Walking Wounded by William McIlvanney

Our national mirror…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

McIlvanney takes to the short story form to create a collection of character studies of the inhabitants of his recurring setting of Graithnock, which is a lightly fictionalised version of Kilmarnock, an industrial town in Ayrshire in the West of Scotland. The stories take place just as the ‘70s were giving way to the ‘80s – a time when hope seemed to be turning to despair in light of the Thatcherite policies that would rip the industrial heart out of Scotland over the next decade. McIlvanney rarely addresses politics directly in his work but it infuses everything he writes and, as a result, his books catch the national psyche at a given moment in time. His characters’ stories grow out of their social and cultural circumstances.

The stories here often overlap and share commonalities – many of the characters know each other, drink in the same pub, share the same histories. So they gradually build together to give a full picture of the town and to show how, in any society, the actions of the individual arise from and add to the prevailing culture. With his usual wonderfully insightful prose, McIlvanney makes us care about these people – we laugh with them and cry with them, celebrate their victories, sorrow over their disappointments and mourn their griefs. And we (certainly the Scots among us) recognise ourselves in at least some of them, as we recognise our friends and neighbours in the others.

Margaret and John Hislop had one of those marriages where there wasn’t room to swing an ego. All was mutual justice and consideration and fairness. He only golfed between the hours of two and six on a Sunday because that was when she visited her mother. Her night-class was always on a Tuesday, regardless of what was available then, for that was when he worked late. Both watched television programmes which were neither’s favourite. They didn’t have arguments, they had discussions. It was a marriage made by committee and each day passed like a stifled yawn. It was as if the family crypt had been ordered early and they were living in it.

I love McIlvanney. Having come late to his work as his long career drew to a close, I am reading his books with a retrospective eye and a feeling of profound familiarity – the twentieth century Scottish world he recorded is the one that I too lived. His culture and language and humour are mine too, his people are people I knew, his view of Scotland and the world aligns largely with my own. My only hesitation about him, and I wonder if this is the reason that despite his huge talent he’s still not as widely known as he should be, is that perhaps his books are so deeply embedded in our small society that possibly they don’t have the same resonance for people not so familiar with it. The humanity of his characters is undoubtedly universal, but perhaps a Scottish reader’s instinctive understanding of their cultural hinterland is why he’s so much more revered in Scotland than outside it.

Book 5 of 25

The first story in the book is an example of what I mean. It tells of a young lad asking his boss for a large loan and three months off work. The boss not unnaturally wants to know the reason, and the lad tells him he wants to go to Argentina to see Scotland play in the World Cup. The boss first tries to talk him out of this ridiculous dream, then realises that the boy is a younger version of himself – that he once dared to dream big too – and reflects on how his life has narrowed into a staid middle-aged routine. Standard short story fare, as I summarise it, although wonderfully written, but oh! If you’d been young in Scotland in 1978 when we qualified for the World Cup! If you’d experienced the ecstatic excitement, the national pride, the Mohammed Ali-like hubris of the team manager, Ally MacLeod, the half-believed dream that we might, like Jack, kill the giants and bring home the cup! If you’d stood in the national stadium with thousands upon thousands of others in Ally’s Tartan Army to cheer and sing the team on their way! And if, three games later, you’d wept bitter tears of heartbreak when they slunk home – out in the first round – beaten on goal difference – humiliated! Then you’d understand! This isn’t just a story of two men – it’s a story of Scotland’s crushed dreams!

Ally’s Tartan Army send off – that’s me in the crowd!
Life lesson: Never hold your victory parade before the tournament…

Few of the stories are based around such a specific event, but many of them make use of aspects of working class Scottish culture of the time, especially from the male perspective – football, pubs and getting drunk, dog racing, gambling. What they’re about, however, is men and women trying to survive the things life throws at them – love, marriage, divorce, jobs and unemployment, bereavement, petty crime, violence, prison. Makes it sound much gloomier than it is – while some of the stories made me cry, just as many made me laugh, and a couple made me do both at the same time. McIlvanney’s characters are mostly resilient – the walking wounded of the title. Life may knock them down but they crawl back up, often with a pawky quip at fate’s expense, and ready themselves to face tomorrow.

William McIlvanney

McIlvanney hailed from the same area as our national bard, Robert Burns, and I suspect that Benny’s thoughts in the following quote may be McIlvanney’s own…

Benny loved Robert Burns, not just the poetry, which he could quote at great and sometimes pub-emptying length, but the man, the hard life, the democratic stance of him, the sense he gave of effortlessly incarnating Scottishness, the fact that he, like Benny, was an Ayrshireman. Scottishness was very important to Benny. He wasn’t sure what it was but, whatever it was, it bit like lockjaw and the fever of it was in his blood. When he read Burns, he looked in a national mirror that told him who he was and forbade him to be diminished by what other people had. He was enough in himself.

I wish very much that I could have told him that, what Burns meant to Benny, McIlvanney has come to mean to me. Our bard of the twentieth century – our national mirror.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor by B.M. Croker

Colonial spookiness...

After last week’s terror, the porpy and I fled to India to escape from all these English haunted houses. But alas! We forgot that Victorian India was full of British Imperialists, and it seems they had taken their ghosts with them! So here’s a chilling little tale of the fate that may await the unwary traveller, for this week’s…

The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor
by B.M. Croker

Bithia Mary Croker
Winner of the FF Award
for
Best Hat in an Author Pic

(The helpful notes in my OWC copy tell me that dâk bungalows were a kind of hostel for travellers placed at staging posts on mail delivery routes.)

“And so you two young women are going off on a three days’ journey, all by yourselves, in a bullock tonga, to spend Christmas with your husbands in the jungle?”

Indeed they are – our narrator, Nellie Loyd, and her friend, Julia Goodchild, are young and romantic enough to find the prospect exciting. Their older friend, Mrs Duff, is wiser, and perhaps has been married long enough to find she can bear her husband’s absence at Christmas with fortitude. She asks the two young women if they know their route, and Julia replies that her husband has sent them a plan…

….“We go straight along the trunk road for two days, stopping at Korai bungalow the first night and Kular the second, you see; then we turn off to the left on the Old Jubbulpore Road and make a march of twenty-five miles, halting at a place called Chanda. Frank and Mr. Loyd will meet us there on Christmas Day.”
….“Chanda — Chanda,” repeated Mrs. Duff, with her hand to her head. “Isn’t there some queer story about a bungalow near there — that is unhealthy — or haunted — or something?”

Haunted! How the two secretly laugh at their friend! Haunted, indeed!

Mrs. Duff had set her face against our expedition all along; she wanted us to remain in the station and spend Christmas with her, instead of going this wild-goose chase into a part of the district we had never been in before. She assured us that we would be short of bullocks, and would probably have to walk miles; she had harangued us on the subject of fever and cholera and bad water, had warned us solemnly against dacoits, and now she was hinting at ghosts.

The first day’s trek goes well and, as pre-arranged, there are fresh bullocks ready at each stop to take them on the next stage. But on the second day, they find themselves in rougher territory, and Mrs Duff’s predictions begin to seem less silly. Finally they arrive at a stop where there are no fresh bullocks to be had so, leaving their servant Abdul behind to follow when he can get some, the women walk on ahead. After a few miles they arrive at a village…

There were the usual little mud hovels, shops displaying, say, two bunches of plantains and a few handfuls of grain, the usual collection of gaunt red pariah dogs, naked children, and unearthly-looking cats and poultry.

When Abdul finally arrives it is only to tell them that he can’t find fresh bullocks, so they must stay in this place overnight while the tired ones rest. But happily, he informs them, there is a dâk bungalow in the village, and so, although the villagers seem to be warning them not to, they make their way there,…

There was a forlorn, desolate, dismal appearance about the place; it looked as if it had not been visited for years . . . At length an old man in dirty ragged clothes, and with a villainous expression of countenance, appeared from some back cook house, and seemed anything but pleased to see us.

It’s worse inside, all cobwebby and mouldy and full of bats and smelling of earth. Thank goodness the women have some natives they can order to clean up and cook for them! And soon the place is all cosy and they retire to bed (while the natives sleep outside on the verandah). But, in the darkest part of the night, Nellie starts awake and, to her astonishment, sees…

There was a man in the room, apparently another traveller, who appeared to be totally unaware of our vicinity, and to have made himself completely at home . . . I leant up on my elbow and gazed at the intruder in profound amazement. He did not notice me, no more than if I had no existence…

Things are about to get spooky!

* * * * *

This is an enjoyable little tale, with a great mix of mild horror and light humour. The ghost story is pretty standard fare, but the setting gives it added interest, especially since the author pokes a little fun at the colonial arrogance of our heroines. Apparently Croker herself was the wife of a British official out in India, so her descriptions of Anglo-Indian attitudes feel authentic. Nellie and Julia are great fun – they enjoy their lives, they don’t fear this vast, strange land, assuming that their British superiority will protect them from all dangers, and they’re ripe for adventure. But they’re not expecting ghostly visions in the middle of the night – that’s a little too much even for them! However, they pretty much solve the mystery of the bungalow before their husbands turn up, and after a diet of woman-as-swooning-victim in my recent horror reads, these two made very refreshing companions. I’ve never come across Croker before but I would be happy to meet her again – though hopefully in daylight…

I read this in Late Victorian Gothic Tales, kindly provided for review by Oxford World’s Classics. So far I’ve only dipped into it but will review it fully later. But if you’d like to read this story online, here’s a link…

The porpentine’s Indian cousin is less used to ghosts, so more easily scared…

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger

Careful what you wish for…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Guy Martin isn’t happy. It’s 1925, and he seems to be settled in a job as a bank clerk which gives him little satisfaction, either intellectually or financially. Thanks to a scholarship he’s educated a little above his class, but has failed to rid himself completely of the Cockney accent that gives away his humble origins. As a result, he feels he doesn’t really fit in socially anywhere except for the Socialist Club, which he has joined, not so much out of a love for the poor and disadvantaged, but for the access to people who don’t judge him by his class. But, of course, they do, especially the middle-class young woman on whom he has set his heart, whose egalitarian instincts don’t stretch to romantic liaisons with the hoi-polloi. It is in this mood of disillusionment about society that he finds himself suddenly transported to the 22nd century, where he finds that all humanity’s needs have been met by increased mechanisation and people are free to pursue whatever course in life they choose…

Jaeger was writing this in 1926 in response to the rash of Utopian fiction that was prevalent in that period. Her own introduction tells us that, to a degree, she buys into the idea of the socialist utopia, at least in so far as that she believes that soon, given the will, society will have the means to provide decent living conditions to all citizens, and that mechanisation will free people from the drudgery and exhaustion of repetitive and uninspiring work. However, she sets out to speculate what, in that event, would happen to humanity – how would we develop, individually and as a society? And she suggests that the Utopias that assume that, freed from poverty, suddenly all people will become good and kind and devote themselves to art and culture are perhaps not taking account of human nature.

