It’s 1938, a peak time for fake spiritualists and psychical research. When poltergeist activity starts happening in her house, Alma Fielding contacts the Sunday Pictorial newspaper. Nandor Fodor is a Jewish refugee from Hungary, a psychical researcher who has worked with the paper in the past, so he gets in on the case from the beginning. The book tells the story of Alma’s “haunting” and of Fodor’s attempts to prove her story either true or false.
I have enjoyed some of Summerscale’s previous books, but I fear this one is the exception. It’s rambly and repetitive, with far too many descriptions of various frauds perpetrated on gullible “experts” like Fodor by Alma and other mediums. I also felt that Summerscale’s research wasn’t as sound as usual – her casual mention that Alma was taking antibiotics (in 1938) set up warning flags at an early point. She also lists the many breakages of glasses and cups flying through the air at Alma’s home – I found the concept of poltergeist activity marginally less unbelievable than the idea that a working class household in the 1930s would have possessed twenty-four wine glasses and thirty-six tumblers. Not impossible, but unlikely, and I was surprised that Summerscale seemed to accept these figures without question, or even comment.
In her usual style, Summerscale ranges beyond the mere facts of Alma’s case to look more widely at the society in which they happened. She discusses the anxiety the country was experiencing as they waited for the now inevitable war to begin; the rise of spiritualism at a time when traditional religion was on the wane; poltergeist activity as a means for women to be transgressive in a restrictive society, consciously or unconsciously. Fodor, she tells us, was intrigued by Freud’s ideas, and thought that such hauntings as Alma’s may be physical manifestations of psychological frustrations. To bolster this, Summerscale suggests that the earlier death of one of her children may have been at the root of Alma’s “manifestations”. The problem with this theory is that Alma was so clearly not having manifestations, nor could her actions have been subconscious since she was deliberately making elaborate physical preparations in advance of meetings with the researchers in order to fool them. Alma was not a deluded woman, however much her loss may have affected her mental state – she was a deliberate fraud, making money out of her deception. I felt that if Summerscale wanted to make the not unreasonable case that some “hauntings” may be the result of psychological stresses, then she picked the wrong subject.
Where it is rather more interesting is in the description of the lengths gone to by the researchers to prove that manifestations were indeed true. While they would probably have argued that they were unbiased, in fact Summerscale makes it clear that they were strongly incentivised to find “real” cases – continuing publicity and contributions to funding, and hence, in Fodor’s case, his income, depended on ensuring the public remained gullible and enthusiastic about such stories, and a constant stream of proof that it was all nonsense wouldn’t have helped with this. Therefore, the researchers themselves were motivated, whether they realised it or not, to make allowances for subjects even when they caught them out in deliberate cheating. I felt the physical lengths to which the researchers went, strip-searching subjects, investigating their intimate orifices for hidden objects, pinioning their arms during sessions and so on, had a direct kinship with the old ways of testing women to see if they were witches; and I found myself angry that Fodor could believe that Alma’s case was caused by mental trauma and yet treat her so inhumanely. The fact that Alma was so clearly a fraud still didn’t justify the circus that they allowed to develop around her.
In the end, I didn’t feel there had been enough of interest in it to justify the time taken to read through the repetitive descriptions of manifestations and research methods. It might have made an interesting essay, but it needed far more substance and less waffle to make a worthwhile book. A disappointment, I’m afraid.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing.
All you people who’ve been worried about my shrinking TBR can breathe a sigh of relief this week – it’s gone up 2 to 198! Still below the magic 200, though, and of course it wasn’t my fault. I tried to stop the postman delivering the box of books, but he insisted, so what could I do?? I’m sure I’ll be back on track soon…
Here are a few more that will be tripping my way soon…
The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale
Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing via NetGalley. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed several of Summerscale’s earlier books, loving her mix of true events and social commentary. This one sounds like a great way to kick off spooky season too…
The Blurb says:London, 1938. In the suburbs of the city, an ordinary young housewife has become the eye in a storm of chaos. In Alma Fielding’s modest home, china flies off the shelves, eggs fly through the air; stolen jewellery appears on her fingers, white mice crawl out of her handbag, beetles appear from under her gloves; in the middle of a car journey, a terrapin materialises on her lap. Nandor Fodor – a Jewish-Hungarian refugee and chief ghost hunter for the International Institute for Psychical Research – reads of the case, and hastens to the scene of the haunting. But when Fodor starts his scrupulous investigation, he discovers that the case is even stranger than it seems. By unravelling Alma’s peculiar history, he finds a different and darker type of haunting: trauma, alienation, loss – and the foreshadowing of a nation’s worst fears. As the spectre of Fascism lengthens over Europe, and as Fodor’s obsession with the case deepens, Alma becomes ever more disturbed. With rigour, daring and insight, the award-winning pioneer of non-fiction writing Kate Summerscale shadows Fodor’s enquiry, delving into long-hidden archives to find the human story behind a very modern haunting.
