The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Must remember to weed the garden…

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When Bill Masen wakes up in hospital, he’s surprised that none of the nurses have been along to get him up and ready for the day. It’s to be a big day – the bandages that have covered his damaged eyes for a week are due to be removed and Bill will find out if he can see. He missed the big meteor shower last night – amazing green streaks shooting across the sky in a wonderful light-show – but most everybody else in the world had watched them. Bill is about to discover he’s one of the lucky few…

Gosh, I had forgotten just how brilliant this book is! I’m sure everyone has an idea of the basic story even if they’ve never read it or seen a film adaptation, because it’s one of those books that has become a cultural reference point for so much later literature and film. When Bill removes his bandages, he discovers that the vast majority of people have been blinded by the lights in the sky. Only a small number of people like himself who, for various reasons, didn’t see them have retained their sight. It’s a tale of survival in a world turned suddenly dystopian. And with the breakdown of society, the strange walking plants known as triffids have been set free to prey on a suddenly vulnerable humanity.

The 1962 movie…

First published in 1951 and set in a future not far distant from that date, it’s one of the finest examples of the science fiction books that grew out of Cold War paranoia. The world’s first nuclear bombs had been dropped just six years earlier, and the arms race between the US and the USSR was well underway, with each building up stocks of weapons which it was believed could destroy the world. Nuclear bombs were only part of that; Wyndham looks at another aspect, perhaps even more frightening – biological warfare, as scientists turned their brains and technology towards discovering new and horrific ways of destroying their nations’ enemies. Man hadn’t yet made it into space, but that achievement was on the near horizon, again as part of the race for superpower status between the two dominant military mights. And, in a seemingly more peaceful and benevolent manner, man was mucking about with nature in ways that were unprecedented – developing new plants, fertilisers and pesticides without much consideration of possible unintended consequences. All concerns that still exist, though we’ve perhaps become too blasé about them now, but that were fresh and terrifying as Wyndham was writing.

1962 again… and yeah, the woman in the book really doesn’t dress like that to fight monsters…

The joy of this book is that the science horrors are more than balanced by an exceptionally strong human story, with excellent characterisation. On leaving the hospital where he woke up, Bill soon meets a young woman, Josella, also sighted. The book tells their story, and through them of the various ways in which humanity attempts to survive. Wyndham looks at questions of morality and society – should the sighted people try to save the blind, hopeless though that task will be given the huge disparity in numbers? Or should they try to save themselves and create a new world for their children? Should they form small communities or gather together to forge whole new societies? How should they go about preserving the knowledge of the past? What knowledge deserves to be preserved? What form of government should be recreated? Are marriage and monogamy appropriate in a severely depleted population or does childbirth take precedence over all else? What role does religion play in this new world? Now that the flesh-eating triffids vastly outnumber the sighted human population, will man remain in his position at the top of the food chain, or has his time passed?

The 2009 TV miniseries version…

Josella has as strong a survival instinct as any of the men and an equal ability to adapt to new ways of living. She’s witty and amusing and occasionally a little wicked. She’s a true partner for Bill, rather than a pathetic encumbrance that he has to protect. She is, without exception, the best female character I can think of in science fiction of this era and indeed for decades to come. She feels utterly modern, as if she were written today. And Wyndham makes it clear this is no accident – he uses one of his characters to discuss the relative positions in society of men and women and how women’s perceived weakness has arisen out of convention – a convention that women have used to their advantage as much as men have to theirs. And he suggests strongly that if women want to be equal, they can be – they just have to decide that they will be and stop playing the feminine weakness card. A bit of tough love, perhaps, and the teensiest bit patronising, but… not bad at all for a man in the 1950s!

Book 30 of 90

For those of you who automatically dismiss science fiction as not your kind of thing, I promise you this book – any of Wyndham’s books, in fact – will make you change your mind. The writing and characterisation is first-class, and the science is in there because we live in a world where science is important, and where it can be a force for either great good or annihilation of the species. Questions we should all be aware of and thinking about, and all packaged up in a fantastic story – it’s as much literary fiction as any other book that seeks to examine the “human condition” and, frankly, better than most. Great book!

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The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

Something wicked…

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When the landlord of the sole pub in the village of High Eldersham is found murdered, the local police chief hastens to call in Scotland Yard. Partly this is because he doesn’t have the resources to deal with a murder investigation, but mainly it’s because High Eldersham has a strange reputation. And when Inspector Young of the Yard starts his enquiries he quickly spots something that makes him think that reputation may be well deserved. So, in true Golden Age style, he turns to an amateur friend to help out. Enter Desmond Merrion…

I’ve seen quite a few less than enthusiastic reviews of this one on Goodreads, so went into it with fairly low expectations, but actually I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think the reason for the negative reviews may be simply that it’s not really a mystery novel in the traditional sense – it’s much more of a thriller. Though there is the question of who murdered the landlord, the real bulk of the story is about the mysterious goings-on in the village, and what nefarious crimes they’re being used to cover. In truth, with my twenty-first century eyes, it seemed pretty obvious what the fundamental criminal enterprise was, but I suspect it wouldn’t have been quite so obvious back when the book was first published in 1930. This, of course, is a common difficulty for vintage crime novels – subsequent writers have reused and recycled the plots so often, it’s quite hard to know when they were first original.

But having a good idea of the underlying crime didn’t in any way diminish my liking for the book. The fun is in seeing how it plays out, and in the thrills and adventures provided along the way. Desmond Merrion apparently became a popular recurring character in later books and I can see why – he’s knowledgable without being insufferable, an action man without being Superman, susceptible to love without being a womaniser. He achieved that rare feat for Golden Age characters of not annoying me by his outdated attitudes – he’d work just as well in a modern context, I think. Merrion had served in the war first as a combatant then, after an injury, moving into intelligence work. His servant, Newport, served alongside him, and now works as his butler-come-sidekick. And a jolly good sidekick he is too, with skills of his own, and happily Merrion treats him as an equal – often the patronising way these ex-servicemen sidekicks are portrayed in the Golden Age puts me off the books, like Campion’s Lugg or Wimsey’s Bunter. Newport however is only devoted to his master to an acceptable degree and doesn’t speak with a “comedy” working-class dialect. And he’s perfectly capable of using his own initiative when need be.

Challenge details:
Book: 33
Subject Heading: Serpents in Eden
Publication Year: 1930

The book builds its tension mainly through the dark activities of the villagers, activities rooted in a more superstitious past. There are hints of the supernatural, but the story remains firmly within the rational world, while showing chillingly how bad people can use old traditions to achieve their wicked ends. There are occasional moments of melodrama, some fortunate coincidences, and stock situations like the woman-in-peril, but it’s all done very well and kept me turning pages. And I did like the woman in question – no shrinking miss, the lovely Mavis owns her own speedboat and is the rescuer as often as the rescued. A couple of the scenes are genuinely creepy and Burton manages to get across the real evils that are going on without ever feeling the need to be graphic or voyeuristic – a lesson that I’d be grateful if many a modern writer could learn.

Miles Burton

It’s all a matter of taste, of course, but I think this one deserves more praise than it has received. Martin Edwards lists it under his Serpents of Eden category in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and I think that’s a perfect place for it – wickedness and true evil going on underneath the outwardly quiet life of an English village. Edwards tells us too that, although this is only the second book published under this name, Burton also wrote under other pseudonyms, most notably John Rhodes, and was therefore already a practised and successful writer, and I think this shows in the quality of the writing. Good stuff – I shall certainly be looking out for more in this series.

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The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

Brilliantly baffling…

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Mademoiselle Mathilde Stangerson is attacked in her yellow bedroom by a murderer wielding a mutton-bone. When her father and the other people in the house break down the door, Mlle S is on the floor and her murderer is nowhere to be found. There are three exceedingly strange things about this – one: how did the murderer get out of a room in which the only door and window were securely locked; and two: why does everyone keep calling him a murderer when Mlle S is still alive…; and three: a mutton-bone???

OK, to my great disappointment I discovered a mutton-bone is actually the name given to a club-like weapon much used by villains of the day, so that solves number three. Number 2 – the murderer with the living victim – becomes progressively more hysterical as the book goes on and Mlle S stubbornly refuses to die. I couldn’t help wondering what she felt every time a newspaper or one of the characters talked about her murder.

The real meat of the thing, though, is not on the mutton-bone, but in the question of how the murderer got out of the room. Enter our hero, Joseph Rouletabille, (a nickname meaning “Roll Your Marble”, given to him, presumably, on account of his large round red head), a young journalist who at the age of eighteen has already acquired a reputation as an inspired amateur detective. He is introduced to us by our narrator, Jean Sainclair, a young lawyer and friend who acts as Rouletabille’s sidekick.

Off they go to the Château du Glandier, where they will meet Mathilde and her father, her fiance, her loyal and devoted servant, and various assorted estate workers and villagers, all with or without alibis and motives, and all behaving suspiciously in one way or another. Even Frédéric Larsan, famed investigator of the Sûreté, will find himself hard put to it to come up with a solution to this baffling mystery, and when he does, it will be entirely different from Rouletabille’s solution. Who will prove to be right? And how will he (the one who’s right) prove he’s right? And will they catch the murderer before the murder victim is finally murdered???

Rouletabille
By Josep Simont i Guillén – Published on October 19, 1907 on the front page of the French newspaper L’Illustration where the story was first serialised

This is a fabulous little romp that is more and more fun as it goes along. First published in French in 1907, I can’t find anything to tell me who the translator was. At first, I felt the language was quite stilted and thought it could do with a modern update. But as the book’s general mildly melodramatic tone began to come through, I realised the style of the translation is actually perfect for it. It makes it feel terribly French and very old-fashioned – both things which add considerably to its charm.

The plotting is great, enhanced by a couple of detailed floor plans allowing the reader to try to get to the solution before Rouletabille. (I failed miserably!) The initial mystery of the locked room is only one of the “impossible crime” features – there is another halfway through which is not only baffling but quite spooky, and there are other sections where Leroux creates a beautifully tense atmosphere. But overall the book leans more towards entertainment with lots of humour, especially in the rivalry between Rouletabille and Larsan. I love that the title of the first chapter is In Which We Begin Not to Understand – sets the light-hearted tone superbly before the book even begins. The villagers are about as welcoming as the ones in The Wicker Man, complete with a surly publican and a witchy old crone with an exceptionally scary cat called Bête du Bon Dieu, so some lovely almost Gothic touches sprinkled into the story.