While reading, I felt this owed more than a little to Wells’ The Time Machine and it also reminded me a little of Huxley’s later Brave New World, so I was glad to read in the short but very interesting and informative introduction by Dr Mo Moulton of the University of Birmingham that she sees this as a link in that chain too. She also says it alludes directly to Bellamy’s classic Utopian novel, Looking Backward, one I haven’t yet read but really must since it gets referenced so often.

However, I felt this had a more human feel than Wells’ far distant future, where humanity had evolved almost beyond recognition. Jaeger’s people are still very much like us – they smoke and drink and speak English, play sports, argue, marry, etc. (Though not necessarily in that order.) This makes them far easier to understand and empathise with than Wells’ Eloi. Also, by beginning the book in 1925 and letting us see the class and economic divisions of her own time, she avoids the odd kind of nostalgia that some dystopias indulge in, as if the past was somehow a lost idyll to which we should try to return. Jaeger’s depiction is nicely balanced – both her present and her future have good and bad in them, with the clear suggestion that economic and social changes will change our problems rather than rid us of them entirely.

At first, Guy is entranced by this new world. He finds himself living with the doctor who has, in some unexplained way, brought him to this time, and is introduced to the doctor’s nephew, John Wayland, who will be his initial guide to the society. Dr Wayland and John are both intellectuals, choosing to spend their days on scientific and artistic pursuits, and indulging in philosophical debate with their friends. But soon Guy begins to discover that this society is just as divided as in his own time. Many people don’t have either the capacity or the desire for an intellectual life. They are called the normals and, while all their physical needs are met, they are left somewhat purposeless, their empty lives filled with childlike emotions and pursuits. The intellectuals treat them kindly enough, but with an amused contempt at their antics. Guy finds himself again standing uncomfortably on the dividing line between two classes, and gradually begins to wonder if the advances of the last two hundred years have made things better or worse.

Muriel Jaeger

Despite its age, I found that this book is addressing questions which are perhaps even more urgent today. With increasing automation, we will soon have to decide what we as a society will do with vastly increased leisure time. While it’s easy to think that would be a great thing, as usual it will be the least skilled and least intellectually inclined people who will be affected most. Will we step up to the plate and find ways to give people a fulfilling purpose, or will we simply throw millions, billions, of people out of work and leave them with nothing to strive for? Jaeger doesn’t give answers but, although in her future people have not been left in material poverty, reading between the lines her society seems to be becoming depopulated – not in a healthy, planned way, but more as a response to the lack of purpose and hope; and with intellect as the new currency, there is still a major divide between rich and poor.

Well written, thought-provoking, and a rather more human look at utopian society than we often get. I thoroughly enjoyed this and, as so often, am at a loss to know why this would have been “forgotten”, since it seems to me as good as many of the ones which have been granted classic status. (I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that all the “classics” were written by men… 😉 )

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Eveline’s Visitant by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Revenge is sweet…

Wakey, wakey, Porpy! The evening are lengthening, the ghouls are returning from their summer vacations having noticeably failed to acquire a healthy tan, the people out there have been lulled into a false sense of security. This little story should remind us all of the terrors that await us in the long, dreadful months of darkness ahead…

Eveline’s Visitant
by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

It was at a masked ball at the Palais Royal that my fatal quarrel with my first cousin André de Brissac began. The quarrel was about a woman. The women who followed the footsteps of Philip of Orleans were the causes of many such disputes; and there was scarcely one fair head in all that glittering throng which, to a man versed in social histories and mysteries, might not have seemed bedabbled with blood.

Yeah, blame the woman! Our narrator, Hector, is quite annoyed when his cousin, André, proves to be more attractive to the woman of his choice than he. So he strikes his cousin across his face…

…and the welt raised by my open hand was crimson upon his fair womanish face as he stood opposite to me. The eastern sun shone on the face presently, and dyed the cruel mark with a deeper red; but the sting of my own wrongs was fresh, and I had not yet learned to despise myself for that brutal outrage.

André wasn’t in a forgiving mood either, and so the two men settled it in the gentlemanly fashion, by attempting to kill each other in a duel.

We fought, and I wounded him mortally. Life had been very sweet for him; and I think that a frenzy of despair took possession of him when he felt the life-blood ebbing away.

Well, it would, wouldn’t it? The wounded André beckons Hector to come close, and with his dying breath, utters these words…

“Listen to me, Hector de Brissac,” he said. “I am not one who believes that a man has done with earth because his eyes glaze and his jaw stiffens. . . They will bury me, and sing masses for my soul; but you and I have not finished our affair yet, my cousin. I will be with you when you least look to see me,– I, with this ugly scar upon the face that women have praised and loved. I will come to you when your life seems brightest. I will come between you and all that you hold fairest and dearest. My ghostly hand shall drop a poison in your cup of joy. My shadowy form shall shut the sunlight from your life. Men with such iron will as mine can do what they please, Hector de Brissac. It is my will to haunt you when I am dead.”

Good curse, eh? However, Hector has killed men before in battle, and feels that his cousin deserved all he got, so he doesn’t worry. Men shun him for what he has done, and so he retreats to the castle which once belonged to André and is now his. A few years later he falls in love with sweet Eveline…

She loved me. The richest blessings of our lives are often those which cost us least. I wasted the best years of my youth in the worship of a wicked woman, who jilted and cheated me at last. I gave this meek angel but a few courteous words – a little fraternal tenderness – and lo, she loved me.

Isn’t that nice? He didn’t think to mention to Eveline that he was cursed, of course. For a few short months they lived a life of idyllic happiness. It wasn’t to last…

In her walks about the park and woods during the last month, she had met a man who, by his dress and bearing, was obviously of noble rank . . . I was at a loss to imagine who this stranger could be…

Now, who do we all think the stranger might be…?

* * * * *

Well, I was willing to feel a bit sorry for André over being killed for a bit of flirting with a woman who sounds as if she was no better than she ought to be, but really? Haunting your murderer’s wife seems a bit misogynistic, if you ask me! Was it Eveline’s fault, I ask you? I think not! But, ah me! It’s always the woman who suffers! Men! Tchah!

I’ve never read anything by Mary Elizabeth Braddon before, but know her name as one of the leading Victorian sensation novelists. Though I’m no expert, I suspect suffering women are a pretty big feature of sensation fiction, and that seems to be borne out in the three stories I’ve read so far in this new anthology of her Gothic tales. I like her style a lot – it has that Victorian feeling of heightened emotion without tipping over into pulpy melodrama.

This one isn’t too scary – it’s more a tale of revenge and repentance. But it’s very well told, and the revenge goes a little deeper than Eveline simply being haunted by a vision – the ending has a touch of eroticism which, although extremely mild, still surprised me a bit in a story from this era.

“His image haunted me perpetually; I strove in vain to shut his face out of my mind. Then followed an interval in which I did not see him; and, to my shame and anguish, I found that life seemed dreary and desolate without him.”

I’m looking forward to reading more of Braddon’s stories… I think I could become a fan…

The porpy is relaxed and ready for more…

If you’d like to read this one online, here’s a link

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * *

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.

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

History through heresy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1468, and young priest Christopher Fairfax is hurrying to reach the village of Addicott St George before curfew. He has been sent by his bishop to officiate at the funeral of the village’s priest, Father Lacy, who has died in a fall from the local landmark known as the Devil’s Chair. But once installed at the rectory, Christopher discovers that Father Lacy had been a collector of antiquities, some of them prohibited by the Church, and he soon has reason to wonder if there may be something more sinister behind the old priest’s death…

But… that isn’t really what the book’s about. And I can’t tell you properly what it is about, since that would spoil it! Makes writing a review kinda tricky. Suffice it to say, there’s a layer of depth that takes this beyond being a standard historical fiction novel. There are elements of apocalypse and dystopia, though I wouldn’t label the book as falling strictly into those categories either. It has as much to say about the present as the past, although we never visit the present. Are you intrigued? You should be!

Christopher has spent his young life in the Church, sent there as a boy to train in the priesthood. This is his first real venture into the world beyond the limits of the cathedral town he calls home, and he soon finds that the world outside has temptations, not simply of the body but of the mind. Heresy, he finds, is a slippery slope – somehow the forbidden exerts a pull on his mind, and the more he discovers, the more he begins to question all that he has been taught. Are the strict rules the Church forces on the population designed to save their souls, or simply to give the Church a stranglehold on power? At the same time, he is beginning to question his personal vocation – his faith is not in question, but as he becomes open to new thoughts and feelings, he wonders if he is able to go on preaching a religion he is beginning to question.

And he’s not alone in his questioning. Others have dabbled in what the Church calls heresy, although the punishments are brutal. Some tread a fine line, trying to disguise their research into the forbidden areas of the past as anti-heretical warnings. Church and state are inextricably linked, and those who fall out of favour with one must suffer the penalties imposed by the other.

As always, Robert Harris has the ability to create settings which have the feel of total authenticity. Here, there’s an added layer of subtlety as we discover that it’s all not quite as straightforward as it first appears, and he handles the ambiguity wonderfully. If there’s a flaw in his more recent books, it’s that his plotting takes second place to his portrayal of a place or time or event. In Conclave, it’s all about the inner workings of the Vatican and how popes are elected, and the actual plot is the only weak point; in Munich, the plot exists merely as a vehicle to allow us to be a fly on the wall at the Munich Conference of 1938. In this one, the plot revolves around Father Lacy’s death and Christopher’s growing interest in the beliefs of the heretics, but again it’s simply a device for Harris to show us this society from different angles – to let us see how and why it has developed as it has. For some people, I know this is a real weakness, and usually it would be for me too. But I find Harris’ scene-setting and the subjects he chooses so fascinating that I never feel the lack of a strong plot. Sometimes, as in Munich or An Officer and a Spy, he casts so much insight into a point in history that it’s enough for me. Other times, as in this one or, say, Fatherland, he uses a slightly off-kilter look at history to make us see it with fresh eyes – not so much as it was, but rather as how only very slight alterations may have made it work out differently – and I find those wonderfully thought-provoking.

