Tuesday Terror! The Judge’s House by Bram Stoker

Asking for trouble…

The fretful porpentine and I were full of good intentions to read an Irish horror story every week during March as part of Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month. But then we were attacked by plagueophobia and you know what they say about the best laid plans! However, here we are, sneaking one in on the very last day of the event, and just as the porpy goes off into hibernation for the summer…

The Judge’s House
by Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker

Student Malcolm Malcolmson is looking for somewhere where he can study in peace without the distraction of friends or family, so he heads randomly for the little town of Benchurch. Putting up for the night at the only inn, the next day he looks around for a house that he can rent for a few weeks…

There was only one place which took his fancy, and it certainly satisfied his wildest ideas regarding quiet; in fact, quiet was not the proper word to apply to it – desolation was the only term conveying any suitable idea of its isolation.

Oh dear! When will people learn that isolated houses are never a good idea? You’d think the words of the house agent would have warned Malcolm…

“To tell you the truth,” said he, “I should be only too happy, on behalf of the owners, to let anyone have the house rent free for a term of years if only to accustom the people here to see it inhabited. It has been so long empty that some kind of absurd prejudice has grown up about it, and this can be best put down by its occupation – if only,” he added with a sly glance at Malcolmson, “by a scholar like yourself, who wants its quiet for a time.”

The good landlady of the inn seems to share that “absurd prejudice”…

“Not in the Judge’s House!” she said, and grew pale as she spoke.

This would be quite enough for normal people, but Malcolm pressed for more information…

She told him that it was so called locally because it had been many years before – how long she could not say, as she was herself from another part of the country, but she thought it must have been a hundred years or more – the abode of a judge who was held in great terror on account of his harsh sentences and his hostility to prisoners at Assizes. As to what there was against the house, itself she could not tell. She had often asked, but no one could inform her; but there was a general feeling that there was something, and for her own part she would not take all the money in Drinkwater’s Bank and stay in the house an hour by herself.

Naturally, this decides Malcolm, and paying the rent for three months in advance, he prepares to move in, reassuring the landlady he’ll be fine…

“… my dear Mrs. Witham, indeed you need not be concerned about me! A man who is reading for the Mathematical Tripos has too much to think of to be disturbed by any of these mysterious ‘somethings,’ and his work is of too exact and prosaic a kind to allow of his having any corner in his mind for mysteries of any kind.”

Yeah. Well. We’ll see.

Malcolm hires Mrs Dempster to “do” for him and she’s of a more prosaic turn of mind about the horrors of the house…

“I’ll tell you what it is, sir,” she said; “bogies is all kinds and sorts of things – except bogies! Rats and mice, and beetles, and creaky doors, and loose slates, and broken panes, and stiff drawer handles, that stay out when you pull them and then fall down in the middle of the night. Look at the wainscot of the room! It is old – hundreds of years old! Do you think there’s no rats and beetles there! And do you imagine, sir, that you won’t see none of them? Rats is bogies, I tell you, and bogies is rats; and don’t you get to think anything else!”

Hmm, personally I’m not sure Malcolm wouldn’t be better off with bogies than rats and beetles! Especially when it’s late at night and he’s all alone in the dark, and suddenly all the noise of scampering rats behind the wainscot ceases and in the sudden silence he looks up from his books…

There on the great high-backed carved oak chair by the right side of the fireplace sat an enormous rat, steadily glaring at him with baleful eyes. He made a motion to it as though to hunt it away, but it did not stir. Then he made the motion of throwing something. Still it did not stir, but showed its great white teeth angrily, and its cruel eyes shone in the lamplight with an added vindictiveness.

Ooh, I say! But is the rat simply a rat? Or is it something more malevolent, something to do with the picture of the old judge hanging on the wall? And why does the rat always run up the rope that hangs down from the alarm bell in the roof?

“It is,” said the doctor slowly, “the very rope which the hangman used for all the victims of the Judge’s judicial rancour!”

And yet still our brave but foolish hero is determined to stay in the house…

* * * * *

Goodness, this is a good one! The porpy and I were proper scared, both by the rats and by the… other stuff! It has touches of humour in the early stages but it gradually descends into something very dark indeed. A warning to us all not to rent a house that’s full of rats… or the ghosts of hanging judges…

If you’re brave enough to want to read it, here’s a link…

NB The two great illustrations are by Walt Sturrock.

It’s a fretful porpentine!

Fretful porpentine rating:   😱 😱 😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Buckle your swash…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Owing to the indiscretion of an ancestor, the Rassendyll family shares heredity with the ruling family of the small Germanic nation of Ruritania. Every now and then a Rassendyll is born with the red hair and long nose common to the Ruritarian Kings. Rudolf is one of these red-haired Rassendylls and, being a young man with a plentiful inheritance and time on his hands, he decides he will visit Ruritania to witness the coronation of the new young King, another Rudolf. When he gets there he discovers that everyone is startled by his appearance – he doesn’t simply resemble the King, they are almost identical. So when King Rudolf is incapacitated before his coronation, our Rudolf steps in to take his place in order to prevent the King’s jealous half-brother, Black Michael (so called because he hasn’t inherited the red hair), from carrying out a coup and stealing not just the throne but the beautiful Princess Flavia, destined to be the wife of the King. But when the King is then kidnapped, suddenly Rudolf finds the impersonation will have to go on until the King is free…

Short novel or long novella, this is a swashbuckling adventure full of drama, sword fights, high romance and chivalric honour. And it’s great fun! Rudolf tells us the story himself, and it reminded me very much in style of John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, where the first person narrator self-deprecatingly repeats the many compliments bestowed upon him by everyone he meets, so that we know he’s wonderful in every way without him having to tell us so directly. A great swordsman, a flawless linguist, a natural leader of men, and an irresistible wooer of women, Rudolf is also a man who puts honour above his own desires, even when faced by overwhelming temptation. But he lets us see his internal struggle to do the right thing, which stops him from becoming insufferable. The King is a weak drunkard and Black Michael is a hissable villain, so that the reader can only agree with the growing number of Ruritarians who begin to think that the impostor is an improvement over the real royals.

Ronald Colman as Rudolf and Raymond J Massey as Black Michael in the 1937 film.

Although Black Michael is the chief baddie in terms of the plot, it’s his henchman Rupert of Hentzau who becomes Rudolf’s main adversary. Rupert shares most of Rudolf’s manly attributes, but turns them to wickedness rather than good. So where Rudolf is not above stealing a kiss from an innkeeper’s daughter, Rupert is more likely to kidnap the girl and “ruin” her – such a useful euphemism! And while Rudolf will do the right thing even if it hurts him, Rupert will cheerfully sell his loyalty to the highest bidder. They are a little like Jekyll and Hyde – two extremes of the same personality, one good, one evil. And Rudolf recognises this himself – although he finds Rupert morally reprehensible, he still admires his spirit and bravado, and finds his outrageous behaviour amusing.

The introduction in my Oxford World’s Classics edition is by Nicholas Daly, Professor of Modern English and American Literature at University College Dublin. He tells us about the impact and legacy of the book, which spawned so many imitations they became a sub-genre all on their own, of “Ruritarian romances”. There were successful stage adaptations in both London and New York, and several film versions, and Daly gives many examples of later books and films that were inspired by it. Ruritania itself, although imaginary, has taken on a life apart from the book. Wikipedia gives a list of instances when it has been used in order not to offend real nations: for example, “Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer cited Ruritania as a fictional enemy when illustrating a security treaty between Australia and Indonesia”. Isaac Asimov apparently also used it if he wanted to tell a joke that was based on ethnic stereotyping, substituting it for the nation or people in the original joke.

Anthony Hope

The plot is very well done. It’s quite simple – how to free the King and restore order – but Hope uses the impersonation aspect to tie all three participants up in a tangle where each is prevented from taking the easy option without destroying his own plan. And he skilfully puts the reader in the position of not being sure what the best outcome would be. This gives it the suspense that keeps those pages turning – it’s hard to put down so it’s fortunate that it’s short enough to be read in an evening.

