The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham

The second death…

😀 😀 😀 😀 

When Albert Campion, gentleman detective, gets an urgent message from an old friend to come to the village of Kepesake, he’s not surprised to learn it’s because there’s been a murder. However, when he comes to view the corpse, he’s more than surprised – he’s shocked! The dead man is “Pig” Peters, a former schoolmate of Campion’s who used to bully the younger boys, including Campion himself. But the shocking thing is that it’s only a few months since Campion attended Peters’ funeral. So how can he possibly be here, freshly dead? And what is the meaning of the cryptic anonymous notes that both Campion and another old schoolmate are receiving?

I haven’t read many of Allingham’s books, mainly because I don’t much like Campion as a detective. Like Lord Peter Wimsey he has an aristocratic background and the snobbery level in the books is high, especially in her supposedly comic portrayal of Campion’s valet and sidekick, the unendearingly common Magersfontein Lugg. Even his silly name makes me grit my teeth. To make up for these annoyances, however, Allingham provides intriguing mysteries, usually fair play, although so devious that I can rarely work them out until all is revealed.

Challenge details:
Book: 25
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1937

This one is unusual in that Campion tells us the story himself – usually the books are written in the third person. I quite enjoyed getting inside his head for a change. He often comes over as a sort of silly ass, an upper-class twit whose brilliance everyone underestimates because of the Wodehouse-ish (or Wimsey-ish – I’m never quite sure which it is that Allingham is attempting to parody) way he talks and behaves. But the first person approach takes the edge off the silliness, and I actually found him far more likeable when we could see his thought processes, especially since he tells us when he got things wrong.

Margery Allingham

The slight downside of the first person, though, is that Allingham has to tread the line carefully neither to reveal too much nor to make it too obvious when Campion is holding things back for the purposes of the big reveal. She does pretty well, on the whole, but I did manage to guess the who and the why and even had an inkling of part of the how. There was still enough that I couldn’t work out, though, to keep me turning the pages quite happily until Campion explained it all at the end.

I’m still not sure why Allingham gets ranked as one of the Queens of Crime – for my money she’s not a patch on ECR Lorac, for example, who is a “forgotten” author. But I suspect that’s more down to my subjective taste regarding style than an objective judgement about quality – I really don’t like the snobbery that comes with aristocratic detectives – and there’s no doubt Allingham has her fair share of dedicated fans. I don’t think I’ll ever class myself as one of them, but I find her quite entertaining for an occasional read. And, overall, for me this was one of the more enjoyable of the Campion novels.

Book 4 of 20

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The African Queen by CS Forester

Love among the leeches…

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It is 1914. When the Germans round up all the native inhabitants of the Reverend Samuel Sayer’s mission in Central Africa to take them off to fight in the war, the Reverend quickly succumbs to fever and dies, leaving his faithful sister all alone. Until along comes Charles Allnut, a Cockney mechanic who had been out on the river collecting supplies when the Germans came, and returned to find all the people at the mine where he worked gone too. He realises he can’t leave Rose here, so takes her with him aboard the little steam boat, the African Queen, planning to find somewhere safe to hole up till the war is over, at least in this part of the world. Rose, however, has a different idea. She wants revenge on the Germans for destroying her brother’s life work, and quickly convinces herself that they should take the African Queen down river to Lake Wittelsbach, there to destroy the German gunboat that patrols the lake. It takes her a little longer to convince Allnut…

This, of course, is the book on which the Hepburn/Bogart film was based, and since that’s always been a favourite I knew the story well, and was interested to see how closely the movie had stuck to the original. The answer is that it does to a very large degree with one or two minor changes in characterisation, and then a huge divergence in plot at the end that makes the film into an adventure classic and leaves the book floundering as a rather anti-climactic disappointment.

Book 65 of 90

In the book, Allnut is a Cockney Londoner rather than an American. While I feel it would have been highly entertaining to see Bogie attempting to do a Cockney accent, I can understand why the star factor led to the movie character being portrayed as American. It doesn’t make much difference, except of course to change the patriotism emphasis from one of Brits fighting the Germans to the usual Hollywood hoopla of Americans saving the world. Rose is very much as Hepburn played her except that the woman in the book is a decade or so younger. So although she is still the “spinster sister” of the missionary, she is young enough to make her transformation into an active adventurer and passionate lover slightly more believable. She is, of course, actually English too, unlike Ms Hepburn!

The main strength of the book is in the descriptions of the African riverscape. Forester gives a real feeling for the abominable heat and how badly this affects the pale-skinned Brits, however used to it they may be. The sudden rains, the insects, the leeches lurking in the water, the reeds that choke some parts of the river and the rapids that make other parts a terrifying thrill ride – all of these are done brilliantly and feel completely authentic (at least, to this reader who has never been even close to Africa).

The characterisation is considerably weaker, unfortunately, although they are both likeable enough to keep the book entertaining. Allnut is a weak, rather cowardly man but with lots of practical skills and knowledge, while Rose has courage enough for two and the ability to learn quickly, so they complement each other well. Do people change as rapidly as these two do, even in extreme circumstances? Hmm, perhaps, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. Under the leadership of a strong woman, Allnut suddenly discovers a courage even he didn’t think he possessed, whereas Rose quickly throws off a lifetime of repression and strict religious beliefs to become the lover of this rather underwhelming man. I didn’t altogether believe it, but I still enjoyed the journey in their company.

CS Forester

At least, I enjoyed it up until the last ten per cent or so, when suddenly all the tension is destroyed by an ending that leaves our two main characters on the sidelines while the regular armed forces of Britain and German take over. No wonder the plot was changed for the film! I can’t imagine what Forester was thinking, really. Perhaps he thought that the idea of two people tackling a German gunboat on their own was just too unbelievable and in real life that might be true. But this isn’t real life – it’s an adventure novel and needs a dramatic end led by our two unlikely heroes! Let them succeed thrillingly or fail tragically, but don’t just stick them to one side and let other people take over! Pah! I was left infuriated and let down by the way it all fizzled out.

So overall, good fun for most of the journey but with a sadly disappointing ending. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure that I’d really recommend it except to diehard fans of colonial adventure novels (which, by the way, reminds me that I haven’t mentioned that some of the language about the “natives” is toe-curlingly dated). One of those cases where I feel the film is better…

Book 3 of 20

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Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac

An Alpine holiday…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Book cover and link to Amazon product pageA group of young people are off on a trip to the Austrian Alps for a skiing holiday. With sixteen places in the group, it’s been a mammoth job to get everyone organised and some last minute cancellations mean that a few places have been filled by friends of friends, not directly known by other people in the group. So when some money goes missing from one of the hotel rooms, suddenly suspicion begins to threaten what had been up till then a most enjoyable jaunt. Meantime, back in London, a body has been found burned beyond recognition in a house fire. The police soon have reason to suspect this was no accident however, and the print of a ski-stick in the ground outside the house has Inspector Rivers intrigued…

Carol Carnac is a pseudonym used by Edith Caroline Rivett, who also wrote the Inspector MacDonald series of police procedurals under another pseudonym, ECR Lorac. Lorac has become one of my favourites of the authors the BL has been republishing so I was intrigued to see if I liked her as much in this incarnation, with Inspector Rivers as the lead.

The skiing party is a lot of fun, with the main characters being on the whole an extremely likeable bunch of privileged but not horribly snobbish English people, delighted to escape from the post-war rationing and dismal January days at home for pristine snow and sunshine, skiing by day and dancing the nights away. As Lorac, I’ve commented many times on how great she is at creating the settings she chooses, and that’s apparent in this one too. The freezing weather in both the beautiful Alps and in dank and dreary London is brilliantly described and contrasted, and adds much to the enjoyment.

The one real weakness of the book is the size of the skiing party. Sixteen characters are far too many in a short book – most of them never become more than names, and many have no part in the story at all. Very few of them have space to develop distinct personalities and I was still having to think hard to remember who was who even as the book neared the end. The introduction tells us Carnac based it on a real skiing party of which she’d been a member, but it would have worked much better in the book if she’d cut the cast list down to a more manageable size.

However, I still enjoyed the picture she gave of these young people participating in what was still a rather unusual sport at that time. While it was still mostly the preserve of the elite, Carnac shows how foreign travel was gradually becoming more accessible to ordinary working people in the years after the war. She also reminded me of the days, which I only just remember, when people were restricted in the amount of currency they were allowed to take out of the country, and how problematic this could make foreign travel.

The London end is equally well done, and Rivers and his sidekick Lancing make an excellent team. The plot is a little convoluted, but works, and shows the gradual change in detection methods towards forensic evidence, with much nifty stuff around fingerprints. Both men are coincidentally skiers themselves, so when the trail leads to the Alps they can’t wait to get over there. And it all leads up as you’d expect to a thrillerish ending on a mountain slope in the middle of a snow-storm.