Robert Harris

I also find his writing so smooth and effortless-seeming that the actual act of reading is pure pleasure. I find him a very visual writer – he doesn’t go off into extravagantly poetic descriptions, but nevertheless I always end up feeling that I know the places and societies he’s shown me as well as if I’d visited them. And even when he’s making a “point”, he never beats us over the head with it – he respects his readers to think it through for themselves.

As you’ll have gathered, I loved this one – another rung on the ladder that is rapidly helping him climb to the very top of my favourite author heap. I do hope my vague review has intrigued you enough to tempt you to read this one…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bodies from the Library 2 edited by Tony Medawar

A case of the finest vintage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

I’ve read lots of collections of vintage short mystery stories over the last few years, as publishers have responded to what seems to be a growing appetite for the style of the Golden Age authors. I’m always struck by how many of the major novelists of the period excelled in this format too, while it would appear that there were many other authors who more or less specialised in short stories. This collection of fifteen stories includes some of the biggest names of all, like Sayers and Christie, some of the authors who are currently being resurrected for a modern audience, like ECR Lorac and John Rhode, and some whose names were unfamiliar to me, though they’re probably well known to real vintage crime aficionados, like Helen Simpson or C.A. Alington.

Described as ‘forgotten’, the stories are previously uncollected and in several cases unpublished, so even those who have read quite widely in this genre will find some real treats here. There are two novellas – a previously unpublished one from Edmund Crispin starring Gervase Fen, and one from a writing duo I hadn’t come across before, who styled themselves Q. Patrick. Dorothy L. Sayers fans will be thrilled by the inclusion of a never-before-published Lord Peter Wimsey story, and Margery Allingham fans will enjoy her script for a radio play. Tony Medawar provides brief but informative literary bios of each of the authors, which throw up some interesting factlets, such as that “Peter Antony” was actually an alias used by the famous play- and screen-writing brothers, Peter and Anthony Shaffer.

This is one of the best mixed anthologies I’ve come across. There is the usual variation in quality, of course, but I gave 11 of the stories either four or five stars and found only a couple of them disappointing. And the five which got the full five stars are all great – they alone make the book a real treat. Here’s a flavour of them:

No Face by Christianna Brand – A psychic claims to be receiving messages from a bloody serial killer, known only as No Face. Is the psychic a fake? But if so, how does he seem to know where the murderer will strike next? This is excellent – it has a real atmosphere of creepy dread that is as much horror as crime, The characterisation of the psychic is very well done and there’s a delicious twist in the tail.

Exit Before Midnight by Q. Patrick – A group of eight people are trapped on the fortieth floor of an office building on New Year’s Eve as a murderer picks them off one by one. Carol is the central character and to add to her woes two of the men are vying for her attention. But could one of them be the murderer? Oh, and did I forget to mention? The lights have fused and they only have a limited supply of matches…This is novella length, with great plotting and real tension, while Carol’s dilemma adds a light element of romance to lift the tone. Loved it, and will be hoping to find more from this duo.

Room to Let by Margery Allingham – This is a radio script, so is given to us purely as dialogue with a few stage directions. It’s a first-class mash-up of a The Lodger-type story and a locked room mystery. Following a fire at a private asylum, a mysterious stranger rents a room from Mrs Musgrave, a crippled lady in a wheelchair. The stranger gradually gains control over her, her daughter, Molly, and their faithful maid, Alice. But… could he possibly be Jack the Ripper?? It culminates with a corpse in a locked room. The framing device is of the story being told years later at a dinner of detectives, whose spirit of competitiveness to solve the mystery gives a humorous edge to the start and end. Well plotted and highly entertaining.

The Adventure of the Dorset Squire by C.A. Alington – This short short story is a sort of country house farce and very funny. There’s no real crime but lots of screaming and confusion – great fun!

The Locked Room by Dorothy L. Sayers – Previously unpublished, it dates to the period before Harriet Vane began to infest the Lord Peter Wimsey books, allowing Peter the freedom for a nice bit of flirtation with a fellow guest at a country house party, Betty Carlyle. When the host apparently kills himself, Betty is unconvinced – she suspects the host’s wife murdered him. This becomes a problem some months later, when the wife decides to marry Betty’s cousin. So she appeals to Lord Peter to uncover the truth. Well plotted, the writing is up to her usual high standard, and the flirtation gives it a lot of fun. Yes, even although I’m normally an un-fan of Sayers, this one got under my guard!

If you’re already a vintage crime fan, then this is one to grab; and if you’re new to the genre, then you’ll find this a very enjoyable way to introduce yourself to some of the greats. Highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott

End of Empire…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1942 and tensions are running high in India. Britain, with its usual high-handedness, has decided that Indian troops will join the war effort without consulting the Indian leaders. Gandhi is demanding that the British quit India, even though that will probably mean that the Japanese move in. When the British arrest the leaders of the Independence movement, for a few short days the peace of Mayapore is broken as rioters take to the streets. And in that time one British woman will see her idealistic dreams destroyed while another will be brutally raped. Eighteen years later, an unnamed researcher will come to Mayapore to try to discover the truth of what happened in those days.

Scott starts by telling us:

This is the story of a rape, of the events that led up to it and followed it and of the place in which it happened. There are the action, the people, and the place; all of which are interrelated but in their totality incommunicable in isolation from the moral continuum of human affairs.

But in fact it’s the story of two rapes – the rape perpetrated on Daphne Manners, a white girl who made the fatal mistake of falling in love with an Indian man, and the rape perpetrated by the British Empire on the culture, society and people of India. Written at the height of the breast-beating anti-Colonial guilt experienced in Britain following the gradual letting go of their empire, Scott shows no mercy in his dissection of the evils committed, not so much by individual Brits, though there’s some of that, but by the imposition of one dominant culture over another.

The book is told in a series of sections, each concentrating on one character, and gradually building to create an in-depth picture of fictional Mayapore, which functions as a manageable microcosm for India as a whole. It takes a long time to get to Daphne’s story, deliberately, as Scott circles round, showing life in Mayapore from many different angles and over a period of years both before and after the event, creating a feeling of eventual inevitability about her rape as a thing that rises out of that ‘moral continuum of human affairs’, and feeds back into it.

Scott uses many different styles to tell his story. Some parts are first person “spoken” accounts told to the researcher, some are third person narratives, some take the form of letters between characters, or official reports, and some come from Daphne’s journal. In the third person sections, where it’s written, presumably, in the author’s own style, the language is frequently complex, rather spare and understated at the moments of greatest emotion, but often with lush beauty in the descriptive passages, creating a wonderful sense of this town and the surrounding country. In the other sections, Scott creates individual voices for each of the narrators, suited to the form they’re using, and he sustains these superbly so that one gets a real feel for the personalities behind even the driest and most factual reports.

Some of the sections are intensely human stories, like that of Edwina Crane, a woman who has devoted her empty and lonely life to the Church of England mission schools that teach the Indian children how to be good little English-speaking Christians. Her admiration for Gandhi has finally been destroyed by his recent actions and she has found that the Indian women she had looked to for a meagre form of social life are no longer so keen to be patronised by white women. Or the story of Hari Kumar, an Indian boy brought up in England and suddenly transported back to the country of his birth, where he is an outsider to both cultures – unable to speak the Indian languages and lacking knowledge of their way of life, but as a ‘native’ he is not allowed to be a part of the British community either, despite his impeccable English manners and education.

Other sections are told to the researcher and although their purpose is to shed light on Daphne’s story, the characters reveal as much about themselves along the way: Lady Lili Chatterjee, high caste and with a British title via her deceased husband, she is respected by the British but still subjected to constant, often unthinking, discrimination; or Mr Srinivasan, a lawyer who was involved in the Independence movement, and who shows us the Indian perspective on the political questions. The reports from the military and civil authorities are formal in style, but are accompanied by letters to the researcher, where the characters are able to look back on and reassess events with the perspective of time passed.

And in the last section we learn Daphne’s own story in her own words – not just the story of her rape, but of her life, of the choices she made and of her reasons for making them.

Paul Scott

Scott creates a vivid and believable picture of the society, culture and politics that led to this moment in time, but he never forgets to put people at the heart of it. While some sections are focused very much on the political situation and, as a result, might be rather dry for readers who are less interested in that aspect, these are broken up by the often intensely intimate stories of the characters, many of whom become unforgettable. Since I’m fascinated by the British Empire, and India especially, I found the political stuff just as engrossing as the personal. Superbly written, intelligent at the political level and deeply moving at the personal – a wonderful novel.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 20 of 20

Snow White and Other Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Happily ever after…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a new entry in Oxford World’s Classics gorgeous hardback series, which so far seems to be concentrating on classic collections of short stories. Like most people, I know some of the Grimms’ stories from childhood, though in a bowdlerised version, and from Disney, pantomimes, ballets, etc. However, I’ve only tried to read the originals once before, in Philip Pullman’s version. He’d modernised the language horribly and tried to put in some archly knowing little jokes, and I disliked it all so much I only got about a third of the way through. So when I saw that this collection is a modern translation too, I was a bit apprehensive. Of course, I needn’t have worried – as always the OWC have treated the stories with respect and the translator, Joyce Crick, has done an excellent job of using standard modern English, making the stories easily approachable and enjoyable, while still retaining the sense of antiquity which gives them part of their charm. She tells us she has striven to return the stories as far as possible to the Grimms, by stripping out the layers that some later translations and adaptations have added over the years.

Rumpelstiltskin
by Anne Anderson

The book includes the Grimms’ Preface to the Second Edition where they explain how the stories were collected, from where, and that the point was to preserve the stories before the custom of oral storytelling died out. However the interesting main introduction, also by Joyce Crick, reveals that some at least of the stories were not collected from peasants but from friends of the Grimms from their own social class, recounting tales they had been told in their childhoods. Crick uses the introduction to supply some historical context to the stories, an insight into the then-contemporary drive to collect folklore, and to give some background about the brothers’ lives, while also looking more academically at the relevance of the stories to their own time and place.

