Thursday, 31 December 2020

The Mammoth Book of Dracula - Stephen Jones (ed)

 


Another collection of Dracula-related material, this time all modern continuation stories with the added plus of a long except from Stoker's play version of his novel.  There are some crackers here - I especially liked the stories by F Paul Wilson, Brian Stableford and Roberta Lannes - and only two I couldn't see the point of (I continue to miss the appeal of Thomas Ligotti and I find no real merit in the concluding poem by Jo Fletcher).  What is really effective is that Jones has managed to provide an over-arching narrative line from the human lifetime of the Count to the eve of the new Millennium (the book was originally published in 1997).  I always find an introduction to the writers and their other work useful.  Good fun.

Sunday, 27 December 2020

The Snow Tiger - Desmond Bagley


 Another two-for-one by Bagley.  The Snow Tiger, from 1975, is a disaster thriller of the type so popular at the time.  Ian Ballard returns to the mining town in New Zealand which he left as a child.  Back then he was the only child of a schoolteacher widowed in the war.  He returns as the grandson of the patriarch of the family mining firm to take charge of the mine on his mother's land which has just struck gold.  He instantly runs up against the Peterson family, who effectively drove him out of town twenty-five years earlier when Ian was wrongly blamed for the accidental death of one of the Peterson twins.  Crazy Charlie, the surviving twin, is still after Ian's blood, which is awkward, given that Ian has fallen for Liz Peterson.

Then the avalanche happens.  The town is destroyed.  Dozens of people die. including the eldest Peterson brother.  A Committee of Inquiry is set up to find out who, if anyone, is to blame for the disaster.  Local opinion is divided.  Most blame Ian and the mine.  A handful blame the Petersons, who own the land adjacent.  Luckily for Ian, the world expert on avalanches is his friend Mike McGill, who warned the town of the danger before it happened.

Bagley uses flashbacks sparked by evidence given at the inquiry to tell the story.  In anyone else's hands this could have been a disaster in itself, but Bagley is a master who can even make the molecular structure of snow on the ground exciting.  The flaw in the book, however, is that our protagonist Ian Ballard isn't really the driving force - indeed, he is in hospital when the denouement happens.  The driver of the story is actually McGill, a far more interesting character anyway.  Apart from that, The Snow Tiger is a cracker.

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Field of Blood - Denise Mina

 


Field of Blood is the first in the Paddy Meehan series.  Paddy is really Patricia but is known as Paddy because of the real Glasgow hardman who was a famous victim of injustice in the 1960s and 70s.  Mina tells us in the afterword that her mother arranged for her to meet him when she was starting out as a journalist.

It is 1981 and the female Paddy is also starting out as a journalist, albeit she is currently just on the copyboy bench.  Colleagues start to take notice when Baby Brian is found on the rail tracks and Paddy's fiance's cousin is arrested for his murder.  The cousin and his accomplice are both boys themselves.  The echoes of Jamie Bulger are obvious.

Paddy starts to investigate and soon forms the impression that an adult was also involved, and that adult controlled the kids.  At this point - slightly late for my liking - the story really takes off.  Paddy is put in real jeopardy before the end.  Everything is credible and logical.  My only reservations are there was slightly too much time spent on Paddy's Catholic background - although, her escape from convention is a key part of her character development - and the Meehan material was not really worth the trouble.  Perhaps Mina takes it further in subsequent novels in the series.

I am already a big fan of Mina.  I consider this not to be her best novel, largely because in other books she has set a higher standard.  It is still a cracking good read.

Monday, 21 December 2020

Southwark Fair - Samuel Adamson


 Samuel Adamson is an Australian playwright who has been living and working in London since the early Nineties.  Southwark Fair was produced at the National Theatre in 2006 with Rory Kinnear in the lead.  It is a London slice-of-life comedy, very much of its time.  That time was when being gay or from Eastern Europe was the biggest thing hip young Londoners had to worry about.  Things have changed so much in the last decade that Southwark Fair is now a period piece every bit as historical as The Importance of Being Earnest or The Way of the World.  Like them, it offers a snapshot of happier, better times.  Producers should consider reviving it if theatres ever reopen.  It is genuinely funny, with interesting characters and a clever structure which goes through scenes we have already seen from the other point of view (which could be off-putting were it not so brilliantly done).  I am neither gay nor from overseas and have never lived in London, or wanted to.  Yet I genuinely enjoyed reading Southwark Fair and would happily pay money to see it onstage.

Tuesday, 8 December 2020

Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories - Robert Aickman (ed)

 


Inevitably in a collection like this, there are going to be old friends.  For me, these included Sheridan Le Fanu's 'Squire Toby's Will' and William Hope Hodgson's 'The Voice in the Night'.  A personal favourite, Robert Aickman's 'The Trains' was also here.  I had read D H Lawrence's 'The Rocking-Horse Winner' and Algernon Blackwood's 'The Wendigo', both so long ago that I had no real memory of them.  Both were better than expected, true classics of the genre, though neither was about ghosts.  The revelation among the others was, for me, Walter de la Mare's 'Seaton's Aunt'.  De la Mare has cropped up a lot in my research recently but indirectly, and I had not realised how effective his creepy fiction can be.  'Seaton's Aunt', again not a ghost story, reminded me strongly of Kipling at his best.

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

The Tide Went Out - Charles Eric Maine

 

I have written before on this blog about the twisted road that led me to the speculative fiction of Charles Eric Maine (David McIlwain, 1921-81).  His writing career really only covered the Fifties and Sixties but he was at the top of his game from the outset and for a time was up there with John Wyndham, John Christopher and the young J G Ballard.  Like them, he tended towards the eco-disaster, which is what The Tide Went Out is.

