Between Silk and Cyanide ~ Leo Marks

When in 1969 Helene Hanff finally managed to get to London her beloved bookshop, 84 Charing Cross Road, had closed.  However, as she recalls in her memoir, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, waiting for her at her publishers was a letter from a man I never knew existed.

Dear Miss Hanff,

I am the son of the late Ben Marks of Marks & Co. and want you to know how delighted I am that you are here, and how very much my wife and I would like you to dine with us.

I do not know where you are staying so could you please ring me at the above telephone numbers? The second one is an answering service and any message left there will reach me.

We are both looking forward to meeting you.

Sincerely,

Leo Marks

The Leo Marks that Hanff then goes on to describe is a writer best known for the script of the 1960 film Peeping Tom and for a number of plays that appeared in the West End.  Not once, in either this or in subsequent books, does she mention his wartime role as the man who completely restructured the codes used by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents sent into Occupied Europe and further afield between 1942 and the end of hostilities three years later.  To some extent this silence isn’t surprising.  Given that Between Silk and Cyanide, the book in which Marks records his time with SOE, was not allowed by the powers that be to be published until 1998, despite having been written over fifteen years earlier, in 1969 Marks almost certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to discuss his wartime role. Apart from anything else, he would probably have had more than enough to say about the bloody-minded incompetence of many people still with a finger in the pie of government to put several cats among a whole flock-load of pigeons.

Having been fascinated by codes since the age of eight after he cracked the one used by his father to indicate what 84 had paid for a book, when he is called for war service he applies to work as a cryptographer.  Rejected by Bletchley Park, (who later recognise him as the one that got away) he finds himself installed with SOE training FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) to decrypt those messages that have been garbled in transmission.  If the wireless operators in Occupied Europe have to be asked to repeat a message then there is a far greater chance of their being captured and so the decryption of indecipherables is a unit priority.  Marks is horrified by the codes that the agents are being asked to use.  Based on a poem chosen by each individual agent anyone intercepting a message and working out key words has only to flick through a volume of best loved poetry to gain access to the code and thus read any future messages sent by that particular agent.  Consequently he devises a number of more secure codes, one of which involved a series of non-repeating keys printed on silk for ease of concealment.  Hence the book’s title: he saw the executive’s choice as being between providing either the silks or cyanide.  In fact, each of the agents did carry a cyanide table with them and despite Mark’s best efforts too many had to resort to using them.

Ultimately it became clear that agents would still have to have a named poem that they could use if their silks, and later their ‘one time pads’, were not immediately available to them and so Marks and his decoders set about writing original and often scurrilous verses that would be difficult to predict. The most famous of these is the one that Marks wrote after the death of a woman he had hoped to marry and which he later gave to Violette Szabo, the agent whose story is told in the film Carve Her Name With Pride.  

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

Szabo was eventually executed in Ravensbrück in 1945.

Three things scream out from the pages of this book.  The first is the incredible bravery of the men and women who risked, and all too often lost, their lives in an attempt to free their homelands from occupation.  The second, the devotion to duty of the (mostly) women who struggled to decode the messages sent back, sometimes at the eight or nine thousandth attempt. And the third, the sheer stupidity and egotistical search for power of many of the people who commanded them.  Why Britain was not overrun in the early 1940s is beyond me.  The ordinary people may have been pulling together, but those at the top were definitely not.  I can only assume that the same was true of the German High Command and that one set of narcissistic idiots cancelled the other out.

Re-reading this book in preparation for the Summer School it seems clear to me that Leo Marks had Asperger’s and at quite a high level too.  Not only is this apparent in his fascination with codes but also in what we learn of his relationships and in his style of writing.  He assumes his reader is going to be able to follow all the minute detail he includes about the way in which the codes work and even though I am minded in much the same way as he was, I soon recognised that I didn’t need all the information he was giving me to get the gist of what was really important.  If you decide to read the book don’t be put off by all the coding information; you can manage perfectly well without it. And I would strongly recommend that you do read it.  The sacrifices of the SOE agents and those who supported them in the U.K. and elsewhere, deserve to be commemorated in the minds and hearts of those who came after.  And, as book lovers you will also relish all the mentions of 84 Charing Cross Road, the shop that Leo was intended to take over from his father and a place that he loved with a passion that Helene Hanff was replicate a decade or so later.

