Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Honour, once lost…

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As a youth, Jim dreamed of glory, sure that one day he would meet a challenge that would give him the opportunity to prove his honour to the world. But when the moment comes, an act of cowardice places him beyond the pale, despised by his peers and by himself. Driven from place to place with his story always catching up with him, Jim is eventually offered a position in Patusan, a small country on a remote Indonesian island, where he will be able to start afresh among natives who neither know nor care about his past. But despite the admiration and even love he wins there, Jim still carries his disgrace and guilt inside himself…

After introducing Jim and telling us a little of his background as the son of a clergyman trained to be an officer in the merchant fleet, the long first section tells of his fateful voyage aboard the Patna, a rather decrepit vessel carrying hundreds of pilgrims across the Arabian Sea en route to Mecca. Marlow, our narrator, first encounters Jim during the official inquiry into this voyage, so that we know from the beginning that something went badly wrong. Jim alone of the ship’s officers has remained to face the inquiry and Marlow becomes fascinated by this young man, whose actions seem so alien to his appearance.

“…all the time I had before me these blue, boyish eyes looking straight into mine, this young face, these capable shoulders, the open bronzed forehead with a white line under the roots of clustering fair hair, this appearance appealing at sight to all my sympathies: this frank aspect, the artless smile, the youthful seriousness. He was of the right sort; he was one of us.”

As in Heart of Darkness, Conrad is examining the effects of colonialism, not on the colonised, but on the colonisers. Through Jim, he shows that the Empire has created a change in how the British imagine the rank of “gentleman”: no longer a title simply describing the land-owning class, but now a word that has come to represent a set of virtues – courage, moral rectitude, fairness, chivalry, patriotism and honour. Despite the book’s title, Jim is no member of the aristocracy – he is one of the new middle-class breed of gentlemen, educated to these virtues and sent out to carry British values through all the vast reach of the Empire. So his disgrace is more than a personal thing – it’s a weakening of the image the British project as a validation of their right to rule. Where an aristocrat with family power and wealth behind him might fall and be forgiven, these new gentlemen have only these virtues to justify their rank, and to fail in them is to lose that status – to be no longer “one of us”.

The story of the Patna is wonderfully told. Marlow takes his time in revealing the fate of the ship, digressing frequently so that gradually he builds a fascinating picture of the transient world of the merchant seamen who serviced the trade routes of the various colonial powers. As he finally reaches the incident that changes Jim’s life so irreversibly and its aftermath, Conrad employs some wonderful horror imagery, again related more to the imagined than the real. Imagination seems central to his theme – Jim’s imagination of how he would react in a moment of crisis as compared to the actuality, the imagined virtues of the gentleman, the imagined role of the colonisers as just and paternalistic, if stern, guardians of their colonised “natives”. Even the fate of the Patna is more imagined than real, showing that honour and its loss is dependant on intent rather than effect.

The second section of the book doesn’t work quite so well. When Marlow visits Jim in Patusan some years later, Jim tells him of his life there, how he has found a kind of peace in this isolated place, among natives who have given him the honorific title of “Lord” as a reward for his bringing peace and prosperity where before there had been only strife. Even allowing for the imagined fable-like quality of the story, Jim’s rise to prominence in this society smacks a little too much of white superiority to make for comfortable reading, and his love affair with the woman he calls Jewel (white, of course, but not English, therefore not his equal) is full of high melodrama and exalted suffering. However, the knowledge that he can never resume his place in the world of the white man festers, while his terror remains that his new-found respect could be lost should his story become known or, worse, should he face another trial of character and fail again. After a rather too long drag through this part of the story, the pace and quality picks up again, with the final section having all the depth and power of the earlier Patna segment.

The quality of the writing and imagery is excellent, although I found the structure Conrad uses for telling the story makes it a more difficult read than it needs to be and requires some suspension of disbelief. Jim’s story is relayed to us as a first-person account within a third-person frame, as our narrator, Marlow, tells Jim’s story to a group of colonial friends after dinner one evening. This device means the bulk of the book is given to us within quotation marks, which can become quite confusing when Marlow is relating conversations, especially at second-hand between third parties. Repeated use of nested punctuation marks like “ ‘ “…” ’ ” can make the modern reader (this one at any rate) shudder, and I found I frequently had to re-read paragraphs more than once to be sure of who had said what to whom. The idea of Marlow telling around 75% of the story in one long after-dinner tale is also clumsy – the audiobook comes in at 16 hours, so I can only assume Marlow’s friends were willing to sit listening not just until dawn but roughly to lunchtime the following day.

Joseph Conrad

These quibbles aside, the book is a wonderful study of the British gentleman who, as a class, ruled the Empire – a character who appears in simpler forms in everything from Rider Haggard’s African adventure stories to Agatha Christie’s retired colonials. Conrad shows how this type was imagined into being, and how important it was to the British sense of its own identity abroad and its justification of its right to rule. If we are more virtuous than everyone else, is it not natural that we should be their lords? And having imagined ourselves in this way, what is left of us, as individuals and as cogs in the Imperial machine, if we falter, weaken and fail?

An excellent book, both in simple terms of the extraordinary story of Jim’s life and for the depth and insight into the Victorian Imperial mindset. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. Even more than usual, the knowledgeable introduction and notes, this time by Jacques Berthoud, aided considerably in placing the book in its literary and historical context and in clarifying my thoughts on its themes, thus helping to inform my review.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Enoch Powell: Politics and Ideas in Modern Britain by Paul Corthorn

The politics of decline and nationhood…

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For my generation, arriving at political awareness in the 1970s, Enoch Powell had already become the chief bogeyman for those of us on the left. He is best remembered for his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech of 1968, when he issued dire apocalyptic warnings about the dangers of mass immigration in terms which even in those days were incendiary and which to modern eyes are vilely, shockingly racist. He is still worshipped by the extreme right in Britain, happily a tiny proportion of our society, while some on the left still drag his name out whenever they want to present anti-immigrationism and racism as synonymous. However, he is also considered as one of the leading and most influential thinkers of his generation, and for many years I have wondered why such an intelligent man didn’t realise that this speech would blow his career into smithereens on that day in 1968, making him such a pariah to so many that all other aspects of his contribution to political life are hidden under its dark shadow, and also making rational discussion of immigration policies in the UK almost impossible for decades to come – still today, in fact.

Paul Corthorn is Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at Queen’s University Belfast. In his introduction, he acknowledges that much previous biography of Powell has been strongly pro or anti. In this book, Corthorn is striving to present Powell’s views on a variety of topics and how he came to form them, without judgement. Corthorn shapes his work around the political themes that engaged Powell throughout his political life rather than working to a timeline, and makes clear that this is an examination of Powell’s political thought and contribution rather than a personal biography of his life. Having previously ploughed through a rather nauseating and ultimately unrevealing hagiography of the man, I found this approach refreshing. Corthorn takes much of his argument from a close analysis of Powell’s speeches, to which Powell gave great thought. Corthorn suggests that the idea of ‘decline’ underpins much of Powell’s thinking, as his generation grappled with the end of the British Empire and sought to redefine nationhood and Britain’s role in the world, facing up to the new reality of American dominance.

The five themes Corthorn uses are international relations, economics, immigration, Europe and Northern Ireland. He does an excellent job of showing that each forms part of a coherent whole in terms of Powell’s thinking – that the ideas of decline and of nationhood run through all of his arguments and remain consistent, though his opinions on policy changed over time and sometimes could seem contradictory.

Enoch Powell

(The thing about Powell, as I learned when I reviewed a previous biography on Amazon, is that whatever you say about him he is so divisive that people will call you a fascist racist if you show any admiration for him at all, or a Trotskyite commie if you refuse to genuflect when mentioning his name. But hey! I reckon if people are calling you both, then you’re probably somewhere in the middle which is where I like to be, so if you’re going to be upset by me praising/criticising him you probably should look away now.)

There can be little doubt that Powell was one of the great political thinkers of the mid-twentieth century. He was tackling Britain’s future while most others were still clinging desperately to its past. He foresaw many of the issues we are dealing with today while others were burying their heads in the sand. He saw that American hegemony and the West’s interference in the Middle East would lead to a series of unwinnable wars. He was against devolution for the constituent nations of the UK because he believed that it would weaken identification with the UK as a nation state while never satisfying those who desired full independence. He believed that supranational organisations like the UN and NATO would weaken the ability of nation states to act in their own interests (which he saw as a bad thing). He believed that the then Common Market (now European Union) would progress inexorably towards political union – in his view, an undesirable outcome. And he believed that if governments refused to control immigration, then populism, with all its inherent dangers, would be the eventual outcome (the actual point he was making in 1968, lost entirely because of his use of degrading racist language). He was totally against allowing the Republic of Ireland to have a say in the administration of Northern Ireland, believing it would leave Northern Ireland always as a sort of semi-detached part of the UK – instead he wanted it be fully integrated into the non-devolved political system he favoured for all four UK nations. He was propounding the main ideas behind the economic theories that would eventually come to be called Thatcherism long before Thatcher.