It is 1958 (Maine is always contemporaneous) and US A-Bomb tests have gone too far.  A sub-ocean blast has cracked the Earth's crust and all the water is seeping away.  Philip Wade is seconded from the science weekly he edits and placed at the secret governmental hub in London's Kingsway (I suspect at the former General Electric building where the BBC started out) to produce sanitised news for the Press.  Officially the world's combined efforts and trying to pump water back from the core.  In reality, there is nothing they can do and ninety percent or more of the population is going to die very soon.  Wade's family, and the families of other personnel chosen to survive, have been taken to polar camps where there is still plenty of ice.

Maine paints a vivid portrait of London at the time as society slowly begins to crumble.  Barricades go up and the army comes in to protect the elite from the masses, and soon the soldiers go rogue too, but with all the weaponry they can want.

Maine explores the key questions we are currently asking about the COVID pandemic.  Why have we so crazily damaged the only world we have?  Who chooses the elite?  Can we trust anything the government tells us?

Another well-selected reprint from the British Library.

Friday, 27 November 2020

The Rivals of Dracula - Nick Rennison

 


A collection of vampire tales from around the time of Stoker's classic.  There are familiar faces here.  M R James's 'Count Magnus' is always worth reading and it was good to see 'Aylmer Vance and the Vampire'.  There are oddball entries too, some very odd Norse vampires and a vampiric plant.  But there are also several duds, I'm afraid - 'Ken's Mystery' for example, by Julian (son of Nathaniel) Hawthorne, and Mary Cholmondely's 'Let Loose'.  On the whole, though, a good range, well worth reading.

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

The Great Gold Snatch - Grierson Dickson


This is the way to read your period crime thrillers - in a weekly magazine from May 1937!

I was interested in 'Jimmy' Dickson because he was a friend of Max Knight, the original M, and like Max himself and most of his friends, he wrote crime fiction.  I wanted a sample but I didn't want to pay Amazon's COVID-inflated prices.  So I found this on Ebay and eminently satisfied.

The crime itself is explained in this magnificent header page:


A truckload of gold bullion is hijacked along its route from Croydon Airfield to the Bank of England despite a fully armed police escort.  When Superintendent 'Cissie' Marlow arrives on the scene the gold has completely vanished.  How?  Well for once I spotted the clue, not that it matters.  The novella is genuinely thrilling, with high speed car chases and forensic science and close encounters of the gangster kind.  Dickson might have made a ghastly misjudgement in his hero's sobriquet, but boy, can he handle pace.

An added virtue is that it's set right on the cusp of traditional flatfoot policing and modern investigation.  There is a Flying Squad, with Q cars and a lab at Hendon, but look at the not very secure security van in the image.  It is just a van with reinforced wooden doors, because at that time no one had ever stolen such a volume of bullion, largely because of sheer weight.

I loved the cover image (signed A Jones, which is not much help) and the uncredited interior artwork.  I am on the lookout for more Dickson (but I'm still not paying Amazon's current prices).



Thursday, 19 November 2020

The Model - Robert Aickman

 


The Model is a novella, left by Aickman when he died in 1981 and published in 1988.  It is now a Faber Find and I got the ebook.  Aickman told a friend he thought it was his best work.  I wouldn't go that far but it is different and it is always great to see a dying man branching out into a new field.

What we have is a grim fairy tale, set in Tsarist Russia sometime in the second half of the Nineteenth Century.  Elena is a young girl who lives a very sheltered life in a remote town.  Her mother is an invalid, her father the local lawyer.  A visiting couple leave her a book about ballet which inspires Elena to build a model theatre.  A very strange man then pays a flying visit and gives her toy dancers.

Elena is on the verge of puberty and her parents start pressing her to look to the future.  Her mother wants her to become a nun which, she has been told by God Himself, will keep the mother alive a little longer.  Her father, however, wants Elena to become the 'companion' to the local nobleman's mysterious son and, all being well, to marry him.  But Elena is set on becoming a ballerina and takes herself off to the nearest town with an opera house.  She travels alone through the bleak Russian winter.  Along the way she meets a talking bear and a prince who wants to be a revolutionary.  She makes her debut her first night in town, but is taken in by a strange brown lady with simian servants, only to be rescued by a distant cousin of one of her friends back home - a young woman posing, for reasons vaguely connected to her university studies, as an officer in the hussars,

The Model is, in short, a triumph, very different to Aickman's other work (much of it reviewed elsewhere on this blog).  It is beautifully written, full of colour and imagination, and strongly recommended.

Monday, 16 November 2020

Three-Fifths - John Vercher

 


Three-Fifths is the debut novel by Amercian writer John Vercher.  It is a slim, powerful noir set in Oakland at the time of the OJ Simpson trial.  It is about everybody trying to do the right thing, which inevitably ends the wrong way.

Vercher keeps his focus extremely tight.  There are no more than ten or a dozen characters and their lives are all entangled.  Up front is Bobby, who is mixed race but passes for white.  Aaron is his one and only school friend; at school, as one of very few white people, Aaron played at being black.  This landed him in jail for drug dealing.  Now he is out, muscled-up on steroids but wrecked in mind and soul.  The same night Bobby's mother Izzy bumps into Bobby's father, Robert.  Robert didn't even know Izzy was pregnant.  Since then he has married, been through IVF hell with his deeply-loved wife and is now getting divorced.

To say more might be to give away key plot elements.  The point is how tightly Vercher has wound his narrative line.  And boy, it pays off.  Very dark, very bleak, but full of humanity and its essential urge to do right, and deeply compelling.  A brilliant debut.  Highly recommended.



