shame, yes, but of our weakness in the present rather than of our actions in the past. But, and I freely admit I didn’t have a clue what Newby was trying to say most of the time, that wasn’t what I felt he was suggesting. However, I’m pretty sure Townrow’s head injury, confusion and loss of faith in British decency is symbolic of what Newby saw as the effects on the national psyche of the sudden collapse of the Empire after the war.

PH Newby

So all very interesting and just my kind of thing. Unfortunately, the rambling confusion of Townrow’s thoughts, the complete unreliability of his memory, the constant shifting back and forwards in time, all left me grinding my teeth in frustration. It should never be quite this hard to work out what an author is trying to say. But more than that, the way Townrow’s memories keep shifting means that there’s no plot to grab onto and no characterisation to give the book any form of emotional depth. Who are these people? Every time Townrow tells us about Mrs Khoury, for example, she is different than she was the last time. His mistress, Leah, shifts about from everything between being the tragic wife of a mentally ill husband to being some kind of sadistic dominatrix, and all points in-between. I didn’t have a clue who she really was even as I turned the last page, but I’m almost positive she was symbolic of… something. Townrow himself is rather better drawn, but unfortunately is entirely unlikeable – even his partial redemption rings false. And either Townrow or Newby, perhaps both, have an unhealthy habit of referring to women as bitches or sluts, and clearly one of them at least finds the most important aspect of any woman to be her breasts. Well, it was the ‘60s, I suppose.

Overall I found this far too vague and frustrating to be enjoyable. It does become clearer at the end, which raised it slightly from the 1-star rating it was heading towards, and made me regret that Newby hadn’t chosen to tell the story in a more straightforward way throughout. He clearly had interesting things to say, but the execution doesn’t match the ambition. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this one.

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The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown

Man is born to misery…

🙂 🙂 🙂

In the small town of Barbie in the east of Scotland, John Gourlay is a big man. His business has the monopoly on carrying goods in and out of the town and he uses the power this gives him over his neighbours to bully and lord it over them. The money he makes he ploughs into the house of the title, determined to show himself off as the town’s leading resident. But he’s not an intelligent man, and when changes begin to arrive in the shape of first a wily competitor and then the new railroad, he hasn’t the capacity to adapt. The townspeople, long tired of his bullying ways, look on like a gleeful Greek chorus as his business begins to fail. His one hope rests in his son, also John, a lazy, feckless boy who has always assumed that one day he will take over the business and become in his turn the big man of the town. Now Gourlay insists that young John go to the University in Edinburgh, to learn to be a minister. But there, young John will soon get into bad company and discover the delights of the demon drink…

Well, I’m willing to bet Brown would have got on well with my old friend John Steinbeck. They could have had misanthropy competitions to see who could be the most miserable. I’m tempted to suggest that Brown might have won. There is not a single glimmer of light in this utterly depressing monotone picture of how horrible humanity is. There is some humour, but all in the sense of us laughing at them, never with them. But mostly it’s a portrayal of people being small-minded, petty, cruel, bullying and vindictive. I searched the pages in the hopes of finding a character with any positive qualities at all, but I searched in vain. And starting miserable, it goes downhill from there, descending finally into a kind of orgy of alcoholism, madness and tragedy. Although the tragedy aspect didn’t really work, because by that stage I couldn’t have cared less what happened to any of these hideous people.

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Looking hard for the positives, the language, a mix of standard English with a liberal dose of Scots mixed in, is very well done. As an antiquated Scot I didn’t have much difficulty with it, but it might be a tougher read for people without a familiarity with the older Scots dialects. There are some wonderful descriptive passages of the town and country, and the characters are very well drawn and unfortunately quite believable, though there is a sneering quality to the writing of them that left me feeling that Brown probably had an over-healthy sense of his own superiority. The humour is mainly aimed at the mean-mindedness of the characters, and is therefore both amusing and off-putting at the same time. The darker aspects have a great sense of inevitability about them – a fatalism brought about by the heavily patriarchal culture, where the man may rule with as heavy a hand as he chooses. Alcohol is shown as the deeply destructive force it indeed has long been in Scottish culture, and still is, though I think to a somewhat lesser degree these days.

George Douglas Brown

But what is missing is any contrast or warmth. Even in hard-drinking Scotland, not all men were horrible to their wives and children, nor to each other. I understand that Brown was writing this, in 1901, as a realist reaction to the excessive sentimentality of the portrayal of Scottish village life in the earlier Scottish literary movement known as the Kailyard school, but I feel he’s gone way too far in the other direction. While I do recognise the character traits, cruelty and mean-spiritedness he shows as being an accurate depiction of the worst of Scottish culture, it is not the whole of it, and by giving nothing to contrast with it, Brown ultimately fails to make his town any more convincing than the twee villages of the writers he’s reacting against.