A thoroughly entertaining read, perfect for the next time you feel the need to buckle your swash! Or should that be swash your buckle…? Either way, recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – This edition isn’t out yet in the US but can be pre-ordered here

Death in White Pyjamas and Death Knows No Calendar by John Bude

Double the pleasure…

Every now and then the British Library produces a twofer in their Crime Classics series – two full-length novels by the same author in one volume – and these always feel like an extra special treat, especially when the author is one of the ones who has become a readers’ favourite, as John Bude apparently has. I must admit, although I’ve enjoyed the previous Bude novels I’ve read, he hadn’t become one of my personal stars, but I hoped maybe these two would raise him up to that status. And they did! I loved both of these very different novels…

Death in White Pyjamas

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Having made his fortune in business, Sam Richardson is now enjoying his middle years by using his wealth to support a small theatre company, led by director Basil Barnes. Barnes’ artistic drive and Richardson’s knowledge of the type of thing he himself likes to see performed on stage make for a winning combination, and Richardson’s wealth allows Basil to hire a core group of established actors and actresses along with a few promising newcomers. In the winter months they perform in the London theatre Richardson has bought, and during the summer closed-season he throws open his country home to any of the regulars who need a little break or for the group to gather for early rehearsals of the next season’s plays. This summer most of the company are staying at Richardson’s house, while Basil has bought a little cottage close by and is in the process of fitting it out to his own taste. However, as in any group, there are tensions and jealousies under the surface, and murder is waiting in the wings…

This is one of these mysteries where we slowly get to know all the characters and possible motives before the crime is committed, so my advice is – don’t read the blurb on the back or the introduction until after you’ve read the book! Half the fun is seeing all the convoluted threads that seem to give each of the characters reasons to want rid of one or more of the other ones, and the identity of the eventual victim is not at all clear until the murder actually happens. It almost gives two mysteries – the first, who will be killed, revealed around halfway through, and then the second, who is the killer?

The characterisation is great. There are all the theatrical stereotypes – the old character actor, the beautiful young ingénue, the aspiring playwright, the predatory director, the money-minded producer – but they’re all brought beautifully to life with a lot of warmth and humour, so that they don’t feel at all stale. Once the victim is known, the whodunit is reasonably easy to guess, but the howdunit aspect is great fun, and as with the best vintage crime there are happy endings for those who deserve them and justice for those who don’t. Excellent!

Death Knows No Calendar

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When his old friend Lydia Arundel is found dead in her locked artist’s studio with a gun close at hand, Major Tom Boddy finds he can’t believe that she was the type of woman to ever contemplate suicide. So he sets out to investigate, armed only with his extensive knowledge of detective fiction and ably assisted by his batman, Syd Gammon. Although he has his suspicions from an early stage, he soon realises there are several people with the motive to do away with Lydia, a woman whom men fell in love with too easily, and who enjoyed her power over them too much. But even if he works out whodunit, he knows he’ll never be able to persuade the police that she was murdered unless he can solve the mystery of how the crime was done…

There’s more than one “impossible” scenario hidden in this gem of a book, which will please fans of the locked room style of mystery. But for me the greatest joy is in Major Boddy’s character – he’s one of these traditional old colonials who is scared of nothing and assumes nothing is beyond him. When he sets his mind to a task, he sees it through. But he’s also kind-hearted and, typical of the fictional type, gives the impression of being rather baffled by human behaviour, especially of the female variety. There’s so much humour in this book – I smiled and chuckled my way through it. As well as the locked room aspect, the setting is another much-loved vintage crime staple – the small village, where everyone knows everyone else’s secrets, or think they do at least. As in Death in White Pyjamas, the identity of the killer is easier to work out than the method of the crime, and in this one the amateur detection efforts of the Major and Syd are hugely entertaining. I think I enjoyed it even more than Death in White Pyjamas.

So two great books in one volume – I hereby officially declare myself a John Bude fan and now can’t wait to read more of his stuff. Doubly recommended!

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

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Amazon US Link

Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse read by Jonathan Cecil

Knotted locks and knitted socks…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Bertie isn’t keen on visiting Steeple Bumpleigh, home to Aunt Agatha, the most terrifying of his aunts. But Jeeves is keen to do a spot of fishing and Uncle Percy needs Jeeves’ help in finding a way to pull off a big business deal, so Bertie gives in gracefully. After all, Aunt Agatha is off elsewhere on a visit, ex-fiancée Florence Craye can be no threat to his bachelorhood now that she’s engaged to D’Arcy “Stilton” Cheesewright, and while his young cousin Edwin is always a pestilence, how much harm could one Boy Scout possibly do? But when Florence and Stilton fall out over Stilton’s insistence on being the village policeman and Edwin burns down Bertie’s cottage whilst doing his daily act of kindness, things take a sinister turn. Meantime Uncle Percy is refusing to allow his ward Nobby Hopwood to marry the light of her life, Boko Fittleworth. Even for Jeeves, it will be a tall order to set everything right…

….Florence was obviously in the grip of some powerful emotion. She quivered gently, as if in the early stages of palsy, and her face, as far as I could gather from the sketchy view I was able to obtain of it, was pale and set, like the white of a hard-boiled egg.
….“D’Arcy Cheesewright,” she said, getting right off the mark without so much as a preliminary ‘What ho, there’, “is an obstinate, mulish, pig-headed, overbearing, unimaginative, tyrannical jack-in-office!”
….Her words froze me to the core. I was conscious of a sense of frightful peril. Owing to young Edwin’s infernal officiousness, this pancake had been in receipt only a few hours earlier of a handsome diamond brooch, ostensibly a present from Bertram W., and now, right on top of it, she had had a falling out with Stilton, so substantial that it took her six distinct adjectives to describe him. When a girl uses six derogatory adjectives in her attempt to paint the portrait of the loved one, it means something. One may indicate a merely temporary tiff. Six is big stuff.

All the Jeeves and Wooster books have fundamentally the same plot, which is part of their charm but doesn’t make it easy to find new things to say in reviews! This is a particular favourite of mine, partly because I like Florence as one of Bertie’s recurring girlfriends – she’s not as drippy as Madeline nor as haughty as Honoria, and I often felt she would have been a serious contender in the matrimonial stakes had it not been for her desire to improve poor Bertie’s mind by forcing him to read highbrow literature. Bertie, as we know, prefers to relax with the latest murder mystery. Edwin and his acts of kindness bring trauma and despair to all his unwilling victims and much hilarity to the reader.

….“Oh, hullo, Bertie” he said, grinning all over his loathsome face.
….“Hullo, you frightful young squirt,” I responded civilly. “What are you doing here?”
….“Tidying up.”
….I touched on a point of absorbing interest.
….“Was it you who left that bally pail there?”
….“Where?”
….“In the middle of the hall.”
….“Coo! Yes, I remember now. I put it there to be out of the way.”
….“I see. Well, you’ll be amused to learn that I’ve nearly broken my leg.”
….He started. A fanatic gleam came into his eyes. He looked like a boy confronted with an unexpected saucer of ice cream.
….“I say! Have you really? This is a bit of bunce. I can give you first aid.”

The other thing I love is that this is the one in which Shakespeare’s fretful porpentine is a running joke. Some of you may have been fooled by my occasional use of quotes from Shakespeare, the great poets and even the Bible into thinking I am widely read and deeply intellectual. Not so! Almost every quote I know came to me via Bertie Wooster, and I’m pretty sure the fretful porpentine and I first met here…

….“Well, let me tell you, Jeeves, and you can paste this in your hat, shapeliness isn’t everything in this world. In fact, it sometimes seems to me that the more curved and lissome the members of the opposite sex, the more likely they are to set Hell’s foundations quivering. Do you recall telling me once about someone who told somebody he could tell him something which would make him think a bit? Knitted socks and porcupines entered into it, I remember.”
….“I think you may be referring to the ghost of the father of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, sir. Addressing his son, he said ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.’”
….“That’s right. Locks, of course, not socks. Odd that he should have said porpentine when he meant porcupine. Slip of the tongue, no doubt, as often happens with ghosts.”

Jonathan Cecil is the perfect narrator for these books. His Bertie is Bertie, and he’s brilliant at creating appropriate voices and personas for the whole cast of characters. In this one, there’s a fabulous scene where Uncle Percy gets riotously drunk and Cecil’s performance had me chuckling and guffawing all the way through. If you need a bit of joy in the morning, the evening or any other time, I heartily recommend this and the other Jeeves audiobooks. Forget the pasta and toilet roll – stockpile these in preparation for your social distancing. What better company could you possibly have?