Wednesday, 11 November 2020

American Midnight - Laird Hunt (ed)


Nine 'Tales of the Dark' introduced by Laird Hunt, whose House in the Dark of the Woods I reviewed earlier this month.  What makes the selection son enjoyable for British readers is that these are American classics which we rarely see over here.  I had read the Chambers story before, as part of his celebrated The King in Yellow, and feel sure I must have read 'The Masque of the Red Death' but if so remembered none of it.  Anything by Edith Wharton and Shirley Jackson is always worth reading, and I had forgotten how amusing Mark Twain can be.  Overall, my favourite was 'An Itinerant House' by Emma Francis Dawson, in which the house does the haunting.  Again, there are no duds.

Sunday, 8 November 2020

From the Depths - Mike Ashley (ed)

 


Building on the success of their classic crime series, the British Library now does reprints and collections across many genres, including the supernatural.  From the Depths is specific - 'strange tales of the sea' - but right up my alley as a diehard fan of William Hope Hodgson.  The great man appears here with one I hadn't come across before - 'The Mystery of the Water-Logged Ship' - but there are other tales of the Sargasso, by Ward Muir and Frank H Shaw, plus two of floating islands.  The last, 'No Ships Pass', is by Lady Eleanor Smith, is very weird and captivating.  A great collection.  Not a dud amongst them.  I wonder if there is a Volume Two...?

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

The House in the Dark of the Wood - Laird Hunt

 


Laird Hunt was a discovery for me.  I had never come across his work before.  This was an offer from Pushkin Books, the ebook for 99p - and what a result!  The House in the Dark of the Woods is a modern fairy tale in the style of Angela Carter.  Like Carter, Hunt plays with traditional folk tropes, in his case American as opposed to Carter's English.  Wandering off into the woods seems to me fundamentally American, and that is what Hunt's unnamed heroine does here. The period seems to be the Puritan era, circa 1700.  The name those she comes across choose to call her is 'Goody' - very Hawthorne and Salem Witch Trials.  The modernist twist is that the woods is where the women hold sway: Eliza, who may well be a witch, and the roistering Captain Jane.  The 'magic' is very original, too.  Eliza exists in multiples, for example.  And as for Red Boy, the supposed master of the woods ... well, that's one of those things you have to read the book to find out.

I was hugely pleased with The House in the Dark of the Woods.  The length was spot on, 160pp or so.  That meant absolutely no room for filler or exposition, which are wholly irrelevant in folk/fairy lore.  The style, to my ear, was note-perfect.  It will come as no surprise that I followed up by buying Hunt's anthology for Pushkin, American Midnight

Thursday, 29 October 2020

The Godmakers - Frank Herbert

 


Lewis Orne is something of an outsider, born on the unimportant planet Chargon of Gemma and alienated from his family, he has always dreamt of becoming an insider, one of the favoured.  He begins by joining the Rediscovery and Re-education Service, bringing civilization back to plants knocked back to barbarism by the Rim Wars, then transfers to Investigation and Adjustment, dies whilst trying to adjust the bloodthirsty Gienahns, then, on recovery, is sent to the holy planet of Amel where the Abbod and his initiates have set about making a god.

This is my first Frank Herbert novel.  Obviously I know about Dune and have a copy ready to read, but thought I'd start with something much shorter.  You can tell Herbert's quality straight away - the way, for example, he uses fake epigraphs to get much dry exposition out of the way, then makes you read them because it soon becomes apparent that's where all the clues are to understanding what's going on.  The characters are interesting, the monsters horrible, and the way religion becomes political all too relevant.  I enjoyed it on all levels.


Sunday, 25 October 2020

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All - Allan Gurganus

 Phew! Took me four weeks to read but, overall, it was worth it.

For a first novel, with a rotten title and almost 900 pages, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All was a massive best seller in its day.  It spent 8 months in the US charts and was adapted into a TV mini series (of which this version was the tie-in) and ultimately a one-woman stage play.  It is the story of Lucy, 99 years old and living in a residential home, and her marriage to a veteran three times her age.  So far, so Little Big Man, and that, I admit, was what drew me.  In fact it is very different because Lucy tells tales, mainly the tales her old man told when he was elderly and a fixture on the speaking circuit.  There are also her tales, and those of her former slave friend Castalia, all told in the voices of the characters.  Lucy then tends to undercut these yarns with the truth, or at least the truth as she sees it.  And so about 150 years of Southern US history is covered.  The main event is Sherman's trail of burning mansions, including the one Lucy's husband should have inherited.  His mother burns in it too, but survives, horribly burnt, and hers is perhaps the most affective tale.  It all ends with a twist I did not see coming. I got frustrated with the reading time involved but I have to recommend it. These characters will linger in my mind a long time and my own work will inevitably be influenced.


Monday, 28 September 2020

A Killer is Loose - Gil Brewer

 


A Killer is Loose (1954) is the second half of this two-for-one ebook from the golden age of pulp.  Steve Logan is down to rock bottom.  His wife Ruby is about to give birth any minute.  He is out of work and out of luck.  He is thinking of selling his treasured luger but first he wants to collect a couple of hundred bucks he's owed by a local bigshot for work did on his yacht.  Purely by chance he comes across Ralph Angers, who literally tries to walk in front of a bus.  Steve saves him, Ralph naturally feels obliged.  He insists of buying Steve a drink in the very bar where Steve planned on selling his luger.  Before Steve knows it, Ralph has the gun and the bar owner is dead.

Steve is dragged along as Ralph runs amok.  Ralph's girlfriend Lillian is another reluctant accomplice. Ralph is an eye surgeon gone mad.  He is carrying the blueprints for a state of the art eye hospital he plans to build - which is bad news indeed for the realtor he consults.  And while all this is going on, Steve knows his wife is in hospital, undergoing an especially difficult labour.

By compressing the timescale into a single day, Brewer cranks up the tension.  By limiting his characters to three principals he can offer us plenty of psychological insight.  I lapped it up.  A minor classic of its genre.

