Flemington by Violet Jacob

Clash of loyalties….

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Archie Flemington was brought up at Ardguys in Fife by his grandmother, Christian. She has made him into a Whig, violently opposed to the deposed Stuarts whom she once served but now hates. Under cover of his real talent as a painter, Archie is a government spy. Now Bonnie Prince Charlie is in Scotland once again, leading the Jacobites in rebellion against the Hanoverian king (or usurper, depending which side you were on). Archie inveigles his way into the household of Lord Balnillo, a retired judge who is known to have Jacobite leanings, although he hasn’t come “out” for the rebels. It’s actually Lord Balnillo’s brother, James Logie, who is Archie’s real target, though – a man suspected of actively aiding the rebellion. It’s for Archie to find out what Logie is up to, and to get proof of his treason if he can. But Archie finds in Logie a decent, honourable man, the type of man he would be proud to call friend, and suddenly he is torn between duty and this unexpected liking for his enemy…

This is a fairly straightforward adventure story, but with enough depth to make it rather more than a simple romance. The Jacobite rebellions were such a major event in Scottish history that they have been used over and over by authors, and are often reinterpreted according to the contemporary view of Scotland’s relationship with England. Jacob sits somewhere in the middle – writing in 1911, some 160 years after the events, she isn’t obliged to look nervously over her shoulder at a Hanoverian government still wary of a Stuart comeback, but she also avoids the over-romanticisation of the Jacobites in which many authors have indulged over the years. Although I felt she was rather on the side of the Hanoverians overall, she shows that there was honour, and dishonour, on both sides.

Christian Flemington is a great character, cold and autocratic – a Lady Macbeth using her grandson as a weapon to get revenge for old grievances. She loves Archie but expects total obedience to her will and sees any opposition as personal disloyalty. So when Archie begins to sympathise with Logie, she has no hesitation in giving him a choice – do as she bids or be cut off from her and from his home forever. Archie also loves his grandmother, making his choice doubly hard.

Book 64 of 90

Archie himself is a likeable character and brings some humour and lightness to what is essentially a dark story of civil war and betrayal. He and Christian together give an idea of the differences between the generations – the old guard still strongly divided over the deposition of the Stuarts; the younger ones, despite this being the time of the last desperate throw of the Stuart dice, perhaps looking more to a future where those divisions can be forgotten and the country united.

The story is well told, with Archie’s dilemma giving it a good deal of moral ambiguity. The writing is excellent, in standard English with only a tiny amount of Scots appearing occasionally in dialogue. Jacob is a little weaker in the action sequences, failing on the whole to create an atmosphere of drama, but this is a small part of the book so it didn’t drag it down overall. The main strength is the characterisation, not only of the lead characters, but of the several secondary characters who play a part in the plot. Jacob takes us from high society to low, into the drawing-rooms of Edinburgh in the company of the self-important Lord Balnillo and his friends, and into the world of intrigue carried out in inns and back streets under cover of night, with Logie and the marvellous Skirlin’ Wattie, the bagpiping beggar who has his own secret – a character almost Dickensian in his eccentricity, and a wonderful mix of comic and tragic.

The occupant of the cart was an elderly man, whom accident had deprived of the lower part of his legs, both of which had been amputated just below the knee. He had the head of Falstaff, the shoulders of Hercules, and lack of exercise had made his thighs and back bulge out over the sides of his carriage, even as the bag of his pipes bulged under his elbow. He was dressed in tartan breeches and doublet, and he wore a huge Kilmarnock bonnet with a red knob on the top. The lower half of his face was distended by his occupation, and at the appearance of Flemington by the gate, he turned on him, above the billows of crimson cheek and grizzled whisker, the boldest pair of eyes that the young man had ever met. He was a masterly piper, and as the tune stopped a murmur of applause went through the audience.

Violet Jacob
(c) Angus Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

It reminded me throughout of The Flight of the Heron, a trilogy I loved in my teens. However this one came first, so it’s possible that DK Broster, writing in the 1920s, may have been influenced by this. Each book is basically about the friendship between two men on opposite sides of the rebellion, but this is darker and less romanticised. In truth, I enjoyed The Flight of the Heron more, but I think this one is probably truer in terms of characterisation and culture, and the writing probably has more literary weight, though it’s a long time since I read The Flight of the Heron so I may be doing it an injustice. Both books have what seem to modern eyes like unmistakeable gay subtexts, but truly I think it used to be possible to actually love people of the same gender without sex coming into it. Who knows what the authors intended? And, frankly, who cares? Both are great stories whichever way you choose to read them. I enjoyed Flemington very much and recommend it, but if you only intend to read one book about the Jacobites in your life, then make it the Broster trilogy – OK, that’s three books, but you know what I mean…

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All That’s Dead (Logan McRae 12) by Stuart MacBride

Back in the club…

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Book cover and link to Amazon product pageLogan McRae has just returned to work after a year off on the sick because of serious knife wounds he received in his last case. Still part of the Professional Standards team, McRae is tasked with looking into a claim that a now senior officer was once involved with a Nationalist terrorist cell. But no sooner has he contacted the officer, DI Frank King, than King is called out to a horrific crime scene – the blood-soaked kitchen of Professor Nicholas Wilson, a prominent and obnoxiously combative Unionist. No body, so first King has to discover if Wilson left the kitchen dead or alive. And due to the sensitivity of the allegations made against King, McRae is told to work with him and keep an eye on him. Meantime, social media has gone wild with rumours about what has happened to Wilson and threats of more violence to come…

I loved the first several books in this series and then felt that MacBride had allowed the humorous element that always existed in them to take over from the plotting, leaving them feeling wildly caricatured and completely lacking in credibility. However when I was sent this one for review, I was happy to revisit McRae and the team for the first time in several years to see if the old magic could be revived. And I’m happy to say that I enjoyed it a lot!

