Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Three Taps - Ronald Knox

Ronald Knox (1888-1957) was an Anglican priest who became a Catholic, justly esteemed for his translation of the Vulgate and briefly notorious for his 1926 radio spoof Broadcasting from the Barricades, which claimed to be describing insurrection in central London and which a lot more listeners believed then ever really believed Orson Welles' remarkable similar War of the Worlds.  He has been remarkably well-served biographically, first by his friend and executor Evelyn Waugh, and later by his neice, the novelist Penelope FitzGerald, whose Human Voices I have written about over on my media and culture blog.

Knox is completely forgotten as a practitioner of English Golden Age detective fiction.  Actually, he formulated the classic rules of the form and was part of "the Detection Club".  He wrote six detective stories of his own, five of which feature the Insurance Company Investigator Miles Bredon, of which this is the first, from 1927.  A Midlands industrialist is found dead in a village pub where he's been on a fishing holiday.  The cause of death is asphyxiation from gas.  Is it murder or suicide?  A walloping great insurance payout hangs on the outcome.

Bredon and his wife Angela are something of an English Nick and Nora Charles (Dashiell Hammett's Thin Man novel and several movie sequels): they wisecrack, they mock one another, they do not seem to have a sex life.  Otherwise the dramatis personae are largely eccentric bachelors of middle age.  The plot is clever (extremely), the writing sparkling throughout.  In short, great fun.  A recommended read.


Incidentally, Knox's Ten Commandments or Decalogue, compiled in 1929, are as follows:
  1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
  9. The "sidekick" of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
Wonder why no chinaman?

Best Radio Plays of 1978

Eyre Methuen's collections of each year's Giles Cooper Award Winners are an invaluable source of quality British radio scripts, often by major writers of the period.  Fay Weldon, of course, is a major writer of any period.  Her play Polaris for the Afternoon Theatre slot on Radio 4, about the pressures of service on a newly-married couple, is brilliantly done.  The submarine captain, endlessly banging on about his food, is deftly characterised in a few lines.

Richard Harris's Is it Something I Said?  struck me as a fairly cynical twist on John Mortimer's celebrated Lunch Hour.  Don Haworth, born in the same as I was, was a radio drama master.  His plays are always interesting, often slightly off-beam, as this one is, and invariably surprising. 

Tom Mallin was a fascinating character; primarily a visual artist, he scored a major hit with his stage play Curtains (1970).  Halt! Who Goes There?, the Mallin play given here and orginally broadcast in the cutting-edge Drama Now slot, was his sixth and final radio original.  It's about Arnold, marooned in a fascistic convalescent home after his cancer op.  Tom Mallin died of cancer in 1977, before the play was performed.  He was only 50 years old.

Jill Hyem, co-creator of the radio soap Waggoners Walk, is another prolific radio dramatist.  Remember Me is typical of the now defunct Saturday Night Theatre slot, the sort of thing that is now probably a four-hour/two-part TV mini series.  It's enjoyable and slightly daft.

Jennifer Phillips wrote Daughters of Men for the Monday Play, another key slot that has been callously let go.  The Friday Play, which was threatened with abandonment last year but is still clinging on, filled the gap to a certain extent.  Daughters, certainly, could be played there.  To my mind it was the most stimulating play in this collection.  It is about the social worker preparing court reports in a child custody battle.  The denouement is truly shocking, even today.  A stage version followed at the Hampstead Theatre Club in 1979.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

A Man of Parts - David Lodge

I have developed a liking for Lodge's fiction over the last decade.  The British Museum is Falling Down is one of those novels that is somehow forever with you; the university novels are uniformly amusing.  Being a H G Wells buff, I couldn't wait to get this book home.  I wish I had.

It is not a bad book.  It is some way from being a good book and - hard as it is to believe it when it's a biographical novel about someone so active, in all senses, as Wells - it is dull, dull, dull.

When Lodge realises his text is tending towards the industrial and/or superficial, he introduces an imaginary interlocutor who interviews Well about his actions and emotions.  This is a cracking idea and does renew interest for a while.  But everything else is so thoroughly quotidian...  Wells had an olympic sex life but do we ever learn anything about emotion or sensation while he's at it?  Wells was involved with all the great writers of his age - Henry James, Conrad, Shaw, Bennett - but on this account they were even duller than he was.