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

A Killing Kindness (Dalziel and Pascoe 6) by Reginald Hill

To thine own self be true…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Sergeant Wield visits the mother of murder victim Brenda Sorby, he finds that Mrs Sorby has called in gypsy clairvoyant Rosetta Stanhope to try to contact her dead daughter. Politely, Wield listens in, but when the local press get hold of the story it is blown up as the police having called in a psychic because they’re baffled, and Superintendent Dalziel is not pleased! The press have a point, though – Brenda is the third apparent victim of the murderer the press have dubbed the Choker and the police are indeed baffled. There seems no obvious connection between the victims, and while the first two were carefully laid out by the murderer, poor Brenda was found dumped in the local canal. However, all three women were strangled, and after each murder the local paper received an anonymous phonecall quoting a line from Hamlet. Then, as Dalziel, Pascoe and Wield search for leads, a fourth murder takes place…

The thing I love about this series is how it evolves over time, both in terms of the recurring characters, and in the quality of the plotting. This one dates from 1980, a full decade after the first book and a decade that saw the beginning of lots of changes in social attitudes. Hill could have simply changed the characters of his two leads as many writers tried to do with varying degrees of success. But instead he allows them to grow and adapt. At this point, Dalziel remains the rude, boorish, foul-mouthed dinosaur, but Pascoe, now married to the feminist Ellie, has matured into a semi-decent bloke, who might still expect his dinner to be on the table when he gets home but isn’t too put out when it’s left for him in the oven instead, while Ellie is off out with her feminist friends. For the early ‘80s, this almost counted as being a New Man! Even Dalziel will gradually reveal that most of his boorishness is an act and that he might be even more advanced than Pascoe in his heart. Dalziel doesn’t care if his officers are male or female, gay or straight, white or black – he’s equally rude and offensive to them all, but they can count on his total support should anyone else try to mess with them.

Having brought Ellie in a few books earlier to counterbalance the sexism and boost the feminist angle, in this one Hill brings Wieldy to the fore. I can’t say definitively that Wield is the first sympathetic depiction of a gay policeman in mainstream British crime fiction, but he’s certainly the first I came across and it was pretty astounding at the time. Especially since the portrayal of him is so good – not in any way stereotyped, not suggesting that being gay makes him weak or feminine or “perverted” or any of the other negative characteristics that fictional gay people were so often given at that period. Wield is a normal guy who happens to be gay. For younger people used to that kind of portrayal of gay people, it’s hard to explain how revolutionary it seemed back in the day. And the joy is that Wieldy is so easy to like! Again, I have no evidence that Wield changed perceptions of homosexuality in Hill’s readership but I’d be amazed if he didn’t. He’s one example of the way Hill constantly pushed at the boundaries, but subtly and with warmth and humour, rather than beating the reader over the head with polemics and “messages”.

Reginald Hill

The plot in this one is excellent – probably the first in the series where I felt Hill got it completely right. It’s complex and convincing, and dark. While it involves the murder of young women, it avoids the salaciousness and voyeurism that often accompanies that, and the killer’s motivation is original. I’m desperately trying to avoid anything which could be a spoiler, so I’ll simply say that the motivation aspect gives the book the psychological depth that became a trademark of Hill’s work as the series developed. That’s what makes Dalziel and Pascoe such a good team – Dalziel knows how to bully evidence out of the unwilling, but Pascoe knows how to use empathy and understanding to tease out the reason for the crimes.

When I first read this series, it was around this book that I first joined in and I must say I’d recommend it as a good starting point to people coming to the series fresh. While all the books are readable, there’s no doubt the very early ones feel a little dated now, and not as polished, whereas this one stands up very well to modern eyes, I think. I found that I was more forgiving of the sexism in the earlier ones when I backtracked to them after learning to love the characters once they had become more developed, and from this point on the series just gets better and better. There are twenty-four of them in total, so if you haven’t already read them, you really ought to make a start soon – they get my highest recommendation!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Fever dream… 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

One night a group of friends are aboard a boat on the Thames waiting for the tide before they can set sail. As darkness grows around them, one of the men, Marlow, tells the story of the time he worked as a pilot on a steamboat on the Congo and of the rogue ivory trader, Kurtz, whom he met there.

I realise I’m white and descended from colonialist stock, so I recognise that my judgement may not be as objective as I would like, but it astonishes me that Conrad has, among some critics, a reputation as a racist. This book is an excoriating study of the horrors of colonialism in Africa – horrors perpetrated in this case by Belgium, but Conrad leaves that deliberately vague so I think we can assume he is speaking generally as well as specifically. Conrad shows the devastating impact the white man had on both the society and the land of Africa, but he also shows that this devastation turns back on the coloniser, corrupting him physically and psychologically, and by extension, corrupting the societies from which he comes.

Millions of words have been written in analysis of the text by people considerably more qualified (and even more opinionated) than I, so rather than try to argue the case for or against the book on a moral level, I’ll stick to how I feel it works as a novella. And on that score, my feelings are somewhat mixed.

Having now read it twice, I have to say I find it quite hard to read, not because of the horrors but because the writing, although superbly descriptive, often darkly lyrical and with some wonderfully disturbing imagery, is sometimes convoluted and rather unclear. The introduction and excellent notes in my Oxford World’s Classics edition suggest that often Conrad was being deliberately vague – as I mentioned earlier about Belgium, for instance – and I’m sure people at the time would have known enough about their world to be able to fill in the blanks. But frankly, I think I’d have struggled without the notes. Marlow also jumps forward from time to time, leaving linking bits of the story unsaid, perhaps realistically in terms of how we think and relate stories verbally, but I found it rather jarring in written form. As a lazy reader, I was irritated that several times I felt I had to go back and read a section again to fully catch the meaning and how we’d got from there to here, so to speak.

….“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams….”
….He was silent for a while.
….“… No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone….”

However, the book’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. The overall effect is of a hallucination or a nightmare, full of imagery about darkness. Marlow tells us that he is feverish for at least part of the journey and on his return to civilisation, and there is a sense of it all being a fever dream. Everything feels exaggerated, from the descriptions of the impenetrable jungle, to the Africans’ worship of Kurtz as a kind of god, to the attitudes of the white men to Kurtz’ apparent power over them. We are told repeatedly of Kurtz’ eloquence, but are never permitted to hear his views in his own voice. On the very rare occasions that he speaks on the page, his words are unexceptional (apart from on one occasion which I won’t go into because it’s a major spoiler, and becomes the climactic point of the book). Did Conrad choose to do that because he felt perhaps that he couldn’t make him eloquent enough to live up to his reputation? I doubt it, since Conrad can write supremely eloquently. So was it perhaps to leave the reader in doubt as to whether Kurtz was truly eloquent, or whether his listeners exaggerated his eloquence to justify their cult-like admiration for him? I don’t know, but I found it intriguing to consider. (We undoubtedly have leaders today that no-one could seriously describe as eloquent, but who inspire crazed uncritical devotion in their followers.)

Book 62 of 90

The one thing that doesn’t have a feeling of unreality is the physical cruelty of the white men’s treatment of the African workers in the stations along the river, and interestingly these are the sections that Conrad writes in the most straightforward manner.

A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind wagged to and fro like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking. Another report from the cliff made me think suddenly of that ship of war I had seen firing into a continent. It was the same kind of ominous voice; but these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from over the sea. All their meagre breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages.

The cruelty didn’t surprise me too much (though it horrified me), but what I did find odd was the feeling of almost total incompetence and futility of the white man’s ventures. I don’t know enough about the Belgian attitude to their colonies, but again the introduction tells me that they had a particularly bad reputation at that time even among fellow colonial powers. Unlike in colonial literature by and about the Brits in Africa (and even in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart), there is no suggestion of the white man attempting to bring “civilisation” to the “savages”, or religion. I suspect this is deliberate, since Conrad seems to be comparing the two cultures and suggesting that, while they are different, one is not intrinsically superior to the other – they are simply at different stages of development. One of the most intriguing things he does is frequently to compare the white man in Africa to what it must have been like for a “civilised” Roman sent to pacify and exploit savage Britons back in the days of their Empire. Unspoken, this reminds the reader that all empires fall in time, but also that all empires leave a legacy on those they colonised, for good or ill, or both.