MacBride is never an author I’d identify with realism or credibility. He takes an aspect of Scottish life or the criminal world and exaggerates it madly, and I always hope that no one outside Scotland thinks our country or our police force are actually like this. But he does it mainly to make for more exciting plots and for comic effect, so I can usually go along for the ride. In this one it’s all based on the idea of Nationalist terrorism, which doesn’t happen in the real world, and specifically on “Alt Nats” – a term that is only really used as a jibe to annoy those at the fanatical end of the Nationalist cause. Nationalists and Unionists do call each other names and shout at each other on social media, but neither side (as far as I know) have active terrorist cells – if they do, they must be really incompetent ones or you’d think we’d hear about them! So the plot is fundamentally unbelievable, and actually that means it’s more fun than would have been possible if Scottish terrorism was really a thing. MacBride treads quite carefully and cleverly through the Independence quagmire, and I suspect probably manages the almost impossible feat of not offending either side – or perhaps of offending both equally, which works just as well!

It may just be that I’ve been away from him for a while but I felt he’d pulled the recurring characters back a little from the extreme caricaturing that lost me eventually in the earlier books. The appalling DI Steel is still outrageously rude and foul-mouthed but she does at least try to stay within the rules most of the time now. McRae’s team are always good fun. DS Rennie wants to be McRae’s best “sidekick” while DC “Tufty” is torn between becoming a computer geek or appearing in a CGI movie as a space alien. McRae is the sane one amidst all these eccentrics, but only by comparison. However, it’s good to see that in my absence he’s found himself a nice girlfriend and a bit of domestic happiness.

Author photo
Stuart MacBride

Putting credibility of the basic premise to the side, the plotting in this also felt stronger to me than the last couple I’d read. It’s pretty dark and extremely gruesome, but the general atmosphere of humour stops it from ever becoming grim. MacBride’s signature is entertainment and when he’s at his best, he delivers in spades. The writing is great, as always, and I’d forgotten how much I enjoy his use of contemporary Scots banter and dialect – again always exaggerated, but very funny, and not at all problematic for non-Scots to enjoy.

All-in-all, not sure it’s his very best but I enjoyed it hugely, and with MacBride that’s what it’s all about! I’m delighted to resume my membership of the Logan McRae fan club, and am happily looking forward to his next outing now.

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

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Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Study of a psychopath…

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Kolley Kibber has come to Brighton on a publicity campaign for his newspaper. He will walk the streets and any lucky reader who spots and challenges him will be given a cash prize. But on this day, Kolley Kibber – real name Charles “Fred” Hale – is scared. He knows that a Brighton gang he has written about is after him, intent on killing him. He feels he’ll be safer if he’s not alone, so tries to pick up one of the female day-trippers down from London to enjoy the beach and the bars and the sunshine. Ida Arnold is a kind-hearted good-time girl, who takes pity on this lonely stranger. But she leaves him for a few minutes to visit the public toilets and when she returns he’s gone. Later she hears that he has died, and doesn’t accept the report that his death was natural. She sets out to investigate. Meantime, Pinkie Brown, leader of the gang, is worried that one of his men may have done something that will give them all away just when it seems they have got off with murder. As his paranoia increases, he becomes caught in his own trap, every action he takes to avert the danger seeming to diminish his options more and more.

I loved Graham Greene with a passion back in my teens and twenties, but on a couple of recent revisits I’ve been a little disappointed. This is one I’d never read before and I’m delighted to say the old magic returned in full force as soon as it began. The first chapter is a masterclass in writing, creating fully-rounded and empathetic characters in Kolley Kibber and Ida Arnold, portraying wonderfully this seedy, poverty-ridden seaside town in the 1930s, and building a terrific atmosphere of tension and suspense. Although Kolley Kibber only appears for this short space of time, his disappearance and death hang over the rest of the book, so that his character becomes as unforgettable as those who are present throughout the whole book.

Ida is also an exceptionally well-drawn character, the beating heart of the book, with her warmth and joy in the act of living giving it the humanity it needs to relieve the otherwise pitch-black noir of the story. Later we will meet Rose, a young girl whose background is of such deprivation, both materially and emotionally, that she is easily persuaded to fancy herself in love with any boy who shows her attention, easy prey for Pinkie who comes to see her as a threat.

Richard Attenborough as Pinkie and Carol Marsh as Rose in the 1947 film of the book

But the star of the show is undoubtedly Pinkie, the boy gangster who too readily sees murder as the solution to all problems. This has to be one of the best character studies of a psychopath ever written. Greene gradually shows us what has brought Pinkie to this point – his unhappy childhood, the poverty and lack of opportunity for boys like him in the grim Depression-era world, the guilt and punishment inherent in his Catholic religion. Pinkie believes in Hell but can’t quite bring himself to believe in Heaven, at least not for the likes of him. His disgust at the idea of sex raises all sorts of psychological questions – is it because he lived in a house so small that as a child he could hear his parents performing their weekly conjugal rites? Or is he a closeted gay, closeted so deep he’s unaware of it himself? Or is he simply scared to show any kind of vulnerability, to perhaps fail at the crucial moment? Greene raises all sorts of questions about what may have made Pinkie who he is, but wisely leaves open the possibility that it’s simply a matter of nature. And yet, rotten though he is, Greene gives him a terrible humanity of his own – a lost and damaged soul for whom it’s impossible not to feel sympathy, to wonder whether if circumstances had been different he might have been saved, by man or his implacable God.

