Tuesday Terror! Dracula by Bram Stoker read by Greg Wise and Saskia Reeves

Get out the garlic!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

If Jonathan Harker had only wasted some of his youth watching Hammer Horror films instead of studying to be a solicitor, he’d have known that a visit to Transylvania to meet a mysterious Count in his Gothic castle probably wasn’t going to turn out well. And if Lucy Westenra had accompanied him on those youthful trips to the cinema, she’d have been less likely to leave her window open when a large bat was flying around outside.

It’s years since I last read Dracula, and I enjoyed it considerably more this time round, maybe because I’ve been reading lots of Gothic horror over the last few years and am therefore more in tune with the conventions, or maybe because Greg Wise and Saskia Reeves do such a great job with the narration.

My major reservation about it is that it’s far too long in places, especially at the beginning and end, where for long periods of time nothing much happens except everyone writing up their journals in an angst-filled and overly dramatic style, filling page after page with nauseating glowing admiration of the other characters’ many perfections. But the bulk of the book in between is excellent, with some true Gothic horror and the occasional bit of humour to prevent it all becoming too overblown. As with any hugely influential classic, it’s quite hard for a modern reader to feel the full impact of how original and terrifying the ideas in the book would have been to contemporary readers. So many of them have become clichés now – jokes, even – such as the crucifix-wielding and the garlic, and so on. And because that feeling of originality is missing, it becomes easy to start nit-picking, especially on those occasions when the action slows to a crawl. (See below.)

However, there are other parts of the book that don’t seem to have been recycled quite as often in subsequent vampire culture (in my extremely limited experience), and these add a lot of interest. The lunatic Renfield is actually scarier than the Count in my opinion, because he’s fully human and mad, rather than a monster. His fascination with flies and spiders is enough to give me the creeps even before he starts eating them! His philosophy that devouring living things will give him extended life has just enough insane logic to make it frightening and of course ties in to the vampires’ blood-sucking.

The Count’s Gothic castle is wonderfully done, as is Jonathan’s growing realisation that all is not well, followed by his discovery that he can’t get away. I was rather sorry to leave the castle and return to England, although I liked the humour in Mina and Lucy’s correspondence. Mina starts out as a great female character, strong, intelligent and resourceful. Sadly, she is turned into some kind of angelic idealised female victim in the end, constantly banging on about the men being so gallant and full of honour, while they kneel to her (literally) on more than one occasion, as if they are worshipping her perfect womanhood. Oh dear! She becomes nearly as vomit-inducing as some of Dickens’ more sickly-sweet heroines at times!

Greg Wise and Saskia Reeves share the narration. The whole book is presented in the form of letters and journal entries, so Wise reads all the ones written by men, while Reeves does those written by women. This means that sometimes they have to “do” the same character, where, for instance, Mina and Dr Seward both relate conversations they have had with Dr Van Helsing, the vampire expert of the group. It seemed to me that Wise and Reeves did very well at co-ordinating these characters, so that they both gave Van Helsing the same accent and speech pattern, for example. At first it was discombobulating to hear Reeves “do” Mina, closely followed by Wise recounting Mina through someone else’s “voice”, but it soon all gels and works very well. I thoroughly enjoyed the audiobook presentation.

After all the long, long story, the ending is oddly abrupt, and not nearly as chilling as some of the earlier parts of the story. And that’s because… well, spoilers below, because I need to have a bit of a rant! So if you haven’t read it yet, I’d suggest you stop reading my review now, and read the book instead. Despite some flaws and pacing problems, it’s a great read – although not the first vampire novel, certainly the most influential on subsequent vampire culture.

* * * * *

Spoiler-filled nit-picking rant!

OK, look, fine, vampires are scary – I get it. But they’re also so ridiculously easy to defeat that I can’t imagine why any of them survive longer than a night! Let’s examine a few of their design faults…

1. Garlic. I mean, seriously, you wear garlic round your neck and you’re safe? Well, why on earth didn’t the Transylvanians just do that, then, instead of letting Dracula and his harem prey on their children for generations? I mean, I’m not the biggest fan of kids, but there are limits! And, more to the point, once our little group knew that Dracula was in the vicinity and liked to prey on women, why in heaven’s name didn’t Mina invest in a garlic necklace?? Think of the trouble that would have been saved.

2. Communion wafers. So all you have to do to make a vampire homeless is sneak a communion wafer into its coffin while it’s out? Too easy!

3. Crucifixes. Need to use your garlic for your pasta sauce? Never mind, just wear a crucifix around your neck and you’re invulnerable to even the wickedest vampire. I guess it must be like masks – people were simply too lazy/stupid* (*delete according to preference) to wear them…

4. Bedtime. Vampires have to sleep while the sun is up. Assuming you haven’t already spoiled their bed by sticking a communion wafer in it, this gives you many, many hours each day when the vampire is completely unable to defend itself. Handy for the human, but not such a great thing for the vampire.

5. Death. Stake through the heart, cut off the head – job done. I refer you back to bedtime above. Since the vampire is helpless for most of the time, why do any of them survive once the secret of how to kill them is known? And known it must be, or how could Van Helsing have known what to do? And that leads me to another point – how did Van Helsing know so much about vampires anyway? Suspicious, if you ask me…

So I couldn’t really feel that vampires present much of a real threat to humanity, unless there’s ever a world-wide garlic shortage.

Still a great book, though… 😉

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Checkmate to Murder (Inspector MacDonald 25) by ECR Lorac

Keep Calm and Carry On!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s wartime London and a thick fog is making the darkness of the blackout even deeper. A perfect night for murder! Four men are together in an artist’s studio. Bruce Manaton, the artist, is working on a portrait of his friend, actor André Delaunier, dressed for the sitting in the scarlet robes of a Cardinal. Meantime two other men, Robert Cavenish and Ian Mackellon, are absorbed in a game of chess. Each couple is in a pool of light while the rest of the studio is in shadow. In the kitchen off the studio, Bruce’s sister, Rosanne, is preparing a meal (because she’s the woman, obviously). Suddenly into this quiet scene bursts the local Special Constable, clutching a young soldier whom he claims has just murdered the old miser who lives next door. But when Inspector MacDonald of the Yard begins to investigate, he’s not convinced it’s as simple a case as it first appears…

ECR Lorac has been one of the major successes of the British Library Crime Classics series as far as I’m concerned, and I guess I’m not alone since they’ve now republished several of the Inspector MacDonald books, as well as a standalone written under another of her pen names, Carol Carnac. One of her real strengths is her settings, and her wartime ones are particularly atmospheric. Here she uses the combination of fog and blackout brilliantly, not just to provide a cloak for nefarious goings-on, but also to conjure up a sense of what it was like to be living in a London still struggling stoically on under the constant threat of air raids.

The worst of the Blitz is over, but the memories of the bombings are still fresh. So much so, that, as Bruce later explains to Inspector MacDonald “Londoners have heard so many bangs during their recent history, that a pistol shot isn’t so impressive a row as it used to be.” This, together with the random blasts of fog horns, means that the group in the studio didn’t consciously hear the shot that killed old Mr Folliner.

Through patient police work, MacDonald and his team soon have reason to doubt that the young soldier, who, it turns out, is Mr Folliner’s nephew, is the murderer, although he was found by the Special Constable in the old man’s bedroom with the corpse. But if he’s innocent, then who did the deed? The list of suspects is small, and it seems almost impossible that anyone in the vicinity at the time could have done it. MacDonald will have to work out not only whodunit, but how.

It’s a good puzzle, with some of the elements of the “impossible crime” about it, though I find it impossible myself to explain why without giving mild spoilers, so I won’t. The characterisation is very good, with Bruce and Rosanne Manaton particularly well developed. Bruce is talented, but he’s moody and selfish, and Rosanne acts almost as much as a mother to him as a sister. People aren’t spending much on art during the war, so Rosanne struggles to make ends meet and stop Bruce blowing what little money they do have on drink. She too is a talented artist, but Bruce kindly lets her sacrifice her own career so that she can do all the cooking and cleaning and worrying for them both.

We also get to know Inspector MacDonald a little better, though his life outside work is still largely a blank. I like that he never works alone – Lorac always makes us aware of the teamwork that is going on in the background to support his detecting, and gives them full credit for their contribution. As used to be the case in those halcyon days (in fiction), the police team work well together, efficiently, professionally and in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Another great read from Lorac’s pen – I remain baffled as to why she is less well known than the other Golden Age Queens of Crime and am very glad that the BL is doing such a great job in changing that.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Man Who Went Too Far by EF Benson

If you go down to the woods today…

Having been cooped up inside for so long, the porpy and I thought it would be nice to go for a little walk in the woods. This week’s story comes from Weird Woods, edited by John Miller, a new anthology in the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series…

The Man Who Went Too Far
by EF Benson

EF Benson

The little village of St. Faith’s nestles in a hollow of wooded hill up on the north bank of the river Fawn in the country of Hampshire, huddling close round its grey Norman church as if for spiritual protection against the fays and fairies, the trolls and “little people,” who might be supposed still to linger in the vast empty spaces of the New Forest, and to come after dusk and do their doubtful businesses.

At the end of the village is a little house, where an artist, Frank, has come to live in isolation, communing with nature. Today, however, he is awaiting the arrival of an old friend, Darcy, whom he has not seen for several years. But when Darcy sees him, he is astonished at his appearance…

“Frank!” he exclaimed.
“Yes, that is my name,” he said, laughing; “what is the matter?”
Darcy took his hand.
“What have you done to yourself?” he asked. “You are a boy again.”