Paul Corthorn

Corthorn finishes with a brief but excellent critical round-up of the preceding chapters and an analysis of why Powell’s reputation and legacy are still matters of dispute. Love or hate him, it is fascinating to read of a politician who gave so much thought to the long-term and who rarely allowed partisanship to sway him into short-term compromise. He changed party affiliation frequently and expected a level of loyalty from others that he rarely was willing to give. This, of course, made him an arrogant maverick with more than a hint of narcissism, and meant that he never gained the power he felt was his due, where a more emollient compromiser may have achieved more. And ultimately it was that arrogance – that failure to accept that those he saw as his intellectual inferiors (i.e., everyone) would not be wowed into agreement by his brilliance – that led him to think that it would be acceptable to speak of immigration in the racist terminology he used in the 1968 speech.

An excellent book that gives real and balanced insight into the thinking of this undoubtedly brilliant, undoubtedly deeply flawed man, and along the way casts a lot of thought-provoking light on many of the questions we are still grappling with today. I can’t say I like Powell any better than I did, but I rather wish I believed our present generation of politicians were as deep-thinking and forward-looking. Highly recommended.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Look over there…

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Hercule Poirot has retired to the village of King’s Abbott to grow vegetable marrows but, as we all know, wherever that man goes, murder is sure to follow. Roger Ackroyd is a wealthy man and a leading light in the community, but he’s not always generous to his many dependants. So when he is found dead in his study there are plenty of suspects. Dr James Sheppard is first on the scene of the crime and once Poirot becomes involved in the investigation the doctor finds himself acting as his unofficial assistant. It is through Dr Sheppard’s eyes that the reader follows the case.

This is one of the most famous of the Poirot books and many people consider it to be the best. I always have a hard time deciding on “best” Christies because so many of them are so good, but this would undoubtedly make my top 5. However, it’s one of those ones that’s got such an amazingly brilliant solution, like Murder on the Orient Express and a couple of others, that once read never forgotten, so I tend to re-read it less often. I found on this re-read after many years, though, that although I remembered the solution very clearly, I’d actually forgotten most of the plot, so it still made for an enjoyable revisit.

Mr Ackroyd had been upset earlier on the day of his death by the news that wealthy widow Mrs Ferrars, with whom rumour suggested he was romantically involved, had died apparently by her own hand. At dinner that evening, he told Dr Sheppard that he’d received a letter from her which he hadn’t yet read. When his body is discovered later, no trace of the letter is to be found. Also missing is young Ralph Paton, Mr Ackroyd’s stepson, and when he fails to show up the next day suspicion quickly falls on him. Ralph’s fiancée, Mr Ackroyd’s niece Flora, begs Poirot to come out of retirement to prove Ralph is innocent. Poirot gently points out to Flora that if he takes the case he will find the truth, and if the truth turns out to be that Ralph is guilty, she may regret her request. Flora is sure of Ralph, though, so Poirot agrees. The local police know of his reputation and are happy to have him work with them.

Agatha Christie

“My dear Caroline,” I said. “There’s no doubt at all about what the man’s profession has been. He’s a retired hairdresser. Look at that moustache of his.” Caroline dissented. She said that if the man was a hairdresser, he would have wavy hair – not straight. All hairdressers did.

Part of the fun is seeing Poirot and his methods through Dr Sheppard’s eyes. Though he’s amused by the detective’s appearance and mannerisms, Sheppard soon begins to appreciate that Poirot’s unusual methods often get people to reveal things that the more direct questioning of the police officers fails to elicit. Poirot is of a social standing to mix as a guest in the homes of the village elite and, since gossip is the favourite pastime of many of them, including Sheppard’s delightfully nosy spinster sister, Caroline, they make him very welcome in the hopes of pumping him for information. Sheppard also has inside knowledge of all the village characters and their histories, useful to Poirot and entertainingly presented to the reader. The gossip session over the mah-jong game, for example, is beautifully humorous – so much so that it’s easy to overlook any clues that might be concealed amid the exchange of titbits of information Caroline and her cronies have managed to gather.

But that is certainly not the sort of information that Caroline is after. She wants to know where he comes from, what he does, whether he is married, what his wife was, or is, like, whether he has children, what his mother’s maiden name was—and so on. Somebody very like Caroline must have invented the questions on passports, I think.

Hugh Fraser

Christie is always brilliant at misdirection, and this book may be her best example of that. Is it fair-play? Yes, I think so – I think there are enough clues to allow the reader to work it out, but they’re so beautifully hidden I bet very few readers will. However, unlike a lot of clever plotters, Christie always remembers that to be truly satisfying a mystery novel needs more than that. In this one, the Sheppards are really what make it so enjoyable – the doctor’s often satirical observations of Poirot and his fellow villagers, and Caroline’s good-natured love of gossip. Combined with Poirot’s little grey cells and eccentricities, they make this not only a triumph of plotting but a highly entertaining read too. And, as always, Hugh Fraser is the perfect narrator. Great stuff!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Case of Lady Sannox by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Never betray Sir Arthur…

I don’t usually use two stories from the same author so close together, but firstly, it’s my beloved ACD, and secondly, I feel this is almost a companion piece to last week’s story, The Retirement of Signor Lambert. Another adulterous affair, another revenge but this time against the erring wife and so, so much more horrific than last week’s. Not for the faint-hearted – you have been warned!

The Case of Lady Sannox
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The relations between Douglas Stone and the notorious Lady Sannox were very well known both among the fashionable circles of which she was a brilliant member, and the scientific bodies which numbered him among their most illustrious confreres. There was naturally, therefore, a very widespread interest when it was announced one morning that the lady had absolutely and for ever taken the veil, and that the world would see her no more. When, at the very tail of this rumour, there came the assurance that the celebrated operating surgeon, the man of steel nerves, had been found in the morning by his valet, seated on one side of his bed, smiling pleasantly upon the universe, with both legs jammed into one side of his breeches and his great brain about as valuable as a cap full of porridge, the matter was strong enough to give quite a little thrill of interest to folk who had never hoped that their jaded nerves were capable of such a sensation.

Douglas Stone had expensive tastes and liked the best of everything. And when he met Lady Sannox, he knew he had to have her. Not a terribly difficult task…

She had a liking for new experiences, and was gracious to most men who wooed her. It may have been cause or it may have been effect that Lord Sannox looked fifty, though he was but six-and-thirty.

The Lovers

Poor old Lord Sannox! Don’t feel too sorry for him, though! People had never been sure whether he was unaware of his wife’s indiscretions or whether he simply chose to ignore them. But when Douglas Stone became the new favourite, even Lord Sannox couldn’t fail to notice…

There was no subterfuge about Stone. In his high-handed, impetuous fashion, he set all caution and discretion at defiance. The scandal became notorious.

The Husband

One night, Stone was due to visit his Lady but as he was about to leave home a man arrived, asking for his medical assistance for his wife…

A few moments later the butler swung open the door and ushered in a small and decrepit man, who walked with a bent back and with the forward push of the face and blink of the eyes which goes with extreme short sight. His face was swarthy, and his hair and beard of the deepest black. In one hand he held a turban of white muslin striped with red, in the other a small chamois-leather bag.

He tells Stone that his wife has met with an accident and has been poisoned by an obscure Oriental poison. She must have an operation immediately if she is to be saved! Stone is rather unmoved by this, but the promise of a huge fee sways him, and they set off to the man’s house…

It was a mean-looking house in a narrow and sordid street. The surgeon, who knew his London well, cast a swift glance into the shadows, but there was nothing distinctive—no shop, no movement, nothing but a double line of dull, flat-faced houses, a double stretch of wet flagstones which gleamed in the lamplight, and a double rush of water in the gutters which swirled and gurgled towards the sewer gratings.

Inside, the man takes Stone to the patient…

A single small lamp stood upon a bracket on the wall. Douglas Stone took it down, and picking his way among the lumber, walked over to a couch in the corner, on which lay a woman dressed in the Turkish fashion, with yashmak and veil.

And then…

The Climax

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No, if you want to know the rest you must read it for yourself! It’s one of the stories in Late Victorian Gothic Tales (and many other anthologies), but if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link

I warn you, this one actually horrifies me and the porpy has now taken a lifelong vow of celibacy and retired to a monastery. It reminds us that ACD is not nearly as cuddly as Dr Watson and that he was a medical man before he was a writer. But it is brilliantly written, and completely unforgettable – though you might wish it wasn’t! It also reminds us that humans are much more to be feared than ghosties, ghoulies or even things that go bump in the night!

The porpy’s at the back. But fear not! I’m sure I’ll be able to tempt him
out again once the initial horror begins to fade!