The suspense in the story comes from two angles. Will Ida succeed in learning the truth and getting some kind of justice for the man she briefly met and scarcely knew? And Rose – what will happen to Rose? All she wants is to be loved – is that too much to ask? But loving a boy who dislikes and fears her and who has already killed more than once – what will happen to Rose? As Pinkie fingers the bottle of vitriol he always carries in his pocket – what will happen to Rose? The tension of worrying about Rose becomes almost too much to bear.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Samuel West, and he does a wonderful job. Every word is clearly enunciated and while he doesn’t “act” the characters, he breathes life into their varied personalities. He lets the words speak for themselves, never letting his performance get in the way of the writing.

Graham Greene

Beautifully written and with a quartet of distinctively unforgettable characters, this has leapt into the lead as my favourite Greene – high praise indeed from a lifetime fan of his work. While it’s one of his “Catholic” novels, the religious aspects avoid the silly mysticism of The End of the Affair, reminding me more of the faith struggles of the priest and Scobie in The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter respectively. And they play only a small part in what is first and foremost a brilliant noir depiction of a psychopath in a superbly evoked time and place. A fabulous book which gets my highest recommendation!

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The Man with Six Senses by Muriel Jaeger

A question of evolution…

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Michael Bristowe is a young man with a strange talent – he can sense physical objects even when they are out of sight. It’s rather like the way dowsers can sense water underground only much more powerful. But is it a gift or a curse? It sets him apart from the rest of humanity leaving him as a perpetual outsider, and he has found no way to put it to practical use. But then he meets Hilda, a determined, highly educated young woman who becomes fascinated by his power and helps him to develop it so that he becomes ever more accurate but also more sensitive to all the things that remain unsensed by those around him. Our narrator is Ralph Standring, whose desire to marry Hilda draws him reluctantly into Michael’s life. From the beginning the story has a sense of impending doom – Ralph is leaving England for a long journey, and tells us that he’s writing the history of his knowledge of Michael partly because Hilda has asked him to but mainly as a form of catharsis, to help him work through his experiences…

As in her earlier novel, The Question Mark, and in the best tradition of early science fiction, Jaeger uses her story to examine concerns of her contemporary society. First published in 1920, she draws attention to the generation of men who came back from war to find themselves jobless in a society that had no place for them. She shows how people who are different from the norm are treated, especially when their difference is something others don’t fully understand and are therefore apprehensive about. She touches on questions of class and snobbery, and the increasing decline of the old rich, a process which the war had sped up. Mostly, though, her focus is on the place of women in society; specifically, the new breed of university educated women of whom Jaeger was herself one, and of men’s reaction to them.

All of which makes it sound like a weighty tome indeed, which is highly misleading since it’s actually a very entertaining, well written short novel, thought-provoking and dark at points, but with a delightful strain of wicked humour running through it to lift the tone. Ralph, our narrator, is unconsciously self-revealing as a rather pompous, self-important snob of the first degree, who is quite happy for Hilda to be educated, but purely because he thinks it will be pleasant to have a wife who can provide intelligent conversation when he comes home in the evenings. The humour is so subtle it took me a while to realise what she was doing and I may not have caught it at all if I hadn’t read her earlier book and known that the snobbery and prejudices of Ralph were certainly not an indication of Jaeger’s own viewpoints. Though I frequently wanted to slap him, I grew very fond of poor Ralph as a representative of a class and gender that was already feeling its foundations begin to quiver.

Hilda is a bit of an enigma to the reader because she’s a complete enigma to Ralph. Educated he can accept, but rationality is not a feminine trait in his mind. The emotional responses in their relationship are all on his side, and he feels this is all wrong. Hilda’s lack of enthusiasm at the idea of marriage must surely be merely a sign that she hasn’t yet fully matured. He doesn’t share her fascination with Michael’s abilities: she sees Michael as a possible further step on the evolutionary ladder, someone to be nurtured and helped; Ralph, on the other hand, finds him rather repellent, not just because of his strangeness, but because he breaches the social conventions that are so important to conservative Ralph. Plus he does get in the way of Ralph’s wooing!

Muriel Jaeger

In Michael, Jaeger shows us the psychological effects on a sensitive nature of being different in a world that values conformity above all else. In this society, a man is judged primarily by his earning potential unless he’s fortunate enough to be rich – nothing much changes, eh? Michael’s abilities are hard to market, but leave him psychologically incapable of taking up any kind of normal employment. It’s very well done – convincing and not overplayed. Jaeger seems to be questioning if humanity can continue to evolve at all in a world where difference is shunned.

The book includes a short introduction by Mike Ashley, putting it into the context of other books of the time examining similar questions. It also includes an essay at the end, extracted from Dangerous by Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists by Susan J. Leonardi, who analyses the book from a feminist perspective. I often find academic literary analysis destroys the magic for me, and so it began to be in this case, so I only read the first few pages before deciding not to continue. But from the bit I read it looked interesting, perceptive and well written so I’m sure others will find it a real bonus.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and am only sorry that Jaeger wasn’t more prolific in the science fiction field. I believe she wrote another couple, though, and have my fingers crossed that the British Library may add them to their collection in the future.