While critics hail this as one of the greatest Scottish classics, the reaction of those readers who have rated it on Goodreads seems to suggest that the majority don’t agree, and I’m with the majority on this one. I admire the skill of it, and the use of language, but it’s not an enjoyable read. And, while it is undoubtedly insightful about one aspect of Scottish culture, it certainly doesn’t give a full or rounded picture. However, if you’re ever feeling too happy and feel the need to be reminded that man is born to misery and that life is a vale of tears, I recommend it.

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Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

The after-shocks of war…

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(NB Since this is a review of the second part of a trilogy, it will contain some mild spoilers for the first part, Sunset Song.)

The Great War is over, and with it so is the first phase of Chris Guthrie’s life. Now married to Robert Colquohoun, she goes with him to make a home in the small town of Segget, where he is to take up the position of minister in the Presbyterian church. The book takes us from the end of the war through to the ‘30s, a time frame that includes the Depression, the General Strike and the rise of the two warring philosophies that would rip the European twentieth century apart – fascism and socialism. In Scotland as elsewhere, the horrors of the war have left scars – not just on those people who have lost sons and husbands, but on those who served and came home, some left physically maimed and others injured more insidiously, with what we would now term PTSD but which then was called shell-shock, if it was recognised at all, or was ignored completely. The other casualty of war, Gibbon suggests, was faith. Church attendances are down, even believers are baffled by how a good God could have allowed such atrocities to happen, and people are now willing to defy the Church completely and openly call themselves atheist. It is in this atmosphere that the rather visionary Robert will try to inspire his new flock and Chris will dutifully observe the Church’s practices while making little effort to pretend that she believes in Robert’s God.

This second volume of A Scots Quair is written with considerably more dialect than the first, and so will be a tougher read for non-Scots or younger Scots, though it’s done very well. I might as well start by saying I don’t think it’s anywhere near to Sunset Song in terms of the writing, structure or in what it has to say about society, though it tries. I found most of it a drag – a series of anecdotes about the occupants of this small town, who drift in and out in order to help Gibbon make points, rather than his points arising seemingly naturally from their stories. These anecdotes are designed to show their lives, hardships and the state of politics. Some are interesting, some mildly humorous, many are quite crude, and for me they didn’t quite come together to form a quilt – they are more like scraps of material waiting for someone to stitch them together. Almost no-one is good – I don’t mean that they don’t conform to society’s moral codes, although they don’t, but that they don’t seem to love and support each other. We see children who hate and abuse their parents and vice-versa, men who abuse and sometimes rape women, women who are spiteful and vindictive. There’s a lot of drunkenness which would certainly have been true of Scottish society, but a lack of warmth and generosity of spirit, which doesn’t ring true to me and seems in direct contrast to the feeling of community in Sunset Song.

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Chris herself is almost entirely passive and is an example of what I mean about Gibbon using his characters. In Sunset Song, Chris had a profound connection to the land she farmed and this was a major part of her personality. Between the books, she has apparently simply given up farming and has willingly gone off to live in a town and become a housewife. Since clearly this is because Gibbon wanted to write about a town this time, it would have been less jarring if he’d left Chris in Kinraddie and given Robert a different wife. A recurring character who changes so completely between books gives a sense of dislocation rather than of continuity. He tries to show that Chris still feels connected to the land by having her going for long solitary walks, but this is no substitute. She also seems to have moved up a class, not just outwardly as one would by marrying a minister at that time, but inwardly, having developed a rather snobbish ability to look down on the townspeople.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Robert is a much more successful character and for me is the heart of the book. Outwardly he seems fine after his war experiences, although he has been left with weakened lungs from exposure to gas attacks. But inwardly, his experiences haunt him increasingly, making his relationship with his God fraught – wavering between loss of faith and visionary ecstasy. He is also torn when he sees the poverty and inequality of society growing ever worse. Politically he is drawn towards the ideas of the socialists, but they espouse atheism as part of their creed, leaving Robert in an uneasy no-man’s-land. I wondered why this man, to whom religion was far more than a tradition or a job, would have married a woman who not only didn’t believe but made it clear from the beginning that she had no intention of fulfilling the customary role of a minister’s wife by becoming a central figure in the community. They seem entirely mismatched and again Gibbon doesn’t show us their courtship, which happened off-page between books.

Chris’ son, Ewan, grows up during the course of the book and it seems to set him up to be the main character in the third volume. Through him, we see the increasing Englishing of the language and culture – a theme also central to Sunset Song.

Overall, I found this disappointing and not nearly as memorable as the excellent and highly recommended Sunset Song. I will go on to read the third book, Grey Granite, but more out of a sense of duty than eager anticipation.

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