Sunday, 27 September 2020

House of Trump, House of Putin - Craig Unger

 


Craig Unger tells us, in minute detail, how Donald Trump used Russian money, largely the proceeds of crime, to win the 2016 US election.  It's tough going, because we cannot expect the Russian mafia to be any more opaque than its Sicilian forebear.  The men involved, and they are all men, are criminals who lie as easily as they breathe.  The secrets they hold are, literally, worth billions of dollars.  Donald Trump and his sons, on the other hand, are morons, who wouldn't know a secret if they stepped in one.  Only Trumps would be dumb enough to rent large portions of the eponymous Tower to criminals on the international wanted list.  On the US side we get glimpses into the tangled careers of Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, both key links in the chain stretched between the Kremlin and the White House.

Unger has done his homework.  His claims are all sourced and credited.  People of the so-called Free World should read this and weep.  At the same time we should never forget, Hillary Clinton was an awful choice by the Democrats, unlikeable, cold, and entitled.  It was no mean achievement on her part to make Donald J Trump likeable.

Sohlberg and the Missing Schoolboy - Jens Amundsen

 

A bit of a curiosity, this: a Norwegian police procedural written, under a pseudonym, by a Norwegian attorney who has spent a lot of time in the US and who has based this story, his first novel, on a real life US case, as yet unsolved.

The missing schoolboy is Karl Haugen, who has disappeared after a pre-school science fair.  He has been missing for a year and his parents are rich, so Commissioner Thorsen calls in his old rival, Harald Sohlberg, on permanent secondment to Interpol and based in America, to review the case and, ideally, find the killer.  He can have all the resources he wants, but all he wants is one assistant.  He gets Constable Wangelin, an ambitious young woman, eager to learn from the master.

The story is good.  Amundsen is interested in the psychology of crime and Sohlberg uses emotional intellect to reveal the killer.  It is all very clean and convincing.  The literary style is, however, horrible.  Instead of explaining the Norwegian terms, habits and lifestyle in authorial voice, or leaving us to find out for ourselves, Amundsen inserts it in dialogue - people who already know, explaining stuff to other people who already know.  I couldn't force myself to overlook this, or the ghastly cover art.  I liked it, but I that's about all I can say.

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Up the Walls of the World - James Tiptree Jnr

 


James Tiptree Jnr only wrote two novels, and this is the first of them.  For a debut novel, Up the Walls of the World seems remarkably accomplished, but then everything about James Tiptree Jnr was remarkable.  For a start, 'James T Tiptree' was a pseudonym, not in itself unusual in the literature of sci fi.  Next, he was actually a she - Alice Bradley Sheldon (1915-1987), who was a trained artist, intelligence officer in WW2, bisexual, a late returner to advanced education who ultimately got her doctorate when, like me, she was 52.  She didn't publish a sci fi story until 1968, then quickly mastered the form, ultimately publishing nine collections.  Up the Walls of the World came in 1978.

The story is set on three 'worlds'.  We start in interstellar space where a vast entity, so big it can destroy or make worlds, floats, not quite inert, pondering the mission of which it has a conception more instinctive than intellectual.  Next is the windy planet of Tyree, where squid fly, communicate in colour, where males tend the children while females do the gathering and exploring.  The Elders of Tyree are aware of the coming of the Destroyer.  Then to contemporary Earth, where ESP researchers are doing experiments on a group of psychics.  The inhabitants of the Earth and Tyree collide, displacing identities from bodies.  Then they all migrate to the nervous system of the Destroyer...

I was amazed, enthralled - inspired.  A whole new dimension of sci fi opened up to me.  Fortunately, the other novel is also in this ebook.  Then I must progress to the stories.

In case anyone is wondering if it was happy ever after for Sheldon/Tiptree, think again.  In 1987 she shot her husband, phoned her attorney and then killed herself. 

Monday, 14 September 2020

The Magician - Somerset Maugham

 


Despite living until 1965, Maugham was essentially an Edwardian novelist.  This, from 1908, is him dipping a toe into the world of James's Turn of the Screw; in other words, fin du siecle gothic.  Maugham was also a novelist who turned personal experience into fiction.  He had encountered Aleister Crowley, "The Wickedest Man in the World", and despised him.  Crowley is Oliver Haddo, the Magician of the title.  In Parisian bohemia he comes across Margaret and Arthur, Arthur a successful London physician, Margaret his beautiful ward whom he intends to marry as soon as she turns eighteen. Today, this raises eyebrows, and Maugham was clearly aware of it, even in 1908.  He goes to great lengths to demonstrate that their love is romantic and true.  Haddo spitefully takes Margaret from Arthur and marries her.  She briefly returns to Arthur but cannot resist the animal magnetism of Haddo.  Arthur with his friends Suzie and Porhoet determine to rescue her from Haddo's ancestral pile in Staffordshire.

Maugham is a much better novelist than posthumous neglect would indicate.  He wrote The Magician at the height of his powers, midway between Liza of Lambeth and Of Human Bondage.  He has devised a gothic plot and come up with some extremely clever ways of making it credible.  The characters are in a constant state of flux.  Haddo gets fatter and fatter with every appearance; Margaret goes from English rose to debauched jade and finally a pale shadow of her former self; Arthur and Suzie, from the start an obvious match in age and two halves of a whole in terms of personality, slowly get younger and more attractive as they grow closer.  The end, when it came, was genuinely horrific.  A mini masterpiece of the genre, which deserves to better known.


Sunday, 6 September 2020

Ghost in the Machine - Ed James

 

There are times when what you need is a straightforward police thriller, preferably Scottish.  And having finished the 600+ pages of Mr Biswas was one.  Two days leisurely read; great characterisation, interesting plot and sound resolution.  Perfect.