Thoroughly enjoyable despite the overabundance of characters – I’ll be looking out for more of her books in her Carnac persona now too.

20 Books of Summer logoBook 1

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

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The Never Game (Colter Shaw 1) by Jeffery Deaver

74% successful…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Sophie Mulliner is missing and her frantic father has offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who can find her. Enter Colter Shaw, professional “rewardist” – a man who uses the tracking skills instilled in him in childhood by his survivalist father to hunt for missing people for the reward money. The case soon becomes more complicated when another person goes missing, then another. Colter, teaming up with local police detective LaDonna Standish, must try to find each victim while they’re still alive, while also attempting to work out who is behind it all and what they’re trying to achieve. Soon the investigation will take them deep into the gaming industry in Silicon Valley, full of eccentric designers and cut-throat competition, and the whole weirdness of people who spend more time in virtual worlds than the real one.

As well as the main plot, this first in a new series fills us in on Colter’s unusual upbringing and the mystery that still hangs over him from back then, which is clearly going to become a running story arc over future books. Colter’s father bought a huge wilderness property and called it the Compound, on which he brought up his three children to be able to survive anything nature or mankind could throw at them. Although Colter then went on to college and is perfectly comfortable in the outside world, his childhood has left him unwilling to settle in a routine job and too self-sufficient to work for someone else, so he travels around the country in his Winnebago, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes chasing down a missing person for the reward money. But he’s not a traditional loner – he has friends and people he works with professionally, and still regularly goes back to the Compound to visit his mother. His father taught him to make decisions based on probabilities, so when making any decisions he runs through the various options allocating each a percentage rating of success. These percentages appeared to me to be entirely arbitrary and so became increasingly pointless and annoying as the book went on. I do hope Deaver drops that in future books because otherwise Colter has all the makings of an excellent series protagonist.

Jeffery Deaver

It took me a while to get into this and it never really turned into a heart-pounding thriller for me, but I liked Colter and loved LaDonna (who unfortunately probably won’t appear in future books, since Colter doesn’t stay in the same place for long), and I found the background story about the world of gaming interesting (though I suspect it may drive real gamers crazy since Deaver explains everything at a really basic level for the novice). It is too long at 450 pages, and the divide between the actual plot and Colter’s back story slows the pace too much, especially in the early section. The plot has lots of interesting twists and turns, though these aren’t always executed as smoothly as I’d expect from an author with Deaver’s long experience. However, the writing is excellent for the style of the book – that is, it’s plainly and clearly written, third person, past tense, with a nice balance between characterisation and action, and I gradually found myself absorbed in it. I must admit I actually found the mystery relating to Colter’s past rather more interesting than the main plot in the end, and it would be it that would tempt me to read the next book.

So overall, a good start to what has the potential to be a great series – I’d say there’s about an 81% chance of that. I look forward to finding out.

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

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The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Aristocratic decay…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It is 1860, and Fabrizio, Prince of Salina in Sicily, is already aware of the forces of modernity that are bringing newly rich men to prominence while the aristocracy struggles to maintain its ascendancy. Now Garibaldi is on the march, about to invade Sicily as part of his drive to unite all of Italy under one king. The old guard view this with anxiety, unsure of how it will affect them. Some of the younger Sicilians, though, are fired with enthusiasm for Garibaldi and his “revolution”. Fabrizio is jaded and cynical – his strong sense of history tells him that many invaders have arrived in Sicily over the centuries, and that after a period of upheaval everything reverts to how it has always been, though perhaps with a change of personae in the ruling class. His main hope is to come through with as little change to his leisured life of luxury as possible.

This was a real mix for me. There were long, long stretches that bored me rigid with their lingering descriptions of the sumptuous lives and possessions of the aristocrats, and the central romance between Fabrizio’s young swashbuckling pro-Garibaldi nephew, Tancredi, and the beautiful if low-born Angelica is signally unromantic despite (or perhaps because of) the endless scenes of them breathlessly teasing each other and barely controlling their mutual lust.

On the other hand, it provides tremendous insight into the Sicilian mindset and the sharp divides in society, with the aristocracy living rather pointless lives of luxurious ease while the rest of the populace exist in abject poverty, not just in material terms but also poverty of education, opportunity and spirit. We see the stranglehold of the Catholic Church, as so often helping to keep the common people down in order to please their generous patrons amongst the rich. And Lampedusa shows the rise of the new type of men, their money coming from trade and industry rather than land, rougher and less cultured, but also less effete, with the drive to perhaps effect real change for the first time in centuries. And yet we see these new men ambitious to marry their children to the children of the old aristocracy, effectively buying their way into the existing ruling class, and we wonder if Fabrizio’s cynicism is right, that gradually the new men will become indistinguishable from the class they are replacing. (Four legs good, two legs better.)

Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale as Tancredi and Angelica in Visconti’s 1963 film

While the bulk of the book covers the two year period before, during and immediately after Garibaldi’s invasion, there are two additional sections: the first set twenty years later in 1883 when we find out how Fabrizio’s life played out after the revolution; and the second set later still, in 1910, when we meet again with some of his children and are shown how the aristocratic class has continued to fade, their once glittering homes now looking tawdry and tarnished, and their lives an anachronism in their own time.

I enjoyed both of these sections considerably more than the much longer main section, where the book committed one of my personal pet hates of staying with characters who remain neutral and uninvolved while all the action is going on elsewhere, off the page. We never meet Garibaldi, we don’t get taken into the revolution. We spend all our time in the splendid drawing rooms of the rich, watching them play the game of courtship, heavily spiced with Fabrizio’s musings on the decline of his class. This is simply a matter of taste, though – as I’ve said many times, I am always more interested in the political than the domestic sphere. Of course, the whole book is political in the sense that it is describing the lethargy and decadence of the old ruling class and its ultimate decay, but I’d rather have spent my time with the enthusiastic supporters or even opponents of the revolution.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

It is, I freely admit, entirely unreasonable for me to grumble that Lampedusa wrote the book he wanted to write rather than the one I’d have liked to read, but so it goes sometimes. There was still plenty in it for me to enjoy it overall, especially since the bits I found most interesting all came at the end, leaving me feeling much more enthusiastic about it than I had been halfway through. Putting my subjective disappointment with its focus to one side, I can quite see why many people have hailed it as a great book and I wouldn’t want my rather lukewarm review to put anyone off reading it. And in the end I’m glad to have read it, and feel I have gained a good deal of insight into a place and time about which I previously knew almost nothing.

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Trent’s Last Case by EC Bentley

Person or persons unknown…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When wealthy American business tycoon Sigsbee Manderson is found shot dead in the grounds of his English country house, freelance journalist and amateur detective Philip Trent is commissioned by one of the Fleet Street newspapers to investigate. Trent quickly learns that Manderson’s marriage was in difficulties. His young trophy bride Mabel had soon discovered that the life of a rich socialite bored her, and although she did her best to fulfil her duties as wife and hostess, Manderson had become increasingly withdrawn from her. Also in the house are Manderson’s two secretaries: his American business secretary, Calvin Bunner, and John Marlowe, an Englishman who looked after the social side of Manderson’s diary. A manservant and a stereotypical French maid complete the list of inhabitants, while Mabel’s uncle, coincidentally an old friend of Trent’s, Nathaniel Cupples, is ensconced in a nearby hotel. Although the coroner’s inquest finds a verdict of murder by person or persons unknown, Trent soon feels he has a good idea what happened that night. But for reasons of his own, he can’t reveal his suspicions…

This one was first published in 1913, before the Golden Age had got properly under way and therefore before the genre had developed its recognisable structure. Here we get Trent’s solution halfway through, along with his reasons for not revealing it. The rest of the book takes us through what follows, eventually leading to Trent finding the full truth, complete with a little twist in the tail. It’s enjoyable in parts, but the structure makes it uneven, and it’s one of those ones that depends very much on two adults being unable to have a simple conversation which would have brought out the truth much earlier. It also goes wildly far over the credibility line more than once, all becoming rather ridiculous in the end. Admittedly, what I just called ridiculous, Martin Edwards describes as a ‘clever surprise solution’, so as always these things are in the eye of the beholder.

Challenge details:
Book: 12
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1913

EC Bentley

Edwards also points out, in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, that Bentley was experimenting with some of the things which would later become part of the standard for mystery novels – the unlikeable victim over whom the reader need not waste too much time grieving, the country house with its enclosed set of suspects, and an attempt at fair play, making sure the reader is given all the clues to pit her wits against the detective. I’m not sure how well he succeeds in that last aspect – when the clues and solutions are so wildly incredible, one wonders if the reader can really be said to have a fair chance even if all the information is given. I did spot one or two of the clues and worked out little bits of what was going on, but I came out of it rather glad that my mind isn’t quite distorted enough to have worked out the whole puzzle!

