The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar

The mystery of the missing wife…

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Amy Kellogg and her friend Wilma are on holiday in Mexico City but it’s turning out to be a fraught time. Wilma, always moody and overbearing, is behaving even worse than usual following her second divorce. She’s drinking to excess and arguing with Amy on the slightest provocation. Then, following a drinking session, Wilma dies in a fall from the hotel balcony. Her depressed and emotional state leads the authorities to rule it as a suicide. Amy’s husband, Rupert, rushes to his shocked wife’s side, but when he returns home to San Francisco a week later, he returns alone. Amy, he tells her family, needed time to herself and has gone off to New York. But Amy’s brother Gill doesn’t believe his adored little sister would have gone off without telling him herself, and as time passes with no word from her, his suspicions grow…

Well, this is a little gem! Told in the third person, Millar lets us glimpse inside the heads of all the characters in turn but only giving us enough to tantalise our suspicions. We know that Rupert isn’t telling all he knows but we don’t know what he’s hiding. Is he a wife murderer as Gill suspects? If so, why would he have killed the woman he apparently loved? Gill suspects the age-old story of another woman and has his suspicions of who that woman might be. But if Rupert hasn’t killed her, where is Amy? It’s entirely out of character for her to have gone off on her own, this woman who has always seemed so dependant on others and so meekly subservient to the stronger characters she is surrounded by – her brother, her husband, Wilma. Increasingly desperate, Gill turns to a private detective, Elmer Dodd, and we follow him as he tries to find the truth.

The plotting is great, full of little twists that kept me puzzling over what had happened until the very last page. It’s more of a psychological mystery than a whodunit – the clues are all in the personalities and the things they do that seem out of character. The characterisation is brilliant – done with a light touch but no less astute for that. There’s Rupert’s secretary, nursing a crush for Rupert so secret she’s not even fully aware of it herself. Gill’s wife, long tired of Gill’s almost obsessively over-protective love for his little sister, is trying hard not to be glad that Amy has gone and is fighting against her instinctive hope that she never returns. The maid in the hotel in Mexico, she who listens through the walls of the title, might be a little stereotyped, but her greed and petty criminality are believable, her contempt for the rich Americans who stay in the hotel adds a good deal of humour, and her superstitions are used to give an air of real unease to some parts of the story. Elmer Dodd is excellent too. He’s a man who wants to know the truth but he’s not ruthless about it. He has sympathy for the weaknesses of human nature, and has a kind of warmth that makes people trust him.

Margaret Millar

This was my introduction to Margaret Millar after having seen her praised by various vintage crime fans around the blogosphere, and I’m very glad to have met her. A darkly twisted story, tightly plotted and lifted by some affectionately humorous character portraits and observations of society, not a word is wasted as Millar leads the reader through a labyrinth of suspicion and doubt. Great fun, and highly recommended – another author to add to my growing list of vintage crime favourites!

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

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The Go-Between by LP Hartley

The past is a foreign country…

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In the summer of 1900, young Leo Colston is invited by his school friend, Marcus Maudsley, to spend a few weeks with Marcus’ family at Brandham Hall. Many years later, in 1952, Leo comes across his diary of this year, and as he reads it, he gradually begins to remember the events of that summer, memories that his mind has suppressed throughout all the intervening time. The story he tells us is one of subtle gradations of class and social convention, of sexual awakening and the loss of innocence, and over it all is an air of unease created by the older Leo’s knowledge of the horrors of the wars which would soon engulf the 20th century, changing this enchanted world of privilege for ever.

To my mind’s eye, my buried memories of Brandham Hall are like effects of chiaroscuro, patches of light and dark: it is only with effort that I see them in terms of colour. There are things I know, though I don’t know how I know them, and things that I remember. Certain things are established in my mind as facts, but no picture attaches to them; on the other hand there are pictures unverified by any fact which recur obsessively, like the landscape of a dream.

Leo is twelve when the story begins, with the complete ignorance of all matters relating to sex which was commonplace for children in those days. His interior world, beautifully brought to life, is one where adults are mysterious beings who don’t seem to act in accordance with the unbreakable codes of the public schoolboy. The adults at Brandham, so far above middle-class Leo in social standing, so confident in their superiority, seem to him god-like, and he compares them to the images of the zodiac which are printed in his diary. So when Marian, the daughter of the house, chooses Leo to be her postman, carrying secret messages to a neighbouring farmer, Ted Burgess, he feels honoured. He is old enough to be enthralled by Marian’s beauty and capricious behaviour, but young enough not to recognise his feelings as sexual. She is a goddess, he her willing worshipper and slave. To serve her, to gain her recognition, is all he desires – and to avoid her wrath.

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His feelings about Ted are more complicated. Even Leo’s lowly class is higher than that of a mere farmer and so Leo can feel socially superior, condescending even, but Ted has an overpowering physical masculinity that elevates him too to god status in the fatherless Leo’s eyes.

Believing himself to be unseen by other bathers, he gave himself up to being alone with his body. He wriggled his toes, breathed hard through his nose, twisted his brown moustache where some drops of water still clung, and looked himself critically all over. The scrutiny seemed to satisfy him, as well as it might. I, whose only acquaintance was with bodies and minds developing, was suddenly confronted by maturity in its most undeniable form; and I wondered, what must it feel like to be him, master of those limbs which have passed beyond the need of gym and playing field, and exist for their own beauty and strength? What can they do, I thought, to be conscious of themselves?

To play Mercury to these superior beings is at first a delight to Leo but, as the summer wears on, gradually he becomes uncomfortable, vaguely realising that somehow – he’s not sure how – Marian and Ted are transgressing sacrosanct codes of behaviour which he is becoming aware of without fully understanding. In this society where adults and children inhabit separate worlds, there is no one whom he can consult, and so he must try to find his own way through the moral maze in which he finds himself, and must somehow save his gods and goddesses from the path of self-destruction he begins to believe they’re on.

The writing is beautiful with every word perfectly placed, and emotional truth pours from every page. There is an air of nostalgia for a golden age, but below the surface brilliance the reader is aware of the rot of a rigid social code that restricts most the very people who superficially seem most privileged. The role of women as pawns in the marriage game is shown clearly through Marian, brought up to do her duty by making a socially advantageous match regardless of personal inclination. The ambiguity around Marian is brilliantly portrayed – she is victim of her class and gender, but she can also be cold and cruel, a harsh goddess who brooks no dissent. Is it possible to break the heart of someone so utterly selfish? Or does she exist simply to break the hearts of her adoring subjects? As a person, I’m ambivalent about her; as a character, she is a wonderful, unforgettable creation.

Still, whose fault was it? ‘Nothing is ever a lady’s fault,’ Lord Trimingham had said, thereby ruling Marian out, and I was glad, for now I had no wish to inculpate her. He had not said, ‘Nothing is ever a lord’s fault,’ but no one could hold him to blame: he had done nothing that he shouldn’t: I was clear about that. Nor had he said, ‘Nothing is ever a farmer’s fault,’ and lacking the benefit of this saving clause the fault, if fault there were, must lie with Ted. Ted had enticed Marian into his parlour, his kitchen, and bewitched her. He had cast a spell on her. That spell I would now break – as much for his sake as for hers.

LP Hartley

Behind the story of these characters is the darker story of a century that started in war and became a long horror of loss. Hugh, the man whom Marian is expected to marry, has been badly scarred in the Boer War but still believes that it is the duty of every patriotic Englishman to fight for his country. He is the 9th Viscount Trimingham, a title that thrills young Leo, elevating Hugh too to his triumvirate of deities. For Leo, the idea of the new century excites him – a blank page on which he expects glories and wonders to be written. In this summer of 1900 the rare event of a long heatwave descends on England, seeming to Leo to signify the beginning of this new golden age, and he becomes obsessed by the daily temperatures, longing for new records to be broken. The unrelenting heat gives a kind of mystical air to the summer, as of a long pause when normal rules don’t apply. But when the dazzling summer darkens to tragedy, Leo loses not just his innocence but his optimism. The end of the summer heralds the end of hope for the century, and this small personal tragedy seems to presage the much greater tragedies that were soon to follow on an unprecedented scale.

A wonderful book which I’m glad to say affected me just as much on this re-reading as when I first read it decades ago. If you’ve never read it, give your soul a treat and do so now…

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Because we all had this on our Classics Club spin a couple of months ago and it didn’t come up, Rose and Sandra and I all decided we’d read it anyway (we’re such rebels!) and review it on the same day – Wednesday! Unfortunately the internet gods had different plans and blew up my system again on Tuesday. Now with a new router and a promise or threat that if it goes down again they will have to do “extensive work”, whatever that means, so fingers crossed. Apologies to anyone who was concerned at my sudden disappearance, and especially to Sandra and Rose! As the poet Burns would say, the best laid plans of mice and bloggers gang aft agley…

Anyway, links below to their reviews, which I haven’t yet read but can’t wait to! I’m hoping my non-blogging blog buddy Alyson may have read it with us too, and will add her views on it in the comments below… and anyone else, of course! I should warn you, if anyone says they hated it I fully intend to splat them with a giant custard pie… 😀

Rose’s review             Sandra’s review

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Tuesday Terror! The Weird Tales of William Hope Hodgson

“…always be ready before the dark comes.”

I came across William Hope Hodgson for the first time last year when I read one of his stories, The Derelict, in another anthology and thought it was wonderfully weird and truly horrific. So I was thrilled when the British Library brought out this collection of ten of his stories, giving me an opportunity to get to know him better. I’m happy to report that he has lived up to my hopes – I thoroughly enjoyed every story in the collection, with the majority getting the full five stars.

I’m still fairly new to weird fiction, so certainly no expert. But the authors of whom I’ve read most seem each to develop a kind of overarching mythology in which they set most of their tales. The most famous of these is HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, full of ancient forces, Elder Gods and sometimes alien beings. It seems to me that Hodgson, writing a decade or two earlier, must have had some influence on Lovecraft, and the usual informative introduction, this time by Xavier Aldana Reyes, tells us that Lovecraft described him as ‘second only to Algernon Blackwood in his serious treatment of unreality’. I haven’t read enough Blackwood to confirm or argue with that, but my limited reading would put Hodgson third in the ranks of the weird greats, not far behind Lovecraft himself and Arthur Machen. Hodgson’s use of language isn’t nearly as lavishly spectacular as Lovecraft’s, but he does have one advantage as far as I’m concerned, in that he’s mastered the art of being succinct!

The stories collected here fall into two main categories. Many of them are set on the sea, making full use of the forces of nature, the isolation of the wide expanses of the oceans, and man’s ignorance, especially over a century ago, of what may be lurking in the deeps. Some of these use ‘natural’ horrors, such as monstrous squids or sea-serpents, while others have a supernatural element of the ghostly apparition variety, and yet others cross over into definite ‘weird’ territory. (Reyes defines ‘weird’ fiction as ‘a subgenre of speculative fiction concerned with the limits of human experience and the unknowability of the natural world that brings together elements of the horror, science fiction and fantasy literary traditions’.)