Joseph Conrad

I’m glad to have read it, especially for the wonderful descriptive prose and the feverish imagery, and it certainly deserves its status as a major classic of colonial literature – hence the 5-star rating. However, though still a newcomer to Conrad’s work, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as some of his other stories – Karain, for example, or Lord Jim, probably because I found them easier to read. I wondered why it’s this one that seems always to be connected to his name, and I can only conclude that it’s the vagueness itself, which allows critics and academics to argue endlessly over meanings and moral values, and leaves space for later writers and film-makers to reinterpret it as they choose. This reader, however, would have preferred just a little more plain speaking and a little less need to rely on the notes…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. I reviewed the other three stories in the volume separately here.

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Amazon US Link

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Introducing Poirot and Hastings…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Captain Hastings is home from the war on leave and his old friend John Cavendish invites him to stay at his family’s manor house, Styles, where Hastings was a frequent visitor in earlier years. There have been some changes since then. John is now married to Mary, not that that stops Hastings immediately being struck like a lovelorn schoolboy by her beauty and grace. Then there’s Cynthia, a young woman staying at the manor while she works in the pharmacy of the local hospital. Hastings is immediately struck like a lovelorn schoolboy by her auburn-gold hair and vivacity. Old Mrs Inglethorp, John’s stepmother, has re-married the awful Alfred whom everyone dislikes on the grounds that he’s clearly a fortune hunter and worse, he sports a bushy black beard which makes him look like a bounder. And there’s Evie – a lady who acts as a companion and general helper to Mrs Inglethorp. Evie is middle-aged and has a rather gruff, almost manly demeanour, so that happily Hastings manages to remain immune to her charms. And in a house in the village are a group of Belgian refugees, including a retired police officer, M. Hercule Poirot…

This is the first book ever published by Agatha Christie and therefore our first introduction to the two characters who would become her most famous, Poirot and Hastings. It’s decades since I last read it so I didn’t remember much about it at all and was delighted to discover that it’s a whole lot of fun. It’s not as polished as the books from her peak period – the pacing isn’t as smooth and some of the clues are pretty obvious requiring Hastings to be… well, it grieves me to say it, but a bit thick to miss them! I pretty quickly worked out whodunit, although it’s possible that maybe the solution was deeply embedded in my subconscious from long ago (though that’s unlikely given my terrible memory). But the intricacies of the plotting show the promise of her later skill and the book has the touches of humour that always make her such a pleasure to read.

Challenge details:
Book: 18
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1920

Poirot himself has some of the quirks we all know so well – his obsessive straightening of ornaments, his occasional French exclamations, his egg-shaped head and neatness of dress. But he’s much more of an action man than in the later books, frequently running, jumping, leaping into cars and driving off, and on one occasion even physically tackling a suspect! When I thought about it, this does actually make more sense for a retired police officer than the delightful fussiness of his later career, but it’s not quite as appealing and unique. He does however have the same soft heart and romantic nature of the later Poirot, as determined to mend broken hearts as to mete out justice. Inspector Japp also puts in an appearance, also rather different from the later Japp but still entertaining.

Agatha Christie

I did have a quiet laugh to myself at the obvious fact that Christie was clearly a major Holmes fan, since quite often Hastings sounds almost indistinguishable from Dr Watson, and this version of Poirot is much more into physical clues like Holmes than the psychology of the individual as he would later be. I’m pretty confident she’d read Poe’s detective stories too! But when you’re learning your craft who better to imitate than the masters, and her debt is repaid a zillion times over by all the many authors who have since unashamedly borrowed from her in their turn. And frankly, spotting these connections adds an extra element of enjoyment to nerds like me…

All-in-all, while I wouldn’t rank this as her best, it’s as good as most of the vintage crime I’ve been reading recently, which means it’s very good. My buddy, author and Christie aficionado Margot Kinberg, tells me that the book was turned down several times before finding a publisher. All I can say is I hope the ones who turned her down were eaten up by jealousy and regret when they realised what they’d missed out on! Four stars for the quality and an extra half for the interest of seeing how the indisputable Queen of Crime started out.

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Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr

Gothic mystery on the Rhine…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Rich financier Jérôme D’Aunay begs Inspector Henri Bencolin to investigate the death of his friend, Myron Alison. Alison died in Castle Skull, last seen running ablaze about the battlements. When his body is examined it transpires he had been shot before having kerosene poured over him and being set alight. Castle Skull belonged to the famous stage magician Maleger, whose own death many years earlier was somewhat mysterious – he disappeared from the carriage of a train in motion and was found in a river below the tracks. Did he fall or was he pushed? Or did he jump? He bequeathed the spooky Castle Skull jointly to his friends, D’Aunay and the actor Myron Alison and it has been empty except for an old caretaker ever since. Situated on the other side of the Rhine from Alison’s own house, the castle is built in the shape of a death’s-head gazing out over the river, windows placed to look like eyes, and the battlements resembling the teeth of the skull. But why was Alison there, and who killed him? D’Aunay doesn’t have faith in the local police, hence his request to the famous Parisian detective. But the local police have also called in an expert – von Arnheim of the German police, an old adversary of Bencolin’s when they were on opposite sides during the war…

The story is told by Jeff Marle, Bencolin’s young American friend who acts as his sidekick. When they arrive at Alison’s house, they find an assorted bunch of people in residence – Alison’s hearty poker-playing sister Agatha, concert violinist Émile Levasseur, modern youngsters Sally Reine and Sir Marshall Dunstan who may or may not be in love, and D’Aunay and his beautiful but unhappy wife Isobel. Bencolin and von Arnheim are soon in more or less friendly competition to find the solution to the mystery, but there’s never any doubt in Jeff’s or the reader’s mind as to who will win out in the end. After all, it’s 1931 and we couldn’t have the German win, now could we?

This is the third book in the Bencolin and Marle series, written when Carr was a young man still learning his craft. Like the first, It Walks by Night, this is as much horror as mystery, although the decadence of It Walks by Night has given way to a rather more Gothic feel in this one. There is the same almost hallucinatory air to some passages, brought on by the constant consumption of vast quantities of alcohol – there’s almost a “lost generation” feel, especially to the younger characters: Sally, Dunstan and Jeff himself. Bencolin is frequently described as Mephistophelian, both in his appearance and in his almost supernatural ability to intuit the truth. Maleger’s magic was of the scary kind – Jeff saw him once when he was a boy and found his act terrifying – and it appears he liked to be just as mysterious and frightening off-stage. And the castle itself is the ultimate in Gothic – ancient, deserted, filled with hidden passages and secret chambers, and deliciously spooky.

John Dickson Carr

The plot veers into high melodrama – perhaps a little too high. I felt at points that Carr was trying too hard, piling horror on grisly horror, with a Poe-esque feel of madness underlying the whole thing. However, it’s very effective and the evil motivating the plot matches the wonderful setting of the castle perfectly, as it gradually builds towards a tense and atmospheric climax with some truly horrifying imagery. Jeff is an appealing narrator who gets involved with the characters rather than simply observing Bencolin’s methods. I didn’t get anywhere close to working it out – looking back perhaps it’s fair play, but I reckon you’d have to have a pretty fiendish mind to solve it from the clues given. Fortunately, Bencolin has just such a fiendish mind…

Marginally, I preferred It Walks by Night, but both are excellent, and in both the horror aspects arise out of purely human evil – no supernatural elements required. I don’t know whether Carr continued with the horror theme in his later work or went down a more traditional mystery route, but the strength of his writing and plotting suggests to me that he could have done either with equal success. I’m looking forward to finding out…

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

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I Married a Communist by Philip Roth

Downfall…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the story of Ira Ringold, a Jew from Newark who becomes a big star on radio and then is destroyed in the period of the McCarthy witch-hunts. This is the story of a failed marriage; of toxic family relationships; of male adolescence and male role models and masculinity; of morality and its lack; of ageing; of literature; of anti-Semitism; of politics; of fanaticism; of hypocrisy; of betrayal. This is the story of a particular America in a particular time and place; a story that presages the America of today.

I Married a Communist is the second volume of what is known as Roth’s American Trilogy, preceded by American Pastoral, which I declared to be The Great American Novel, and followed by The Human Stain. They are not a trilogy in the sense that the word tends to be used today – each of these stands complete on its own, connected only in the sense that the three together are Roth’s attempt to make sense of America at the end of the 20th century by looking back over the decades of the mid-century. In each the story is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, a barely disguised alter-ego of Roth himself.