Rouletabille’s ability to see through the fog of confusion to the truth that eludes all others is well-nigh miraculous, enhanced by Sainclair’s supreme admiration for his young friend. Rouletabille is the master of the enigmatic utterance, throwing suspects into terror while keeping Sainclair (and me) totally befuddled. But when all is revealed, we see that we have indeed had all the clues all along – well, all the important ones anyway – and it’s only our inferior brain-power that has left us trailing in Rouletabille’s brilliant wake…

Hercule Poirot wasn’t baffled, of course, when he read this book. He talks about it in The Clocks, saying…

“And here is The Mystery of the Yellow Room. That – that really is a classic! I approve of it from start to finish. Such a logical approach!… All through there is truth, concealed with a careful and cunning use of words… Definitely a masterpiece…”

… and Poirot (and Ms Christie) knew a thing or two about crime fiction. Poirot is not Rouletabille’s only admirer among the fictional detective classes – John Dickson Carr’s Gideon Fell refers to the book as “the best detective tale ever written”. I must say the physical book from the Collins Crime Club series is gorgeous too, with a great cover, including quotes from Poirot and Fell where normally there would be puffs from fellow writers. Made me laugh with delight before I even opened it.

Gaston Leroux

I’m so glad to have had the chance to read this one, since I’ve seen it referred to often in my recent travels through vintage crime. And I’m even more glad to be able to say that I feel it fully deserves its reputation, both for the skill in the plotting and for the entertainment value in the storytelling. An essential read for vintage crime fans!

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

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Eagle & Crane by Suzanne Rindell

Those magnificent men in their flying machine…

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When Earl Shaw wins two small planes in a poker game, he decides to put his skills as a showman to good use by taking the planes barnstorming round Depression-era California, tempting customers to go up for a scenic flight. One day, the pilots take up two young men, Louis Thorn and Harry Yamada. Daredevil Harry decides he will walk along the wing, and Louis, feeling challenged and a little humiliated, follows suit. Earl offers them both jobs as aerial stuntmen and so the act of Eagle & Crane is born – Eagle to represent the good ol’ US of A, and Crane to represent the villainous and untrustworthy Japs of Harry’s heritage. But the war is about to begin, and suddenly white America will begin to see its Japanese-heritage fellow citizens as more than a comic-book threat. And Harry and Louis will find their friendship altered and strained…

Suzanne Rindell has rapidly become one of my most highly anticipated must-read authors. This is only her third book, after The Other Typist and Three-Martini Lunch – both excellent. But she’s still improving with each book, and the joy is that each time she comes up with an entirely different and fascinating setting and story. I had mentioned in my reviews of both her earlier books that she sometimes gets so involved in creating an authentic setting that the descriptions can become overly long, creating a bit of drag in the mid-section. Not here! She achieves a pretty much perfect balance between scene-setting and plot, so that the pacing is steady and the forward momentum is maintained beautifully.

The book begins with FBI Agent Bonner showing up at the Yamadas’ farm looking for Harry and his father, who have apparently escaped from one of the Relocation Centers (concentration camps) to which people of Japanese heritage were sent following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. From here, we are taken back to the past to learn how Harry and Louis befriended each other as children, across a racial divide and a family feud. We follow them as they develop into Eagle & Crane, seeing how their very different backgrounds (different in not quite the way you may be thinking – Rindell doesn’t do clichés) have made them the men they have become. We see how Depression and war affect California, and our young heroes in particular. And we get to know Ava, Earl’s step-daughter, who travels with the barnstormers and forms a firm friendship with both boys, gradually complicated by the growth of romantic attraction. Every now and then we flash back to the present of 1943 (the only part of the book written in present tense), where slowly Agent Bonner discovers what has happened to Harry and his father, and lets us see too how the other characters have fared.

It’s a slow-paced book that takes an in-depth look at the impact of the internment of Japanese-Americans. While it has some elements of the thriller, it definitely falls far more into the category of literary fiction for me. Rindell’s research is skilfully fed to us through the development of her characters and her story, so that we gradually get a real feel for rural Californian life and attitudes in this period. She is clearly making a point about the racism underlying the internment policy, but she doesn’t thump the reader with polemical rants. Instead she lets us see through Harry’s eyes – a boy who thought he was American even though he knew he would never be treated in quite the same way as other Americans who looked like Louis rather than him. We also see through Ava’s initially innocent eyes – gradually awakened to an understanding of how thoughtless, low-level racism runs almost unnoticed as a backdrop to every aspect of Harry’s life.

But don’t let me put you off with my usual concentration on the political themes of the book! It also has an excellent story and the characterisation is wonderful. I loved learning all about the stunts the boys do, and about barnstorming in general. I enjoyed watching the careful way Rindell develops the setting, and found it so absorbing that I would find myself looking up after an hour or two, surprised to discover I was in 21st century Scotland rather than Depression-era California. The three major characters gained all my sympathy, even though they’re very different from one another, and I grew to care deeply about the outcome for each of them. And I was equally impressed by the depth Rindell puts into the supporting cast of characters – Agent Bonner, Earl, Ava’s mother, Louis’ family, and most of all the Yamadas as they find their American dream turning into a nightmare.

Suzanne Rindell

If you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller, this isn’t it. But if you want a beautifully written and insightful story about a time when political America showed itself at its worst and yet still with love and loyalty and friendship running through the lives of the people affected by it; if you want to be absorbed by the hopes and fears of a set of superbly observed characters; if you want to spend some time in a wonderfully authentic historical setting, then I highly recommend this book to you.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allison and Busby.

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Fire in the Thatch: A Devon Mystery by ECR Lorac

When the war is over…

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The Second World War is drawing to a close when the tenancy of a piece of land complete with thatched cottage falls vacant on the estate of Colonel St Cyres, in Devon. The Colonel is determined the lease shall go to someone who shares his love of the land and who wants to work it productively. However, his daughter-in-law June has different ideas. A Londoner by birth and a party-girl by nature, June is staying with her father-in-law because her husband, the Colonel’s son, is a prisoner of war in Burma. She wants the Colonel to give the cottage to a “friend” of hers, a Mr Gressingham, who would use it as a place to entertain his (and June’s) rather decadent London friends. Fast forward a few months, and Inspector MacDonald of the Yard is on his way to investigate what might have been a case of accidental death, or possibly one of arson and murder…

Lorac wrote many Inspector MacDonald books and apparently this is the 26th in the series. I’ve only read one other of them, Bats in the Belfry, which I loved. It was published in 1937 while this one came out in 1946. What a world of difference in those two years, reflected in the tone of these two books! This one has none of the light humour and romance of the earlier book; the delightful upper-class slang is all gone. Inspector MacDonald is the same painstakingly professional detective, but with a rather more sober attitude to life, befitting a man who has spent the last several years in a bomb-ravaged London with all its attendant horrors.

What has not changed, however, is the excellent quality of the writing and plotting. Transplanting her setting from London to Devon, Lorac gives an entirely convincing picture of rural life with a real understanding of the deep connection the local farmers have with their land. While there is plenty of description of the loveliness of the landscape, she avoids romanticising country life. These are men and women who work hard to produce a livelihood from the soil and from their animals, all the more important over the last few years during war shortages. Although farming was a reserved occupation (i.e., the men were exempted from compulsory military service), Lorac shows that, as in the rest of the country, there was an absence of younger men and few families remained unscarred by the war. Lorac also touches on the subject of the refugees from London who were sent out to the country for safety, welcomed by some and resented by others.

I’m not entirely sure that the plot is fairplay – certainly I got nowhere near the solution and found the actual details of how it all happened rather convoluted. But the story is excellent and, as with all the best crime fiction, is firmly rooted in human nature. I love Inspector MacDonald as a detective – he is a thoughtful and rather kindly man, strictly moral on his own account but with the capacity to make some allowance for moral weakness in others. Here, he is an outsider sent in to the local force as an expert, but he never sets out to prove his own superiority by finding fault with them. Instead he works closely with the locals, in a spirit of comradeship and mutual trust.

The other characters are all equally well drawn. Colonel St Cyres and his daughter are the kind of gentry that make one long for an earlier age, while Gressingham and his buddies make one want to slap the nouveau riche with a wet kipper (if nothing weightier is available). The young man whom St Cyres chooses as the tenant, Nicholas Vaughan, is an ex-military man, invalided out after receiving serious injuries. June, the daughter-in-law, is nicely unlikeable. But the skill of Lorac’s writing is that these characterisations change over time, so that I found my sympathies shifting as I got to know each of them better, some improving on acquaintance, others revealing a darker side than I first suspected.

ECR Lorac (I think)

When reading these rediscovered vintage crime books, I often find myself trying to work out why some authors stay in print while others are forgotten. Sometimes it’s obvious – badly outdated attitudes and levels of snobbery that take away the pleasure for a modern reader, or plots that are firmly fixed on gadgetry or other features that relate solely to a certain time, long gone. But other times, as with Lorac, it beats me. The two books of hers that I’ve read outdo anything by Ngaio Marsh or Margery Allingham in plotting and quality of writing for me, and are far less snobbish and class-ridden than I find Dorothy L Sayers or even PD James. Her concentration on human nature as the foundation of her plotting makes them timeless in the way Agatha Christie’s are. Her observational skills give a real feel for what life was like in a given time and place, and she makes her “common” people as believable and sympathetic as her landowners and professional people. Her books aren’t easy to get hold of at reasonable prices, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed the British Library re-publishes more of them. I’ll be first in the queue if they do!

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

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Gothic Tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The master storyteller sets out to scare…

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Although best known today for his Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote prolifically across a whole range of genres in his lifetime. This collection brings together thirty-four of his tales which have been categorised as “gothic”, although some of them are more gothic than others. Some are well known as classic horror stories and a couple have already put in an appearance on my semi-regular horror slot, Tuesday Terror!The Horror of the Heights and Lot No. 249. None of the Holmes stories are included, although several of them would certainly count as gothic and have a strong element of horror – The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, for example, is one of his most Poe-like gothic horrors, I think.

The level of horror is variable from mild and even humorous to really quite scary. But the real joy of the collection, as always with Conan Doyle, is the sheer quality of his story-telling skills. Whether relating an Arctic adventure complete with ghostly apparition, or telling a tale of vengeance set in the wild frontier of old America, or forcing the reader to spend a night in a museum full of not completely dead Egyptian mummies, or taking us into the dark heart of the British Empire, his powers of description and ability to create atmosphere and tension are surely second to none. And his total command of a wonderful vocabulary and seemingly effortless writing style make the stories pure pleasure to read.