Hodgson’s own ‘mythos’ seems to be of forces beyond the understanding of puny humanity (puny humanity is a definite feature of weird fiction) which can channel themselves into inanimate matter, making it animate. He develops this more clearly in his second category of stories: those about Carnacki, a psychic investigator, who tackles all kinds of strange occurrences using the knowledge he has gained from the study of ancient texts (another recurring feature of weird). Carnacki talks of the ‘Outer Monstrosities’, psychic forces held in gases circling the planet far away which sometimes come to Earth to generally wreak havoc. The Carnacki stories take the form of him recounting his adventures to a group of friends as a kind of after-dinner entertainment. There’s quite a lot of repetition in how Carnacki goes about his work – lots of gadgets and harnessing of the powers of pentagrams and stuff – but there is a lot of originality in the horrors he faces, from a haunting by a horse, to an evil hog-like creature, to a mysteriously terrifying whistling room.

I often look at other reviews on Goodreads, and it seems as if I’m more enthusiastic about Hodgson than many of the other reviewers. Reading more closely, this often seems to be because the reviewer is comparing him unfavourably to Lovecraft, the undoubted master of the genre. I have mixed feelings about Lovecraft’s weirdest stuff, sometimes loving it but sometimes finding it too long and repetitive, and getting totally annoyed with his repeated assertion that the horrors his characters face are ‘indescribable’. Happily for me, Hodgson describes his horrors, perhaps with fewer adjectives but certainly with more clarity. So as always, it’s all subjective. Subjectively, here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Gateway of the Monster – I reviewed this in a previous Tuesday Terror! post.

The Horse of the Invisible – a Carnacki story. An old family legend has it that the first-born daughter will be haunted by a horse on announcing her betrothal. Carnacki is called in when it seems to be coming true for the current daughter of the house, A nice blend of human wickedness and supernatural evil in this one.

The Derelict – blown off course by a wild storm, the narrator’s ship comes across an ancient derelict ship and he and a couple of others go aboard her just out of interest. Bad move! This one is an introduction to Hodgson’s theme that there is a life force that can give inanimate objects a kind of intelligence. Some fantastic horror imagery, and I liked that the hero turns out to be the uneducated Captain, using his skills and experience when the brains and nerves of his ‘intellectual superiors’ fail.

The Riven Night – another sea story, this time of a strange light that appears in the starless darkness of night and draws the ship towards it. There’s a kind of mystical, almost religious edge to this one, as each man sees something different in the light according to his own experiences. Again, excellent imagery, and perhaps more thought-provoking than some of the other stories.

The Whistling Room – another Carnacki tale. A man buys an old Irish castle, not believing the rumours that one of the rooms is haunted by a mysterious whistling. Bad move! This is a kind of mash-up between a straight haunting and Hodgson’s running weird theme, and works very well. It also has an explanation for the haunting which many of the stories don’t – an intriguing tale of revenge. Very well told, despite the rather mystical babble in which Carnacki sometimes indulges.

Great stuff! I do hope the BL continues to do for ‘forgotten’ horror what they’ve done so well for vintage crime.

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

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The porpy found some of these stories pretty scary!

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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Tuesday Terror! Late Victorian Gothic Tales edited by Roger Luckhurst

Stories from the top tier…

This is a collection of twelve stories from some of the greatest writers of Gothic, all first published in the 1890s. Many of them are very well known – indeed, several of them have already been highlighted in my Tuesday Terror! slot – and I suspect that most or all of them are probably available to read online. But the joy of an anthology like this one is the expert guidance provided by the editor, first in selecting and organising the stories in a way that allows the reader to see how the genre connects and flows, and then in providing an informative introduction and notes.

The editor of this one is Roger Luckhurst, whom I first encountered as the editor of a Lovecraft collection a few years ago, sparking my interest in Lovecraft in particular and weird fiction in general. I was later happy to encounter him again as the editor of HG Wells’ The Time Machine, when his introduction put that book into its literary and historical context for me, adding a great deal to my understanding and enjoyment of it. So I knew I’d be in safe hands with this collection.

Luckhurst tells us that there have been three main waves of Gothic writing, in the 18th century, then again in the late Victorian period, and now, with the likes of Stephen King reviving the genre. Each wave made it anew, though, influenced by contemporary concerns as well as by other styles and movements in the literary world of their time. He talks about the crossover in the late Victorian era between the styles of Gothic and Decadence, and about the influence on the genre of anxieties over colonialism, the growth of science and pseudo-sciences, spiritualism and psychic research, and so on. All of this means that the stories in a sense stop being merely individual entertainments and instead become part of something larger: part of the contemporary literature that casts light on its society and in turn influences it. As always, I found his introduction both informative and enjoyable, happily free of the academic jargon that can sometimes infest these things and therefore accessible to any interested reader.

But what of the stories, I hear you ask? I gave five of them five stars, another five got four stars, and the remaining two got 3½ each, so a very high standard overall. As it should be, given that most of them are from top tier writers. There’s Henry James and Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Machen and Oscar Wilde, and two from my old friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Then there are several names that were new to me, though I gather from the intro that they would be familiar to real aficionados – Vernon Lee, BM Croker, Grant Allen and MP Shiels. A further two from Jean Lorrain take us over to France and into the heart of the Decadent style. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most – the titles link through to my earlier TT posts, where applicable:

The Case of Lady Sannox

Lot No. 249 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – A story about a mummy brought back to life, with lots of Gothic features and some genuinely creepy moments, and of course ACD’s wonderfully easy writing style. Did you know he was the first person to create a story about a mummy being brought back to life for evil purposes? No, neither did I…

The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen – Mad science, that great love of Victorian horror and science fiction writers, mingled with paganism and a good deal of hinting at immoral and quite possibly unnatural sexual shenanigans, there’s also plenty of typically Victorian, fine descriptive writing, both of nature in the countryside and of the dark and gloomy streets of London at night. A kind of bridging link between traditional Gothic and the later weird horror of the likes of Lovecraft.

The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor by BM Croker – a fairly standard ghost story, but given added interest by its setting in colonial India and two delightfully refreshing heroines in Nellie and Julia. No swooning damsels these – they enjoy their lives, they don’t fear this vast, strange land, assuming that their British superiority will protect them from all dangers, and they’re ripe for adventure. But they’re not expecting ghostly visions in the middle of the night – that’s a little too much even for them!

Magic Lantern by Jean Lorrain – a fin-de-siècle Decadent story from France. This is a satire on society, quite funny and very well done. Two men at the opera – one accusing the other, a scientist, of removing all the fantasy from the world, including Gothic horror. The scientist then tells the first man tales of the audience members around them, showing that humanity can be as horrific as anything in the supernatural…

Sir Edmund Orme by Henry James – Our narrator becomes fascinated by a mother and daughter, Mrs Marden and Charlotte, because of what he feels is their peculiarly strong concern for each other. Then, as he finds himself falling in love with Charlotte, the narrator begins to see a strange man, who never speaks, and his appearances seem to coincide with Mrs Marden’s “episodes”. A strange and unsettling story, and I found aspects of it rather cruel, but it’s certainly effective.

Others I’ve previously included as Tuesday Terror! posts are The Case of Lady Sannox and The Mark of the Beast.

An excellent collection, especially for a relative newcomer to the genre since it includes some of the very best, but the introduction and notes make it a great choice too for people who may already know some of the stories but would like to know more about their context. Highly recommended.

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

Fretful porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮 😮 

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a fretful porpentine!

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The New Road by Neil Munro

Highland adventure…

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Æneas Macmaster is the son of a man who turned out for the Jacobites in 1715 and was killed. Now in 1733, Æneas is tutor to the nephew of the powerful Campbell of Argyll and to Margaret, the daughter of Alexander Duncanson, who is now laird of Æneas’ father’s estate of Drimdorran. When Æneas covers up for an escapade of Margaret’s he is dismissed by the furious Drimdorran, and his uncle, a merchant, sends him north on General Wade’s New Road to forge trade links with the Highland clans. Ninian Campbell, the agent of Campbell of Argyll, is also heading north, so the two men decide to travel together. Gradually they will discover that there is a mystery surrounding the circumstances of the death of Æneas’ father, and they will have many adventures as they set about finding the truth…

This was an odd one for me, in that I started out really struggling with it and gradually grew to love it. I found the first section quite confusing, despite having a reasonable familiarity with this period of Scottish history. The language, especially the dialogue, has a healthy sprinkling of archaic Scots plus occasional Gaelic words. It takes a while for the story to emerge – at first there’s a lot of Ninian and Æneas rambling around the countryside, seemingly aimlessly. There’s also the issue of all the characters having several different names – for instance, Campbell of Argyll is also called Inveraray, Duncanson is interchangeably known by the name of his estate, Drimdorran, and Ninian is a Macgregor of the clan Campbell, and so on. But once my “ear” got tuned into the language and I worked out who all the characters were and how they were connected, it became a much easier and therefore more enjoyable read. In fact, I admired and loved the language more and more as it went on – it’s wonderfully done with beautiful rhythm, and feels completely authentic to both time and place.

Not life, nor living dangers in these glooms compelled him to stand still a moment, half-inclined to turn, but something very old and rediscovered in himself; forgotten dreads of boyhood in wild winter wastes of midnight, and his people breaking from some thicket under moon to see before them spread unfriendly straths and hear the wind in perished heather. The mist it was they cherished – not the moon who made their progress visible; too often had she brought calamity to old Clan Alpine trailing through the snow, a broken and a hunted band, with children whimpering.

First published in 1914, Munro is clearly setting out to drag some realism back into the narrative of the Jacobite era, in contrast to the gradual romanticisation that took place during the 19th century both of the risings and of Highland society in general. The whole Jacobite thing has tended to be co-opted by all of Scotland now as a heroic part of our long struggle against England, but this was never the case. In fact, most lowland Scots and even some of the Highland clans were on the other side, against the deposed Stuarts. The Campbells have become the legendary villains as the clan that took the lead against the Jacobites, and later in playing a major role in “pacifying” the Highlands on behalf of the government. But Munro shows the other side, with the Campbells as the bringers of civilisation and the Jacobite Highland chiefs as little more than lawless bandits. The New Road, built by the military under General Wade, was one of the main tools of pacification, allowing faster military response to possible future rebellions, but also opening the Highlands up to the more peaceful world of trade and commerce that had become the norm in the rest of the country. So a hated symbol of oppression if you were pro-Jacobite, or a welcome modernisation if you weren’t.

