The Years of My Life ~ 1949: The Third Man ~ Graham Greene

04241FD6-393A-4ED1-A603-FCCF60EA9B7DIt seems ridiculous to say that until now I had neither read The Third Man nor seen the Carol Reed film, which, like the book, appeared in 1949.  Apart from the fact that they are both masterpieces of their particular genres, they are so much part of the zeitgeist of their time I am amazed at how I have come to miss them.  And yet, so deeply is the name Harry Lime and the haunting Anton Karas score embedded in the cultural psyche of the nation, had you asked me, I would have assured you that I knew precisely what both book and film were about.  I would have been wrong.

In the light of the themes that the novella does explore, such a reaction on my part isn’t exactly inappropriate.  On the surface, Harry Lime is stationed in post-war Vienna, working for the International Refugee Office.  However, the British Colonel, Calloway, who narrates the book, is certain that Lime is not all that he seems and that his job is a cover for a particularly nasty form of black marketeering: one which leads to madness and death in young children.  Rollo Martins, a friend of Lime’s from schooldays, suspects none of this when he comes out to Vienna at Lime’s invitation.  He, like me, thinks he knows all about Harry Lime. Like me, he is wrong.  Mind you, I think I have a better excuse because Rollo has always been Harry’s dupe.

‘Was he clever at school?’

‘Not the way they wanted him to be.  But what things he did think up!  He was a wonderful planner.  I was far better at subjects like History and English than Harry, but I was a hopeless mug when it came to carrying out his plans…I was always the one who got caught.’

And so, having arrived to find that Lime has been killed in an accident with a car, Rollo sets out to prove that Calloway’s suspicions about his friend are wrong.  He tracks down and questions the people who were with Lime when he died and visits the young Hungarian actress, Anna, with whom Harry had apparently formed a relationship.  But what he discovers is disquieting and gradually he is forced to accept that perhaps Harry had become involved in nefarious dealings.  Was the ‘accident’ actually a set-up?  Was he killed to keep him quiet about what he knew?  And who was the mysterious third man who helped to carry the body away from the crash site?  (So that’s where the tile comes from.  Who knew?)

The theme of people not being who we might think they are is developed through the characters of Rollo, Anna and Calloway as well as Lime himself.  Calloway dresses in civvies, hiding his military rank.  Anna conceals her nationality for fear of being deported.  And Rollo, well he lives all sorts of double lives.  He makes his meagre living by writing cheap paper-covered Westerns under the name of Buck Dexter, but having arrived in Vienna, he is mistaken for the literary novelist, Benjamin Dexter, and plays up to it only to then find himself the centre of attention at the sort of cultural gathering he most despises.  Most importantly, however, there is a duality at the very heart of his nature.  Rollo looked at every woman that passed, and Martins renounced them forever.  The tussle between Rollo and Martins for the direction of this central character’s thought and actions is critical to the novella.

I loved this book.  The story gripped me from the first and it was all the more intriguing for not being what I had expected.  It is also, as you would expect from Greene, beautifully written.  Passages such as

so back they drove through the heart of a forest where the graves lay like wolves under the trees, winking white eyes under the gloom of evergreens

repeatedly stopped me in my tracks as I savoured them over and over again.

In terms of focusing my thoughts on 1949 what it did most strongly was remind me just how close to the end of World War II this was.  Because I didn’t live through those years, that war has always seemed like history to me.  Well maybe it was, but it was very recent history and for many, especially on the Continent but in England too, its aftermath was still a daily living reality.  Vienna is not only a city ravaged by its years under occupation, but now also a city divided between wrangling forces who are supposed to be allies.  The foundations of what would become known as the Cold War are clear for all to see.

As Greene explains in a foreword, the novella was written in order to work out in his own mind how the film might be scripted, and in his opinion

the film in fact is better than the story because it is in this case the finished stage of the story.

Inevitably alterations were made when the script was written, not the least of these being the changing of the final moments and Rollo’s name being altered to Holly, and normally I would actively avoid any film of a book that I have enjoyed as much as this.  In this instance, however, and given the circumstances under which The Third Man was written, my next purchase is obvious.  I am going to have to hunt down a copy of the DVD as soon as possible.

 

Advertisements

Two More Places To Spend My Money

 