The experience of reading this book won't put me off Lodge's work - it was a mistake, David, please don't repeat it - and it has certainly had one of the desired effects on me.  It's sent me off in search of more Wells books - and something by Rebecca West, who was definitely more interesting that the talented but demanding flibbertigibbet depicted here.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Famous Trials 4 - James H Hodge (ed)

Harry Hodge began the Notable British Trials series in 1905; Penguin began republishing collections of them as Famous Trials some forty years later.  I can't resist them.  Mainly the Penguin collections focus on famous murder cases, specifically notorious murderers like Crippen.  This volume however includes Harold Greenwood and my near namesake Robert Wood who were both acquitted of murder, and William Joyce - "Lord Haw Haw" - who was hanged for treason.  Joyce is the most fascinating case here.  J W Hall, himself a lawyer, argues that Joyce's actual status as the American born son of an Irish father who became a naturalised US citizen some ten years before William was born meant he should not have been hanged for treason.  Hall's intense scrutiny of the hoops British justice squirmed through in order to execute the only Nazi tried in the UK could be dry but is wholly enthralling.  It's worth acquiring the book for this alone.

The other two cases - where the accused were incontravertibly guilty - are less compelling.  Dr Pritchard, the Scottish Victorian poisoner, would be better considered by a forensic psychologist who might be able to explain the methodical destruction of two women he really seemed to love.  The case of Ley and Smith, which I had never previously come across, is a sordid business, notable only for the fact that Ley, who had a sort of motive and dreamt up the scheme, was spared the noose and sent to Broadmoor whilst his hired stooge Smith, who only dumped the body, was hanged.  Could the fact that Ley was rich and Smith wasn't have anything to do with it?  F Tennyson Jesse, usually so deft in bringing murder to the page (A Pin to See the Peepshow), misses a trick here - Ley's character is so extraordinary he belongs in a novel.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Raylan - Elmore Leonard

This is, by my calculation, Elmore Leonard's forty-fifth novel.  It is by no means Leonard's best work (my personal faves are Glitz and Cat Chaser) but Leonard is 86 years old now and is still the master of his game.  Nobody does it like Elmore does.

Raylan is, of course, Raylan Givens, protagonist of the wickedly-good TV series Justified, now coming up to its fourth season.  Raylan existed in fiction long before hitting the screen (Pronto and Riding the Rap in 1993 and 1995 respectively, plus the 2001 short story Fire in the Hole) but Raylan is a sort of novelisation of Justified season two (2011).

I say 'sort of' because it is the same yet different.  What we have here is really three novellas interwoven and, it has to be said, not very well.  The first story is about organ theft and would work well on TV.  The third story features the American fascination with high-stakes gambling and, if you're not American and don't share that obsession, pretty damn feeble, particularly since Raylan and Boyd are only peripherally involved at the denouement - literally spectators.  It is the second story, Harlan County resistance to opencast mining, that mirrors the second season of Justified.  But there are major differences: instead of the matriarch-dominated Bennett tribe, the mountain-owning crime clan are the patriarchal Crowes.  The sons have the same names - Dicky and Coover - but are nothing like the screen versions and, indeed, are only there to get shot.  The superficially acceptable face of big mining, Carol Conlan, is much more complicated in the book than she was on TV and is also despatched in a way I certainly don't recall from the gogglebox.

A curiosity, then, within the Leonard canon, but a decent read and another object lesson in style.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Hypnotist - Lars Kepler

The latest entry in the 'new Stieg Larsson' stakes is Lars Kepler (Swedish husband and wife collaborators Alexander and Alexandra Ahndoril).  Actually, I think this debut is more impressive, albeit it would never have got translated had it not been for the late Larsson.  There are several stories here, cleverly intertwined.  There is a charismatic detective, Joona Linna, but the real protagonist is the eponymous medical hypnotist Erik Maria Bark.

The various storylines give the novel multiple layers.  Topics include Pokemon, the native Finnish Sami culture, and historic cuts to the Swedish psychiatric care system.  The authors seem knowledgable.  If they are making up the 'facts' they do it well.  There are no bum notes.

The plot twists and turns and positively contorts at times.  The reader is gently led to several possible culprits only to have expectations summarily overturned.  Most of the book is present tense.  Flashbacks are past tense.  A movie-like structure of short, sharp scenes prevails for the most part (Lasse Hallstrom is making the movie version, thankfully in Swedish), but then there comes a huge chapter of what seems like pure exposition.  The reader wonders, is this really necessary?  Oh yes, the reader realises when the final denouement rolls out.