It’s not simply Frank’s physical appearance that has changed, though. He seems to have become all mystical, and has developed an uncanny intimacy with nature and all her offspring…

He paused on the margin of the stream and whistled softly. Next moment a moor-hen made its splashing flight across the river, and ran up the bank. Frank took it very gently in his hands and stroked its head, as the creature lay against his shirt.
“And is the house among the reeds still secure?” he half-crooned to it. “And is the missus quite well, and are the neighbours flourishing? There, dear, home with you,” and he flung it into the air.

Later, they talk, and Frank explains that…

“…when I left London, abandoned my career, such as it was, I did so because I intended to devote my life to the cultivation of joy, and, by continuous and unsparing effort, to be happy.”

He had found humanity to be too Puritan, too downright dismal, to enable him to find joy among them.

“So I took one step backwards or forwards, as you may choose to put it, and went straight to Nature, to trees, birds, animals, to all those things which quite clearly pursue one aim only, which blindly follow the great native instinct to be happy without any care at all for morality, or human law or divine law.”

Darcy is a bit cynical about all this, but he looks at Frank’s youthful, joyous face and wonders. Frank continues…

“I looked at happy things, zealously avoided the sight of anything unhappy, and by degrees a little trickle of the happiness of this blissful world began to filter into me. The trickle grew more abundant, and now, my dear fellow, if I could for a moment divert from me into you one half of the torrent of joy that pours through me day and night, you would throw the world, art, everything aside, and just live, exist.”

Eventually, one day, as he lay in a deep state of contemplation of joyfulness, he heard the sound of music, from some flute-like instrument.

“It came from the reeds and from the sky and from the trees. It was everywhere, it was the sound of life. It was, my dear Darcy, as the Greeks would have said, it was Pan playing on his pipes, the voice of Nature. It was the life-melody, the world-melody.”

And now Frank hopes that soon he will be allowed into the presence of Pan and through him learn the true meaning of life.

“Then having gained that, ah, my dear Darcy, I shall preach such a gospel of joy, showing myself as the living proof of the truth, that Puritanism, the dismal religion of sour faces, shall vanish like a breath of smoke, and be dispersed and disappear in the sunlit air.”

* * * * *

Pan seems to be a mysterious god: sometimes, as Frank thinks, a kind of pagan offshoot of the Christian religion (as he also appears a few years later in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame); sometimes a force of ancient Satanic evil, to be avoided at all costs (as he appears earlier in The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen). Since the prologue hints at the ending, it comes as little surprise to the reader to find which version of Pan appears here! It’s the ancient forces of paganism that carry this story out of straight horror into “weird” territory.

The beginning is full of gorgeously lush descriptions of the natural world – so lush I felt Benson was overdoing it until I realised he’s deliberately showing it as an enchanted, almost fairy-tale place. But the story gradually darkens, and we see that Frank’s anti-Puritanism stance barely conceals a hedonistic, narcissistic view of life. So there’s a feeling of this being a morality tale of a kind – a dark kind. It made me briefly feel quite pro-Puritan!

The story is a little longer than usual. It took me around forty minutes to read, I think, but it was time very well spent. Here’s a link if you’d like to read it, and I found this audio version of it too online. I’ve only listened to the first minute or so, but the narrator sounds good.

(The porpy will be fine just as soon as I coax him out of hiding…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Transwarp Tuesday! Foundling on Venus by John and Dorothy De Courcy

On Venus, no one can hear you sob…

Even more than usual, I’m dreaming of escaping this grubby old world and seeking purer air and better manners somewhere far away, where inventing Twitter is a criminal offence, politicians must take a vow of silence, and chocolate grows on trees. Perhaps Venus will be an idyllic vacation spot… let’s see…

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

Foundling on Venus
by John and Dorothy De Courcy

(I have no idea what this picture is supposed to represent since there is absolutely no scene in the story like this!)

Unlike Gaul, the north continent of Venus is divided into four parts. No Caesar has set foot here either, nor shall one – for the dank, stinging, caustic air swallows up the lives of men and only Venus may say, I conquered.

Hmm, so not an environmental paradise then, but surely the inhabitants will be advanced, peaceful, artistic? Well, apparently the Africans exploit their quarter, the Asians engage in…

…the bitter game of power politics, secret murder, and misery – most of all, misery.

… and the Martians use their quarter as a penal colony. So it looks as if my last hope rests in the American zone…

The Federated States, after their fashion, plunder the land and send screaming ships to North America laden with booty and with men grown suddenly rich – and with men who will never care for riches or anything else again. These are the fortunate dead.

I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve selected the right location, but look! There’s a town, built just at the intersection where all four quarters meet! Maybe it will be a perfect spot for tourists…

From the arbitrary point where the four territories met, New Reno flung its sprawling, dirty carcass over the muddy soil and roared and hooted endlessly, laughed with the rough boisterousness of miners and spacemen, rang with the brittle, brassy laughter of women following a trade older than New Reno. It clanged and shouted and bellowed so loudly that quiet sobbing was never heard.

Think I might have a staycation this year after all. Anyway, one day a young waitress, Jane, comes across a little child, sobbing as he sits on the street, apparently abandoned.

….Oh, my!” she breathed, bending over the tiny form. “You poor thing. Where’s your mama?”
….
The little figure rubbed its face, looked at her blankly and heaved a long, shuddering sigh.
….“I can’t leave you sitting here in the mud!” She pulled out a handkerchief and tried to wipe away some of the mud and then helped him up. His clothes were rags, his feet bare.

She takes the child home and feeds him and puts him to bed, but he’s still wide awake, so she begins to tell him a story – the tale of a ship that crashed on an unknown planet…

“The big, beautiful ship was all broken. Well, since they couldn’t fix the ship at all now, they set out on foot to find out where they were and to see if they could get help. Then they found that they were in a land of great big giants, and the people were very fierce…”

(Nope, this scene doesn’t exist either!)

* * * * *

The actual story of this is quite slight and it’s not too hard to work out what the twist at the end is likely to be. But it’s a lovely description of a frontier society, much like the Old West but transplanted to a truly hostile environment where people can’t venture outside without protection from the very air they must breathe. It’s also got a few nicely imaginative touches, like the Martian society as shown by their attitude towards their penal colony, or the way the crash victims set out to survive. It’s very short, but well written and entertaining, and with just enough substance to scrape into the thought-provoking category – thoughts that are not very complimentary to Earthlings, I must admit.

(Bland, but better.)

I read it in Born of the Sun, edited by Mike Ashley – a collection which promises to take me to each of the planets in our solar system, so I haven’t given up all hope of finding my paradise yet. Maybe I’ll visit The Hell Planet next – I hear it’s nice this time of year…

Meantime, if you’d like to read this one, it’s available on Project Gutenberg – here’s a link.

* * * * *

Little Green Men rating: :mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen:

Inspector French and the Mystery on Southampton Water by Freeman Wills Crofts

Profit motive…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Joymount Cement Company is in trouble. Its main local competitor, Chayle’s, has found a new formula that allows them to produce cement more cheaply, thus undercutting Joymount. Joymount’s board of directors decide to give their chief chemist a few weeks to try to replicate the formula – if he fails, then the company may have to close. King, the chemist, tries his best but, as the deadline approaches, he is no nearer finding the solution, so he persuades one of the other directors, Brand, to sneak into Chayle’s with him one night to see what they can find out. That’s when things begin to go horribly wrong…

This is an “inverted” mystery, a format for which I understand Crofts was particularly well known. (For the uninitiated, this means that the crime is shown first including the identity of the criminal, and then the story joins the detective, showing the methods he uses to investigate it.) The story leading up to the break-in at Chayle’s and the resulting death that happens there is very well told, but only takes up about a quarter of the book. Inspector French from Scotland Yard is brought in because the local police suspect that there’s more to the break-in and death at Chayle’s than meets the eye. French soon confirms this, and now a murder hunt is on.

At this point, I was thinking that it was going to be a long haul watching French discover what we, the readers, already knew had happened. I should have had more faith in Crofts’ reputation! I can only be vague because I want to avoid even the smallest of spoilers, but suddenly another event happens that turns the story on its head, leading to another crime – one to which the reader does not know the solution. This second crime forms the main focus of the book, and a very satisfying mystery it is. The possible suspect list is tiny, but the clues are so beautifully meted out that I changed my mind several times about whodunit, and only got about halfway there in the end. It’s also a howdunit – until the method is discovered, it’s almost impossible to know who would have had the opportunity to commit the crime. So in the end, Crofts throws in everything – an inverted crime, a traditional mystery, alibis, method, motives, all wrapped up in a police procedural, and it all works brilliantly.

Freeman Wills Crofts

He also does a lovely job with the characterisation – not so much of French, who truthfully is a bit bland as detectives go, in this one at any rate, but of the men involved – King, Brand, their boss Tasker, and their opposite numbers at Chayle’s. They are each given clear motivation for how they act individually, and there’s a good deal of moral ambiguity floating around – while not everyone is guilty in the eyes of the law, very few could be called entirely innocent. The murkiness of the business world is at the heart of the story, and the lengths to which men will go in the pursuit of profit. (Yes, they’re all men – it was first published in 1934.)

I loved this. So intricately plotted but also with a very human set of characters to stop it from being merely a puzzle. It’s only the second book of Crofts I’ve read, the other being The 12:30 from Croydon, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. It too is an inverted mystery, but very different in how it’s done, showing that this particular sub-genre has more room for variety than I’d have expected. I will now add Crofts to my ever-growing list of vintage crime writers to be further explored! Happily I have another couple of his books already waiting on the TBR pile…

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

Amazon UK Link
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The Spanish Civil War by Stanley G Payne

Distilled history…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

On starting my personal challenge to get an understanding of the Spanish Civil War through history, memoirs and fiction, the first book I wanted was one which basically explained the historical background, laid out the events leading up to the war, introduced the main leaders, explained the factions and tried, at least, to avoid bias. This last point was the hardest – all the best known histories on the subject seem to be pretty overwhelmingly biased towards the Republican (left) side. After a couple of false starts, I settled on this one and feel I couldn’t have made a better decision. Payne has been a historian of Spain and European fascism throughout his career, and this book feels like the sum of all that immense study, distilled down to its pure essence. Every word in its short 286 pages counts, so that there’s far more information in here than in many a waffly 900-page tome I’ve struggled through on other historical periods.