nice reading roomFor those of you who live in the English West Midlands can I mentioned two new (to me) used book stores both with very good stocks. The first is in St Swithens Street in Worcester. It is actually a charity shop supporting the work of St Richard’s Hospice.  The ground floor is given over to clothing and what I suppose I would call oddments but the upper floor is a large book shop and café. (As an aside, should there not be a rule of the universe that all bookshops should have cafés?  It seems to me that it is a basic necessity of life that when you are browsing round bookshelves there should be somewhere to get a decent cup of tea, not to mention a slice of cake, while you make the heart rending decision as to which books you simply cannot leave behind and which are going to have to wait for another day. This just seems like common humanity to me.) The selection is far larger and wider ranging than you would normally find in a charity shop and I didn’t regret for a moment the fact that I had made a special trip into the city just to go and investigate. The good pot of tea and slice of dark cherry and marsipan cake didn’t go amiss either. I was hoping to be able to take some photographs, but both shop and café were very busy so that wasn’t really possible. However, if you go onto their website at https://www.strichards.org.uk/our-shops/st-richards-hospice-store/ then you can see their 0C9C2AA9-BDC5-41A2-BFE7-712E89D0B60Eown photos there.  What I can show you is a photo of the books that I bought.  The Muriel Sparks, the Joyce Carol Oates and the Margaret Atwood came from the Worcester store, the other three, The Facts of Life, The Quickening Maze  and Vanessa and Virginia were from the used bookshop situated in Winterbourne, the home of the University of Birmingham’s Botanic Gardens. If you don’t know Winterbourne then it is well worth a visit.  The house itself, which belonged to the Nettlefold family, has been restored and is now a fine example of an Edwardian Arts and Crafts residence. The gardens are also very much as Margaret Nettlefold had them laid out, but again they have been restored and are now home to over 6000 species of plant. EB851C85-08A9-4ACA-A41D-4FCB0C0015E7A couple of years ago they opened a used book area in an old outbuilding, which was seriously cold and draughty, but now they have moved this into a far more welcoming area that is not only warm and cosy but which also has comfortable chairs and a notice encouraging you to sit and read for as long as you like.  The stock isn’t as extensive as the Worcester store, but given the location you often find books there which are unlikely to turn up in High Street shops. There’s no tea room actually in the shop but there is a marvellous terrace cafe attached to the house and all of thirty seconds walk away.  I can strongly recommend their homemade cherry and coconut loaf and they serve light lunches as well. The only downside to Winterbourne is that there is an entrance fee, but if you are combining a visit to the bookshop with one to see the House and Gardens then that, I think, is reasonable.  If, like me, you are going to be in and out all the year round then you can get a membership pass which you wave loftily two or three time a week as you go back to see if anything new has turned up and then indulged yourself in the cafe as you gloat over your purchases.

Rounding Up and Looking Forward ~ November-December 2017

1106623932_58e6ad3de8November has been a really busy work month.  That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been reading as much, but that rather a lot of what I have read has been seriously non-taxing, something I could just pick up and put down again without loosing the thread.  I don’t like that.  After a time my brain starts to feel woolly and I crave something with a bit more bite to it.  With luck, December will be better – busy no doubt, but not with things that demand my intellectual energy.

Book Group reads this month were Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, which I reviewed here and Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread which I reviewed when I first read it quite some time ago now.  Both of these were re-reads, which is happening too often where my Book Groups are concerned.  I look to these to introduce me to new works but that hasn’t been the case this year.  Maybe better luck next time round.

I only managed one book for the Years of My Life project and that was hardly taxing. However, Enid Blyton’s The Rockingdown Mystery brought back some wonderful memories, especially when I realised that this was the book that first sparked my love of Shakespeare.  In that respect I couldn’t have picked a better starting place for a project intended to help me look back on the world that shaped me.

My one major disappointment was Laura Wilson’s The Other Woman.  I had really been looking forward to this. I loved her sequence of novels about DI Ted Stratton and even though I’m not normally a reader of one-off thrillers, for Wilson I have always made an exception.  However, I’m afraid I couldn’t even bring myself to finish this, her latest book.  It wasn’t just that I couldn’t warm to any of her characters, I couldn’t believe in them.  They weren’t even stereotypes, they were caricatures.  And when we reached what I would technically call the Igniting Moment of the story, or that point at which you realise which way the tale is going to develop, not even my famed ability to believe six impossible things before breakfast each morning was sufficient to stop me laughing out loud.  With deep regrets the book went back to the library.

I also made the mistake this month of going against my self-imposed resolution only to accept books for review that I knew I definitely wanted to read regardless, and consequently there is a discussion of a novel coming in the next weeks about which I had real reservations. In my own defence the author had been recommended to me by someone whose judgement I would normally trust, but I know that he is a friend and I think that may have influenced her own considerations. In future I shall just say no.

Other than that it has been a month of crime fiction, some of it good and some of it considerably less so.  Probably the best of these was Francis Brody’s latest Kate Shackleton mystery, Death in the Stars and of its type Michael Innes The Secret Vanguard  was enjoyable too.  However, I decided not to go back to Angela Marsons’ series after reading the first, Silent Scream, and Jessica Fellowes’ The Mitford Murders and Guy Fraser-Sampson’s Death in Profile proved not to be time well spent either.

IMG_0245So, all told, not the best of months.  I can only hope December will be better.  It should get off to a good start because the Monday Book Group is reading Ali Smith’s Autumn.  I have been putting off reading this knowing that it was on our list and I have seen some excellent reviews around the blogging world.  I also have Winter on reservation from the library.  It would be great if that turned up as well.  (Library service, I hope you’re paying attention.)  There is no Wednesday Group this month.  It falls too close to Christmas and so often coincides with parents’ evenings, school plays, concerts and discos, that we decided a couple of years ago to give December a miss.  At this time of the year you simply can’t fit everything in.