It didn’t become a favourite for me, or inspire me to seek out more of Bentley’s Trent books (it turns out not have been his last case after all!) but overall I enjoyed it, partly for the story itself and partly for the interest of seeing another stage towards the development of the genre.

I downloaded it from wikisource.

The Guesthouse by Abbie Frost

Variation on a theme…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Following the death of her boyfriend, Hannah’s life is spiralling out of control. She’s behaving recklessly and drinking too much, and her friends and family are getting very tired of her. So when she receives a reminder about a booking she and her boyfriend had made to stay for a few nights in a guest-house in Ireland, she decides to go. But as soon as she arrives spooky things begins to happen, while bad weather and storms means she and her fellow guests find themselves cut off from the outside world. And then the deaths begin…

There seems to be a little trend of books at the moment taking the premise of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None – a group of people carefully collected together in an isolated spot by someone with a grievance who then sets about bumping them off one by one. It’s certainly an excellent set-up and the trick is to do something original within the overall structure so that it doesn’t just seem like a copy of the great original. Frost’s basic story isn’t particularly original – after all these years of psychological thrillers it would be hard to find an angle that no one else had used – but she handles it well and uses the general spookiness of the house to good effect to create an atmosphere of enjoyable tension.

I must admit I groaned a bit at the beginning. A few years ago I got so fed up with the identikit misery-fest thriller sub-genre that I wrote a joking pastiche of it, involving a hungover alcoholic woman whose family and friends all hated her and whose life was a mess because of something unspecified that happened “that day” in the past. The first several pages of this book read almost like a pastiche of my pastiche, up to and including the obligatory drunken vomiting scene. Happily, while it continues to tread fairly well-worn ground throughout, Frost writes well (and in past tense – hurrah!), and makes the excellent decision to remove the opportunity for getting drunk from Hannah as soon as she arrives at the guest-house. Once she sobers up, she becomes a much more interesting and enjoyable lead character – a lesson all drunks, fictional or otherwise, could learn from!

Abbie Frost

The underlying story is dark and again perhaps too well-trodden to really surprise, but although I guessed parts of the plot and saw some of the twists coming, it’s done well and, once the rather slow start is out of the way, the pacing picks up so that it becomes a page-turner. The characterisation is a bit patchy – some of the characters are very well done, others less so, but happily I lost my initial antipathy to Hannah herself and gradually found myself on her side.

It’s not one to think too hard about or to analyse too deeply. There are, perhaps, too many bits that require a hefty suspension of disbelief. But the pacing and spookiness make it an entertaining read overall and it all culminates in an exciting and nicely over-the-top thriller ending. Once I got into it I enjoyed it a lot, finding myself reluctant to put it down, which is exactly the effect a good thriller should have.

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

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The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson

Fictionalised history…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Joan Vaux has known Elizabeth of York since childhood, so when Elizabeth becomes Queen to the first of the Tudors, Henry VII, it is natural for Joan to become one of her court servants. This is the story of Joan’s life – her rise through the ranks to become lady-in-waiting to the Queen and her husband’s equal rise to the top ranks of Henry’s circle. Living for periods of time in the Tower of London, Joan has developed a fascination for the ravens who make their home there and for the legend that says that should the ravens ever desert the Tower, its walls will crumble and the monarchy will fall. Over the years Joan will do her best to protect the ravens from those who see them as pests.

I’m no historian, especially of this period, but it seems to me as if Hickson sticks very closely to fact, both in terms of events and in the personalities of the Royals, insofar as their personalities are known at all at this distance. To me, this is not so much historical fiction as fictionalised history. By this I mean that it is a simple recounting of actual events as seen through the eyes of Joan, rather than a fictional story in its own right using the historical background as a setting.

In other words, there is no plot. The blurb speaks of Joan being “privy to the deepest and darkest secrets of her queen” but frankly Elizabeth doesn’t have any deep, dark secrets. “Like the ravens,” the blurb continues, “Joan must use her eyes and her senses, as conspiracy whispers through the dark corridors of the Tower.” Hmm! That rather makes it sounds as if Joan will be involved in the various events of the time, doesn’t it? But she’s not – she merely mentions them in passing as things that happen to other people. The book is well written for the most part and interesting for the credible detail it provides of the life of a lady of the court who sees and hears of the high events of the period without actively participating in or influencing them. Nothing wrong with that, but not quite what the blurb would lead one to expect. Personally I was perpetually disappointed that all the action was happening elsewhere – the rebellions, skirmishes, treaties, etc. However that’s a matter of personal preference – I’m always more interested in the political than the domestic sphere.

Yes, they’re still there…

The book is full of anachronistic phrases, like “healthy bottom line”, “cooking the books”, “dress to impress”, and so on – so many of them that I came to think that Hickson had made the decision to do this deliberately rather than accidentally allowing one or two to slip through. I can see that that may be an attempt to make the characters seem more accessible to a modern audience, but for me it simply jarred. I don’t think historical fiction should necessarily be full of thous and thees and mayhaps and verilys, but I find the use of specifically modern phrases simply pulls me out of the period. And I was seriously disappointed at the too frequent glaring grammatical errors, especially since Hickson tells us that she had two editors! Hopefully someone will have picked these up and corrected them before the final version was printed.

Joanna Hickson

Despite this lengthy list of niggles, I still found it quite an enjoyable read overall. It gives an interesting and convincing insight into the life of a lady of the court, juggling marriage and children with the duties of serving the Queen. Joan is lucky that the husband who is chosen for her is someone she comes to love and admire – not passionately, perhaps, but contentedly. All the important events of the time are touched on, such as Perkin Warbeck’s imposture of one of the missing, presumed dead, Princes in the Tower, and we are entertainingly introduced to the child who will later become Henry VIII. The book ends with the marriage of Katherine of Aragorn to the young Prince Arthur, and with a promise in the afterword that Hickson intends to continue Joan’s story in a future book. I’m not sure that I’ll stick with her for that, but that’s mainly because of my preference for novels that take me to the centre of events rather than leaving me on the domestic periphery. However, I think people who are interested in seeing how women of this rank lived at that time will find this an enjoyable and informative read.

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

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* * * * *

On a different note, dear people, I’ve found that my anxiety level is through the roof at the moment, as I’m sure will also be the case with many of you. I’m finding it almost impossible to read anything that requires concentration and writing reviews of anything other than light books seems to have become a formidable task. So my posting might be erratic for a bit and rather full of vintage crime and comforting re-reads until my system accepts that this is the new normal. To hasten that day, I’m going to stop watching news except for the main evening bulletin on the BBC and I’m swearing off all social media except for the blogosphere for the time being – I’m sure the blanket coverage and conflicting messages are making things worse rather than better. I will also be avoiding blog posts about the pandemic, so apologies in advance for that.

Stay safe, stay as calm as possible under the circumstances, and don’t forget to stockpile chocolate!

The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

Stop the world…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a rogue white dwarf star passes through the solar system, its gravitational pull affects the Earth’s rotation on its axis. Gradually over a period of years it slows, with days and nights lengthening; and then it stops completely, leaving half the earth’s surface in endless burning day and the other half in endless frozen night. Humanity scrabbles to survive and Britain comes out on top, lucky to be in the small habitable zone that surrounds the growing desert in the centre of the sunlit side. But when scientist Edward Thorne, on his deathbed, gives his old pupil Ellen Hopper a cryptic message, she is sucked in to uncovering secrets about how Britain has ensured its survival – secrets the authoritarian government will do anything to keep hidden…

There’s a lot to like about this promising début, so let me get my criticisms out of the way first. The book is drowning under the weight of words, being at least a third too long for its content. Murray describes everything in detail – he does it very well but a lot of it is unnecessary and it slows the pace to a crawl. In order to thrill, thrillers have to maintain a good pace and to speed up towards the climax. This is so self-evident that it always stuns me that editors don’t pick up on it even if writers make the basic mistake of getting too involved in their own descriptions of the settings at the expense of maintaining escalating forward momentum. The scene should be set in, say, the first third to half, and from there on the focus should switch to action. And the climax, when it comes, has to both surprise and be dramatic enough to have made the journey worthwhile. Here, unfortunately, the climax is one of the weakest points of the book, both in execution and in impact.