Payne’s bias, if he has one, seems slightly to the right, though it’s quite clear he’s no more a fan of the regimes of the far-right than the far-left. He avoids any kind of romanticisation of the left – generally a recurring feature of British and American writing on the SCW, showing how much better the left were at propaganda, if nothing else. Indeed, propaganda and the role of foreign journalists and novelists in its dissemination at the time, and on public perception of the conflict even today, is one of the many subjects he addresses in the book.

Payne starts with a brief introduction, putting the SCW into the context of the many civil wars happening in Eastern Europe and around the “periphery” of Europe around that time. He notes that Spain was unique in being the only Western European country to have a civil war in the interwar years, and that, while the political upheavals in other western nations like Germany and Italy rose out of the aftermath of WW1, Spain had remained neutral in that conflict.

He continues by giving a concise and clear history of Spain, from the time of the Romans. This is done in a just a few pages, but gives the newcomer to the subject a very clear idea of the development of the social, political and economic conditions in the country just prior to the civil war. He discusses Spain’s failure to modernise at the same rate as other European countries, remaining more rural and socially backward, less literate, poorer. Out of these conditions arose the factions on left and right that would both eventually feel that a limited conflict would give power into their hands.

Book 2

Payne slows down a bit as he discusses the years from around 1930 to the outbreak of war, but it is still a very distilled account – no padding, very few anecdotes or character sketches, but everything very clearly explained. The profusion of factions on both left and right are the main reason I, and I’m sure I’m not alone, find the SCW more confusing than many other conflicts or historical events, and Payne takes the time to explain each in turn – how they arose, their affiliations to outside forces like the USSR or Mussolini’s Italy, their regional power bases within Spain, what they believed in and what kind of government they wanted to create. As he develops the history of events, Payne is excellent at constantly reminding the reader of where each faction stands whenever they are mentioned, so that I rarely found it necessary to turn to the included glossary of all those dreaded acronyms, like POUM and PCE and CEDA. In fact, by the end of the book I actually had a good idea of what all these terms actually meant – a considerable achievement, believe me!

Stanley G Payne

Alongside the narration of events, Payne includes themed chapters where he goes more deeply into one aspect of the conflict, such as religion or foreign intervention or propaganda, etc., and it’s in these chapters that he’s more analytical. He debunks some of the commonly held and somewhat romantic myths, explaining their origin, and replaces them with factual analysis, including plenty of statistics, on numbers of executions on both sides, for example, or the brutal atrocities carried out, again by both sides. He is critical of Franco’s skills as a war strategist, suggesting his failure to take decisive action at crucial moments led to a prolongation of the conflict. But his strongest criticism is directed at the shambolic chaos on the left, with faction fighting faction, and no clear plan of what they were trying to achieve. He compares the conditions in Republican and Nationalist zones, and suggests a major factor in the Nationalists’ success was their economic competence – indeed, their competence generally. The picture he paints is of idealism, factionalism and chaos on the left defeated by planning, pragmatism and organisation on the right. (Are you listening, America?)

My only caveat, and it’s a small one, would be that a basic understanding of the Russian revolution and of the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini would be helpful, but I think he gives enough information on them in passing to prevent any reader from feeling too lost. So, in conclusion, great as an introduction for the newcomer, but there’s also plenty of analysis in here to interest those with an existing knowledge of events. Highly recommended – the perfect start to my quest!

Amazon UK Link
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Tuesday Terror! The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen

Remembrance…

This week’s story comes from a new anthology of eerie stories from the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, this one with the theme of settings in the various districts of London – Into the London Fog. The tale of terror I’ve selected is set in Kensington, during the Blitz, and comes from the pen of an author I’ve seen mentioned a lot around the blogosphere but have never previously read…

The Demon Lover
by Elizabeth Bowen

Elizabeth Bowen

Mrs Drover is in London for the day, and visits her deserted home to pick up some things she’d left there when she and her family fled to the country to avoid the Blitz. She finds herself feeling a strange sense of dislocation…

In her once familiar street, as in any unused channel, an unfamiliar queerness had silted up; a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs. Drover’s return. Shifting some parcels under her arm, she slowly forced round her latchkey in an unwilling lock, then gave the door, which had warped, a push with her knee. Dead air came out to meet her as she went in.

Everything is cold, and the empty rooms show the things usually unnoticed in a full house…

…the yellow smoke stain up the white marble mantelpiece, the ring left by a vase on the top of the escritoire; the bruise in the wallpaper where, on the door being thrown open widely, the china handle had always hit the wall.

She passes through the hall to go upstairs…

A shaft of refracted daylight now lay across the hall. She stopped dead and stared at the hall table—on this lay a letter addressed to her.

How could a letter be there? Who could have put it on the table? Mrs Drover hurries up to her bedroom, and opens the letter…

Dear Kathleen: You will not have forgotten that today is our anniversary, and the day we said. The years have gone by at once slowly and fast. In view of the fact that nothing has changed, I shall rely upon you to keep your promise. I was sorry to see you leave London, but was satisfied that you would be back in time. You may expect me, therefore, at the hour arranged. Until then…

K.

She remembers. She remembers the day her soldier fiancé left in 1916 to return to the war in France. She remembers their last meeting in the evening gloom of the garden, and the promise he forced from her before he left. She remembers his unkindness and her relief that he would soon be gone.

Turning away and looking back up the lawn she saw, through branches of trees, the drawing-room window alight: She caught a breath for the moment when she could go running back there into the safe arms of her mother and sister, and cry: “What shall I do, what shall I do? He has gone.”

She remembers being informed that he was “missing, presumed killed”. But she does not remember the appointed hour for the fulfilment of her promise. And she does not remember his face…

* * * * *

Well, this is a little cracker – right up there with The Turn of a Screw in terms of ambiguity! It’s only a few short pages, but Bowen builds a tremendous atmosphere of apprehension and the dislocation of war. We think of WW1 and WW2 as two separate events, but Bowen shows them as a continuum – the second war reviving traumas barely healed from the first.

Mrs Drover is outwardly a passive character. Her first lover seemed to rather want to possess her than love her, and her reaction seems to have been entirely submissive. Left single after the end of the war, she is grateful to attract another man and strives to be a good wife and mother. But there are subtle indications that there may be more going on beneath her calm surface…

Since the birth of the third of her little boys, attended by a quite serious illness, she had had an intermittent muscular flicker to the left of her mouth…

This wonderfully ambiguous character portrait leaves the reader unsure whether anything is true. It’s told in the third person, but if the narrator is omniscient she chooses carefully which parts of her knowledge she will reveal. Is it the repeated trauma of war – the loss of a lover in the first, the loss of a home in the second – that has driven Mrs Drover over the edge? Or is her lover really about to return – living or dead? The ending manages the difficult feat of being both almost entirely unexplained and yet fully satisfying.

Is it a ghost story? Or a story of revenge for a promise forgotten? Or a story of mental breakdown brought on by trauma? I still haven’t decided – you’ll need to read it and make up your own mind! Here’s a link. Whatever it is, the porpy and I think it’s great!

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Motion of the Body Through Space by Lionel Shriver

“Okay, boomer…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Serenata has always been a fitness freak, no day complete without its allocated hours of exercises and running. So much so that, now she has reached sixty, her knees have given up the unequal struggle and forced her to learn to take things easy. Still trying to come to terms with this, she finds it rather cruel and insensitive when her husband Remington decides that, after a lifetime of sedentary laziness, he will run a marathon. Besides, she hates the new culture of fitness sweeping the country – when she started her punishing regime all those years ago, she was unusual, and that was a large part of the charm. Now when she’s out cycling it seems half the world is there alongside her, and for her running was always something you did on your own to get fit, not in crowds for pleasure. Plus, is there just a little jealousy in there? Serenata has never run a marathon… not that she wanted to, of course, but still. She is honest enough to admit to herself that she thoroughly resents Remington’s new-found enthusiasm…

This is my first Shriver so I don’t know how it compares to her other books. This one is written with a great deal of humour from the perspective of a grumpy older woman struggling to take modern attitudes seriously and derisive of the hubristic belief of the young that they have somehow invented anti-racism and feminism and know all the answers. Anyone who reads my tweets or reviews may not be too surprised to learn that this resonated strongly with me! Shriver mercilessly mocks the worst of political correctness and the ridiculous extremes of identity politics which have made us wary even of referring to ourselves as men or women for fear that that will offend someone somewhere somehow, or of inadvertently using a term that was considered not just acceptable but progressive five years ago but is now apparently an indication of some hideously unforgivable Neanderthal attitude. Poor Serenata gets very tired of people assuming that because she’s white, middle-class, middle-aged and straight, that that automatically must mean she’s racist, homophobic and downright stupid. Oh, Serenata, I feel your pain!

Remington, meantime, is going through a mid-life crisis, complete with an infatuation with another woman, his fitness coach. Serenata realises that her open mockery of his marathon ambition is driving a wedge into their long and happy marriage, so tries her best to show him support. Shriver is very funny about the whole fitness industry, where one marathon is no longer enough – people have to run at least four, consecutively, in a desert, if they want respect these days. To her horror, Remington is not satisfied by his marathon. Instead he now decides he wants to do the Mettleman Triathlon – a gruelling all-day race involving cycling, swimming and running. Serenata feels this may literally kill him, but her earlier ridicule means Remington puts her warnings down to mere petulance. Will he survive? Even if he does, will their marriage survive? Does Serenata even want it to?

