Wednesday, 27 February 2019

The Hopkins Manuscript - R C Sherriff

A real rarity, this. One of very few novels by an established writer that has been published under three titles: first as An Ordinary Man, then as The Hopkins Manuscript, and finally as Cataclysm, presumably to cash in on the popularity of John Wyndham and Arthur C Clarke. I'm guessing hardcore sci fi fans were not convinced by the latter. There is a cataclysm all right but in this blend of English comic fiction and dystopia the former has very much the upper hand.

Retired teacher Edgar Hopkins is a member of the Lunar Society. One evening he and his fellow members are given news that world is probably going to end in a few months' time and sworn to secrecy for fear of mass panic among the less enlightened class. Hopkins, who has found himself a rural idyll where he raises prize-winning poultry, enjoys one last winter and a final, luscious spring. Inevitably, given the nature of the cataclysm, news can only be hidden so long. The government (very unlike our own) is determined to preserve the peace whilst preparing for the worst. A massive bunker is built in Hopkins' village. Hopkins, a bit miffed not to be in charge, nevertheless lends a hand because being part of ordinary life is what matters in a time of extreme crisis. He does not, however, go underground on the night the worst happens, but wakes next morning to find a sea-going ship stranded in his inland meadow.

It turns out he is one of the lucky survivors. He takes in a pair of youngsters and an elderly agricultural and begins the long, slow rebuild. Then - in a truly extraordinary twist which I really can't go into because it will give the game away - war breaks out between nations over the thing that caused the catastrophe. This - human fallibility - is what really ends the world. But still Hopkins survives, ending up in his uncle's house in Notting Hill, spending what are surely his final days working on his manuscript. He tells us on page one of Chapter One, "I am writing by the light of a piece of string which I have pushed through a fragment of bacon fat and arranged in an egg-cup." Now that is how you start an end-of-the-world dystopia!

R C Sherriff didn't write many books. He was best known as a playwright, though the simple phrase barely does him justice. His first proper play, Journey's End, was a huge hit in 1927, running at the Savoy for two years. It remains the defining play about World War I. It and Sherriff both went into the movies. He wrote films like The Invisible Man, Goodbye, Mr Chips, Odd Man Out and The Dambusters. And yet he is almost forgotten today. Outrageous. If the writing in The Hopkins Manuscript is typical of his output we are missing a master.

Monday, 25 February 2019

West of Eden - Jean Stein

The subtitle is "An American Place". The place is Hollywood. Stein - herself a Hollywood child as the daughter of Jules Stein, founder of MCA - gives us five chunks of multi-voiced narrative from the earliest times - the arrival of the Doheny family, a decade or so before the movie makers - to round about the Millennium and the final crumbling of the Hollywood Dream.

The Doheny family was into oil. One way or another, the first Ed Doheny was probably the richest man on earth at one time. The story seems to be that he lost a lot when the degree of corruption beneath was revealed, but he still managed to keep enough for all his descendants to pass untroubled by the need to work. Coincidentally, I came across the story of his son, Ned Junior, on the internet the other week. The scandal seems to be that he and his male lover committed suicide together. Oddly, Stein doesn't explore that in any detail. The style she set herself may have prevented it. She has gone for quoting dozens of connected people with no explanatory sections whatsoever. In other words, if the family doesn't want to talk about it, nobody else will either.

She also makes it about the houses these people lived in. Home for the Dohenys was Greystone, the mansion where Chandler set The Big Sleep. Doheny's story is also behind Upton Sinclair's Oil!, now better known as the movie There Will Be Blood.

Angelo Drive was home to Jack Warner, most outré and obnoxious of the Brothers. At the studio he was a god, at home a willing doormat for his domineering wife Ann. Their daughter Barbara was the apple of Jack's eye, so much so that he was willing to exclude Jack Junior from his life. It's a sad and squalid story but nowhere near so sad as that of Jane Garland (Part Three) or Jennifer Jones (Part Four).