John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll and Greenwich
by William Aikman

….He drew Grey Colin with a flourish from the scabbard, and the clotted blood of him that he had struck was on it: with a Gaelic utterance he laid it lightly on the young man’s head. The flesh of Æneas grewed; he retched at such an accolade.
….“What, man! are ye sick?” asked Ninian.
….“Yes!” said he, “I’m sick!” and broke into a furious condemnation of this wretched country.
….“What in Heaven’s name did ye expect?” asked Ninian. “Dancing?”
….“Everything’s destroyed for me!” cried out the lad. “The stories have been lies, and we have aye been beasts, and cloak it up in poetry.”
….“We are what God has made us!” said his friend. “And we must make the best of it.”

In fact, Æneas and Ninian spend very little time on the New Road, choosing to travel across country instead on their journey to Inverness. This allows Munro to give some great descriptions of the landscapes and of the way of life of the inhabitants at this moment just before great social change arrived. Once away from the relatively law-abiding environs of Campbell country the two men have a series of increasingly dangerous and exciting adventures, and these are great fun. It’s all a bit reminiscent of Kidnapped, I suspect intentionally, but while Stevenson’s clansmen are dirt-poor and scrabbling for existence, Munro’s are wild and lawless – I have no idea which is the more accurate depiction but I enjoyed Munro’s considerably more. There’s a lot of humour in it as well as drama and thrills and, while Æneas is the romantic lead, Ninian emerges as the real hero – crafty and practical, with a deep knowledge of the land and its people and politics. His investigation technique is entertaining as he uses a kind of sly, cunning guile to divine the truth behind local legends and tales.

….They were among a concourse of the hills, whose scarps were glistening in a sun that gave the air at noon a blandness, though some snow was on the bens. The river linked through crags and roared at linns; all rusty-red and gold the breckans burned about them; still came like incense from the gale-sprig perfume. They sat, those two young people, by the fire, demure and blate at first, to find themselves alone. From where they sat they could perceive down to the south the wrecks of Comyn fortresses; the Road still red and new was like a raw wound on the heather, ugly to the gaze, although it took them home. Apart from it, and higher on the slope, a drove-track ran, bright green, with here and there on it bleached stones worn by the feet of by-past generations. They saw them both – the Old Road and the New – twine far down through the valley into Badenoch, and melt into the vapours of the noon. And something in the prospect brought the tears to Janet’s eyes.
….“For why should I be sad?” she asked him suddenly, “to see that old track of the people and the herd, and this new highway boasting—boasting——?”

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I’m not going to pretend this one’s for everyone. A basic understanding of the historical setting (at least as much as I’ve given above) is essential, I think, and, although the main body of the text is standard English overlaid with Scots rhythms and is wonderfully done, I found some of the language quite demanding despite being an archaic Scot myself. But if it takes your fancy, then I highly recommend it. It’s a great combination of being half-nostalgic for the loss of those wild days but also clear-sighted about the culture of greed and lawlessness that lay beneath the later romanticisation of the Highland clan chiefs. And after a slow and rather tricky start, it becomes a fast-paced and exciting adventure story, complete with deadly peril and a touch of romance. Truly deserving of its reputation as a great Scottish classic!

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Fell Murder (Inspector MacDonald 24) by ECR Lorac

Rural but not an idyll…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Old Robert Garth rules his family with a rod of iron and, although he’s a fair landlord, he stands no nonsense from the tenant farmers on his land. A man who, in his eighties, still can put in a long day’s physical work, he has no time for those he sees as weaklings. So when he’s found murdered, there are plenty of people who might have done the foul deed, each with differing motives. But when it’s discovered that his eldest and long-estranged son, Richard, has been seen around the district, he naturally becomes the prime suspect. It’s up to Inspector MacDonald, called in from Scotland Yard to help the overstretched local police, to find Richard, and to decide whether he, or some other person, is the guilty party…

One of ECR Lorac’s greatest strengths is the way she makes her settings central to her stories, whether in the alleys of London or, as in this case, in the farming community of the Lune Valley, a place she apparently knew well. Her descriptions of the landscape are wonderful, showing the rugged beauty of the dales and fells, the unpredictable weather and the way the land has been shaped and formed by the generations who have farmed it. She is clear-eyed about the hard labour involved in farming but shows her characters as having a strong bond to their land and a love of their way of life.

Set towards the end of the Second World War, she also gives us intriguing glimpses of how war affected farming, partly by removing so many men from the labour force and bringing more women on to the land, and partly through government pressure to adopt more intensified farming methods, such as ploughing up traditional pasture land to allow for more planting of vegetable crops to feed a hungry populace no longer able to import food as easily as before the war. She shows too the additional tasks that have fallen on the police to oversee the new war-time regulations – black-out rules, rationing of goods and petrol, licensing and control of all kinds of things that used to be left up to suppliers and consumers – all leaving them under pressure when required to investigate the normal criminal activities that continue regardless of war.

The local Superintendent is a townie with little understanding of the ways of the farmers and a kind of disdain for them, and so he hits a brick wall in getting them to talk openly to him. But Inspector MacDonald is a different breed – he may be a London policeman now, but he’s a Scot by birth and has lived in rural communities before. He understands the land and secretly rather wishes he could take up farming himself. This all helps him to find ways to break down the rural resistance to outsiders and to grasp at motives that a townsman may not think of. It’s not long before he has a good idea of what happened to old Garth – now all he has to do is prove it.

Another excellent entry in the series – of the ones I’ve read so far, I find the books written around the time of WW2 seem to show her at the peak of her considerable talent in terms of plotting and, while I have enjoyed all of her settings, especially wartime London in Murder by Matchlight, the countryside ones always impress me with their affectionate but entirely unromanticised portrayals of rural communities.

As a little bonus, there’s an extra short story at the end of the volume, Live Wire. It’s only a few pages long – a tale of a criminal attempting to steal gold bullion from a train – but it’s very well done, darkly funny and highly entertaining, with a deliciously twisted ending. I usually forget to mention that there’s quite often a short story tucked in at the end of the BL releases, I assume when the page count of the novel is slightly shorter than the norm. It’s a bit like finding there’s still one chocolate left in the box when you think you’ve already eaten them all…

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

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It Walks By Night by John Dickson Carr

Deliciously decadent…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Jeff Marle has been summoned to Paris by an old friend of his father: the legendary detective Henri Bencolin, director of the Paris police. Bencolin has a peculiar case on his hands and feels Jeff may be interested in observing his methods. So Jeff becomes our “Watson”, and it’s through his eyes that we see the great detective at work. The case involves a madman – perhaps these days we would say psychopath – Alexandre Laurent, who was locked up after trying to kill his young and beautiful wife, Louise. That wife, her first marriage annulled, is now about to get married again, to the famous all-round sporting legend, Raoul de Saligny. But Laurent has escaped and rumour has it that he may have visited a plastic surgeon to change his appearance. He has sent a letter warning Raoul not to marry Louise and Bencolin fears that he will turn up in Paris, bent on killing Raoul and possibly Louise too. On the night of their wedding day, Raoul, Louise and the wedding party go to a fashionable gambling house, and Bencolin has his men there in force to guard them. But Laurent has the true cunning intelligence of the madman…

This is Carr’s first mystery novel, and my first introduction to his work. I thought it was totally marvellous! There are a couple of plots weaknesses, some moments where you have to take a deep breath and just let your suspension of disbelief have full rein, and it occasionally goes over the top into high melodrama. But the writing is great, and Carr creates a wonderfully creepy, almost hallucinatory atmosphere of horror and tension. In fact, it seemed to me draw as much, if not more, on the tradition of the Decadent horror writing of the fin de siècle period as on the mystery conventions of the Golden Age.

Published in 1930 and set in Paris, it offers a darker take on the “lost generation” of that time – of those living after one devastating war and seeing the approaching inevitability of another on the horizon. There is a great sense of amorality, of sensuous egoism, of a kind of cruelty of empty friendships and brutal infidelities. Drugs and drink play their part in the glittering hopelessness of the characters’ lives, and even in Jeff’s observations. One scene, where he has dinner with a young woman caught up in the case, is a masterpiece of fear heightened by the befuddling effects of alcohol – Poe-like in its creation of an atmosphere of impending horror. Grand Guignol was in my mind for much of it, since there’s no holding back in the gruesome bloodiness of the crimes, nor the pointless cruelty of them.

John Dickson Carr

As a mystery, I do think it’s just about fair play, although one has to be willing to let one’s imagination run riot a bit. There’s a locked room aspect to it, and as usual I failed to get that at all and frankly felt the solution to that part of the mystery was a bit too contrived. But in terms of the whodunit aspects – in this case, the who-is-Laurent aspect – I spotted several of the clues without realising that that’s what they were; in fact, I had sort of thought they were accidental inconsistencies rather than clues until all was explained at the end. But when the solution comes it’s wonderfully twisted, carrying the atmosphere of decadent horror right through to the end.

I’m aware that part of the reason I loved it so much is because of the horror aspects and that this may not appeal to all Golden Age mystery fans as much as it does to me. But the mystery aspect is good too and while Bencolin can be a bit too full of himself, as many of the great detectives are, Jeff is a wonderfully original creation as Watsons go, becoming deeply involved not just in the investigation but in the characters’ lives and the playing out of the plot. Wonderful stuff, and I can’t wait now to read more Carr – no wonder he’s considered one of the greats.

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

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The Christmas Egg by Mary Kelly

’Twas three nights before Christmas…

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Three days before Christmas, Inspector Nightingale is called to the scene of a suspicious death. An elderly woman has been found dead in her bed, and given her age it may have passed as natural but for the fact that she appears to have been robbed. Her trunk, which she always kept securely locked, is empty. Nightingale soon discovers she was a Russian Princess who had fled to Britain during the Revolution, bringing with her many fabulous jewels and valuable pieces of art. There has been a recent spate of burglaries and Nightingale suspects this is the latest, somehow gone wrong, leaving Princess Olga dead. But where is the Princess’s grandson? And why is there a note of the name and address of a local dealer in jewellery in her room? Nightingale and his sergeant, the rather cheeky and irreverent Beddoes, set out to investigate…

This isn’t a whodunit – although there is a mystery element around the grandson, the police are never in much doubt that the robbery ties in with the others, and the bulk of the story is about following Nightingale, and occasionally Beddoes, as they try to identify and catch the thieves. It’s very well written and both the settings – first the busy pre-Christmas streets and alleyways of Islington and later the blizzard-bound countryside of Kent – are used to great effect. Nightingale and Beddoes make a great team, obviously fond of each other and with a kind of rapport that comes from having worked together before. Each has full confidence in the other and they are more like equals than superior and subordinate, and there’s a lot of humour in their interactions.

The Princess’s backstory as a Russian émigrée adds another element to the story, and gives it the human interest aspect that can sometimes be missing in stories about thefts and police hunts. And the jeweller whose name is found in her room is a great character – a shrewd businessman with his own Russian background, is he the gossipy charmer he likes to portray, or is this a cover for shady goings-on? Nightingale’s constantly changing opinion about him and other people who might or might not be involved is a lot of fun and gives us a real feel for his character, as an honest man who wants to think the best of people but whose job means he has to consider the worst of them too.