Lionel Shriver

I don’t know how young people will react to this – it may be making too much fun of subjects they erroneously think they own. But as someone roughly the same age as Serenata, I found it sharp and perceptive, and hilarious. I’m sure when I was young I was just as convinced my elders were all idiots, but now that I’m old I can see that the young have their fair share of idiocy too, and I look forward gleefully to the day when the youth of today are old (as they will be, sooner than they think) and are being told by their grandchildren’s generation that they failed in everything and know nothing about anything. Serenata is an unlikely heroine, but I’m sure she speaks for many of us who have spent a lifetime fighting all the ’isms only to find ourselves derided, dismissed, patronised or ignored by those who benefit every day from our achievements – even for many who would never admit it for fear of not seeming groovy/cool/woke/insert-latest-self-congratulatory-buzzword-here.

So, highly recommended for grumpy older women everywhere, and please feel free to call me Serenata from now on… *smiles sweetly*

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

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Tuesday Terror! Schalken the Painter by Sheridan Le Fanu

Men! Tchah!

The evenings have grown long and dark, the porpy is awake from his summer hibernation and practising his quivering, the ghosts have donned their freshly laundered sheets – it’s time for terror! And what better way to start than with a classic tale from a master of horror, taken from this brand new collection, Green Tea and Other Weird Stories, issued by Oxford World’s Classics just in time to scare us all into fits this spooky season…

Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter
by Sheridan Le Fanu

J Sheridan Le Fanu

Our narrator is admiring a painting of a lovely young girl, painted years before by the Dutch painter, Schalken, and now owned by the narrator’s friend…

In its hand the figure bears a lamp, by whose light alone the form and face are illuminated; the features are marked by an arch smile, such as pretty women wear when engaged in successfully practicing some roguish trick;…

But there is another figure in the painting…

…in the background, and, excepting where the dim red light of an expiring fire serves to define the form, totally in the shade, stands the figure of a man equipped in the old fashion, with doublet and so forth, in an attitude of alarm, his hand being placed upon the hilt of his sword, which he appears to be in the act of drawing.

The painting’s owner tells the tale which is said to have inspired the painting – the tale of Rose, whom Schalken, when young, loved and lost.

Rose Velderkaust was very young, having, at the period of which we speak, not yet attained her seventeenth year, and, if tradition speaks truth, possessed all the soft dimpling charms of the fair, light-haired Flemish maidens.

“Young Girl with a Candle”
by Gottfried Schalken

Rose was the niece of the painter under whom Schalken was studying, Gerard Douw. She soon grew to love Schalken too, but he was poor and could not aspire to her hand until he had made his mark in his chosen career, so he set to at his studies with a good will, and the two young people were content to wait.

But one evening, while Schalken had stayed late to continue his work after all the other pupils had left, he was disturbed by the arrival of a sinister stranger, half-hidden in the gloom of the room…

There was an air of gravity and importance about the garb of this person, and something indescribably odd, I might say awful, in the perfect, stone-like movelessness of the figure, that effectually checked the testy comment which had at once risen to the lips of the irritated artist.

The stranger asked Schalken to arrange for Douw to meet him there the following night. This Douw duly did, and the stranger revealed his name, Wilken Vanderhausen, and his purpose…

“You visited the town of Rotterdam some four months ago, and then I saw in the church of St. Lawrence your niece, Rose Velderkaust. I desire to marry her, and if I satisfy you as to the fact that I am very wealthy, more wealthy than any husband you could dream of for her, I expect that you will forward my views to the utmost of your authority.”

Blieck Church of St. Lawrence in Rotterdam

Now, Douw knew nothing about this man and was repelled by his appearance and manner, but when the stranger handed him a box full of pure gold ingots, he immediately decided Vanderhausen would make a perfect husband for his beloved niece, for, as he explained to the appalled Rose…

“Rose, my girl, it is very true he has not thy pretty face, but I know him to be wealthy and liberal; and were he ten times more ugly” – (“which is inconceivable,” observed Rose) – these two virtues would be sufficient” continued her uncle “to counterbalance all his deformity, and if not of power sufficient actually to alter the shape of his features, at least of efficacy enough to prevent one thinking them amiss.”

…and what are women, after all, if not chattels to be sold to the highest bidder? And so within the week, Rose is married off to Vanderhausen, and whisked away by him to Rotterdam. Weeks pass, and no word is heard of the newlyweds, and a worried Douw can find no trace of them at the address Vanderhausen had given them. But one dark night, a frantic knocking is heard at the door, and Rose is admitted, in a state of profound terror. She begs her uncle to bring her a minister of God…

“Oh that the holy man were here,” she said; “he can deliver me: the dead and the living can never be one: God has forbidden it… Do not, do not leave me for a moment,” said she; “I am lost for ever if you do…”

* * * * *

The odd thing is that I’ve read this story before and thought it was okay, but this time I loved it! This is apparently the original version of the story from 1839, whereas it’s usually a later revised version that shows up in collections. I haven’t directly compared them and it’s quite a while since I read the later version, but it seems to me that this version fills in more of the blanks, and gives it more depth. Le Fanu uses the real Schalken’s painting style, of showing figures in dark rooms lit only by a single candle or lamp, to great effect, with most of the scenes in the story being full of shadowy corners and menacing gloom.

Although Schalken gets the billing in the title, it’s really Douw, as a man who equates money with worth, and poor Rose, the victim in different ways of each of the three men in her life, who are the stars. Douw is a decent man by the standards of his time, behaving merely as his society expects, and Schalken is a weak one, putting up no fight for his love. They both fail Rose, leaving her with no protection against the horror of Vanderhausen. When the story reaches its climax, they have a last chance to save her, but will they? You’ll have to read it to find out…

It’s nicely creepy without being terrifying, very well written as you’d expect from Le Fanu, lots to analyse if you’re that way inclined, and the porpy and I found it a great way to kick off our annual spookfest! The revised version is available online, but I couldn’t find this original version.

The porpy has had his hair done ready for the new season.

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
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* * * * *

NB For the benefit of new readers since it’s the porpy’s first appearance for the season, the fretful porpentine reference comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine

So the Fretful Porpentine rating is for the scariness factor, whereas the Overall rating is for the story’s quality.

Dark Fire (Matthew Shardlake 2) by CJ Sansom

Cromwell’s secret weapon…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is 1540, and lawyer Matthew Shardlake has taken on the case of a girl who has been charged with the murder of her young cousin. The girl, Elizabeth, is refusing to speak, partly from shock perhaps, but she also seems to be full of rage. If she won’t plead she knows she will be subjected to torture, but still she keeps her silence. At the last moment, Shardlake finds that she is to be given a temporary reprieve – twelve days more in the Hole at Newgate prison before the torture begins, unless Shardlake can get to the truth of what happened before then. But then Shardlake learns that the reprieve has been the work of the King’s vicar general, Thomas Cromwell. And in return, Cromwell wants Shardlake to do a job for him – one that may save Cromwell from the King’s growing displeasure…

The two cases in this story are completely separate and quite different from each other, providing the kind of contrast that always makes the Shardlake books so enjoyable. While the Cromwell strand takes us deep into the machinations of the powerful men vying for the King’s favour, Elizabeth’s story is far away from politics, set in her merchant uncle’s home. This allows Sansom to roam widely through the streets of London, and the various types and classes of people who populate them.

Cromwell provides Shardlake with a new assistant, a tough young commoner by the name of Jack Barak who was once helped by Cromwell and now feels a great loyalty to him. Shardlake’s feelings are more mixed – he has been appalled by some of the things Cromwell has done in the name of Reform, including torturing and burning heretics, and is no longer as enthusiastic a Reformer as he once was. However, when Cromwell demands service a man has to be very brave or very foolish to refuse, and Shardlake is neither, plus he knows it’s the only way to gain time to investigate Elizabeth’s case.

Greek Fire, known in the book as “dark fire”

Cromwell has been told that the formula for an ancient weapon once used by the Byzantines, known as “dark fire”, has been rediscovered. Having told King Henry, he has now discovered that the men who promised to supply it to him have been murdered. Cromwell is already on extremely shaky ground with the King since it was he who arranged the marriage to Anne of Cleves, which turned out to be a disaster, and he knows that if he fails to provide the promised new weapon the King will be even more furious. Now the King has set his amorous sights on young Catherine Howard and Cromwell fears that, if she becomes Queen, then her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, will take Cromwell’s place as the second most important man in the land. So he tasks Shardlake with finding the murderers and, more importantly, with finding either the supply of dark fire he has been promised or at least the formula for it.

Elizabeth had been recently orphaned and sent to live in her Uncle Edwin’s family. She never fitted in with her cousins, two girls and a boy, all of whom seemed to enjoy teasing her about her less refined manners. But when she is accused of having killed the boy by throwing him down the well, her other uncle, Joseph, refuses to believe her guilty. It is he who begs Shardlake to take her case, and as Shardlake and Barak investigate, they will find that there are dark secrets in this family – dark and dangerous.

Both stories are very well told, and Sansom keeps the balance between them well, never losing sight of either for too long. Although Barak’s job is to help Shardlake with the dark fire investigation, he is happy to help with Elizabeth’s case too, especially since in some ways she reminds him of himself when he too found himself in trouble at a young age. Despite having little in common, the rough commoner Barak and the cultured lawyer Shardlake gradually begin to find a mutual respect for each other, and even the beginnings of friendship.

