Sunday, 30 June 2019

Aylmer Vance, Ghost-Seer - Alice and Claude Askew

All literary collaborations seem odd in the age of the single author, but no collaboration has been as unusual or as productive as that of the Askews. They were astonishingly prolific over a short period - up to ninety novels in a 13-year period, glamorous (both born into money) and brave. The last characteristic warrants a sentence all its own. In a forgotten niche of World War 1 they volunteered to the cause of Serbia (also interesting because a lot of British lesbians enlisted as men in the Serbian army) and died when their ship was torpedoed by a U-boat in 1917.

Aylmer Vance was their attempt to cash in on the short-lived psychic detective fad of the pre-war period, kicked off by Hodgson's Carnacki and Blackwood's Dr John Silence. The stories appeared in a weekly story magazine and there are only eight of them. Do not be fooled in this respect. No amount of re-titling can increase the number and "Alymer Vance and the Vampire" is one of them.

The stories are narrated by Vance's amanuensis Dexter, a barrister. Unlike Dr Watson, Dexter has a gift which makes him useful to Vance. He is clairvoyant. Vance is posh, with a country manor and a Mayfair flat. He is a bachelor though, cunningly, this seems to be because he is in love with a Georgian ghost. There is also a rather clever continuity device. Vance and Dexter get to know one another on a fishing holiday, and only after Dexter has demonstrated his clairvoyance does Vance ask him to move in with him and become his investigative assistant. Where Carnacki devotes himself to debunking sham ghosts and Silence is preoccupied with natural forces, Vance favours the historical. When not busy ghost-seeing he travels the world visiting archaeological digs. Thus the first story, 'The Invader', is about a Celtic warrior princess. 'The Stranger' is, quite frankly, a god. The best Carnacki stories are the ones in which the ghost is genuine, whereas with Vance it's the other way round. 'The Indissoluble Bond' is an a awful title but it is a cracking story featuring a burst of Chopin's Funeral March at a wedding.

Only 8 stories means that the collection only lasts 120 pages, which isn't enough. On the other hand, they are all high quality and brilliantly written.

Friday, 28 June 2019

Potsdam Station - David Downing

There seem to be countless novels on the market dealing with 'good' people involved in Nazi Germany. Of the cuff, for example, there is Alan Furst, Volker Kutscher and, of course, Philip Kerr. Then there is the sub genre (see C J Sansom, Len Deighton and Robert Harris) of what-if-the-Nazis-had-won fiction. Downing belongs to the former school and classes with Furst in the degree of detail. I would not have classed him with Furst in literary achievement, having previously read the first of his second series, Jack of Spies (also reviewed on this blog), which is set in the lead-up to World War I. Potsdam Station is the fourth in his series featuring John Russell and Effi Koenen and went a long way to changing my mind.

Russell is an Anglo-American journalist and spy. He is also a somewhat disillusioned communist. Effi is his girlfriend, a former German movie star, now living undercover and helping to get Jews out of Berlin. At the start of this novel Russell and Effi have been apart for almost four years. Russell is trying to tag along with the Soviet Army as it closes in on Berlin in the final days of the war. He also wants to find his son Paul, who is serving with what remains of the German army.

Russell succeeds, thanks to his old communist associates. He is sent ahead of the army as part of team trying to recover as much information about the Nazi A-bomb project as humanly possible. Meanwhile Effi is entrusted with an 8 year-old Jewish girl and Paul becomes detached from his unit. Thus the three key participants move through the increasingly battered city, slowly closing in on one another. It is a fairly common storyline but Downing's command of detail lifts the story well above the ordinary. His writing here is better than I remember in Jack of Spies. Perhaps it is simply a matter of him having more affinity with World War II.

Whilst I didn't hate Jack of Spies, I couldn't recommend it. I have no such problem with Potsdam Station, which is a cracking read. I have an ebook of the first in the series, Zoo Station, which I still haven't read. Must crack on.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

The Sins of the Fathers - Lawrence Block

Having recently read and reviewed Block novels from the early days and his most recent, here we have mid-period Block, when he was starting to make a serious name for himself. Not to put too fine a point on it, The Sins of the Fathers dates from 1976 and is the first of his Matt Scudder series.

Scudder is an ex-cop, now open to filling his time with the odd private inquiry. Scudder doesn't charge for his time or expenses, but is willing to accept gifts which he then pays tithes on to a local church. Not that he is a believer or anything, it just squares things with his conscience. Scudder is divorced but on friendly terms with his ex. He has girlfriends and probably drinks a little too much. He lives in a cheap New York hotel and spends a lot of times in bars. He hires a car if he needs one, otherwise he walks and uses public transport.