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Burnt Island ~ Kate Rhodes

Like many readers I first came to Kate Rhodes’ work through her London based novels featuring psychologist, Alice Quentin.  While I enjoyed these in respect of both plot and character development, there was as much pleasure to be gained from her sensitivity to setting.  Already a published poet when Crossbones Yard introduced us to Quentin’s world, Rhodes brought her talents as a wordsmith to bear on the way in which she described the London locations in which the early books in the series were primarily set.  There were times when reading her work was like looking at one of Whistler’s remarkable sketches of the Thames’ waterside.  Latterly, Rhodes has moved her focus to the Scilly Isles, where DI Ben Kitto, newly returned to his home on Bryher after ten years in the Met’s Murder squad, is trying to come to terms with the loss of his partner in undercover work.  Describing the stark beauty of these islands has, if anything, given Rhodes even more scope for her talents and in this, the third book in the series, it is the wild landscape of St Agnes that forms the backdrop for Kitto’s latest investigation.

St Agnes supports a small community, but one which is augmented at certain times of the year both by tourists and visitors from the other islands in the archipelago.  Bonfire night is one of the latter occasions, when islanders from the other Scilly communities come over to St Agnes in order to enjoy both bonfire and fireworks.  However, before the celebrations can begin, the remnants of another fire are discovered and in them the burnt remains of a man.  It transpires that the body is that of Alex Rogan, an incomer  married to one of the island women, who is now pregnant with their first child.  A Professor of Astronomy, Rogan was drawn to the islands because of the purity of their night skies and to St Agnes in particular, where he hoped to set up an observatory that would allow both important observations to be made while encouraging visitors to an island struggling to keep its economy afloat.  At first, despite his Sargent’s reservations, Kitto’s suspicions centre on Jimmy Curwen, a local man suffering from severe psychological damage following a childhood trauma, who is only really happy when surrounded by the island’s wild life.  However, a series of threatening messages, written in the little used Cornish language, suggest that whoever is behind the attack is targeting incomers in an attempt to keep the island as it has always been and fighting against any change.

The threats raise a concern in Kitto’s mind for another recent arrival on the island, Naomi Vine.  Vine, a sculptor of some renown, has not fitted into the St Agnes’ community as well as Rogan.  Her plans to site a series of figures on the westerly beach, reaching out towards the boundary between land and the Atlantic, have been rejected and she is not slow to make her displeasure felt. Whereas the astronomer had worked hard to make friends among the islanders, Vine has stirred up considerable controversy with arguments both for and against.  When the artist goes missing, Kitto can only fear the worst.

While the descriptions of St Agnes bring the island vividly to life, they are not the only strong characteristic of the novel.  The plot is well thought through with just sufficient  indication of where it is going to make the final dénouement completely believable and the characters are persuasively drawn.  Furthermore, Rhodes is allowing the recurring characters to develop in a convincing manner. By the book’s conclusion both DS Nickell and DCI Madron, Kitto’s immediate superior, have developed a more realistic appreciation of the DI’s capabilities and of his working methods.  Kitto himself has not, perhaps, developed quite so much, although there are signs at the end of the novel that he is beginning to see his long term future in the islands and that his family life is going to become more complex.

Having read a really poorly written and badly plotted crime novel over the weekend, with character development so inconsistent with reality as to make me wonder if the book was eventually going to finish with the words and then I woke up and it was all a dream, Rhodes’ Burnt Island was just the corrective I needed.  It reminded me of how good our best crime writers are and that for the majority it is the case that just because they work in genre fiction their narrative talents should not be underestimated.

Sunday Retrospective ~ June 23rd 2019

I suppose this is really another catch-up post, which is disgraceful. One of the aims I set myself for this Summer was to get back to writing full reviews again but for some reason I am finding that very difficult.  Perhaps it has been because I have had too much else on?  Well, that won’t be a viable excuse after this week, when teaching other than a few seminars, finishes until the beginning of September.  So, maybe more luck then.

As you probably realise, I am always on the lookout for new authors of police procedurals.  This week I have rejected one (flat, clichéd writing; I didn’t get far enough in to find out whether the plotting was any good; I couldn’t read another page) and enjoyed another.  Critical Incidents is not Lucie Whitehouse’s first book by any means, but it is the start of a series featuring DI Robin Lyons.  When we first meet Lyons she and her thirteen year old daughter, Lennie, are on their way from London to Birmingham following Robin’s suspension from the Met.  Her refusal to charge a seriously nasty piece of work just because he is a seriously nasty piece of work with a murder she doesn’t believe he has committed has brought her into conflict with her superiors and when he then goes AWOL it looks as though her time with the London police has come to an abrupt end.  Unable to meet her financial commitments she is forced to return to her parents’ home and face her mother’s long-standing disapproval of the way in which she has insisted on bringing up Lennie as a single mother.

At least she has a job to go to.  Maggie, a family friend of long-standing and an ex-cop herself, employs her to work in her private investigative firm and they are both soon embroiled in the case of a missing girl, Becca, whose disappearance (not a child, not vulnerable) the local police don’t feel merits a full enquiry.  Also, she has her lifelong friend, Corinna (Rin), whose support during the months after Lennie was born was the only thing that allowed Robin to complete her degree and retain her sanity.