Mary Kelly

The first half of the book sets up the story and introduces the characters, and then the second half becomes more of an action thriller as the hunt for the jewel thieves hots up. I found the whole thing a quick, interesting and enjoyable read that kept me turning the pages – I ended up reading it all in one day which is unusual for me. Apparently Kelly only wrote a few books and then stopped, which is a real pity since on the basis of this one she was clearly very talented. I hope the BL might reissue the two other Nightingale books sometime. And with its Christmassy timing and snowy settings, this one is a perfect read for the festive season. Highly recommended!

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

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Tuesday Terror! The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Frets on the marshes…

Young solicitor Arthur Kipps is sent to the small town of Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral of a client of his firm, the elderly Mrs Drablow of Eel Marsh House. The town is set on the edge of salt marshes which have encroached over the years, leaving Eel Marsh House on a kind of islet, accessible only by crossing a causeway when the tide is out. The marshes are vast and lonely, and Arthur soon picks up from the reaction of the locals that Mrs Drablow lived an isolated life, in a house surrounded by superstition and dread. Sensible young Arthur doesn’t believe in ghosts, though, so after the funeral he sets off quite happily to sort through Mrs Drablow’s papers. It won’t be long before he begins to wonder if the old tales are true…

A man may be accused of cowardice for fleeing away from all manner of physical dangers but when things supernatural, insubstantial and inexplicable threaten not only his safety and well-being but his sanity, his innermost soul, then retreat is not a sign of weakness but the most prudent course.

I’ve only read one of Hill’s ghost stories before, Printer’s Devil Court, and was rather unimpressed by it, so I went into this with fairly low expectations despite its reputation as a modern classic of the ghost story. I’m delighted to say I was wrong – this is a deliciously chilling story with plenty of spookiness and tension, and a narrator who is easy to care about.

It’s written in the style of classic ghost stories of the likes of MR James, and indeed Hill nods to one or two of the greats along the way. There’s nothing terribly original about it, but I’d say that’s true of many ghost stories – the effectiveness all comes from the story-telling. It’s set in the early part of the twentieth century, just as pony traps were giving way to cars, and Hill captures the period well, with Arthur having a modern outlook appropriate to the time and his age, but the history of the house and the origin of the haunting dating back into the darker days of the Victorian era. She also makes excellent use of her settings with some fine descriptive writing, first of the London fogs and then of the empty marshes, where sudden “frets” – sea mists – come rolling in, cutting off visibility and access to the mainland, and creating the perfect conditions for all kinds of vague eerieness to occur.

For a long time, I did not move from the dark, wood-panelled hall. I wanted company, and I had none, lights and warmth and a strong drink inside me, I needed reassurance. But, more than anything else, I needed an explanation. It is remarkable how powerful a force simple curiosity can be. I had never realized that before now. In spite of my intense fear and sense of shock, I was consumed with the desire to find out exactly who it was that I had seen, and how, I could not rest until I had settled the business, for all that, while out there, I had not dared to stay and make any investigations.

The main eerieness is, of course, the appearance of the mysterious woman in black, but she’s only part of the story – the scariest bits involve dark happenings out on the marshes, which I won’t reveal more about. The style means the scares all come from spookiness and dread – it’s happily gore-free and works much better because of it. It’s not terrifying, but it has a couple of excellent heart-in-the-mouth moments, and creates a nicely spine-tingling atmosphere of approaching doom.

Following his first scary night in the house, a kindly acquaintance from the town lends Arthur a dog to stay with him, and Spider quickly becomes an important character in her own right, providing warmth to the story as she provides comfort and companionship to Arthur. She also adds a further layer of tension, since now the reader has to worry about Spider as much as about Arthur (or, in my case, more…).

It was true that the ghastly sounds I had heard through the fog had greatly upset me but far worse was what emanated from and surrounded these things and arose to unsteady me, an atmosphere, a force – I do not exactly know what to call it – of evil and uncleanness, of terror and suffering, of malevolence and bitter anger.

The pacing is very good – it starts off slow and then builds, never becoming frantic but never dragging. And while the end is foreshadowed to a degree, it’s still done well enough to surprise and shock. Novella-length, it can be read in two or three hours, so perfect for a long winter evening, when the wind is howling around the house, and the cats are making strange noises in the room above, and somewhere outside is the sound of… is it a fox barking? Or is it a child, crying out through the fog…?

Not so scary as to give the reader nightmares, but definitely one that will tingle the spine and chill the blood. Highly recommended!

The porpy enjoyed the marsh setting too!

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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A Darker Domain (Karen Pirie 2) by Val McDermid

Scabs and kidnappers…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As the miners’ strike of 1984 dragged on, the miners and their families were increasingly desperate, relying on donations of food from sympathisers and collecting wood for fuel. A group of miners from the Fife village of Newton of Wemyss secretly left one morning to make their way to Nottingham, where the pits had re-opened, worked by men who were considered traitors – scabs – by the men of the National Union of Mineworkers. That morning, Mick Prentice disappeared too, and it was assumed he had gone with the men to Nottingham. Now in 2007, his daughter has an urgent need to contact him but can find no trace, so she reports him as a missing person. Because of the length of time since he was last seen, Karen Pirie of the Cold Case Review Team takes on the investigation. But she’ll soon be distracted by another cold case that has resurfaced.

Long ago, the daughter of local business magnate Sir Broderick Maclennan Grant was kidnapped with her baby son and held to ransom. The pay-off went wrong – Catherine, the daughter, was killed and no trace has ever been found of the child, Adam, nor were the kidnappers ever caught. Now an investigative journalist, Bel Richmond, has happened across something while on holiday in Italy that may provide the key to the mystery. Sir Brodie uses his considerable influence to have the case moved to the top of Karen’s priority list…

When Val McDermid is on form, as she is here, there are few authors to touch her in terms of telling a great story. This series, by concentrating on cold cases, allows her to revisit aspects of Scotland’s past and she does so with a deep understanding of the effect of events on the lives of the people caught up in them. The miners’ strike was a major turning point for Scotland, and for Britain more widely, as the Prime Minister nicknamed the Iron Lady (Mrs Thatcher) and the most powerful union leader in the land nicknamed King Arthur (Arthur Scargill) met head on in a battle for supremacy: a battle in which, as always, the foot soldiers – the miners and their families – became little more than cannon fodder. McDermid doesn’t delve deeply into the rights and wrongs of the dispute, but she shows with devastating clarity the impact the long-running strike had on mining communities, causing major hardship, testing old loyalties, straining marriages to their limits and dividing families, and leaving a legacy of bitterness that still lives on today.

She doesn’t allow the story to get lost amid the background, however. Karen soon discovers that there’s more to Mick’s disappearance than first appears. As she interviews his wife, still bitter about the disgrace he brought on his family by scabbing, and then the various other people who knew him back then, Karen gradually unearths a very human story with elements of love and betrayal, selfishness and greed, tragedy and guilt.

The other story too, the kidnapping, is just as human. Sir Brodie loved his daughter, perhaps too much, wanting to control her life and objecting to her choices, both in boyfriends and in career. As obstinate as her father, Catherine showed no desire to compromise or yield, leaving her mother trying to be the peacemaker in the middle. Her death left Sir Brodie not only bereaved, but with no opportunity for the reconciliation they might have had if they had been given time. Now, although he has made a new life for himself, Sir Brodie is still driven to find the kidnappers and have revenge, legally or otherwise, and to find what happened to the child – he has never given up hope that his grandson may be alive. He doesn’t have faith that the police will solve the crime after all this time, so he persuades the journalist, Bell, to investigate the Italian connection and, hoping for the scoop of a lifetime, she’s only too happy to oblige.

Val McDermid

The book skips about a lot between the various timelines and sometimes following Karen, sometimes Bel. But McDermid keeps total control, so that the reader never feels lost despite the complexities of plot and structure. It’s a fairly lengthy book but never dips or drags – the settings and story hold the attention throughout, and the characterisation is excellent, done with some degree of sympathy for even the least likeable among them. Karen herself is one of the most enjoyable detectives on the contemporary crime scene, not perfect but not an angst-ridden maverick, professional and skilled at her job, but with a life outside work. Here she’s working mostly with her long-term friend and now sergeant, Phil Parhatka, and there’s a welcome lack of the tedious sexism storyline most crime writers seem to feel necessary whenever they have a female protagonist.

One of her best, in my opinion, and considering how good she is, that’s saying a lot. Highly recommended.

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Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Honour, once lost…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

As a youth, Jim dreamed of glory, sure that one day he would meet a challenge that would give him the opportunity to prove his honour to the world. But when the moment comes, an act of cowardice places him beyond the pale, despised by his peers and by himself. Driven from place to place with his story always catching up with him, Jim is eventually offered a position in Patusan, a small country on a remote Indonesian island, where he will be able to start afresh among natives who neither know nor care about his past. But despite the admiration and even love he wins there, Jim still carries his disgrace and guilt inside himself…

After introducing Jim and telling us a little of his background as the son of a clergyman trained to be an officer in the merchant fleet, the long first section tells of his fateful voyage aboard the Patna, a rather decrepit vessel carrying hundreds of pilgrims across the Arabian Sea en route to Mecca. Marlow, our narrator, first encounters Jim during the official inquiry into this voyage, so that we know from the beginning that something went badly wrong. Jim alone of the ship’s officers has remained to face the inquiry and Marlow becomes fascinated by this young man, whose actions seem so alien to his appearance.

“…all the time I had before me these blue, boyish eyes looking straight into mine, this young face, these capable shoulders, the open bronzed forehead with a white line under the roots of clustering fair hair, this appearance appealing at sight to all my sympathies: this frank aspect, the artless smile, the youthful seriousness. He was of the right sort; he was one of us.”

As in Heart of Darkness, Conrad is examining the effects of colonialism, not on the colonised, but on the colonisers. Through Jim, he shows that the Empire has created a change in how the British imagine the rank of “gentleman”: no longer a title simply describing the land-owning class, but now a word that has come to represent a set of virtues – courage, moral rectitude, fairness, chivalry, patriotism and honour. Despite the book’s title, Jim is no member of the aristocracy – he is one of the new middle-class breed of gentlemen, educated to these virtues and sent out to carry British values through all the vast reach of the Empire. So his disgrace is more than a personal thing – it’s a weakening of the image the British project as a validation of their right to rule. Where an aristocrat with family power and wealth behind him might fall and be forgiven, these new gentlemen have only these virtues to justify their rank, and to fail in them is to lose that status – to be no longer “one of us”.

The story of the Patna is wonderfully told. Marlow takes his time in revealing the fate of the ship, digressing frequently so that gradually he builds a fascinating picture of the transient world of the merchant seamen who serviced the trade routes of the various colonial powers. As he finally reaches the incident that changes Jim’s life so irreversibly and its aftermath, Conrad employs some wonderful horror imagery, again related more to the imagined than the real. Imagination seems central to his theme – Jim’s imagination of how he would react in a moment of crisis as compared to the actuality, the imagined virtues of the gentleman, the imagined role of the colonisers as just and paternalistic, if stern, guardians of their colonised “natives”. Even the fate of the Patna is more imagined than real, showing that honour and its loss is dependant on intent rather than effect.