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

GAN Quest: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Whom the gods would destroy…

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Chief Bromden has been on the mental ward for years, one of the Chronics who are never expected to recover. Everyone believes he is deaf and dumb, but his silence is a choice – a result of years of feeling that no one heard him when he spoke. His supposed deafness makes him invisible to the staff, which means that he can listen in to conversations patients aren’t meant to hear. He knows that Nurse Ratched, in charge of the ward, is part of the Combine – the all-powerful authorities who control men through psychiatry, medication and technology. Chief Bromden may be insane – or perhaps he’s too sane. As he puts it himself…

…you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.

Into the ward one day comes a new patient, Randle P McMurphy: loud, brash, crude, funny. Maybe he’s insane, or maybe he’s faking it to get away from the work farm he was in for “fighting and fucking too much”. McMurphy is soon the “bull goose loony” in the ward, a gambling man challenging Nurse Ratched for supremacy, and geeing the Acutes up to rebel. The Acutes are men who are being treated with a view to them one day being able to leave and resume a normal life outside. But then McMurphy discovers that most of the Acutes are there voluntarily and could leave whenever they like, whereas he has been committed, and Nurse Ratched has complete power to decide his fate. Chief Bromden watches, hoping that somehow McMurphy is big enough to beat the Combine…

First published in 1962, the book is of its time in that there’s a lot that reads like racism and misogyny today. But if you can look past this, it also has a good deal to say about the concerns of the time, many of which remain unresolved today – the treatment of mental illness, the tendency of society to suppress individuality, the emasculation felt by some men in a society that no longer values physical strength and aggression as it once did, the closeting of homosexuality, the destruction of Native American lands and traditions by the forces of capitalism (also part of Chief’s Combine). (It struck me as odd, in fact, that Kesey was so sympathetic to Native American culture while being rather blatantly racist about African Americans.)

The writing is wonderfully versatile, ranging from the profanity and sexual crudeness and humour of the men’s language, to profound insights into this small microcosm of the insane world we all live in, to the frightening imagery of the Combine delusions inside Chief’s head, to moments of beauty as Chief begins to appreciate the possibilities of life again under McMurphy’s domineering tutelage. Here describing a young dog he sees from the window of the ward at night…

Galloping from one particularly interesting hole to the next, he became so took with what was coming off – the moon up there, the night, the breeze full of smells so wild makes a young dog drunk – that he had to lie down on his back and roll. He twisted and thrashed around like a fish, back bowed and belly up, and when he got to his feet and shook himself a spray came off him in the moon like silver scales.

Book 53 of 90

The ambiguity over Chief’s sanity means that the reader has to decide whether to interpret things as he does, or to consider whether his bias is making Nurse Ratched seem crueller and McMurphy saner than they might look from a different perspective. In the film, McMurphy is very much the hero, even if a flawed one. In the book, it’s not so clear cut, and I felt Chief Bromden himself was the central character – whether Ratched or McMurphy are in the right becomes somewhat secondary to how Chief’s interpretation of their actions and motives gradually affects his own mental state. I found I was cheering on McMurphy and the patients, but a small voice in my head kept suggesting that maybe Ratched was right that McMurphy’s incitement to rebellion was damaging them as badly as McMurphy felt Ratched and the system were. For Chief, McMurphy takes on an almost Christ-like role: a man willing to sacrifice himself to free others of their sins – in this case, the sin of not fitting in to society’s expectations. I suspect that may have been what Kesey wanted the reader to feel too – he’s certainly critiquing his society ferociously. But by using the setting of a mental hospital and giving us a Chronic for our guide, he leaves open the possibility that everything we are seeing is an insane view of the world. Intentional or not – I couldn’t decide – it makes the book wonderfully thought-provoking.

Ken Kesey

I read this once before long ago when I was enthralled by the film, and found the book disappointingly different. This time round I appreciated those slight differences in emphasis – the actions and events are almost identical, but seeing them through Chief’s eyes rather than directly through our own adds a layer of ambiguity that perhaps the film lacks. A great book and a great film, but perhaps best not read and watched too closely together.

This is my book for the Classics Club Spin #21.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * *

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

Achieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

Yes, there is no doubt that psychiatry was an obsession in American culture at this period, and Kesey uses it effectively to look at many aspects of his contemporary society.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

This one is always tricky. Yes, we’ve had insane narrators since Poe’s time, but this feels different – Chief’s insanity is a response to the world he lives in, and the suggestion that our society is stripping us of the ability to be individuals hence driving us mad feels urgently original.

Must be superbly written.

I felt Kesey maintained Chief’s voice and perspective brilliantly – an intelligent, sensitive man but not well-educated. The sheer variety in tones throughout the book impressed me hugely, as did its feeling of emotional truth. So, achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

I’m very tempted, I must admit. While at that time all America was not mad (I say nothing about today’s America… 😉 ), here Kesey is suggesting that it is the “American experience” that is at the root of the madness of his characters – its obsessions, its inequality, its drive towards conformity at the expense of individuality and masculinity. But in the end, I don’t think it ranges quite broadly enough to claim this flag. With regret, not achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 5 stars and 4 GAN flags, I’m delighted to declare this…

A Great American Novel.

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Tuesday Terror! The Retirement of Signor Lambert by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A cautionary tale…

If you have been a visitor to my blog for any length of time, you will know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has his very own pedestal in my bookish hall of fame. Adventure, crime, historical fiction – he was a master of so many genres. Not least, horror! Here’s a deliciously horrid little story for this week’s…

The Retirement of Signor Lambert
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir William Sparter was a man who had raised himself in the course of a quarter of a century from earning four-and-twenty shillings a week as a fitter in Portsmouth Dockyard to being the owner of a yard and a fleet of his own. . . now, at the age of fifty, he owned a mansion in Leinster Gardens, a country house at Taplow and a shooting in Argyleshire, with the best stable, the choicest cellars and the prettiest wife in town.

Life is pretty good for Sir William, but for one thing.

And yet he had failed in one thing, and that the most important of all. He had never succeeded in gaining the affection of his wife.

Oh, he had tried! His pretty wife had married him not for love, but because of his wealth and power. Sir William had hoped to win her love in time…

But the very qualities which had helped him in his public life had made him unbearable in private. He was tactless, unsympathetic, overbearing, almost brutal sometimes, and utterly unable to think out those small attentions in word and deed which women value far more than the larger material benefits.

Well, I’m not so sure in this case. She did marry him for his large “material benefits” after all. Anyway, then Sir William makes a terrible discovery…

…when a letter of his wife’s came, through the treachery of a servant, into his hands, and he realized that if she was cold to him she had passion enough for another.

Sir William was not a man who would forgive such a betrayal…

His firm, his ironclads, his patents, everything was dropped, and he turned his huge energies to the undoing of the man.

He confronts his wife, and insists she write a letter to her lover…

“William, you are plotting some revenge. Oh, William, if I have wronged you, I am so sorry—”
“Copy that letter!”
“But what is it that you wish to do? Why should you desire him to come at that hour?”
“Copy that letter!”
“How can you be so harsh, William? You know very well—”
“Copy that letter!”
“I begin to hate you, William. I believe that it is a fiend, not a man, that I have married.”
“Copy that letter!”
Gradually the inflexible will and the unfaltering purpose began to prevail over the creature of nerves and moods. Reluctantly, mutinously, she took the pen in her hand.

The letter written, Sir William sends his wife to bed. Then he takes out two things and begins to read. The first is a paper…

…a recent number of the “Musical Record,” and it contained a biography and picture of the famous Signor Lambert, whose wonderful tenor voice had been the delight of the public and the despair of his rivals. The picture was that of a good-natured, self-satisfied creature, young and handsome, with a full eye, a curling moustache and a bull neck.

The lover!

The second thing is a medical book on the organs of speech and voice-production…

There were numerous coloured illustrations, to which he paid particular attention. Most of them were of the internal anatomy of the larynx, with the silvery vocal cords shining from under the pink arytenoid cartilage. Far into the night Sir William Sparter, with those great virile eyebrows still bunched together, pored over these irrelevant pictures, and read and reread the text in which they were explained.

* * * * *

Woo! Am I glad I never had an affair with Sir Arthur’s wife! This little story shows Conan Doyle at his most twisted. Sir William’s method of revenge is cruel and carried out with a cold-blooded competence that chills the blood. While it’s hard to sympathise with Signor Lambert, his punishment is harsh indeed. Jacqueline, the wife, doesn’t gain much sympathy either – having married Sir William for his money and then having betrayed him, she seems to think that he should simply forgive. But nothing in Sir William’s personality could have led her to think that he was the forgiving kind…

He could frighten his wife, he could dominate her, he could make her admire his strength and respect his consistency, he could mould her to his will in every other direction, but, do what he would, he could not make her love him.

We aren’t given many details of the aftermath for the characters after the act of revenge – I shiver when I think of poor Jacqueline’s reaction and the fear she must have felt, compelled as she would have been to remain married to a man whose potential for pitiless brutality she now fully understood.