And then Rin’s house is set on fire.  She dies in the conflagration, her ten year old son, Peter, is seriously injured and the police are hunting for her husband, Josh, convinced that he is behind what has happened.  Robin, shattered by all that has occurred, refuses to believe this and so sets out to try and discover both what has happened to Josh and who is really behind the fire.

Inevitably, the two cases come together but not before Robin has alienated both Maggie and the West Midlands Police by her interference and inability to work as part of a team.  There is no doubt that she has an incisive brain and excellent intuition, but her lack of forethought and failure to see the bigger picture to my mind, at least, make her something of a liability. If the book has a false step then for me it comes right at the end when suddenly, against all indications to the contrary, she is in line for a promotion that will allow her to stay on Birmingham.  Not only is this unlikely given her previous behaviour, but also definitely not what she has apparently wanted for herself, and not what her daughter, Lennie, also desperate to get back to London, is likely to greet with any enthusiasm   It was too neat for me and not in line with what had gone before.

One point I must make about this novel is to do with setting.  As far as I can see Whitehouse has no links with Birmingham. According to the blurb at the back of my edition she was born in Gloucestershire, went to University in Oxford and now lives in New York.  If this is the case, then as someone who, until a year ago, had lived in the city all her life, I can only congratulate her on her research; I could have walked round all the locations she mentions without any difficulty.  I think the only thing she makes up is the name of the road where her parents live, and even then I’m fairly sure which road she has in mind.  For the moment, Whitehouse is a keeper.  I’ll see how the next book progresses Robin’s story.

Reviews ~ Catching Up

I’ve really fallen behind with my reviews over the past couple of weeks, partly because I’ve had a lot of preparation to do for other projects and partly because once more the dentist is looming large in my life.  She told me on Tuesday that all the excavating that had to be done back in April when the rogue root was discovered embedded in my jaw means that before any restoration can be done I’m going to have to have a bone graft and a pin put in place.  “You might want to clear your diary for the following week,” she said, rather ominously.  I am choosing to interpret that as, “expect at least a fortnight of untold misery”.  At least, that way, if I’m over-reacting I will have been prepared for the very worst.  Anyway, in order to clear the decks I thought I would just offer a series of mini reviews so that I can start afresh at the beginning of next week.

An Officer and a Spy ~ Robert Harris

This was the second from my 15 Books of Summer list.  It’s the first time I’ve joined in with this particular challenge and I can already see that I have approached it all wrong and may need to reorganise myself.  Nevertheless, that did nothing to dim my pleasure in this book.  As I’ve said before I chose it because I wanted to know more about the Dreyfus Affair, which rocked France during the last decade of the Nineteenth Century and wasn’t really resolved until almost the end of the 1900s.  I’ve had a patchy experience where Harris is concerned but I thought this book was excellent.  Told from the point of view of a French Army Officer, Georges Picquart, it starts on the morning on which Dreyfus, found guilty of passing secrets to the Germans, is publicly humiliated by having all the insignias of rank and regiment torn from his uniform. Picquart has been involved in bringing this about and is rewarded by being placed in charge of the intelligence unit that had been responsible for bringing Dreyfus down.  Once he has access to all the unit’s secrets, however, Georges starts to suspect that the case against Dreyfus may well have been at best flawed, at worst manufactured, and so begins to dig more deeply into the affair.  What he discovers is a conspiracy to protect the positions of the men in power in both army and state at whatever cost to the truth even if that cost should include men’s lives.

This is a chilling story extremely well told.  It is particularly chilling because of the parallels so easily drawn with our own times: the incipient anti-semitism at the heart of national institutions, the conspiracy to cover-up the wrong doings of men of power, and the ease with which the media can stir up mob hysteria in the populous. It needs Picquart at its heart, a man determined to uncover the truth despite the cost to himself, otherwise the reader would come away thoroughly ashamed to be a member of the human race.

 

A Closed and Common Orbit ~ Becky Chambers

This was the novel chosen for Wednesday’s book group meeting and it provoked a lot of discussion.  It is the second in a sequence of three science fiction books and although those who had read the first thought you didn’t need to know what had gone before the rest of us disagreed.  The storyline stood on its own, but we felt we had missed a lot of the ‘world-building’ that had happened in the first novel and were at times floundering a bit.  Like most science fiction, the book asks questions about the way in which a society works which can be seen as relevant to both the fictional world and our own. In this instance these were mainly to do with the autonomy of the individual, gender fluidity and the definition of sentience.  Although not everyone agreed with me, my own feelings were that these were treated with too light a hand.  I did find myself wondering who the intended audience was, because personally this was a book I would have given to teenagers rather than to adults.