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

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A Matter of Motive by Margot Kinberg

Look out for red herrings…

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When businessman Ron Clemons suffers what seems to be a heart attack while driving to a meeting, rookie detective Patricia Stanley is sent to the scene with her partner Luke Enders. What seems to be a routine accident takes a more sinister turn when Ron loses his battle for life, and the doctors wonder why a fit, healthy man with no history of heart problems should have been so suddenly and severely struck down. Now that it looks like it may be a murder, Patricia is pleased when her boss, Sergeant Ian Grant, allows her and the equally inexperienced Luke to stay on the case, under Grant’s close supervision.

Ron Clemons seems an unlikely victim. A loved husband and father, he also seems to be admired and liked by the employees of his successful elite publicity firm. But when Patricia and Luke begin to dig down, they find that several people may have wanted rid of him. There’s been a long-running divide in the boardroom over the direction the company should take, and Ron seems to have been holding back some of the more ambitious board members. It’s also possible that there’s been some kind of fiddling in the accounts which he may have found about. But Patricia and Luke have to consider more personal issues too. Ron’s marriage may look contented enough, but who really knows what goes on behind closed doors, and when money comes into the question, the family members who will inherit must come under suspicion. There are plenty of suspects, but Patricia knows that they won’t solve the case until they can find the right motive…

I’ve been friends with Margot through our blogs for several years now, but as always I’ve tried hard not to let that affect my opinion or my review. I’m delighted to say I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

In contemporary crime I always prefer police procedurals to amateur detectives, who are great fun in vintage crime but always seem a bit contrived in modern settings. So while I enjoyed Kinberg’s last outing with her regular detective, academic Joel Williams, the set-up of this one is much more my kind of thing. It has all the assets of the older crime novel – a good-sized pool of suspects, lots of motives, clues sprinkled throughout for the attentive reader – with a nicely modern feel given to it by the appealing central character of Patricia. She’s a well-rounded character who shares her life happily with her partner Becky, but she’s still scarred by an earlier tragedy when her previous partner was murdered. This gives her character depth as we see how she’s been affected by this both personally and professionally, and the addition of her home life makes her very likeable.

It seems to me Kinberg’s writing has a different feel in this one, tighter and with a more distinctive style, and with an intriguing approach to cutting down on the repetitive dialogue which can often bog down police procedurals, especially during the interviewing of suspects, while avoiding the more abrupt approach some authors take of simply omitting all pleasantries, which never feels natural. I liked this a lot – I found I wasn’t having to apply my usual technique of skipping over the first few sentences of every conversation, but could still feel that the civilities were being observed.

Margot Kinberg

Although it’s told in the third person, past tense (hurrah!), Kinberg also allows us inside the minds of a couple of the characters – Patricia herself, and Rachel, the wife of the victim. Rachel’s thoughts are kept nicely ambiguous though, so that we feel we get to know her and sympathise with her loss, while at the same time she has to remain a suspect.

Gradually the suspect list grows shorter as Patricia and Luke find more evidence and can begin to eliminate people, but I wasn’t at all sure whodunit until the final reveal, and, in line with the title, while plenty of people had motives, the real one was cleverly handled. I found it pleasingly difficult to decide on what were clues and what were red herrings, and on looking back I think it could reasonably be called fair play.

Great stuff! All the charm of a proper classic mystery in an authentically modern setting. This is billed as a standalone, but I’d be delighted to see Patricia and Luke return some time, if by any chance the author is listening… 😉

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The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie

The perfect dinner guest…

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A group of friends meet regularly for dinner and one night the conversation turns to mysteries. They agree that over the next few weeks they will each take turns at telling of a mystery they were involved in, but before they reveal the solution they will let the group see if they can solve it. They are a diverse group, well positioned to understand the depths to which human nature can descend – a policeman, a lawyer, a clergyman, an artist and a novelist. The sixth is less likely to have much insight, or so her friends assume, being an old maid who has spent her entire life in the quiet backwater of an idyllic English village. Her name is Miss Jane Marple…

I listened to this collection narrated by the wonderful Joan Hickson and as always she does a superb job. Each story comes in at roughly half an hour long, so they’re the perfect length for a bedtime listen, or for more active people, for the evening walk! I’d come across one or two of the stories before in anthologies, but I thought they actually worked better collected in this way, since you begin to get a feel for the personalities of the regular diners. Miss Marple, of course, takes centre stage, waiting each time for everyone else to get it wrong or confess themselves baffled, before drawing on her experience of life or village parallels to reveal the true solution. Halfway through, the diners change although the format remains the same – now we are in the company of Colonel and Mrs Bantry back in Miss Marple’s home village of St Mary Mead. Since Mrs Bantry is one of my favourite occasional characters in the novels, it was an added bonus having her in a few of the stories here.

The quality varies as is usually the case in short story collections, but I enjoyed them all, and thought some of them were excellent. Sometimes it’s possible to see how Christie used the kernel of one of these stories later, turning it into the basis of the plot of a novel, and that’s fun for the Christie geeks among us. Here’s a flavour of some of the ones I most enjoyed:

The Blood-Stained Pavement – this is told by Jane, the artist in the group. It’s set in Rathole in Cornwall, which is clearly based on the real Mousehole, then as now a magnet for tourists. Christie builds up a wonderfully creepy atmosphere by telling of the village’s many legends of the days of Spanish invasions. In the present day, Jane sees blood dripping from a hotel balcony to the pavement beneath, and describes how that became a clue in a murder mystery. This has a lot of similarity to the murder method in Evil Under the Sun, which meant I solved it for once! But it’s different enough to still have its own interest.