Rapunzel
by Walter Crane

While many of the stories could be shared with children, either to read themselves or to have read aloud to them, others may be less suitable, either because of some fairly strong images of horror or simply because of the more adult themes they contain. This volume is clearly aimed primarily at the adult reader, with the introductions, appendices and notes, and also because it lacks illustrations. Crick explains: “The present edition has no pictures, though its conversations have certainly invited them, taking place as ever between a princess and a frog, or a wolf and a girl in a red bonnet, or two frightened children in the forest, but also between a disgruntled fiddler and a Jew, and between a boy-giant and an officious bailiff. So this selection finds itself aimed at readers who once read these tales in their childhood, or had them read to them, and are returning to them late, apple bitten, naivety lost, in history. It was Jacob Grimm who spoke of a ‘lost Paradise of poesy’.”

The Brothers Grimm

There are 82 stories in the collection, including all the best known ones, like Rapunzel, Snow White, Cinderella, although sometimes not going by those names – here we have the originals rather than the versions that have developed over time. So Cinderella appears here as Ashypet, and we have the spirit of her dead mother sending her aid rather than a wand-wielding fairy godmother. But there are also lots that I either didn’t know or hadn’t heard for many years, so I found it an excellent mix of the familiar and the new. There’s humour, horror, lots of poor girls finding their Princes and even some poor men finding their Princesses, animal fables, morality tales, supernatural intervention and human goodness and evil. There are quite a lot of stories that repeat or echo other ones, but each time with enough of a different take to allow them to stand as individual.

The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs
by Maurice Sendak

I loved the retellings of all the stories I already loved – Rapunzel, The Singing Bone, The Tale of the Boy Who Set Out to Learn Fear (some great horror imagery and lots of humour in that one), The Tale of the Fisherman, etc. But I found lots of new favourites too, including Cat and Mouse as Partners (a timely warning of the perfidy of our beloved felines), Faithful John (horrific in parts, but they all live happily ever after, even the beheaded children!), The Three Little Men in the Forest (which I’m sure I’ve come across before but for some reason particularly enjoyed the way it’s told here), Clever Hans (lots of humour enhanced by some lovely repetition). And on and on… too many to list. There were very few I didn’t enjoy – a couple that felt unnecessarily cruel, like Sensible Elsie whose fate seemed rather worse than she deserved, and a couple which had rather ugly depictions of Jews – of their time, but didn’t sit comfortably with me in today’s world.

Hansel and Gretel
by Arthur Rackham

Overall, I loved this collection, and will undoubtedly dip into it again often. I heartily recommend it to anyone who doesn’t know the stories and would like to, or to people who are already familiar with them but would have their appreciation enhanced by the great extras always found in OWC editions.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Birth pangs…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As Rebekka Vaark lies sick, possibly dying, of smallpox, her young slave, Florens, sets out to find and bring back the man the mistress thinks will be able to cure her. As Florens makes her difficult and dangerous journey through the still wild Virginia of 1690, where humans and beasts present different though equal threats, we will learn of the people who make up the household – how they came to be there, how they live, the relationships between them. And we will get a picture of the birth of America, built with the blood and toil of those who came voluntarily and those who were brought against their will.

I’m having a bit of a rollercoaster ride with Toni Morrison. Having been stunned by the power of Beloved, I was then a little disappointed by the heavy-handed symbolism of Song of Solomon, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from this one. Having now read it, I suspect it may have layers of depth that would require further readings to fully catch, but even on this one reading I found it a wonderfully insightful and nuanced picture of the early settlers in the New World, and a beautifully told story of the human spirit battling against hardship.

Jacob Vaark has inherited a piece of land and sets out to farm it, sending back to England for a woman willing to become his wife. Rebekka tells her story of sailing across the ocean to marry a man she has never met. She is lucky – he is kind and they grow to love one another. We see the overcrowded filth and poverty of the London she has left behind and her growing delight at the space, pure air, clean water of her new home. Jacob is kind in other ways, gradually collecting waifs and strays to work on the farm. Florens came to them as a child, traded as payment of a debt owed to Jacob. Lina, a Native American, survived the smallpox brought by the settlers which wiped out almost all of her village. Rootless, she too finds a home in the Vaark household. And Sorrow, turned out by her employers for the sin of being impure, is taken in by Jacob. But Jacob’s kindness is enabled by his investments in slave plantations in Barbados – the nature of America’s foundation is in the background but never forgotten.

….Just then the little girl stepped from behind the mother. On he feet was a pair of way-too-big woman’s shoes. Perhaps it was that feeling of license, a newly recovered recklessness along with the sight of those little legs rising like two bramble stocks from the bashed and broken shoes, that made him laugh. A loud, chest-heaving laugh at the comedy, the hopeless irritation, of the visit. His laughter had not subsided when the woman cradling the small boy on her hip came forward. Her voice was barely above a whisper but there was no mistaking its urgency.
….“Please, Senhor. Not me. Take her. Take my daughter.”

One of the things I appreciated about this is that Morrison doesn’t limit it to the story of African slaves. She shows that, while race is clearly already a dividing line, there are other factors – wealth and poverty, gender, competing religions – that define the hierarchies within this still-forming society. We hear about the indentured servants, often white, who are bought and sold much like the Africans; the women who are, if they are lucky, traded as wives; the Native Americans, their population already being ravaged by new illnesses even before they are driven from their lands. She also shows with a good deal of subtlety how kindness is easier in good times; that friendship between people wielding unequal power is fragile, perhaps too fragile to survive when times get tough. She shows how easy it is for good people to convince themselves that they have rights of ownership and control over the lives of others, and easier still to slide unthinkingly into abuse of power. In fact, in microcosm, she shows that the problems of today’s America arise from the circumstances of its conception and birth.

Toni Morrison
Photo: Reuters

But these characters are not merely symbols of their race or place in society. In what is a very short book, each has time to develop into a fully rounded human being, complete with vulnerabilities and flaws, not always likeable but fully empathetic. Some tell us their own stories; others we are told about in third person. Florens has a dialect and uses a kind of stream of consciousness narrative, making her sections the hardest to read but also the deepest – she is the heart of the story. We learn about the men – Jacob himself and the two indentured servants who work on the farm – but the book is centred on the women, as individuals and on their relationships with each other. Motherhood is a major theme, and a difficult one at a time when infant death was a common occurrence. There are stories of the sacrifices mothers make for their children, the jealousies of those women who are childless for others who have healthy babies, the prejudices against mothers who bear children out of wedlock, even when this is as a result of rape, and the fulfilment that some women only find through motherhood.

Book 5 of 25

This doesn’t have the emotional impact of Beloved, but it’s a beautifully rendered picture of womankind in all her complexities, and of inequality, be that of race or wealth or gender or power, and how it distorts the human spirit. But Morrison offers the possibility for redemption. The stories of these women are hard, often bleak, and Morrison doesn’t provide facile, happy endings; but there is a sense that the love mothers have for their children gives hope for a better future. One day, perhaps.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 16 of 20

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

This is the way the world ends…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A devastating nuclear war has been fought across the world, wiping out almost all life. Only in the far South have people survived, so far, but they know that the poisonous fallout is gradually heading their way and the scientists have told them there is nothing they can do to save themselves. We follow a group of characters in the city and suburbs of Melbourne as they figure out how to spend their last few months of life…

Shute’s depiction of the end of the world is a bleak and hopeless one, but it’s shot through with the resilience of the human spirit. This stops the read from being quite as bleak as the story – just. In most dystopian fiction, there are options even at the worst of times: will humanity rise again, or sink into savage brutality? Will some feat of courage or science stave off the end and bring about a resurrection, perhaps a redemption? There’s none of that in this. Any time anyone hopes that survival may be possible, that hope is promptly and definitively dashed by the scientists. So all there is is one question – how will the people choose to live and die? As civilised humans or as terrified beasts? It’s the ‘50s, so take a guess…

Born out of Cold War fears of nuclear holocaust, this is a terrifying look at how easily humankind might bring about its own destruction. While that fear no longer consumes us to the same degree – oddly, since our combined nuclear arsenal now is even greater than it was then and a narcissistic moron has control of the biggest button – we have replaced it with other terrors: new pandemics, the failure of antibiotics, soil exhaustion, over-population, water wars, and of course our old friend, global climate change. We are uniquely creative in finding ways to bring our species to the brink of extinction, so the question of whether we will face our communal death with dignity is ever present. Shute chooses to suggest that we will. I’m not so sure.

Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire in the 1959 movie version

It’s very well written with the characterisation taking the forefront – the war and science aspects are there merely to provide the background. Peter and Mary Holmes are a young couple with a new baby. Peter is a man, therefore he understands the science and has accepted the inevitable. Mary is a woman, therefore the science is way beyond her limited brain capacity (it’s the ‘50s) and she’s in a state of denial, planning her garden for the years that will never come. Peter is in the Australian navy, and has been assigned as liaison to the last American submarine to have survived, under the command of Captain Dwight Towers. Dwight knows his wife and two children back in America must be dead, but he is clinging to the idea that they will all be together again, in some afterlife that he doesn’t quite call heaven. Peter and Mary introduce Dwight to a friend of theirs, Moira Davidson, a young woman intent on partying her way to her end. These four form the central group through whose experiences we witness the final months. Gradually, one by one, more northern cities fall silent as the invisible cloud creeps closer.

If you’re expecting action, then this is not the book for you. The things that happen are small – difficulties with milk supplies, decisions having to be made about how to deal with farm animals, the heart-wrenching subject of what to do about domestic pets, whom the scientists think will survive for a few weeks or months longer than humans. Is suicide morally permissible when death is inevitable? Do people pack the churches or the pubs, or both? How long do people keep going to their work, to keep the streets clean, the shops open, the lights on? It’s a slow-moving but fascinating and rather moving depiction of an undramatic end – all the bombs and war and destruction occurred far away; for the people of Melbourne, nothing has outwardly happened and yet every part of their existence has been irrevocably changed.

Book 50 of 90

I found myself wondering how such a book would be written today. I imagine it would be filled with roving gangs, pillaging their way through the remainder of their lives, raping and murdering as they went. There would be desperate attempts to dig shelters, stockpile resources, store seeds and genetic material against a possible distant future. Perhaps people would be looking to escape into space, or build protective suits or find a way to place themselves in stasis. Refugees would flood southwards in advance of the cloud and turf wars would break out over territory and food. Rich people would be holed up in gated communities with armed guards to protect their useless hoards of gold and jewels. And poor people, just as stupid and greedy, would be looting everything they could lay their hands on. There would be screaming, hysteria, fights, panic, drunkenness, crazy cults and orgies. People would be leaping like lemmings from cliffs. No doubt thousands of young people would be recording it all on their iPhones, hoping against hope that they’d go viral just once before they die, while TV executives would have turned it into a mass reality show, complete with emoting diary room scenes… “So how do you feel about knowing you’re going to die horribly…?”