 

Black Summer ~ M W Craven

Just before Christmas, I wrote about The Puppet Show, the first in Craven’s Washington Poe series, here.  As I said then, Craven was my crime fiction discovery of the year and Black Summer has only served to reinforce this view. DS Washington Poe is now back with the Serious Crime Analysis Section (SCAS) full time.  Based, as it is, in Hampshire, this means that he spends far less time than he would like in his beloved Cumbria but this changes when a young woman walks into the Alston library and tells the police officer based there once a month as a ‘problem solver’ that she is Elizabeth Keaton.  As far as the law is concerned Elizabeth Keaton was killed six years previously and it was Poe who was mainly responsible for putting her father, world famous chef, Jared Keaton, behind bars for her murder.  If Elizabeth is still alive then Jared is innocent and given that very few people would argue that he is a dangerous psychopath, this doesn’t bode well for Poe.  Matters become even more complicated when Elizabeth vanishes for a second time and the evidence seems to suggest that Poe has something to do with her disappearance. Never one to suffer fools gladly, the DS has made enemies in his home force and as some of those climb the ranks they are only too pleased to have the opportunity to bring him to book.  However, while Washington may have enemies he also has friends, two in particular: his immediate boss, DI Stephanie Flynn and the brilliant, if socially inept, young analyst, Tilly Bradshaw.   When, at two in the afternoon, Poe texts Tilly to say that he is in trouble he expects that she will drop everything and turn up sometime the following afternoon.  Fifteen hours early at three in the morning isn’t quite been what he’s been counting on, but Poe is Tilly’s friend and in her book that’s what friends do.  Tilly Bradshaw is one of my favourite characters in fiction.  Her incisive mind cuts through everything.  I don’t care that she frequently doesn’t know how to act in a social situation.  Tilly tells it how it is and I applaud her for it.  What is more, she is brilliant at discerning patterns and, although I don’t think there is quite enough Tilly in this book, she it is who finally has the insight that explains what is going on and leads the case to its conclusion.  Possibly the best thing about this book is the way in which it ends because it makes it clear that there is going to be a third in the series.  If you enjoy crime fiction and you haven’t read Craven then I can’t recommend him too highly.

High Rising ~ Angela Thirkell

It would not have been possible to hang around the particular corner of the blogging world that I have inhabited for the past decade or more without coming across reference to the works of Angela Thirkell.  Born in 1890, Thirkell was the granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones and the goddaughter of J M Barrie.  She was also closely related to both Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin.  Following her return to England from Australia in 1929, after the failure of her second marriage, writing provided her with a source of income and she produced a series of novels collectively known as the Barsetshire Chronicles.  The reference to Trollope’s fictional Barsetshire is neither accidental nor inappropriate.  A more modern reader might also wonder about her ongoing influence in respect of the everyday stories of the good people of Borsetshire.

Despite the pleasure that Thirkell’s work has so obviously given to many of my blogging friends, I’ve never felt particularly drawn to her novels.  However, while I was nosing around the library last week, looking for something undemanding to relax with over the bank holiday weekend, I came across a copy of the Virago Modern Classics reprint of High Rising, the first of the Barsetshire series, and thought, “why not?”.  I have to say that I didn’t get off to a particularly good start.  The introduction is by Alexander McCall Smith, another writer whose works have never appealed, and I don’t think he does the book any favours.  It sounded too twee for words.  I came away with the impression of someone trying to be a female Wodehouse (whom I do enjoy) and failing.  I very nearly went no further.

Well, that would have been a shame, because although by the end of the book I felt I had possibly had sufficient of the doings of the worthies of High and Low Rising, especially the stereotypical young lovers, Adrian and Sybil, who really do deserve each other, there was enough wit in the writing along the way to make me smile and just occasionally to laugh out loud.  Central to the story is widowed novelist Laura Morland.  I assume that this is a thinly drawn portrait of Thirkell herself.  Certainly, Laura would agree with Thirkell’s often quoted remark that it is very peaceful with no husbands even though this means that she has been left to bring up four sons by herself and has taken up writing as a means of paying for their education.  At the time we meet her (presumably in the early 1930s) only the youngest, Tony, remains at home, although Laura is still concerned about money; after all she only has a London flat, a cottage in the country and a ‘middle-class car’.  (I would hate to hurt my car’s feelings but it is definitely working class.) Add to this her servant and fur coat and I found it hard to be convinced of her poverty but I suppose it’s all relative. Nevertheless, Laura is good company and she is also good hearted, determined to support as best she can her friend Anne Todd, who really is in a financially parlous state, bringing in a little money through typing manuscripts as she looks after her ailing and elderly mother.  She is also determined to save her friend and fellow author, George Knox, from the conniving wiles of Miss Una Grey, at present his secretary, but intent, by whatever devious ways necessary, on becoming something more.