The range of stories is incredible, making it quite hard to single any out as representative of the collection. Some have a supernatural element while others concentrate on the horrors men and women perpetrate on each other, and yet others take their horror from the dangers of the natural world. We even get a couple culled from Conan Doyle’s life as a physician, including one about a young man with hereditary syphilis – I was astonished that such a subject was handled so openly in a story at this early date. I’m spoiled for choice, but here’s a brief look at some of the ones I enjoyed most…

J Habakuk Jephson’s Statement – based on the story of the Marie Celeste, ACD gives his version of what might have happened. A “quadroon” kills everyone and takes the ship to Africa. Although there’s some fairly strong racial stuff here that sits uneasily with the modern reader, Jephson is an abolitionist and the motive is revenge against white people for the cruelties they have perpetrated through slavery and colonialism. Powerfully told, it reminded me of Conrad’s stories in its reaction to colonialism.

The Beetle Hunter – the narrator is a newly-qualified doctor and beetle collector who answers an advert for the same. His new employer takes him to the home of a famous beetle expert, where the beetles will not be the scariest thing he has to face! Very well told and quite creepy in parts, especially if you’re squeamish about beetles… ugh!

The Retirement of Signor Lambert – a cuckolded husband takes revenge on the opera singer who seduced his wife. That’s all, but it’s told in a kind of understated deadpan that makes it deliciously horrible.

The Pot of Caviare – a group of Westerners trapped following the Boxer Rebellion await relief. But they have heard terrible stories of how the Chinese treat their captives, especially women, and so have a contingency plan should the relieving force not turn up in time. This is a dark and rather disturbing story, expertly told for maximum effect. The notes point out that it’s part of the Edwardian “Yellow Peril” genre, but it’s far more realistic and chilling than any of the silly Fu Manchu type of stuff I’ve read.

The Captain of the Polestar – an Arctic expedition to hunt whales comes to a stop when the ship is caught in the ice. Scary enough, but even scarier when the ghostly figure of a woman begins to appear and the Captain seems to recognise her. This is narrated via the journal of a young ship’s medic, a role ACD himself had undertaken in his youth. Very atmospheric, great descriptions and some first-rate Scottish dialect!

As always in the Oxford World’s Classics editions, there is an informative introduction and extensive notes, this time written by Darryl Jones, Professor in English at Trinity College Dublin. He gives a kind of biography of Conan Doyle’s thought development over the course of his life. He talks about these stories and Conan Doyle’s wider writings in the context of the various phases of his changing beliefs – his pro-Imperialism, his anxiety over the question of Irish Home Rule culminating in him changing from anti- to pro- after seeing the worst of colonialism in the Belgian Congo; and of course his loss of religion and the growth of his belief in spiritualism – Jones shows that he always had an interest in the subject but “came out” as a believer after witnessing the huge losses in the Great War. An interesting and informative essay, happily written without any lit-crit jargon, making it both accessible and enjoyable for the general reader. (Though I do wish he wouldn’t refer to him as Doyle – after he added Conan to his name (in tribute to his godfather) he was always known as Conan Doyle, he published under that name, his son refers to him that way in his biographical writings about his father, and his wife took the double surname Conan Doyle, so I don’t understand why some modern commentators have taken on themselves the right to change his name back.)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I loved this collection. Admittedly Conan Doyle can do no wrong in my eyes, so I’m not the most unbiased reviewer, but nearly all of these stories are good and many are excellent – masterclasses in the form. Perfect for dipping – one to keep on the bedside table in perpetuity, since stories of this quality will stand up to frequent re-reading.

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

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The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

Family ties…

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Hal (Harriet) Westaway is struggling to keep her head above water. The bills keep pouring in and in these winter months she doesn’t get enough custom at her kiosk on Brighton’s West Pier to pay them all. Things are reaching a crisis. So when she receives a letter from a solicitor informing her that she has been left a legacy by her grandmother it seems like the answer to a prayer. There’s only one problem – Hal knows there’s been a mistake. Her real grandmother died years ago. But the temptation is overwhelming, and Hal knows that the skills she uses in her tarot-reading will help her to con her way through the situation. And so she sets off to Trepassen House in Cornwall, to meet a bunch of people who think she’s the daughter of a long-lost relative…

I know I’m very critical of modern crime fiction but truly I don’t ask much. A good story well told; some characters I can like, hate, worry about, mistrust; enough uncertainty about how it will play out to keep me turning pages; a minimum of unnecessary padding; and told in the past tense, preferably third person. And that’s exactly what Ruth Ware has given me in this hugely enjoyable thriller. Add in a dark and dusty old house full of attics and cellars and narrow little staircases, the shade of a wicked old woman who tyrannised over her family, a bunch of squabbling siblings, and a scary old housekeeper who knows more than she’s telling, and I’m pretty much in modern-Gothic heaven!

To be honest, I had a fair idea from pretty early on of the solution to the central mystery, but I found it didn’t really matter. There was enough doubt in my mind to keep me reading, and I didn’t know how it would all come to a head. Although it’s a fairly slow-burn book, and quite long, I found the pacing was just about perfect. I never felt my attention dip, nor had that sensation of wishing it would all hurry up and get to the end. This is because the quality of the writing makes it a pleasure to read, and the characterisation is great, with a sufficiently large and well-developed cast to provide a lot of interest. And the creepy old house itself becomes a character too – a deliciously scary one.

I loved the way Ware manages to make Hal so likeable and easy to empathise with, despite the fact that she’s trying to commit fraud. Hal’s mother had died a few years earlier when Hal was just about to finish school, leaving her penniless and with no relatives to help her out. This makes her financial woes understandable and we see at the same time that she’s doing everything she can to get her life back on track. She doesn’t believe in the mystical side of tarot herself, but is nevertheless sympathetic to the people who consult her, doing her best to give them the space to think through the problems that have brought them to her. And while initially she goes to Cornwall purely for the money, she can’t help beginning to wish she really was part of this big family with aunts and uncles and cousins – all the things her lonely heart craves.

The other characters are just as good, though obviously not all done with the same depth. I loved that Ware makes room for a lot of kindness and generosity of spirit amidst the danger and evil – something modern thrillers often forget to include, but it makes the whole thing more emotionally involving, I find. Plus, for me there’s more tension to be got out of a feeling of “oh, I hope it’s not her/him!” as there is in simply wondering which of an unsavoury bunch will turn out to be the guilty one.

Ruth Ware

This was my introduction to Ruth Ware, goaded on by the relentless stream of glowing reviews for her previous books from so many of my bloggy friends, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. What a pleasure to read a book written without all the stylistic fol-de-rols so many contemporary authors seem to think necessary – a strong story well told doesn’t need “creative writing”, just good writing (FF’s Ninth Law). Highly recommended – I’m off now to get hold of Ware’s earlier books!

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

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Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit Fox

“…however improbable, must be the truth…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1908, an elderly lady, Miss Gilchrist, was bludgeoned to death in her Glasgow home and a brooch was stolen. Shortly afterwards, Oscar Slater pawned a brooch and boarded a ship bound for America. These two facts were enough for the police to decide that he was the guilty man and, sure enough, they arrested and charged him, and he was convicted and condemned to death – a sentence that was swiftly commuted to life imprisonment in response to a growing feeling of doubt over the verdict among some sectors of the public. This book sets out to tell the story of the case and specifically of Arthur Conan Doyle’s involvement in the campaign to have the verdict overturned.

Quite often with this kind of book I avoid mentioning the eventual outcome as, even though it’s a true crime, it can be fun for people who don’t know the story to read it as a kind of suspense thriller. However, Fox reveals all in her introductory chapter, so I shall say now that Slater’s conviction was finally quashed, but not until he had spent nearly twenty years in Peterhead, Scotland’s most notorious prison. As the book shows, there is no doubt about his innocence, and Fox makes no attempt to pin the crime on the real culprit – that’s not her purpose. Instead, she uses the case to examine the social factors that led to the false conviction, together with the state of the science of detection and ACD’s influence on it.

Fox starts with a description of the murder and the vague and contradictory eyewitness accounts of a man, or perhaps two men, seen near the scene. The police were immediately under pressure to find the murderer, so they were delighted when they were told that Slater had pawned a brooch similar to the one which had been stolen. Slater was perfect as a villain – German, Jewish, a man who made his living from gambling and who lived with a woman suspected of loose morals, possibly a prostitute. So even although they quickly discovered that the brooch he had pawned was not the one stolen from Miss Gilchrist, they decided not to let this little fact get in the way. Instead, they carefully selected all evidence that made Slater look guilty and suppressed anything that proved his innocence – and there was plenty, including an eyewitness account from a respectable neighbour who saw him elsewhere at the time.

Fox discusses the growing anti-Semitism of the period in Scotland, and the more general fear of foreigners. While Scotland hadn’t been quite as anti-Semitic as England in the past, massively increased immigration was leading to an upsurge, especially since many of the Jews arriving were poor, thus existing on the margins. They became associated in the public mind with crime. Also, new modes of transport and the requirements of an industrialised economy meant that people were more mobile than in the past, so that people didn’t necessarily know who their neighbours were, leading to a kind of fear of the stranger. So Slater was an ideal scapegoat, given that the police had no idea of the identity of the real murderer.

Conan Doyle became interested in the case early on. Fox runs through those parts of his biography that are relevant to him becoming a kind of consultant on cases of wrongful conviction, such as his early exposure to the work of Dr Joseph Bell, the man who inspired Sherlock Holmes. Much of this was already known to me, but Fox keeps it tightly focused so that it never feels like padding. She coins the phrase “diagnostic imagination” to describe ACD’s methods, suggesting that his early medical training of conjecturing from symptom back to diagnosis was the basis for his technique of what we would now think of as forensic detection – using physical clues to work backwards to the crime. Fox discusses very interestingly how at this period the pseudoscience of “criminal anthropology” was still influencing detection in Scotland and elsewhere: a belief that one could determine criminal tendencies by certain physical hallmarks – a system “that sought to cloak racial, ethnic and class stereotypes in turn-of-the-20th-century scientific garb”. This was giving way to the more forensic methods promoted by ACD, but not quickly enough to save Slater.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Fox continues the stories of both men turn and turn about, along the way providing a pretty damning indictment of the Scottish police and criminal justice system of the time. She personalises it by allowing us to read some of Slater’s correspondence with his loving parents and family, some of which is quite moving as they gradually age and his expectations of ever seeing them again grow fainter. During the war, no communication was allowed with Germany, so for years he went with no news of family at all. He wasn’t a particularly pleasant man, Slater, but the punishment he underwent for a crime of which he was innocent was cruel indeed.