The Year of My Life project should fare better this month too.  I have to get Greene’s The Third Man back to the library by the 14th, so as soon as I’ve read the Smith it will be onto that.  I also have both of the Nancy Mitford books on hold, having decided to read The Pursuit of Love before going on to the 1949 publication Love in a Cold Climate.  I hope the title of the latter won’t prove to be too prophetic about the weather we can expect over the next few weeks; curling up over a good book is so much more pleasurable if you’ve been able to get out for a good long walk as well.  We had our first snow last Tuesday!

Inevitably, there will be some crime fiction.  I have Eva Dolan’s This Is How It Ends and Helen Fields’ Perfect Death from NetGalley.  Both of these are published in late January, so any reviews won’t appear until then, but I shall definitely read them over the Christmas period.  Dolan is a long established favourite, although I am a little wary about this latest novel as it isn’t part of her existing series.  However, she is a good enough writer for me to enjoy the journey on a stylistic level whatever surprises the plot may hold.  Helen Fields is a writer I encountered for the first time this year and Perfect Death is the third in her series set in Edinburgh and featuring DI Luc Callanach.  She is one of a group of crime novelists I’ve discovered recently who have all grabbed me from the very first novel and if you haven’t read her books, which start with Perfect Remains, then I strongly recommend them.

And, as the perfect Christmas present, on the very day itself, the latest short story in Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St Mary’s will pop into my in-box.  If you don’t know these books then no words of mine can adequately describe them.  The only thing I can say is that whatever you may think it isn’t time travel. At St Mary’s they investigate major historical events in contemporary time.  Call it time travel and you will have Dr Bairstow to answer to, or even worse, Mrs Partridge, and that would be enough to ruin anyone’s Christmas.  As well as the full length tales, there is now a Christmas tradition of a short story filling the time gap between one novel and the next, so I shall spend Christmas day with much loved friends, who will no doubt get themselves into all sorts of scrapes before finally managing to make the world a better place for someone – even if it isn’t always themselves.  What more could anyone ask?

Have a good month.

 

The Secret Vanguard ~ Michael Innes

IMG_0251A number of fellow bloggers have been reading works by the mid-century novelist, Michael Innes recently, some more enthusiastic in their praise than others.  I haven’t really been in a position to join in the conversation as Innes was a name I knew but not a writer I had ever read, The Secret Vanguard, number five in the author’s series centred on Inspector Appleby of Scotland Yard, has helped to put that situation to rights.

The novel, now being favoured by a reprint, was first published in 1940 and the events are clearly contemporary as the action takes place just before the outbreak of World War II. When a young woman by the name of Sheila Grant goes missing as she journeys to stay with relatives in Scotland her disappearance is linked with the murder of a (very) minor poet with the wonderful name of Philip Ploss.  Both of them have apparently, although separately, had encounters with fellow travellers in dispute over the value of poetry during the course of which the works of a famous poet have been misquoted.  In the case of Sheila Grant she comments on this misquotation to the man who provoked the discussion and thus seals her fate for, unbeknownst to her, the ‘error’ has been deliberate, concealing within it a clue to the whereabouts of Rodney Orchard, the best chemist in the country and a man who might well hold the key to inventions vital to the war effort.

As an apparently high up civil servant comments,

In Germany his opposite numbers have a bodyguard and travel behind four-inch glass.  We don’t need all that – if a man has some sense.  Orchard has none – only genius.

Orchard has gone off on a walking trip somewhere in Scotland and a foreign force, which it appears is not only working for the enemy but which is also attempting to establish a permanent presence in British society, is out to find him and rob him of his work.

Ignorant of all but the oddity of the misquotation, but nevertheless seen as a threat by those who make up this silent vanguard, Sheila Grant is kidnapped.  Gallant British woman that she is, she manages to escape and much of the novel is taken up with her attempts to stay one step ahead of those who pursue her through some of the wildest and least inhabited parts of Scotland.  I have to say that during this section of the book my concentration and credulity began to be stretched.  There are only so many instances of narrow shaves, coincidentally placed means of escape and feats of ingenuity that I can take.  I am full of admiration for Miss Grant, I’m just not sure that her like ever really walked the earth, even in pre-War Britain.

You won’t need me to tell you that it all works out in the end.  Once a message is passed through to Inspector Appleby it is just a matter of time before the baddies are vanquished, our wandering genius is found and Miss Grant is returned to her concerned relatives.  With war on the horizon, I can’t promise you that they all lived happily ever after, but you end the book with the feeling that right has prevailed and a jolly good thing too.