Nevil Shute

But in Shute’s version, there’s an acceptance, a kind of politeness about the whole thing, where everyone remains concerned about each other more than themselves, and people continue to pay attention to the instructions of the authorities. No refugees – people simply stay where they are until the fallout gets them, and then they quietly die. Were people’s attitudes different in the ‘50s because of books like this, or were books written like this because people’s attitudes were different? It’s this kind of stoic decency that makes me so nostalgic for that world, even though I suspect it never really existed. If humanity succeeds in bringing about our own extinction, then I’d love to think we could face it with this level of dignity. But I don’t.

A thought-provoking and intelligent portrayal of one possible end – well written and with excellent characterisation, and which, as so much early science fiction does, tells us as much about the time in which it was written as the future it’s ostensibly about. Not perhaps the most cheerful read in the world, but thoroughly deserving of its status as a classic of the genre.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 15 of 20

The Middle Temple Murder by JS Fletcher

A mysterious victim…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When young newspaper editor Frank Spargo happens upon a murder scene late one night, his journalistic instincts lead him to follow the story. Fortunately the police detective in charge of the case doesn’t seem to have a problem with sharing all the evidence with a journalist and soon Spargo is taking the lead in the investigation. The first thing is to identify the victim, but this turns out not to be as easy as might be expected. The man’s wallet and papers have been removed from his body, and even when they begin to trace him, he seems to have a mysterious past. Spargo will have to go back into that past to find out who the man is, what he was doing in Middle Temple late at night and who had the motive and opportunity to kill him.

All that is found on the victim’s body is a scrap of paper with the name and address of a young barrister, Ronald Breton. Breton has never met the man, but since he’s just starting his first case and is yet to make his name in legal circles, it seems unlikely the victim would have been looking for him in his professional capacity. When it turns out the man had met Stephen Aylmore the evening before – an MP and the father of Breton’s fiancée – it all begins to look like the motive is more likely to be personal, and Aylmore quickly becomes the chief suspect. Fortunately for Aylmore he has two daughters and Spargo finds himself falling for the other one, giving him an incentive to clear Aylmore’s name.

It took me a while to really get into this one but after a slowish start it begins to rattle along at a good pace, and the plot is that great combination of being twisty and complicated without ever becoming hard to follow. Spargo does his detection the old fashioned way – by talking to people, noticing discrepancies between the stories of various witnesses and using those to prise open the secrets that some of them are hiding. First published in 1919 in the age of the gifted amateur detective, the idea of a journalist being so closely involved in a police investigation doesn’t seem as unbelievable as it would today, and Spargo mostly shares all the information he finds, although eventually he and Rathbury, the police detective, find themselves on opposite sides – Rathbury trying to prove the guilt of Aylesbury and Spargo trying to prove his innocence.

Challenge details:
Book: 14
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1919

Most of the action takes place in London, around Fleet Street and the Middle Temple, but the story takes Spargo out of the city too, first to a small market town where he uncovers some long past scandals that seem to have a bearing on the case, and then up to Yorkshire for a finale deep in the moors. Fletcher describes each setting well, giving a real feeling for the different ways of life in the various places. None of the characterisation is particularly in-depth, but it’s done well enough so that I soon found myself rooting for some of the characters to be cleared while others I was prepared to see go to the gallows. Fletcher, anticipating the Golden Age style, gave me a solution that meant I could feel justice had been done. I must say it’s a sudden solution, though! Boom – here’s the final piece that makes it all fall into place, and we’re done. My brain could have done with an extra three or four pages to give me time to process what just happened! But I didn’t think it was unfair or illogical – just abrupt.

JS Fletcher

All-in-all, I enjoyed this one a lot. It does feel rather dated in style (which I don’t mind, but some people might) and frankly could have done with a stiff edit to get rid of one or two little discrepancies, but they weren’t enough of a problem to bother me nor to affect the overall outcome. I was disappointed to read in Martin Edward’s entry in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books that Fletcher never revisited the Spargo character in later books – I reckon he could have made a good series detective. However apparently Fletcher did create another series detective later, Ronald Camberwell, and I’d happily try one or two of those if I can get hold of them. Meantime, this one is recommended as well written, cleverly plotted and entertaining.

NB I downloaded this one from wikisource. The formatting is very good.

Book 14 of 20

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré

Ends and means…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Alec Leamas is the head of the West German office of the British Secret Service – the time is the early 1960s, just after the building of the Berlin Wall. His main adversary, Hans-Dieter Mundt, has been successfully eliminating all of Leamas’ agents one by one, and Leamas has just witnessed the death of the last double-agent he had in East Berlin. Called home, Leamas expects he will be retired, but he is asked to stay “out in the cold” for one last operation – to take part in an elaborate sting to infiltrate the East German set-up and bring down Mundt. But first he must establish a convincing cover story for himself, one that will make the East Germans believe that he is willing to betray his country…

This is my first le Carré novel, although his books have been adapted so often and he’s been so influential on the genre I felt I had a good idea of what to expect – a bleak, cold portrayal of the work of spies far removed from the glamour of James Bond and his like. And that’s exactly what I got in this slow-burn but engrossing thriller. Le Carré shows a moral equivalence between the agents on both sides of the wall rather than the good Brits/evil enemies portrayal that was more standard in fiction before his time. Both sides are shown as using methods that are murky at best and the question that underpins it is the old one of whether the ends justify the means.

To point this up, le Carré introduces an innocent into the story – Liz Gold, a woman with whom Leamas has an affair while building up his false story. She’s an idealist – a communist at a time when the Communist Party in Britain is so minor and insignificant that it’s more like a social club than a revolutionary political force. As the story progresses, she will have to face the reality of communism under a totalitarian government, and Leamas will have to face the consequences of having accidentally put her in a position of great danger. His world weary cynicism contrasts with her naive belief in humankind. Her love for Leamas and faith in him will force him to reconsider the methods and morality of the organisation of which he has been a part for so long.

Book 49 of 90

The writing style is in line with the character of Leamas – unemotional and somewhat cynical. It takes a long time to work out quite what’s going on, not just for the reader but for the characters too, since it’s full of bluff and double-bluff. There’s a distinction between characters who are doing what they’re doing out of ideological conviction and those who are simply out for power and advancement, but one senses that eventually the believers will in turn become the old cynics – it’s the job that does it to them in the end. This causes you to realise that once upon a time Leamas too was probably an idealist, making him more sympathetic than he first appears. We catch a glimpse too of how some join not through patriotism or belief, but because the job allows them to exercise a natural cruelty. And finally, we see how those at the top see agents as pawns on a chessboard, valuable up to a point, but sometimes worth sacrificing in the pursuit of victory.

There was only one light in the checkpoint, a reading lamp with a green shade, but the glow of the arclights, like artificial moonlight, filled the cabin. Darkness had fallen, and with it silence. They spoke as if they were afraid of being overheard. Leamas went to the window and waited. In front of him the road and to either side the Wall, a dirty, ugly thing of breeze blocks and strands of barbed wire, lit with cheap yellow light, like the backdrop for a concentration camp. East and west of the Wall lay the unrestored part of Berlin, a half-world of ruin, drawn in two dimensions, crags of war.

It’s a bleak tale and a complex one that requires concentration to follow the twisting maze of plot. Le Carré trusts his readers to read between the lines, in terms both of the action and of the motivations of the characters, and ultimately that’s what makes it so satisfying. There’s enough ambiguity in it for each reader to decide for herself exactly what the ending tells us, but there are also clues for those who were paying attention. For those of us who might have missed one or two(!), my Penguin Modern Classics edition has a short but insightful introduction from William Boyd, no slouch himself when it comes to espionage fiction, in which he discusses the impact of the book and his own interpretation of the underlying meanings. This intro must be read as an afterword since it gives away the ending, but it does have a warning to that effect.

John Le Carre
Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images

It’s a little more bleak than my taste usually runs to and it took me a bit of time to feel involved in the story, but by the end I was totally absorbed and emotionally hooked. The writing is excellent and le Carré remains totally in control of the complexities of the plotting at all times. There’s an almost noir feeling to it, certainly dark grey anyway, and a kind of despairing cynicism of tone, but there are also small shafts of light and the occasional unexpected humanity that remind us that these people do what they do so that we can live as we choose to live. But at what cost to themselves and, ultimately, to us? Thought-provoking, intelligent and engrossing – no wonder it’s considered a major classic of the genre.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 12 of 20

The Observations by Jane Harris

Victorian sensation from the maid’s perspective…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Bessy Buckley may be young in years but her hard and sordid upbringing means she’s old in experience. Fleeing from her hometown of Glasgow in search of a better life, she finds herself more or less accidentally taking a job as maid at Castel Haivers, the home of Arabella Reid and her husband James, halfway along the road to Edinburgh. Arabella is young, beautiful and kind, and the affection-starved Bessy is soon devoted to her new mistress. But the job has some strange requirements, such as that Bessy must keep a journal of her actions and thoughts every day, and show it to Arabella on demand. Soon Bessy finds she’s not the first maid to whom Arabella has shown peculiar attention; in particular there was a girl named Nora, who died in circumstances that seem to cast a dark shadow over the household…

In some ways, this is a take on the Victorian sensation novel complete with touches of Gothic horror, insanity, shocking deaths and so on. But what makes it feel fresh is the perspective of Bessy, our narrator. She’s both feisty and vulnerable, strong but sometimes unsure of herself, devoted to but clear-sighted about the flaws of her mistress. She’s learned to take care of herself in a world that hasn’t shown her much care and has retained the capacity to love, despite love having been in short supply in her brief life to date.

However, it’s Bessy’s voice that is so special – a real tour-de-force from Harris in recreating an entirely credible dialect and slang for that place and time. Bessy (like the author) is Irish originally, as were so many Glaswegians, and I loved the way Harris managed to give her language an authentic touch of Glasgow-Irish at points. Contrary to popular belief I wasn’t around in 1863 when the book is set, but a lot of the dialect words and speech mannerisms are familiar from my youth, and the pawky, irreverent, occasionally bawdy sense of humour is just about perfect. I’ve seen non-Scots say they found it a bit tricky at first to get used to the language, but for me it was as natural as listening to people who were elderly when I was a child. It’s not overdone – it’s more the rhythms and style that make it work rather than excessive use of specifically Scots vocabulary.