When Murray Ringold, once Nathan’s English teacher and later friend, and now an old man, attends a summer school at the university where Zuckerman, himself now a man in his 60s, teaches, they spend the evenings together, and over the course of the week Murray tells Zuckerman the story of his younger brother, Ira. Nathan knew Ira too once, when Nathan was young and impressionable and Ira was at his peak as a star and as a man. Ira was a formative influence on the young boy, a second father figure, and for a time he was the most important person in Nathan’s life. But as Nathan grew up he grew away from Ira, so although he knew in broad outline what had happened to him, this is the first time he has heard Ira’s later story in detail. As Murray fills in the gaps of Ira’s earlier and later life, Zuckerman also tells the reader of the man he knew, looking back with the eyes of age and experience and reassessing his youthful judgement of the man.

The story is simple and we are told near the beginning how Ira’s downfall came about. At the height of his stardom he married Eve Frame, once a Hollywood starlet and now also a radio star. The marriage was disastrous, for which Ira placed the blame squarely on Eve’s grown-up daughter Sylphid and on Eve’s weakness in letting Sylphid domineer over her. Eve may have felt that Ira’s penchant for infidelity had something to do with it, though. When Ira leaves her, Eve publishes a memoir of their marriage in which she claims he is a communist taking orders from the Kremlin and betraying America. In the McCarthy era, this accusation alone is enough to destroy Ira’s career. Part of what Murray will tell Nathan is how Ira reacted to his downfall and how the rest of his life played out.

But the story is to a large extent a vehicle for Zuckerman/Roth to dissect the various characters and the wider society. The question is not whether Ira was a communist – we know that he was – but why. He too, as Nathan with him, was influenced by an older man that he loved as a friend and mentor. But there’s a feeling that to him being a communist was an ego thing – something that separated him from the common herd, that allowed him to feel superior. Yes, he cared about those in society who were disadvantaged, but he also enjoyed the luxury and celebrity that came with his marriage to Eve even as he ranted against her and her friends. Nathan’s outgrowing of him is beautifully observed – as Nathan matures and goes off to college where he spends time with really educated and intelligent men, Ira diminishes in his eyes. Perhaps Ira’s tragedy is that he never outgrew his own mentor.

It has been claimed that Ira’s marriage to Eve is based on Roth’s own failed marriage to Claire Bloom, and that the book is a vicious response to Bloom’s memoirs in which she painted an unflattering picture of Roth. This may be so, but I don’t think it matters – it works at a literary level and in truth the reader – this reader, anyway – sympathises slightly more with Eve than with Ira, although both are weak and selfish. Through Eve, Roth goes into the question of Jewish self-hate – anti-Semitism practised by Jews themselves. I found this aspect fascinating – it was something I’d never considered before. Roth shows how this is a response to society’s anti-Semitism, where some Jews find it easier to try to hide their identity and join in rather than spend a lifetime battling prejudice. It made me think of African Americans “passing”, which in fact is the subject of The Human Stain.

Philip Roth
(Photo: Nancy Crampton)

Overall, this book doesn’t have quite the power or broad scope of American Pastoral. In some ways it feels more personal, as if it reflects Roth’s own life more intimately. The depiction of Nathan’s journey through adolescence feels lived – some at least of these reflections surely arise from Roth’s experiences as much as his alter-ego’s. Although Ira is the main focus, Zuckerman is very much central too, which isn’t really the case in American Pastoral. The young Nathan is an aspiring writer, allowing Roth to digress into his formative literary experiences, while the older Zuckerman is rather reclusive – an enigma left unsolved. It’s always dangerous to make direct links between fictional characters and their creators, but I think it’s probably safe to assume that the literary aspects of Nathan’s development at least are drawn from Roth’s own, and they are full of interest and insight. I came away from it wishing that Murray Ringold, or Zuckerman, or Roth, had been my English teacher.

And I came away from the book wishing that Roth were here today to make sense for us of what has happened to bring America to its current state. This book goes some way to that, showing already the faultlines that have now become a gaping chasm into which the moderate centre seems to have fallen. A great writer, and an excellent book. It may not be The Great American Novel, but it’s certainly a great American novel.

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Transwarp Tuesday! Beyond Time edited by Mike Ashley

The past is the future…

My heart sank a little when I started this collection of thirteen stories on the theme of time travel. Like Captain Janeway of the USS Voyager, time paradoxes tend to give me a headache, and the first couple of stories did nothing to relieve my anxiety, since both were rather mediocre. But they were followed by a little run of four star stories and then boom! The five star stories started coming thick and fast! These collections are always arranged more or less in chronological order and I suspect that when the early ones were written, the idea of time travel itself was so original that the writers didn’t feel the need to do much with it. By the time of the later stories, though, the writers were vying to give an original direction to a well-worn path, so there’s much more diversity in how they use the theme.

There’s the usual mix of well-known and lesser known authors, although since I’m not well read in science fiction all but three of them – HG Wells, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding and JB Priestley – were unknown names to me. Some of the stories are mildly humorous, some tend more towards horror. There’s less variation in length than in some collections, with most of the stories coming in around twenty to thirty pages, which I always find to be a great length for pre-bedtime reading.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

Friday the Nineteenth by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding – a story that is almost as much horror and almost as much psychological crime as it is science fiction. A husband wants to embark on an affair with his friend’s wife and she’s not unwilling. But somehow the day keeps repeating and only they are aware of it. Caught in a loop, they keep making the same assignation but never get to the point of keeping it, and we see how their guilt and selfishness begins to change how they feel. It’s very well told and manages to pack in a lot of suspense for such a short space.

Look After the Strange Girl by JB Priestley – a man slips back in time to an evening in 1902 and finds himself at a big party in the house which, in the present, houses the school he runs. There he meets a woman who seems to have been caught in the same time slip. It has elements of the tragedy of war, as the man knows the future of some of the people of the house, some of whom will die in France. It also gives a little comparison of the attitudes and habits of Edwardian women to modern women. Very well done, strange and mildly thought-provoking – quite a literary story.

Manna by Peter Phillips – this is a great story about two ghosts who were once monks and are doomed to haunt their old priory, which has now turned into a factory for making ‘Miracle Meal’ – a kind of food substance that is nutritionally perfect and tastes so wonderful it can be eaten for every meal. Remembering the hunger of their own time, they find a way to transport cans back to the 12th century, where this is seen as a real miracle. It’s well written, interesting and very amusing – the two mismatched ghosts themselves are a lot of fun.

Dial “0” for Operator by Robert Presslie – the last story in the book and a great one to finish with. An operator in the telephone exchange takes a call from a woman in distress. She tells him she’s in a phone box and there’s something outside – a kind of dark blob – that’s trying to get in. He promptly sends the police but when they get there the box is empty. However, the woman is still on the line and begs the operator not to hang up. The tension is great in this as gradually the operator realises the woman is speaking from a different time and there’s nothing he can do to help her except talk…

So from an uninspiring beginning this turned into a great collection, leaving me with a whole raft of new-to-me authors to investigate. Great stuff!

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

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

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Braised Pork by An Yu

Magic as metaphor…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One morning, Jia Jia finds her husband dead in the bathtub in an odd position that leaves it unclear as to whether his death was accidental or suicide. Beside him is a piece of paper on which he has drawn a strange picture of a fish with a man’s head. As she tries to come to terms with the sudden change to her life and her expected future, Jia Jia finds herself thinking more and more about this fish-man, and decides to retrace her husband’s last trip to Tibet to try to find out its significance. Gradually she finds herself drifting into a place where the lines between reality and dreams become blurred…

This is an oddly compelling novel, beautifully written in a rather understated way. Jia Jia’s dream water world, where the fish-man exists, takes us into magical realist territory – never my favourite place – but again this is somewhat underplayed so that it never begins to feel too much like fantasy. While the “magical” aspects of it are presented as real, they can also be easily read as a metaphor for depression or despair, and the question is whether Jia Jia will become lost in this other world or find her way back to seeing a possible future for herself in this one. The water world is intriguingly ambiguous as a place that is both frightening and yet oddly comforting, where the deeper one goes the less there is, until nothingness becomes the main feature.

I’m not sure I fully got all the nuances of the water world metaphor – my mind is too resolutely rational to easily sink into fantastical symbolism. I wondered whether it arises from Chinese or Tibetan superstition or is wholly a creation of the author, and don’t know the answer to that. But it’s a tribute to how well and subtly it’s done that I was able to go along with it, and even to feel that it added to rather than detracting from the “real” story.