The second section of the book doesn’t work quite so well. When Marlow visits Jim in Patusan some years later, Jim tells him of his life there, how he has found a kind of peace in this isolated place, among natives who have given him the honorific title of “Lord” as a reward for his bringing peace and prosperity where before there had been only strife. Even allowing for the imagined fable-like quality of the story, Jim’s rise to prominence in this society smacks a little too much of white superiority to make for comfortable reading, and his love affair with the woman he calls Jewel (white, of course, but not English, therefore not his equal) is full of high melodrama and exalted suffering. However, the knowledge that he can never resume his place in the world of the white man festers, while his terror remains that his new-found respect could be lost should his story become known or, worse, should he face another trial of character and fail again. After a rather too long drag through this part of the story, the pace and quality picks up again, with the final section having all the depth and power of the earlier Patna segment.

The quality of the writing and imagery is excellent, although I found the structure Conrad uses for telling the story makes it a more difficult read than it needs to be and requires some suspension of disbelief. Jim’s story is relayed to us as a first-person account within a third-person frame, as our narrator, Marlow, tells Jim’s story to a group of colonial friends after dinner one evening. This device means the bulk of the book is given to us within quotation marks, which can become quite confusing when Marlow is relating conversations, especially at second-hand between third parties. Repeated use of nested punctuation marks like “ ‘ “…” ’ ” can make the modern reader (this one at any rate) shudder, and I found I frequently had to re-read paragraphs more than once to be sure of who had said what to whom. The idea of Marlow telling around 75% of the story in one long after-dinner tale is also clumsy – the audiobook comes in at 16 hours, so I can only assume Marlow’s friends were willing to sit listening not just until dawn but roughly to lunchtime the following day.

Joseph Conrad

These quibbles aside, the book is a wonderful study of the British gentleman who, as a class, ruled the Empire – a character who appears in simpler forms in everything from Rider Haggard’s African adventure stories to Agatha Christie’s retired colonials. Conrad shows how this type was imagined into being, and how important it was to the British sense of its own identity abroad and its justification of its right to rule. If we are more virtuous than everyone else, is it not natural that we should be their lords? And having imagined ourselves in this way, what is left of us, as individuals and as cogs in the Imperial machine, if we falter, weaken and fail?

An excellent book, both in simple terms of the extraordinary story of Jim’s life and for the depth and insight into the Victorian Imperial mindset. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. Even more than usual, the knowledgeable introduction and notes, this time by Jacques Berthoud, aided considerably in placing the book in its literary and historical context and in clarifying my thoughts on its themes, thus helping to inform my review.

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Enoch Powell: Politics and Ideas in Modern Britain by Paul Corthorn

The politics of decline and nationhood…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

For my generation, arriving at political awareness in the 1970s, Enoch Powell had already become the chief bogeyman for those of us on the left. He is best remembered for his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech of 1968, when he issued dire apocalyptic warnings about the dangers of mass immigration in terms which even in those days were incendiary and which to modern eyes are vilely, shockingly racist. He is still worshipped by the extreme right in Britain, happily a tiny proportion of our society, while some on the left still drag his name out whenever they want to present anti-immigrationism and racism as synonymous. However, he is also considered as one of the leading and most influential thinkers of his generation, and for many years I have wondered why such an intelligent man didn’t realise that this speech would blow his career into smithereens on that day in 1968, making him such a pariah to so many that all other aspects of his contribution to political life are hidden under its dark shadow, and also making rational discussion of immigration policies in the UK almost impossible for decades to come – still today, in fact.

Paul Corthorn is Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at Queen’s University Belfast. In his introduction, he acknowledges that much previous biography of Powell has been strongly pro or anti. In this book, Corthorn is striving to present Powell’s views on a variety of topics and how he came to form them, without judgement. Corthorn shapes his work around the political themes that engaged Powell throughout his political life rather than working to a timeline, and makes clear that this is an examination of Powell’s political thought and contribution rather than a personal biography of his life. Having previously ploughed through a rather nauseating and ultimately unrevealing hagiography of the man, I found this approach refreshing. Corthorn takes much of his argument from a close analysis of Powell’s speeches, to which Powell gave great thought. Corthorn suggests that the idea of ‘decline’ underpins much of Powell’s thinking, as his generation grappled with the end of the British Empire and sought to redefine nationhood and Britain’s role in the world, facing up to the new reality of American dominance.

The five themes Corthorn uses are international relations, economics, immigration, Europe and Northern Ireland. He does an excellent job of showing that each forms part of a coherent whole in terms of Powell’s thinking – that the ideas of decline and of nationhood run through all of his arguments and remain consistent, though his opinions on policy changed over time and sometimes could seem contradictory.

Enoch Powell

(The thing about Powell, as I learned when I reviewed a previous biography on Amazon, is that whatever you say about him he is so divisive that people will call you a fascist racist if you show any admiration for him at all, or a Trotskyite commie if you refuse to genuflect when mentioning his name. But hey! I reckon if people are calling you both, then you’re probably somewhere in the middle which is where I like to be, so if you’re going to be upset by me praising/criticising him you probably should look away now.)

There can be little doubt that Powell was one of the great political thinkers of the mid-twentieth century. He was tackling Britain’s future while most others were still clinging desperately to its past. He foresaw many of the issues we are dealing with today while others were burying their heads in the sand. He saw that American hegemony and the West’s interference in the Middle East would lead to a series of unwinnable wars. He was against devolution for the constituent nations of the UK because he believed that it would weaken identification with the UK as a nation state while never satisfying those who desired full independence. He believed that supranational organisations like the UN and NATO would weaken the ability of nation states to act in their own interests (which he saw as a bad thing). He believed that the then Common Market (now European Union) would progress inexorably towards political union – in his view, an undesirable outcome. And he believed that if governments refused to control immigration, then populism, with all its inherent dangers, would be the eventual outcome (the actual point he was making in 1968, lost entirely because of his use of degrading racist language). He was totally against allowing the Republic of Ireland to have a say in the administration of Northern Ireland, believing it would leave Northern Ireland always as a sort of semi-detached part of the UK – instead he wanted it be fully integrated into the non-devolved political system he favoured for all four UK nations. He was propounding the main ideas behind the economic theories that would eventually come to be called Thatcherism long before Thatcher.

Paul Corthorn

Corthorn finishes with a brief but excellent critical round-up of the preceding chapters and an analysis of why Powell’s reputation and legacy are still matters of dispute. Love or hate him, it is fascinating to read of a politician who gave so much thought to the long-term and who rarely allowed partisanship to sway him into short-term compromise. He changed party affiliation frequently and expected a level of loyalty from others that he rarely was willing to give. This, of course, made him an arrogant maverick with more than a hint of narcissism, and meant that he never gained the power he felt was his due, where a more emollient compromiser may have achieved more. And ultimately it was that arrogance – that failure to accept that those he saw as his intellectual inferiors (i.e., everyone) would not be wowed into agreement by his brilliance – that led him to think that it would be acceptable to speak of immigration in the racist terminology he used in the 1968 speech.

An excellent book that gives real and balanced insight into the thinking of this undoubtedly brilliant, undoubtedly deeply flawed man, and along the way casts a lot of thought-provoking light on many of the questions we are still grappling with today. I can’t say I like Powell any better than I did, but I rather wish I believed our present generation of politicians were as deep-thinking and forward-looking. Highly recommended.

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

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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Look over there…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Hercule Poirot has retired to the village of King’s Abbott to grow vegetable marrows but, as we all know, wherever that man goes, murder is sure to follow. Roger Ackroyd is a wealthy man and a leading light in the community, but he’s not always generous to his many dependants. So when he is found dead in his study there are plenty of suspects. Dr James Sheppard is first on the scene of the crime and once Poirot becomes involved in the investigation the doctor finds himself acting as his unofficial assistant. It is through Dr Sheppard’s eyes that the reader follows the case.

This is one of the most famous of the Poirot books and many people consider it to be the best. I always have a hard time deciding on “best” Christies because so many of them are so good, but this would undoubtedly make my top 5. However, it’s one of those ones that’s got such an amazingly brilliant solution, like Murder on the Orient Express and a couple of others, that once read never forgotten, so I tend to re-read it less often. I found on this re-read after many years, though, that although I remembered the solution very clearly, I’d actually forgotten most of the plot, so it still made for an enjoyable revisit.

Mr Ackroyd had been upset earlier on the day of his death by the news that wealthy widow Mrs Ferrars, with whom rumour suggested he was romantically involved, had died apparently by her own hand. At dinner that evening, he told Dr Sheppard that he’d received a letter from her which he hadn’t yet read. When his body is discovered later, no trace of the letter is to be found. Also missing is young Ralph Paton, Mr Ackroyd’s stepson, and when he fails to show up the next day suspicion quickly falls on him. Ralph’s fiancée, Mr Ackroyd’s niece Flora, begs Poirot to come out of retirement to prove Ralph is innocent. Poirot gently points out to Flora that if he takes the case he will find the truth, and if the truth turns out to be that Ralph is guilty, she may regret her request. Flora is sure of Ralph, though, so Poirot agrees. The local police know of his reputation and are happy to have him work with them.

Agatha Christie

“My dear Caroline,” I said. “There’s no doubt at all about what the man’s profession has been. He’s a retired hairdresser. Look at that moustache of his.” Caroline dissented. She said that if the man was a hairdresser, he would have wavy hair – not straight. All hairdressers did.

Part of the fun is seeing Poirot and his methods through Dr Sheppard’s eyes. Though he’s amused by the detective’s appearance and mannerisms, Sheppard soon begins to appreciate that Poirot’s unusual methods often get people to reveal things that the more direct questioning of the police officers fails to elicit. Poirot is of a social standing to mix as a guest in the homes of the village elite and, since gossip is the favourite pastime of many of them, including Sheppard’s delightfully nosy spinster sister, Caroline, they make him very welcome in the hopes of pumping him for information. Sheppard also has inside knowledge of all the village characters and their histories, useful to Poirot and entertainingly presented to the reader. The gossip session over the mah-jong game, for example, is beautifully humorous – so much so that it’s easy to overlook any clues that might be concealed amid the exchange of titbits of information Caroline and her cronies have managed to gather.

But that is certainly not the sort of information that Caroline is after. She wants to know where he comes from, what he does, whether he is married, what his wife was, or is, like, whether he has children, what his mother’s maiden name was—and so on. Somebody very like Caroline must have invented the questions on passports, I think.