Margalit Fox
Photo: Ivan Farkas

I found this a fascinating read, especially since rather to my surprise I learned quite a lot that I didn’t know about my own city and country. All the stuff about Glasgow – the class divisions, the way people lived, the prejudices and culture – feels authentic and still recognisable to this Glaswegian, and the wider picture of policing and justice in Scotland feels very well researched. The story of Conan Doyle’s involvement is also told well with lots of interesting digressions into the art and science of detection, and plenty of referencing to the world of Sherlock Holmes. One that I think true crime fans will thoroughly enjoy – highly recommended!

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

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Smoke and Ashes (Sam Wyndham 3) by Abir Mukherjee

Murder in the Raj…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Roused from a drug-addled stupor in an opium den in the backstreets of Calcutta, Sam Wyndham, Captain in the Calcutta police, discovers the place is being raided. Discovery of his addiction will finish his career so he flees, only to stumble across the body of a horribly mutilated Chinaman. Or did he? Next day, when no report of the murder comes in, Sam is left wondering if he hallucinated the whole thing. That is, until he is called out to another murder, where the body has been mutilated in exactly the same way…

This series goes from strength to strength with each new instalment. I thoroughly enjoyed the previous two, but really think this one is the best yet.

Set in the early 1920s, the dying days of the Raj when the Indian Independence movement was well under way, Mukherjee always manages to work the political situation into his stories without allowing it to overwhelm them or feeling like a history lesson. In this one, after months of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance movement, the city authorities are struggling to maintain order. Many Indians have resigned from Government positions, leaving the police short-staffed and with the extra problem that those Indians who have remained have divided loyalties. Britain has decided to send the Prince of Wales, Prince Edward (later briefly Edward VIII) over to steady the nerves and rally the loyalty of the populace to the Empire, but Gandhi’s local representative is planning a major demonstration to coincide with the Prince’s visit.

The murders look as if they may have something to do with the heightened political tensions, especially since Section H – the secret service – are involved. But Sam is determined he won’t be sidelined from the investigation, and along with his loyal Sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee, sets out to discover what links the victims…

Prince Edward’s visit to India in 1921 – he’s the small one in the middle who looks like he’s doing a Charlie Chaplin impersonation while wearing a lampshade…

I love Mukherjee’s depiction of Calcutta – it always feels entirely authentic to me. Mukherjee treats both sides with empathy – although he shows the evils of some aspects of the Raj as a form of government, he depicts his British characters largely as good people trying to do their best in difficult circumstances, and he manages to do this without making them feel anachronistic in their attitudes. Equally, while his sympathies might lie with the idea of independence, he doesn’t portray the Indians as uniformly saintly either. The Indian sergeant, Surrender-not (the nickname given to him by the Brits who can’t pronounce his real name, Surendranath), provides a kind of bridge that allows the reader to move between the two cultures, as we see him negotiate his often clashing duties to his family and his job.

The historical background too is always sound and Mukherjee brings real people into his stories in ways that feel accurate to their real lives. In this one, as well as Prince Edward, we meet Deshbandhu, a leader of the Independence movement in Bengal, and his young follower Subhas Chandra Bose, who would go on to be a major, if controversial, player in the events that finally led to the achievement of Independence.

As always, though, the plot is founded much more on human nature than on politics. I feel this is his strongest plot so far, which unfortunately I can say very little about for fear of spoilers. But it takes us into some dark episodes in the dealings between the Raj and their subjects – Mukherjee’s notes at the end show that, while he has fictionalised dates and people, the fundamental basis of the story comes from real events. There’s a good deal of moral ambiguity in there, and some excellently complex characterisation to carry it off. And it all builds to a first-rate, entirely credible thriller finale that I found fully satisfying.

I love the characters of Sam and Surrender-not, and the historical setting Mukherjee has chosen for the series. Top-quality historical crime fiction – highly recommended. But if you’re new to the series, do read them in order, starting with the excellent A Rising Man.

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

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Heart of Darkness and Other Tales by Joseph Conrad

The other tales…

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(I’ve been putting off writing a review of this for ages because I couldn’t see how to keep it down to anything approaching a reasonable length, since, although Heart of Darkness is by far the most famous of the four stories in the collection and is the one on my Classics Club list, the other three deserve more than a passing mention too. So I’ve decided in the end to review those briefly in this post and then to review Heart of Darkness itself more fully in a later post.)

This collection from Oxford World’s Classics includes four of Conrad’s stories, each of which deals with the subject of empire and colonialism in one way or another. It also has an introduction and notes by Cedric Watts, Professor of English at the University of Sussex – a Conrad expert. While the notes are very useful, unfortunately, unlike in the other OWC books I’ve read, the introduction is written in the kind of academic jargonese that I hate – the kind that for non-academics needs another introduction to explain the introduction…

An important political aspect of this theme is displayed by the tale’s demonstration that there is an imperialism of discourse which both licenses and conceals the excesses of economic exploitation.

Hmm! So I abandoned the introduction and hurried swiftly on…

Fortunately, the stories are not nearly as intimidating or difficult to understand as the introduction had led me to fear. I’m sure there’s loads of nuance I’ve missed (I missed the bit about the “imperialism of discourse”, for sure), but my own view is that all stories should stand or fall on their own merit as stories, and should not rely on a reader catching all the references or undertones, though they may be enhanced by it. These stories more than stand on their own – in fact, three of the four are up there amongst the best I’ve ever read.

An Outpost of Progress – Two men, Kayerts and Carlier, are dropped off to run a Company trading post in the Belgian Congo. They are basically incompetent, relying on their black agent and workers to do the work of trading for the precious ivory for which they are there. However, events spiral out of their control and they are left running low on resources and increasingly scared of the, to them, incomprehensible and savage people in this wild land. And then the boat that was due to relieve them is delayed…

This starts off with a good deal of humour, full of irony and sarcasm as Conrad turns the prevailing ideas about the superiority of the white man on their head. We see how quickly the veneer of “civilisation” falls away when men are isolated in a vastly different culture they don’t understand. Gradually the story darkens, until it reaches a powerfully dark and dramatic ending of true horror. The writing is wonderful, full of lush descriptions that create an ominously threatening environment, with enough vagueness so that we, like the characters, fear what may be lurking just outside. And his depiction of the downward spiral of his characters into moral weakness and eventual terror is done brilliantly. A great story.

Youth: A Narrative – This tells of Marlow, who will appear again in Heart of Darkness, as a twenty-year-old in his first voyage as second mate on an ill-fated sea trip in the rickety old ship Judea. A series of disasters leads to the ship constantly having to return to port for repairs, and things don’t improve once they finally get off on their journey. It’s quite funny and is apparently a fairly accurate record of Conrad’s own voyage as a young man aboard the equally doomed Palestine. It’s about the vigour and optimism of youth – how even disasters can seem like exciting adventures before age and experience make us jaded and fearful. It’s enjoyable, but a little too long for its content, and with nothing like the depth of the other stories in the collection.

Karain: A Memory – The narrator is one of three adventurers, smuggling arms into the Malay Archipelago. They come to know Karain, the headman of a small land which he and his followers have invaded and occupied. Karain is a haunted man, perhaps literally, perhaps superstitiously. He turns to his white friends for protection…

From the deck of our schooner, anchored in the middle of the bay, he indicated by a theatrical sweep of his arm along the jagged outline of the hills the whole of his domain; and the ample movement seemed to drive back its limits, augmenting it suddenly into something so immense and vague that for a moment it appeared to be bounded only by the sky. And really, looking at that place, landlocked from the sea and shut off from the land by the precipitous slopes of mountains, it was difficult to believe in the existence of any neighbourhood. It was still, complete, unknown, and full of a life that went on stealthily with a troubling effect of solitude; of a life that seemed unaccountably empty of anything that would stir the thought, touch the heart, give a hint of the ominous sequence of days. It appeared to us a land without memories, regrets, and hopes; a land where nothing could survive the coming of the night, and where each sunrise, like a dazzling act of special creation, was disconnected from the eve and the morrow.

The story in this one, although good, is somewhat secondary to the wonderfully descriptive and insightful writing. The prose in the first two or three pages is sublime, as Conrad swiftly creates a place, a country, a man and a people, all with a level of lyricism and mysticism that places the reader there, already unsettled before the tale begins. Conrad shows how colonialism disrupts and corrupts long-held traditions and ways of life, but how old beliefs nonetheless endure. And lest the reader should wish to mock the superstitions of the natives, Conrad forestalls this by reminding us with brutal irony that many of our own cherished traditions and beliefs arise out of superstition too. He also shows that, when white and black meet not as master and slave but in a kind of equality, the possibility for friendship exists, even when their cultures are so different. I loved this story.

Joseph Conrad

Conrad gets a bad rap in some quarters these days for what some see as racist portrayals of other cultures, and there’s no doubt that the stories include a lot of words we would now consider derogatory, along with depictions of native customs – god worship, cannibalism, human sacrifice – that our current rewriting of the past to suit political correctness makes problematic. But, of course, these things did happen so is it really racist to write about them? And the language he uses is of its time. Plus, in moral terms, he’s far more derogatory about the white men and the evils of empire. I give him a pass – since he was so clearly writing from an anti-colonialist stance, I feel to hang him for use of the n-word is to trivialise the importance of what he was saying.

Reading these three stories first gave me an appreciation for Conrad’s style and view of colonialism, which I’m sure eased and enhanced my reading of Heart of Darkness itself. I thoroughly enjoyed the collection and, despite my disappointment with the style of the introduction, there’s no doubt the notes aided my understanding and gave some interesting background information, making it an accessible entry-point to new readers of Conrad’s work.

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

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Space Odyssey: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

Caution: Geniuses at Work

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the masterpiece science fiction film that grew out of a collaboration between two creative geniuses, Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. In this book, Michael Benson tells the story of that collaboration, and of the making of the film, its release and its impact at the time and since.

A couple of years ago, I had the amazing experience of reading Clarke’s book and then immediately watching Kubrick’s film, and discovering how wonderfully they enhance each other. Until then, I hadn’t realised they arose out of a joint venture – I had assumed Clarke had written the book first and then Kubrick had decided to turn it into a film. Benson starts by telling the story of how Kubrick wanted to make the first “really good” science fiction movie and, as research, immersed himself in the SF literature of the day, including reading Clarke’s Childhood’s End. This led him to approach Clarke with a view to them working together. At that stage, the plan was to make a kind of future history of man’s experiences in space. Throughout his book, Benson shows how this initial plan grew and altered stage by stage until it became the book and film that were ultimately released, and gives a fascinating picture of two creative giants working together, mostly in harmony, each inspiring the other so that the end results were greater than either could have achieved alone.