Drawing on my limited experience, I suspect that the book is typical of its period, not only in its characters, its plot and its setting but also in its certainty of the ultimate supremacy of all things British, including the eccentricity of our geniuses. And, coming out, as it did, in the first year of the war, who would expect anything less?  It’s the crime novel equivalent of Olivier’s film of Henry V.  Despite appalling odds, the upper hand falls ultimately to the little guy, or in this case the intrepid young woman.  In terms of its appeal to me as a reader it proved to be a bit of a mixed bag.  Having read one or two modern novels recently where at times even the grammar was suspect, the quality of the prose was a delight. Innes always finds the exact word and he can turn a sentence beautifully.  However, the way in which the novel was plotted didn’t appeal so much.  As someone else has said recently, there is very little in the book about Appleby himself.  While not exactly a minor character, he certainly isn’t central to the action.  I prefer my detectives to take more of a lead role in the narrative and I also like to have more of an idea of who they are and what motivates them.  Apart from the fact that he is clearly a Jolly Good Chap and probably a Jolly Good Thing as well, Appleby remains something of a cipher.  I’m glad that I’ve read at least one of Innes’ novels, but I don’t think I shall be going back for more.  I suspect that they might all turn out to be much of a muchness and that even two would be just too much of a good thing.

With thanks to Netgalley for providing a copy of this book.

The Years of My Life ~ 1949: The Rockingdown Mystery ~ Enid Blyton

04241FD6-393A-4ED1-A603-FCCF60EA9B7DNovember has been a busy teaching month and so I decided to take the easy route into my exploration of the literature of 1949 and start with my chosen children’s book, Enid Blyton’s The Rockingdown Mystery.  I was apprehensive about re-reading this, the first in what had been, as a child, one of my favourite series.  Was I going to destroy all my happy memories of time spent with brother and sister, Roger and Diana, their cousin, Snubby and their wandering friend, Barney, not to mention the mad little dog, Loony and Barney’s monkey Miranda?  Well fortunately, no.  I suspect that I have spent too long working in the world of Children’s Literature to be in anyway shocked by the all too transparent snobbery and sexism that was the norm in the novels of the period.  I don’t like it, I wouldn’t give the book to a child today, but I can accept it as a product of its time and consequently read the book simply for the plot and enjoyed a thoroughly nostalgic Sunday afternoon. (It strikes me now that I was remiss.  I should have combined it with a suitable decorous afternoon tea.  Miss Pepper would have approved.).

Miss Pepper is the old family retainer charged with looking after Roger, Diana and the orphaned Snubby when Roger and Diana’s parents have to go to America during the summer holidays.  Ensconced in the lodge belonging to a deserted manor house, the children look forward to long days amusing themselves in the local countryside only to have their hopes dashed when Miss Pepper tells them that they are to have tutoring every morning in order to catch up with school work missed during a prolonged illness. Worse news follows when the tutor they know is unable to come and Miss Pepper has to employ a stranger, Mr King.  All is not lost, however, because as they wait for Mr King to arrive, they meet up with Barney, a wandering teenager, moving from fair to circus to whatever job he can pick up as he searches for his missing actor father.  Barney is not only a figure of delightful mystery, he is also accompanied by his mischievous little monkey, Miranda; what child, fictional or the solitary reader, is not going to fall in love with them both immediately?

As you can no doubt imagine, adventures appear around these children like magic. No sooner have they found their way into the deserted manor house than they discover that it is being used as a base by nefarious wrongdoers who have to be brought to justice. But what is the mysterious Mr King’s role in all this?  Is he friend or foe?  This becomes a vital question when Miss Pepper is called to the bedside of her ailing sister and the tutor is left in charge of the household.

Well, you won’t be surprised to hear that everything comes out all right in the end, or that it is the monkey, Miranda, who valiantly saves the day.  Blyton began the Barney Mysteries after The Secret Seven and The Famous Five were already established and in terms of the social situation she describes there is little to choose between them. We are firmly ensconced in a middle class world which was probably as alien to most of her readers as it was to me.  We accepted it, however, as an example of a fictional world we knew initmately because most of us would have learned to read from books inhabited by exactly the same sort of children.  In my case it was dear old Dick and Dora, but it could just as easily have been Janet and John or the ubiquitous Peter and Jane (not forgetting Pat the dog).  It wasn’t how I lived, it wasn’t even how I wanted to live, but it was how children in books lived; I accepted it and just enjoyed the adventure.  I probably even accepted poor old Diana being the one who automatically cleans up after everyone else.

The rooms were in a dreadful state now. It would need a good morning’s work from Diana to get them straight again.

Feminism hadn’t reached inner city Birmingham in the 1950s.

And, I would have enjoyed then, as I did now, all the wonderful descriptions of food. No Blyton story is complete without at least one picnic and Miss Pepper’s saving grace in the eyes of the children is that she knows they like things like sausages and salad and cold meats and potatoes in their jackets and ice cream.  Oh that ice cream!  One is never enough.  They always have at least two and often three.  I’m surprised that close to the end of the war there was so much ice cream to go around.  Perhaps the rest of the country went without just so that Miss Blyton’s characters could indulge to their hearts’ content.

One thing that did cross my mind as I re-read this story was the dilemma that Barney poses for the writer.  The adventures in this series are all rather more dangerous than those encountered by either the Secret Seven or the Famous Five and the introduction of Barney is what allows this to be the case.  Nice middle class children could not be put in life threatening situations, but a wandering showman, whose antecedents are questionable to say the least, is a different matter.  Bring a Barney into the story and you can widen the scope of the dangers your characters face considerably as long as he is the one actually facing them.  However, he has to be a respectable wandering showman and so Blyton makes Barney almost too good to be true, with impeccable manners, a thirst for learning and a desperate desire to read more Shakespeare.