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The American by Henry James
Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. One from my Classics Club list. I’ve only read a few of James’ ghostly novellas before, and am not at all convinced his style won’t drive me insane in a full-length book. But we book bloggers must sometimes suffer for our art, so I shall gird up my loins (do women have loins? I should have paid more attention in anatomy classes. I know men have them… and pigs…) and face him bravely!
The Blurb says: During a trip to Europe, Christopher Newman, a wealthy American businessman, asks the charming Claire de Cintre to be his wife. To his dismay, he receives an icy reception from the heads of her family, who find Newman to be a vulgar example of the American privileged class. Brilliantly combining elements of comedy, tragedy, romance and melodrama, this tale of thwarted desire vividly contrasts nineteenth-century American and European manners. Oxford’s edition of The American, which was first published in 1877, is the only one that uses James’ revised 1907 text.
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Inspector French and the Mystery on Southampton Water by Freeman Wills Crofts
Courtesy of HarperCollins. To celebrate the publishing centenary of Freeman Wills Crofts, HarperCollins are reissuing three of his books and I was thrilled to receive a surprise box containing them all! I’ve only read one of the Inspector French books before, The 12:30 from Croydon, and loved it, and have been meaning to read more, so here’s the first. Couldn’t wait, so I’ve started it already…
The Blurb says: The Joymount Rapid Hardening Cement Manufacturing Company on the Solent is in serious financial trouble. Its rival, Chayle on the Isle of Wight, has a secret new manufacturing process and is underselling them. Having failed to crack the secret legitimately, two employees hatch a plot to break in and steal it. But the scheme does not go according to plan, resulting in damage and death, and Inspector French is brought in to solve one of the most dramatic and labyrinthine cases of his entire career.
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Dalziel & Pascoe on Audio
Child’s Play by Reginald Hill read by Colin Buchanan
I enjoyed Colin Buchanan as narrator of these books more than I was expecting in Exit Lines (review soon), so decided to go for the audiobook again for the next one in my slow re-read of this great series…
The Blurb says: Geraldine Lomas’s son went missing in Italy during World War Two, but the eccentric old lady never accepted his death.
Now she is dead, leaving the Lomas beer fortune to be divided between an animal rights organization, a fascist front and a services benevolent fund. As disgruntled relatives gather by the graveside, the funeral is interrupted by a middle-aged man in an Italian suit, who falls to his knees crying, ‘Mama!’
Andy Dalziel is preoccupied with the illegal book one of his sergeants is running on who is to be appointed as the new chief Constable. But when a dead Italian turns up in the police car park, Peter Pascoe and his bloated superior are plunged into an investigation that makes internal police politics look like child’s play…
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.
I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!
(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)
For the runners-up!
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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in
The Golden Age of factual writing continues this year, although my general reading slump means I’ve read considerably fewer than usual. Fortunately, even from this restricted pool there have been some corkers, each of which is worthy of the award. A difficult choice, especially since there’s always an element of comparing apples and oranges in this category, but in the end the judge’s decision was unanimous…
Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior by Arthur Herman
From the prologue of this biography, where Herman gives a dramatic description of the events at Inchon and then leaves those of us who don’t know our history on a cliffhanger, foreshadowing MacArthur’s future downfall, I knew he was going to achieve the remarkable, I might even have said impossible, feat of making me enjoy over 800 pages of the history of a soldier fighting the various American wars of the first half of the twentieth century.
The picture that emerges is of a true military hero, a man of great personal courage, with a huge ego and a desire for public recognition and even glory, but with a driving ambition to see his nation provide a shining example to the rest of the world. A flawed hero perhaps, but I sometimes think we as a society expect a level of perfection that our heroes cannot possibly achieve, and in general I prefer sympathetic biographies that recognise and allow for human fallibility, as Herman’s always do. So from my perspective, this is another great biography from Herman, thoroughly researched and immensely readable.