The main thrust of the story is the unmasking of the aforesaid Miss Grey and the bringing together of Laura’s publisher, Adrian Coates, and George’s daughter, Sybil, not to mention providing life long security for Anne Todd. However, there are also some wonderful vignettes along the way, including the boxing competition at Tony’s school  and the evening Laura and George share at the first half of a production of King Lear.  (They get to the point at which Gloucester’s eyes are put out and Laura can take no more; part of me understands where she was coming from. Mind you, given that this was published in 1933, a Lear seen in London in the years immediately prior to publication  would have been John Gielgud’s first shot at the part and I refuse to believe that the verse was handled as excruciatingly as is suggested. If there was one thing Gielgud excelled at, it was handling verse.)

It was round about the Shakespeare incident that I began to feel I had possibly had enough of the worthies of the Risings.  If George really does think that none of Shakespeare’s plays were printed during Elizabeth’s reign then it is probably a good thing that he is having second thoughts about writing a biography of the Queen and while Laura might be happy to listen to his never ending over-blown opinions, I would have bopped him one.  There are, too, inevitably, I suppose, given when it was written, a number of attitudes quite frequently expressed that are uncomfortable today and which were beginning to really put me off the characters giving voice to them.  So, would I read another of Thirkell’s works?  Possibly, after a decent gap and in circumstances where I wanted something that wasn’t going to tax me in any way, but I don’t think I am ever going to be a great fan.  Still, at least I now have some idea of what draws those readers who are.

The American Agent ~ Jacqueline Winspear

The American Agent is the latest in Jacqueline Winspear’s novels centred around her private investigator, Maisie Dobbs.  This series, which begins in the late 1920s, has now reached September 1940 and, the so-called ‘phoney war’ over, London is being hit night after night, by the bombing raids of Hitler’s Luftwaffe.  Maisie and her friend Priscilla Partridge, both of whom served in France during the First World War, are now working during the hours of darkness as an ambulance crew, ferrying the injured to hospital through the blackouts and the chaos caused by the falling munitions.  On one such night a young American reporter comes out with them.  Catherine Saxon, the youngest child of influential parents, has defied her father’s wishes (girls, after all, are only good for dynastic marriages) and come to Europe in the hope of finding herself a regular spot as a wireless correspondent.  After time spent in Spain and Berlin, she is now writing pieces designed to encourage America to enter the war in support of those opposing the rise of Nazism and one such has been commissioned for the medium she hopes to conquer.  However, the next morning Maisie finds herself being approached by her old friend, Robbie MacFarlane, currently working in a rather more secret branch of law enforcement, with the news that Cath has been murdered and seeking her help in tracking down the killer.  Maisie’s task is complicated by the involvement of American interests in the shape of Mark Scott, clearly working within a rather different remit to hers but nevertheless the US State Department’s man on the spot.  She and Scott have run into each other before, in Berlin, and there is tension between them not only because there is an obvious physical attraction, but also because Scott seems never able to be open about just who he is working for and what his precise purpose might be.  This is certainly the case here.  While he definitely wants to know what is going on in the investigation, that is clearly not his main reason for being in London and both Maisie and the reader are left guessing just what his presence in the city is really all about.

I have read very mixed reviews of this, the fifteenth book in the series.  It is longer than most of the others and some reviewers have felt that it was slow to get off the mark, one suggesting that it could well lose the first hundred pages, which mainly deal with the terrors of facing the blitz night after night.  While I concede that the main storyline is perhaps not as clear cut as it might be, the investigation into Cath’s death and Maisie’s concern as to just what Scott is up to and whether or not he can be trusted don’t mesh well together, I thought this book was excellent in the way in which Winspear’s novels so often excel, namely in painting a picture of what life was like for the ordinary individual, especially the poor of London’s East End, during the difficult years of the 1930s and on into those early years of the war.  I wouldn’t have lost a word of those first hundred pages because they capture the terror of events and the resilience of the general populace in the months from September through to the end of the year, magnificently. Furthermore, they are essential to the main historical point that Winspear is addressing, namely the pressure being put on American correspondents by influential Isolationists to minimise in their reporting, the devastation facing not just London, but many other towns and cities throughout Britain, and the true threat of the Third Reich to world peace.  In many instances these people were driven not so much by a desire to keep their countrymen out of a European war but by entirely more personal reasons to do with their stock holdings in German companies.  Chief amongst these is a character only peripheral to Winspear’s narrative but in no way peripheral to what was happening in respect of the Isolationist cause, the American Ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy.  I was still in primary school when his son, John, was elected President and, like many young people, I was won over by the charisma, but my parents were always very wary of him. For their generation, the name Kennedy was still pretty much a dirty word.