CJ Sansom

As always, the historical setting feels completely authentic, both in terms of the high events surrounding the King and court, and in the depiction of how people lived and worked at this period. Sansom gives an amazing amount of detail about all sorts of things, from the dinner-tables of the high and mighty to the inns and brothels of the poorer parts of the city, and manages to do this seamlessly as part of the story so that it never feels like an info dump. It becomes an immersive experience, and I always feel a sense of dislocation when I return to the modern world. Both plots in this one are interesting, although I found myself more involved in the more personal one of Elizabeth and her family than in Cromwell and his political shenanigans. Brother Guy from the first book is now in London working as an apothecary. He and Matthew have become firm friends and he plays an important role in this book, which is an added bonus for me since he’s one of my favourite characters.

I listened to the audiobook this time, which is wonderfully narrated by Steven Crossley. I will admit his voice for Barak didn’t chime with my own idea of how he should sound at first but I soon got used to it. His Shardlake is perfect, though, and he uses a huge variety of tones and accents for the other people in what is a pretty vast cast of characters. It makes such a difference to ease of listening when each character is so clearly differentiated, especially in such a long book.

So, an excellent second outing for Shardlake and, in common with all the books in this series, gets my highest recommendation.

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Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

Wealth of nations…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In the harbour town of Sulaco, on the coast of the South American country of Costaguana, the silver mine of San Tomé is a source of great wealth to its English owner, Charles Gould, as well as to the local economy and the Costaguanan government. When yet another political upheaval threatens to bring down the dictatorship of President Ribiera, Gould’s first inclination is to provide support to shore up Ribiera’s tottering regime. But other voices in the multinational community of Sulaca have another suggestion – to break up the nation and set up an independent state with the mine at its heart. As reports arrive that the forces of the leader of the latest revolution are about to arrive in the town, Gould orders Nostromo, the incorruptible, indispensable “Capataz de Cargadores” (Overseer of the Dockers) to take the latest batch of silver offshore in a lighter ship so the revolutionaries can’t get their hands on it. But an accident occurs which leads Nostromo to hide the silver on an island in the bay, while he returns to the town only to be given another dangerous mission… to journey over the mountains to summon aid for the beleaguered town.

Set around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, this isn’t about the impact of political colonialism as in Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim. Rather it’s a look at the even more destructive and insidious economic colonisation by capitalist countries of those nations whose resources they exploit while taking no responsibility for the adverse impacts of their actions. The major capital investment in the mine comes from America, giving us an early warning of the way the wealthy and powerful US would abuse their neighbours and distort their political development for their own greedy purpose – a situation that continues to the present day, giving the book an unsettling relevance. However, it’s not the Americans alone whom Conrad shows as exploiters – Britain, through the Englishman Gould, and Spain, through the old aristocracy of the town, are both shown as earlier waves in the continuous rape of the southern continent. All the major characters in the book, and in Sulaca, are foreigners either by birth or heritage, while the indigenous Costaguanans are relegated, quite intentionally, to being nothing but helpless pawns and onlookers, dirt poor amidst the fabulous wealth being extracted from beneath their land.

Men ploughed with wooden ploughs and yoked oxen, small on a boundless expanse, as if attacking immensity itself. The mounted figures of vaqueros galloped in the distance, and the great herds fed with all their horned heads one way, in one single wavering line as far as eye could reach across the broad potreros. A spreading cotton-wool tree shaded a thatched ranch by the road; the trudging files of burdened Indians taking off their hats, would lift sad, mute eyes to the cavalcade raising the dust of the crumbling camino real made by the hands of their enslaved forefathers. And Mrs. Gould, with each day’s journey, seemed to come nearer to the soul of the land in the tremendous disclosure of this interior unaffected by the slight European veneer of the coast towns, a great land of plain and mountain and people, suffering and mute, waiting for the future in a pathetic immobility of patience.

Costaguana is apparently geographically based on Colombia, but in terms of its political identity, it could be any one of a number of South or Central American states, or African, or indeed anywhere else that the West has exploited in its rapacious history. I found it completely believable, both physically and culturally, and gradually described with such detailed clarity it’s hard to believe that Sulaca isn’t real.

Nostromo is an intriguing character, although I found he was a little too caricatured to ring wholly true. Italian, he too is an incomer, but for him wealth is not the major motivation. He wants to be respected, for his character, integrity and courage, and to a large degree he is. The leaders of Sulacan society turn to him whenever they have a problem, and trust him absolutely. But they never treat him as one of themselves – his nickname, Nostromo, could be taken to mean “shipmate”, but it also could be a contraction of “nostro uomo”, meaning “our man”, and this is how the upper-classes treat him, as a faithful servant to be used as required. Eventually this treatment will have its effect on Nostromo, threatening that very integrity for which he is valued.

With Gould, Conrad shows how this class of economic colonialists see themselves as always separate from and above the countries in which they choose to make their fortune. Gould is third generation Costaguanan in terms of where his family has physically resided, but sent home to England to be educated, utterly English in his national allegiance, and of course, when it’s time to marry, selecting an English bride. None of this makes him feel he doesn’t have the right to use his economic power to influence the politics of this country to which he has no real loyalty, and he uses that power solely for the benefit of himself and the foreign elite who run the town, with no concern whatsoever for what might benefit or harm the indigenous Costaguanans.

Conrad’s portrayals of Gould and particularly of his wife, Emilia, are more nuanced, I feel, than that of Nostromo, and several of the secondary characters are very well drawn too: the Frenchman Degoud, who drifts into involvement in politics rather unintentionally because of his developing passion for the daughter of one of the leaders of this society; that leader himself, Don José Avallanos, descended from the old Spanish conquistadors and now part of the decaying aristocracy of Costaguana; Giorgio Viola, the old Italian innkeeper who once fought alongside Garibaldi; the various Generals on all sides of the conflict, all only too recognisable to the modern reader as representative of the type who would as easily start a coup as defend against it, for their own political and personal gain.

Joseph Conrad

In terms of the writing style, this seemed to me more straightforward than the other few Conrads I’ve read. It does jump about in time and requires constant concentration and occasional back-tracking, but for once it isn’t told as a narrated story within a story, so thankfully none of those nested quotation marks that turn some of his other books into brain-frazzling puzzles to follow. There are lots of Spanish words sprinkled throughout the text, so the included glossary in my Oxford World’s Classics edition was very welcome – indeed, essential. But his prose is so wonderful and he is so insightful about humanity in its individual and social state that I forgive him totally for being hard to read. This is undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve ever read, and gets my highest recommendation.

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

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A Vast Conspiracy by Jeffrey Toobin

Sex, lies and audiotape…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Every detail you ever wanted to know about the whole Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, and several that you didn’t. This is more than a salacious recounting of the affair that nearly brought down a President, however. Jeffrey Toobin argues convincingly that politicians on both sides of the aisle had gradually been using the courts more and more to decide political questions, and that the Clinton scandal was a clear indication that the balance of power had shifted, and that the legal system was from now on to be the arbiter of all political questions in the US. He also suggests that it was the beginning of the sordid game beloved by politicians and the media (but not so much by the public, he implies) of dragging political opponents down, not by dissecting their poor performance as politicians, but by pretended moral outrage over their private behaviour.

The book was originally published in 2000, so long before the MeToo movement but at a time when questions of sexual abuse in the workplace were being raised by feminist groups. In his introduction, Toobin admits that he may have treated Lewinsky differently had he been writing now, when terms like “power imbalance” are part of the everyday lexicon. To be honest, I’m glad he wrote it when he did then, for two reasons. Firstly, my opinion then (when I was still a fairly young, ambitious, working woman) and now is that a 22-year-old woman is a grown adult, perfectly capable of making her own decisions, and therefore morally responsible for her own behaviour. There was never a suggestion that Clinton forced himself on Lewinsky – quite the reverse – so while I think he’s a disgusting and rather pathetically inadequate adulterous pig, I’m not willing to see her as his victim. (Her treatment later, by her tape-recording “friend” and the lawyers investigating Clinton, seems to me far more abusive than anything Clinton did to her.) Secondly, because Toobin wrote it in the heat of the moment, more or less, it gives a much clearer picture, I think, of the attitudes prevalent at that time than any later history, trying hard to tell the story through the filter of a 2020 lens, could ever do. Although Toobin is pretty tough on Lewinsky, he also shows no mercy to Clinton, so this is in no way an apologia.

The happy couple…

Toobin spares us none of the intimate detail, and I fear I learned far more than I wanted or needed to about Clinton’s anatomy and sexual preferences, not to mention Lewinsky’s underwear and performative techniques. (It made me realise that, back in the day, although the case was reported on at extremely boring length over here too, our dear BBC must have decided to leave out the most salacious details, for which I belatedly thank them.) However, in terms of the book I do think it was necessary to include them, because part of Toobin’s argument is exactly that public interest arguments shouldn’t justify this level of intrusion into the minutiae of sex between consenting adults. This case opened the door to the constant diet of sleaze that is now common currency in what we laughably call political debate. Does the public have the right to know their President paid a porn star for her silence about their affair? Probably – it goes to questions of character and vulnerability to blackmail. But do we really need a detailed account of the act complete with anatomical measurements? I think not.