For ten days in the summer of July 1895, two boys spent their time roaming round coffee shops and attending cricket matches, and telling anyone who asked that their mother had gone to visit relatives in Liverpool. Meantime, an unpleasant smell was beginning to seep from their house, becoming so bad eventually that the neighbours complained to the boys’ aunt. When she forced her way into the house, she discovered the badly decomposed body of the boys’ mother, and immediately young Robert Coombes admitted to having stabbed her to death.
This is a chilling but fascinating true crime story from the end of the Victorian era. Robert Coombes was thirteen at the time of the murder and his brother Nattie was twelve. Summerscale tells the story of the crime and its aftermath – firstly, the trial and conviction of young Robert, and then following him through his later life to answer the question of whether there can be any kind of redemption in this life for someone who has committed such a horrific crime. Immaculately researched, well written and presented, this is an intriguing look at how children were treated in the justice system at the time, and at the regime within Broadmoor, the state hospital for the criminally insane.
The Murder of King James I by Alastair Bellany & Thomas Cogswell
Following the death of James VI and I in 1625, rumours abounded that he had been done away with by his favourite, George Villiers, by then Duke of Buckingham. Over the intervening period these rumours have been dismissed by historians, partly on the grounds of lack of real evidence and partly as a result of developments in the field of forensic medicine, which suggest other, natural causes for his death. In this book, the authors’ position is that whether James was or wasn’t murdered is not the point. They argue that it is how and why the allegations were made that matters, and how they were spread, perceived by contemporary society, and altered over time to suit the end purposes of various factions. They set out to prove that the allegations played a major role in the downfall of Charles I, and were still exerting a political influence many decades after the event, all through the period of Cromwell’s Protectorate, through the Restoration, and on to the final demise of the Stuart dynasty.
I found the story the authors told fascinating. Although it’s more academic in style than most of the history I’ve reviewed, it’s very well written – thoroughly explained and convincingly argued, and free of academic jargon, so still quite accessible to the general reader. Personally I found it an immersive experience, at some points feeling that I knew the players and politics of the period of and just after the ‘murder’ better than I do the contemporary political scene.
Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey by Harlan Lebo
In the introduction, Harlan Lebo explains that the book is based on source documents and conversations with some of the participants in the making of the film. He starts with a brief biography of Welles’ achievements on stage and radio before he was given a contract by RKO.
Once Welles is installed at RKO, Lebo takes the reader through the entire process of the making of Kane in painstaking and pretty geeky detail. But geeky in a good way – written so that even I, who wouldn’t recognise a movie camera if I tripped over it, was able to easily understand. No detail is too small, no aspect too obscure to be included here, from budgeting, casting, direction, production, even what days particular scenes were filmed on. Sounds dreadful, huh? And yet, I found it increasingly fascinating – I had no idea of all that went into producing a film and began to feel a much greater admiration for the strange and wonderful people behind the camera, sometimes far behind it. It may not have made me enjoy the film more in the end, but I now have much more appreciation of the work that went into it, I admire a lot of the innovation, I see the stuff about the cinematography, I’m impressed by the dissolves between scenes, I hear how the music is being used. Recommended for Kane buffs, movie buffs, and people with a weird penchant for detailed geekiness…
Yes, Herman makes his second appearance in the shortlist, and fourth overall appearance in the four years I’ve been doing these awards! I think that officially makes me a fan!
The scope of this book is huge. Herman gives us parallel biographies of both men from birth to death, a full political history of India under the Raj, and a wider look at the impact the battle for control of India had on the British Empire in the East and on the course of the bloody history of Europe and, indeed, the world in the first half of the century. He handles it superbly, remaining even-handed throughout, showing both men’s failures and weaknesses as well as their strengths, and how the intransigence of each grew out of their personal histories. There’s no sycophancy here, but neither is there an attempt to vilify either man – Herman suggests that neither deserves the reputation for unalloyed greatness that they tend to have been given in the popular mind in their respective nations, but both worked hard all their lives to achieve what they genuinely believed was for the best, for both nations.
The book is quite simply a stunning achievement. Herman writes brilliantly, making even the most complex subject clear. He has the gift of knowing what to put in and what to leave out, so that the reader feels fully informed without ever becoming bogged down by a lot of irrelevant details. Even on the bits of history that he mentions more or less in passing – the background to the Suez crisis, for example, or Kashmir – his short explanations give a clarity often missed in more detailed accounts. And his writing flows – the book is as readable as a fine literary novel, a great, sweeping saga covering a hundred years or more of history, populated by characters we come to know and understand. Quite possibly the best biographical history I have ever read, and one that gets my highest recommendation.