As usual, Winspear also explores the way in which larger events impact on her main characters.  Will Maisie’s eldest godson survive his time as an RAF pilot and what will happen to the youngest when he reaches an age where he will have to publicly defend his pacifist standpoint?   It is clear, too, that she is looking forward to later wartime events; her assistant, Billy Beale, is at the moment pleased that his eldest is stationed in Singapore.  That isn’t going to last. I hope that when/if she does tackle the horrors of what happened to those who were present at the fall of Singapore she acknowledges that there were prisoners other than those who were sent into Burma to work on the railways, prisoners who suffered just as much.  It always amuses me when commentators talk about how little we know now concerning North Korea. My father could have told you quite a lot about it, having spent three and a half years in the country after being shipped out of Singapore to the carbide factories there by the Japanese in the summer of 1942 .

So, perhaps not the greatest of Winspear’s crime novels, but I think still very well worth reading and one that will spark a lot of memories for those of us who have some personal connection with the events that form the backdrop to the main narrative.

Late in the Day ~ Tessa Hadley

At some point a friend out there in the great blogging universe must have recommended Tessa Hadley’s previous novel, The Past, to me.  Either that, or it was one of those novels that kept turning up on end of year lists as a book that you really must read.  Anyway, I did as I was told and read it and although it didn’t set my reading world alight, I do remember being very impressed with the quality of the writing.  Now, everywhere I turn, reviewers are speaking of her new novel, Late in the Day, as one of the great books of 2019 and having read it I have to say I am not inclined to disagree.

Coming to this latest work, I suspect that the reason I didn’t immediately engage with The Past is because Hadley’s work is very much character driven rather than being propelled forward by the plot and I am very much a plot driven reader.  Perhaps I engaged so much more thoroughly with this novel because the four main characters are all involved in the world of the arts and/or in teaching and so it was easier for me to appreciate their environment, even if I couldn’t always identify with their motivations and consequent behaviour.

Christine and Alex, and Lydia and Zachary are two couples with a complex intertwining back history.  The two women have known each other since schooldays, as have the men, and, as becomes apparent fairly early on in the novel, initially the pairing was the other way round with Lydia pursuing Alex, who had just published a volume of poetry, obsessively.  Now grown into middle age and each with a daughter in her early twenties, they are established in their ways.  Christine is a moderately successful artist, Alex, having written no more poetry, is the head of a primary school, Zachary runs an extremely successful gallery and Lydia enjoys the fruits of his labour.  While I have no doubt at all that Alex would see himself as the fulcrum around which the group revolves, in fact the true lynchpin is easy going Zachary and the book opens with his sudden death.  What happens, Hadley asks, when the individual who has been responsible for maintaining a group’s equilibrium, its very understanding of its identity, is suddenly no longer there?

Ironically, perhaps what happens is that Zachary’s passing allows the others to show more clearly who they really are.  In the cases of Lydia and Alex, both of whom are intent on getting what they want, this means imposing on and abusing Christine’s friendship and trust.  (I may be biased here; I really did not like either of these characters.) Ultimately, however, it is Christine who gains most from the shift in perspective, as she comes to understand the extent to which Zachary’s interpretation of her art and her development, however well intentioned, has distorted her view of who she is as an artist and who she might become. Visiting his last exhibition, staged posthumously at the gallery and featuring the work of an artist with whom he had predicted she would identify, she discovers that the pictures bore her.

[T]hat possibility hadn’t occurred to her, it really was a surprise.… It wasn’t that she thought they were false or pretentious exactly: she could imagine the very authentic journey the artist had made towards these big pale canvases with their silver and grey and white colours, the painstaking exact grids and geometries, fine as quilting.  In pursuit of some truth of the spirit she had refined away every intrusion of ugly life: all the dirty marks it made, all its aggression and banally literal languages…She was disappointed – and indignant, too, that Zachary could have thought these works were anything like hers, or these colours.

Despite the self-seeking behaviour of her husband and friend, it is Christine you feel is going to be most capable of redefining herself in a world without Zachary; in fact, of redefining herself in her own terms, as an individual and not in relation to other people. Hadley seems to be particularly concerned with how people influence and are influenced by their partners; the extent to which we define and are defined by those with whom we chose to couple.  This is picked up in respect of both daughters, Lydia and Zachary’s Grace, who when we first met her seems only to be able to give meaning to herself through a series of disastrous one-night stands, and Isobel, who, speaking of the man whose child she is expecting, tells Christine,

I know I’m the right person for [him] … I’ll save him from himself, he needs me. We balance up perfectly. Because without me he’s in danger of becoming quite stuffy, such an old fogey… I’ll be good for him.

I found myself reading this novel much more slowly than would normally be the case.  I think in part this was because the plot is of minimal importance; it is plot which normally has me saying “just one more chapter”.  However, just as important, I would suggest, was the quality of the writing, which simply made me want to savour each sentence.  Hadley has not been particularly prolific, but there is a back catalogue and I am very much looking forward to exploring it.