Ingots of Gold – another Cornish story, this time related by Raymond, novelist and Miss Marple’s nephew. It has to do with shipwrecks and missing gold, and the fun of it is in the way poor Raymond, who always has a tendency to patronise his old Aunt Jane, is brought down to size by her insight.

The Idol-House of Astarte – told by Dr Pender, the clergyman in the group. The members of a house party decide to have a costume party in a grove near the house, known as the Grove of Astarte. The story here is decidedly second to the spine-chillingly spooky atmosphere Christie conjures up – she really is excellent at horror writing when she wants to be. Dr Pender feels evil in the air and is inclined to put it down to supernatural causes, but Miss Marple knows that the supernatural can’t compete with the evil humans do to each other…

The Blue Geranium – told by Colonel Bantry. Another one that has a spooky feel to it, this tells of Mrs Pritchard, the wife of a friend of the colonel’s. She’s a cantankerous invalid who has a succession of nurses to look after her. She also enjoys fortune-tellers, until one day, a mysterious mystic tells her to beware of the blue geranium, which causes death. This seems to make no sense at first, but when the flowers on Mrs Pritchard’s bedroom wallpaper begin slowly to turn blue one by one, her terror grows. This has a really unique solution, based on Christie’s knowledge of poisons and chemistry, but it’s the atmosphere of impending doom that makes it so good. Again this reminded me in some ways of one of the novels but I can’t for the life of me remember which one… anyone?

I’m not always as keen on Christie’s short stories as her novels but I really enjoyed this collection, I think because Hickson’s narration brought out all the humour and spookiness in the stories so well. A perfect partnership of author and narrator!

 

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The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

All in it together…

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In April 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted. This far away, almost unreported event would have wide-reaching consequences as unusually bad weather conditions raised food prices and created famine around the world. Through the stories of six people in different spheres of life, Glasfurd shows some of the impact of the volcano and, without beating the drum too loudly, hints at what we might expect in a future of uncontrolled climate change.

The six main characters in the book are unconnected to each other except by the impact of the volcano, so that in a sense it works like a collection of short stories, although the format means that we get a little of one story followed by a little of another, and so on. This can make it seem a bit fragmentary at first, and not completely balanced since some of the stories are stronger than others. But together they give a good picture of how life was affected in different places and by different sections of society at the same moment in time, and so once I got used to the format, I felt it worked well.

Henry is the surgeon aboard the British ship Benares, sent to Sumbawa Island to investigate reports of loud explosions there. It is through his letters home that we are told about the immediate devastation of the volcano on the local population, and of the dire failure of the British rulers to provide adequate aid to the surviving islanders, whose entire crops were destroyed and water sources polluted. Some of the descriptions have all the imagery of horror stories, made worse by knowing that they are true.

Glasfurd then swings away from Indonesia to our more familiar world some months later, once the atmospheric effects of the volcano had begun to seriously affect weather patterns around the world. We meet John Constable, trying to make his way as a painter and gain entry to the prestigious Royal Academy; and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, travelling with her lover Percy Shelley and her young son on the fateful trip during which she would find the inspiration to write her masterpiece, Frankenstein. But Glasfurd shows us the lives of commoners too – Sarah, a peasant girl doing jobbing work on farms in the Fens at at time of famine and increased mechanisation, and caught up in the protests and riots arising out of the desperation of the rural poor; Hope Peter, a soldier returned from the Napoleonic Wars to a land not in any way fit for heroes, desperately seeking some means of earning a living in a country that showed him no welcome home; and across the Atlantic we meet Charles, a preacher in Vermont, caught up in the lives of the farming community there as crops fail and the already hard life becomes even harder.

Weymouth Bay 1816
John Constable found new inspiration in the stormy skies of the year.

While I found all of the stories had enough interest in them to hold my attention, the two that stood out most for me were Mary Shelley’s and the young farm worker Sarah’s. Mary’s story centres on the famous challenge among the group of friends that included Byron and John Polidori to each write a story – a challenge that only Polidori and Mary met, with Polidori’s The Vampyre perhaps owing its place in history mostly to its connection to Shelley’s Frankenstein. But this is not a cosily described fun vacation – Glasfurd shows the hardness of Mary’s life, partly because of the harsh weather of the year, but also because of the grief she still feels over the loss of her first child and the uncertainty of her unconventional status as an unmarried woman living openly with her lover. Byron doesn’t come out of it well, and nor does Shelley really – although they both encourage Mary to join in with the challenge by writing her own story, they don’t treat her seriously as an equal. Of course, since her legacy turned out to be vastly superior and more influential than either of theirs, I guess they were right, but not quite in the way they thought… 😉

Guinevere Glasfurd

Young Sarah I loved – she stole my heart completely with her frank and funny outlook on her hand-to-mouth existence and her irreverence and lack of respect for the farmers, ministers and general do-gooders who felt that the poor should be grateful for a penny of pay and a bowl of thin soup after twelve or fourteen hours of physical labour. Her section is given in the first person, and her voice reminded me a lot of the wonderful Bessy in The Observations, another feisty young girl uncowed by the circumstances of her life. As the younger farm workers gradually band together to demand better pay and conditions, I was cheering Sarah on, but with a sense of dread since this was a period in which the authorities showed no mercy to challenges from those they saw as potential revolutionaries.