For ten days in the summer of July 1895, two boys spent their time roaming round coffee shops and attending cricket matches, and telling anyone who asked that their mother had gone to visit relatives in Liverpool. They slept downstairs in the back parlour of their house, with a family friend who had come at their request to look after them. Meantime, an unpleasant smell was beginning to seep from the house, becoming so bad eventually that the neighbours complained to the boys’ aunt. When she forced her way into the house, she discovered the badly decomposed body of the boys’ mother, and immediately young Robert Coombes admitted to having stabbed her to death.
This is a chilling but fascinating true crime story from the end of the Victorian era. Robert Coombes was thirteen at the time of the murder and his brother Nattie was twelve. The idea of the matricide itself horrified contemporary society enough, but it was the cool behaviour of the boys over the following ten days that made the crime seem even more shocking. Evidence showed that the murder was planned – Robert had bought the knife specially a few days earlier, and he later claimed that he and Nattie had arranged a signal for when the deed should be done.
The first part of the book concentrates on the crime and the trial procedures and Summerscale covers these with her usual excellent attention to detail. Because they felt that their case against Robert would be stronger if his brother gave evidence, the prosecution were keen to have the charges against Nattie dropped, since at that time defendants were not allowed to tell their story in court. In the early proceedings, Robert had no lawyer or other representation and was expected to cross-examine witnesses by himself. The boys’ father was a steward on board a transatlantic cattle vessel, and wasn’t even aware of the murder till after the first hearings had taken place.
Although this all sounds horrific to our modern ideas of justice, especially for children, there seems little doubt that Robert was indeed guilty, and some of the court officers did their best to make the process as easy for him as they could within the system. The boys were held in an adult jail during the trial process, but had individual cells – a luxury they might be unlikely to get today. The boys’ extended family did show up for the hearings, so Nattie at least had some adult support.
The defence quickly decided to try for an insanity ruling, which meant that they actually preferred for there not to be a rational motive, while the prosecution felt Robert’s guilt was so obvious they didn’t need one. The result of this is that no-one ever really asked why Robert did it, and so the motivation remains unclear. Summerscale suggests on the basis of some fairly circumstantial evidence that the mother may have been cruel to the boys in her husband’s absence – there is a suggestion that she too suffered from “excitability” and extreme mood swings, and may have beaten the boys badly, but this is largely speculation.
In this first section, Summerscale also widens her discussion out to look at the society and living conditions of the time. Robert’s family was working class, but not grindingly poor – his father had a decent income, and the boys got a good education. However, at that time, there was much debate as to whether educating the poor was a good thing, especially since the ability to read allowed boys access to the “penny dreadfuls” of the time, which many considered to have a bad influence on impressionable young minds. Robert had a collection of such pamphlets, and the press made much of this. The crime took place in Plaistow in Essex, an industrial area within the range of the heavily polluted atmosphere of London. There was also much debate at that time about the general poor health of the urban poor, while the acceptance of the theory of evolution brought with it a belief in the possibility of its opposite, degeneration. It all reminded me of the “bad boy” culture that Andrew Levy discussed so thoroughly in his book about Twain’s young hero, Huck Finn’s America.
The second half of the book tells the story of what happened to Robert after his conviction. Summerscale is asking, and answering, the question of whether someone who has done such a dreadful thing can go on to lead a normal, even worthwhile life. Robert spent several years in Broadmoor, the hospital for the criminally insane, where again because of his youth he was in fact treated more kindly than we might expect. This whole section is fascinating in what it tells us about the treatment of those judged criminally insane. In fact, from time to time there were complaints that the treatment was too kind – that people were faking insanity to avoid the much harder regime in normal prisons.
This is not the end of Robert’s story, though. Following his eventual release from Broadmoor, Summerscale follows his trail through the rest of his life, uncovering some interesting and unexpected details about how he turned out. So often true crime stories from the Victorian era end with a conviction and capital punishment. This one, being somewhat later and also because it concerned a child, is intriguing because we are able to see the aftermath. At the point of conviction Robert would undoubtedly have been seen as some kind of monster, but Summerscale lets us see whether the rest of his life confirmed that or allowed him to find some kind of redemption. Immaculately researched, well written and presented, this is easily the equal of Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and personally, having worked with boys of that age with troubled and often criminal histories, I found this one even more interesting. Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Group.