And that was what shocked me most as I re-read a story that I must have last encountered nearly sixty years ago.  I had completely forgotten that this was the book that first turned me onto Shakespeare.  If Barney was going to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream so was I.  If Diana could play Titania, what was to stop me doing the same?  When we were offered the chance to see the play at Stratford in my first year at secondary school my name was top of the list.  I’ve never stopped going since.  The Rockingdown Mystery might be snobbish, sexist and completely fanciful, but I discover that I owe it a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

Twinned With….

IMG_0093This term I am teaching Twelfth Night, the last of Shakespeare’s so called romantic comedies. My Shakespeare classes have been going for seven or eight years now, but it has taken a long time for Twelfth Night to come round, mainly because I was specifically asked to focus initially on plays that the groups would know less well and everyone seems to have at seen at least one production of this play if not to have actively studied it at some point.  However, having most recently tackled Timon of Athens and Pericles I put my foot down this year and decided that we were going to focus on two of my favourite plays.  Twelfth Night will be succeeded by The Winter’s Tale.

Twelfth Night was the first play that I saw on stage.  I was eleven.  I fell in love with it then and have never seen any reason to change my mind that it is a masterpiece.  However, as is the case with so many of Shakespeare’s plays, it defies simple categorisation.  It is always placed in with the Comedies and undoubtedly there are many comic elements, especially the scenes with Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria.  But, it comes at a point in the canon when Shakespeare’s thoughts are moving away from comedy and history writing.  Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida are already in his mind and much of this play is clearly underscored by melancholy.  In its final moments Feste bids us remember that the rain it raineth every day.  The next time we hear those words they will be in the mouth of Lear’s Fool as he and his master stand desolate on the blasted heath.

The wonder of studying any Shakespeare play is that each time you come back to it you discover something new because you are a different person, and this time round, perhaps because I have so recently been reading Linda Grant’s novel The Dark Circle, I’ve found myself focusing on the relationship between the twins, Viola and Sebastian.  In Grant’s novel fraternal twins are discovered to have contracted TB and as a result are hospitalised.  At one point it looks as if they are about to be separated and this causes them very real distress.  In all their nineteen years they have never slept apart.  Their reaction made me look more closely at what Shakespeare’s twins are going through and also made me rethink the way we normally talk about what was going on in the playwright’s own life around the time he was writing the play.  The date assigned to Twelfth Night is 1600.  Four years earlier, Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, had died, aged eleven.  There has been much written about the way in which the death of his son affected Shakespeare but what we rarely speculate on is the way in which it must have affected Hamnet’s sister, Judith.  For eleven years they had probably been together almost every single day.  What must she have felt when suddenly half of herself was ripped away?  Grant’s twins give us some idea.  And, when you look closely at this play, it is clear that Shakespeare was aware of his daughter’s distress.  Indeed, possibly of his elder daughter’s devastation at the loss as well.  Viola isn’t the only young woman to have lost a brother, Olivia is in mourning for her sibling too.  This time round I find I am reading Twelfth Night in part, at least, as a reflection on the love Shakespeare’s girls had for their brother and the yawning gap that his death has left in their lives.

Twins in literature have always interested me. Of course, they turn up regularly in children’s fiction, especially in the sort of school stories that I was reading in the late 50s and early 60s. There were the twins at St Clare’s, the Bobbsey twins and I remember an entire series of what I suppose I should call faction books, each one centred around twins from a different country. If not that numerous in adult fiction, I was still able, this summer, to offer a trio of novels featuring a twosome as one choice for the annual Summer School that I run in August: Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland and Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. I know that the third of those is a bit of a cheat and if I repeat the choice next year I’d like to come up with something more definitely ‘twinny’. I can’t put the Grant in because many of the people who come to the Summer School will have already read it, so do you have any other suggestions?  The only restriction is that the book has to be easily available in paperback, so nothing too recent and nothing likely to be out of print and difficult to source.  We have to be able to get hold of at least fifteen copies.

Postscript:  I was going to couple this post with one on the current RSC production of Twelfth Night, which I saw last Saturday.  However, having travelled back from Stratford thinking ‘my goodness, that was dire’, I woke up on Sunday morning thinking ‘no, that wasn’t just dire, it was a travesty’.  This is, therefore, one of those occasions when I have decided to answer the question ‘to review or not to review’ by very definitely not reviewing it.

Short Crime Fiction Reviews

IMG_0031It’s been a very busy month and so rather than trying to write full reviews for everything I’ve read and failing miserably here are some brief thoughts about three books that I have enjoyed to a greater or lesser extent, but not felt really deserved a lengthy discussion.