Once read, never forgotten! I read it in Gothic Tales of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link. I think of Signor Lambert often – a cautionary tale for all you adulterers out there…

The porpy reckons this story has made him immune
to female charms for a while…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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Peterloo: The English Uprising by Robert Poole

A milestone on the road to democracy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two hundred years ago, on 16th August, 1819, a huge rally of some 50,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Field in Manchester, to demand greater representation in Parliament. Although the demonstrators were peaceful and unarmed, they were charged by the cavalry and local Yeomanry, riding through the crowd with sabres drawn. Many hundreds were injured and eighteen were killed, either from crush injuries or from sabre wounds. Known as Peterloo, this incident is embedded in the national consciousness as a tragic milestone on the long, long road to democracy.

Robert Poole is Professor of History at the University of Central Lancashire. He suggests that 1819 should be seen in the context of the end of the long 18th century following the Glorious Revolution, as much as the beginning of the reforming 19th century. The Napoleonic Wars had ended at last, but for the handloom weavers and mill-workers in and around Manchester, peace brought no dividend. The huge national debt had led to high taxation, usually indirect which then as now hit the poor disproportionately. Wealth inequality, already major, was growing. Government policies such as the Corn Laws favoured landowners and voters (a tiny number of the wealthy) rather than workers. Wages, already low, were falling still further. Starvation was an actuality even for people working long hours in appalling conditions.

One of the banners carried by the marchers that so frightened the authorities.

Poole concentrates most of the book on the period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) and 1819, with the focus on what led up to the massacre more than on its aftermath. He gives a detailed account of the conditions of the workers, the prevailing economic circumstances, the political environment, and the effect of recent upheavals in France on the establishment’s fear of bloody revolution. The book is clearly the result of immense research, pulled together into a very readable narrative that is accessible to the non-historian without in any way over-simplifying the content. There are maps of the area, and a generous helping of illustrations throughout, which aid in understanding how events were perceived at the time. Although it’s clear Poole is on the “side” of the reformers (who in today’s Britain would disagree with that position?), he nevertheless casts an objective eye on why the authorities behaved as they did, condemning where appropriate, but showing some understanding of the pressures they felt themselves under too. He also shows that, although there was no violence on that day from the reformers’ side, there had been violent incidents before, and it was known that the marchers had been being drilled by ex-soldiers, leading the authorities to fear an armed uprising. Overall I felt that Poole gave as even-handed an account of the background as possible, while not in any way minimising or excusing the atrocity that occurred.

Along the way, we learn a lot about the leaders of the Reform movement and their aims, not always uniform. Poole also tells us about the many spies embedded in the movement, reporting every word and action back to the Home Office. We are told about the Government’s use of political power to make it almost impossible for people to protest legally, and about the abuses of the legal system, such as the suspension of habeas corpus, to allow those perceived as ringleaders to be kept in jail for long periods often without trial. Poole tells us about the women who joined the reform movement, not at this early stage demanding votes for themselves, but in support of their men. Despite all the attempts to threaten, bully or otherwise silence them, the people marched, and marched again, and the authorities, local and national, unwilling, perhaps unable, to give in to their demands, felt they had to do something to restore order.

As a casual reader, I found the middle section of the book, where Poole describes the many marches and protests prior to the day of Peterloo, harder to plough through, although this is more a criticism of me than the book. For students, historians or people who like an in-depth approach, then the level of detail Poole provides will be appreciated. However, I found the long first section on the political, social and economic background fascinating and written with great clarity, while the description of the event itself at the end is excellent – a clear and balanced account, and by that stage Poole has ensured the reader understands all the various elements that came together to clash so tragically on St Peter’s Field.

Poole concludes by examining the numbers of dead and injured, explaining the sources historians have used for determining these figures. He discusses the trials and imprisonments that followed. He takes a very interesting look at the reporting of the day and how public opinion was changed by a few journalists offering eyewitness accounts. He then sets this event as a link in the chain of the longer reform movement, later leading to the 1832 Reform Act and on towards Chartism and eventual achievement of universal manhood suffrage, where every vote counted equally. He compares (as I did while reading) the period 1817/19 to today’s Britain (and I’d add America and several European nations, not omitting the EU itself), with populism rising as a response to an elite who don’t listen to the concerns of the people, (and again I’d add, or who discount the legitimacy of any democratically-expressed decision with which they disagree). I also found myself comparing these events to the ongoing Hong Kong protests, with a chilling sense of foreboding.

I was taught about Peterloo by an inspirational history teacher at school and it helped form my long-held opinion that if democracy is to survive, then democracy itself must be accepted by all as more important than any one political issue or partisan affiliation. Democracy is a fragile thing, and this book is an excellent reminder of how hard-fought the battle was to win it. I highly recommend it.

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

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Tuesday Terror! The Moon-Bog by HP Lovecraft

Wraiths and frogs…

HP Lovecraft has become an annual fixture on Tuesday Terror! ever since I first came across him and mocked his overblown style a few years back. Somehow his “weird” imagery wormed itself into my brain and, while I still occasionally mock him, I’ve come to admire his work and to realise how influential it has been on horror and weird fiction right up to the present day. The porpy and I first read this story last year and still remember some of the imagery distinctly, so it seems a perfect choice for this week’s…

The Moon-Bog
by HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

Somewhere, to what remote and fearsome region I know not, Denys Barry has gone. I was with him the last night he lived among men, and heard his screams when the thing came to him; but all the peasants and police in County Meath could never find him, or the others, though they searched long and far. And now I shudder when I hear the frogs piping in swamps, or see the moon in lonely places.

Ah, frogs! Deliciously Lovecraftian! Having made his money in America, Denys Barry has purchased the decayed ancestral castle of his family in Ireland and has spent the last few years restoring it to its former glory, much to the joy of the local peasantry who benefited from the work and money he provided.

But in time there came troubles, and the peasants ceased to bless him, and fled away instead as from a doom. And then he sent a letter and asked me to visit him, for he was lonely in the castle with no one to speak to save the new servants and labourers he had brought from the north.

Artist unknown

Our narrator hastens to be by his friend’s side…

I had reached Kilderry in the summer sunset, as the gold of the sky lighted the green of the hills and groves and the blue of the bog, where on a far islet a strange olden ruin glistened spectrally. That sunset was very beautiful, but the peasants at Ballylough had warned me against it and said that Kilderry had become accursed, so that I almost shuddered to see the high turrets of the castle gilded with fire.

That evening, Denys tells him of the trouble…

The peasants had gone from Kilderry because Denys Barry was to drain the great bog. For all his love of Ireland, America had not left him untouched, and he hated the beautiful wasted space where peat might be cut and land opened up. The legends and superstitions of Kilderry did not move him, and he laughed when the peasants first refused to help, and then cursed him and went away to Ballylough with their few belongings as they saw his determination.

Art by bealinn via deviantart.com

Our narrator laughs too. Oh, how they laugh! Superstitious peasants! What rational man would pay attention to their absurd fears?

They had to do with some preposterous legend of the bog, and of a grim guardian spirit that dwelt in the strange olden ruin on the far islet I had seen in the sunset. There were tales of dancing lights in the dark of the moon, and of chill winds when the night was warm; of wraiths in white hovering over the waters, and of an imagined city of stone deep down below the swampy surface. But foremost among the weird fancies, and alone in its absolute unanimity, was that of the curse awaiting him who should dare to touch or drain the vast reddish morass.

Here’s a tip for anyone thinking of moving to a new neighbourhood: always listen to the fears of the local peasants! Denys proceeds with his plans, bringing in labourers from outside since the locals have left. Meantime our narrator’s nights are disturbed by dreams of wild music and mysterious figures on the bog. And then on the night before the bog is due to be drained, he is woken by the sound of shrill piping and a strange light…

Terrible and piercing was the shaft of ruddy refulgence that streamed through the Gothic window, and the whole chamber was brilliant with a splendour intense and unearthly.

Finally plucking up his courage, he looks out of his tower room window at the bog below…

Half gliding, half floating in the air, the white-clad bog-wraiths were slowly retreating toward the still waters and the island ruin in fantastic formations suggesting some ancient and solemn ceremonial dance. Their waving translucent arms, guided by the detestable piping of those unseen flutes, beckoned in uncanny rhythm to a throng of lurching labourers who followed dog-like with blind, brainless, floundering steps as if dragged by a clumsy but resistless daemon-will. As the naiads neared the bog, without altering their course, a new line of stumbling stragglers zigzagged drunkenly out of the castle from some door far below my window, groped sightlessly across the courtyard and through the intervening bit of village, and joined the floundering column of labourers on the plain.