Ed James's series (one of several) is set in contemporary Edinburgh and features newly-appointed DC Scott Cullen.  Cullen is a great device for James.  He's only around 30 and has a long career in front of him (and there are already several other novels in the series).  What James really does well is giving his hero the right number of gaffes and crucial discoveries.  He places him square at the centre of the action and keeps him there.  He has not saddled Cullen with a drink and drug problem, or an ex-wife or any of the usual stereotypical problems.  Instead, he is a normal guy with a normal guy's everyday problems - enough to give him three-dimensional realism but not enough to get in the way of the plot.

The supporting characters are equally good and I look forward to downloading Scott Cullen 2 to my Kindle, the next time I just need a solid, professionally-crafted, deeply pleasurable read.

Thursday, 3 September 2020

A House for Mr Biswas - V S Naipaul

V S Naipaul considered A House for Mr Biswas his first serious fiction and his best-known.  He wrote it at the end of the Fifties, as he was approaching thirty.  The setting is Naipaul's native Trinidad but Mohun Biswas (called 'Mr' from childhood) is about a decade older than him.  Indeed, Biswas dies in early middle age.

There is a Dickensian element to the structure.  Biswas's lifetime quest is to secure a house of his own and the story is divided into chapters around his housing status through life.  Biswas is a clown and a bit of a blowhard, who rises to a job as staff reporter on a Port of Spain newspaper and an unsecured social worker in a postwar community project.  Naipaul was a professional writer from his student days at Oxford and became a dreadful snob, pompous and opinionated.  Perhaps that came after he wrote Biswas because the 600-page book never becomes boring or didactic.  It is, in short, a traditional English comic novel set entirely in Trinidad.

I had never read Naipaul before Biswas and it may be I never read him again.  But I thoroughly enjoyed this.

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Swan Song - Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott


Swan Song is a debut novel longlisted for the women's fiction prize.  It tells the story of Truman Capote and his 'swans', a coterie of super-rich women who confided all their secrets to the supposedly harmless gay midget, only for him to spill the beans in extracts from his never-completed novel Answered Prayers, which he sold to Esquire magazine when he could extort no more cash from his publishers.  The sin was unpardonable, and he never was forgiven, so Capote drank and drugged himself to death before he was sixty.

Most of the swans are now forgotten: Babe Paley, wife of the boss of CBS; Gloria Guinness; Slim Keith, wife to both film director Howard Hawks and Broadway producer Leland Hayward; Princess Lee Radziwill, sister of Jackie Kennedy; Marella Agnelli, wife of Fiat supremo Gianni; and C Z Guest, whose husband was the grandson of the Duke of Marlborough and thus cousin of Winston Churchill. Pamela Churchill, ex-wife of Winston's son Randolph, also plays a significant role.  Truman Capote, however, seems to have kept his reputation long after his death, surprising in one who wrote so little, albeit what he wrote is truly exceptional.

Greenberg-Jephcott cleverly hops back and forth through time.  This is always a difficult trick but she judges it perfectly.  I am not so keen on her attempts at Southern drawl and not all the swans are equally well realised.  However set-pieces like Capote's era-defining black and white ball are brilliantly achieved.  Another trick she pulls of successfully is having the novel narrated by the swans en masse - 'we' rather than 'I'.  I haven't seen it done elsewhere and was highly impressed.

I hadn't realised but another novel on the same subject came out in 2016 (The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin), two years before this.  Greenberg-Jephcott must have been livid.  It would be interesting at some point to compare the two.

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

The Red Scarf - Gil Brewer

 

Classic noir from a classic noir author - that is to say, alcoholic and frustrated by his lack of success.  Gil Brewer drank himself to death in 1983, barely sixty years old.  Still, he had managed to more or less support himself and his family with his writing, entirely for the pulp paperbacks. The Red Scarf was published by Mystery House in 1958 and falls round about the middle of his oeuvre.  Roy Nichols and his wife Bess have gone about things the right way, the American way, starting out with nothing and working hard, damned hard, to build their little nest-egg and get into business.  They have bought a nice little motel right where a brand new highway is planned.  But then the highway is put on hold and they are living hand to mouth.  In desperation, Roy has headed up to Chicago to try and tap his brother Albert for a loan.  Albert, of course, will do no such thing.  Roy is down to his last few dollars - can't even afford the bus home.  So he cops a ride with a couple of grifters, Teece and Vivian.  They have a car, they have drink, Vivian has curves in all the preferred places and there is a briefcase of stolen money, held together with the red scarf of the title, Vivian's good luck talisman, which turns out to be not so lucky after all.

Plot is clearly paramount with Brewer and he does it really well, the fugitives holed up in Nichols' motel with Nichol's suspicious wife, the cops and the mob both hot on their trail.  The prose is proficient and the end perfectly satisfactory.  A paradigm of the genre - and only half the fun to be had from this Stark House Classic Noir ebook.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Noble Savages - Sarah Watling

 
The subtitle tells you everything you need to know: Noble Savages is the story of the four Olivier sisters told in seven fragments.  That there were four sisters is indisputable; the need for seven sections is neither apparent nor especially useful.

The Oliviers were the daughters of Sir Sydney, an upper middleclass socialist, diplomat, and governor of Jamaica, where the girls spent parts of their childhood.  This made them exotic, slightly savage, and the talk of the town when they arrived in London for their advanced education.  They were also extremely beautiful, which helped, and given to nudity, which helped even more.