 

 

After The Party ~ Cressida Connolly

In a previous post I mentioned that I had been exploring the short lists for past awards of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and had been amazed to discover just how many of them I had read, despite considering myself as someone who didn’t read much in that genre.  Well, last week the short list for this year’s prize was announced and again, one of the books on my library shelf, Cressida Connolly’s After The Party, is up for consideration.

The novel moves between two time periods, from 1938 through the subsequent war years, as well as 1979.  In the former, Connolly uses a third person narrative to tell the story of Phyllis Forrester and her family, newly returned to England after the contract her husband, Hugh, had with his employers has expired.  In the later period the older Phyllis gives a first person account of her memories of that time to an unnamed interviewer.

Left very much to her own devices and with three children on her hands, Phyllis is persuaded by her sister Nina to join her in arranging summer camps on the South Coast for local youth.  Nina is full of enthusiasm for the organisation she and her husband have become involved with and is particularly hoping that the group’s ‘Leader’ will come down for the day and speak to the campers.  Apparently, the sun always shines on those days when he makes an appearance.  Gradually, in a way that very much echoes the insidious manner in which any form of indoctrination takes place, Connolly drip feeds the reader with enough information for it to become clear that the Leader is Oswald Mosley and the group to which Nina and Eric belong, the British Union.

Over the course of the next few months Phyllis and Hugh, neither of them with enough on their hands to keep them gainfully employed, become more and more involved with Mosley’s circle, largely it seemed to me, as a way of boosting their own self-esteem.  They are neither of them certain of their place in British society any more and being part of a group helps them to find an identity.  They are convinced by Mosley’s politics because it supports the belief in their own entitlement as part of a British ruling elite.  Interestingly, Mosley’s links with the leaders of the Third Reich are never mentioned. Eventually, and I am giving nothing away here because it is made apparent in the novel’s opening pages, both Phyllis and Hugh are arrested and we follow Phyllis through imprisonment in Holloway and then internment on the Isle of Man.  Holloway sounds pretty awful, but given what a lot of people were suffering through the Blitz, internment was a life of comparative luxury.  Like most of the Union members, they are released before the war ends, but not before real damage has been done to their family circumstances.

Connolly skilfully shows how easy it is for someone to become involved in an extremist organisation without being aware either of what is happening to them or what the real ideology behind the group is. She may be writing about the British Union, but she could just as easily be reflecting on twenty-first century youth being lured into terrorism.  It is a salutary reminder that not all extremism develops out of an anti-establishment background.  Mosley played on the need of the class from which Phyllis and Hugh came to feel that they were still a ruling force in a society that was beginning to challenge the old class structure. Their feeling of entitlement was being threatened and it is this which seems to have festered in Phyllis’ mind over the years and which makes itself felt in the attitude she displays in the 1979 interview.  I quite warmed to the 1930s Phyllis; I was definitely alienated by the later version.

However, Connolly also explores a possible reason for the change in Phyllis.  She questions just how effective imprisonment was as a deterrent.  It’s clear that before she was incarcerated Phyllis really had very little understanding of what the British Union stood for, but her time in Holloway serves almost as a university education in the subject and she comes out committed to the cause in a way that she wouldn’t have recognised prior to her sentence.  Again, it is easy to draw parallels with the indoctrination of vulnerable  youth that apparently goes on in our prisons today.  Told by the establishment that you are a threat to society there is always the possibility that that may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

After The Party gives the reader a lot to think about, not only in respect of its historical context but also in terms of what it has to say about many current situations.  Connolly is a writer I shall look out for in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Scholar ~ Dervla McTiernan

Dervla McTiernan’s first novel, The Ruin, which introduced Galway based Gardaí sergeant, Cormac Reilly, was published last year to almost universal acclaim.  I very much enjoyed it on a first read, but was less certain a second time round.  I thought McTiernan started too many hares and that as a result the central narrative line got lost. I was also concerned about the number of members of the Galway force who were at best incompetent, at worst corrupt.  I have friends living in Galway and I feared for their safety.  I came to The Scholar, the second in the series, therefore, with a certain amount of trepidation.  Fortunately, this novel is more tightly plotted and, while there are still one or two members of the force who clearly have issues, I suspect that is true of any group of police and this time round there is, thank goodness, a sense that as a whole they do actually want to see justice done.