And then the shrieking begins…

Art by Stephen Fabian

* * * * *

I think this is my favourite of all the Lovecraft stories I’ve read. A wonderful mix of Gothic horror and weird fiction, the frogs are not to be missed, and the whole thing is full of Lovecraft’s amazing imagery. I read it in the gorgeous British Library hardback, The Gothic Tales of HP Lovecraft – a book that I highly recommend both for the quality of the stories and for the tactile beauty of the book. However if you’d like to read this story online, here’s a link.  I warn you, though, if you ever let Lovecraft inside your head, you may never be able to rid yourself of him…

The porpy is refusing to come out of the tree till
he’s sure there are no frogs around…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

The battlefield of love…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Gertrude and Walter Morel are an unequal match: she, the educated daughter of “burgher stock”, he, a miner in the Nottingham coal fields. Their attraction is one of physical passion, which soon burns out. Gertrude comes to despise the very things that she once found irresistible in Walter: his animalistic physicality and domineering masculinity. She turns away from him and invests her love in her children, especially her two oldest sons, William and Paul. As they grow into manhood, Gertrude treats them in turn almost as surrogate husbands, and exerts such a hold on their affections that each finds it hard to develop relationships with women. The book follows Paul through his childhood, adolescence and young manhood, and the three women who vie for his love.

In her arms lay the delicate baby. Its deep blue eyes, always looking up at her unblinking, seemed to draw her innermost thoughts out of her. She no longer loved her husband; she had not wanted this child to come, and there it lay in her arms and pulled at her heart. She felt as if the navel string that had connected its frail little body with hers had not been broken. A wave of hot love went over her to the infant. She held it close to her face and breast. With all her force, with all her soul she would make up to it for having brought it into the world unloved. She would love it all the more now it was here; carry it in her love. Its clear, knowing eyes gave her pain and fear. Did it know all about her? When it lay under her heart, had it been listening then? Was there a reproach in the look? She felt the marrow melt in her bones, with fear and pain.

This is one of the first adult books I read, way back in the dark ages, and I loved it as passionately as Gertrude loved her sons, re-reading it several times over the space of a very few years. I deliberately haven’t revisited it since my late teens, having a growing fear that Lawrence is one of those writers best read at the time of raging adolescent hormones, when all his angsting about his characters’ never-ending sexual obsessions and hang-ups resonates most strongly. Although I didn’t react to it with quite as much emotional intensity on this re-read, I’m glad to say it holds up to a cynical adult gaze very well.

Book 52 of 90

It’s wonderfully perceptive about Gertrude and Walter’s marriage and the quiet battlefield it becomes. Paul, who is a lightly fictionalised version of Lawrence himself, is firmly on his mother’s side throughout, as are all the children. This is understandable since Walter alternates between affection and bullying towards them and their mother. But I must admit to having a considerable amount of sympathy for Walter, and this, I think, must be a tribute to the honesty of Lawrence’s writing. Walter is what he is – a brash, crude, physical, working man at a time when the husband expected to be treated as head of the household. Gertrude, when her passionate attraction to his maleness wears off, seems to want to change him and, by showing her discontent, does, though not in the way she intended. In the early days of their marriage he shows kindness to Gertrude again and again, and she rejects him, scorns him. Would he have taken to drinking with the men night after night if she had made their home more welcoming to him? Would he have bullied her and the children if she had not made it so clear that he had no real place in their lives other than as provider? If she had not shown her contempt for their father so openly, would the children have avoided and feared and despised him? Perhaps Walter would have turned out as he did regardless, but I felt he was never given a chance – he had all the physical strength, but Gertrude’s bitterness and sense of her own innate superiority were the stronger forces in all their lives.

Paul’s own feelings (and therefore presumably Lawrence’s) are increasingly ambivalent about his mother as he grows into manhood. He loves her – that is without question. But as he finds himself struggling to develop satisfying relationships with the women with whom he becomes involved, he knows that this is at least partly due to the influence and pull of his mother’s overweening, almost romantic, love for him. Of course, this being Lawrence, this psychological question plays out largely at the sexual level.

Miriam and Clara are the two women who love Paul, though Lord alone knows why. With Miriam, it’s all about his artist’s soul; his relationship with Clara is pretty much purely physical. He treats both women appallingly, but frankly, they’re both so pathetic I couldn’t get up much sympathy. Muriel especially would be enough to drive any man to drink, with her constant flower-sniffing and soulful eyes and desire to sacrifice herself in a quasi-religious way on the altar of love. Here’s a woman who can make sex such a monstrous aberration from the pure holiness of existence that it wouldn’t take many of her to ensure the extinction of humanity. Clara on the other hand has zero personality (but beautiful arms and, I regret to say, bouncy breasts). She exists merely as the adjunct of the men in her life – her husband and Paul, her lover. When we meet her, we are told she is an early feminist, but we see no signs of that in her behaviour.

DH Lawrence
Photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It would be easy to accuse Lawrence of misogyny in his handling of these two characters, and I was tempted to do so. Two things save him, I think. The first is that, although they were apparently based on real lovers of Lawrence’s, they come over more as representations of Paul’s narcissistic struggle with his own desires than as real women in their own right. Miriam and Gertrude are fighting for his soul, while Gertrude is more willing to accept the physicality of his relationship with Clara, feeling that less of a threat to her hold over Paul. The second is not my own thought – it comes from the insightful introduction by David Trotter in my Oxford World’s Classics edition, who points out that in female modernist writings of the same era, the male characters are often equally underdeveloped, there for the sole purpose of allowing the women to explore aspects of themselves. Once I recognised the truth of that, I was more willing to forgive Lawrence. However, from a purely literary point of view, I felt the Miriam stuff went on for too long and became tediously repetitive, hence the loss of half a star.

On every side the immense dark silence seemed pressing him, so tiny a spark, into extinction, and yet, almost nothing, he could not be extinct. Night, in which everything was lost, went reaching out, beyond stars and sun. Stars and sun, a few bright grains, went spinning round for terror, and holding each other in embrace, there in a darkness that outpassed them all, and left them tiny and daunted. So much, and himself, infinitesimal, at the core a nothingness, and yet not nothing.
“Mother!” he whimpered—“mother!”

The writing is always good and often beautiful, and Lawrence has the ability to create an emotional intensity that, while it can feel a little overdone at times, nevertheless sheds light on some of the essential truths of the human condition. There are scenes I have never forgotten from those early reads, and I found them just as powerful still. It makes me and my inner teenager very happy to be able still to say – highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – none, sorry. Can’t find this edition on the US site.

Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie, plus Murder, She Said

Evil Under the Sun

Beware! Poirot on holiday!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Jolly Roger Hotel sits secluded on Smuggler’s Island, a promontory off the Devon coast that can be reached only by boat or over the paved causeway from the mainland. Here the well-to-do come for a peaceful holiday in luxurious surroundings. Imagine their horror, then, on discovering that Hercule Poirot has booked in as a fellow guest! The man is a walking pestilence – wherever he goes, murder is sure to follow. There ought to be a special clause about him in travel insurance policies!

As beautiful actress Arlena Stuart comes out of the hotel and walks to the beach, all eyes are drawn to her; the men in admiration, the women in disapproval. Arlena has a reputation – gossip about her relationships with various men is whispered whenever her name is mentioned. Her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, seems to be either unaware or uncaring of his wife’s indiscretions, but he’s the only one. Here on Smuggler’s Island, Arlena is carrying on a heady flirtation with a fellow guest – a young man by the name of Patrick Redfern – careless of the effect on Patrick’s young wife, Christine. Patrick seems trapped in Arlena’s web, unable to escape, as so many other men are rumoured to have been before. Fanatical minister Stephen Lane sees her as the embodiment of evil; Rosamond Darnley hates seeing how she treats Rosamond’s childhood friend, Kenneth; Kenneth’s daughter from an earlier marriage resents this woman who has come into their home and brought no happiness with her. There are rumours that Arlena is being blackmailed, and any of the other guests could be the blackmailer. So when Arlena’s body is found in a lonely cove, everyone on the island finds themselves suspect…

I know I sound like a broken record with these Christie novels but this is another one I love. The plotting is great – both the how and the why. The isolated island gives it the feel of a closed circle mystery – while it’s possible that someone came from the mainland to murder Arlena it’s soon shown to have been unlikely. So Poirot, with the full co-operation of the police, sets out to talk to the various guests, to try to uncover the truth from beneath all the alibis and motives and lies. It’s another one of the ones where, shortly before the end, Poirot kindly lists all the clues giving the reader one last chance to work it out before all is revealed. Good luck with that! It’s entirely fair-play but your little grey cells will have to be in excellent working order to spot the solution.

For once I think I prefer the Ustinov adaptation to the Suchet, because the wonderful and beautiful Diana Rigg is so well cast as Arlena…

I love the characterisation in this one even more than the plotting, though. Patrick’s infatuation and Christine’s jealousy are well done, and young Linda’s teenage resentment of her step-mother feels very realistic. Two American guests, the voluble Mrs Gardiner and her complaisant husband, provide a touch of warmth and comedy amid the atmosphere of overhanging evil. Mr Blatt lets us see how money doesn’t provide automatic entry to the rarefied heights of social snobbery, while Major Barry is one of Christie’s always excellent retired colonials, willing to bore anyone polite enough to listen to his interminable stories of days gone by. Arlena herself is seen only through the eyes of others, leaving her rather ambiguous, while Rosamond’s protectiveness of Kenneth suggests she may feel something deeper than friendship for him.