Brynhild was the most beautiful.  She was also the least bright.  She married earlier and had a child almost straightaway.  The unlikely star of the quartet was the youngest, Noel, whom Rupert Brooke fell for when she was only 15.  In fact, she is the only reason for this book.  For forty years, since John Lehmann and Paul Delany launched a wave of 'new' Brooke biographies, Noel was the focus of attention, largely because she doubled the number of women Brooke was known to have courted and indeed proposed to, whereas hitherto he had been assumed to be gay, largely because so many of his circle were.  Now Noel is known to be just one of many and Rupert Brooke was propositioning simultaneously.  Indeed, he courted three of the four Oliviers and we must be grateful he didn't set his cap at their beautiful and vacuous mother.

The fact is, the sisters were neither happy nor successful.  They were the centre of attention of a circle of gay and lesbian dilettantes who were easily bored.  They had plenty of admirers from roughly 1908 to 1914.  After the war they were peripheral figures from a very different past.  Noel, to her credit, refused to have anything to do with the insane hero-worship which grew up around Brooke.  She had a successful medical career, a much less successful private life, and ended up surly and eccentric.

Sarah Watling does a great job with unpromising material.  She makes all the sisters likeable to an extent because she portrays them warts and all.  Watling is a very fine writer with a wide knowledge of the time of which she writes, and I look forward to whatever she chooses to write next.

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Virtual Light - William Gibson

 Virtual Light is the first of the 'Bridge' trilogy.  The second is Idoru, which I am yet to read, the third All Tomorrow's Parties reviewed below (October 31 2018).

We begin with Berry Rydell, trained as a cop in Knoxville but dismissed after 13 weeks for blowing away a nutjob who he thought had kidnapped a kid.  He moved to LA to work as rent-a-cop but again makes a mistake and has to be let go.  However his extreme driving skills have been noted and his supervisor recommends him for a driving job for the parent company up in what remains of San Francisco after the inevitable earthquake.  The job is to drive a senior recovery agent who has injured his leg skateboarding.  The agent - wonderfully named Warbaby - is after a bike courier called Chevette Washington who appears to have stolen a highly significant pair of virtual light glasses.  She might also have given the original courier a Cuban necktie, but the glasses are what matter.

But it is Berry who tracks Chevette down to the Gold Gate bridge where many of the dispossessed have built a shanty city of their own, where she is something of a live-in nurse for one of the original bridge settlers, Skinner, the subject of a sociological research paper by Japanese student Yamazaki.  Berry saves Chevette from Warbaby and his crew of Russian cops.  The chase is on and sparks fly.

Gibson is my absolute favourite writer, creator of wonderful characters and the hardest-boiled prose this side of James Ellroy.  Virtual Light is one of his best, far better than Mona Lisa Overdrive and every bit as good as All Tomorrow's Parties.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

The Witch of Prague and other Stories - F Marion Crawford



This Wordsworth collection contains all the weird fiction of Crawford, a bestseller from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.  There are just eight stories and the titular novel, yet Crawford has always figured in lists of the best and scariest practitioners.  I can now see why,

The Screaming Skull is probably his most anthologised story but my favourite was The Upper Berth, a ghost story set at sea in which Crawford really relies on his favourite stratagem - we see nothing but we definitely feel the terror.

The novel, however, is pure fantasy - a gothic fantasy, to be true, but not for me I'm afraid.

Thursday, 30 July 2020

The Freedom Trap - Desmond Bagley



This is the second of the 2-for-1 ebooks.  I reviewed Running Blind earlier this month and The Freedom Trap is linked to an extent in that the Russian spy within MI5 is a character in it.  Nothing else links up.  The hero-narrator this time is Rearden, a professional criminal from Johannesburg, brought to London for a diamond heist.  It's all very simple, absurdly so given the fee, but then again you can fit an awful lot of diamonds into a Kodak film canister.  All Rearden has to do is knock the postman on the head and run for it.  Mackintosh and his glamorous secretary Lucy have taken care of everything else.

But it goes horribly wrong.  Rearden is caught but the diamonds are never recovered and he gets handed an exemplary sentence.  In the same prison is the notorious Slade, now crippled by wounds received in Running Blind.  Rearden is approached by another old lag.  If he wants - and is willing to pay a considerable slice of the diamond booty - there is an organisation that can help him escape.  Rearden is able to negotiate a reduced price because the escape organisers are really out to spring Slade and Slade is going to need help to get over the wall.

So we are in the world of George Blake and the Train Robbers.  They, famously, escaped - and perhaps this is how they did it.  Also involved is a millionaire MP not entirely unlike the late Robert Maxwell.  He has the same Balkan origins and even a yacht which is pivotal to the plot.  Bagley plays all these cards brilliantly.

But the big twist is even bigger and more spectacular than the historical echoes.  In only the very best thrillers - and The Freedom Trap is certainly one - NOTHING is as it seems.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Plays Three - Edward Bond


Bingo was the one here that I already knew. I bought a copy when it first came out in the Seventies, but it was fun to read it again after more than half a lifetime.

Bingo, a title with no apparent sense to it, is about the death of Shakespeare.  The great man has retired to Stratford to ignore his demented, bed-bound wife, fall out with his daughter Judith, get embroiled in unpopular enclosure and generally upset the local puritans.  His one visitor is Ben Jonson, who is a complete boor, and after an evening with him the Bard of Avon decides the only answer is to kill himself.