Jane Harris

The story itself unfolds slowly and perhaps stays a bit low-key to really compete with true sensation novels. But I liked this more realistic approach and found the whole thing stayed very well within the range of credibility. It takes us to some dark places, not least in Bessy’s childhood, but Bessy isn’t the type to wallow – she prefers to shut her mind off to the bad memories as much as she can, and her resilience and strength make her an extremely likeable protagonist to spend time with. She’s not always wise in her actions but her intentions are usually good, and she’s hard on herself when she gets things wrong. There are some nicely spooky moments and plenty of drama to keep things ticking along, but the main joy is in the language and characterisation. While we get to know Bessy intimately, Arabella is more enigmatic – perhaps the reader understands her a little better than Bessy does. Again Harris is very skilled at playing into the reader’s expectations of this type of novel while leaving Bessy struggling to understand the psychological forces at play – the intellectual and physical repression of women, the Victorian tropes of hysteria and insanity, the Gothic horror of candlelit gloom and Freudian dream sequences, the hints of unacknowledged lesbian desire, etc.

I might have criticised it, as some have, for being a little too long and drawn-out for its content, but I enjoyed Bessy’s voice so much that I never found it dragging and would happily have stayed in her company for as long as she liked. Loved it, and will be seeking out more of Harris’ work – highly recommended!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 11 of 20

Nada the Lily by H Rider Haggard

A tale of Zululand…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the tale of Umslopogaas, unacknowledged son of Chaka, a great Zulu king. Chaka’s rule was that he should have no living sons to challenge him on their coming to manhood, so when any of his many wives gave birth, the baby was put to death. But Umslopogaas’ mother begged her brother Mopo to save her­ child, and Mopo therefore adopted the boy and brought him up as his own son, alongside his daughter, the beautiful Nada. As Umslopogaas nears manhood, he falls out of favour and is forced to flee, subsequently forming an alliance with Galazi the Wolf and becoming a chieftain in his own right. But he never forgets his love for his sister and dreams that one day they will be together again…

This can be a difficult read for a modern reader, given its portrayal of the brutal savagery of the Zulus. But if you can look past that, it’s well worth reading. It’s written entirely from the perspective of Mopo, Umslopogaas’ uncle, and white men play no active part in it at all, although there is mention of the increasing threat they represent to the Zulus. Chaka’s reign was a time of extreme cruelty and brutality – it is said, for example, that following his mother’s death he had 7000 of his followers killed for not showing enough grief. So Haggard’s portrayal has a firm foundation in history and apparently also in the legend and folklore of the Zulu people. What I found so surprising about it is that Haggard offers the story to his British readers non-judgementally – he presents this society as it is (in his mind, at least – I have no way to gauge its accuracy) and the characters judge each other by their own standards, not by ours. I imagine this must have been a unique experience for contemporary readers back in 1892, when it was first published, used as they would have been to seeing Africa and Africans via patronising colonial eyes. I must say, it’s still pretty unique now, in that Haggard has managed to create an entirely believable picture without projecting white people or their attitudes or values onto a story about Africa.

Chaka was a real person and many of the events in the book are real also. Umpslopogaas, Galazi and Nada are fictional, but Mopo is also based on a real man who was close to the centre of power in Chaka’s kingdom. In the book, Mopo is a witchdoctor, and there are some supernatural elements that we would now call superstition or even fakery, but which are accepted internally in the story as true. There is every kind of violence and brutality you could name – mass killings, infanticide, gory battles, ravening wolf packs and so on. Women, of course, are property and Haggard shows clearly their complete subjugation within society, but again without overt judgement. Nonetheless, a few women play an active role in the story, both for good and evil, and Haggard shows how they may have had no hard power but they could exercise some influence over their men, though in a limited way. This is a country where men die young, in battle or killed by their leader to prevent them becoming a threat, and where – as a result, I assume – polygamy is the norm. Again, no British judgement here – despite the central love story, Haggard never suggests that Umslopogaas will or should have only one wife. But he does show how tensions could arise amongst the women, as older wives found themselves pushed aside in favour of younger favourites.

Book 48 of 90

The story itself is told by a very old Mopo looking back, and he often foreshadows the future for the characters, so that the reader knows from early on that many of the characters came to a tragic end. As a tragic love story, in truth, it didn’t do much for me – Nada isn’t in it enough for me to have grown to care deeply about her, and Umslopogaas is too honest a portrayal for me to have found him truly heroic. I was actually fonder of Galazi the Wolf, who seems less personally ambitious and with a core of loyalty that’s in short supply in this society. Haggard has him loving Umslopogaas like a brother, but my twenty-first century eyes couldn’t help seeing his love as more intimate than that, and I’d love to know if that was Haggard’s intention. A Google search confirms I’m by no means the only person to have read it that way. Certainly, and this is a feature of Victorian British culture which I could easily believe would be part of African culture too, the relationships between the men is considered to be much more important than any relationship between man and woman, except perhaps the relationship of mothers and sons.

H Rider Haggard

Lastly, I must mention the quality of the writing. Narrated by Mopo, Haggard maintains his voice throughout superbly, never allowing “white” attitudes or expressions to slip in. The violence and unvarnished brutality might put some readers off, but I found it a fascinating and ultimately credible depiction of the Zulus of Chaka’s time. This society is very different from our own modern Western one, but it has its own internal structure, rules and traditions, and the characters behave honourably or dishonourably within their own moral standards, not ours. If you can put aside your post-colonial prejudices, then there is much here to admire and enjoy – one of our more difficult classics in our current condition of hyper-sensitivity over questions of race, perhaps, but a true classic nevertheless.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 10 of 20

Conviction by Denise Mina

And… action!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

As Anna does all her usual early morning tasks, she’s expecting this to be a routine day. But then her best friend, Estelle, turns up at the door, and her husband, Hamish, comes downstairs with a suitcase and an announcement – he’s leaving Anna and going off with Estelle, taking the kids with him. Left alone and feeling shattered, Anna looks for something to distract her mind, and begins listening to a true-crime podcast. She’s amazed to discover that an old friend of hers, Leon, is at the centre of the story – as victim, or murderer, or perhaps both. With nothing better to do and not wishing to dwell on her broken life, Anna sets off to look up old acquaintances and do a bit of digging. Along the way she acquires a travelling companion – Estelle’s abandoned husband, Fin…

There are some dark elements to the story – rape, murder, suicide, anorexia – but the tone is surprisingly light. In the hands of someone less skilled I might have said too light – the handling of the anorexia in particular veered close to being a bit too jocular at times, even though I thought it was a quite realistic portrayal. But Mina keeps the book rattling along as such a pace that there’s no time to dwell on the bleaker themes – this is very much an action thriller. We soon learn that Anna is a woman with a past, one that has damaged her but made her strong. She’s a survivor, and since she quickly decides she’s not going to wallow in misery over her marriage, the reader is happily saved from wallowing with her.

Like all thrillers, the less you know going in the more you’ll enjoy it, so I won’t go too deeply into the story. Anna’s past soon erupts into the present and, as she and Fin hunt for the truth about Leon’s death, she in turn becomes hunted by the people she has been hiding from for years. It becomes a dangerous race across Europe as they begin to suspect that past and present might be connected in some way. Anna and Fin are an unlikely pairing (as Anna would be the first to point out) and their interactions add a lot to the humour and give the book its warmth. There’s an enjoyable mix of excitement and humour, with some serious moments to keep it grounded, and the tension gradually builds to an excellent (if improbable) and totally unexpected dénouement.

Denise Mina

OK, credibility got thrown overboard fairly early on and, after struggling to the surface a couple of times, finally sank without trace. If you’re looking for deep and meaningful, this isn’t it, despite it touching on some of the themes of the moment. But I found it thoroughly enjoyable, fast-paced and fun, and very well written. This is only the second Mina I’ve read, the other being the darkly realistic The Long Drop, and I find it hard to imagine two books more different in tone and style. I’m looking forward to getting to know her work better and, meantime, happily recommend this one. If Hitchcock were still with us, he could make it into a great film…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 9 of 20

Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas by Jules Verne

Drama in the deeps…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A mysterious sea monster has been damaging ships around the world, so a team is put together to hunt it down. The famous French naturalist Dr Aronnax happens to be in America at the time, so is invited to join the hunting party. Soon he will discover that the monster is in fact man-made – a submarine built and captained by the enigmatic Captain Nemo, and Aronnax and his companions will find themselves unwilling guests aboard the Nautilus as Nemo takes them on a fabulous journey beneath the seas and oceans of the world. But Nemo is more than a simple explorer – gradually Aronnax begins to suspect there is a darker purpose to his travels…

The beginning of the book is very reminiscent of my old friend Moby-Dick, as the hunting party sets off to sail rather aimlessly around the vastness of the world’s oceans hoping that they might coincidentally happen upon the sea-monster. Aronnax’s servant, Conseil, accompanies him, and on board they meet Ned Land, a master harpoonist whose task is to kill the monster should they find it. When their ship finally has a disastrous encounter with the Nautilus, these three men will be taken aboard as captives, although for the most part they will be treated more as guests, free to participate in the submarine’s adventures but not free to leave it.

Book 47 of 90

And what adventures! They will visit coral reefs and underwater passages between seas; they will slaughter all kinds of things for food or fun; they will visit islands inhabited only by savage tribes and find themselves in danger of being slaughtered themselves for food or fun, which seems like poetic justice to me! They will observe all kinds of strange creatures that live in the depths, some of them real, some mythical. Aronnax and his faithful assistant Conseil will catalogue hundreds – nay, thousands – of different species of fish and underwater plant life. And Aronnax, our narrator, will kindly list most of these, giving their Latin names and telling us their biological classification.

I must be honest and say all those lists of fish nearly did for me after a bit…

In the 89th genus of fish classified by Lacépède, belonging to the second sub-class of osseous fish characterized by a gill cover and a bronchial membrane, I noticed the scorpion fish, whose head has stings on it and which has only one dorsal fin: according to the subgenus, these creatures are either devoid of small scales or covered in them. The latter subgenus provided us with specimens of didactyls 30 to 40 centimetres long, with yellow stripes and fantastic-looking heads.