Excellent! If you haven’t read it before, do; and if you have, read it again! Another one that I highly recommend.

NB This book was provided for review in a new edition with great new covers by the publisher, HarperCollins.

Amazon UK Link
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* * * * *

Murder, She Said

😀 😀 😀

HarperCollins also sent me another treat – a little book of Miss Marple quotes. It’s beautifully produced in hardback and the quotes are divided up into sections, such as The Art of Conversation, Human Nature, Men and Women, etc.

“If people do not choose to lower their voices, one must assume that they are prepared to be overheard.”

It has an introduction by Tony Medawar, partly about Christie’s inspirations for the character and partly a biography of what can be gleaned of Miss Marple’s life. The book also includes a brief article called “Does a Woman’s Instinct Make Her a Good Detective?”, written by Christie for a British newspaper in 1928 to publicise a set of short stories she was issuing at that time. And at the back it has a complete bibliography of all the Miss Marple novels and short stories. Apparently there’s a companion volume in the same style for Poirot fans, called Little Grey Cells.

“I’ve never been an advocate of teetotalism. A little strong drink is always advisable on the premises in case there is a shock or an accident. Invaluable at such times. Or, of course, if a gentleman should arrive suddenly.”

It’s the kind of book that would be a fun little gift for a Miss Marple fan –  not substantial enough to be a main gift; it didn’t take long for me to flick through the pages – but a good idea for a stocking filler. There are days when we could all do with a bit of Miss Marple’s clear-eyed wisdom…

“Most people – and I don’t exclude policemen – are far too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told them. I never do. I’m afraid I always like to prove a thing for myself.”

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

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Tuesday Terror! De Profundis by Coutts Brisbane

F. Horribilis!

Ghosties and ghoulies are terrifying of course, but some people simply refuse to believe in them. However, there are other terrors lurking in the hidden places of the world which can’t be so easily dismissed. Time to meet some of them in this week’s…

De Profundis
by Coutts Brisbane

It all begins with our narrator on a camping holiday in Cornwall. He drifts off to sleep next to a field where a horse is happily grazing. Next morning, he starts off to get the train back to London…

My direct route lay through the field in front and, climbing on the gate, I stood at gaze, seeing that close beside the walled shaft-mouth lay something which, I was absolutely certain, had not been there overnight – a large skeleton. I noticed, too, that my friendly horse was nowhere in view, though the boundaries of the field were all in sight and, exceedingly puzzled, approached the bones. They were fresh, raw, though not a particle of meat adhered to them, and unmistakably equine.

Unable to work out what has happened, he heads off to his home, where he is carrying out experiments on different types of petroleum to try to find a cheaper, more efficient fuel. His friend, Mayence, turns up with a barrel-full of paraffin for him to test. Mayence tells him of the strange fate that has befallen a policeman down in Surrey…

“Devilish rummy! Found the poor beggar behind a hedge, uniform on—helmet, too. Beastly! And I may have spoken to him – been held up thereabouts more than once. Poor chap!”
“What are you gibbering about? Was he murdered?” I demanded irritably.
Mayence shivered.
“Ghastly, I tell you! Nothing but his clothes, only bones left inside ’em. Ugh!”

Our narrator tells Mayence about the horse, and at that moment they hear a disturbance from outside…

Right opposite, building operations were in progress, and a great hole had been dug in the earth, from which, as we looked, the workmen came crowding and jostling, howling gigantically, in a frenzied hurry to reach the narrow door in the hoarding along the street front.
“Lord!” ejaculated Mayence. “What in thunder’s up! Look at that chap!”

Then they see, coming from the excavation…

A cloud of dust flew up and hid everything for an instant; then something which looked exactly like a wave of treacle – a brownish-black, shiny, wet-looking, lapping tide – flooded up over the edge of the hole, and flowed out towards the men jammed in the doorway.

As they wonder what it can be, suddenly another friend of the narrator, Vidal, bursts into the room in a panic…

“They’re coming up!” he screamed. “Shut that window! We’re done for! I saw ’em once before, but nothing like this!”
Mayence grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him roughly.
“What?” he shouted. “What the blazes is it?”
“Ants!” quavered Vidal. “Millions of trillions! They’re stinging everyone to death; keep ’em out!”

Suddenly the people of London are fleeing in all directions as ants pour from various excavations sites all over the city in what seems to be a co-ordinated attack. Quick-thinking Mayence realises that paraffin will keep them off, so the three men cover themselves in the contents of the barrel he’d brought, and start out to make their escape from the city, seeing innumerable horrors on their way…

We trudged on towards the river without a word; pity, horror, terror, all capacity for emotion seemed numbed to exhaustion, and we moved mechanically. Blackfriars Bridge was choked by another dreadful barricade, the approaches to the stations were impassable. The river was dotted with people swimming or clinging to lifebuoys or fragments of wood, the barges anchored on the further side were hidden by men clustering like swarming bees, the outermost continually dragged down by others who struggled up from the water…

* * * * *

Well, this one scared me alright! I hate ants with a passion – even the tiny little ones we get give me the creeps, much less ones that are an inch and a half long and out to annihilate humankind! Brisbane manages to develop the three characters quickly, making them likeable and injecting a touch of humour into the story in their interactions, which lightens the tone a little but without detracting from the drama or scariness. It’s very well written with a lot of action packed into a short space, and there’s a deliciously chilling little climax at the end.

I’ve never heard of this author before, but the author bio in the anthology tells me he is an Australian of Scottish descent, real name Robert Coutts Armour, and that he was a prolific contributor of short stories to sci-fi and adventure magazines in the first half of the twentieth century. I’d happily read more of his stuff, though it doesn’t seem to be easy to get hold of. This one is available online, though, at the rather wonderful Project Gutenberg Australia. If you’d like to read it, here’s a link…

It’s a fretful porpentine!

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

NB I read this one in the anthology Menace of the Monster, provided for review by the British Library.

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Family Matters by Anthony Rolls

Poisonous relationships…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Even the most kind-hearted of Robert Arthur Kewdingham’s family have to admit he can be quite annoying. Having lost his job in middle-age, he now spends his time on his collections of second-rate Roman artefacts and dried-out beetles, while telling anyone who will listen about his past life as a priest in Atlantis. Opinions on his wife, Bertha, are divided. Some, mostly the men, feel that her husband doesn’t deserve such a handsome, spirited wife and that he treats her badly. Others, mostly the women, feel that if she had any sort of wifeliness about her she’d shake Robert out of his eccentricities and back into the world of useful employment. Robert and Bertha live in a state of constant quarrelling, tired of each other, dissatisfied with their lives but unable to change. It’s a pity that Bertha is attractive to other men, and that Robert keeps a pharmacy-size stock of poisons readily to hand to treat his rampaging hypochondria. Things are bound to get nasty…

This is a lot of fun and a real step up from the only other Rolls I’ve read, Scarweather. It’s a kind of inverted mystery – we know a murder will be done, and it’s not too long before we can guess who the victim will be. But such are the divided opinions on this unhappy couple that several people could have reason to do away with either one of them. In fact, the question is almost one of who will murder the victim first!

The characterisation is excellent, not just of the awful Robert and Bertha (who got some sneaking sympathy from me even though I didn’t feel she really deserved it), but of the various members of the extended family. Robert’s old father lives with them and an unpleasant old codger he is, constantly reciting quotations to Bertha of how an ideal woman should behave. Uncle Richard is a decent man and feels Bertha has more to put up with than any woman deserves, even moody ones like her. Cousin John is firmly on Bertha’s side – too much so perhaps. The Poundle-Quaintons, mother and spinster daughter, feel it’s their duty to drop little hints to Bertha on how she should manage her husband better. And Robert’s sister, clear-eyed about her brother, does her best to befriend the unhappy wife.

Challenge details:
Book: 81
Subject Heading: The Ironists
Publication Year: 1933

There is much here to do with various drugs and poisons in use at the time. Robert’s genuine illnesses, topped up by his enjoyment of his hypochondria, mean that Dr Bagge is a frequent visitor to the house, partly as physician and partly as friend. Dr Bagge likes to make up his own medicines and tries to stop Robert from dosing himself up on quack preparations, with little success. Once the murder is done, the presence of all these various medicines and drugs will complicate the matter badly for the authorities, and there’s a good deal of wit in the way Rolls handles all the various effects and side-effects of the different poisons around the house, not to mention in how Dr Bagge views his patients as good subjects for him to try out his latest concoctions on.

The idea of living in this house full of rather unpleasant people is pretty awful but I must say they’re a lot of fun to watch from the outside. The mystery is handled very originally – usually with an inverted murder, in my limited experience, the reader knows who the murderer is, but here Rolls manages to keep to that kind of style while still keeping the reader somewhat in the dark. As a result, I found it much more of a page-turner as I really wanted to know who was the guilty party and how it would be proved. Vague, I know, but deliberately – this is one where it would be easy to give accidental spoilers.