However, there are plenty of strong points to counterbalance these weaknesses. The writing is of a very high standard, especially the descriptions of the scientific and social effects of the disaster. Not being a scientist, I don’t know how realistic the world in the book is but it is done well enough for me to have bought into the premise. Murray shows how science during the Slow and after the Stop becomes concentrated on immediate survival – developing ways to provide food and power for the people – while less attention is given to research into how the long-term future may turn out. As Ellen, herself a scientist, begins to investigate Thorne’s hints, Murray nicely blurs whether this neglect is because of lack of resources, or because the government specifically doesn’t want researchers happening on things they want to conceal. In a world where the government brutally disposes of anyone who threatens them, it’s difficult for Ellen to trust anyone or to involve anyone else in her search for the truth for fear of the consequences to them, but her brother and her ex-husband both get caught up in her quest, and both are interesting relationships that add an emotional edge to the story.

Andrew Hunter Murray

The characterisation is excellent, not just of Ellen but of all the secondary and even periphery characters. I was so pleased to read a contemporary book starring a strong but not superhuman woman, intelligent and complex, who is not the victim of sexism, racism or any other tediously fashionable ism. The only ism she has to contend against is the authoritarianism of the government – much more interesting to me. Murray handles gender excellently throughout, in fact, having male and female characters act equally as goodies and baddies, be randomly strong or weak regardless of sex, and keeping any romantic elements to an almost imperceptible minimum. He also shows a range of responses to the authoritarianism, from those who think it’s essential in the circumstances, to those who dislike it but remain passive, to those who actively or covertly resist it; and he makes each rise equally convincingly from the personality of the character.

So overall a very strong début with much to recommend it – if Murray learns, as I’m sure he will, that there comes a point when it’s necessary to stop describing everything and let the action take over then he has the potential to become a very fine thriller writer indeed. I look forward to reading more from him.

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

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Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

Sins of the fathers…

😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1775, a group of elderly men gather in the Maypole, an ancient inn owned by John Willett, and tell a stranger about a murder that was committed nearby years before. The owner of the large house in the neighbourhood, Mr Harefield, was killed, apparently during a robbery, and some time later another body was found, identified as his servant, also murdered. The servant’s son, Barnaby Rudge, was later born an idiot, assumed to be so because of the shock his widow had suffered during her pregnancy. Now Barnaby is a happy young man, earning a little money by running messages and spending the rest of his time running wild in the countryside, revelling in the natural world which he loves. But Barnaby is gullible and easily influenced, which will one day lead him into serious trouble.

Skip forward five years to 1780, and trouble is abroad in the streets of London. Lord George Gordon is leading protests against the passing of an act that will remove some of the legal restrictions under which Catholics have suffered since the time of the Reformation. A weak man himself, Gordon is surrounded by unscrupulous men using him for their own ends. Some of his followers are men of true religious beliefs, bigoted certainly, but honourable in their own way. But many, many others are the detritus of the London streets – the drunks and thieves, the violent, the cruel. Others are the desperate – those whose argument with the government is nothing to do with religious questions about which they know little and care less. These are the poor and marginalised, those with no hope. Together these men and women will become that great fear of the establishment – the mob, wild, destructive and terrifying. And among them and affected by them are the characters we met in the Maypole, including young Barnaby Rudge…

Barnaby and his pet raven, Grip

Structurally this one is a bit of a mess. The two halves are each excellent in their own way but the sudden time shift halfway through, complete with a total change of central characters and tone, breaks the flow and loses the emotional involvement that was built up in the first section. Barnaby Rudge is also an unsatisfactory hero in that, being an idiot with no hope of improvement, there’s no romance for him nor does he get to be heroic. However, even a weaker Dickens novel is always enjoyable and this is no exception. My four star rating is a comparison to other Dickens’ novels – in comparison to almost every book out there, this is still head and shoulders above them.

Book 61 of 90

If I’d been Dickens, I’d have called it Dolly Varden – she pulls the two strands together more than most of the other characters. Daughter of locksmith Gabriel, Dolly is the major love interest of the character who appears to be the hero in the first half, Joe Willett, son of the owner of the Maypole. Young, flirtatious and silly, Dolly plays hard to get at the wrong moment and Joe takes the King’s shilling and goes off to fight those pesky American colonists who were having some kind of little rebellion round about then. Five years on, Dolly is still single, secretly hoping that one day Joe will return. But her beauty has made her a target for other men, including two who will play major roles in the second half of the book. Dickens often showed how vulnerable women were to unscrupulous men, but with Dolly he takes it a stage further. There is one scene in particular where she is the victim of what can only be described as a sexual assault, and later, in the riots, Dickens doesn’t hold back from showing how rape is one aspect of what happens when there’s a breakdown in social order. While it’s all done by hints and suggestion, very mild to our jaded modern eyes, I imagine it must have been pretty shocking to the original readership. Dolly is an intriguing Dickens heroine – unlike many of his drooping damsels, she’s a lot of fun, revelling in her beauty and the effect it has on men while still being kind-hearted and true. He allows her to grow and mature in those five years, which is not always the case with his heroines, and she’s a great mix of vulnerability and strength of character.

Dolly playing hard to get…

The first half is the fairly typical Dickens fare of various eccentric characters and young lovers and a mystery in the past, of the style of Oliver Twist or Martin Chuzzlewit, say. The second half is much more reminiscent of the later, and much better, A Tale of Two Cities. The mob scenes in this are just as horrifying, but the characters aren’t as unforgettably drawn as Sidney Carton or Madame Defarge. More than that, it seems as if Dickens is less sure of where his sympathies lie. The Gordon rioters are fighting to ensure that anti-Catholic laws remain in place, and clearly Dickens thinks this is abhorrent. But that means that he almost comes over as pro-Establishment, since on this occasion the Establishment are the ones wanting to do away with those laws. So while in Two Cities he’s against the mob but understanding of the poverty and inequality that drives them, here he gets a bit muddly – he clearly wants to suggest that it’s all because they’re poor and uneducated but has to also show that they’re religious fanatics, fighting not to better themselves but to keep others down. However, I thoroughly enjoyed Dennis the hangman, who is not only a typically Dickensian villain but is also based on the real-life hangman of the time, and gives Dickens an opportunity to show the gruesome barbarity of this form of social control.

The Maypole Inn

As always with Dickens there are far too many aspects to cover in a review without it becoming as long as one of his novels. Overall, this is one where the individual parts may not come together as well as in his greatest novels, but it’s well worth reading anyway, for the riots and for the interest of seeing Dickens experiment with the historical novel as a form. I read the Oxford World’s Classics version – my first experience of a Dickens novel in their edition – and thoroughly enjoyed having the informative introduction and particularly the notes, which I found extremely helpful since this is an episode of history I knew little about. The book is also generously full of the original illustrations. I say it every time but I’m so glad I live in a world that once had Dickens in it!

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

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The Measure of Malice edited by Martin Edwards

The clue’s in the clue…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Another collection of vintage crime from the winning partnership of Martin Edwards and the British Library, this one contains fourteen stories sharing the theme of scientific detectives or clues. There’s a lot of imagination on display as the authors seek to find unique problems to put before their detectives – everything from Sherlock Holmes and his expert knowledge of cigar ash, to laryngoscopes, anaphylactic shock, new-fangled “contact glasses” and a different twist on identifying corpses from dental records. There’s a mix of well-known authors, authors who are becoming better known again thanks to the work of Edwards and the BL, and a couple I’ve not come across before.

And as always, there’s a considerable variation in quality. In total, I gave just 3 of the stories 5 stars, but another 5 rated as 4 stars. There were a couple I really felt weren’t up to a standard to make them worthy of inclusion, and all the others came in around the 3 star mark. The early collections in the BL Crime Classics series tended to have the settings as the theme – London, country houses, people on holiday, etc – while the more recent ones have focused on the type of mystery. It’s purely subjective, but I preferred the earlier themes – the settings allowed for a mix of motives and methods, whereas the later ones being centred on particular sub-genres of the sub-genre make the variety narrower, and often have the focus on alibis or clues rather than on the interactions of the characters. So it all depends on reader preference, as usual, and I suspect people who like this kind of story would rate some of the stories higher than I have.

Here’s a taste of a few that I enjoyed most:

The Boscombe Valley Mystery by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – it seems to be becoming a tradition that these anthologies kick off with a Holmes story and this is a good one. A man is murdered and his son is suspected, but Holmes quickly discovers there may have been a third person on the scene. It all hinges on footprints, cigar ash, and the dying victim’s last words… “a rat”!

The Horror of Studley Grange by LT Meade and Clifford Halifax – Lady Studley asks Dr Halifax to come to the Grange because she’s worried about her husband’s health. But Dr Halifax is equally worried about Lady Studley who seems to be very ill. This turns into a decent horror story, complete with ghostly apparitions, but in a scientific mystery it won’t surprise you to know the horror is of human origin. The whodunit is a bit obvious, but the detection of the how and why aspects is fun and it’s very well told.