Kubrick and Clarke on set

Benson is clearly a huge admirer of the film and of both men, but he’s not so starry-eyed as to be uncritical when it’s deserved. Clarke was struggling financially as the project began, while Kubrick was riding high on the back of the success of his previous film, Dr Strangelove. This meant Kubrick had disproportionate power in the making of the deal between them, and he wasn’t hesitant in making sure the lion’s share of all profits and credit would come his way. He also retained control over every aspect, including when Clarke would be allowed to release the book. Since the making of the film fell years behind schedule, this caused Clarke considerable financial woe. But Benson also shows that the two men managed to survive this kind of friction without it dimming their appreciation of each other’s genius. Benson’s book is a warm-hearted portrayal of both men and it seems to me he tries hard, and succeeds, in giving due credit to both.

The book is an excellently balanced mix of the technical geekery of film-making with the human creativity behind it. Not just Clarke and Kubrick, but all of the major members of the crew come to life, as Benson illustrates their personalities with well-timed and well-told anecdotes about life on the set. The quality of Benson’s writing is first-rate, and I loved that he would break up the more technical side of the story by introducing “voices” for some of the people to whom he introduces us. For example, when a young lad looking for his first break in movie-making goes off to meet Kubrick, Benson tells the story in a kind of Holden Caulfield voice, while the filming of the scene of Kubrick’s little daughter talking to her on-screen daddy is told charmingly, as if from her six-year-old perspective.

Kubrick and his daughter Vivian

Clarke fades a little from the story once his book is more or less written, although the two men continued to consult and communicate throughout the project. But once the filming gets underway, Benson concentrates more on Kubrick and his crew. He shows the innovative techniques they developed as they went along to create not only the special effects but an entire overarching style. Kubrick is shown as demanding, a perfectionist, always pushing a little further than his crew believed they could go until they discovered that they could go further after all. Although he had his faults – a willingness to risk his actors’ and crew’s safety in pursuit of his art, for example – the impression comes through strongly that the people around him admired, respected and even loved him. Benson gives generous praise to each of the other creatives who contributed to the movie, detailing each innovative technique and who was involved in achieving it. As he describes it, it felt to me like an orchestra full of individually brilliant musicians, with Kubrick as the genius conductor melding their talents into a wonderfully harmonious whole.

Kubrick setting up a shot

In the final section, Benson describes the release of the movie, initially panned by all the middle-aged men (and occasionally women) in suits in movie world, from studio chiefs to movie critics. He explains how Kubrick watched audience reaction minute by minute to see what worked and what didn’t, eventually cutting nineteen minutes from the original running time. But he and others also noticed that young people in the audience seemed to “get” it in a way that the movie professionals didn’t at first. Despite the critics, audience figures gave an indication that word of mouth was making the movie a success. Gradually, even the original critics mostly came round, and admitted that on second and third viewing they “got” it too. The film’s success was crowned with a raft of Oscar nominations, though in an extremely competitive year that included Oliver! and The Lion in Winter amongst others, eventually it took only one, rather fittingly for Best Special Visual Effects.

I haven’t even touched on a lot of what is included in this comprehensive book, such as how Kubrick decided on the music for the film, or how the man-apes were conceived and created. The quality of the writing and research together with Benson’s great storytelling ability make this not only informative but a real pleasure to read – as much a masterpiece of its kind as the original film and book are of theirs. Highly recommended.

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

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That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina

The quality of sunlight…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When a PI tracks Tommaso down in London to give him the news that he has been left a large legacy, Tommaso tells him he doesn’t want it and pleads that his whereabouts should not be revealed. To make the PI understand why his anonymity is so important to him, Tommaso agrees to tell him the story of why he left Italy – the story of his last summer in Puglia. That was the summer, long ago when Tommaso was young, that he met and fell in love with Anna. The book tells the story of their love, and we know from the beginning that it ended with some kind of tragedy that led Tommaso to cut all ties with home and take on a new identity in London. But it’s only after we follow Tommaso through the events of the summer that we find out what happened…

On the face of it, this is a straightforward account of a love affair, but the quality of the writing, the great pacing and, most of all, the superb sense of place make it so much more than that. It’s also an intense character study of Tommaso whom we come to know perhaps better than he knows himself. And it’s wonderfully evocative of the culture of Puglia, in the heel of Italy, in the 1980s – still strictly conservative in outlook, still largely in thrall to Catholicism, and with strong family expectations that children will follow the paths determined for them by their parents.

The story is slow to unfold, with many digressions into Tommaso’s memories of his childhood. But these are interesting in themselves for what they tell us about the way of life in this quiet, tradition-bound area and all serve to add depth to our understanding of his character. He is not entirely likeable, but the telling of his story so many years later seems to allow him to reassess the events and his reaction to them, so that he appears to grow in self-awareness as the book progresses. The falling in love aspect is done beautifully, with that intensity which only happens with early first love, and although some of the later events might have seemed extreme had they been placed in a contemporary setting, Vescina’s careful re-creation of this moment in the culture, so recent and yet so rooted in the traditions of the past, make them entirely credible.

Ostuni, Puglia

There were a couple of weaknesses for me, although minor. The framing device of Tommaso telling his story to the PI led to some occasional clunkiness in the use of second person as Tommaso occasionally breaks off from his narrative to talk to his interlocutor, whose questions and remarks are relayed to the reader only second-hand through Tommaso’s responses. However this only happens for a couple of paragraphs at the beginning of an occasional chapter, so it doesn’t break the flow too much. There is a section after the events of the summer and before the final dénouement where we learn of Tommaso’s life between then and now, and, while the quality of the writing still makes this very readable, I felt it was too long and added very little to the story, merely delaying the ending.

However, neither of these significantly impacted my enjoyment of the book. The story and characters kept me fully absorbed as I read this book over one long, lazy day and Vescina’s wonderful descriptive writing transported me to Puglia – a place I have never visited in real life but now feel I can visualise as if from actual memories. I was attracted to the book partly because Puglia is one of the places on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, and I couldn’t have picked a better one. From the narrow, winding streets in the medieval Old Town of Ostuni to the groves of fig and olive trees, from the quality of the sunlight to the smell of the local tomatoes, from the colours of the buildings to the ingredients of the traditional meals – everything is given a lush richness that engages all the senses. Vescina also has a great sense of the history of the region – her own birthplace – and has the skill to dole out her knowledge sparingly as an integral part of the story.

The trail snaked through the vegetation, skirting tufts of ammofila – ‘sand lover’, or, more prosaically, marram grass – and shrubs. Now and then, the track ushered us into small clearings where we struggled to make out its continuation. L’albero magico – our magic tree, as we later called it – materialised before us. It was a squat oak – not of the kind familiar in Britain, but a distant cousin rooted in arid earth – whose branches arched downwards, forming a dark-green canopy over a bed of fine sand. It called to mind an apparition out of one of those fairy tales in which nature shields hero and heroine from the villains in pursuit, throwing obstacles – from brambles to boulders – in their way, while offering sanctuary and sustenance to the fugitives.

As you’ll have gathered, I loved this book, becoming totally immersed in both story and place, and was reluctant to leave Puglia when it ended. It’s Vescina’s début, but is written with a sure-footedness and level of assurance that many a more experienced writer might envy. I’m looking forward with great anticipation to reading more from this gifted storyteller in the future.

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

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The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

All in the family…

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Edward Powell is an unhappy young man. He lives with his annoying Aunt Mildred who, as his guardian and trustee of his inheritance, holds the purse-strings, rather too tightly in Edward’s opinion. To make matters worse, he’s forced to live in the family home in a small village in Wales, surrounded by landscape and hills and sheep and all that awful stuff, when he should be mingling with artists and bright young things in one of the fashionable hotspots of the world. Really it’s too much to bear. So he decides there’s only one thing to be done…

It’s not often a book has me laughing out loud before I even get through the first page, but this one did! The book is narrated for the most part by Edward, taken from the journal he keeps as events unfold. It begins with his disgust at living in a place which he insists is impossible to pronounce, Llyll, – it takes him three (hilarious) paragraphs to explain how one is supposed to say it. He then describes his surroundings, not in the idyllic terms we’ve come to expect of descriptions of picturesque countryside…

I see I spoke of “sodden woods”. That was the right adjective. Never, never does it stop raining here, except in the winter when it snows. They say that is why we grow such wonderful trees here which provided the oaks from which Rodney’s and Nelson’s fleets were built. Well, no one makes ships out of wood nowadays, so that that is no longer useful, and it seems to me that one tree is much like another. I’d rather see less rain, less trees and more men and women. “Oh, Solitude, where are the charms?” Exactly so.

The title gives a broad hint, so it’s not a spoiler to say that the book is about Edward’s plan to murder his aunt. Now I’m a bit like Hercule Poirot in that I don’t approve of murder, but in Edward’s defence I have to admit that Aunt Mildred really asks for it – she finds fault with everything Edward does (with some justification), nags him constantly and is not averse to shaming him in public. All of which makes the thing far more entertaining than if she’d been a sweet old soul. This is a battle of two people who are opposites in every way except for their desire to come out on top.

Edward’s voice is what makes the book so special. The writing is fantastic, so that Hull manages to let the reader see both the truth and Edward’s unreliable interpretation of it simultaneously. One couldn’t possibly like Edward, and in real life one would pretty quickly want to hit him over the head with a brick, but his journal is a joy to read. It’s a brilliant portrait of a man obsessed with his own comforts, utterly selfish, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. He’s also delightfully effeminate, a total contrast to rugged old Aunt Mildred who’s a hardy daughter of the soil.

Richard Hull

Written in 1934, it’s hard for modern audiences to know whether Hull intended Edward to be read as gay or just effeminate, but he would certainly be seen as stereotypically gay now, with his finicky desire to have all his clothes flamboyantly colour-matched, his eye for interior decoration, his little Pekinese dog, and so on. But if it’s deliberate, it’s done in a way that seemed to me affectionate, even though we’re supposed to laugh at him. Seeing him as gay also adds an element of humour to the fact that Aunt Mildred (who I’m quite sure has never even heard of homosexuality!) is constantly accusing him of trying to seduce the maid. I wondered if I was reading too much “gayness” into the character, so was rather pleased to read in Martin Edwards’ introduction (which of course I read as an afterword) that ‘Anthony Slide, in Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century (2013) has argued that the book is “the best, and by far the most entertaining, of the early English mystery novels with a gay angle.”’ From my limited experience, I can’t argue with that!