Now you may (possibly) be thinking that sounds quite interesting but, believe me, by the time you’ve travelled about four thousand leagues you will never be able to walk past another sushi restaurant without shuddering. Fortunately, I am a master of the art of skipping – obviously, or I’d never have made it through Moby-Dick’s interminable whales either – so very quickly learned to recognise when Aronnax was going to become the world’s leading fish bore and jump a few paragraphs. This worked excellently since, in between the excruciating fishiness and the mind-numbing technical descriptions of the submarine, there’s lots of adventure and some interesting insights on the world as it was in Verne’s day.

The characterisation is good too. Aronnax doesn’t much mind his status as prisoner since, as a scientist, the journey is giving him the opportunity to observe first-hand things that no man has seen before. Conseil is simply his faithful servant – wherever Aronnax is is where Conseil wishes to be – but he provides some gentle humour and acts as a bridge between Aronnax and the third member of the group, Ned Land. Ned feels his imprisonment harshly, especially since Nemo is not keen on letting him harpoon everything he sees, and he’s always pushing Aronnax to consider ways to escape. And Nemo himself is an ominous, brooding presence on board – a scientist too, but who has deliberately cut himself off from the world of men. Aronnax studies him much as he studies the other ocean life, and comes to think that he has perhaps suffered some tragedy or injustice that has driven him to this strange existence. He is another Captain Ahab, although he is sailing in the belly of the monster of the deep rather than chasing after it. But he is driven by the same desire – revenge!

Two hours after leaving the Nautilus we crossed the tree-line; the mountain peak towered 100 feet above our heads, its dazzling radiation projecting a shadow on the slope below. A few petrified shrubs ran here and there in grimacing zigzags. Fish rose as one before our feet like birds surprised in tall grass. The rocky massif was hollowed out with impenetrable burrows, deep caverns, and pits at the bottom of which I could hear frightening things moving about. I blanched when I spotted an enormous antenna blocking my route, or terrifying claws clattering shut in the darkness of a cavity! Thousands of luminous points shone in the darkness. They were the eyes of huge crustaceans lurking in their dens, of gigantic lobsters standing to attention like halberdiers and waving their legs with metallic clanks, of titanic crabs set like cannon on their mounts, and of awe-inspiring squid twisting their tentacles into a living brush of snakes.

This is a new translation by William Butcher who is an expert on Verne, and that expertise shows in the avoidance of any of the obscurity that can happen in translations, especially of older works. He also wrote the excellent introduction and notes, which give a lot of insight into the writing of the book – what influenced Verne, his ongoing negotiations with his publisher to get the book into shape, how the book fits into his overall body of work, etc., along with a literary analysis of the various themes. There’s lots of actual science in the book, and unfortunately I lacked the knowledge to know what was still considered true and what had been superseded since Verne’s day. I was a little disappointed that the notes didn’t do a bit more fact-checking, but there are so many facts it would have been a huge undertaking. However, the notes do explain many references to contemporary scientists and events that would otherwise have gone over my head.

Jules Verne

Truthfully, if I factored in those endless fish-lists, I’d find it hard to rate the book as more than a 4-star read, but since I found it easy to skip them without missing anything essential to the story, they didn’t bother me (and fish enthusiasts might even enjoy them!). The descriptions of the wonders of the deeps, the glimpses of other civilisations, the mystery surrounding Captain Nemo and the thrilling adventure aspects all more than made up for the excessive fish-detail, making it a five-star read for me – a true classic!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. The illustrations, which I’ve taken from Wikimedia Commons, are by Alphonse de Neuville (1835—1885) or Édouard Riou (1833-1900).

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 7 of 20

In the Heat of the Night by John Ball

“They call me Mr Tibbs.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When night patrolman Sam Wood finds a dead man in the street, it’s quickly apparent the man has been murdered. It also transpires he’s a prominent person – Maestro Enrico Mantoli, a famous conductor who was organising a music festival in the town. The new police chief, Bill Gillespie, has never run a murder investigation before. In fact, he hasn’t much experiencing of policing at all – he was mainly hired because of his intimidating air of authority and his willingness to uphold this Alabama town’s resistance to change in the face of the Civil Rights movement. He orders Sam to check around for anyone who looks like he might be trying to leave town. When Sam comes across a black man sitting quietly in the Colored waiting room of the train station and discovers he has a sizeable amount of cash in his wallet, it seems the case is closed. Until the black man reveals his identity to Gillespie – Virgil Tibbs, a homicide investigator with the Pasadena police, who’s passing through Wells on his way back north after visiting his mother…

I seem to have spent a lot of time recently reading about the American South around the time of the Civil Rights movement. This book is fundamentally a crime novel with a very good plot and some excellent detection elements. But it’s far more than that – it paints an entirely believable picture of being a black man in a town that’s run by the whites for the whites at a time when segregation and racism were still entirely acceptable. It also takes us into the minds of the white people, though, showing how they are the product of their conditioning, and how they react when they are forced to reassess the things they take for granted about their own racial superiority.

(I do have one niggling reservation, about me rather than the book. It was written by a white man showing the perspective of a black man in the American South, and I am a white Scotswoman, so although it rings wholly true to me, I can’t help feeling I’m not the best person to judge the portrayals of either race in that place and time. That said, on with the review!)

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in the 1967 film of the book

Gillespie is prevailed upon by his superiors to bring Tibbs in on the investigation. He has mixed feelings about it – on the one hand, he doesn’t want to be shown up by a despised black man; on the other hand, if the case isn’t solved, then he can blame Tibbs. Sam Wood ends up as a sort of unofficial partner to Tibbs, and although he’s a much nicer man than Gillespie, he too has to fight his repugnance to treating a black man as in any way equal. There are all sorts of subtle nuances that show how pervasive racism is in this society, like the white people all calling Tibbs Virgil, while he is supposed to refer to them by their title and surname, or like Sam’s unease at Tibbs sitting in the front seat of their car.

Book 46 of 90

In fact, Tibbs is the one who is most at ease with himself and with the situation. He grew up in the South, knows the rules and conforms to them, never arguing about being forced to use the Colored washroom or not being allowed to eat in the diner, nor openly objecting to the overt racist language directed at him. But he’s worked in California, a place where racism still exists for sure, but not in this formalised, legally endorsed way. While the white men think they’re superior to Tibbs because of their race, Tibbs is well aware of his own superiority in training and experience. But he’s human enough to need to prove it, so he’s driven to stay and solve the case rather than taking the easy option of simply getting on the next train out of town.

John Ball

The plot itself is very good, and the investigation takes us through all the levels in this society from rich to poor, from the cultural leaders involved in setting up the music festival, to the political class, increasingly divided between the socially conservative and the more liberal elements, to the poor people trying to scratch a living in a town that has lost its biggest employer and is struggling to find a new purpose.

But it’s undoubtedly the characterisation that makes this one special. Tibbs himself is likeable, a hero it’s easy to root for. Woods and Gillespie are more complex and they each grow and learn over the course of the investigation, about police-work but also about themselves. It avoids a saccharine wholesale conversion to woolly brotherhood-of-man liberalism on their parts, but gives hope that people and society can change, given patience and the right circumstances.

An excellent book that deserves its status as a classic of the genre – well written and plotted, and insightful about race and class at a moment of change. Highly recommended.

Book 6 of 20

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Women of the Moon by Daniel R. Altschuler & Fernando J. Ballesteros

Twenty-eight…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Since the 16th century, with the development of the first telescopes, scientists have been naming craters on the moon after other scientists and philosophers. When this book was first published in 2014, there were 1586 named craters, of which 28 were named for women. Twenty-eight. Over five centuries. In this book, the authors (both scientists and, ironically, both men) tell us who these women were and what they did to achieve such an honour (did I mention there are only 28 of them?), and through their stories show how hard it has been over the centuries for women to break into a field for which most men (and, yes, many women too) felt they were unsuited, intellectually and emotionally. They also show that happily things have improved, in some parts of the world at least, though the battle for access to and recognition in the field of science is by no means won.

When I looked at the index of names, I was appalled that even out of this tiny number of women, I had only heard of a handful of them. (Mind you, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have heard of most of the 1558 men either. It occurred to me that, since this book runs to 290 pages, if a similar book was to be written about The Men of the Moon, it would come in at approximately 16,000 pages. Whew! I’m glad I wasn’t reading that one!)

Mary Somerville 1780-1872
Scottish science writer and polymath. Amongst other achievements, she inspired the research which led to the discovery of Neptune.

The entries are in chronological order, starting with the mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria in the 4th century and ending with Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to go into space, and the only one who’s still alive. Hypatia is an outlier – most of the women are from what we think of as the modern era, from the eighteenth century on. The cumulative effect is to give a broad outline of the history of women in science and education generally, from the days when they weren’t allowed into universities and couldn’t get paid positions even after they had self-educated themselves, through to now, when at last women are being actively encouraged to enter scientific careers.

As well as gender, there is also a major geographical disparity in the namings. While I’m proud that a couple of the women were Scots, by birth at least, and there are other Brits, Irish, Europeans and Russians, the majority are either American or carried out much of their work in America. There are obvious reasons for this in the past, both in that, hard though it was for women to participate in science in those regions, it was still easier than in much of the world, and, of course, Americans and Europeans controlled the naming conventions for most of the period. Hopefully, now that the science community values international co-operation more and as more of the world allows women to participate fully in science, this will be reflected in future namings.

Williamina Paton Fleming 1857-1911
Scottish astronomer who worked as a “computer” at Harvard Observatory. Amongst other achievements, her work led to the discovery of white dwarf stars.

The authors give each woman an individual chapter, and these vary in length depending on the extent of the woman’s scientific contribution and/or on how much is known of her personal circumstances. They write extremely well, explaining the science parts with enough simplicity and clarity for a non-scientist to grasp at least the relevance and importance of it, and recounting the life stories of these remarkable women with warmth and admiration, not just for their work but for the obstacles they had to overcome to be taken seriously in this male dominated field. Not all of them were practical scientists, indeed; some were communicators, who took academic science papers and turned them into books and lectures that could be understood by and inspire the layperson (think Neil deGrasse Tyson or Brian Cox – tragically I can’t think of a modern woman who’s at the forefront in that role…?), while others “bought” their craters by providing much-needed funding for scientific projects or institutions.

Several of the women worked with their husbands or in partnership with male scientists, and the authors point out that, in many cases, the men would win prestigious prizes while the women barely got a mention even when the woman was clearly the more brilliant of the two. But they also tell of some of the men who did recognise the worth of women in the scientific world, though often in the tedious jobs men didn’t want to do, or because women could be paid considerably less, if at all. Nonetheless, intentionally or otherwise, these men provided a narrow gateway that some women were able to push wide open by their own efforts.