In the Teeth of the Evidence by Dorothy L Sayers – I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that I vastly prefer Sayers in short story mode than in her novels, probably because she gets to the point more quickly and so there’s less time for Lord Peter Wimsey to become annoying. This one is a fun story that begins when Lord Peter is visiting his dentist, who has been asked to identify a burned corpse from his dental records. Of course, Lord Peter tags along which is just as well, since he spots something the experts have missed! It’s played for laughs with a lot of humour around the horrors of dentistry and in the description of the victim’s awful wife. Very enjoyable and of course well written.

Blood Sport by Edmund Crispin – this is very short but good fun nevertheless. A woman is shot and the local lord is suspected, since apparently he was getting up to hanky-panky with the victim, who was no better than she should be. But the detective spots a discrepancy around the cleaning of a gun which sends him off in a different direction. Reminded me that I really must read more Crispin.

As always it includes an informative general introduction from Martin Edwards, plus mini-biographies of each of the authors. So if scientific clues and detectives are your thing, then there’s plenty in this to enjoy.

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

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A Caribbean Mystery (Miss Marple) by Agatha Christie narrated by Joan Hickson

You can take the woman out of the village…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Miss Marple’s kind nephew Raymond has sent her on a vacation to St Honoré to soak up some sunshine after she’s been unwell. She’s staying at the Golden Palm resort, filled with visitors from around the world though the plot sticks pretty much to the Brits and Americans. One visitor, Major Palgrave, likes to tell long rambling stories of his colonial days and Miss Marple makes the perfect audience. As a genteel lady of a certain age, she has perfected the art of making gentlemen believe she’s listening avidly while in reality she’s pursuing her own thoughts or counting the stitches in her knitting. But when Major Palgrave suddenly dies, Miss Marple is convinced that it’s connected to a story he was telling her about how he once met a murderer. If only she’d been paying more attention! Struggling to recall the details and also feeling a little out of her element so far from home, Miss Marple realises that she can still use village parallels even amongst these strangers – human nature, she finds, is the same everywhere…

While I don’t consider this to be one of Christie’s very best, it’s still a very entertaining mystery and the exotic setting gives it an added interest, although (like many tourists) Miss Marple never sets foot outside the resort so we get very little feel for what life for the real islanders may be like. Another of the residents is Mr Rafiel, an elderly invalid with a grumpy temper. At first inclined to dismiss Miss Marple as a gossipy old woman, he finds she stands up to him more than most people and comes to respect her insight, so that gradually they begin to work together to find the truth. The other residents, including Mr Rafiel’s staff, become the pool of suspects and Miss Marple knows that her only investigatory tool is the art of drawing people out through conversation. Happily people do love to gossip so she soon has plenty of background on the potential suspects, although she has to sift through conflicting stories to get to the truth.

Agatha Christie was long before political correctness, of course, and I see from other reviews that some people think her portrayal of the islanders is racist. I don’t, but that may be because of my age. It seems to me that Christie speaks as respectfully of the black characters as of the white – her dialect sounds a bit clunky, perhaps, and she comments, though not disparagingly, on different customs, but surely we can still do that, can’t we? Mind you, I’ve also seen reviews calling the Miss Marple books ageist – baffled – and sexist – baffled again. She was merely reflecting the society in which she lived. (I am glad I’ve lived most of my life in an era when people weren’t scrutinising every word and expression looking for reasons to be perpetually outraged. It must be so exhausting.)

This time I listened to the audiobook narrated by Joan Hickson, whose portrayal of Miss Marple I love. However, it must be said that she can’t do Caribbean accents at all and her islanders therefore come over as kind of caricatures and rather off-putting to modern ears. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been an issue when she recorded the book but I think modern listeners would expect something that sounded a little more authentic. This is one case where reluctantly I’d definitely recommend reading rather than listening.

Agatha Christie

An enjoyable book, particularly for readers who have been disappointed previously to find that Miss Marple doesn’t always have a big role in the books she’s in. In this one, she’s very definitely the central character and we’re given access to her inner thoughts, not just about the crime, but about ageing and about life in general. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always seen Miss Marple as Ms Christie’s alter-ego in these later books (it was published in 1964, when Christie would herself have been 74), and so I always feel we’re getting a bit of insight into her view of modern society – not always “woke”, I grant you, but always true to her age and time.

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Transwarp Tuesday! Menace of the Monster edited by Mike Ashley

They’re all around us!

In his introduction, Mike Ashley reminds us that there have always been monsters, from the Hydra and Minotaur of the Greeks, through the giants and ogres of fairy tales, to the more futuristic monsters of our own generation. This anthology contains fourteen stories mostly from the first half of the twentieth century, ranging from the evolution-inspired monsters left in remote places of the earth from the dinosaur era, to the monsters emerging from the unexplored ocean deeps, to the aliens from other worlds wandering among us, as friend or foe. No supernatural monsters here – these are all “real” monsters; that is, theoretically they were all possible at least at the time the stories were written.

Menace of the Monster
edited by Mike Ashley

Monsters are not my favourite form of either science fiction or horror fiction so it’s perhaps not surprising that I didn’t enjoy this anthology quite as much as some of the others I’ve been reading recently. It is, however, a nicely varied selection with some intriguing inclusions, such as an abridged version of The War of the Worlds written by HG Wells himself for a magazine, and the story of King Kong, produced as an abridgement of the movie and credited to Edgar Wallace although it’s not clear how much he actually contributed. As stories I didn’t rate either of these highly, but I still enjoyed reading them as interesting bits of sci-fi history. Overall I gave about half of the stories either 4 or 5 stars, while the rest rated pretty low for me, I’m afraid. But they may well work better for people who enjoy monsters more.

Here’s a brief idea of some of the ones I enjoyed most:

De Profundis by Coutts Brisbane – a nicely scary story about killer ants which I used in a previous Tuesday Terror! post.

Discord in Scarlet by AE van Vogt – a longer story, about 40 pages, this tells of an alien space being that encounters a human space ship far from Earth. At first the humans are thrilled to find a new life form but it soon turns out that the alien is not looking to make new friends! This is very well done, and reminded me very much of an episode of Star Trek – not specifically, but in style.

Resident Physician by James White – space again, but this time set in a galactic hospital which caters for all kinds of life forms, as both staff and patients. A new patient has arrived – a form of life the staff have never before encountered. It is unconscious and is thought to have eaten its only ship-mate! The physician must find a way to treat it, while the authorities must determine whether eating a ship-mate is a crime, or maybe a normal part of this alien’s culture. Very well written and imaginative, this one is also highly entertaining, while gently examining the question of how to legislate for cultural differences.

Personal Monster by Idris Seabright – a little girl has discovered a monster living in the ash-pit in her yard. The monster is only small as yet, but it’s growing, and it forces the little girl to feed it. She’s scared of it, but she’s also too scared to tell her parents about it because they’re very strict and she’s a bit scared of them too. I loved this story – the author very quickly made me care about the girl and it all gets pretty creepy. The description of the monster is also rather vague, which makes it even scarier. I’d rather battle King Kong than deal with this one!

So some real gems in the collection which made it well worth the reading time invested. Having pulled together my favourites, I see the ones I liked best are mostly the space alien stories and I think that shows that my personal preference is definitely weighting my ratings here, since I’ve always preferred that kind of monster to the monster from the deep or the dinosaur. But there’s plenty of variety for people who prefer more earth-based monsters too. And as always, the introduction is an added bonus – well written, informative and entertaining.

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

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

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Kind of Blue by Ken Clarke

Cuddly Uncle Ken…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Ken Clarke has been a fixture in the UK Parliament since 1970, so the entire period in which I’ve been politically aware. He has stood down at this election, having been thrown out of the Conservative Party of which he has been a member all these years over his support for remaining in the EU. Not that he will care, I imagine – the personality I’ve spent so long with in this 24 hour audiobook is one who will always believe he is right and everyone else is wrong, and will happily sail off into the sunset with his sense of his innate superiority undented.