The other woman…

The bulk of the book, however, is about the Starr investigation, and how incestuous the whole relationship between the legal and political systems of the US has become, with partisan lawyers and judges acting to down political opponents and circumvent the laws of the land, rather than behaving as impartial administrators of justice. This provides a lot of insight for outsiders, and I expect for many Americans too, on why the most important agenda item for many politicians seems to be to pack the courts with their own appointees. One only has to see the reaction of the left to the appointment of Kavanaugh (who plays a bit part in the Clinton story), or the desperation with which the Democrats are praying that Ginsberg will be able to remain in her role until next January, or the disgust of Republicans that Chief Justice Roberts has “betrayed” the right in a couple of recent judgements to know that this politicisation of the legal system is corrupting even the Supreme Court. Toobin shows us the origins of this, and the collusion of all sides in allowing it to happen. There were several chapters where, had the names been omitted, the book could as easily have been about Trump, Mueller, and the biased and polarised media of today’s America.

The real US Government…

So despite all the sleazy details, I found this a fascinating and illuminating scrutiny of the modern American political system. It also surprised me that so many of the political players back then are still influential now – Kavanaugh, George Conway, Ann Coulter were all linked to the Starr investigation, while many of the Senators and members of Congress on both sides, mostly not young or junior even back then, were trotting out opposite arguments during the Trump impeachment two decades later. It made me wonder why the US seems to have stuck – these same people have been running it, badly, for decades. Maybe it’s time for a generational shift, though since the major question in this year’s election seems to be which of the candidates is less senile I’m not expecting it to happen soon. Recommended to Americans who want to understand how and why their system fails them, and to Brits and others as a stark warning not to follow them down the road of giving lawyers and judges more power than our elected politicians.

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

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Silent Kill (Maeve Kerrigan 8.5) by Jane Casey

Georgia on my mind…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Detective Constable Georgia Shaw is sent to a murder scene, she’s shocked to discover the victim is a teenage schoolgirl. Minnie Charleston had been on the bus for a while, earbuds in and seemingly asleep, while a succession of other passengers took the empty seat beside her. But when one passenger finally noticed blood, it became clear that at some point on the journey she had been stabbed. Georgia will be part of the investigation team, under her sergeant, Maeve Kerrigan, and Inspector Josh Derwent, as they try to discover which of the passengers had a reason to kill Minnie…

This novella length story is very definitely one for existing fans, rather than an entry point for newcomers to the series. Georgia has appeared in the last couple of books, as a fast-track entrant whom Maeve finds irritating and unreliable – not the kind of person you want to depend on when lives are on the line. This time we hear the story from Georgia’s point of view, discovering more about her life and getting a better understanding of why she behaves as she does. Since the books are usually told in the first person from Maeve’s perspective, this is also the first time we get another person’s impression of her, and her increasingly complicated relationship with Josh.

For a novella it’s quite long, and there’s a surprisingly strong plot, with several suspects and a full investigation, all of which I found to be just as good as the plots of the full-length novels. Minnie, it turns out, was an unpleasant girl – a bully and a manipulator. However, as Georgia and Maeve dig deeper into her family circumstances, they begin to see that she may not have been wholly to blame. Left largely to her own devices by uncaring parents, she has got involved with a far-right group, and the detectives have to discover if that has anything to do with the murder. Or there was a teacher she drove to resign from her posh school, or the girl she bullied so badly the girl had to change schools. The solution has a lot of depth considering the brevity and, as always with Casey, the reader has a reasonably fair chance of working it out, although of course I failed!

Jane Casey

I was glad to get to know Georgia better. In fact, I’ve always felt that Maeve treats her unfairly and hasn’t shown the support and guidance a boss should to a younger, inexperienced subordinate. Georgia is perhaps more accepting of this – she clearly admires Maeve, though she resents her too for the effortless way Maeve seems to deal with things that make Georgia anxious. Georgia also has a major crush on Josh, making her rather jealous of his clear preference for Maeve. (What is it with all these female detectives, not to mention the readers? Am I the only one immune to this sexist bully’s charms??) A cold word from Maeve or Josh stings this sensitive girl more than they seem to know, but they should know – it’s their job to know. I grew to like Georgia considerably more, but seeing Josh and Maeve through her eyes made me like them a little less. I expect bullying and insensitivity from Josh, but I can see why Georgia finds Maeve’s behaviour hurtful too. If Maeve realised that the smallest compliment from her is treasured by this insecure young woman, maybe she’d encourage her more often, rather than making her feel like a fool. Time for Maeve’s mother to give her a talking-to in one of their famous phone conversations, I feel!

As usual, Casey has me arguing about the behaviour of her characters, which is why I love these books. Maeve and Josh feel entirely real to me, and so they entertain me sometimes and annoy me sometimes just as real people do. I’m glad to be able to add Georgia to the list of characters I now care about – I’m sure she’ll still annoy me too, often, but I’ll feel more ready to make excuses for her next time she does. I also think it’s good that Casey is bringing forward new recurring characters – something Reginald Hill did to great effect – since it helps to stop the staleness that sometimes creeps into long-running series. In short, this novella is a bonus that fans won’t want to miss!

Book 17 of 20

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The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

Life in the Lane…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Little Janie McVean has grown up on Lady’s Lane, a place ruled over by the women for most of the time, till the men come home from work and make it theirs for a while. No man comes home to Janie’s house though – or perhaps too many. For although Janie is too young to understand, the reader soon discerns that her mother, Liza, is a prostitute, along with some of the other women who live in the Lane. Janie doesn’t care – to her this is the only possible life, and though she has only one dress and often goes hungry and dirty and has nits in her hair, she’s happy. She has friends who are just like her and an interest in people of all sorts, and she loves to watch and listen to the women of the Lane. So when the Cruelty Man comes calling, to Janie the real cruelty is the threat of being taken away from the mother she adores, however bad a parent she may be.

Largely autobiographical, the book is set in the town of Elgin in the north of Scotland in the 1920s. Because it’s so well known to be based on Kesson’s own early life, there’s a feeling of reassurance for the reader – however painful it is to watch the neglect of this child, we know she survives and pulls herself out of the poverty of her beginnings. This makes it an easier, less tense read than it might otherwise have been, allowing the reader to find amusement, along with Janie herself, in the scrabbling existence of the women of the Lane and the hardships of Janie’s life. And Janie’s uncomplicated love for her neglectful, inadequate mother makes the reader see her with sympathetic eyes too, for, whatever Liza’s flaws may be, she loves her daughter.

Book 66 of 90

“About that doll you’re to get, I’ve got an idea it might be lying under some bits of things that’s come from America. Some bits belonging to my cousin’s bairn; just your size she is. And my word there’s some bonnie bits that will fit you. There’s a blue velvet frock for one thing. And a ribbon to go with it. I’m having a sort out just now. And when I’ve sorted out, you’re the queanie that’s going to get the fine surprise, or my name’s not Annie Frigg!”

Janie emerged as always, empty handed but full-visioned after an encounter with Annie, and with but one small doubt, how to share the delight of this new promise with Gertie, who could never see that something to look forward to, and something to dream about, were such glad things, even when you knew within yourself that they might never come true.

The writing is wonderful, managing to give a real flavour of the local speech without ever becoming hard for standard English speakers to understand. It’s told in the third person, in the language of adults, but the perspective comes almost entirely through the lens of eight-year-old Janie’s observant but sometimes uncomprehending eyes. So it’s up to the reader to fill in the blanks, and sometimes it’s in these spaces that the true pathos of Janie’s life is shown – a pathos Janie doesn’t feel at this young age. Her mother comes from a respectable and rather well-off family, and sometimes they visit Janie’s grandmother – another warm and loving, if occasional, presence in Janie’s life. But her grandfather’s reaction to Liza and Janie lets the reader know how badly the family feels Liza has disgraced them, and gives us pointers as to how she fell from here all the way down to the Lane. It’s a hard story, told with warmth and empathy and no bitterly pointed finger of blame from the adult Kesson.

Jessie Kesson

As well as her clear-sighted but sympathetic portrayal of the Lane and its inhabitants, Kesson also has an excellent eye for the landscape and nature of the area, and the ability to weave her fine descriptive prose seamlessly so that it becomes part of the story. Their mutual love of the countryside is part of the bond between mother and daughter.

The wind had begun to threaten the air. Passionately she had longed for the wind to come. To blow herself and the landscape sky high into movement and coherence again. Almost she had been aware of the wind’s near fierceness. Ready to plunge the furious hillside burns down into the Cladda river. To hurl the straws all over the dykes. To toss the chaff into the eyes of the protesting people, bending before it, flapping in their clothes like scarecrows. To sting the trees in Carron wood into hissing rebellion. To give the land some loud, loud cry, other than that of pain.

When the Cruelty Man takes Janie off to the orphanage, the story suddenly contracts, with years covered in just a few pages. This feels a bit disconcerting, but actually I think it probably works better than it would have if Kesson had devoted more time to that section. One gathers that her time there was neither wonderful nor terrible – she was just stuck in a kind of limbo until her life could resume. The real story is of the Lane, and of the love between child and mother that transcends the things that society determines to be good parenting. The ending is bittersweet – the tragedies of Janie’s young life tempered always by the knowledge that she will survive and rise. A beautiful book that challenges the reader to be slow to judge – to accept that love and even joyousness can sometimes be found in the darkest circumstances. Highly recommended.

Book 16 of 20

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The Spoilt Kill by Mary Kelly

The body in the clay…

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The prestigious old firm of Shentall’s Potteries has a problem – it seems someone may be leaking its designs, allowing counterfeiters to flood the market with cheap copies. The current head of the firm, Luke Shentall, has his suspicions of who is guilty, so calls in a private investigator to find proof, or alternatively to prove someone else is the culprit. It’s the investigator, Nicholson, who tells us the story, and he starts in the middle with the discovery of a body in the ark, a vault in which the liquid clay is stored…

This is a very different take on the traditional detective story. The narration gives it something of the style of the noir first-person private eye stories of the US, but without the true noir feel. Nicholson (we never learn his first name) is indeed a man with his own sorrows, somewhat world-weary but still with the ability to believe in the good in people. The other characters however are all fundamentally decent even if they each have their flaws, so that the effectiveness of the story comes from the fact that quite soon neither Nicholson nor the reader really wants any of them to be the guilty party. And especially we want Corinna Wakefield, Luke’s suspect, to be innocent – the reader because she quickly gains our sympathy and liking; Nicholson because he increasingly finds himself developing a deep attraction to her.