First up is Death in the Stars, the latest in Francis Brody’s series about 1920s Leeds’ private investigator, Kate Shackleton.  This, the ninth investigation for Kate, starts with the eclipse of 1927, which could be seen in its totality across parts of the north of England.  Music Hall entertainer, Selina Fellini, asks Kate to accompany her to Giggleswick to view the phenomenon, admitting that she is worried that either she, or someone else in the company she is performing with, may be in danger.  Two members of the troupe have died as a result of apparent accidents in the preceding months but, even though she is reluctant to acknowledge as much, Selina clearly suspects foul play.  Thus, when her co-star, Billy Moffatt, is found unconscious in the grounds of the school that has been playing host to many of the thousands of eclipse watchers, it is inevitable that Kate should find herself drawn to investigate not only the circumstances of his collapse but also those surrounding the earlier deaths.  Is someone with a grudge against the company slowly taking down its members one by one? What role might Selina’s husband, Jarrod, badly injured in the war and no longer happy in general company, have to play in the disasters that assail the troupe? Kate, along with ex-policeman, Jim Sykes and her stalwart housekeeper, Mrs Sugden, set out to get to the bottom of the matter.

While I enjoy Francis Brody’s novels I don’t find that they engage me with the period in quite the way that I would like.  I wouldn’t describe them as cosy, but they don’t explore the links between the social and political conditions of the interwar years and the manner in which certain crimes grew out of those situations in the way that say Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs novels do.  Nevertheless, if you want a cracking read for a winter’s night by the fire, this will do very nicely.

~

ImageSilent Scream is the first novel in Angela Marsons’ police procedural series featuring DI Kim Stone and DS Bryant. The murder of a well respected Head Teacher is the first in a spate of killings which eventually are found to be linked by the victims’ past employment at Crestwood, a former children’s home. Kim Stone, someone whose emotions are never far from the surface, is immediately personally engaged, having spent most of her early life in similar institutions. While a link between the victims may have been found, motive for the killings comes almost accidentally when a local university team is given permission for an archeological dig on ground abutting the old premises and a body is unearthed. As it proves to be that of a teenage girl it seems likely that there is some connection to Crestwood.  The subsequent discovery of two more bodies only heightens this possibility. Someone knows how and why these girls died and that someone is now taking revenge.

I am always on the lookout for new police procedural series but I am in two minds as to whether I shall continue with this one.  The novel is well enough plotted but the writing, especially in the early chapters is very pedestrian and I am so tired of the psychologically flawed detective who is allowed to get away with the sort of constant rule breaking that would see mere mortals like you and me sacked before the end of our first week. Also, there are some errors of consistency which even if the author allowed them through should have been picked up by an editor.  For example, there is a character who is an MP but who is frequently referred to as a councillor.  Which is he? There is a difference.  I am aware though that I was edgy about this book from the start because it is set very close to home.  In fact, it would only take me around forty-five minutes to walk to the police station where Stone is based – less than ten to go in the car.  I don’t know why, but I find it very unnerving to have places I know cropping up in fiction and I tend, as a result, to be more critical than normal.  Perhaps I should give one more book a try before giving up.

~

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60Guy Fraser-Sampson is a well established writer of both fiction and non-fiction.  Death in Profile is the first in a series, The Hampstead Murders, which looks back, in places explicitly, to crime fiction of the Golden Age.  Following the discovery of the body of a fifth woman, all of whom, it is assumed, have been murdered by the same killer, Detective Superintendent Simon Collinson is brought in to take over an enquiry which, after eighteen months appears to have stalled.  Relying heavily on the support of DI Tom Metcalfe and DC Karen Willis he takes the advice of the latter and consults her partner, Peter Collins, in the role of profiler, in an attempt to narrow down the scope of the enquiry.  Initially this appears to have been an inspired decision as a suspect who fits the description offered is apprehended, charged, brought to court and convicted, However, almost immediately the safety of the conviction is brought into question and DS Collinson and his team are put under intense pressure by both the press and the higher echelons of the Met. To either justify their initial arrest or find the real killer.

I really wanted to like this novel, if only because the quality of the writing is so good that I would happily read more by the same writer.  However, despite being well-practised in believing six impossible things before breakfast each morning, there are plot elements here that not even I could swallow.  I found it difficult to believe, for example, that a modern day DS would accept someone about whom he knew nothing into an enquiry of any sort, let alone one of this magnitude, and yet Collinson not only readily agrees to Peter Collins’ involvement he then places considerable weight on the almost instant profile that is forthcoming as a result.  Hardly had I got over that, however, than I was been asked to believe that three members of the Metropolitan Police Force engaged in trying to track down a serial killer and having already blundered badly, would not only enter into a charade in which they take on the roles of Harriet Vane, Parker and Bunter to Collins’ Peter Wimsey, but also follow up on suggestions made in the course of that pretence.  Maybe I’m just not entering into the spirit of the thing, but the word that came to mind was ‘tosh’.  I suspect that if I were to go on and list my other concerns fans of this series would counter them by saying that they were all characteristics of crime fiction of the Golden Age and maybe that is so.  But, for me, a novel set in the present needs to ring true of its own period and good writing or not, this is a series to which I shall not be going back.