But that’s only one aspect of Edward’s character and not the most important one. It’s his self-obsession and grouchy, distorted view of the world that makes him so enjoyable. I don’t want to say any more about the plot because the suspense element comes from not knowing whether Edward’s plans will succeed. I found it compulsively readable and while it isn’t laugh-out-loud all the way, it’s consistently funny, in a wicked, subversive way, full of lightly black humour. Loved it! One of the gems of the BL’s Crime Classics collection for me.

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

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Lonelyheart 4122 (Flaxborough Chronicles 4) by Colin Watson

Time for Teatime…

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When Arthur Spain notices that his widowed sister-in-law, Lil, hasn’t been around recently, he pops round to visit her, but his worry increases when he finds a row of full milk bottles outside her door, some curdled, suggesting she hasn’t been home for a couple of weeks. So he reports her missing and soon Inspector Purbright is worrying too, because Lil’s disappearance reminds him of another one from a few months back. Could the two missing women be connected in some way? A bit of investigation shows that both had recently signed on as clients of Handclasp House, a local dating agency…

This is the 4th entry in Watson’s Flaxborough Chronicles and the series is well into its stride by now. As always, it’s full of rather wicked humour about the weaknesses of human nature and those who exploit them. Inspector Purbright is his usual unflappable self, a detective as free from angst as even I could wish for, and with a nice line in mild sarcasm, but never cruelly employed. His sidekick, Sergeant Sid Love, hides a mind like a sink behind a cherubic countenance. And Chief Constable Harcourt Chubb remains the perfect figurehead for the force, a pillar of respectability, stolid and unimaginative…

… the chief constable had the sort of mind which, because it was so static, aided reflection. By dropping facts, like pebbles, into it and watching the ripples of pretended sapience spread over its calm surface, Purbright was enabled somehow to form ideas that might not otherwise have occurred to him.

A new client has just signed up with the dating agency. Miss Lucilla Edith Cavell Teatime is exactly the type of woman an unscrupulous man might prey on – single and new to the area, therefore without friends or family to look out for her, middle-aged and lonely, and so naive and utterly respectable herself that she’s unable to imagine unworthy motives in others. Or at least that’s how she seems on the outside, and Purbright is worried she might be the next victim. But the reader sees much of the story from Miss Teatime’s perspective, so we soon learn she’s not quite as innocent as she likes to appear.

She had just sat sown after looping back the curtain when the girl from the reception office arrived with a glass of whisky and a newspaper. Miss Teatime noted approvingly that the whisky was a double.
“Did you feel faint after the journey, madam?” The girl held the glass like a medicine measure.
“Not a bit of it! Cheers!”
The girl withdrew, looking slightly bewildered.

As Miss Teatime begins to correspond with a gentleman also looking for love, Purbright and Sid have to balance their investigation of the previous disappearances with their desire to prevent her from becoming the next victim. But Miss Teatime has plans of her own…

I love these books and am delighted that Farrago are re-releasing all twelve of them for Kindle. It’s the first time for years they’ve been available at reasonable prices, and that’s a necessity since once you’ve read the first one (Coffin Scarcely Used), you will almost certainly want to binge-read the rest. Although they’re all very good, the ones in the middle are undoubtedly the best, once Watson had established all the regulars. Often humorous crime books are let down by the plotting, but each of these has a strong story and a proper investigation, so they’re satisfying on both levels. They are wickedly perceptive about middle-class English society of the ‘50s, with Watson letting the reader see through the veneer of dull respectability to the skulduggery and jiggery-pokery going on beneath. Mildly subversive, but affectionately so, they form a kind of bridge between the Golden Age and more modern crime novels, with the same class divides as in the earlier era but with the irreverence about them that came fully to the fore in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

But mostly what they are is hugely entertaining, and that’s why you should read them. And if you’ve already read them, give yourself a treat and read them all again. Highly recommended!

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

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Pearls on a Branch edited by Najla Jraissaty Khoury

It happened, or maybe it didn’t…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This collection of Lebanese and Syrian folk tales begins with an introduction from the author explaining how she came to record them. During the Lebanese civil war, Khoury travelled with a theatre group that put on shows for those dispossessed or marginalised by the conflict. As she travelled, she began to ask local women to tell her the stories they were told as children so that she could adapt them for the theatre company. She speaks very interestingly of how she went about the task of collecting the stories, sometimes from individuals, more often from groups of women, and sometimes having to find a time when their children were otherwise occupied to allow the women to relate the more bawdy tales! As with most oral traditions, she found the stories varied from telling to telling, with regional differences and also different emphases on humour and darkness. Then she discusses how she decided which stories to include, firstly in the collection of a hundred stories originally published in Arabic, and then for the thirty stories in this English translation.

This is followed by a second introduction, equally interesting, from the translator, herself a folklorist. Inea Bushnaq explains the storytelling conventions of the region, pointing out the similarities and differences to our own. She talks about the patriarchal society that has only recently begun to change. These stories are ones told by women to their daughters or amongst themselves, so they’re often about girls outsmarting men, but they also show clearly the restrictions under which women lived. Bushnaq also explains the “farsheh” – a kind of nonsense rhyme or humorous story, often involving word play, that the storyteller would use to introduce herself and get the attention of her audience before beginning the telling of the main story. Where we would begin a story “once upon a time”, the Arab convention is to begin with the less definite “there was, or maybe there was not” or “it happened, or maybe it didn’t”…

Najla Jraissaty Khoury

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of folk tales, so I expected to find this interesting rather than enjoyable. But I’m delighted to say I was wrong! I loved these – they’re fun, or moving, or occasionally horrifying, they’re very well written, the translation is excellent, and there’s a wide range so that they don’t begin to feel repetitive. Also, they shed a huge amount of light on a society and way of life that is so different from my own, and which is slowly passing; so that there’s an importance and even urgency to the act of gathering and recording these oral traditions before they are lost. Some are fables, like the story of the fox who turns vegetarian and goes on the Hajj, while many are stories of love and marriage, two things not always connected in a world where girls have no say over who they marry.

There are loads that got five stars from me, so here’s just a brief flavour to tempt you…

The Farsheh – in traditional fashion, the book kicks off with a farsheh, on this occasion part rhyme part prose. A deliciously wicked story about a young man who falls in love with a beautiful girl and decides he must have her for his own. But the girl isn’t quite as docile as he perhaps hoped. A great little starter, very well told with good language and rhythm and lots of humour.

A House Without Worries – a rather horrifying story (to western eyes) about a woman whose husband beats her every night for no good reason. (Not that I’m suggesting there’s ever a good reason!) But as with so many of these stories, the man gets his comeuppance in the end and the woman escapes to a better life. While these stories are quite uplifting with the happy-ever-after endings, they really show the grimmer side of a life where women have no rights. I loved the idea, though, of the kind of subversiveness of women sharing these stories as a form of mutual support.

Lady Tanaqueesh and the Eggs of the Tawawees – tawawees being peacock eggs, the eating of which makes you pregnant apparently! (There are lots of stories where women get pregnant through strange means – I’m sure there was an underlying meaning to this that I couldn’t quite grasp…) In this one, Lady Tanaqueesh has two jealous sisters who trick her into eating the eggs and the resulting pregnancy leads her father to expel her. There’s lots of rather nasty stuff in this one, including the brutal revenge Lady T considers for her sisters. But it’s very well done, with lots of rhyming and repetition – a real feat of translation, I think.

The Fly – a little kind of repetitive question and answer thing that reminded me of the style of “Who Killed Cock Robin”. The fly lands on a series of creatures, praising each, but each replies to the effect that yes, but I can be hurt by another creature or thing, so the fly then goes off to that creature or thing, praises it, etc., until eventually… well, that would be a spoiler, but I love the end of this – quite dark.

O Palace Beautiful! O Fancy Friend! – First off, what a great title! I’ve included this one because it has many elements of Snow White in it, which made me realise how much crossover there is in traditional tales – it made me feel closer to the culture than some of the other tales. Plus, it has Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in it! Jealous mother, beautiful girl, poisoned apple – what’s not to love?

Oh, I want to tell you about the woman who farts in front of the cow, and the chiffchaff who wants to be Queen of the Birds, and the donkey who ate the wheat, and… but I’ve run out of room! So loads of variety, lots of interest and hugely enjoyable. Great stuff – highly recommended, and not just to folk tale fans!

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

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Daughters of the Winter Queen by Nancy Goldstone

Or maybe the sons…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Winter Queen of the title is Elizabeth, daughter of James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, and herself briefly Queen of Bohemia, through her marriage to Frederick, also known as the Palatinate. Elizabeth and Frederick produced an alarming number of children, the majority of whom lived into adulthood, and as their sons and daughters grew up and contracted marriages or made alliances, they spread their influence throughout the ruling families of 17th century Europe, thus being involved in all the major events (aka wars) of that turbulent period. The book is ostensibly about the four daughters who survived their childhood years – Elizabeth, Louise Hollandine, Henrietta Maria, and Sophia.

Did you notice that sneaky word “ostensibly”? In fact, the book is much more about the kings and sons than it is about queens and daughters. (Feminists may wish to look away for the next couple of sentences.) This is completely understandable since, at that period as in so much of history, women generally played a very small role in events, limited as often as not to being pawns in the diplomatic marriage market. There’s no doubt Elizabeth’s sons led much more interesting lives than her daughters, especially since only two of the girls married, and one of those died almost immediately afterwards. (You can come back now.) So I’m not complaining about the fact that Goldstone spent far more time with the men than the women – I’m merely pointing out that the title is a little misleading and the book may therefore set up false expectations in the prospective reader.

Goldstone writes breezily, with a great deal of affection towards her subjects, and with a lot of humour. The history can sometimes feel a little superficial – she is trying to cover a lengthy and complicated period in a relatively compact book – but it’s fun, and the characterisation is great. I use the word ‘characterisation’ intentionally, because she tells her story almost as if she were writing a novel – a comedy of manners, perhaps, with the odd episode of tragedy thrown in to leaven it. I feel that all sounds a little dismissive, and I don’t mean it to be. There’s lots of history in here, clearly excellently researched, and the non-academic style makes it approachable and easily digestible. The book is a pleasure to read, which is not something that can always be said about history books!