The latter hinge on another theme of the book - psychiatry and the ludicrous quacks who practised it in the Sunshine State. Jane Garland was the daughter of a railroad pioneer and Miss Cleveland 1912. There was a considerable difference in age. The old man died when Jane was very young and Mrs G put her daughter in psychiatric hospital. It's not really clear if Jane was mad when she went in. She certainly was when this segment is set - the late Forties. The idea was for the pubescent girl to live at home in the company of civilised young men who would take her out and also act as in-house nurses. Needless to say it didn't work and Jane went back to the hospital. The story has a surprising twist at the end: one of the former nurses believes he saw her out and about in the Seventies. If that's not true, she may well be still in hospital yet. Nobody knows or cares.

Jane was given to standing on her head and revealing her lack of panties. Jennifer Jones was equally opposed to undergarments. Otherwise her story begins as an absolute fairytale. She wanted to be an actress and married the actor Robert Walker when they were both teenagers. Both went to Hollywood. Robert Walker is still famous from movies like Strangers on a Train and The Clock, but he drank himself to death at 32. He was divorced from Jennifer by this time (and two other wives) and she had married the legendary David O Selznick of Gone with the Wind fame. She had also starred in Song of Bernadette and won the Best Actress Oscar on her twenty-fifth birthday.

Jones continued to make movies through the Fifties, all big budget star vehicles. Selznick died in 1965 and Jones married the hugely wealthy businessman and art collector Norton Simon. She retired from movies and pretty much from life. She became a recluse and virtually the prisoner of various unscrupulous head doctors. She said she was in therapy from her early twenties - and she lived to be ninety. Walker had suffered mental problems and her younger son by him, Michael, never recovered from the Sixties and lived an alternative life. Her daughter by Selznick, Mary Jennifer, threw herself off a twenty-two storey building.

And finally we have the Stein family story. The Steins lived at Misty Mountain, apparently sold to Rupert Murdoch, no less, at the time this book came out in 2016. This is the story of the eye-doctor who became an agent, the agency that became a studio, and how the whole thing was sold to the Japanese. It's not the most interesting story but it has its attractions and it has to be there to round out the picture. We have the pre-movie money, the studio era, the independent and the rise of the agents, all united by failure in the end and damage to subsequent generations.

It's a book I don't like the style of, which I never felt really grabbed me - and yet look how long this review is! I guess that says something in itself.

Friday, 22 February 2019

Borderline - Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block is eighty years old and has been writing, at a prodigious rate, for sixty of them. Borderline is one of his earliest, from 1958, when he was twenty. It is what Block himself describes as 'mid-century erotica' combined with a significant slice of crime noir.

The border in question is that between Mexico and the United States, which makes the theme alarmingly current in Trumpland America. However it is not about immigration or drug smuggling. It is about a rag-bag of disparate characters who end up in El Paso Texas and get their jollies south of the border in Juarez. We start with Marty, a professional gambler. Then we meet Meg, newly divorced from an under-sexed but rich husband. There's Lily, a teenage hooker on the lam who forms a lesbian double act with stripper Cassie. And finally there's Weaver, the anonymous loser who suddenly finds himself on the front page after murdering a girl. We know they are all going to come together somehow. The how is what keeps us reading. That and the precociously brilliant writing.

The book also operates on a deeper level. Each character is confronted with a personal or moral border which he or she can either cross or not. Marty is smitten with Meg - who wouldn't be? - but he takes her to see Cassie and Lily's floorshow and lets her persuade him to cross his line. Lily is unmoved by sex, presumably because she gets so much of it; she's just stringing her various lovers along until she can get a stash of cash together and dump them all. Weaver can keep his head down, maybe disappear into South America, or he can embrace his new calling and go out in a blaze of notoriety. Guess which he goes for?

I was hitherto only familiar with Block's middle years, chiefly in the Eighties and Nineties. He was still a brilliant writer - talent like his will never fade - but I don't remember huge amounts of sex. That's a pity because he is extraordinarily good at it. I can't remember reading anyone quite as good, though I admit I've never been a huge fan of literary porn. I'm definitely a fan of Block's porn.

I'm also a huge fan of these retro reissues from Hard Case Crime. The covers alone are irresistible. Quarry's Choice, which I reviewed here last year, is one of them, and I'm reading their e-book of one of Max Allan Collins's Nathan Heller series at the moment. They even do comics, for pity's sake! I'm doomed.