Cormac Reilly has transferred from Dublin to Galway to be with his partner, Emma Sweeney, who has secured a five year funded position at a medical research lab.  The two met after Emma was charged with a murder from which she was later exonerated and the experience, unsurprisingly, has left scars on both of them.  When, therefore, Emma rings Cormac and tells him that she has found a dead body in the University car park he is concerned not only for her well-being but also that she may be seen as a suspect in what turns out to be a particularly vicious, and clearly deliberate, hit and run.  When it becomes apparent that the victim has links to the facility in which Emma works Reilly’s involvement in the case becomes questionable however, he is determined to hang on to the investigation not only to ensure that Emma is not unduly pressured but also because this is the first real test of his ability in his new posting.

At the heart of the case are two seriously dysfunctional families.  Carline Darcy is the granddaughter of a man who has made billions through the development of medical advances. John Darcy is a seriously nasty piece of work, who has no time for Carline despite the fact that she seems to crave his approval.  To that end she has enrolled on the Bio-Pharmaceutical Chemistry degree at the University and is seeking to prove by her work that she is worthy of a place in Darcy Pharmaceuticals.  Here she encounters and works alongside Della Lambert, the eldest daughter of a family struggling to make ends meet after the financial crash causes her father to lose his business.  On the face of it, the two girls have nothing in common, but there is one thing that Della can apparently offer Carline: a way to gain her grandfather’s approval.

To anyone who has worked in the University sector, Carline’s plan is obviously flawed,  but at eighteen you think you can order the world to run in line with your scenario.  Sooner rather than later her scheme would have come crashing down around both girls heads. However, there is one member of Darcy Pharmaceutical who can’t afford to wait for that to happen and, with Emma Sweeney on hand to be offered up as the obvious suspect, that individual decides to take deadly action.

I think this is definitely a more tightly written book than The Ruin and McTiernan has given greater definition to more of her characters, especially Emma, Cormac’s fellow sergeant, Carrie O’Halloran, and Garda Peter Fisher, who is clearly ripe either for promotion for using his own initiative or dismissal on the grounds of overstepping the mark. While she isn’t yet rivalling Claire McGowan or Tana French in respect of Irish crime writing, I will certainly be coming back for more.

The Scandal ~ Mari Hannah

Over the past several years Mari Hannah has been a prolific writer, sometimes publishing as many as three books in a twelve month. She has three series on the go, that featuring DCI Kate Daniels, the Matthew Ryan books and most recently novels centred around DCI David Stone and DS Frankie Oliver. All of her work is set in the North East and sometimes characters, most notably DCS Bright, Head of CID, cross from one series to another. The Scandal is the third appearance for Stone and Oliver along with Ben, Stone’s nephew and Belinda Wells, that unusual phenomenon in crime fiction, a journalist who can be trusted.

Chris Adams, (another decent journalist, so perhaps I am prejudice) is found dying in a dark alleyway.  His murder hits Frankie hard.  She and Chris had grown up together and because of past experiences in her own family she is only too aware of how this is going to effect his mother, a woman who has already had to fight the demon of alcoholism. Very early on in the investigation the suggestion is raised that the journalist’s death might have been a means of siliencing him in respect of a story he was chasing.  Following this up, however, proves difficult as his editor, Mark Fox, clearly had no time for the young man and refuses to credit the idea that he could possibly have had anything of importance to report. At this point, somewhat reluctantly Stone brings Belinda Wells into the picture, reluctantly because Ben, the nephew to whom Stone has become a surrogate father, is shadowing the journalist and the DCI would prefer to keep the young man out of his policing life.

Gradually, links are made between Adams and a missing woman, Nancy Carver.  The reader already knows that Nancy has made plans to disappear, as the book opens with her attempts to vanish from her job and leave no evidence as to where she has gone. The implication is that she is about to become a whistleblower, but whether or not she has been able to make good her escape, whether her current status as a misper is voluntary or enforced, is something we are left to speculate about.  Whatever her situation, it becomes clear that the institution for which she worked is going to bear close scrutiny; not however, if Stone has anything to do with it, at the hands of his nephew.

Hannah starts a number of hares in this novel: the abuse of a particular section of the public, the plight of those who are forced into homelessness and the effect that staff reduction measures are having on the police.  I can get on board with all of these but I did feel that at times, especially where the latter is concerned, she stood on her soapbox too often and banged her drum just a little bit too hard.  No one who reads modern crime fiction can help but be aware of the difficulties our police forces are facing in the current economic climate and while one of the genre’s most important features is the way in which it draws attention to those aspects of our society that it can be most difficult to acknowledge, I think it is better when the story is allowed to make that point for itself rather than having it over emphasised. Nevertheless, this is as good a read as all of Hannah’s other work and if you haven’t already enjoyed her novels then I strongly recommend her.  If you’re new to the author, however, I would suggest you go back to the beginning at least of this series and possibly to the beginning of her output, to orientate yourself to her world and I envy you having all eleven of her books still to enjoy.

With thanks to the Orion Publishing Group and NetGalley for an advanced copy of this novel.