The first few chapters give a biography of Elizabeth (the Winter Queen) and then in the latter two-thirds or so of the book, Goldstone moves on to the daughters, rotating through them, giving them each a chapter in turn. So in total each daughter merits around four chapters. You can tell from this that we largely get a broad overview of their lives rather than the detailed minutiae that tends to appear in a single subject biography. Given the fact that in reality none of the women lived particularly exciting or historically significant lives, I felt this was plenty.

Triumph of the Winter Queen by Gerrit van Honthorst
The Queen surrounded by her many, many children in various allegorical poses.

But in fact, most of the chapters start with one of the daughters and then promptly swing away to her brother, husband, suitor or male friend. We follow a couple of the sons to England where they were involved in the events leading up to and following the execution of Charles I. Through Elizabeth, we spend some time in the company of her friend and teacher Descartes. Henrietta Maria married but then died too young to have much of a story to leave, poor thing. Through Louise, a skilled painter in her own right, we learn something about the artistic movements of the time. And through Sophia, the one who married and lived, we are taken into the politics of succession – the various manoeuvrings of those in power to gain territory through war, alliance and inheritance, again told mostly through the men’s stories.

Along the way, Goldstone brings the characters, male and female, to life by including their own words from correspondence and journals and by telling anecdotes about them. This gives a great and, I assume, accurate feel for their different personalities, and Goldstone delves back into their childhoods to show how their early experiences helped to mould them into the women (or men) they became. On the whole, the daughters seemed to be a pragmatic bunch. The various religious shenanigans in Europe meant that there was a limited pool of suitable matches for impoverished Protestant princesses, so those who didn’t marry took religious orders – one converting to Catholicism to do so. Sophia was the one who interested me most, not only because her life as a daughter, wife and mother of powerful men meant that she was more involved in events, but because she loved to write and had a witty, acerbic style that gave a real feeling for her and for the people she somewhat wickedly observed.

Nancy Goldstone

Overall, I enjoyed this book. That particular period of history is complicated by all the religious squabbling and ever-shifting allegiances so my eyes glazed over from time to time, but Goldstone does an excellent job of simplifying it and helping the reader through the maze. I thoroughly enjoy her writing style and would mention that her footnotes are not to be glossed over – often the best humour in the book is hidden in them. The book wasn’t quite what I was expecting, and the daughters weren’t as interesting as I’d hoped, on the whole, but there was plenty to keep me engaged in the stories of the sons, fathers and husbands. Next time though, I’d hope Goldstone could find women who were more interesting in their own right (as she did with Catherine de’ Medici and Marguerite de Valois in her previous book The Rival Queens) or not set up false expectations in her title. Not every book has to have a feminist angle, especially when there isn’t one, and The Children of the Winter Queen would have worked just as well, I feel. Recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.

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The Invisible Man by HG Wells

Beware the mad scientists!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One night, while a snowstorm rages, a man arrives at the inn in a Sussex village, asking for rooms. He is bundled up in scarves, gloves, and a large hat, so much so that Mrs Hall, the innkeeper, can see nothing of him except the tip of his very pink nose. She installs him in front of the fire but even as the room heats up he refuses to remove his outer layers. Still, he pays a sizeable deposit upfront, so she is willing to put up with his demands for privacy, even when he starts to use her parlour to carry out strange experiments. Eventually she discovers that underneath his hat and shaded spectacles, his head is entirely covered in bandages. Disfigured from some accident, she figures. Ah, if only she knew the book title! In time, as his experiments fail, the man begins to run low on money. And coincidentally (or is it??) that’s when the burglaries begin…

(NB On re-reading this review before posting, I think it’s a little more spoilerish than I usually aim for, so if you don’t already know the story and want to read the book some day, you might prefer to skip to the last paragraph now. I’ll forgive you. 😉 The short review is – highly recommended!)

* * * * *

HG Wells
1901 Photograph by Elliott & Fry, owned by the National Portrait Gallery

First published in 1897, this is perhaps the oddest of Wells’ five main science fiction classics, in that it starts out as a very funny comedy and then gradually darkens to become grim and tragic. Comitragedy, then, rather than tragicomedy. It’s another mad science one – this time, the main character, Griffin, has found a way to refract light that can make a human being invisible. A man almost entirely void of conscience or empathy, he sees all the opportunities this could bring, but his overweening pride makes him blind to the potential problems. And, like all these mad scientists, he forgets to work out how to put the genie back into the bottle before he lets it out.

So here he is, invisible, unable to reverse it, and growing increasingly desperate for money to continue his experiments. His initial crimes are small ones but as he discovers the power over others that his invisibility gives him, he becomes ever more vicious and violent to anyone who gets in his way. And first the villagers, and then the wider countryside, become determined to stop him, in any way they can…

The beginning section in the inn is full of some lovely humour, mocking the simple country bumpkins of this little village, but doing it affectionately so that it doesn’t feel cruel or too snobbish. Griffin’s invisibility leads to some fun incidents reminiscent of poltergeist stories.

As she did so, a most extraordinary thing happened. The bed-clothes gathered themselves together, leapt up suddenly into a sort of peak, and then jumped headlong over the bottom rail. It was exactly as if a hand had clutched them in the centre and flung them aside. Immediately after, the stranger’s hat hopped off the bed-post, described a whirling flight in the air through the better part of a circle, and then dashed straight at Mrs. Hall’s face.

From the James Whale film adaptation of 1933.
It’s Claude Rains, of course – didn’t you recognise him?

The informative introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by Matthew Beaumont, Professor in English Literature at University College London, points out that this was at a time when spiritualism was all the rage, and that Wells was mocking some of the practices of the fake mediums of the day. Beaumont also puts the book into its literary context, highlighting influences on Wells followed by his influence on later books. Some of the influences are easy to see – there’s a definite element of Jekyll and Hyde (1886) in Griffin, and the chase scenes of this monster are reminiscent of Frankenstein (1818); though it’s much harder to feel empathy, I found, for Griffin, a monster largely of his own making, and with few redeeming features. He ought by rights to deserve some pity, since as an albino at a time when people were less tolerant of difference, he had found himself rather isolated as a child, but somehow his coldness and extreme cruelty left me unable to sympathise. However, this early outcast status makes his detachment from society understandable, and that detachment in turn leads him to act in ways that eventually make his alienation complete.

But although the book echoes these earlier works to some degree, it certainly has its own originality, and Wells’ usual great storytelling skills make it another excellent read, although I did find the descent from comedy to violence and horror somewhat disconcerting. In retrospect, as I’m writing this, I’m thinking that may have been the point but as I was reading, it felt jerky, like suddenly going round a hair-pin bend. However, both sections are very well done with both the humour and the horror coming through effectively, and it’s easy to see why this tale has retained its hold on the public imagination and been so influential on later writers and filmmakers.

I must say I have enjoyed reading these five classics from HG Wells more than almost any other aspect of my reading over the last few months. They tend to share common themes but, far from making them feel repetitive, that in fact highlights the amazing imagination of the man, to be able to come up with so many fresh ways to examine the things that interested him. And at risk of sounding as if I’m on their payroll, reading these OWC editions has enhanced my pleasure hugely; the introductions are always well written and give just the right amount of information to inform without overloading the reader with lots of irrelevant detail or academic jargon. I always read the intros as afterwords, and get a glow of smug satisfaction if I’ve picked up on the things they mention, and a lesser but still satisfying glow when they tell me something I didn’t spot. Great stuff!

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

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Sinister Dexter (PorterGirl 3) by Lucy Brazier

Tea-bag crisis strikes Old College!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Things have got very dark indeed in Old College since we last visited. The new Bursar, Professor Dexter Sinistrov, whom we last met while he was engaged in nefarious goings-on in the neighbouring college, has now settled into his role. His first priority has been to cut the catering budget, leading to a serious shortage of biscuits in the Porters Lodge – and they’re down to their last three tea-bags! This tragedy, along with the small matter of two corpses being found at the bottom of the garden, means our beloved Deputy Head Porter has her hands full. Especially since The Dean seems to think the best way to solve the crime would be for him to dress up as Zorro, Head Porter is busily leading a double life online, and Porter is becoming ever more romantically involved with the local police sergeant. Mind you, Deputy Head Porter herself doesn’t seem totally immune to the charms of DCI Thompson…

….“Oh, you’re a porter, are you?” Professor Palmer seats himself and leans over, perilously close to my breakfast. I place a defensive forearm around the plate. “You’re rather pretty to be carrying bags, don’t you think?”
….It takes every ounce of temperance to refrain from stabbing him in the face with my fork. Had it not already got bacon on it, I’m afraid this would have very likely been the outcome.
….“Porters,” I emphasise the upper-case P through gritted teeth, “are not the carriers of bags, but the keepers of keys.”

I shall start with my usual disclaimer – I’ve been blog buddies with Lucy for years now, so you may have to assume that I’m biased…

This series has been loads of fun since the beginning, when it started out as a serialisation on Lucy’s blog. The first book, First Lady of the Keys, (previously titled Secret Diary of PorterGirl), was taken directly from the blog and occasionally showed its origins by being a bit loose in structure perhaps, especially in the early chapters. But the second book, The Vanishing Lord, and this one are both much tighter and better plotted. There is a running story arc in the background so the books are very definitely meant to be read in order. In fact, the opening of this one contains lots of spoilers for the earlier books.

With this third book, I feel Lucy has really taken a step up in terms of plotting, giving this one a distinct story of its own as well as progressing the background story. A young student and his boyfriend are found dead in each others arms in the College gardens, with no visible signs of how they died. DCI Thomson and his team carry out the official investigation, while The Dean and his team carry out an unofficial one. In the background, the usual machinations of the Fellowship of Old College continue, with suggestions that the Vicious Circle, a secret society within the College who mete out their own form of vengeance against anyone who they feel endangers college tradition, might be back in operation. The mysterious and menacing Professor Sinistrov is acting suspiciously, but is he part of the Vicious Circle? Or, as The Dean suspects, a Russian spy? Or does he have a secret agenda of his own? Or is he simply anti-biscuit? No-one can be sure, but if Deputy Head Porter doesn’t get a decent cup of tea soon, there’ll be ructions…

….“I think it’s fair to say that we are of the opinion that Maurinio and his rugged companion were engaged in a personal relationship?”
….The Dean’s approach to the subject matter is amusing. Which is why what he says next is all the more surprising.
….“I would have made an excellent homosexual, Deputy Head Porter” he continues, wistfully. “I’ve always had above average good looks and an unusually superior sense of style.”
….“Yes” I say, tentatively. “I think there is somewhat more to it than that, Sir.” But he isn’t listening. He has found a crusted stain on the hem of his jumper and is scratching at it furiously.