 

Why Would You Read The Last Page First?

tumblr_m28hunkihb1rqmm3jo1_1280Some years ago I used to belong to a local library book group.  We didn’t all read the same book but just met every month to talk about what books we had been reading and to pass on recommendations to those we thought might enjoy them. Inevitably, we all had very different tastes and, it transpired, very different reading habits, but we rubbed along and forgave each other what you might call our literary eccentricities. However, there was one member of the group whose approach towards a new book I could simply never understand. She would always turn to the last few pages and read those first. She said that she simply couldn’t read a book unless she knew in advance how it was going to end.   Now, I have written an entire PhD thesis on the final cause in narrative, arguing that the dénouement of a story dictates everything that goes before, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still want to actually read a story in the order that the writer has chosen to present it and have the pleasure of anticipating (rightly or wrongly) what is to come.  Reading the last pages first seemed to me to be a bizarre idea until, that is, yesterday, when I found myself doing exactly that.

I had just picked up the latest novel by a writer I have been reading for decades. It is part of one of a number of series this author has established and while waiting for publication I had re-read its immediate predecessor. That re-reading had reminded me that the writer, never one for the faint-hearted, has, over the last two or three books, moved the truly shocking events from the climax of the story to the conclusion. Just when you thought the tale was completely wound up a last minute (last page) bombshell would explode, not only in the reader’s face, but usually in that of the main characters as well.  This is something that I think you can get away with once, twice if you are a very good writer, but more than that and it begins to look like a badly played out ploy to bring readers back for the next episode. In the case of this particular series the bombshell is almost always the result of a terrible error of judgment on the part of one particular character and destroys any sense of returning equilibrium the reader might have been anticipating.  Now, I’m sure that the writer would argue that the character concerned is behaving in a psychologically consistent way; my counter argument would be that nobody with her/his particular psychological flaws would still be walking the streets, let alone be holding down an extremely responsible job. In other words what has happened is that I no longer trust the writer to offer me a true picture of the world. And so, as I sat down to begin this latest book I found myself thinking, “has s/he done it again?” And, because I couldn’t face another final pages’ disappointment I read the last chapter first.

The book will go back to the library unread.

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that I want all books to end with ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ – I am no Bilbo Baggins. During the summer I read the final novel in Robin Hobb’s Farseer series, Assassin’s Fate.  Now there is a novel that didn’t end the way I wanted it to  if ever there was one.  I read the last forty or so pages through streaming tears. But, while it may not have been the ending I wanted, it was the right ending; it was a true ending and in fact far more of a validation of the characters and the world they inhabit than anything I had been looking for. Hobb’s conclusion didn’t destroy my belief in her fictional world, it vitally enhanced it.

So, when Hobbs next puts pen to paper I will give no thought whatsoever to turning to the last page first because I trust her to create a fictional world that will respect its own truth. The other author, I’m afraid, will join a small list of writers that I have enjoyed but who I no longer read.  The paradox is that fiction only works when we can believe in its internal truth.

Exposure ~ Helen Dunmore

341df81e231750e5c7f0523db256ffa3In many respects Helen Dunmore’s novel Exposure is a book of contradictions.  Stylistically, it is plot driven, enticing the reader on page by page as the story of Simon and Lily Callington unfolds during what, for them, turns out to be the catastrophic year of 1960.  And yet as readers we are not racing through the book in order to discover what the dénouement is going to be, for the very first thing that Dunmore actually tells us is how the story ends. And, if we have by chance missed the reveal of the prologue, then never mind, we should also be able to predict where the tale is going simply by drawing an analogy, because it will soon become clear to almost every reader that Exposure is in fact a chilling retelling of E Nesbit’s classic, The Railway Children. Simon Callington, (innocent at least of anything to do with espionage) is, like Father in the earlier novel, wrongly accused of being a spy and as a result his wife, Lily, and their three children are forced to move out of their London house and set up home in a small village on the Kent coast where they pretty much live from hand to mouth. Parallels between the two works abound, there is a similar episode to that where Nesbit’s Peter steals the coal and even a mysterious old man who gets off the London train and is instrumental in bringing the story to its climax.

However, while the plot line follows Nesbit’s story, other narrative elements do not.  The change in temporal setting means that instead of taking place in the reasonably bucolic atmosphere of Edwardian England, Simon’s arrest is foregrounded against a climate of post war austerity, suspicion of all foreigners and memories of Burgess and Maclean.  The arrests of the Portland spy ring during the course of the novel serves to heighten further the atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia.  More important, perhaps, is the change of narrative point of view, because instead of seeing events through the children’s eyes in this novel we walk hand in hand with the adults and most especially with Simon’s German Jewish wife, Lily.

Lili Brandt is brought to England by her mother in 1938 and mother and daughter set about erasing everything that might mark them as standing out from the community in which they now live, including their first language, German.  When, as an adult Lily seeks work as a language teacher, it is French and Italian that she offers, insisting that she has no knowledge of what is, in fact, her mother tongue.  But, there are some things that Lily can not obliterate, and that includes her knowledge of how to survive when the authorities are set against you.  It is in the detailed descriptions as to how she goes about packing up her comfortable Muswell Hill home and then teaching the children to make do and mend in what is little more than a seaside hovel, that Dunmore’s writing is at its best. In just a few words she recreates what life was like in the early sixties.  In many respects reading those passages was like walking through my own childhood.