The book has had a rather mixed reaction because of the way the stories are rotated without ever becoming linked. It worked for me, perhaps because earlier reviews meant I knew what to expect going in. While my enjoyment of the various strands varied, I found it a great way to give a panoramic view of the year, from rich to poor, artist to labourer, and of how all of society was affected in different ways by the climatic effects of the volcano. One I happily recommend.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, John Murray Press via NetGalley.

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The Cutting Place (Maeve Kerrigan 9) by Jane Casey

Boys will be boys…

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When a mudlarker finds bits of a body washed up on the banks of the Thames, Detective Sergeant Maeve Kerrigan finds herself with a particularly tricky murder on her hands. The lack of a complete corpse makes identification difficult, and there’s no indication of where the crime may have been committed. However, with the help of her team and a couple of lucky breaks, Maeve is soon on the trail of a secretive all-male club, full of the rich and privileged who use their wealth and power to behave outrageously and get away with it.

This is the ninth in the Maeve Kerrigan series, one of the very few series I have followed all the way through and still look forward eagerly to each instalment. Partly this is because Maeve is such an attractive character – the books are written in the first person from her perspective (past tense) and, while she frequently gets herself entangled in dangerous situations, she is resilient and so remains refreshingly normal with her sense of sometimes wicked humour intact. Partly, too, it’s because of Casey’s skill in plotting. The books tend to concentrate on some aspect of contemporary life – in this one, the issue of male privilege and how it can lead to the sexual abuse of women – but Casey manages to avoid becoming overly polemical or to be too obviously making “points”. And partly, it’s because Maeve is one of the very few fictional female police officers who isn’t constantly having to battle sexual discrimination in the workplace. Maeve and her colleagues, male and female alike, work as a competent team, with the usual banter that takes place in any mixed gender setting but with mutual respect all round. Just like I imagine most real police teams in the 21st century probably behave, in fact. First and foremost, although the plots are by no means cosy, the interplay between the recurring characters keeps the books entertaining, a thing that much of contemporary crime seems to have forgotten how to be.

Maeve now has a new boyfriend, Seth, while Josh Derwent is still with his girlfriend, Melissa, and has settled into the role of father to her young son. But the ongoing will-they/won’t-they tension between Maeve and Josh continues, although Maeve would deny its existence. I have to admit that I am not Josh’s biggest fan – or rather, I love him as a character but don’t particularly admire him as a man. Having started out as a male chauvinist pig of the first order, he has gradually softened as the series has progressed and I know that the vast majority of long-term fans seem to hope that one day Maeve and he will ride off happily into the sunset together. I’m afraid I can’t help being concerned about his controlling and often physically domineering behaviour towards Maeve, which in this book is ironic since part of the plotline concerns a toxic controlling relationship. Personally if I had a work colleague or even a friend who felt that he had the right to question my boyfriend’s exes to see whether the boyfriend was suitable for me, I would not be a happy pixie, but Maeve seems to find Josh’s extreme over-protectiveness and gross interference in her life quite manly and attractive, and so do her fans, so I shall stand in the corner and try not to sulk. Despite my reservations, I do enjoy their banter and the good thing about fictional controlling men, as opposed to real ones, is that they can change over time.

I was delighted that Maeve’s mother puts in an appearance in this one, partly because their relationship is so well done and believable, and partly because it’s such a refreshing departure for a detective to actually have a normal, supportive family at her back.

Jane Casey

I don’t want to say much about the plot for fear of spoilers, but it’s done with Casey’s usual skill, treading close to the credibility line at points but always managing to stay just on the right side of it. Mostly what I love about these books, though, is their sheer readability – the easy flow that looks effortless although I’m quite sure it isn’t, the banter between Maeve and Josh and the wider team, the pacing that relies on a sure and steady reveal of information as the book progresses rather than the ubiquitous and unlikely twists of contemporary crime fiction, and the excellent quality of the writing itself. As always, I found this one pure pleasure to read and now begins the long wait for the next one. Nose to the grindstone, please, Ms Casey! Highly recommended, but if you’re a newcomer, do read the series in order – the character development is a major part of the enjoyment. And then you can come back and tell me which side of the great Josh debate you’re on…

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

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Only connect…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

John Singer shares his life with his one friend, Spiros Antonapoulos. They are both deaf mutes and, while Singer can lip read, only Antonapolous understands his sign language. With all other people, Singer can only communicate by writing short messages on slips of paper. So when Antonapolous is committed to an asylum, Singer is left profoundly alone. He moves from the small apartment the two men had shared to a boarding house and takes all his meals at a local café, and gradually he attracts to him a small group of broken and lonely people, each of whom finds his silence allows them to talk openly to him in a way they can’t to other people.

Biff Brannon owns the cafe along with his wife, Alice. Lonely in his unsatisfactory marriage and childless, Biff watches the people who frequent the cafe and offers a kind of rough kindness to some of the misfits who happen along. Jake Blount is one such misfit – a drunk with Communist leanings who longs to meet others who share his politics. Mick Kelly is the daughter of the owners of Singer’s boarding house, a young girl whose life is circumscribed by the poverty of her circumstances, but who secretly longs to write music. And lastly of Singer’s little group of disciples is Doctor Benedict Copeland, a black doctor who has devoted his life to leading his people out of ignorance but has failed, even with his own family from whom he is now mostly estranged. Each sees in Singer someone who seems to understand them and gives them the courage to face the obstacles in their lives. But Singer, though he listens, cannot speak and lives for the rare occasions when he can take a break from work and visit his friend Antonapolous, where he frantically pours out all his pent-up thoughts through sign, to a man who seems neither to understand nor care.