Lucy Brazier

The story is only part of the fun of these books though. Mostly it’s about the quirky bunch of characters Lucy has created and the strange and esoteric life of this ancient institution based, not altogether exaggeratedly, on one of our real much-revered universities. The Dean continues to be at the centre of most of the daily mayhem, while Head Porter’s character is gradually deepening as we learn more about his life outside the college. While totally loyal to the College and her colleagues, Deputy Head Porter observes them with an objective and humorous eye, and continues to try to get everyone to behave a little more sensibly – a hopeless task, I fear! As always, there are some set-piece comedy scenes – I’m proud to claim a tiny bit of credit for being part of the crowd of blog followers who forced Lucy to take her characters off to an open-mic night disguised as a struggling rock band!

Great fun! I’m even willing to overlook the fact that it’s written in my pet hate present tense. If you haven’t visited Old College yet, I heartily recommend you do so the very next time you need cheering up. But remember to read them in order! And Lucy, I hope you’re hard at work on the next one…

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Raven Black (Shetland 1) by Ann Cleeves

An excellent start…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

A few days after New Year, sixteen-year-old Catherine Ross is found strangled in the snow in the middle of a field. The islanders immediately jump to the conclusion that she was killed by Magnus Tait, an elderly loner who has long been convicted in the public mind of the murder of another girl several years earlier. That child disappeared and her body was never found, and no evidence was found to allow the police to charge Magnus with the crime, but ever since the islanders have kept their children well away from him. Catherine Ross was an outsider, though, her father having brought her to the island just recently, after the death of her mother. And Catherine was interested in people, and perhaps a little cruel sometimes. She was known to have been in Magnus’ company a couple of times, so his guilt seems certain. But Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez, another outsider, isn’t convinced…

This is the first novel in Cleeves’ Shetland series, the books behind the successful TV series of the same name. She captures the atmosphere of the island beautifully – the mixture of that feeling of claustrophobia where everyone knows everyone else’s secrets and the isolation of the small villages outside the main harbour town. She also shows how old traditions remain side by side with the increasing modernisation of life, as the islanders prepare for the big annual festival of Up Helly Aa; perhaps not as ancient a festival as some like to believe, but one that has become a part of life and a major tourist attraction over the years.

The plotting is excellent, as Perez tries to work out whether the two cases are linked or separate. Being in the third person past tense, the reader is allowed to see the story develop from a variety of perspectives, including Perez himself as he investigates, Magnus Tait as he waits knowing that the finger of suspicion will be pointed in his direction, and Sally, daughter of a teacher at the local school and Catherine’s best friend. This lets us see events from different angles, gradually giving a rounder picture of the victim and the various suspects.

Up Helly Aa – when the Shetlanders celebrate their Viking connections by burning a longboat…
Photo by David Gifford

Magnus is very well done – he is a man with what we’d probably call learning difficulties, able to function but well aware that he lacks social skills. Cleeves does a great job of making the reader find him both creepy and rather sad at the same time. Through Sally’s eyes we see the life of youngsters on the island, socially and at school. She and Catherine were drawn together mainly by being treated as outsiders – Catherine because she has newly arrived on the island, and Sally because she’s the daughter of a rather unpopular teacher.

Perez’ character is only revealed to certain extent in this opening novel, leaving plenty of room for development in later instalments. He’s from Fair Isle, an even smaller, more remote community, and is under pressure from his parents to return there. The break-up of his marriage has left him unsure of what he wants in life, but he’s no angst-ridden maverick. He’s a thoughtful, fair officer who tries hard not to be swayed by popular opinion but instead to look to the facts of the case. In this one, he finds himself becoming attracted to a young woman, Fran, another incomer, who found Catherine’s body, and this budding relationship allows us to see his human, off-duty side.

Ann Cleeves

There are plenty of other characters – parents, other pupils, boyfriends and so on – to provide a wide pool of suspects and witnesses, and these are all drawn equally believably although with a little less depth. Late on, I had an inkling about how one aspect of the story was going to play out, but I didn’t get close to the main solution. When it came though, I found it both credible and satisfying.

Overall, I thought this was an excellent start to the series and am keen to read more. I’m also happy to have finally broken my duck with this well-known and much loved author, and am now equally eager to read her Vera Stanhope novels. If someone as successful as Ann Cleeves actually needs my recommendation, then she most certainly has it!

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And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov

The human face of the Revolution…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Melekhov family own a farm in the small Cossack village of Tatarsk, on the banks of the Don. In this strongly patriarchal society, the adult sons remain at home, bringing their wives to join the family, while the adult daughters leave to go to the family homes of their husbands. Patriarch Pantaleimon Melekhov has two adult sons: Piotra, already married as the book begins, and Gregor, just reaching manhood. This Nobel Prize-winning novel will follow the members of the family through the upheavals of early 20th century Russia, casting light on those events from the Cossack perspective.

The novel is divided into four sections. The first section is Peace, which shows the traditional life of the Cossacks before war and revolution changed it for ever. The writing is glorious and, unlike most Russian literature of my experience, the translation by Stephen Garry flows naturally, without the clunkiness and frequent obscurity that so often makes the Russians hard work. Sholokhov paints an entirely credible, unvarnished picture of the lives of his characters – a harsh, physical life, where the women are expected to work as hard as the men, and often fill their roles on the farms when the men are off at their military camps, an important part of the Cossack tradition. Farming and horses are at the heart of life here, with the beloved Don providing water and fish. The landscape is beautifully described, while Cossack life is shown in all its brutality – a society where violence and rape are commonplace, but which nevertheless has a strong social order and strictly observed customs.

….Towards evening a thunderstorm gathered. A mass of heavy cloud lay over the village. Lashed into fury by the wind, the Don sent great foaming breakers against its banks. The sky flamed with dry lightning, occasional peals of thunder shook the earth. A vulture circled with outspread wings below the clouds, and ravens croakingly pursued him. Breathing out coolness the cloud passed down the Don from the east. Beyond the water-meadows the heaven blackened menacingly, the steppe lay in an expectant silence. In the village the closed shutters rattled, the old people hurried home crossing themselves. A grey pillar of dust whirled over the square, and the heat-burdened earth was already beginning to be sown with the first grains of rain.

Young Gregor has developed a passionate desire for Aksinia, the wife of a neighbour, and this storyline carries through much of the novel. However, although the blurb suggests this is a kind of love story in the vein of Doctor Zhivago, it certainly isn’t. To a large degree, Gregor’s and Aksinia’s relationship is there to allow us to see different aspects of life – how the patriarchy works, how custom and tradition play an important role, how violence is never far from the surface, how women are treated within this society, how lust and sex are a commonplace part of life, not hidden and repressed as in most societies. I found Sholokhov’s portrayal of the women in his story fascinating, although it isn’t the main focus. There’s an animalistic quality to the characters – they are driven by earthy, physical passions, the women as much as the men. In a society where young husbands are often absent on military duty, the women are shown as having strong sexual needs, leading to adultery being commonplace. But we also see that women are property and often treated with more cruelty and less respect than the Cossacks’ beloved horses. Sholokhov doesn’t shield his readers from the brutality of beatings and rape, some of the descriptions of which are graphic in the extreme. Despite their subordinate status though, these women are strong and opinionated, and play their full part in their society, and, some of them, in the Revolution also.

….Through the wattle fence Gregor saw Stepan getting ready. Aksinia, bedecked in a green woollen skirt, led out his horse. Stepan smilingly said something to her. Unhurriedly, in lordly fashion, he kissed his wife, and his arm lingered long around her shoulder. His sunburnt and work-stained hand showed coal-black against her white jacket. He stood with his back to Gregor; his stiff, clean-shaven neck, his broad, somewhat heavy shoulders, and (whenever he bent towards his wife) the twisted ends of his light-brown moustache were visible across the fence.
….Aksinia laughed at something and shook her head. Sitting as though rooted into the saddle, Stepan rode his black horse at a hurried walk through the gate, and Aksinia walked at his side, holding the stirrup, and looking up lovingly and thirstily into his eyes.
….With a long, unwinking stare Gregor watched them to the turn of the road.

Having thoroughly immersed the reader in Cossack society and the lives of the people of the village, in the remaining three sections Sholokhov shows the impact of the three phases that led the Russian peoples from the end of Tsarism to the beginnings of the USSR – World War I, the Revolution, and the Civil War. My recent fixation with the history of this period undoubtedly helped me to understand all the nuances of these sections, but Sholokhov does such a great job that I think the book acts almost as a straight history in its own right, with the added fascination that we’re seeing how it all played out through the eyes of those at the bottom of the society’s power structures, rather than via the political actors and intelligentsia whose opinions are the ones we normally hear.

A Cossack troop rides off to war c.1914

The Cossack view is particularly interesting because they were divided – some fell under the Bolshevik sway, others feared the Bolsheviks would destroy their way of life for ever. Sholokhov gradually shows every aspect, from the agitators sent out to the villages to try to win them over to the Bolshevik cause, to the dreadful conditions in the army leading to demoralisation and the gradual breakdown of discipline, to the eventual taking of sides and how that impacted life back in the villages. We see the divide between the elders who wanted to maintain the status quo, and the younger men who were more attracted by the new politics, and how this began to weaken the patriarchal stranglehold. But throughout all of this history and politics, Sholokhov remembers the importance of humanity and keeps the reader in touch with how his characters are affected and changed by their experiences. There is horrific brutality in the war scenes, told not for effect but because it is truth. Sholokhov doesn’t express his own views overtly but he makes it very clear that bloody war is not a great and glorious thing. Instead it robs people of their humanity, coarsening and brutalising them and then sending them, if they’re lucky, to try in some way to put their shattered lives back together again.

….Very similar were all the prayers which the cossacks wrote down and concealed under their shirts, tying them to the strings of the little ikons blessed by their mothers, and to the little bundles of their native earth. But death came upon all alike, upon those who wrote down the prayers also. Their bodies rotted in the fields of Galicia and Eastern Prussia, in the Carpathians and Roumania, wherever the ruddy flames of war flickered and the traces of cossack horses were imprinted in the earth.

As you have hopefully gathered, I think this is a wonderful book, one that fully deserves its reputation as a great classic of the Revolution, and of literature in general. It is by no means an easy read in terms of subject matter, with some images that will haunt me for a long time to come, but it’s so well written I found myself fully engaged and caring deeply about these people. To be able to tell such a difficult and complicated history while simultaneously humanising it is a real feat, and one Sholokhov has pulled off superbly. An outstanding finale to the fictional side of my Russian Revolution challenge – highly recommended.

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