The quality of the writing is wonderful; this could as easily be read as literary fiction as crime. Kelly paints a full and affectionate portrait of the landscape and culture of the Staffordshire area and its traditional pottery industry, showing how the old methods and family-run businesses are gradually giving way to newer techniques, more cost efficient, perhaps, and certainly cleaner than the old coal-fired kilns, but also more impersonal. Shentall’s is one of the old firms, and while Luke has introduced up-to-date machinery and equipment, he works hard to retain the traditional atmosphere and values of this being a family concern – not just his own family, but his employees also passing their skills down through the generations, father to son, mother to daughter. This is partly why his suspicions have fallen on Corinna – as a talented designer, she has been brought in from the outside, and Luke can’t bring himself to believe that his long-term employees, many of whom worked for his father and even his grandfather before him, could betray the firm.

Kelly shows the soot-blackened buildings, the constantly-burning furnaces that can be seen from the older coal-fired kilns day and night, the pit, known as Etruria, where Wedgwood’s factory once stood, now the site of an iron works. These could easily be made visions of an industrial hell, but Kelly shows them as having a kind of dark beauty and as the beating heart of this community whose existence is inextricably linked with the potteries that provide their pay and their purpose.

I stared down into the pit, at the black buildings silhouetted against the flushed sky, buildings, some of them, flickering within, as if a river of liquid gold were rolling through them. Clouds of steam and smoke drifted across the shadowy vale, rosy steam, lit from the fires below. There was a continuous hollow rushing sound, broken by clanks of shunting. An engine, raised on a bank, black and red, like a slide, moved slowly backwards and forwards. The whole pit seemed to breathe as it worked; for though it was past midnight on Saturday, and the Newcastle neighbours’ windows were dark, naked lights on gantries and signals glittered all over Etruria.

Mary Kelly

The plot is divided into three sections: the first, a short one describing the finding of the body, though we aren’t given the victim’s identity at this early stage; then two long sections, one set before the finding of the body and one after. Because of the more literary, descriptive prose style it took me a little longer than usual to settle in, but once I had I became completely involved in the slow playing out of the story and in the characters that Kelly creates so well – not just the main players, but the other members of the staff and workers of the pottery, each of whom has their own part to play. The mystery is rather secondary to Nicholson’s growing dilemma – his distaste for the job grows as his feelings for Corinna deepen, and his initial pretence of befriending her so he can get close to her feels sordid now that he discovers he would like to be more than her friend. But he’s a hired hand and must do his best for Luke, and it seems more and more that, innocent or guilty, Corinna is at the heart of the mystery.

I thought this was great, and the ending, when it came, arose perfectly from the characterisation and motivations Kelly had so carefully and subtly built throughout. Shall I admit that it actually made me cry, just a little? Not a thing that happens often, especially in crime novels. A travesty that this one should ever have been allowed to become “forgotten” – Martin Edwards refers to it as her “masterpiece” and for once that word seems perfectly chosen to me.

Book 10 of 20

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Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Short and sharp…

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The recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon is forced to cut short her stay at Langford when the lady of the house, Mrs Manwaring, becomes jealous of Lady Susan’s flirtation with Mr Manwaring. Off she goes to Churchill, the residence of her late husband’s soft-hearted brother, Mr Charles Vernon, and his sensible wife, Catherine. But soon Catherine is worried that Lady Susan might have got her well-manicured claws into Catherine’s brother, Reginald de Courcy, and she’s also concerned about Lady Susan’s young daughter, Frederica, whom Lady Susan is determined to marry off to an unsuitable young man against her will…

Written entirely in letters between the various friends and family members, this novella length story is full of fun. Lady Susan is so wicked one really feels the need to hiss whenever her name is mentioned, and Catherine is a delightful contrast in her general sense and good nature. While the men are all taken in by Lady Susan’s undeniable beauty and charming manners, Catherine rarely wavers in her opinion of her as a manipulative schemer and an uncaring mother. Maternal Catherine is determined that Frederica must be saved from her mother’s manipulations, but the rules of society preclude any open hostility between the two women. The only time Lady Susan drops her bewitching guard is in her letters to her dear friend, Mrs Johnson, a woman unfortunately married to an older, inconveniently respectable husband, a situation Lady Susan deplores…

“My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! Just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die.”

A comedy of manners in which Austen spares no character from being a target for her sharply observational wit, this is of course much slighter than her major novels, with far less room for in-depth characterisation and a simple plot that moves quickly towards an end that is relatively obvious from an early stage. While the epistolary style adds to the fun, especially in Lady Susan’s letters to her friend when her true personality is revealed, it’s also limiting in that there’s not much room for description or for commentary on the wider society of the time. On the other hand, this makes it deliciously short, so that it can be gulped down and enjoyed in one sitting.

Part of me would have loved to have seen Austen develop these characters more deeply in a full-length novel, but I’m not sure the slight story could have borne the weight. As it stands, it feels like the perfect length for the story it tells. And Lady Susan deserves to take her place alongside some of the other major victims of Austen’s lethally wicked pen – Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mrs Bennet, the Eltons, et al. Pure pleasure!

Book 9 of 20

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Maigret and the Ghost (Maigret 62) by Georges Simenon

The art of crime…

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Having returned home late after grinding a confession out of a young lad, Maigret is wakened early to the news that a fellow police officer, Inspector Lognon, has been shot in Avenue Junot. He’s still hanging on to life, just, but hasn’t been able to talk yet, so Maigret has very little to go on, especially since the men at Lognon’s local station don’t know what he was working on. House-to-house inquiries soon reveal that recently Lognon has been spending his nights with a beautiful young woman in Avenue Junot. Somehow, though, Maigret can’t see him as a Lothario, and suspects there must have been another reason for these nocturnal adventures. The easy way to find out would be to ask the young woman – but she has disappeared…

I’ve only read a few Maigrets so far and have enjoyed them all to varying degrees. This one has leapt into the lead as my favourite so far, though I’m finding it hard to put my finger on exactly why it stood out above the others. I think I simply liked the plot and the motivation more than usual, since Simenon’s storytelling, settings and characterisation tend to be consistently good in my limited experience.

Maigret’s hunch soon proves to be correct that Lognon was investigating someone who lived on Avenue Junot. Lognon was known as a conscientious and good detective, but always unlucky. This meant he always missed out on the promotions he felt he deserved, and his unappealing wife was very ready to show her disappointment in him. Maigret realises that Lognon was working secretly on a case, hoping to break it all by himself and finally get recognition and the rewards of success. Instead, now he is lying in a hospital bed and his colleagues have no idea what crime he felt he had discovered. Maigret and his team will have to start from scratch, interviewing all the residents of the Avenue looking for suspicious or guilty behaviour. Soon Maigret will find himself deep in the sometimes rather murky world of art and art collectors.

Georges Simenon

It’s very short even for a Maigret, but packs a lot in. It’s a police procedural rather than a whodunit, in the sense that there’s no pool of suspects. Maigret soon hones in on Lognon’s target, but the question is: what crime did Lognon think had been committed, and why was he shot? The clues are given gradually and I, for once, had a pretty good idea of where the story was going, but that didn’t prevent my enjoyment of watching Maigret’s steady and relentless pursuit of the truth.

We also see quite a bit of Maigret’s wife in this one, and while she is treated rather as if she as intelligent pet rather than an equal, it’s nice to see how much Maigret loves her. And I must admit, the amount of alcohol that Maigret slurps down during every investigation always entertains me – even during interviews with suspects in the police station the booze flows freely. Makes me kinda wish I was French… 😉

Great stuff – a quick read, short enough to be devoured in one session if so inclined, and both interesting and entertaining. Highly recommended!

Book 6 of 20

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Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Journey’s End…

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It is Wednesday, 2nd October, 1872, and as he does every day, Mr Phileas Fogg is playing whist with his friends in the Reform Club. But this day the conversation turns to how the world is shrinking as more and more places become linked by fast steamships or railroads. Fogg claims that it is now possible to go around the world in eighty days. His companions pooh-pooh this notion, and Fogg offers to prove his point by making the journey. A wager is hastily arranged for the massive sum of £20,000 – half Fogg’s entire fortune. He intends to use the other half to cover any unforeseen expenses on his travels. And within hours he’s off, accompanied only by his French manservant, Passepartout, whom he had hired just that morning. But, unbeknownst to them, they are being followed…

I started my Around the World in 80 Books Challenge back in March 2016, so it has taken me considerably longer to make the trip than Phileas Fogg allowed himself! When I got close to the end I realised this was the only possible book I could choose to bring me back to London where my journey started all those years ago. And a perfect choice it proved to be! Not only is it a great book in its own right, but it also took me to all the places I’ve read about in the books I picked for my challenge. So when we got to Bombay I thought of playing cricket; when Fogg and his companions travelled by elephant I remembered Solomon’s journey; when they reached Omaha I thought of the World Fair. Anyway, I shall do a proper round-up of the challenge soon, but meantime, back to this book!