Long familiarity with a politician can breed a kind of affection, especially when he remains in parliament long after his ministerial days are over. There is a tradition in the UK, not so much of elder statesmen, but of cuddly uncles – men who pepper their speeches with rambling accounts of how things used to be back in the days of Harold Wilson or Margaret Thatcher, like the old relative in the corner at family gatherings who will insist on talking about the war. (I’m not being unconsciously sexist here – it really is a male thing since we haven’t had enough long-serving women MPs for there to be many female octogenarians shuffling around the corridors of power yet… give it another couple of decades.) For older people, like me, who remember Wilson and Thatcher, this gives a curious sense of stability and continuity. Younger people, I imagine, simply roll their eyes and switch off. Over the last couple of decades, Clarke has become one of those cuddly uncles, known for his love of jazz, his cigar-smoking bon viveur personality, his jovial demeanour, and his endearingly crumpled appearance…

…which explains why I’d managed to sort of forget that he was responsible for overseeing some of the most Thatcherite policies of the Thatcher era! As a cabinet minister in those days he served as Health Secretary as the first tentative steps were taken to make the NHS more “efficient” (i.e., cheaper) by introducing the ‘internal market’ – a way of making hospitals compete against each other for patients; for ‘contracting out’ ancillary services – a way of making cleaners, canteen staff and so on work longer for less money and fewer employment rights; and for making GPs ‘fundholders’, taking decisions on where patients should be treated on the basis of budgets rather than quality of care. Then, having destroyed standards and morale in the NHS, he spent a couple of years trying to wreck – I mean, improve – education, in much the same way.

Trigger warning: Thatcher and her merry men. Ken is the one in the middle at the back. The other three are Ken Baker, Malcolm Rifkind and, at the front, Nigel Lawson.

So “successful” was he in these roles that Thatcher’s successor, John Major, promoted him to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer. How you rate him in this role really depends on your political leanings. The economy improved under his oversight, but the disparity between rich and poor grew. Unemployment went down, but it could be argued that it was Thatcher’s policies that had made it rise to such alarming rates in the first place. Interest rates, driven through the roof by the government’s mishandling of the whole question of the ERM and the single European currency, came back down to bearable levels. All of this gave him a reputation for competence and I won’t argue with that except to say that every chancellor’s reputation rests to some degree on the competence or otherwise of his predecessor and successor. Clarke succeeded to a shambles – it would have been hard for him to make things worse.

The book is well written, full of anecdotes and personality sketches that stop it from being a dry read about policies. I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Clarke himself and he has an attractive speaking voice, making it a pleasant listening experience. But although I listened very hard, I can’t remember him once in the whole 24 hours ever expressing any concern for the weaker or more vulnerable members of our society. I got the distinct impression that to Clarke politics is an intellectual game, with victory being judged by statistics and honours rather than by outcomes for actual people. Even his much vaunted support for the EU, which in recent years has made many Remainers feel that he’s much cuddlier than most Conservatives, really seems to be about the free flow of workers providing a limitless pool of cheap labour from the poorer countries in Europe with which to boost profits for the rich while depressing the pay and conditions of those Brits already at the bottom of the economic ladder.

As is often the case with political memoirs, Clarke only really talks about the events in which he was directly involved, which is understandable but often gives a rather patchy view of a period. For instance, there’s barely a mention of the Falklands War, which played a huge role in why the Thatcher government was re-elected. He does talk about the miners’ strike, but again on a purely political level. There is no doubt that the rights and wrongs of the strike are debatable, but most people, I think, have some sympathy for the suffering that the mining communities went through during and after the strike. I didn’t catch a whiff of that from Clarke – to him, it was solely a question of economics and political power.

Image: BBC

I often find my view of a politician changes when I read their memoirs, which is why I do it. Usually I come out feeling that I may disagree with them politically but that I’ve gained an appreciation of their good intentions. In this case the reverse happened. I rather liked Cuddly Uncle Ken before I listened to this, but now I see him as smug and self-satisfied, a man who throughout his life has been far more interested in his own comfort and reputation than in trying to improve the lives of the people he serves. I was sorry to see him thrown out of his party after a lifetime in it, but now… well, somehow I don’t much care. He says himself frequently that he’s not the type of person who lets anything bother him. I would have liked him to be bothered by inequality, child poverty, the marginalised and the forgotten. Is that too much to ask of a politician? As a book, though, I do recommend it as a well written memoir that casts light on the politics of the last fifty years.

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Now You See Them (Stephens and Mephisto 5) by Elly Griffiths

Into the Swinging Sixties…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

A schoolgirl is missing. She left behind a note saying she was going off to London in pursuit of her teen idol, film star Bobby Hambro, but her father is insistent she wouldn’t have done this and must have been abducted or lured away. When Edgar Stephens, now a Superintendent, begins to investigate he finds very little, but fortunately there a few women on hand to help all the feckless males out. There’s his wife, Emma, once a police officer but now a bored and disgruntled housewife and mother. There’s Sam, the newspaper reporter, bored and disgruntled because her sexist boss seems to think she should be satisfied to make the tea for the male journalists. New WPC Meg is bored and disgruntled because she’s expected to stay behind in the station and type reports while the male police officers get all the exciting jobs. And there’s Astarte, the mystic fortune-teller, who happily is not bored and disgruntled, but did I mention she’s a mystic? Useful for moving the plot along with a bit of woo-woo whenever it gets stuck…

I know it doesn’t sound like it from that opening paragraph, but overall I quite enjoyed this although I think it’s much weaker than the earlier books in the series, most of which I’ve thought were excellent. The book starts as all the regulars come together for the funeral of Diablo who, like Edgar and Max, had been one of the Mystery Men during the war, a small Army outfit who used their skills in illusion to confuse the enemy forces. His death symbolises a break from the past. Eleven years have passed since the last book, so we’re now in Brighton in the early ‘60s, the time of mods and rockers fighting on the beach and the beginning of an era of great social change. Variety shows are no longer fashionable and Max Mephisto is now a famous film star. This means we’re no longer in the seedy world of theatres and theatrical boarding houses, and stage magic no longer plays a role in the plot. Rather a strange decision, I felt, since that was really this series’ unique selling point.

However, Griffiths handles the change quite well, quickly filling us in on what’s happened to all the recurring characters in the meantime. I didn’t think she brought the ‘60s to life as well as she had done with the ‘50s in the earlier books, but there were enough references to the changing social attitudes of the time to keep it interesting. As always, I became somewhat bored and disgruntled myself at the insistence which all crime writers currently have of ticking off all the political correctness boxes whether the plot calls for it or not, and I felt Griffiths handled this particularly clumsily. It was as if at the end she went back to a tick-list and shoe-horned in any compulsory issues she’d omitted – sexism? Tick. Feminism? Tick. Gay character? Tick. Black character? Tick. And of course all her main characters have liberal attitudes at least twenty, if not fifty, years ahead of their time.

As the plot develops, it becomes clear that more than one girl is missing, and then a body turns up. Now the race is on to find the other girls before any more of them are killed. I don’t want to tread too far into spoiler territory here, so I will simply say that I also get a little bored when recurring characters become potential victims and that happens not once, but twice in this book. It’s entirely unrealistic and is a lazy way to try to increase the tension. And the motivation of the abductor was flimsy at best.

Sometimes writing a review clarifies the thoughts a little too much and this has turned out to be more critical than I intended. While reading, I found it an enjoyable story, well written as Griffiths’ books always are, and although I felt it fell over the credibility cliff at a relatively early point, I was still intrigued enough to see how it all worked out. I did however feel that the ending was rushed and anti-climactic, and the hints that Griffiths gives at the end as to how the series is likely to progress in the future didn’t inspire me with confidence. I rather wish Griffiths would stick to standalones or perhaps trilogies or short series – somehow I always feel she runs out of steam with regards to what to do with her characters in longer-running series. I’d be happier for their personal lives to take a back seat and for the crime to be the major focus. However, I’ll probably stick around for the next one – I’m interested to see if she can make the signalled changes work.

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

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Tuesday Terror! Ghost Stories, Vol. 1 by MR James narrated by Derek Jacobi

Five spooky tales…

This shortish audiobook (2 hours 37 minutes) contains five ghost stories from the pen of MR James, narrated by the always wonderful Derek Jacobi. I do admire James’ writing style and usually find his stories enjoyable even although I rarely find them scary. I think it’s because he often tells them at a remove – a narrator tells us of something that once happened rather than us being put there while it’s actually happening, which prevents them from building any kind of atmosphere of tension. Quite often, in fact, we are told the end before we’re given the story. I’ve still read relatively few of his stories, though, so maybe I just haven’t come across the really spooky ones yet.

Since there are only five stories in this volume, here’s a brief idea of each:

The View from the Hill – an antiquary, Mr Fanshawe, visits his friend Squire Richards in the country. Fanshawe borrows a set of binoculars from his friend, but when he looks through them, he sees things that aren’t there, such as church spires that once existed but are long gone. Richards acquired the binoculars when he bought up some of the possessions of a man named Baxter after his death. It culminates with Richards’ old servant telling the two friends the story of Baxter and the experiments he carried out. It’s well told, but knowing in advance that Baxter died kinda spoils the tension, and nothing terribly bad happens in the present. I gave this one four stars.