Another very enjoyable read from the British Library Crime Classics series, and of course it has the usual informative introduction from Martin Edwards. Good stuff – I’ll be looking out for more from Rolls, though unfortunately he wasn’t as prolific as many of the Golden Age writers.

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

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Mrs McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

Where are they now?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When old Mrs McGinty is brutally killed in her own parlour, suspicion quickly falls on her lodger, the rather unprepossessing James Bentley. All the evidence points in his direction, and he is duly charged, tried and convicted. But somehow it doesn’t feel right to Superintendent Spence. He’s met many murderers in his long career and Bentley doesn’t seem to him to fit the profile. With the police case closed, he takes his concerns to his old friend Hercule Poirot, asking him to investigate with a view to either turning up evidence that will clear Bentley or alternatively finding something that will reassure Spence the right man has been convicted. But Poirot must hurry, before Bentley goes to the gallows…

This is yet another great mystery from the supremely talented Ms Christie. First published in 1952, she was still at the height of her formidable plotting powers and had that ease and occasional playfulness in her style that always makes her books such a pleasure to read. I’ve always loved the books in which Ariadne Oliver appears – Christie uses this mystery-writing friend of Poirot to provide a humorous and delightfully self-deprecating insight into the life of the detective novelist, and Ariadne’s love/hate relationship with her Finnish recurring detective must surely be based on Christie’s own frustrations with her Belgian one…

“How do I know?” said Mrs. Oliver crossly. “How do I know why I ever thought of the revolting man? I must have been mad! Why a Finn when I know nothing about Finland? Why a vegetarian? Why all the idiotic mannerisms he’s got? These things just happen. You try something – and people seem to like it – and then you go on – and before you know where you are, you’ve got someone like that maddening Sven Hjerson tied to you for life. And people even write and say how fond you must be of him. Fond of him? If I met that bony gangling vegetable eating Finn in real life, I’d do a better murder than any I’ve ever invented.”

One of Ariadne’s books is being adapted for the stage by a young playwright, Robin Upward, who lives in the village where Mrs McGinty’s murder took place. So Poirot seeks her help to get an inside look at the villagers – her erratic intuition usually leads her to the wrong conclusions, but Poirot often finds her insight into how people behave when they don’t realise they’re being observed of great help to him. It’s also an opportunity to see how Christie may have felt herself about the frustrations of seeing other people adapt her work…

“But you’ve no idea of the agony of having your characters taken and made to say things that they never would have said, and do things that they never would have done. And if you protest, all they say is that it’s ‘good theatre.’ That’s all Robin Upward thinks of. Everyone says he’s very clever. If he’s so clever I don’t see why he doesn’t write a play of his own and leave my poor unfortunate Finn alone. He’s not even a Finn any longer. He’s become a member of the Norwegian Resistance movement.”

Poirot’s accommodation provides a good deal of humour in this one too. He must stay in the village, so boards with the Summerhayes – a couple with little experience of providing for paying guests and less talent. Maureen Summerhayes is delightful but scatterbrained, and her untidiness and lack of organisation drive the obsessively neat Poirot to distraction, while her less than mediocre cooking skills leave him longing for a well-cooked meal and a decent cup of coffee.

Following a clue missed by the police, Poirot soon begins to suspect that the motive for the murder lies in the past. He discovers a newspaper cutting in Mrs McGinty’s effects relating to four old murders with photos of the murderers, under the heading “Where are they now?” Poirot thinks that one at least of them may be living in the village complete with a new name and persona. But which? The recent war has destroyed many records, allowing people with shady pasts to reinvent themselves with reasonable safety from discovery. But as word of Poirot’s investigation spreads, it seems as if someone is getting nervous, and nervous murderers take risks…

Agatha Christie

I enjoyed this one thoroughly. I’d read it before long ago and pretty soon remembered whodunit but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment. It allowed me instead to look out for the clues as they happened, so I can say that this is a fair-play one – all the clues are there and they’re often quite easy to spot, but much more difficult to interpret correctly. Great fun, and as always Hugh Fraser’s narration is excellent, bringing out all the humour and warmth in the stories. Highly recommended!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

The Hour of Peril by Daniel Stashower

The President and the detective…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Abraham Lincoln has won the Presidential election and now, in early 1861, is about to undertake the journey from his home in Springfield, Illinois, to Washington for his inauguration. But these are troubled times, and the journey is complicated because of all of the different railroad companies that own parts of the route. One of the company owners hears of a plot to destroy his railroad to prevent Lincoln making it to Washington, and so he calls in the already famous private detective, Allan Pinkerton. But when Pinkerton starts to investigate, he becomes convinced that there is a deeper plot in the planning – to assassinate Lincoln before he is inaugurated. This book tells the story of Lincoln’s journey, the plot against him, and Pinkerton’s attempt to ensure his safe arrival in Washington.

It’s written very much in the style of a true crime book, although it has aspects that fall as much into the category of history. Stashower focuses on three main aspects: a biographical look at Pinkerton and the development of his detective agency; the rising tensions in the still-new nation that would soon break out into full scale civil war; and Lincoln’s journey, and the plot against him.

Route of Lincoln’s whistle-stop inaugural trip 1861

The first section is mostly about Pinkerton, a man who started out as a political activist in his native Glasgow in Scotland until, perhaps to escape the authorities there, he emigrated to America with his young wife. I grew up knowing tales of the great American detective Pinkerton and his agents, but hadn’t realised he was born and lived only three or so miles away from where I spent my childhood years, so that was an added point of interest for me; plus the authenticity shown in the little time that the book spends on Scotland and the political situation there (about which I know a fair amount) convinced me of the author’s historical reliability. Once the story moves to America, Stashower shows us how this journeyman cooper gradually became a detective for hire, and then grew a business of many agents able to work undercover in all levels of society. Stashower discusses Pinkerton’s methods,  his policy that “the ends justify the means”, and the clients who called on him to prevent crimes if he could, or else bring the criminals to justice after the event.

The logo that gave rise to the expression, “private eye”

Pinkerton was also ahead of his time in recognising the value of women detectives, though it was actually a woman, Kate Warne, who convinced him of this when she persuaded him to hire her. She went on to become one of his most trusted agents, and played a major role in the events covered by the book, all of which Stashower recounts most interestingly. If any biographers are out there looking for a subject, I’d love to read a full bio of her life!

The focus then switches between Lincoln and Pinkerton, the one preparing for his journey, the other setting up his agents to infiltrate the pro-Secessionists in Baltimore, where the threat to Lincoln seemed to be greatest. The political background is woven into these two stories, with Stashower assuming some prior knowledge of the events leading up to the civil war on the part of his readers, but ensuring that he gives enough so that people, like me, whose understanding of that period is superficial and even sketchy don’t get left behind.

Stashower tells us of the various people surrounding Lincoln, and their differing opinions on how he should meet the threat. Given that he had won the election on a minority of the vote, it was felt to be important that he should let people see and hear him, trying to win them over before he took office. This meant that the train journey became serpentine, looping and doubling back so that he could visit as many places as possible. To make matters worse from a security point of view, his advisors and he thought it was necessary to put out an itinerary in advance, so that the people, and unfortunately therefore the plotters, would know when and where they could get close to him. To get to Washington, he would have to go through Baltimore – a state then known as Mobtown and one that was considered likely to go over to the Confederacy side in the event of war. Despite the fact that we all know that Lincoln survived for a few more years, Stashower manages to build a real atmosphere of tension – we may know the outcome, but I certainly didn’t know how or even if he would make it through Baltimore safely.

Pinkerton (left) with Lincoln and Major General John A. McClernand at Antietam in1862

Meantime, Pinkerton and his agents take us undercover deep into the conspiracy to stop Lincoln, showing how for many of those involved it was really a talking game, but for a few fanatics, it was a real plot. Pinkerton’s task was a double one – to trap the plotters while also managing Lincoln’s safe transit through this dangerous city. I’ll say no more, so that I won’t spoil the tension for anyone who, like me, doesn’t know this story. But towards the end I found it as tense as a thriller and raced through the last chapters with a need to know how it all worked out.

Daniel Stashower

Finally, Stashower gives a short summary of what happened afterwards to the various people involved – the people who travelled with Lincoln, Pinkerton and his agents, and some of the plotters. He also shows how conflicting versions of the story make getting at the facts difficult – Pinkerton and some of Lincoln’s people didn’t see eye to eye either at the time or afterwards, and each side perhaps embellished the facts to suit their own purposes. Nothing really changes, eh? Except maybe it’s a bit easier to travel from Illinois to Washington now.

A thoroughly enjoyable book – well written, interesting and informative, giving a lot of insight into this troubled period just before the Civil War. Highly recommended!