Nothing had really changed. The strike that was talked about never came off because they could not get together. All was the same as before. Even on the coldest nights the Sunny Dixie Show was open. The people dreamed and fought and slept as much as ever. And by habit they shortened their thoughts so that they would not wander out into the darkness beyond tomorrow.

For me, the stories of Biff and Jake didn’t work quite so well, though each had some points of interest. But Dr Copeland’s story is very well done, highlighting the poverty and cruel injustice experienced by black people, and the gulf between his ambition and the reality of what he could achieve within a system rigged against him. His character is also an excellent study of a man who is respected and even loved by the people he serves and leads in his wider community, but who fails utterly in his domestic life, taking his disappointments and frustrations out on his wife and children; a man so consumed with the desire to improve humanity that he fails to understand and connect with the individual needs of the humans around him.

Book 63 of 90

Mick is a wonderful character and the one who gives a small glimmer of hope amid the general bleakness. McCullers’ description of her sneaking around to listen to music through the open windows of those wealthy enough to own radios and record players shows the real disparity in this society where even the simplest cultural opportunities are available to only a fortunate few. Mick’s efforts to teach herself first to play piano and then to find a way to write down the music she hears inside her are beautifully written. Although the desperate poverty of her family means that her education has to give way to the need to earn money, there is the feeling that maybe she will somehow find a way to lead a more fulfilling life in time.

Why hadn’t the explorers known by looking at the sky that the world was round? The sky was curved, like the inside of a huge glass ball, very dark blue with the sprinkles of bright stars. The night was quiet. There was the smell of warm cedars. She was not trying to think of the music at all when it came back to her. The first part happened in her mind just as it had been played. She listened in a quiet, slow way and thought the notes out like a problem in geometry so she would remember. She could see the shape of the sounds very clear and she would not forget them.

And Singer himself, for much of the book a silent background against which the stories of the others are played out, gradually becomes more vivid as the true loneliness of his life is shown – a loneliness caused, in his case, by physical rather than emotional barriers. Seemingly stable, holding down a job and surrounded by people who read into the blankness of him whatever they need and lack and then value him for that, he just wants that simple thing they see in him – a willing listener, someone who seems to understand.

He came to be known through all the town. He walked with his shoulders very straight and kept his hands always stuffed down into his pockets. His grey eyes seemed to take in everything around him, and in his face there was still the look of peace that is seen most often in those who are very wise or very sorrowful. He was always glad to stop with anyone who wished his company. For after all he was only walking and going nowhere.

Carson McCullers

While the premise is a stretch, with Singer’s deaf-mutism a rather contrived vehicle to bring this disparate group together, and while some of the stories work better than others, overall this is a profound and moving study of the ultimate aloneness and loneliness of people in a crowd, and of the universal human desire to find connection with another. The writing is beautiful, emotional but never mawkish, with deep understanding of the human heart and sympathy for human fallibility – a book that fully deserves its classic status.

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Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

They do things differently there…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amina is the wife of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, married to him before she was fourteen. Now with her own children approaching adulthood, Amina prides herself on her docility and spends her life trying to be a perfect wife to Ahmad, a bullying husband and tyrannical father. This is the story of Amina and Ahmad and their five children, set to the backdrop of the end of WW1, the rise of nationalism and the dying days of colonial Egypt.

First published in 1956, it’s a historical novel, the first in Mahfouz’ Nobel Prize-winning Cairo Trilogy, describing a way of life that was already changing then and now seems positively archaic in its attitudes regarding the place of women and paternalistic power over children, even for a region that still has a very different cultural approach to these things than the West. It’s written in the third person, but the perspective shifts between the various family members so that we come to understand the inner thoughts and feelings of each. It’s remarkably unjudgemental – I can’t remember another book where I felt such a complete lack of the author’s personal views coming through. Mahfouz tells and shows every aspect of the society the characters operate in – the middle-class of Cairo, educated, prosperous but not rich, strictly traditional; but he leaves all evaluation of the characters to the reader. It took me quite a while to get used to this – I wanted anger against Ahmad and sympathy for his wife and children, but gradually I came to appreciate Mahfouz’ neutrality; it’s as if he’s saying, this is how it was, I merely show it to you with no modern interpretation to obscure it.

This is a family saga, the story concentrating mostly on the development of the characters of the children as they approach adulthood and the all-important question of marriage. Ahmad is old-fashioned even in his own time, and exerts strict control not only over his daughters but his sons too, determined that they will marry as he directs, for the honour and enrichment of the family. Happiness is something Ahmad doesn’t consider – his daughters should be docile enough to be happy with any man he chooses for them, and if his sons don’t like their wives, they can simply follow his example and lead most of their lives pursuing one exotic mistress after another. If the wife objects, then the matter is simply solved by the husband’s unilateral declaration of divorce and returning the obstreperous wife to her unwilling family. In Ahmad’s mind, and his society appears largely to agree with him (even the women), women neither have nor deserve any rights. This is not to say he doesn’t love his wife and daughters – he does, so long as they fulfil their duty of obedience to him.