Rats – A story that, oddly, isn’t about rats. A man is staying as the only guest at an inn. Out of nosiness, one day when the landlord is out, he decides to take a look into the other empty rooms on his floor. One is locked, but he finds a key that will open it. Inside, he sees something that scares him and swiftly retreats. But his curiosity is too strong – on his last day, he goes to the room again, and this time he sees… well, of course I’m not going to tell you! This one is lighter in tone and quite fun, but again not scary. Another 4 star read.

MR James

A School Story – two men are discussing the tradition of ghost story telling in public (i.e. posh) schools, and then one tells the other a real ghost story which happened when he was a schoolboy. The haunting concerns a teacher, Mr Sampson, who begins to receive odd messages in Latin, either via the boys or in notes. The messages seem to imply that if he won’t go to the sender, then the sender will come to him. And then one day the teacher disappears… Again, well told, but there is our narrator, safe and sound and old, so we know whatever happened he clearly wasn’t harmed by it. Four stars again.

The Ash Tree – ah, this was much spookier! Starting back in the late 17th century, Mrs Mothersole is condemned as a witch and swears revenge on the man who gave evidence against her, Sir Matthew Fell. He later dies mysteriously, as if from some kind of poison. For years, the room in which he died lies empty out of superstition. But now his grandson decides to sleep in the room, even although the window is shaded by an ash tree growing just outside, and despite being warned that folklore says that sleeping near an ash tree is unwise… I think the reason this works better is because it’s told in the third person and therefore there’s no foreknowledge as to what happens to the grandson. There’s also lots of nicely scary imagery and old superstitions and stuff. This one got the full five stars!

Artwork: Jowita Kaminska

The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance – Told as a series of letters from a man to his brother and set at Christmastime. The letter-writer’s uncle, a rector, has disappeared and our narrator has gone to his uncle’s town to try to find out what has happened to him. I must say that I really had no idea what was going on in this one. It’s full of really quite effective stuff about a Punch and Judy show – a form of entertainment I’ve always found quite scary in itself – but if there’s a coherent story in there, I missed it. This is possibly because I was listening rather than reading – sometimes I don’t seem to concentrate as well in that format. I thought the imagery was excellent and there was a definite sense of dread and oddness about the whole thing, but I found it too unexplained to be satisfying. Jacobi’s performance was great though – he really shines best when the stories get darker. Five stars for him, but just three for the story, though I may read a print version one day.

* * * * *

Overall, this is an enjoyable listen – not harrowing, and the inclusion of what is apparently James’ only story set at Christmastime makes it perfect for this time of year. The shortest story is about 15 minutes and the longest around 45, so it can be easily split over several short sessions or binge-listened in one evening. MR James is undoubtedly the ideal choice for people who like their horror to be of the mildest variety, and Jacobi as narrator is always a treat. Recommended.

The porpentine was fairly relaxed during this one…

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😮 😮

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀

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Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

On the wrong side of history…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Okonkwo is determined not to be like his drunken, feckless father. Through hard work, he gains an honoured place in his Ibo village as a yam grower with three wives and several children. As we follow what happens to him, we will learn about the ways and traditions of his people, and of how the coming of the white man changed them irrevocably.

If ever a man deserved his success, that man was Okonkwo. At an early age he had achieved fame as the greatest wrestler in all the land. That was not luck. At the most one could say that his chi or personal god was good. But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man say yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed. And not only his chi but his clan too, because it judged a man by the work of his hands.

The thing is that Achebe’s depiction of those ways and traditions are so appalling that I found myself completely on the side of the colonisers, not a place I either expected or wanted to be! The perpetual beatings of wives and children paled into insignificance when compared to the frequent killings for no reason at the behest of the many seemingly cruel and unjust gods worshipped and feared by the people. Centuries of farming tradition and yet they hadn’t worked out any methods of crop irrigation or protection, leaving them entirely at the mercy of the elements and of those pesky gods. The customs of deciding that some people should be treated as outcasts for no discernible cause and, even worse, of throwing twins out at birth to be left to die in the open made me feel that anything had to have been better than this. Come the colonisers, and with them education, healthcare, and a religion that taught of a loving god, gave a place to the outcasts and saved the lives of the abandoned twins – sounds good to me! And that makes me feel bad, because of course I really ought to be up in arms about the iniquities of the colonisers, oughtn’t I?

I really struggled for at least half of this quite short book. It’s quite repetitive and although it’s certainly revealing and, I assume, honest about the life and traditions of the village, there’s very little in the way of story. I must say Achebe surprised me, though. I knew nothing about him except that he called Conrad a “thoroughgoing racist” for his portrayal of colonisation, and I assumed therefore that he would show the Africans in a positive light. I admire him, therefore, for not taking that easy route and instead giving a very harsh and unromanticised portrayal of life before the colonisers arrived. I suspect his real argument with Conrad was probably that Conrad often leaves the “natives” at the periphery of the picture, as if they are merely props on a stage set for the star actors in his dramas, the white men, and I certainly would agree with that assessment though I wouldn’t agree that that makes him racist. Achebe reverses this, putting the Africans as the central stars, with the colonisers having merely walk-on roles, and this has apparently influenced generations of African writers ever since the book was first published in 1958, making them realise the possibility of telling their own stories.

Chinua Achebe

The story picks up in the second half, once the colonisers arrive. We see the mix of missionary and soldier, one trying to change the Africans through the influence of Christianity, the other controlling them at the point of the gun. We see any form of violent resistance met with a wholly disproportionate response, and the newly installed justice system being used as a thin veneer to camouflage total dominance. We see misunderstandings caused by a failure of each to attempt to understand the other’s culture, and those misunderstandings often escalating to murder or massacre. Again, Achebe doesn’t make this entirely one-sided. While obviously the military might of the colonisers is by far the greater, he shows that many of the Africans are attracted to the things they offer, whether that be a better life or simply the pleasure that comes from being on the side of the more powerful, especially to those who have been treated as outcasts by their own society.

Through Okonkwo and the older villagers, we see their despair at the destruction of the old ways, and from a male perspective I could certainly sympathise with that. But from a female perspective, I couldn’t help but feel that the women would have had less to regret – on the basis of Achebe’s depiction, they lacked all political power and had little influence even in the domestic sphere, not to mention the accepted tradition that husbands ought to beat their wives regularly. (Not, of course, that that tradition was exclusive to Africans…)

“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed it, either for the very bleak portrayal of the life of the Africans, nor for any particular literary merit. It is well written but not exceptionally so and the structure makes it feel rather unbalanced, with what story there is all happening towards the end. What makes it stand out is the rare centrality of the Nigerian people in their own story, and the, to me, unexpected even-handedness with which Achebe treats both Africans and colonisers. For those reasons, and because it’s considered an African classic by the “father of African literature”, I’m glad to have read it.

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Wild Harbour by Ian Macpherson

An alternative to bone spurs…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When it looks as though war is inevitable, Hugh and his wife, Terry, decide that he will not fight – that killing is wrong especially when the reasons for it seem so obscure. So they decide to flee into the wild highland country of the north of Scotland, making their home in a cave to wait the conflict out. Hugh knows how to hunt and poach while Terry has a full range of country skills in preparing and preserving food, so they are better equipped than most to survive. But in the distance they can hear the guns of war, and they seem to be coming nearer…

This is issued as part of the British Library’s Science Fiction Classics series, but it doesn’t seem to me to sit comfortably there. First published in 1936 and set in a then future of 1944, I suppose it’s that speculative element that allows it to be categorised as science fiction, but in reality it’s more of a survival adventure with the bulk of the book being a man versus nature story. I use “man” advisedly here – although Terry is present throughout, she is certainly the weaker of the two, following Hugh’s lead and existing, it seems, merely to provide him with the domestic and emotional support that a good wife should.

Sometimes it’s difficult not to allow our own prejudices to colour our view of a book. I have great admiration for those conscientious objectors who refuse to fight in wars, but who either choose to serve in some other capacity – in the ambulance service, for example – or are willing to take a public stand and risk going to jail for their principles. I’m afraid I have very little respect for people who run away and hide while waiting for other people to return the world to safety for them. Macpherson does his best to show that Hugh’s decision is born of principle, but the whole premise made it impossible for me to sympathise with Hugh and Terry as I felt I was supposed to, as they endured the various hardships and misadventures of their life in the wild.

The book has two major themes, it seems to me: firstly, man’s relationship to the natural world and his ability to survive without the trappings of civilisation; and secondly, how even those so strongly-held principles can be eroded as the veneer of that civilisation is stripped away, quickly returning man to a state of survival instinct. The writing is at its strongest when Macpherson is describing the beauty and power of nature and man’s vulnerability to its whims. It is at its weakest when Hugh tells us again and again in exalted and overblown terms of his great love for and need of Terry – this idealized woman who seems to be mother to him as much as wife.