Thanks, Margot – you know my tastes well. 😀

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Tuesday Terror! The Gateway of the Monster by William Hope Hodgson

Ghost hunting…

So far this season all my spooky tales have involved women – one swooning victim and two rather more sassy heroines, so it’s about time to see how the men do when up against the supernatural. And who should be better able to cope than a ghost hunter? Here we will meet Carnacki the ghost finder, in this week’s…

The Gateway of the Monster
by William Hope Hodgson

William Hope Hodgson

Five men gather for dinner at the home of Carnacki, self-styled ghost-finder. As is a ritual on these evenings, after dinner Carnacki begins to tell the tale of his latest adventure. He had been contacted by a man named Anderson to investigate a haunted room in Anderson’s ancestral home…

Two days later, I drove to the house late in the afternoon. I found it a very old place, standing quite alone in its own grounds. Anderson had left a letter with the butler, I found, pleading excuses for his absence, and leaving the whole house at my disposal for my investigations.

Hmm! Well, Anderson is not showing the male of the species in a very brave light! However, the old butler, Peter, was able to give Carnacki some details of the haunting…

From him I learned more particulars regarding two things that Anderson had mentioned in but a casual manner. The first was that the door of the Grey Room would be heard in the dead of night to open, and slam heavily, and this even though the butler knew it was locked, and the key on the bunch in his pantry. The second was that the bedclothes would always be found torn off the bed, and hurled in a heap into a corner.

Anderson had already given Carnacki the horrible history of the Grey Room…

Three people had been strangled in it—an ancestor of his and his wife and child. This is authentic, as I had taken very great pains to discover; so that you can imagine it was with a feeling I had a striking case to investigate that I went upstairs after dinner to have a look at the Grey Room.

Examination of the room by daylight reveals nothing out of the ordinary, but during the night Carnacki, in his bedroom further down the corridor, is awakened by the banging of a door and, stopping only to light his candle, rushes out into the corridor…

Then a queer thing happened. I could not go a step toward the Grey Room. You all know I am not really a cowardly chap. I’ve gone into too many cases connected with ghostly things, to be accused of that; but I tell you I funked it; simply funked it, just like any blessed kid. There was something precious unholy in the air that night.

More male cowardice!

Old Peter begs Carnacki not to enter the Grey Room after darkness, but Carnacki is determined to find out what evil is hidden there, and determines to spend the night in the room. However, as an experienced ghost hunter, he takes precautions…

I returned then to the centre of the room, and measured out a space twenty-one feet in diameter, which I swept with a ‘broom of hyssop.’ About this, I drew a circle of chalk, taking care never to step over the circle. Beyond this I smudged, with a bunch of garlic, a broad belt right around the chalked circle…

There’s much more of this, including pentagrams and holy water and so on, and finally Carnacki settles himself in the centre of his circle and waits…

* * * * *

Well! This is nicely scary! There’s a lot more that happens in the lead-up to the night in the room than I’ve given above, and the actual events in the room are dramatic and tense. I must mention that there is a cat in the story which has (very) bad things happen to it, but it’s not shown graphically and isn’t dwelt on, so I didn’t find it as upsetting as I usually do when an animal is involved. The evil presence is done well, and we eventually learn why it’s coming to that particular room and what happened that led to the original stranglings. It’s not a traditional haunting – it has aspects of the “weird”; that is, of things and powers in nature or the cosmos that we puny humans cannot understand.

(All the illustrations I’ve used are from the original publication in The Idler, by Florence Briscoe)

Since it has everything you need to scare – haunted room, evil monstrous presence, dark night, arcane rituals – I was a bit puzzled as to why it didn’t terrify me and the porpy totally to the point of shrieking. And I realised it’s the first person narrative being given by the ghost hunter after the event. Knowing he obviously survives with body and mind intact rather reduces the tension. That small reservation aside, though, we raced through this and enjoyed it very much. I believe there are other Carnacki stories in this new collection of Hodgson’s weird tales from the British Library and we’re looking forward to them. And to be fair, Carnacki turned out to be very brave after all, even though he’s a man…

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

Enough to give the porpy a bad hair day…

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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Mother of Pearl by Angela Savage

The birds and the bees…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

After years of unsuccessful IVF treatment, Meg and Nate have given up their attempt to have a child, leaving Meg especially feeling that a vital part of her remains empty and unfulfilled. Her older sister Anna is home in Australia after spending several years working for various aid agencies in Thailand and Cambodia. At lunch one day, Anna introduces Meg to some friends, a gay couple who have just become parents via commercial surrogacy in Thailand. Suddenly Meg feels the hope she thought she had stifled come to life again. Anna is horrified at first – to her, commercial surrogacy is an exploitation of poor women in countries where their rights are already limited. But she comes to recognise Meg’s desperation and agrees to put her principles aside and use her knowledge of the language and customs of Thailand to help her sister and brother-in-law navigate their way through the difficult path they have chosen.

In Thailand, Mod feels the weight of family responsibilities bearing down on her. Her mother, younger siblings and most of all her little son, Puy, all depend on the little money she can make as a street-vendor, selling chicken. Then she learns that a friend is acting as a surrogate and being paid what seems like a small fortune. For Mod, the money is an important factor, but so is her religious belief that helping others will allow her to earn merit – a kind of spiritual savings account to provide an easier passage to reincarnation. Through the story of these three women, Meg, Anna, and Mod, the reader is shown the quiet tragedy of infertility and the complex morality around the question of paid surrogacy.

I shall start by saying that I’ve known the author via the blogosphere for a long time now, and know that this book has been a real labour of love for her over the last few years. Angela has previously written three crime novels, also based in Thailand, but this is her first venture into literary fiction. As always, I’ve tried my best not to let my friendship with her bias my review.

Most of the story is based in Thailand, a place Savage clearly knows extremely well. We see it from different angles, through the eyes of each of the three main characters. Savage shows it as a place of contrasts – rapidly modernising both physically and socially, but still with many people living in real poverty and holding to the old traditions. I loved the way she managed to be observational without being judgemental, and the insights she gave into the traditional culture and beliefs of the Thai people.

She brings this same balanced impartiality to the moral questions around the issue of paid surrogacy. I’m always afraid when a book is so clearly based around a moral issue that the author will slip into polemics, forcing her view on the reader. Savage avoids this by having her characters have very different opinions on the subject and letting them speak for themselves. The reader is then left with the task of using her own judgement on the matter.

It would have been so easy, and so lazy, to portray Mod as simply the poor third-world victim of first-world greed, but Mod is drawn with far more complexity than that, as is Meg. Mod is indeed treated as a commodity by the surrogacy agency, but her decisions are her own at every step of the way, and she sees this as a way to help others while also improving life for her own family. Savage does however show that in some cases the surrogates may have been pushed into it, by husbands or family, which obviously opens up an entirely different moral equation.

The embryo in this case is not biologically related to Mod or Meg; the eggs are from another woman, although the sperm is Nate’s own. This raises all kinds of questions regarding what makes a “mother” – is it the woman who donates the egg, the woman whose womb carries the child to term, or the woman who proposes to raise and nurture the child throughout its life? Savage handles these questions beautifully, raising them, exploring them, and leaving them gently unanswered. She also looks at the impact on the surrogate of giving up a child she has carried and birthed, and happily Savage doesn’t over-emotionalise this. She looks too at the fear of the adoptive mother of not feeling the same bond as she would to a biological child, and questions whether a child born in this way ought to be taught about the culture of her biological mother or her surrogate mother.

Many of the questions around surrogacy seemed to me to mirror the old debates around adoption, and we know that in most cases adoption works well for all involved. It is of course the question of money that raises the issue of exploitation, but is earning money this way better or worse than sex work, or sending young children out to work, or some of the other ways people in conditions of poverty have to sell themselves or their labour in order to survive? I must say I started out ready to be angry on behalf of the surrogates, but I came out of it much less sure of my stance.

Angela Savage

This is also a deeply emotional read as we all wait with the three women, all of whom I had come to care about, to see if the procedure is a success. Even I, who haven’t a maternal bone in my body, was on tenterhooks throughout, hoping all would go well and dreading that it wouldn’t. Did it? You’ll have to read it if you want to know the answer to that. An “issues” book where the author trusts the reader to think for herself, very well written and, in my opinion, a very fine novel indeed. Highly recommended (and that’s not because I’m biased, but because it deserves it).

NB Angela kindly sent me a copy of the book all the way from Australia. Thanks, Angela, and congratulations! You even made me cry…

Amazon UK Link
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Walking Wounded by William McIlvanney

Our national mirror…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

Book 7 of 25

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

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

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

William McIlvanney

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

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

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

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

Colonial spookiness...

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

The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor
by B.M. Croker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things are about to get spooky!

* * * * *

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

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

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

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger

Careful what you wish for…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

Muriel Jaeger

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Eveline’s Visitant by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Revenge is sweet…

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

Eveline’s Visitant
by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

The porpy is relaxed and ready for more…

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

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * *

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

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

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