Jia Jia’s marriage was a rather cold one. She had never felt her husband had a passionate love for her – younger than him and beautiful, she was something of a trophy bride and suitable to be a mother for his children. On her side, he, as a settled, wealthy man, represented security, but there are signs also that she felt restricted in the marriage. She is an artist but although her husband was willing for her to continue to paint as a hobby, he did not feel it was appropriate for his wife to try to sell her work. There is a suggestion that he was emotionally controlling and that Jia Jia had reached a point where she was second guessing her own actions with a view to ensuring she met his expectations rather than her own. So his death, shocking as it is, plunges her into a state of uncertainty rather than deep grief – her secure future gone, the children she had anticipated having with him gone too. However, this new loss has taken her back to another, much greater grief – the death of her mother when she was a young girl. As she tries to discover the meaning of the fish-man, she will also learn more about her parents’ marriage and her mother’s life and death.

An Yu

This is a short book, and every word counts. It has an easy flow that makes it very readable – I read it in a couple of sessions and was fully absorbed all the way through. The magical aspects are introduced so gradually that they don’t become fully apparent until around halfway through, and seem to arise very naturally from what we have come to understand of Jia Jia’s state of mind. The rather muted imagery of the water world makes it easier to accept and yet the images linger once the last page is turned. Along the way we get some insight into the position of educated women in contemporary urban China, at a kind of halfway point where they have gained some social freedom but are still often judged within the conventions of more restrictive traditional codes of behaviour. Jia Jia is beautifully complex, with the minor flaws we all have, and her emotional journey is entirely credible. I found myself fully invested in hoping she could find a new path, perhaps even a more fulfilling one.

An excellent début that has left me eager to see how An Yu develops as an author in what I expect to be a glittering future.

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

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Echoes from the Dead (Öland Quartet 1) by Johan Theorin

Unburying the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Twenty years ago, in the midst of a dense fog on the Swedish island of Öland, a little boy disappeared and has never been found. Now his mother Julia lives in Gothenburg, depressed and drinking too much, unable to accept that her son is dead. The child’s grandfather, Gerlof, is an old man now, his mobility restricted by a kind of rheumatic syndrome that causes him terrible pain when it flares up. He still lives on Öland in an assisted living facility, and one day he receives an anonymous parcel in the mail containing a child’s sandal. With the help of Julia and some of his old friends, Gerlof sets out to finally discover the truth of what happened to little Jens. He suspects that a man called Nils Kant had something to do with it, but that can’t be since Nils died years before Jens disappeared. But still…

This falls into the thoughtful area of crime fiction rather than the action thriller. It concentrates as much on Julia’s struggle to come to terms with the loss of her son and on Gerlof’s efforts to make amends for the guilt he feels over not protecting his grandchild as it does on solving the mystery. The second strand, which is just as central, tells of Nils Kant’s life – the crimes he committed as a child and young man that led him to flee Öland. The two stories are told side by side in alternating sections, and both are equally interesting and absorbing. The major strengths of the book are the characterisation of these three people and the great sense of place Theorin creates, bringing the island of Öland vividly to life. The major weakness is common to most contemporary crime – the book is far too long for its content. It could lose a third of its length and be better for it.

The police gave up looking for Jens long ago, assuming that he must have wandered to the nearby shore in the fog and drowned in the sea. But when one of Gerlof’s friends dies – perhaps by accident, perhaps not – the local police officer Lennart Henriksson is willing to listen to Gerlof’s theories and soon a friendship grows up between him and Julia, born of shared feelings of loss. Lennart’s father had been murdered when he was a child and his sense of grief has never left him. He and Julia are able to offer some comfort to each other, and gradually their feelings towards each other deepen into affection and perhaps more.

Nils’ story takes us back to his childhood, when already the signs were there that he would grow up to be a danger to those around him. Selfish and lacking empathy, he commits one terrible act after another but for a while he’s protected by being the son of a wealthy woman who wields power locally through owning the business that provides much of the employment in the area. It is only when he finally does something that can’t be hidden or explained away that he is forced to flee, but he always wants to come back to the island, and to his mother, the only person he has ever really loved. We follow him through his long exile before learning whether he ever succeeds in returning. It’s an excellent portrayal of a severely damaged individual – Nils is undoubtedly monstrous but Theorin also manages to make him pitiable so that the reader’s horror at his actions is laced with a touch of sympathy. Nils’ moral compass is so badly broken it’s hard to condemn him as much as we would someone who knowingly chose to do evil things.

Johan Theorin

The island itself was once home to a vibrant fishing community, but times change and the small boats of the locals can no longer compete with the industrial fishing methods of the big companies on the mainland. Now Öland has become a summer resort for mainlanders – full of life during the summer months but quiet and almost deserted in the winter except for the one small town on the island and a few scattered elderly residents still clinging on to the homes they have always known. Theorin is equally good at describing the alvar – the barren landscape covered in grasses and shrubs where Nils spends his youth out hunting hares with his shotgun – or the village of Julia’s youth, now closed up for the winter with only two or three residents dotted around. He uses the emptiness and loneliness of the village to great effect in creating an air of danger and tension as Julia, living in Gerlof’s old boathouse, gets drawn deeper into the investigation.

I thoroughly enjoyed this despite the fact that, as I said earlier, it’s longer than it should be. I did have a good idea of the solution from fairly early on but it didn’t matter because the crime in the past took second place to the character studies and the events of the present. The tone is dark but both Julia and Gerlof are sympathetic characters which stops it from becoming too bleak. Having previously enjoyed the fourth book in the quartet (yeah, I know – backwards as usual) I’m looking forward to reading the other two.

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The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs

The man with two lives…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When the body of a man is discovered in the Dumb River in a small town in East Anglia, stabbed through the chest, the local police have a problem. Torrential rain has caused the fenland district to flood and they are fully stretched helping residents and farmers get themselves and their animals to safety. Luckily Inspector Littlejohn of the Yard is in the area and he agrees to take on the murder investigation. The murdered man turns out to be Jim Lane, who runs a hoopla stall and travels around the south of England from fair to fair. A little investigation soon reveals that he has another identity too, though – James Teasdale, a married man from Yorkshire, whose wife and family believe he is a commercial traveller. Littlejohn must discover which of his lives has led to his death…

This is my favourite of the Bellairs novels I’ve read so far. Both settings are handled very well – the flooded fenlands and the hard-drinking, mostly working-class Yorkshire town. Teasdale has married “above” himself, and his selfish wife and her money-grabbing father never let him forget it, making sure that his daughters grow up to look down on him too. So Littlejohn understands why James has developed a second life as Jim the fairground man. Not only does it allow him to make more money than his failing arts and crafts shop in Yorkshire, but in this environment he has the respect of his fellows and is well-liked. Littlejohn rather wonders that he hasn’t broken all ties with his family, but James clearly feels a sense of duty towards them. However, now, as Jim, he has met another woman, one who admires and respects him, and James/Jim’s loyalties are torn.

There is a mystery here, but it’s not really laid out as a traditional whodunit, with lots of suspects with different motives and conflicting clues, and so on. Instead, it’s more of a police procedural, as we follow Littlejohn and his colleague Sergeant Cromwell painstakingly collecting information through interviewing people and putting this together with what the forensic evidence shows. This makes the characterisation particularly important, and it’s done very well. Written in the third person, we mostly see the story from the perspective of Littlejohn, occasionally shifting to Cromwell. Littlejohn seems better developed here for some reason – Bellairs allows us to see his uncertainty as to how to proceed at points, and his dependence on Cromwell as someone with whom to talk things over as well as being a skilled investigator in his own right. But all the secondary characters are very well drawn too – all James’ unlikeable snobbish relatives up in Yorkshire, and the much more sympathetic girlfriend and friends from his fairground life. The flooding adds an extra touch as we see the community come together to help each other, and the harassed local police trying to provide assistance to Littlejohn while dealing with matters that seem more immediately urgent.

George Bellairs

Up in Yorkshire, where the rain is also falling (it is Britain, after all), the hideous family give us quite a bit of humour at their expense, although Bellairs gradually allows both Littlejohn and the reader to see the rather tragic underside of their lives, brought on by themselves and their unjustifiable regard for their “position” admittedly, but nevertheless leaving them rather isolated from their community and even from each other. It’s an excellent, if rather cruel, portrait of selfishness.