Hugh Fraser

Christie is always brilliant at misdirection, and this book may be her best example of that. Is it fair-play? Yes, I think so – I think there are enough clues to allow the reader to work it out, but they’re so beautifully hidden I bet very few readers will. However, unlike a lot of clever plotters, Christie always remembers that to be truly satisfying a mystery novel needs more than that. In this one, the Sheppards are really what make it so enjoyable – the doctor’s often satirical observations of Poirot and his fellow villagers, and Caroline’s good-natured love of gossip. Combined with Poirot’s little grey cells and eccentricities, they make this not only a triumph of plotting but a highly entertaining read too. And, as always, Hugh Fraser is the perfect narrator. Great stuff!

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Tuesday Terror! The Case of Lady Sannox by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Never betray Sir Arthur…

I don’t usually use two stories from the same author so close together, but firstly, it’s my beloved ACD, and secondly, I feel this is almost a companion piece to last week’s story, The Retirement of Signor Lambert. Another adulterous affair, another revenge but this time against the erring wife and so, so much more horrific than last week’s. Not for the faint-hearted – you have been warned!

The Case of Lady Sannox
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The relations between Douglas Stone and the notorious Lady Sannox were very well known both among the fashionable circles of which she was a brilliant member, and the scientific bodies which numbered him among their most illustrious confreres. There was naturally, therefore, a very widespread interest when it was announced one morning that the lady had absolutely and for ever taken the veil, and that the world would see her no more. When, at the very tail of this rumour, there came the assurance that the celebrated operating surgeon, the man of steel nerves, had been found in the morning by his valet, seated on one side of his bed, smiling pleasantly upon the universe, with both legs jammed into one side of his breeches and his great brain about as valuable as a cap full of porridge, the matter was strong enough to give quite a little thrill of interest to folk who had never hoped that their jaded nerves were capable of such a sensation.

Douglas Stone had expensive tastes and liked the best of everything. And when he met Lady Sannox, he knew he had to have her. Not a terribly difficult task…

She had a liking for new experiences, and was gracious to most men who wooed her. It may have been cause or it may have been effect that Lord Sannox looked fifty, though he was but six-and-thirty.

The Lovers

Poor old Lord Sannox! Don’t feel too sorry for him, though! People had never been sure whether he was unaware of his wife’s indiscretions or whether he simply chose to ignore them. But when Douglas Stone became the new favourite, even Lord Sannox couldn’t fail to notice…

There was no subterfuge about Stone. In his high-handed, impetuous fashion, he set all caution and discretion at defiance. The scandal became notorious.

The Husband

One night, Stone was due to visit his Lady but as he was about to leave home a man arrived, asking for his medical assistance for his wife…

A few moments later the butler swung open the door and ushered in a small and decrepit man, who walked with a bent back and with the forward push of the face and blink of the eyes which goes with extreme short sight. His face was swarthy, and his hair and beard of the deepest black. In one hand he held a turban of white muslin striped with red, in the other a small chamois-leather bag.

He tells Stone that his wife has met with an accident and has been poisoned by an obscure Oriental poison. She must have an operation immediately if she is to be saved! Stone is rather unmoved by this, but the promise of a huge fee sways him, and they set off to the man’s house…

It was a mean-looking house in a narrow and sordid street. The surgeon, who knew his London well, cast a swift glance into the shadows, but there was nothing distinctive—no shop, no movement, nothing but a double line of dull, flat-faced houses, a double stretch of wet flagstones which gleamed in the lamplight, and a double rush of water in the gutters which swirled and gurgled towards the sewer gratings.

Inside, the man takes Stone to the patient…

A single small lamp stood upon a bracket on the wall. Douglas Stone took it down, and picking his way among the lumber, walked over to a couch in the corner, on which lay a woman dressed in the Turkish fashion, with yashmak and veil.

And then…

The Climax

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No, if you want to know the rest you must read it for yourself! It’s one of the stories in Late Victorian Gothic Tales (and many other anthologies), but if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link

I warn you, this one actually horrifies me and the porpy has now taken a lifelong vow of celibacy and retired to a monastery. It reminds us that ACD is not nearly as cuddly as Dr Watson and that he was a medical man before he was a writer. But it is brilliantly written, and completely unforgettable – though you might wish it wasn’t! It also reminds us that humans are much more to be feared than ghosties, ghoulies or even things that go bump in the night!

The porpy’s at the back. But fear not! I’m sure I’ll be able to tempt him
out again once the initial horror begins to fade!

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

GAN Quest: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Whom the gods would destroy…

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Chief Bromden has been on the mental ward for years, one of the Chronics who are never expected to recover. Everyone believes he is deaf and dumb, but his silence is a choice – a result of years of feeling that no one heard him when he spoke. His supposed deafness makes him invisible to the staff, which means that he can listen in to conversations patients aren’t meant to hear. He knows that Nurse Ratched, in charge of the ward, is part of the Combine – the all-powerful authorities who control men through psychiatry, medication and technology. Chief Bromden may be insane – or perhaps he’s too sane. As he puts it himself…

…you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.

Into the ward one day comes a new patient, Randle P McMurphy: loud, brash, crude, funny. Maybe he’s insane, or maybe he’s faking it to get away from the work farm he was in for “fighting and fucking too much”. McMurphy is soon the “bull goose loony” in the ward, a gambling man challenging Nurse Ratched for supremacy, and geeing the Acutes up to rebel. The Acutes are men who are being treated with a view to them one day being able to leave and resume a normal life outside. But then McMurphy discovers that most of the Acutes are there voluntarily and could leave whenever they like, whereas he has been committed, and Nurse Ratched has complete power to decide his fate. Chief Bromden watches, hoping that somehow McMurphy is big enough to beat the Combine…

First published in 1962, the book is of its time in that there’s a lot that reads like racism and misogyny today. But if you can look past this, it also has a good deal to say about the concerns of the time, many of which remain unresolved today – the treatment of mental illness, the tendency of society to suppress individuality, the emasculation felt by some men in a society that no longer values physical strength and aggression as it once did, the closeting of homosexuality, the destruction of Native American lands and traditions by the forces of capitalism (also part of Chief’s Combine). (It struck me as odd, in fact, that Kesey was so sympathetic to Native American culture while being rather blatantly racist about African Americans.)

The writing is wonderfully versatile, ranging from the profanity and sexual crudeness and humour of the men’s language, to profound insights into this small microcosm of the insane world we all live in, to the frightening imagery of the Combine delusions inside Chief’s head, to moments of beauty as Chief begins to appreciate the possibilities of life again under McMurphy’s domineering tutelage. Here describing a young dog he sees from the window of the ward at night…

Galloping from one particularly interesting hole to the next, he became so took with what was coming off – the moon up there, the night, the breeze full of smells so wild makes a young dog drunk – that he had to lie down on his back and roll. He twisted and thrashed around like a fish, back bowed and belly up, and when he got to his feet and shook himself a spray came off him in the moon like silver scales.

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The ambiguity over Chief’s sanity means that the reader has to decide whether to interpret things as he does, or to consider whether his bias is making Nurse Ratched seem crueller and McMurphy saner than they might look from a different perspective. In the film, McMurphy is very much the hero, even if a flawed one. In the book, it’s not so clear cut, and I felt Chief Bromden himself was the central character – whether Ratched or McMurphy are in the right becomes somewhat secondary to how Chief’s interpretation of their actions and motives gradually affects his own mental state. I found I was cheering on McMurphy and the patients, but a small voice in my head kept suggesting that maybe Ratched was right that McMurphy’s incitement to rebellion was damaging them as badly as McMurphy felt Ratched and the system were. For Chief, McMurphy takes on an almost Christ-like role: a man willing to sacrifice himself to free others of their sins – in this case, the sin of not fitting in to society’s expectations. I suspect that may have been what Kesey wanted the reader to feel too – he’s certainly critiquing his society ferociously. But by using the setting of a mental hospital and giving us a Chronic for our guide, he leaves open the possibility that everything we are seeing is an insane view of the world. Intentional or not – I couldn’t decide – it makes the book wonderfully thought-provoking.

Ken Kesey

I read this once before long ago when I was enthralled by the film, and found the book disappointingly different. This time round I appreciated those slight differences in emphasis – the actions and events are almost identical, but seeing them through Chief’s eyes rather than directly through our own adds a layer of ambiguity that perhaps the film lacks. A great book and a great film, but perhaps best not read and watched too closely together.

This is my book for the Classics Club Spin #21.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * *

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

Achieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

Yes, there is no doubt that psychiatry was an obsession in American culture at this period, and Kesey uses it effectively to look at many aspects of his contemporary society.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

This one is always tricky. Yes, we’ve had insane narrators since Poe’s time, but this feels different – Chief’s insanity is a response to the world he lives in, and the suggestion that our society is stripping us of the ability to be individuals hence driving us mad feels urgently original.

Must be superbly written.

I felt Kesey maintained Chief’s voice and perspective brilliantly – an intelligent, sensitive man but not well-educated. The sheer variety in tones throughout the book impressed me hugely, as did its feeling of emotional truth. So, achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

I’m very tempted, I must admit. While at that time all America was not mad (I say nothing about today’s America… 😉 ), here Kesey is suggesting that it is the “American experience” that is at the root of the madness of his characters – its obsessions, its inequality, its drive towards conformity at the expense of individuality and masculinity. But in the end, I don’t think it ranges quite broadly enough to claim this flag. With regret, not achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 5 stars and 4 GAN flags, I’m delighted to declare this…

A Great American Novel.

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Tuesday Terror! The Retirement of Signor Lambert by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A cautionary tale…

If you have been a visitor to my blog for any length of time, you will know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has his very own pedestal in my bookish hall of fame. Adventure, crime, historical fiction – he was a master of so many genres. Not least, horror! Here’s a deliciously horrid little story for this week’s…

The Retirement of Signor Lambert
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir William Sparter was a man who had raised himself in the course of a quarter of a century from earning four-and-twenty shillings a week as a fitter in Portsmouth Dockyard to being the owner of a yard and a fleet of his own. . . now, at the age of fifty, he owned a mansion in Leinster Gardens, a country house at Taplow and a shooting in Argyleshire, with the best stable, the choicest cellars and the prettiest wife in town.

Life is pretty good for Sir William, but for one thing.

And yet he had failed in one thing, and that the most important of all. He had never succeeded in gaining the affection of his wife.

Oh, he had tried! His pretty wife had married him not for love, but because of his wealth and power. Sir William had hoped to win her love in time…

But the very qualities which had helped him in his public life had made him unbearable in private. He was tactless, unsympathetic, overbearing, almost brutal sometimes, and utterly unable to think out those small attentions in word and deed which women value far more than the larger material benefits.

Well, I’m not so sure in this case. She did marry him for his large “material benefits” after all. Anyway, then Sir William makes a terrible discovery…

…when a letter of his wife’s came, through the treachery of a servant, into his hands, and he realized that if she was cold to him she had passion enough for another.

Sir William was not a man who would forgive such a betrayal…

His firm, his ironclads, his patents, everything was dropped, and he turned his huge energies to the undoing of the man.