Book 55 of 90

There is much killing and butchering of deer and other animals, but in the realism of the need for food rather than in any gratuitous way. There are also detailed descriptions of the practical steps Hugh and Terry take to make life in the cave possible, such as cutting peat and making a fireplace, making lamps from fish oil and animal fat, pickling eggs and salting venison, and so on. I veered between fascination and boredom throughout all of this, but fascination won in the end, and I found even the stalking and hunting scenes won me over, done with authenticity and a great sense of man’s deep connection to the natural world – something I, as a city girl, completely lack. The descriptions of the landscapes are great, although there were many times I felt the need for a map of the area. It was only once I’d finished reading that I discovered there is in fact a map, tucked in at the end of the book and not listed in the index – annoying.

The book is a bleak account of this survivalist life – there’s no attempt to present some kind of false idyll. As summer becomes autumn and then winter, the harshness of the weather, the scarcity of food and the fragility of health are all shown in full. And as the distant war rumbles closer, the story turns bleaker yet, with the tone becoming almost dystopian towards the end.

A strange book which I found compelling despite my distaste for the premise, which is a tribute to how well it is done. There’s a short essay from Macpherson included at the end (after the map!), written in 1940 when the real war had been underway for a year, and it’s intriguing to contrast his own views about participation in the war effort to those of his character, though they certainly seem to share their opinion of women. Recommended, but more to those who enjoy bleak survival stories than to science fiction fans.

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

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Tuesday Terror! August Heat by WF Harvey

Carved in stone…

It’s been varying between ridiculously rainy and flippin’ freezin’ here for the last couple of weeks, so it seems like a good idea to get away from it all back to some summer sunshine. Though this little story is quite likely to leave you feeling as chilled as an ice-lolly at the North Pole…

August Heat
by WF Harvey

WF Harvey

I have had what I believe to be the most remarkable day in my life, and while the events are still fresh in my mind, I wish to put them down on paper as clearly as possible.

Our narrator is James Clarence Withencroft…

By profession I am an artist, not a very successful one, but I earn enough money by my black-and-white work to satisfy my necessary wants.

On this day, the heat is oppressive and Withencroft is thinking about going for a swim when he is suddenly struck by an idea for a picture, so he sits down and gets to work…

The final result, for a hurried sketch, was, I felt sure, the best thing I had done. It showed a criminal in the dock immediately after the judge had pronounced sentence. The man was fat – enormously fat. The flesh hung in rolls about his chin; it creased his huge, stumpy neck. He was clean shaven (perhaps I should say a few days before he must have been clean shaven) and almost bald. He stood in the dock, his short, clumsy fingers clasping the rail, looking straight in front of him. The feeling that his expression conveyed was not so much one of horror as of utter, absolute collapse.

Satisfied, he decides to go for a walk, wandering the streets randomly till he loses track of where he is. Evening is beginning to fall when…

I found myself standing before a gate that led into a yard bordered by a strip of thirsty earth, where there were flowers, purple stock and scarlet geranium. Above the entrance was a board with the inscription –

On an impulse, Withencroft enters the yard, and comes across the mason working on a piece of marble. When the man turns, Withencroft is startled…

It was the man I had been drawing, whose portrait lay in my pocket. He sat there, huge and elephantine, the sweat pouring from his scalp, which he wiped with a red silk handkerchief. But though the face was the same, the expression was absolutely different.

The mason is friendly and invites Withencroft to take a seat and have a cooling drink. Withencroft complies, and asks Athinson what he’s working on. Atkinson tells him this particular stone isn’t strong enough to be a real headstone so he’s using it as a sample for an exhibition. He stands back to let Withencroft see the inscription…

SACRED TO THE MEMORY
OF
JAMES CLARENCE WITHENCROFT.
BORN JAN. 18TH, 1860.
HE PASSED AWAY VERY SUDDENLY
ON AUGUST 20TH, 190—
“In the midst of life we are in death.”

Withencroft is silent for a long moment, then…

…a cold shudder ran down my spine. I asked him where he had seen the name.
“Oh, I didn’t see it anywhere,” replied Mr. Atkinson. “I wanted some name, and I put down the first that came into my head. Why do you want to know?”
“It’s a strange coincidence, but it happens to be mine.”

And the date just happens to be August 20th…

* * * * *

This is a miniature gem of a story! No ghost nor obvious supernatural happenings, but that these two men who had never met before should have each drawn or named the other, and then come together as if by coincidence… spooky! Tombstones always add that special touch of creepiness. And the end is deliciously twisted and chilling. It’s excellently done and very short – well worth reading! And totally suitable for scaredy-cats…

I read it in the Oxford World’s Classic anthology, Horror Stories, but if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link…

The porpy found this one enjoyably shivery…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀

Deep Waters edited by Martin Edwards

Not waving, but drowning…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This new collection of vintage crime shorts from the British Library contains sixteen stories, all connected in some way to water – rivers, lakes, swimming pools, oceans. Martin Edwards suggests in his usual informative introduction that perhaps Britain’s view of itself as a maritime nation makes us particularly drawn to watery fiction of all kinds, so it’s not surprising that mystery writers got in on the act.

These collections are always variable, both in quality and in the reader’s reaction to the theme being used. This reader found this one particularly variable, partly because I felt some of the stories only made the cut because of their connection to water, but partly because I’m not a sailor and some of the stories use a fair amount of sailing terminology which always makes me lose interest. Sailors will, I’m sure, feel differently about these. Only a couple of the solutions rely on sailing specifics, though – the majority give us the usual range of motives, clues and styles of detection. And, as always, the contributors range from the very well known writers, like Conan Doyle or Michael Innes, through newer favourites recently getting a revival via the BL and other publishers, like Edmund Crispin or Christopher St. John Sprigg, to writers new to me although they may be well known to vintage crime aficionados, such as James Pattinson and Andrew Garve.

In total, I gave eight of the stories either four or five stars, while the other eight ranged between 2½ and 3½. So no complete duds, but quite a few that were relatively weak, I felt. However, when they were good, they were very, very good, meaning that I found plenty to enjoy. Here are a few of the ones that stood out most for me, and you’ll see from these examples that this collection has a lot of stories that don’t stick rigidly to the traditional detective story format, which gives them a feeling of originality and allows for some great storytelling, including occasional touches of spookiness or horror…

The Echo of a Mutiny by R. Austin Freeman – An inverted mystery (one where we know who the murderer is before we see how the detective solves it) starring Freeman’s regular scientific detective, Dr Thorndyke, this is a longer story at 40 pages or so. A new lighthouse keeper is sent to a rock lighthouse in a rowing boat, but never arrives. The local authorities assume he simply had an accident and drowned, but since Thorndyke happens to be in the neighbourhood they ask him what he thinks, and he finds that murder has been done. The backstory of the murder is very well done, and the solution relies on a nice clue and a neat bit of detection.

Four Friends and Death by Christopher St. John Sprigg – Four men on a boat drink a toast in cognac, and one of them falls dead of cyanide poisoning. The boat is in a Spanish port and of course good Englishmen don’t trust foreign police forces, so the three survivors decide to solve the mystery themselves before reporting the death. Was it a dramatic suicide? Or is one of the three hiding a secret? This is well written, beautifully tense, and ingeniously plotted and revealed. A short one, but excellent.

The Turning of the Tide by CS Forester – in this one, we’re inside the murderer-to-be’s head as he bumps off a fellow solicitor who is about to reveal that the murderer has been defrauding his clients. The story revolves around the disposal of the body – the murderer knows that without a body the police’s chances of solving the crime are much lower, so he resolves to dump it in the sea. Needless to say, it doesn’t go quite as planned, and it turns into a superbly effective horror story, very well told. Spine-tingling!

A Question of Timing by Phyllis Bentley – this is a quirky and intriguing story of a detective writer who accidentally gets caught up in a crime while walking along the river thinking through his latest plot. It’s a story about how serendipity and chance mess with the best laid plans, and has a nice touch of romance in the background. Very well told again – an enjoyable lighter story.

The Queer Fish by Kem Bennett – Our unlikely hero is a poacher who, after an evening drinking in the pub, is stopped on his way home by two men who force him at gunpoint to take them in his boat to France. This is a kind of adventure story but with a mystery element – it’s only later we discover why the men are trying to escape. It has a couple of fun twists towards the end. Well written and highly entertaining!

So a mixed collection, but with plenty of good stuff in it that’s a little out of the ordinary run of mystery stories. I enjoyed the ones I enjoyed so much that they more than compensated for the ones I didn’t. I do love these anthologies…

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

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