Christa McAuliffe 1948-1986
First teacher in space, killed in the Challenger disaster. Her story continues to inspire new generations.

The convention is that craters are only named for people after their deaths (Tereshkova is an exception). This has the effect that amongst the most recent women are those astronauts who died in the Challenger and Columbia disasters. These chapters are sensitively handled, never veering into the sensationalist or the mawkish. Of course, I knew these stories already in their broad outlines, but I found learning about the individual women – their enthusiasm, their courage, their dreams – a moving and fitting way to bring the book to its conclusion.

An excellent book that I heartily recommend to all, but think would be especially great to give as a gift to a teenage girl who’s interested in a career in science – she’ll find it inspirational, I’m certain. Alternatively, the next time you meet someone who says science isn’t really a suitable career for a woman, you could use it to bash him over the head with… ah! Now I wish I had that 16,000-page men’s book after all.

The authors: Daniel R. Altschuler and Fernando J. Ballesteros

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Furious Hours by Casey Cep

Harper Lee, Truman Capote and the Reverend Willie Maxwell…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In June, 1977, a man walked into a funeral home in Alabama during a service, accused one of the mourners, Reverend Willie Maxwell, of murder and shot him dead. When the shooter, Robert Burns, was subsequently tried for the murder of Maxwell, everyone wanted a seat in court. Harper Lee got one. Years after helping Truman Capote with the research that lay behind his best-selling In Cold Blood, Lee had decided to write her own true-crime book, and the Maxwell case promised to provide plenty of material. In this book, Cep tells both stories: of Maxwell, the crimes of which he was suspected, his own murder and the trial of his killer; and of Harper Lee and her failed attempt to turn the Maxwell story into a book.

Cep starts by describing the still racially divided area of Alabama in which Maxwell operated, a place of black poverty and strong religion. The son of a black sharecropper, Maxwell received only a basic education. He served in WW2, then when he came home he married and worked in various jobs but found it hard to keep them. He took to preaching and gained a following, but he was hardly a good man even then – he used his preaching as a way to find vulnerable women he could seduce. After twenty years of marriage, his wife, Mary Lou, was brutally murdered. The evidence pointed to Maxwell and he was duly indicted. Between the indictment and the trial, with the breathtaking hubris that he would show time and again, Maxwell claimed on the insurance policy he’d bought not long before Mary Lou’s death. Despite this, he was found not guilty. Over the next few years, several of his relatives would die suspicious deaths, and Maxwell would make many insurance claims, but somehow he continued to evade the law, until Robert Burns, a relative of the girl assumed to be his latest victim, took justice into his own hands.

Rev Willie Maxwell

As with all great true crime, Cep uses this basic story as a jumping-off point to look at various aspects of the society of the time. First she looks at the birth and growth of the insurance industry and how it became open to abuse by both buyers and sellers. Amazingly, it was perfectly legal for someone to take out a policy on the life of another person without that person’s agreement, or even knowledge. It gave me a real insight into why so many American crime novels and movies of the mid-twentieth century feature insurance as a motive, especially in noir.

One of the reasons Maxwell continued to evade justice was that often it wasn’t possible to determine the cause of the deaths associated with him. Everyone suspected him, everyone feared him, but no one could prove his guilt. This led to rumours that he was practising voodoo, and Cep uses this aspect to look at the history of voodoo in the South, referencing Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological efforts to record rituals and practices.

Zora Neal Hurston beating a hountar, or mama, drum in Haiti 1937.

For years, Maxwell was represented by Tom Radney, a lawyer who not only defended him at trial but who assisted him with his insurance claims. Radney was a well known Democrat, and Cep goes into his biography in some depth too, expanding out to discuss the Wallace era in Alabama – segregation, white supremacy, etc. I found this very interesting, though I found it hard to reconcile the decent young liberal Tom Radney with the one who would assist Maxwell so enthusiastically a decade later. In an even more interesting twist, Radney would later defend Maxwell’s killer and become a friend of Harper Lee as she researched the case. A man of contradictions, and I’m not sure Cep managed to fully explain him.

In the second section of the book, Cep concentrates on Lee’s story, starting with a look at her childhood and student years, and her friendship with Capote. To be truthful, Lee came across to me as eminently unlikeable at this stage, rather arrogant and thinking she was above the common herd (which, of course, she was). Cep then goes into detail on the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird, including a discussion of how the book evolved from what we now know as Go Set a Watchman under the advice and guidance of her agent and publishers. Once the book was finished, there was a long wait until publication and it was during this period that Lee worked with Capote on the research for In Cold Blood. Cep gives her a lot of the credit for it, suggesting that it was she rather than Capote who was able to persuade the townspeople to open up to her.

Truman Capote signing copies of In Cold Blood with Harper Lee in 1966.
Photograph: Steve Schapiro/Corbis

Cep next talks about Lee’s life after Mockingbird. Burdened by success, grieving for her father and always complaining about punitive taxes, her friends and family worried about her mental state, and this would continue for most of her life. She wrote constantly but, never satisfied with her work, then destroyed the manuscripts. She drank to excess, often turning up drunk unexpectedly at friends’ houses. Then, after meeting Capote again and becoming acquainted with Tom Radney, she decided to try her hand at her own true-crime book.

Cep gives a brief but interesting account of the rise of true crime reportage in the US, from early pamphlets to the modern day. She discusses In Cold Blood and its impact in creating the “non-fiction novel”. She highlights the factual inaccuracies in In Cold Blood and reports some of the adverse reaction to it. She suggests that Lee was unpleasantly surprised by Capote’s fictionalising of the story, and that this fed into their growing coolness and separation. So when Lee decided to write her own book, she intended it to be true and based strictly on the facts.

Harper Lee

Cep also highlights Lee’s continuing desire to write a book showing that white segregationists could still be good people but, as now, that view didn’t fit the liberal consensus and would have been unpublishable at the time. (This made me think for the first time that perhaps she actually was happy to see Watchman finally published, and changed my reluctance to read it into eagerness.) Cep then tells of Lee’s research into the Maxwell case and her long and ultimately failed attempt to bring it together into a coherent book.

Casey Cep

The section on the Maxwell case is very good true-crime writing in its own right, but what makes this one stand out from the crowd is the association with Harper Lee. The whole section of analysis of Mockingbird and In Cold Blood is excellent, succinct and insightful. It’s not so much a literary analysis as an examination of the two authors’ creative processes, casting a lot of light on their personalities; all of which would be sure to make this book appeal to admirers of either of those works as well as anyone interested in true crime for its own sake. An excellent book – highly recommended.

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

(If you want to go for total immersion, my suggested reading order would be: first Mockingbird, then In Cold Blood, then this, then Watchman.)

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Pinch of Snuff (Dalziel and Pascoe 5) by Reginald Hill

Dark secrets…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

There have been complaints from the local residents about the Calliope Club, a private cinema that shows pornographic films, so the local police in the person of Sergeant Wield are already keeping an eye on it. However, everything is perfectly legal and the only disruption the club is causing is to the respectable sensibilities of its neighbours. But Jack Shorter, one of the club members, is worried, and since he happens to be Inspector Peter Pascoe’s dentist, he takes the opportunity to pass on his concerns. He tells Peter that in one scene of a film, in which the naked heroine is being beaten up her equally naked captor, he is convinced that the beating is real and that the woman has been seriously hurt, if not worse. So Peter goes along to see for himself, starting a chain of events that will uncover some dark secrets around the town and lead to murder…

By the time of this fifth Dalziel and Pascoe book, both of the main characters have become much more fully developed, although they will continue to evolve throughout the long-running series. Dalziel is brash, crude and often uncouth, although he’s perfectly capable of presenting different faces when he wishes. He knows everyone who’s anyone around his patch, and is well tuned in to all the gossip and secrets of his fellow townspeople. Pascoe is educated and cultured, more empathetic and often deeply affected by the things he witnesses as part of his job. He is the modern face of policing, although that modernity of 1978 when the book was first published seems very out-dated now, especially in social attitudes. Because this story involves porn, violence towards women and what would now be considered child exploitation at best, or child abuse at worst, those outdated attitudes make for uneasy reading to modern eyes. If you find it difficult to allow for different times, then this may not be the best book in which to meet Dalziel and Pascoe for the first time.

However, if you can look past that, then there’s a strong plot here – tighter and better paced than in some of the earliest books. The storyline is undoubtedly dark, but there’s plenty of room for some humour in the interaction between the two leads. Hill tended to change the main viewpoint from book to book, and here we see the story from Peter’s perspective, which is a kinder and gentler one than Dalziel’s. The starting point of the story – the suggestion of ‘snuff’ movies, where the supposedly fictional on-screen death is actually real – soon veers off to become more domestic in nature, as Jack Shorter is suddenly accused of seducing one of his underage patients. Meantime, the owner of the Calliope Club is attacked and left to die, and Peter must try to find out if there’s a connection to his investigation into the possible snuff movie. With all the concentration on porn, there are some salacious moments and some earthy language but no graphic descriptions of sex, on or off screen.

As the series progressed, the books gradually widened out from the two main detectives to become more ensemble pieces with several recurring characters. That process is beginning in this one, as we get to know Ellie, Peter’s wife, a little better. She’s a feminist and what we would now call a social justice warrior, so there’s always tension between Peter and her over his job, since she sees the police as a reactionary pillar of a patriarchal society. Sergeant Wield is also coming to the fore, although at this early point in the series, he is almost unrecognisable as the complex and appealing character he will later become.

Reginald Hill

Going back and reading these books in order has made me realise just how much the characters developed and changed over time – a reflection, I suspect, of Hill’s own development as well as of the changes in society during the decades in which he was writing. It’s quite hard to realise it now, but in fact at the time these books were at the forefront of the social changes, with Hill addressing subjects like feminism and homosexuality at a time when they were rare indeed in crime fiction. The way he does it sometimes seems clumsy to us now, with our heightened sensitivity and demand for strict adherence to the rules of liberal political correctness, but the underlying messages are positive ones for those who can see past the blunter style of expression of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Pascoe is already learning to be more sensitive, partly through Ellie’s influence, and later in the series even Andy Dalziel will show he’s not as dinosaurish as he likes to appear.

While there are still a few books to go before Hill hit his peak, this one feels to me like a bit of a turning point, with indications of how the series would later develop, especially in the characterisation. As always, this series is highly recommended!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link