There is more going on here, however, than a simple retelling of a children’s story.  Dunmore is also exploring our propensity for looking at the world and seeing only what we want to see.  The novel’s opening words set us up for this.

It isn’t what you know or don’t know: it’s what you allow yourself to know…It turns out that I know everything.  All the facts were in my head and always had been.  I ignored them, because it was easier.

For the greater part of the novel it appears that this is meant to apply to Simon’s ‘refusal’ to recognise that his colleague and friend from university days, Giles, is spying for a foreign power.  And, indeed that is an important concern which Dunmore thoroughly explores.  However, once again the reader is ultimately faced with something of a contradiction because the really important lesson that the characters have to come to understand is that it is not what you allow yourself to know about others that matters, but what you allow yourself to know, to recognise, about yourself.  There are facts about Simon’s past which he has chosen to push so far down into his subconscious that he no longer acknowledges their existence, but it is those very facts which propel his actions and which ultimately lead to his arrest.  Likewise Lily has to realise that she is still Lili, that she does speak and understand German and that she must allow the dam to break and all the stream and fountain of language that is within her to pour out if she and Simon are to be able to rebuild their lives as a family after their initial trauma is over.

I chose Exposure for this month’s book group with some trepidation.  I read it myself as soon as it was published, partly because it was by Helen Dunmore and I expect to enjoy her work, but mainly because having read a review of the novel it became apparent that its subject matter touched me in a very particular way.  Several decades ago something very similar happened to a friend of mine.  A member of her family was accused of spying for the Russians, only in this real life case the accusations were true.  This meant that I saw at first hand what such a revelation did to her family who, at the same time as they were dealing with what felt like a very personal betrayal, were also besieged by the press and denounced by neighbours just as happens to the Callingtons. Selecting the novel for discussion I did wonder if I was too close to its subject matter to be able to be a good judge of its merits as literature.  However, the entire group was in agreement that this is an exceptional piece of writing and one which stays with you long after you have turned the final page.

 

The Mitford Murders ~ Jessica Fellowes

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersI don’t usually have any truck with crime fiction that is built around real people and especially not those featuring individuals only relatively recently deceased. For example, I gave up on the Nicola Upton books after the first one even though many of my blogging friends really enjoy them. They leave me feeling uneasy, especially when some of the characters concerned are throughly maligned.  However, Jessica Fellowes’ The Mitford Murders was so highly praised by a reviewer who has introduced me to some very fine writers in the past that I decided I would give it the benefit of the doubt and see what it was like.  I should learn to trust my own judgement.

As you might gather from the title, the story is based around the Mitford family and I understand that the idea is to write six books each featuring a different daughter in a leading role, starting here with Nancy. It is 1919 and a retired nurse with years of wartime service behind her is killed on a train as she travels from London down to the south coast. The trail very soon goes cold and Guy Sullivan, an officer with the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway Police is ordered by his Superintendent to let the matter lie.  Guy, however, motivated both by a desire for justice and his ambition to join the Met, is reluctant to do so, especially as pursuing the case gives him a reason to continue contact with one Louisa Cannon, also caught up in the case.

Louisa has her own reasons for also wanting to let the matter lie.  Her life in London has become unbearable and a chance meeting with an old friend provides her with an opportunity to take up a post as nursery maid with the Mitford family at their home in Asthall Manor.  Louisa is well aware that bringing a murder investigation into the heart of Lord and Lady Redesdale’s family is not going to be acceptable.  Unfortunately, once Nancy, sixteen and desperate to move out of the nursery and into the adult world of parties and general bon viveur, finds out about the case Louisa has little option, especially when it begins to appear that a young man who has taken Nancy’s eye may well be involved.

I really wanted to like this book but I was left disappointed on so many levels.  The writing is poor, the plotting so weak that it is clear that one individual is involved in the murder even before it has been committed, and very few of the characters rise above the level of stereotype.  I can’t help feeling that the series has been conceived simply to take advantage of the interest in such programmes as Downton Abbey and in the Mitford family themselves.  Nothing wrong in that if there was anything of substance here but when I compare this to say, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs novels, which are set in a similar period, there is simply no comparison.  Not only do Winspear’s characters have substance, but she is genuinely concerned to explore the social conditions that Londoners and those who had fought in the First World War had to endure in the 1920s and 30s.  Here these are simply side issues introduced to provide the occasional red herring along the way.

The story is based on an actual unsolved murder and names have not been changed: that includes the name of the innocent person that Fellows here designates as murderer and I have to say that that left me very uneasy indeed.  In fact the whole enterprise just seems tasteless and as it doesn’t even have the merit of being well plotted or well written I find myself wondering what the point was other than to cash in on the popularity of the Mitfords and Downton Abbey. With so much else just lining up waiting to be read I won’t be going back for anymore of these, even though I must admit to being curious as to how Fellowes is going to handle tales of the grown up Diana and Unity.