I was big on Shakespeare back when I was a fresher at Hull.  Four graduations later, I no longer care if I never see one of his plays again.  There are three I would be willing to attend if pressed, but the rest...  No thanks.  The problem, however, with having studied the life and works over a period of I some fifty years, I know too much to be able to ignore the liberties Bond has openly taken with the facts.  Ann Hathaway might well have been ga-ga for all anyone knows, and it is an effective way of establishing the considerable age-gap between the spouses; Judith may well have been a scold; but Shakespeare is shown as old, forever complaining about his age, drained of inspiration and even meaningful conversation.  But as we all know, until the day he died he was only fifty-one, and having been watching and reading his plays for longer than that, I can confirm that fifty-one is not old.  More importantly, it wasn't in Elizabethan times either.  We are taught, or allowed to believe, that the human span was shorter then.  Bullshit.  The average age at death was lower because well over half the children born died in infancy and a woman could expect, sooner or later, to die in childbirth.  Disinfectant put a stop to all that.  But for those who survived to the menopause, and all men, the length of life was more or less what it is now.  Most could expect to live to seventy and very few septuagenarians, then as now, are senile.  That said, Bingo is full of dramatic set pieces - the gibbeted girl, Shakespeare lost in the snow.  I enjoyed it yesterday every bit as much as when I bought it hot off the press in 1974.

Next up is The Fool, written around the same time and also featuring a troubled bard - in this case John Clare, who also finds himself embroiled in the agrarian revolution.  In his case it is the destruction of the traditional rural life (labourers and lords of the manor), which literally drives him mad. To my surprise, I found it more enjoyable than Bingo.  The characters are better drawn and I for one was drawn in emotionally as well as intellectually.  As to whether it is more accurate than Bingo, I have no idea.  All I know about John Clare is that he wrote pastoral verse and died in an asylum.

The third play is The Woman, the one I knew nothing about, the one I bought the collection for.  I hated it.  It is based on Greek legends of the Fall of Troy, which is something I have often toyed with doing myself and which I am always fascinated with.  It is an attempt at epic theatre.  Again, something that appeals to me.  And I say again, I hated it.  It has the unforgivable flaws of boring one dimensional characters who arguing absurdly over something of no consequence whatsoever, a votive statue of a female deity.  Did I mention I hated it?

On the other hand, the final playlet, Stone, which is something I normally avoid, I thoroughly enjoyed.  It is another of Bond's pseudo Brechtian works, in this case a parable for the theatre, but redeemed by not one but two charismatic characters, the Tramp and the Girl.

The book is padded out, unnecessarily, with various essays, stories and poems.  These add nothing and in my opinion are best avoided.

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

The Z Murders - J Jefferson Farjeon


Another of the British Library reprints of Golden Age Crime Classics, overseen by Martin Edwards.  I had never heard of Farjeon but apparently his Mystery in White was the first bestseller of the BL/CC series. I can see why.  The plot here is ingenious, the style period but not off-puttingly so.  And the characters are attractive - even the killer, in his spectacularly hideous way.  There were more than enough twists and turns to keep me fuddled and the final pay-off was perfectly satisfactory.

The hero of The Z Murders is Richard Temperley, who has been bothered by the snoring of a boorish man on the overnight train from Scotland.  Within a few minutes the man has been shot dead and Temperley has met the blonde bombshell who is the prime suspect.  The pace is one of the key ingredients.  The entire adventure takes barely a day and a half, by which time the action (and the main characters) have travelled from London to Bristol, then to Boston in Lincolnshire and finally to Whitchurch, which is apparently in Shropshire.  All modes of travel available in 1932 are used - train, motor car, and plane - which all adds to the fun.

It is extremely reminiscent of The Thirty-Nine Steps but much wittier.

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Through a Glass Darkly - Nigel Jones


Through a Glass Darkly is the life of Patrick Hamilton.  Patrick Hamilton was a hugely successful author from the get-go, achieving bestseller status while still in his twenties.  He was even more successful as a playwright.  His stage thrillers Rope and Gaslight are still staples of commercial theatre around the world and both made famous movies.

But for all his success Hamilton's life was essentially tragic.  He was horribly injured in a road accident in January 1932 shortly after a controversial broadcast of Rope on the BBC.  He suffered extensive injuries and had to undergo early plastic surgery to repair the damage to his face.  He was 27 years old and was never entirely free of pain thereafter.  He drank to numb the pain - or perhaps he inherited the trait from his truly repellent father; in any event he was soon an alcoholic and drink finally did for him thirty years later.  He married twice but had sexual hang ups, including bondage, which led him to use prostitutes.  Yet he still turned out successful novels almost to the end of his life.  The plays alone would have been enough to sustain him, had it not been for his expensive distractions.

Nigel Jones is a skilled biographer of literary figures - his biography of Rupert Brooke was reviewed on this blog about six months ago.  Of the two, I actually prefer this.  Hamilton's sister-in-law gave him access to material never seen before, and Jones's descriptions and analyses of the books and plays add to the enjoyment.  I enjoyed Hangover Square when I was 19 and now I want to read it again.

Thursday, 16 July 2020

A Natural History of Ghosts - Roger Clarke


The title is a play on Pliny, the man responsible for so much of the world's nonsense, including (probably) ghosts. Roger Clarke is himself a ghost-hunter, but the vast majority of the cases he reports here are fake, up to and including Most Haunted on Living TV in the Nineties and Noughties.

Books like this used to be a staple when I was young - by names like Peter Underwood and Hans Holzer - but it seems the scandals that killed off Most Haunted and Living TV also put paid to the genre for a while.  That's a shame because many literary greats either wrote the occasional ghost story (Daniel Defoe, Henry James and, of course, Dickens) or even specialised (M R James and Sheridan le Fanu).