Amina has two daughters, and has brought them up to see the life she has led as the desired and only possible life for a respectable woman. Marriage is essential – an unmarried woman serves no purpose in life and is merely a financial drain on her relatives. It is the fathers who arrange the marriage, or occasionally a mother if she is a widow and financially independent. Girls are selected primarily for their family connections, but beauty and feminine talents like housework and singing are important too. Aisha is the younger and prettier daughter and doesn’t lack suitors, but Ahmad is determined that his older, rather unattractive-looking daughter, Khadija, should marry first. When one of them is finally chosen, we see the mix of pride and fear of a girl making a good match, but to a husband she has never met. She will be removed from a home where the only men she has been allowed to meet are her father and brothers, and where her father has controlled every aspect of her life, to the home of a husband who will now become effectively her owner. Mahfouz does a wonderful job of showing all this from the female perspective – I never had that feeling of wrongness that sometimes comes through when an author of one gender writes from the perspective of the other. Mahfouz also shows through the daughters’ marriages that things are beginning to change – both girls find a little more freedom in their new homes than their old.

The sons, while still under strict control of their father, go out into the world, first to school and university and then into jobs. The youngest son is still a schoolboy in this first book of the trilogy, so although he plays his part, it’s relatively minor. The oldest son, Yasin, from Ahmad’s first marriage, struggles with the shame he feels is brought on him by his mother’s failure to be submissive enough to keep her husband. He is a chip off the old block – a womaniser with a penchant for exotic mistresses, and no interest in much beyond his own pleasure. The middle boy, Fahmy, gets involved with the Nationalist movement at university, so it’s through him that we catch a glimpse of the political situation. It’s a fairly understated glimpse though – I think Mahfouz probably assumed his readership would know the history of Egypt’s struggle for independence, so he doesn’t go into it in any great detail, using it instead to show its impact on the people we’ve come to know, especially Fahmy.

Naguib Mahfouz

It took me a long time to feel involved with this family and their community but once I did I became completely absorbed in the slow telling of their lives. Usually I’d be more interested in the out-going, more political lives of the sons, but in this case I found myself fascinated by Mahfouz’ depiction of the lives and feelings of the women – the total seclusion and lack of agency, and the way that the mothers themselves trained their daughters to accept, conform and even be contented with this half-life. Generational brainwashing, of course, but then aren’t we all subject to that? Mahfouz left me reflecting uneasily that we too are brainwashed – that we see our Western values as better simply because our mothers and our society teach us to, and most of us individually never question that nor dispute it for fear of being ostracised. I felt it was the power of Mahfouz’ neutrality that in the end made it impossible for me to judge this society as harshly as I was ready to do when I began. A deserved classic, and for once a Nobel Prize-winning novel that I feel merits that accolade. I look forward to reading the other two volumes in the trilogy.

Apologies for the length of the review but, in my defence, it’s a long book!

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The Brothers York by Thomas Penn

I blame the parents…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Penn starts this history of the three York brothers with the background story of the weak King Henry VI, surrounded by venal lords and constantly threatened by Richard, Duke of York, father of the three brothers, who had a competing claim to the throne through the female line. He then takes us in a linear fashion through the downfall of Henry, and the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, ending with Richard’s downfall and the rise to power of Henry VII, the first of the Tudors.

Penn writes very well, avoiding academic jargon and taking plenty of time to fill in the characters of the people he’s discussing. He assumes no prior knowledge, which as a newcomer to the period I found extremely helpful since it meant I never found myself floundering over unexplained references, as can often happen with history books.

Edward IV

The bulk of the book concentrates on the reign of Edward IV, which makes sense since he ruled for over twenty years whereas the middle brother George, Duke of Clarence, never got to be king and the youngest brother, Richard III, managed a mere two years before he lost his crown, and his life along with it. Unfortunately, Richard is by far the more interesting king (in my opinion), so I’d have been happier to spend more time in his company and rather less on Edward’s interminable taxes and squabbles with France and Burgundy. I have a feeling this says far more about my dilettante approach to history than it does about the book, however! But after an excellent start with all the intrigue and fighting leading up to Edward’s final power grab, I found my interest dipped for quite a long period in the middle of the book as Penn laid out the detail of his long reign.

George, Duke of Clarence

It picks up again when Edward finally dies, and the nefarious Richard usurps the throne from his nephew. Richard’s reign might have been short but it’s full of incident and Penn tells it excellently. Intriguingly, although of course he relates the story of the Princes in the Tower, Penn doesn’t tell us his own opinion as to whether Richard was guilty of their murder or not. I suppose this makes sense, since (weirdly) there are still strong factions on either side of that question and he’d have been bound to alienate half his readership whichever position he took. He gives enough detail of the event and the contemporaneous rumours around it for the reader to make up her own mind, if she hasn’t already. (Yes, of course Richard was guilty, if you’re wondering… 😉 )

Richard III

Penn finishes as Richard’s reign comes to its tragic/well-deserved* end, rounding the story off with an uber-quick résumé of Henry VII and the Tudors, explaining how the Yorkist divide gradually diminished over time.

Thomas Penn
(photo: Justine Stoddart)

Overall, this is an excellent history, plainly but well told. I’d say it’s aimed more at the general reader than an academic audience, and is particularly good as an introduction to the period – I’m not sure that there’s much new in it for people who already have a solid understanding of the time of the York kings. It’s clearly well researched, with plenty of detail, and it covers all the major personalities of the time, not just the brothers. I came out of it feeling much clearer about how all the various well known names – Warwick, Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret of Anjou, etc. – fitted together, and what parts they played in the Yorkist story. I did struggle with the long middle section of Edward’s rather dull reign, but a historian really can’t be expected to make something exciting if it isn’t. But the first and last sections had more than enough treachery, betrayal and general skulduggery to satisfy even me! Recommended.

*delete according to preference

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

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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.

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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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Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse read by Jonathan Cecil

Knotted locks and knitted socks…

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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?

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

To thine own self be true…

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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!

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Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Fever dream… 

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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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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…

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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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