Ooh, the TBR has dropped 2 again this week – to 165! I knew it was the start of a trend! I shall be in single figures any time now, I’m convinced of it! So long as nothing unforeseen happens…
Here are some of the ones that are getting close to the top of the heap…
Courtesy of NetGalley, from the author of the brilliant The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (and the slightly less brilliant Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace)…
The Blurb says: In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) were seen spending lavishly around the docklands of East London — for ten days in July, they ate out at coffee houses and took trips to the seaside and the theater. The boys told neighbours they had been left home alone while their mother visited family in Liverpool, but their aunt was suspicious. When eventually she forced the brothers to open the house to her, she found the badly decomposed body of their mother in a bedroom upstairs. Robert and Nattie were arrested for matricide and sent for trial at the Old Bailey.
At a time of great tumult and uncertainty, Robert Coombes’s case crystallised contemporary anxieties about the education of the working classes, the dangers of pulp fiction, and evolving theories of criminality, childhood, and insanity. With riveting detail and rich atmosphere, Kate Summerscale recreates this terrible crime and its aftermath, uncovering an extraordinary story of man’s capacity to overcome the past.
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Next up for the GAN Quest. I’m not expecting this to be The Great American Novel but I’m hoping it will be A Great American Novel. Can’t be worse than Absalom! Absalom!, right? 😉
The Blurb says: As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.
Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.
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Recommended by the lovely Raven way back in 2013, it’s taken some time for this one to reach the top of the heap…
The Blurb says: New York City, 1924: the height of Prohibition and the whole city swims in bathtub gin. Rose Baker is an orphaned young woman working for her bread as a typist in a police precinct on the lower East Side. Every day Rose transcribes the confessions of the gangsters and murderers that pass through the precinct. While she may disapprove of the details, she prides herself on typing up the goriest of crimes without batting an eyelid.
But when the captivating Odalie begins work at the precinct Rose finds herself falling under the new typist’s spell. As do her bosses, the buttoned up Lieutenant Detective and the fatherly Sergeant. As the two girls’ friendship blossoms and they flit between the sparkling underworld of speakeasies by night, and their work at the precinct by day, it is not long before Rose’s fascination for her new colleague turns to obsession.
But just who is the real Odalie, and how far will Rose go to find out?
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And NetGalley again. Not exactly a Holmes pastiche, more a riff on a theme, I think. It’s had mixed reviews so far, so we’ll see…
The Blurb says: As snow falls on Baker Street, the wintry city is abuzz with rumour and excitement: the Malabar Rose – a fabled and frankly enormous ruby – has been sent as a gift to Her Majesty Queen Victoria by the Marharajah of Marjoudh. An extraordinary condition is attached to the gift, though: the gem must be displayed at London’s sumptuous Blenheim Hotel to be admired by all. How can the safety of this priceless jewel be assured? The authorities wisely enlist the help of Sherlock Holmes and his colleague Dr Watson… but fortunately for them, they are also on the receiving end of help from Holmes’s redoubtable housekeeper Mrs Hudson and her able assistant, Flotsam the housemaid.
Isabella Robinson’s diary of her adulterous affair with Dr Edward Lane provides Kate Summerscale with a starting point to examine the social attitudes surrounding marriage, adultery and female sexuality in the early Victorian period.
Summerscale covers a lot of ground in considerable depth showing how attitudes and the law relating to marriage and divorce were at that time skewed in favour of men. Isabella’s husband is not only unpleasant but also controls the money that Isabella brought to the marriage. Isabella retreats into a world of romantic longings that she somewhat foolishly recorded in a diary. When Henry found and read the diary, he used it as evidence to sue for divorce. Did Isabella really have an affair or was she simply indulging her imagination? For the purpose of the book, that question is largely irrelevant since the idea of a woman having such thoughts was considered almost as scandalous as the act of adultery itself.
There’s no doubt a lot of research has gone into this book but I found it didn’t grab and hold my attention. Much of the ground Summerscale covers is neither new nor surprising and the concentration on one woman’s story meant that there was a great deal of stuff about her family history and background that really added nothing much to either the basic story or to the examination of prevalent attitudes. Isabella comes over as fairly unattractive and self-centred, and the romantic sighings and longings of this middle-aged woman’s diary suggested that, whether adulterous or not, she tended towards the mental instability suggested by her lawyers as a defence for her behaviour. My failure to warm to Isabella meant that for me there was no emotional heart to the book, leaving it as a fairly dry social history.
I listened to this book on the unabridged Audible download version, narrated by Jenny Agutter. Her reading was very good and she tried her best to breathe some much-needed life into the many characters, some of them exceptionally dull, who played their part in Isabella’s story. Overall, however, though worthy, I found the book rather lacklustre.