Cracking debut.  I'm sure more Kepler novels will follow.  The more the merrier for me.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Poison Ivy - Peter Cheyney

In Cheyney's second novel (1937), G-man Lemmy Caution is embroiled in a Great Train Robbery heist centred upon the eponymous true-noir femme fatale, nightclub torch singer Carlotta.  The first-person, present-tense narration is reasonably convincing and often compelling, with plenty of twists and turns along the way.  The final twist was a stunner I didn't see coming.

I know that some noir fans sneer at Cheyney but they have to remember that it was through Cheyney, who was already an extremely well-known crime writer for the colourful press when he began writing novels, that the English public discovered the likes of Hammett and Chandler.  Cheyney sold millions, the others didn't - but they sold a lot more on this side of the Atlantic because Cheyney popularised the hardboiled style.  And not only in print - the earliest dramas on the British Forces Network were specially commissioned 15-minute playlets featuring the series characters Cheyney had developed by 1940 - Lemmy Caution, of course, and the British sleuths Slim Callaghan and Alonzo Mactavish.  (If you think Alonzo has an unlikely moniker, Slim's oppo is Windemere Nikolls.)

It's interesting how, in the early novels, Cheyney feels he has to Anglicise Caution - the denouement of Poison Ivy takes place in England as, apparently, did its precursor, This Man is Dangerous - and Americanise Callaghan (actually, Nikolls in Canadian).  Was he hoping for big US sales, which didn't come, or a Hollywood movie?  We shall probably never know - Cheyney died young and the only biography is by a country mile the worst book I ever read - and he has yet to be discovered by cultural historians, other than me.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

In the Thirties - Edward Upward

Edward Upward, who died in 2009 at the mighty age of 105, was a schoolfriend/collaborator of Isherwood whose communist beliefs, unashamedly embedded in his art, would always bar him from the mainstream literary establishment.

The Spiral Ascent, a trilogy of which In the Thirties is the first volume, was a work of his maturity, appearing from 1962 to 1977.  Effectively it is his second novel.  More importantly, it is the ultimate rara avis of English literature, an overtly political novel about the groundroots of political activism.  It is a thinly-fictionalised account of Upward's increasing involvement with the Communist Party of Great Britain whilst working as a master in a state school with pretensions (unnamed in the novel but in real life Alleyn's in Dulwich).

Upward's previous novel, Journey to the Border (1938), was in the Isherwood/Auden/Spender modernist poetic tradition and this is echoed in the first chapter of In the Thirties, which concerns a 1920s seaside holiday taken by the recently-graduated aspirant poet Alan Sebrill.  It contains the following, very I/A/S passage:

"...the spume like fine lace curtains undulating in a black wind, or like the shredded fat hanging down over a bullock's heart as seen in a butcher's shop.  Then the miniature waves detaching themselves from the spent breaker ... flopped on the sand with pause and dip like the rolling of a metal ellipse, or like the movement of the genitals of a naked male runner..."

Oo... The remaining thirteen chapters are nothing at all like this and the other characters of Chapter 1 do not reappear.  It is as if Chapter 1 was written in the 1930s and taken up again by the older, wiser author thirty years later.

The only criticism I can make of In the Thirties as a whole is that it might have been more effective in the first person.  Nothing happens that Alan is not witness to and the only thoughts we share are his.  It therefore feels a little stilted for Upward not to go the whole hog.  Perhaps he was reluctant to let the personal eclipse the political in any way.  That would be the CP attitude, I suppose.

The second volume of The Spiral Ascent is The Rotten Elements, a phrase "sometimes used in the party to refer to members who deviated seriously from the correct party line."  It deals with the CP in the post-war late 40s.  It is very hard to come by in printed form.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Small Hand - Susan Hill

Susan Hill is of course the creator of the pre-eminent ghost story of the last half-century, The Woman in BlackA Small Hand is also a ghost story but nowhere near so creepy and, to me anyway, not in the least scary or even surprising.  It is only a novella but, even so, has been padded out to breaking point in order to make up 200 largish print pages.  Some of the best bits are in the padding.  For example, I loved the scenes in the mountain monastery but they in no way served the story.  At the same time, so much more could have been made of Adam Snow's profession as a high-end dealer in antiquarian books.  The Shakespeare First Folio device was both obvious and unbelievable at the same time.  If only Hill could have found a way of linking the maguffin to the ghostly hand and its owner, she might have produced a more satisfying read.