At just two hundred pages, it neither outstays its welcome nor leaves the reader feeling short-changed – it’s the perfect length for its plot. Highly recommended, and I hope the BL keeps the Littlejohn novels coming…

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

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The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Opposite and equal…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the story of two men, residents of the drab little town of St Louis on the French side of the Swiss border. One, Georges Gorski, is a police inspector; the other, Manfred Baumann, is a loner who frequents the bar of the Restaurant de la Cloche – the restaurant where Adèle Bedeau worked before she disappeared. There is no real reason to assume that Baumann had anything to do with her disappearance, except for his strange behaviour and the lies that he tells. But is this a sign of guilt, or simply a symptom of his general social ineptitude? Gorski doesn’t even know whether there is anything to be guilty about – in the absence of a corpse or anything to indicate violence, it’s impossible to know if Adèle’s disappearance is a sign of a crime at all. But many years ago, as a rookie detective, Gorski failed to bring the murderer of another young girl to justice and this haunts him, so he is determined this time to ensure that the killer of Adèle (if she has been killed) will not escape.

This compelling book falls very definitely on the literary side of crime fiction while never feeling pretentious or overdone. The central mystery of Adèle’s disappearance is intriguing but is almost peripheral – the real meat of the story is in the slow reveal of the characters of the two men, detective and suspect: both brought up in this rather dead-end, grey town, both outwardly successful in their careers but both inwardly feeling that somehow they haven’t achieved their early ambitions, both haunted for different reasons by an event from many years earlier. The careful depiction of the town is so authentic that it feels as if it must exist and that the Restaurant de la Cloche is a real place where the regulars are real people who really gather each night to bicker over the news of the day.

There is a strange device employed whereby the book is credited to one Raymond Brunet, translated into English by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Because of Burnet’s success as an author, especially with his Booker-nominated His Bloody Project, a reader coming to it now realises this is an obvious fiction, although it is presented quite credibly and if I hadn’t heard of the author before I may well have fallen for it, not noticing the similarity in the names. (Having done my usual thing of reading the second book in this duology first – The Accident on the A35 – I knew going in how this aspect would be developed in the next book, but wondered what I’d have made of it if I’d read this one first. It may have struck me as an unnecessary and slightly pretentious device, so I do think it’s important to see these books as halves of a whole, although storywise each stands on its own as complete.)

Brunet, Burnet and Inspector Gorski all admit to the influence of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels, the first two as writers and Gorski as having been inspired to become a detective by reading the books. I’ve read a few Maigret books but am not really well enough acquainted with his work to judge how well Burnet catches the tone, so I defer to better read reviewers who seem to feel he’s done it very well. The mood is noir, but as I said in my review of the other book, the drabness of St Louis makes it a faded noir – grey rather than black.

The writing is wonderful, both in the physical descriptions and in the depth of characterisation. Told in the third person we are nevertheless allowed deep inside the minds of the two men, and both are interesting. Despite a failing marriage and a stalled career, Gorski is basically a contented man who feels he has found his level. It may not be the level he once hoped he would reach and he may still harbour dreams that one day he’ll do something to impress people, but he’s comfortable in his own skin. The same is not true of Baumann. An outsider all his life, he thinks obsessively about how other people see him and as he feels suspicion surrounding him becomes almost paranoic, thinking that he’s being watched not just by the police but by the people of the town. He may be right – we see this through his eyes so we have only his impressions to go on. As the book progresses we learn more about the experiences that have formed Baumann, and I found myself having a great deal of sympathy for him while simultaneously finding him repellent. Truly an excellent creation – believable as the kind of man any of us may know and yet ultimately unknowable, even to himself.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

Adèle disappears not just from St Louis but from the book. She is never developed as a character, deliberately, her only importance existing in her absence. Her mystery exists mostly in her blankness – one feels that if she had never disappeared, she would never have been noticed at all. There seem to be no grief-stricken relatives and her job at the restaurant is soon filled. Even her boyfriend barely knew her. And Gorski, though he tries not to admit it, is somewhat hopeful that she has indeed been killed, giving him the opportunity to make his mark and make things right with his conscience by finally solving a murder.

I’d be hard put to choose between the books in the duo – both are excellent individually and together they become something really quite special and, in my opinion, unique in crime writing. I recommend them both highly and hope that Burnet will continue to blur the boundaries of literary and genre fiction in his future work.

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For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Love and war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In the pine forests high in the Spanish Sierra, a small band of Republican guerrillas is holed up, waiting instructions. Robert Jordan, an American who has volunteered, is sent to lead them in the blowing up of a bridge to prevent Franco’s Nationalists from bringing up reinforcements during a Republican offensive scheduled to begin in a few days time. The guerrilla band is ostensibly led by Pablo, who was once a feared warrior but is now an untrustworthy drunk. The real leader is his woman, the gypsy Pilar, on whose strength and courage Robert will quickly learn to rely. Also in the group is Maria, a beautiful young woman whom the guerrillas rescued from the fascists, but not before they had abused her cruelly, raping her repeatedly and cutting off her hair to advertise her shame to the world. Over the next few days as they prepare for their mission, Robert will learn the stories of these people and we will learn his, seeing what drives a man to participate in a war in a country not his own, and the effect it has on him. And we will see Maria and her Roberto fall in love – a love made more urgent and profound by the uncertainty of the future. As the group sit in the evenings in the cave where they are living, they tell each other stories they have told many times before – stories of the days before war, of atrocities they have seen and participated in, of bullfighting and politics and love.

At first the writing seems odd – Hemingway uses thee and thou and a stylised sentence structure in the dialogue throughout, as a way, I assume, of reminding the reader that in fact the participants are speaking in a language which Robert knows well but is still foreign to him. He also replaces the infrequent swear words with euphemistic replacements, so that one gets sentences like: “And when thou comest to the camp, order that someone should relieve me because I have indescribable and unprintable hunger and I have forgotten the password.” However, he does it so well and consistently that very soon the reader’s mind becomes attuned to it, and it begins to add to the sense of place and time. (It also meant this reader spent way too much time guessing which swear words were being bleeped out…)

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The main story, of the plot to blow up the bridge and of the love affair, is wonderful in itself, full of drama and tension, brutally savage at times followed by scenes of tender beauty. Regulars will know that I have mercilessly mocked other male writers’ attempts to write sex scenes, but boy, Hemingway knows exactly how to make something erotic without any explicit description of body parts or bodily fluids! (I was amused to discover that this is the book from which the famous question “Did the earth move for you?” originated, although in the book it is a moment of real emotion rather than the naughty wink-wink joke it had become by my teen years.)

“I love thee as I love all that we have fought for. I love thee as I love liberty and dignity and the rights of all men to work and not be hungry. I love thee as I love Madrid that we have defended and as I love all my comrades that have died. And many have died. Many. Many. Thou canst not think how many. But I love thee as I love what I love most in the world and I love thee more.”

Maria, admittedly, is little more than a beautiful sex object, the idealised submissive female rather typical of the time. But she is strongly counter-balanced by the depth Hemingway brings to Pilar – for me, the real central character of the book. It is Pilar who tells us about the tragic life of the matador she once loved, a wonderfully told and absorbing tale which shows the importance of bullfighting as part of the culture both as it happens and as a basis for the tradition of oral storytelling and mythologising which feeds into the camaraderie and fellowship of the band. It is Pilar, too, who tells us of the time that she and Pablo took back her village from the fascists, repaying atrocity with atrocity, and showing the reader how easily good people can become a vicious mob, each afraid to stand out and goading each other on to ever worse barbarity. One of the things I most appreciated about the book was Hemingway’s refusal to make one side all bad and the other all good. Here motives and affiliations are murky and, as in most forms of guerrilla warfare, somewhat tribal in that most participants are following strong local leaders rather than fighting for deeply held convictions of their own. Here too we see how the peasants, told by the Communists that God no longer exists, struggle with a sense of loss for a religion that has been so deeply embedded in their culture.

….“You have killed?” Robert Jordan asked.
….“Yes. Several times. But not with pleasure. To me it is a sin to kill a man. Even fascists whom we must kill.”
….“Yet you have killed.”
….“Yes. And will again. But if I live later, I will try to live in such a way, doing no harm to any one, that it will be forgiven.”
….“By whom?”
….“Who knows? Since we do not have God here anymore, who forgives, I do not know.”