Anyway, a contact puts him on to Cale Hanniford, a businessman from upstate NY, whose daughter has recently been brutally murdered. The case drew publicity for all the wrong reasons. There is no doubt who killed her - her 20 year-old roommate Richie Vanderpoel is found in the street, drenched in Wendy's blood, telling all and sundry that he's killed her. That night, in the police cells, he hangs himself.

What Hanniford wants from Scudder is an insight into his daughter's life since she dropped out of college and took to prostitution with older men. Scudder accepts. He soon finds out that Wendy was actually Hanniford's stepdaughter. She was born out of wedlock, her real father killed in WW2. Scudder tracks down her previous roommate, who also knew her in college. She confirms the prostitution and also tells Scudder why Wendy dropped out of college. There was a scandal involving one of the professors.

Scudder can't help looking into the killer, too. Richie, it turns out, is the son of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. As a child, Richie found his mother exsanguinated in the bathroom. He is homosexual but has no real interest in sex, certainly he is not interested in an ongoing relationship with other men. Scudder determines that Richie and Wendy, the closeted gay guy and the prostitute, actually established a loving sexless relationship. Why then did Richie kill her? That's the twist - and it's a zinger.

Block's style is phenomenal, so easy you don't really notice. Yet his characters leap off the page, the dialogue zips along, and there is no shortage of description or depth. Here, for example, we get a thorough insight into the New York gay scene in the mid-Seventies and the coming of age of the free love generation. Recommended.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

The Yorkists - Anne Crawford

For all the attention lavished on Richard III since the discovery of his body in Leicester, he remains the only well-known Yorkist. Edward IV, who brought England to the threshold of the modern era, remains a shadowy figure and even less is known about his father, Richard of York. Virtually nothing at all is known about the original dukes of York, descending from the fourth son of Edward III, and even less about Richard of Cambridge, grandfather of Edward and Richard, whose marriage of Anne Mortimer, granddaughter of the second son, bumped them up the pedigree.

Crawford's idea, then, is an excellent one - as the subtitle says, "The History of a Dynasty". The trouble is, the lack of information persists. Albeit the Yorkists were the first thoroughly English kings since 1066, they still tended to operate in medieval French. It remains next to impossible to keep track of all the subsets of Nevilles and Woodvilles and Beauforts. I can just about manage the first two, having done a lot of research myself, but the Beauforts... Crawford, so far as I can tell, has a total grasp of all three, and she provides several family trees to help the fuddled reader get back on track.

Another problem is that these are the last royals without contemporary portraiture. It is hard to empathise with a king or queen you can't really picture. There are contemporary descriptions, and Crawford quotes from most of the best sources. But she gives herself a problem, unnecessary in my view, by avoiding the deformity question with Richard III. When you reach the end without a mention, you feel cheated. Of course Crawford was writing in 2007, before the body was found, so she couldn't see the wickedly curved spine which had be agonising and embarrassing for the king; it had, basically, to be a major factor in his personality and mindset; it is a sign of true character that none of the people who met him, and were not subject to him in any way (I'm thinking of Commines), even noticed a problem.

Crawford's target audience, before the discovery of the body, would have been the Ricardians, those who believe their hero was the innocent victim of Tudor propagandists. The problem is, the Ricardians were wrong about everything. He really was, literally, a hunchback, and every commentator writing during his lifetime and shortly thereafter, none of whom were writing for publication, expressly said he was responsible for murdering his nephews, the Princes in the Tower.

Nevertheless, a great read. Crawford handles the complexities of the period very well indeed and has added a lot of new information about the women who played a key, often behind-the-scenes role in sorting out the royal succession. It is a good idea to end her account with the death of Elizabeth of York, Henry VII's queen, because her son united the warring houses.

Thursday, 20 June 2019

The Bull from the Sea - Mary Renault

This is the second of Renault's Theseus novels, originally published in 1962. I picked it up because I have a general interest in modern novels about ancient Greece - and was blown away from the first page.

The Bull from the Sea is a stupendous piece of literature, a modern masterpiece. The Attic world is put in front of us in pitch-perfect detail. Renault keeps close to the legend whilst adding psychological subtleties which would have been irrelevant to the early Bronze Age. For those who lived within 500 years of Theseus and Hippolyta the gods juggled human fate as they pleased. This will not do for the modern reader. We want motive, reasoning, and Renault provides.