Fogg is a man of rigid habits and an obsessive concern with punctuality and exactness in all things. The narrator suggests his background is rather unknown, but that he must have travelled in the past to give him his fairly encyclopaedic knowledge of the world. He is unflappable to an extraordinary degree given that his entire fortune is in the balance, but we eventually see that he has hidden depths. Passepartout, in contrast, is volatile and constantly getting into scrapes, but on the other hand he soon develops strong feelings of loyalty to his master and shows true bravery on more than one occasion. Then there is Detective Fix, trailing Fogg whom he suspects of having robbed Baring Brothers bank on the day he left London so suddenly. Fix spends half the time trying to slow them down and the other half trying to speed them up since he can only arrest Fogg on British soil – and the book reminds us that British soil spreads fairly extensively across the world at this period. The fourth character is an Indian woman they pick up along the way, but I won’t say more about her because to tell her story would be a bit too spoilery.

The book starts a little slow, with a lot of concentration on timetables and dates and so on, and Fogg is not initially a very endearing character. He is interested only in achieving his aim of proving that the journey can be done in the time – he has no interest in the places to which they travel other than how quickly he can get out of them again on the next leg of the trip. Europe gets barely a mention, Egypt is a passing blur, and it’s only really when they reach India that they begin to have adventures. But by that time, Passepartout and Fix have developed into entertaining characters, sometimes friendly, sometimes not, and they give the story the life and liveliness that Fogg’s cold mechanical persona lacks. It’s in India too, though, that for the first time we see signs of humanity beneath that British stiffness, and from there on gradually Fogg also becomes someone we care about.

From India to Hong Kong, to Yokohama, across America – sometimes ahead of the clock, sometimes behind. One adventure after another holds them back, each time throwing Passepartout into gloom and desperation but leaving Fogg unruffled and determined. And each adventure is more fun than the one before – storms and Sioux warriors, acrobats and opium dens, trains and steamships, polygamists and Parsees, and oodles of luck both good and bad. Will they make it back in time? Even though I knew the answer, I must admit I found the last fifty pages or so pretty heart-pounding, and joined Passepartout on his emotional roller-coaster ride between despair and euphoria. And the end is brilliantly done, misdirection and twists abounding!

Jules Verne

The new translation by William Butcher in my Oxford World’s Classics edition is excellent – flowing and fun. His rather scholarly introduction left me somewhat befuddled, in truth. As always, I read the book first, and imagine my surprise on being told that it’s full of sexual innuendo and “brazen homosexual overtures” between the three male characters. I missed all of that! Even though he’s now told me it’s there, nope, I don’t see it. Maybe he’s right – in fact, since he’s a Verne expert and I’m not, I’m willing to assume he is right – but then, on the other hand… sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Butcher goes so far as to say “the book is not designed for callow adolescents”. Hmm, I was probably a callow adolescent when I first read it, and I don’t think it corrupted my innocence! I did enjoy Butcher saying that Verne had portrayed the Mormons as an “erotico-religious group” though – I missed that too…

So an excellent adventure story suitable for all ages, or a walk on the wild side of sexual psychology, depending on whether you believe me or Butcher. Either way, highly entertaining – great stuff!

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

Book 5 of 20

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Deadheads (Dalziel and Pascoe 7) by Reginald Hill

A thorny problem…

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Patrick Aldermann seems to lead a charmed life. Every time anyone gets in his way fate intervenes and they die. When Patrick’s boss, Dandy Dick Elgood, suggests that perhaps Patrick gives fate a hand, Dalziel hands the case over to Peter Pascoe. Peter will have to decide if there’s any truth to Elgood’s fears by looking back at some of the convenient deaths to see if there were any suspicious circumstances missed at the time. But this is complicated by the fact that Peter’s wife, Ellie, has struck up a promising new friendship with Daphne, Patrick’s wife. Dalziel has his own personal interest – once upon a time he tried to seduce Patrick’s mother…

By this stage in the series, Hill has hit his stride and the recurring characters have developed the depth and complexity that make them so enjoyable. Sometimes Hill concentrates more on one of his leads than the others, giving the bulk of the book over to either Dalziel or Pascoe, or later in the series, to Wield or even Ellie. In this one, Pascoe is the leading character, but it’s very much an ensemble piece, with each having their own story within the story, so to speak. We get to know Ellie better as we see her try to juggle between her friendship with Daphne and her loyalty to Peter. Always what we would now call a social justice warrior, her left-wing, anti-Establishment, feminist views sit uneasily beside her role as policeman’s wife, but she’s an independent-minded woman with enough of a sense of humour to cheerfully navigate the dilemmas in which she often finds herself.

There’s a new cadet attached to CID on a short training placement – young Shaheed Singh, known as Shady by his colleagues. I’ve said before that Hill in his day was at the forefront of addressing the changing face of British society in crime fiction. With Singh he gives a very credible picture of a young lad, Yorkshire born and bred, but treated always as different because of his skin colour and Asian heritage. Hill never takes any of the subjects he tackles to the extremes, be it gender, sexual orientation or race, and that’s why I love him – one of the reasons, anyway. Singh gets fed up with the racially-tinged jokes directed at him by his colleagues, but he recognises that they’re basically the result of casual thoughtlessness rather than any real attempt to hurt.

Patrick Aldermann is an intriguing potential villain. Having inherited Rosemont from his rich great-aunt – victim of one of the fortuitous deaths that ease his path through life – Patrick is devoted to his huge garden. He seems to love his wife and children too, though perhaps with less passion than the roses on which he spends all his spare time and money. Could this apparently good-natured if rather emotionally undemonstrative man really be responsible for the murders of several people? Or is it all simply coincidence? As Peter investigates, he stirs up some murky secrets but they merely add to the confusion around Patrick’s guilt or innocence.

Reginald Hill

Meantime, CID are also investigating a spate of burglaries in the area, while Dalziel is off to London for a conference on community policing in mixed societies, giving us the opportunity to hear some of his un-correct but very funny views on political correctness! So Peter and Wieldy have their hands full, even without this case that might not be a case at all.

Another excellent instalment in this series, with one of Hill’s more playful plots. I’m always a bit reluctant to recommend reading this series in strict order, since I do think the first two or three have dated rather badly and might be a bit off-putting to newcomers. But these middle books would all make good entry points – although the character development is important, each of the books at this stage of the series works fine as a stand-alone (which is not true of some of the later books). Highly recommended, book and series both.

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Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu

The politics of crime…

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When a petty criminal is brutally killed, at first no one pays too much attention. But it quickly turns out he was only the first victim – soon there have been several murders, all carried out the same way: a method which earns the killer the nickname Sword. All the victims have two things in common. They are all criminals, and they are all members of the Roma, a minority ethnic group in Romania. Soon the matter becomes political as long-unresolved racial tensions rise to the surface, leading to outbreaks of violence. This is the story of a new, fragile democracy and of the men who are trying to make it work, or to undermine it…

This is the first book translated by Marina Sofia, long-time blogging buddy and now one of the co-founders of a new venture into translated crime fiction – Corylus books. The translation is excellent, as I expected, knowing Marina Sofia’s skill with words and expertise in about a million languages! Romanian is her mother tongue and English is the language she currently uses in her life, work and writing, so she really is the perfect translator for the book. There’s no clunkiness, and either she or the author, or both, know when an international audience might need a little bit of extra guidance to understand something that may be obvious to Romanians. This meant that, although the story is quite complex, I never felt lost.

The book is a very original take on a crime novel, looking deeply into the politics of racially motivated crime and how it impacts on an already divided society. The first chapter shows us the first murder in fairly graphic detail and it seems as if it’s going to be the start of a more or less standard crime fiction. But almost immediately we are taken, not to the police investigation, but to the corridors of power, where a Presidential election is only a few months away and all the top politicians are jostling for position. Some of the characters are named, but others are simply known by their titles – the President, the Minister of the Interior, and so on. There’s a cast of thousands (slight exaggeration, perhaps) and a handy cast list at the end, although I quickly found I didn’t need it, because in a sense who the characters are doesn’t matter – it’s their role in the politics of the country that matters. By about halfway through some of them had developed distinctive personalities, but others were simply “journalists”, “Presidential advisers”, “political commentators”, etc.

You hate the sound of this now, don’t you? But honestly, it works! It’s not really about the people, or even the crimes – it’s a political thriller about how politicians in a corrupt society manoeuvre, how they manipulate the media and how in turn the media manipulates them. It’s about Romania trying to juggle the demands of all the demanding new European and American partners they have to deal with now they’ve left the Soviet sphere of influence. And it’s a coldly cynical look at how politicians might ruthlessly inflame the divisions in society to boost their own electoral chances.

The Roma are seen as a kind of underclass, marginalised and discriminated against by a society that has written them off as criminals. They are the target of the Romanian version of white supremacists, but even the mainstream parties would rather they just stayed silent and invisible or better yet, left Romania altogether. As more victims turn up, tensions between the Roma and the Romanians grow, eventually leading to a series of violent confrontations, each more serious than the last. For those in power, a difficult balance must be struck – plenty of Romanians see the Sword as some kind of avenging angel, while the equally unscrupulous political leaders of the Roma see it as a way to lever some recognition for themselves. For those who want to be in power, it’s an opportunity – how can they best use it to bring the government to its knees?

Bogdan Teodorescu

I suspect you’d have to be interested in the skulduggery of politics to enjoy this one, although it’s certainly not necessary to understand Romanian politics specifically. The thing that most stood out to me, in fact, was that no matter the country, the corruption and the character of those who seek political power are depressingly similar. It’s so well done – too believable to be comfortable. Seeing how the actions of one man can cause a chain reaction that escalates to a point where society itself is fracturing and in danger of imploding is frighteningly relevant, especially when the basis of the story is about the marginalisation and repression of an ethnic group – something we’re all struggling with in the West at the moment. I love political shenanigans, so I loved the book, and learned a lot about Romania’s recent history as a bonus. Great stuff – highly recommended!

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