Hemingway doesn’t delve into the minutiae of politics in Spain, but instead treats fascism as a universal threat. He has Robert talk to the other characters about his own country, America, suggesting it is not immune to the forces ripping Spain apart. Much of what he says about that aspect sounds depressingly like the current political state of the US, giving the book a feel of contemporary relevance. Robert does not consider himself a Communist – he is fighting for love of the Republic – but he knows that when he goes home he will likely be branded a Red and be barred from pursuing his career in teaching. He tries to imagine life in America after the war, with Maria as his wife, but there’s a pathos to these scenes because we also see that he doesn’t expect them ever to come true. Robert has killed men and is willing to kill more, but he knows that when it is over, if he lives, he will be changed forever by what he has experienced.

Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.

So much beauty in this book, side by side with so much brutality and so much tragedy. A real masterpiece – the descriptive writing is wonderful and the depth of insight into humanity and how people behave in times of war is breathtaking. A book of this stature doesn’t require a recommendation from me but it has it anyway – my highest. What a great start to my new challenge!

Book 1

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Tuesday Terror! The Invisible Eye by Erckmann-Chatrian

A varied collection…

Erckmann-Chatrian was the name used by Émile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian, a French writing duo of the 19th century who were very well known at the time for their tales of supernatural horror and are apparently still well respected in their region. The lack of availability in English language publications for decades means they are rather less well known over here now, and this new anthology, edited and introduced by Hugh Lamb, intends to put that right. There are sixteen stories in the collection, some ghost stories, some of more natural horrors, and some showing the horrors of purely human evil. Overall they often have a folk tale feel to them, which perhaps isn’t too surprising since they came from the Lorraine region and set many of their stories across the border in the German Black Forest region, with its strong tradition of folk tales. They feel almost like a bridge between those older tales and the newer horror that would develop towards the later decades of the 19th and early 20th century, and Lamb tells us that many writers, such as MR James and HP Lovecraft, paid tribute to their influence.

As always with collections, I found the standard of the stories, or perhaps my reaction to them, variable, and in this one unfortunately I found the later stories weaker than the earlier ones which meant that my enthusiasm for the collection lessened towards the end. However looking back at my individual ratings, I see I gave five of the stories 5 stars, while another four got 4 stars, and the rest all came in at three, including most of the last half dozen or so. I suspect this is partly due to the stories being less good, but also partly that I had simply got a bit bored with their style. This is probably a collection that is better to dip in and out of rather than reading all at once. They also vary in length from quite short to novella-length, and with one exception I felt the longer stories worked less well – often the conclusion was fairly obvious and it seemed to take a long time to get there.

The good stories are very good, however, and make the collection well worth reading. Sometimes quite dark and chilling, there are others that are mostly done for humour and these often worked best for me. I also enjoyed the more fairy-tale ones – legends of curses, full of woodcutters, witches and wolves and all the traditional stalwarts of early horror. Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Burgomaster in Bottle – done as a previous Tuesday Terror! post, part horror, part humour, and a deliciously wicked warning to consider where the grapes came from that went into the wine you’re drinking…

The Crab Spider – very well told, a tale of the horrors that nature sometimes gives us. Unfortunately this has an outdated and disparaging portrayal of a black woman which makes it less enjoyable for a modern reader, but if you can overlook that, then it’s delightfully scary, especially for arachnophobes.

The Child-Stealer – this is a very dark and disturbing story, with the clue in the title. Full of gore and no happy ending, this is human evil at its worst with no supernatural element to it. But it’s excellently told and very effective.

The Wild Huntsman – this is novella-length and perhaps a little longer than it needs to be, but it’s an excellent example of the duo at their most folk-tale-ish. It tells of a young painter who begs lodgings from an old man, gamekeeper on the local estate, who has a lovely young granddaughter. But when the young girl falls into a coma, the old man tells the tale of the curse that has haunted his family since the days when a robber baron spread terror throughout the land, helped by the old man’s ancestor, the wild huntsman of the title. Great descriptive writing of the forest and mountains, and while it has many familiar aspects from older folktales it also manages to feel fresh and original.

Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian

So plenty to enjoy and hopefully those examples will have given a hint of the variety in the content of the stories. Despite my lower rating of the later stories, I enjoyed the collection overall both for itself and for the interest of reading stories from authors outside the usual British/American bubble in which I live in terms of horror. Recommended.

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

This is the porpy’s French cousin.
Did you know that the French for porcupine
is porc-épic? So sweet…

Fretful porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮  

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀

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The Mystery of Cloomber by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Those mysterious Orientals…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a new neighbour moves into the long vacant Cloomber Hall, our narrator John Hunter West and his father and sister are keen to make their acquaintance, since their estate in Wigtownshire, in Scotland’s southwestern corner, doesn’t afford much in the way of society. But they soon discover that the new tenant, Major Heatherstone, has an almost morbid aversion to company, preferring to keep himself and his family safely behind the new fences and gates he has installed all round the property. Youth finds ways to overcome these problems, however, and John and his sister, Esther, are soon romantically involved with the Major’s daughter, Gabriel, and son, Mordaunt, respectively. John soon learns that the Major’s reclusive habits are because he lives in constant fear, but of what he won’t reveal. However, his children tell the Wests that the Major’s fears intensify every year on October 5th, and then lessen once that date is safely past. This year, however, just a few days before the 5th, a terrible storm blows up and a ship is wrecked off the coast. The survivors include three mysterious men from the East – Buddhist mystics – and when Major Heatherstone hears of this, his fears reach new heights…

The narrator is writing this as a kind of statement to explain the events that follow, and includes various accounts given in the words of witnesses. This gives Conan Doyle the chance to use some Scottish dialect and he does it very well, making it sound very authentic while keeping it clear enough for non-Scots to understand. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing him in Scots mode, since mostly, like most Scots authors, he wrote in standard English to please the much larger English reading public. Most of this is in standard English too, but the dialect and locations give it a Scottish appeal.

In structure, it’s reminiscent of some of the longer Sherlock Holmes stories, in that it tells firstly of what happens in the present and then takes us back to the past to explain the reasons behind the events. It’s pretty clear from early on that the Major’s fears relate to something that he did when he was a serving officer in the Army. Conan Doyle was writing for a contemporary audience who would have been familiar with the campaigns the Major was involved in, but I must admit it took me a bit of time to work out where exactly he was. The Buddhists and the references to Sanskrit scholarship convinced me we were in India, as did the fact that the Major was leading troops including Sepoy soldiers. But there are references to Afghanistan too and John West tells us that the earlier events took place during the first Afghan War. It appears that they took place just over the border, where it was geographically Afghanistan but culturally still very similar to India, and the Indian troops were serving as part of the British Army in that war.

Conan Doyle was always interested in the mystical side of life even before he became so heavily involved in spiritualism, and this book is a real example of the then prevalent opinion of Eastern peoples as having mystical powers unknown to us in the West. There are lots of racial stereotypes and some unfortunate terminology, including use of the n-word, but if you can see past this, in fact Conan Doyle is expressing an admiration for a culture which he portrays as far more spiritually advanced than our own. He doesn’t overtly criticise the behaviour of the Brits in general, but he does show that the imperial belief in our racial superiority led some to commit acts that he in his time, like we in ours, would see as atrocities. His portrayal of the Buddhists is an intriguing insight into the mixture of fascination and fear that the mysterious people of the Orient held for Victorian Britain.

There’s mystery here, but there’s also a generous dollop of horror and very effective it is too! The start is a little slow, but once it gets going it becomes a real page-turner, full of tension as we see the Major haunted by his fears, and then drama as we reach the climax. The concluding section where we learn of the earlier events has its own different kind of horror, as we read the Major’s own diary account of what happened in Afghanistan. Great stuff, up there with the level of the Holmes’ long stories, and I’m at a loss as to why it’s not better known. Perhaps the outdated racial terms have made it fall out of favour, but I do think it’s worth making the effort to see them in their context and look more deeply at the underlying criticism of British imperialist attitudes implied in the story. Another example of wonderful storytelling from the master – highly recommended!

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The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar

The mystery of the missing wife…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

Margaret Millar

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

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

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The Go-Between by LP Hartley

The past is a foreign country…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LP Hartley

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

Rose’s review             Sandra’s review

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Tuesday Terror! The Weird Tales of William Hope Hodgson

“…always be ready before the dark comes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The porpy found some of these stories pretty scary!

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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