Her masterstroke is to make Theseus the narrator. That way, we have to know what he is thinking or, when he is in reflective mode, what he now makes of his earlier actions. The Bull from the Sea covers his career from his return from Crete to Athens, his expanding empire, and ultimately his death, forty or so years later. Renault covered his youth in The King Must Die, apparently, and that is now top of my must-read list. Here, meanwhile, we follow his abduction and seduction of the Amazon queen Hippolyta, the birth of their son Hippolytos, and Hippolyta's death in battle against the women she formerly led. Meanwhile Theseus keeps his pledge to the vanquished Cretans and marries Phaedra, daughter of Minos, who bears him another son, Akamas. Ultimately the two boys meet and become friends. Phaedra, though, cannot bear the thought of Hippolytos, who has all the attributes Akamas lacks, becoming Theseus's sole heir. Having learnt her treachery from her father's mistress Medea, she arranges the young man's death.

It is a loss from which Theseus cannot recover. He ends up a recluse on the island of Skyros, where he realises the time has come for him to commit suicide, like so many of his forebears, by falling off the cliffs. Just before he goes he hears about a young warrior who is desperately keen to meet him. This, brilliantly, is Achilles. Thus we know where the spirit of Theseus goes, even if what remains of his empire passes to the uninspiring but loyal Akamas. This sort of cyclical storytelling, essential to the likes of Homer and Sophocles, works equally well for Renault. There were parts I didn't like as much as others - one of them, ironically, was the handling of Oedipus in Kolonos, which I felt was too Sophoclean; the other the Kentaurs, which I would could have lived without altogether. What struck me most, though, was the Bull from the Sea itself. Renault handles this beautifully. Early on in the book the Cretans bring the a prize bull from the Labyrinth in an effort to speed up Theseus's marriage to Phaedra; which means we aren't expecting it all when another bull, possibly descended from the first and brought to where it is by the sea, turns up in Hippolytos's moment of crisis.

Superb. I cannot recommend The Bull from the Sea highly enough.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

The Silent Death - Volker Kutscher

It is February 1930. In Berlin, moviemakers are either struggling to cash in on the new craze for talking pictures or else seeking to protect the 'pure' form of the silents. An actress called Betty  Winter suffers an appalling death when a spotlight falls on her. Soon it becomes apparent that other film actresses are being abducted. When their bodies are found, artfully arranged in closed cinemas, it becomes apparent that someone is removing their vocal chords. Gereon Rath of the Alex investigates.

Of course, Rath being Rath, it is not quite as simple as that. For one thing, his father, the Chief of Police in Cologne, wants him to track down someone who is blackmailing the mayor and future chancellor Konrad Adenauer. Then there is Rath's complex lovelife. He has a complaint lover called Kathi but he still yearns for the part-time whore, part-time police clerk Charley Ritter, who has now given up the whoring to study law. And worst of all, Rath's protective boss Gennat has been seconded to Dusseldorf to try and stop the Vampire serial killer, Peter Kurten, leaving Rath to the tender mercies of Chief Inspector Boehm, who hates him. Oh, and Rath adopts a dog.

This second instalment in the 'Babylon Berlin' series is much better than the first, also reviewed on this blog. Unlike Babylon Berlin itself The Silent Death is not based on some incomprehensible Russian plot. OK, all crime novels tend towards the surreal but at least here it hits upon a unique moment in an extreme industry. The motive is straightforward. There is some very odd backstory but all is explained in the end. The structure is much simpler, the period detail even better, and Rath comes across as a much more rounded character.

Babylon Berlin was a bit of a struggle. The Silent Death was sheer pleasure.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

The Maltese Falcon - Dashiell Hammett

This is it, the original US noir detective novel from 1930. Hammett published most of his handful of novels around that time but only this one entered and changed popular culture forever via the iconic movie of 1941. What struck me straightaway on reading the book was how perfect the casting of the movie was. It's as if Hammett wrote Kasper Gutman for Sydney Greenstreet, Joel Cairo for Peter Lorre. They speak in the novel like Greenstreet and Lorre speak on screen. As for Mary Astor as the duplicitous sex siren Brigid O'Shaughnessy - well, perhaps the fairest thing is to say nothing. After all, they were hardly going to include the strip search scene in 1941. Bogart, of course, was never first choice for Sam Spade, yet Hammett gave Spade a Bogart-style lip problem.

The thing that makes The Maltese Falcon so revolutionary in both versions is that Spade is morally conflicted. He generally tries to do the right thing but he's not really bothered when his partner Miles Archer gets gunned down. He's already sleeping with Archer's wife Iva, and doesn't give two hoots about her either. He thinks he might be falling in love with Brigid; the next moment he's slapping her around. He's happy to do a deal with Gutman and Cairo whereby Gutman's 'gunsel' Wilmer takes the fall for three murders, and when Wilmer objects he knocks him out.

I can only recall trying one of Hammett's other novels, The Dain Curse. It was many years ago and I didn't get to the end. I don't remember what stopped me. Anyway, I will definitely be reading any more I might come across. I didn't realise there were only five of them, all written over a five-year period in his thirties, so it won't take me long.