Friday, 15 February 2019

Selected Prose - Lord Byron

I have to admit, I was late coming to Byron. He was utterly out of fashion when I was at school. Everything then was about Keats, who Byron didn't think much of. Indeed, Byron was blamed, unfairly, for the barrage of hostile criticism that was said to have weakened Keats's constitution. At university, the first time round, Byron was on the syllabus for the Romantics option I chose, but there was just too much Byron for me to tackle in the time available and I stuck with my boy Keats.

A circuitous route took me back to Byron eight years ago. It was the short, tumultuous life that drew me and I still haven't immersed myself to the extent necessary in his prodigious poetic output. In life, of course, the poetic world revolved around him. He was literally the man who work up one morning to find himself world famous, almost certainly the first to do so. His habits were largely appalling. He was not a nice man. But the letters show he was not entirely self-obsessed or in any sense greedy and certainly not without romantic love. Unfortunately, the love was for his half-sister and therein lay the root of all his problems. His wife left him because he was sleeping with his sister. He went abroad because his wife had deserted him and too many people knew why. He never settled because he could not live without Augusta. He died young because he had never settled.

The letters here show he was a master of prose as well as poetry. Again, though, there are mountains of this stuff. I'm afraid Peter Gunn's selection short-changed me on the bit I was most interested in - what is here called 'The Venetian Interlude 1816-1819'. I know there is a lot more material extant because I have read it elsewhere. What really annoyed me, however, was the pompous tone of Gunn's introduction. He seems set on showing off how much he knows when, by modern standards, when we have all the archives online, he actually doesn't know very much. The short biographical intros to each section are conversely ridiculously short and shallow and could easily could have been ditched. The result, overall, is an affront to the serious scholar and impenetrable to the uninitiated. Penguin should seriously consider a fresh selection suited to the Twenty-First Century.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

The Man From Berlin - Luke McCallin

The Man From Berlin is Luke McCallin's first novel and the first in the Gregor Reinhart series. The second, The Pale House, is out now. Gregor Reinhart is a reluctant captain in the Abwehr, a decorated veteran of the First War and a former detective in the Berlin police. So far, the parallels to Philip Kerr and the Bernie Gunther series are apparent. What McCallin adds to the mix, however, is that his novels thus far are set in occupied Yugoslavia, specifically in this first case Sarajevo. Reading it, I got the distinct sense that McCallin was an expert on the former republic who made himself an expert on the various tangled strands of Nazi military police. Whether or not that is correct, the expertise in all aspects is completely convincing - so convincing that I can only presume it is completely accurate.

The characters, too, are distinctive. Reinhart is not a chancer like Gunther. He is a gentleman detective who uses his mind, never his fists. He is not a natural Nazi, albeit he would have been forced to join to continue with his police career. His life has been turned upside down by the death of his wife and he has lost contact with his son, an enthusiastic Nazi who has been embroiled in the endless siege of Stalingrad. Reinhart is not a drinker, but he toys with the idea of suicide late at night in his billet.

But then a fellow military policeman is found dead in the home of a celebrated local celebrity film maker and performer. The star herself lies butchered on the bed. Hidden behind a mirror is the mini studio from which she films some of her more exotic performances. The film itself, which is thought to have recorded her murder, is missing. The murder of the star, Marija Vukic, is a case for the local police and Reinhart is forced to liaise with the brutal Inspector Padelin. The murder of the officer, Stefan Hendel, is a matter for the Abwehr. The two cases are evidently linked but there are niceties to be observed in occupied territory, particularly so in the ethnic maelstrom of Sarajevo.

The investigation is expertly handled by McCallin, with dozens of well-drawn characters crossing Reinhart's path as he moves further up the chain of command in search of the high-ranking officer who shared Vukic's last night. McCallin is especially good at showing the tensions between the ethnic groups, some of whom are natural Nazi sympathisers and even serve in the Nazi coalition, and the various police groupings. The bizarre titles some of the officers sport is always a problem for English language authors writing for the modern reader who wasn't brought up with them. McCallin is absolutely on top of the problem and even provides a table of equivalents.

My only criticism, in fact, is that at the beginning of Book Three, when Reinhart has to travel to the front line, McCallin's research got the better of him and we had three fairly short chapters of travelogue, which I felt could easily have been cut down to one. Other than that - indeed, despite of it - The Man From Berlin is a great debut novel and Reinhart's future caseload will be essential reading for those of us who followed the late Mr Kerr.