He confronts his wife, and insists she write a letter to her lover…

“William, you are plotting some revenge. Oh, William, if I have wronged you, I am so sorry—”
“Copy that letter!”
“But what is it that you wish to do? Why should you desire him to come at that hour?”
“Copy that letter!”
“How can you be so harsh, William? You know very well—”
“Copy that letter!”
“I begin to hate you, William. I believe that it is a fiend, not a man, that I have married.”
“Copy that letter!”
Gradually the inflexible will and the unfaltering purpose began to prevail over the creature of nerves and moods. Reluctantly, mutinously, she took the pen in her hand.

The letter written, Sir William sends his wife to bed. Then he takes out two things and begins to read. The first is a paper…

…a recent number of the “Musical Record,” and it contained a biography and picture of the famous Signor Lambert, whose wonderful tenor voice had been the delight of the public and the despair of his rivals. The picture was that of a good-natured, self-satisfied creature, young and handsome, with a full eye, a curling moustache and a bull neck.

The lover!

The second thing is a medical book on the organs of speech and voice-production…

There were numerous coloured illustrations, to which he paid particular attention. Most of them were of the internal anatomy of the larynx, with the silvery vocal cords shining from under the pink arytenoid cartilage. Far into the night Sir William Sparter, with those great virile eyebrows still bunched together, pored over these irrelevant pictures, and read and reread the text in which they were explained.

* * * * *

Woo! Am I glad I never had an affair with Sir Arthur’s wife! This little story shows Conan Doyle at his most twisted. Sir William’s method of revenge is cruel and carried out with a cold-blooded competence that chills the blood. While it’s hard to sympathise with Signor Lambert, his punishment is harsh indeed. Jacqueline, the wife, doesn’t gain much sympathy either – having married Sir William for his money and then having betrayed him, she seems to think that he should simply forgive. But nothing in Sir William’s personality could have led her to think that he was the forgiving kind…

He could frighten his wife, he could dominate her, he could make her admire his strength and respect his consistency, he could mould her to his will in every other direction, but, do what he would, he could not make her love him.

We aren’t given many details of the aftermath for the characters after the act of revenge – I shiver when I think of poor Jacqueline’s reaction and the fear she must have felt, compelled as she would have been to remain married to a man whose potential for pitiless brutality she now fully understood.

Once read, never forgotten! I read it in Gothic Tales of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link. I think of Signor Lambert often – a cautionary tale for all you adulterers out there…

The porpy reckons this story has made him immune
to female charms for a while…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Peterloo: The English Uprising by Robert Poole

A milestone on the road to democracy…

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Two hundred years ago, on 16th August, 1819, a huge rally of some 50,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Field in Manchester, to demand greater representation in Parliament. Although the demonstrators were peaceful and unarmed, they were charged by the cavalry and local Yeomanry, riding through the crowd with sabres drawn. Many hundreds were injured and eighteen were killed, either from crush injuries or from sabre wounds. Known as Peterloo, this incident is embedded in the national consciousness as a tragic milestone on the long, long road to democracy.

Robert Poole is Professor of History at the University of Central Lancashire. He suggests that 1819 should be seen in the context of the end of the long 18th century following the Glorious Revolution, as much as the beginning of the reforming 19th century. The Napoleonic Wars had ended at last, but for the handloom weavers and mill-workers in and around Manchester, peace brought no dividend. The huge national debt had led to high taxation, usually indirect which then as now hit the poor disproportionately. Wealth inequality, already major, was growing. Government policies such as the Corn Laws favoured landowners and voters (a tiny number of the wealthy) rather than workers. Wages, already low, were falling still further. Starvation was an actuality even for people working long hours in appalling conditions.

One of the banners carried by the marchers that so frightened the authorities.

Poole concentrates most of the book on the period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) and 1819, with the focus on what led up to the massacre more than on its aftermath. He gives a detailed account of the conditions of the workers, the prevailing economic circumstances, the political environment, and the effect of recent upheavals in France on the establishment’s fear of bloody revolution. The book is clearly the result of immense research, pulled together into a very readable narrative that is accessible to the non-historian without in any way over-simplifying the content. There are maps of the area, and a generous helping of illustrations throughout, which aid in understanding how events were perceived at the time. Although it’s clear Poole is on the “side” of the reformers (who in today’s Britain would disagree with that position?), he nevertheless casts an objective eye on why the authorities behaved as they did, condemning where appropriate, but showing some understanding of the pressures they felt themselves under too. He also shows that, although there was no violence on that day from the reformers’ side, there had been violent incidents before, and it was known that the marchers had been being drilled by ex-soldiers, leading the authorities to fear an armed uprising. Overall I felt that Poole gave as even-handed an account of the background as possible, while not in any way minimising or excusing the atrocity that occurred.

Along the way, we learn a lot about the leaders of the Reform movement and their aims, not always uniform. Poole also tells us about the many spies embedded in the movement, reporting every word and action back to the Home Office. We are told about the Government’s use of political power to make it almost impossible for people to protest legally, and about the abuses of the legal system, such as the suspension of habeas corpus, to allow those perceived as ringleaders to be kept in jail for long periods often without trial. Poole tells us about the women who joined the reform movement, not at this early stage demanding votes for themselves, but in support of their men. Despite all the attempts to threaten, bully or otherwise silence them, the people marched, and marched again, and the authorities, local and national, unwilling, perhaps unable, to give in to their demands, felt they had to do something to restore order.

As a casual reader, I found the middle section of the book, where Poole describes the many marches and protests prior to the day of Peterloo, harder to plough through, although this is more a criticism of me than the book. For students, historians or people who like an in-depth approach, then the level of detail Poole provides will be appreciated. However, I found the long first section on the political, social and economic background fascinating and written with great clarity, while the description of the event itself at the end is excellent – a clear and balanced account, and by that stage Poole has ensured the reader understands all the various elements that came together to clash so tragically on St Peter’s Field.

Poole concludes by examining the numbers of dead and injured, explaining the sources historians have used for determining these figures. He discusses the trials and imprisonments that followed. He takes a very interesting look at the reporting of the day and how public opinion was changed by a few journalists offering eyewitness accounts. He then sets this event as a link in the chain of the longer reform movement, later leading to the 1832 Reform Act and on towards Chartism and eventual achievement of universal manhood suffrage, where every vote counted equally. He compares (as I did while reading) the period 1817/19 to today’s Britain (and I’d add America and several European nations, not omitting the EU itself), with populism rising as a response to an elite who don’t listen to the concerns of the people, (and again I’d add, or who discount the legitimacy of any democratically-expressed decision with which they disagree). I also found myself comparing these events to the ongoing Hong Kong protests, with a chilling sense of foreboding.

I was taught about Peterloo by an inspirational history teacher at school and it helped form my long-held opinion that if democracy is to survive, then democracy itself must be accepted by all as more important than any one political issue or partisan affiliation. Democracy is a fragile thing, and this book is an excellent reminder of how hard-fought the battle was to win it. I highly recommend it.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Moon-Bog by HP Lovecraft

Wraiths and frogs…

HP Lovecraft has become an annual fixture on Tuesday Terror! ever since I first came across him and mocked his overblown style a few years back. Somehow his “weird” imagery wormed itself into my brain and, while I still occasionally mock him, I’ve come to admire his work and to realise how influential it has been on horror and weird fiction right up to the present day. The porpy and I first read this story last year and still remember some of the imagery distinctly, so it seems a perfect choice for this week’s…

The Moon-Bog
by HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

Somewhere, to what remote and fearsome region I know not, Denys Barry has gone. I was with him the last night he lived among men, and heard his screams when the thing came to him; but all the peasants and police in County Meath could never find him, or the others, though they searched long and far. And now I shudder when I hear the frogs piping in swamps, or see the moon in lonely places.

Ah, frogs! Deliciously Lovecraftian! Having made his money in America, Denys Barry has purchased the decayed ancestral castle of his family in Ireland and has spent the last few years restoring it to its former glory, much to the joy of the local peasantry who benefited from the work and money he provided.

But in time there came troubles, and the peasants ceased to bless him, and fled away instead as from a doom. And then he sent a letter and asked me to visit him, for he was lonely in the castle with no one to speak to save the new servants and labourers he had brought from the north.

Artist unknown

Our narrator hastens to be by his friend’s side…

I had reached Kilderry in the summer sunset, as the gold of the sky lighted the green of the hills and groves and the blue of the bog, where on a far islet a strange olden ruin glistened spectrally. That sunset was very beautiful, but the peasants at Ballylough had warned me against it and said that Kilderry had become accursed, so that I almost shuddered to see the high turrets of the castle gilded with fire.

That evening, Denys tells him of the trouble…

The peasants had gone from Kilderry because Denys Barry was to drain the great bog. For all his love of Ireland, America had not left him untouched, and he hated the beautiful wasted space where peat might be cut and land opened up. The legends and superstitions of Kilderry did not move him, and he laughed when the peasants first refused to help, and then cursed him and went away to Ballylough with their few belongings as they saw his determination.

Art by bealinn via deviantart.com

Our narrator laughs too. Oh, how they laugh! Superstitious peasants! What rational man would pay attention to their absurd fears?

They had to do with some preposterous legend of the bog, and of a grim guardian spirit that dwelt in the strange olden ruin on the far islet I had seen in the sunset. There were tales of dancing lights in the dark of the moon, and of chill winds when the night was warm; of wraiths in white hovering over the waters, and of an imagined city of stone deep down below the swampy surface. But foremost among the weird fancies, and alone in its absolute unanimity, was that of the curse awaiting him who should dare to touch or drain the vast reddish morass.

Here’s a tip for anyone thinking of moving to a new neighbourhood: always listen to the fears of the local peasants! Denys proceeds with his plans, bringing in labourers from outside since the locals have left. Meantime our narrator’s nights are disturbed by dreams of wild music and mysterious figures on the bog. And then on the night before the bog is due to be drained, he is woken by the sound of shrill piping and a strange light…

Terrible and piercing was the shaft of ruddy refulgence that streamed through the Gothic window, and the whole chamber was brilliant with a splendour intense and unearthly.

Finally plucking up his courage, he looks out of his tower room window at the bog below…

Half gliding, half floating in the air, the white-clad bog-wraiths were slowly retreating toward the still waters and the island ruin in fantastic formations suggesting some ancient and solemn ceremonial dance. Their waving translucent arms, guided by the detestable piping of those unseen flutes, beckoned in uncanny rhythm to a throng of lurching labourers who followed dog-like with blind, brainless, floundering steps as if dragged by a clumsy but resistless daemon-will. As the naiads neared the bog, without altering their course, a new line of stumbling stragglers zigzagged drunkenly out of the castle from some door far below my window, groped sightlessly across the courtyard and through the intervening bit of village, and joined the floundering column of labourers on the plain.

And then the shrieking begins…

Art by Stephen Fabian

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I think this is my favourite of all the Lovecraft stories I’ve read. A wonderful mix of Gothic horror and weird fiction, the frogs are not to be missed, and the whole thing is full of Lovecraft’s amazing imagery. I read it in the gorgeous British Library hardback, The Gothic Tales of HP Lovecraft – a book that I highly recommend both for the quality of the stories and for the tactile beauty of the book. However if you’d like to read this story online, here’s a link.  I warn you, though, if you ever let Lovecraft inside your head, you may never be able to rid yourself of him…

The porpy is refusing to come out of the tree till
he’s sure there are no frogs around…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

The battlefield of love…

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Gertrude and Walter Morel are an unequal match: she, the educated daughter of “burgher stock”, he, a miner in the Nottingham coal fields. Their attraction is one of physical passion, which soon burns out. Gertrude comes to despise the very things that she once found irresistible in Walter: his animalistic physicality and domineering masculinity. She turns away from him and invests her love in her children, especially her two oldest sons, William and Paul. As they grow into manhood, Gertrude treats them in turn almost as surrogate husbands, and exerts such a hold on their affections that each finds it hard to develop relationships with women. The book follows Paul through his childhood, adolescence and young manhood, and the three women who vie for his love.

In her arms lay the delicate baby. Its deep blue eyes, always looking up at her unblinking, seemed to draw her innermost thoughts out of her. She no longer loved her husband; she had not wanted this child to come, and there it lay in her arms and pulled at her heart. She felt as if the navel string that had connected its frail little body with hers had not been broken. A wave of hot love went over her to the infant. She held it close to her face and breast. With all her force, with all her soul she would make up to it for having brought it into the world unloved. She would love it all the more now it was here; carry it in her love. Its clear, knowing eyes gave her pain and fear. Did it know all about her? When it lay under her heart, had it been listening then? Was there a reproach in the look? She felt the marrow melt in her bones, with fear and pain.

This is one of the first adult books I read, way back in the dark ages, and I loved it as passionately as Gertrude loved her sons, re-reading it several times over the space of a very few years. I deliberately haven’t revisited it since my late teens, having a growing fear that Lawrence is one of those writers best read at the time of raging adolescent hormones, when all his angsting about his characters’ never-ending sexual obsessions and hang-ups resonates most strongly. Although I didn’t react to it with quite as much emotional intensity on this re-read, I’m glad to say it holds up to a cynical adult gaze very well.

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It’s wonderfully perceptive about Gertrude and Walter’s marriage and the quiet battlefield it becomes. Paul, who is a lightly fictionalised version of Lawrence himself, is firmly on his mother’s side throughout, as are all the children. This is understandable since Walter alternates between affection and bullying towards them and their mother. But I must admit to having a considerable amount of sympathy for Walter, and this, I think, must be a tribute to the honesty of Lawrence’s writing. Walter is what he is – a brash, crude, physical, working man at a time when the husband expected to be treated as head of the household. Gertrude, when her passionate attraction to his maleness wears off, seems to want to change him and, by showing her discontent, does, though not in the way she intended. In the early days of their marriage he shows kindness to Gertrude again and again, and she rejects him, scorns him. Would he have taken to drinking with the men night after night if she had made their home more welcoming to him? Would he have bullied her and the children if she had not made it so clear that he had no real place in their lives other than as provider? If she had not shown her contempt for their father so openly, would the children have avoided and feared and despised him? Perhaps Walter would have turned out as he did regardless, but I felt he was never given a chance – he had all the physical strength, but Gertrude’s bitterness and sense of her own innate superiority were the stronger forces in all their lives.

Paul’s own feelings (and therefore presumably Lawrence’s) are increasingly ambivalent about his mother as he grows into manhood. He loves her – that is without question. But as he finds himself struggling to develop satisfying relationships with the women with whom he becomes involved, he knows that this is at least partly due to the influence and pull of his mother’s overweening, almost romantic, love for him. Of course, this being Lawrence, this psychological question plays out largely at the sexual level.

Miriam and Clara are the two women who love Paul, though Lord alone knows why. With Miriam, it’s all about his artist’s soul; his relationship with Clara is pretty much purely physical. He treats both women appallingly, but frankly, they’re both so pathetic I couldn’t get up much sympathy. Muriel especially would be enough to drive any man to drink, with her constant flower-sniffing and soulful eyes and desire to sacrifice herself in a quasi-religious way on the altar of love. Here’s a woman who can make sex such a monstrous aberration from the pure holiness of existence that it wouldn’t take many of her to ensure the extinction of humanity. Clara on the other hand has zero personality (but beautiful arms and, I regret to say, bouncy breasts). She exists merely as the adjunct of the men in her life – her husband and Paul, her lover. When we meet her, we are told she is an early feminist, but we see no signs of that in her behaviour.

DH Lawrence
Photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It would be easy to accuse Lawrence of misogyny in his handling of these two characters, and I was tempted to do so. Two things save him, I think. The first is that, although they were apparently based on real lovers of Lawrence’s, they come over more as representations of Paul’s narcissistic struggle with his own desires than as real women in their own right. Miriam and Gertrude are fighting for his soul, while Gertrude is more willing to accept the physicality of his relationship with Clara, feeling that less of a threat to her hold over Paul. The second is not my own thought – it comes from the insightful introduction by David Trotter in my Oxford World’s Classics edition, who points out that in female modernist writings of the same era, the male characters are often equally underdeveloped, there for the sole purpose of allowing the women to explore aspects of themselves. Once I recognised the truth of that, I was more willing to forgive Lawrence. However, from a purely literary point of view, I felt the Miriam stuff went on for too long and became tediously repetitive, hence the loss of half a star.

On every side the immense dark silence seemed pressing him, so tiny a spark, into extinction, and yet, almost nothing, he could not be extinct. Night, in which everything was lost, went reaching out, beyond stars and sun. Stars and sun, a few bright grains, went spinning round for terror, and holding each other in embrace, there in a darkness that outpassed them all, and left them tiny and daunted. So much, and himself, infinitesimal, at the core a nothingness, and yet not nothing.
“Mother!” he whimpered—“mother!”

The writing is always good and often beautiful, and Lawrence has the ability to create an emotional intensity that, while it can feel a little overdone at times, nevertheless sheds light on some of the essential truths of the human condition. There are scenes I have never forgotten from those early reads, and I found them just as powerful still. It makes me and my inner teenager very happy to be able still to say – highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – none, sorry. Can’t find this edition on the US site.

Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie, plus Murder, She Said

Evil Under the Sun

Beware! Poirot on holiday!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Jolly Roger Hotel sits secluded on Smuggler’s Island, a promontory off the Devon coast that can be reached only by boat or over the paved causeway from the mainland. Here the well-to-do come for a peaceful holiday in luxurious surroundings. Imagine their horror, then, on discovering that Hercule Poirot has booked in as a fellow guest! The man is a walking pestilence – wherever he goes, murder is sure to follow. There ought to be a special clause about him in travel insurance policies!

As beautiful actress Arlena Stuart comes out of the hotel and walks to the beach, all eyes are drawn to her; the men in admiration, the women in disapproval. Arlena has a reputation – gossip about her relationships with various men is whispered whenever her name is mentioned. Her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, seems to be either unaware or uncaring of his wife’s indiscretions, but he’s the only one. Here on Smuggler’s Island, Arlena is carrying on a heady flirtation with a fellow guest – a young man by the name of Patrick Redfern – careless of the effect on Patrick’s young wife, Christine. Patrick seems trapped in Arlena’s web, unable to escape, as so many other men are rumoured to have been before. Fanatical minister Stephen Lane sees her as the embodiment of evil; Rosamond Darnley hates seeing how she treats Rosamond’s childhood friend, Kenneth; Kenneth’s daughter from an earlier marriage resents this woman who has come into their home and brought no happiness with her. There are rumours that Arlena is being blackmailed, and any of the other guests could be the blackmailer. So when Arlena’s body is found in a lonely cove, everyone on the island finds themselves suspect…

I know I sound like a broken record with these Christie novels but this is another one I love. The plotting is great – both the how and the why. The isolated island gives it the feel of a closed circle mystery – while it’s possible that someone came from the mainland to murder Arlena it’s soon shown to have been unlikely. So Poirot, with the full co-operation of the police, sets out to talk to the various guests, to try to uncover the truth from beneath all the alibis and motives and lies. It’s another one of the ones where, shortly before the end, Poirot kindly lists all the clues giving the reader one last chance to work it out before all is revealed. Good luck with that! It’s entirely fair-play but your little grey cells will have to be in excellent working order to spot the solution.

For once I think I prefer the Ustinov adaptation to the Suchet, because the wonderful and beautiful Diana Rigg is so well cast as Arlena…

I love the characterisation in this one even more than the plotting, though. Patrick’s infatuation and Christine’s jealousy are well done, and young Linda’s teenage resentment of her step-mother feels very realistic. Two American guests, the voluble Mrs Gardiner and her complaisant husband, provide a touch of warmth and comedy amid the atmosphere of overhanging evil. Mr Blatt lets us see how money doesn’t provide automatic entry to the rarefied heights of social snobbery, while Major Barry is one of Christie’s always excellent retired colonials, willing to bore anyone polite enough to listen to his interminable stories of days gone by. Arlena herself is seen only through the eyes of others, leaving her rather ambiguous, while Rosamond’s protectiveness of Kenneth suggests she may feel something deeper than friendship for him.

Excellent! If you haven’t read it before, do; and if you have, read it again! Another one that I highly recommend.

NB This book was provided for review in a new edition with great new covers by the publisher, HarperCollins.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * *

Murder, She Said

😀 😀 😀

HarperCollins also sent me another treat – a little book of Miss Marple quotes. It’s beautifully produced in hardback and the quotes are divided up into sections, such as The Art of Conversation, Human Nature, Men and Women, etc.

“If people do not choose to lower their voices, one must assume that they are prepared to be overheard.”

It has an introduction by Tony Medawar, partly about Christie’s inspirations for the character and partly a biography of what can be gleaned of Miss Marple’s life. The book also includes a brief article called “Does a Woman’s Instinct Make Her a Good Detective?”, written by Christie for a British newspaper in 1928 to publicise a set of short stories she was issuing at that time. And at the back it has a complete bibliography of all the Miss Marple novels and short stories. Apparently there’s a companion volume in the same style for Poirot fans, called Little Grey Cells.

“I’ve never been an advocate of teetotalism. A little strong drink is always advisable on the premises in case there is a shock or an accident. Invaluable at such times. Or, of course, if a gentleman should arrive suddenly.”

It’s the kind of book that would be a fun little gift for a Miss Marple fan –  not substantial enough to be a main gift; it didn’t take long for me to flick through the pages – but a good idea for a stocking filler. There are days when we could all do with a bit of Miss Marple’s clear-eyed wisdom…

“Most people – and I don’t exclude policemen – are far too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told them. I never do. I’m afraid I always like to prove a thing for myself.”

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link