Clarke has been diligent in his research and has found cases I knew nothing about. It is a shame the proof reading wasn't to the same level of diligence. You can forgive a self-published text but this is from Penguin for Pete's sake. I enjoyed it all the same.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Moravagine - Blaise Cendrars

I found out about Moravagine from Jacques Chessex's Vampire of Rompraz (reviewed below) which was a take on Cendrars' original. The Cendrars certainly is original. I know of nothing quite like it. It is, in a sense, a psychological picaresque in which our narrator ("Dr Science") has devoted his life to studying "Moravagine" a nobly-born serial killer of pubescent girls, gross comedian and adventurer. Clearly neither of these men are really encumbered with these names, nor are we told who they really are. Cendrars is himself a fiction, who himself appears in his fiction. One thing both Rompraz and Moravagine have in common is the scene in which Cendrars of the French Foreign Legion loses his arm in World War I. That might well be the only real event in either, but both writers adopt a terse, journalistic style, skimming through loads of circumstantial detail which would otherwise slow down their narrative. They both profess to explain their titular freaks of nature and never get anywhere near so doing. Moravagine is the more imaginative novel, Ropraz the more convincing illusion. The Vampire is more frightening than the child killer because we never really see the killer at work whereas we are shown the gruesome handiwork of the Vampire.

Moravagine is relentlessly offbeat, wacky to the point of derangement, yet it is compelling, occasionally funny, and always fascinating.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Down for the Count - Martin Holmen


Harry Kvist never took a count in his boxing career but things have got pretty low since his retirement. He is fresh out of jail after serving eighteen months for intimidation. He misses his prison boyfriend, he needs money, he needs his old friends. But the old laundress in his street has died at the hands of her retarded son. She has left Harry a note, reminding him that he promised to look after the lad. And so Harry launches into an investigation which brings him into contract with the old woman's long estranged daughter, local property developers, the asylum where the boy is now imprisoned, the special school where he was educated, and the special police squad who look after the special needs of the Swedish king.

Every bit as good as Clinch (the first part of the Stockholm Trilogy and reviewed on this blog a couple of years ago), Down for the Count is full of compelling characters, brutal action and dark humour. I can't wait to get my hands on the third instalment, Slugger.

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Running Blind - Desmond Bagley

I had, of course, heard of Desmond Bagley. He was a big noise in the Sixties and Seventies. I had not realised that he died comparatively young (59) in 1983. I had never read any of his books. Then I was pointed in the direction of this linked double-bill (the 'Slade' novels) in ebook for only £1.99.

It was certainly money well spent. Written in 1970, Running Blind hasn't dated at all, presumably thanks to Bagley's habit of keeping things simple on the surface and deep beneath. Alan Stewart, the hero, comes to us with considerable back story, so much so that I was startled to realise there were no earlier instalments.

Stewart owns a Scottish glen but was brought up in Sweden. He is a retired British spy, having fallen fall of his department head, Slade. He spends a lot of time in Iceland, has an Icelandic home, an Icelandic girlfriend, and speaks the language. Hence he is asked by Slade to deliver a small package to a contact there. Stewart interprets this as a peace offering, a potential route back into espionage, and agrees.

Once in Iceland, he is ambushed. Everyone seems to know he is there, and carrying something important. He is chased across the volcanic landscape and soon realises the man in pursuit is the former KGB agent Kennikin. For Kennikin the chase is personal; in Stewart's last mission he accidently emasculated the Russian. Surely, in all the circumstances, Kennikin is also on the inactive list. So who has sent him to Iceland?

I was fascinated to learn that Running Blind was Bagley's first spy thriller. You'd never guess.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Three Political Plays - Michael Hastings

Michael Hastings was the enfant terrible of the Angry Young Men. Look how young he was when his first plays were produced. He was always political and had a lifetime fascination with Africa. I remember watching his TV epic, The Search for the Nile, several times, and on the basis of that I bought his first collection of published plays when I was still at school.

This Penguin collection brings together three of his most overtly political plays. In chronological order, Lee Harvey Oswald was first staged in 1966, two years after the Warren Commission published its transcripts and report, deciding that Oswald was the lone shooter of President Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963. It is essentially a documentary drama, with the Commission members, combined in one body, questioning its best two witnesses - Oswald's batty mother Marguerite and his terribly young Russian widow Marina. They act out their relevant remembrances of Lee as he goes progressively off the rails. Hastings does not throw into question Lee's guilt, though he does mention a few anomalies. He is much more interested in the question of context - what was it that so radicalised the assassin?

For the West is a study of the crazed dictator Idi Amin, written ten years after Oswald but still while Hastings was under forty and while Amin was still propped up in pretend power by those who pulled his strings. It is good, but not as good as Oswald. As a character Idi is less compelling than Lee. I suppose the problem is, Idi was always going to fall one way or another. Lee is the man who stopped us finding out what kind of president Kennedy could have become in a second term.

The Emperor is a dramatization of Ryszard Kapusccinski's long-form journalistic account of Haile Selassie's fall, which I reviewed a year or two back on this blog. The problem here is that there is nothing to dramatize, or at least nothing that benefits from dramatization. The key to the book is that we hear the testimony from real people who worked as part of the imperial household. They know it is all sham, they know they look ridiculous to the outside world, but these are the best of all possible jobs in a land bled dry. The other thing is that all reported the Emperor as a silent figure into whom his subjects could read whatever they wanted. The play isn't helped by the typical Jonathan Miller production device (Miller is given a co-writer credit, though what he could possibly have added is beyond me) of a handful of actors acting the parts and playing silly buggers with doors and windows. The sort of rubbish that was considered cutting edge in 1987 but led to the total extinction of serious straight plays in the commercial theatre.


Friday, 19 June 2020

A Divided Spy - Charles Cumming


I've said it before and I'll say it again. Charles Cumming is the new British master of spy fiction. He is comparable with le Carre and Deighton. His range is wider than the former, his writing slightly more refined than the latter. Both octogenarian masters are brilliant constructors of plot and Cumming is near as dammit their equal.

A Divided Spy is the third Thomas Kell novel. It has a sense of ending about it but I am hoping it is just the third of a sub-trilogy within a longer series. It ties up storylines from A Foreign Country and A Colder War (both, of course, reviewed on this blog) and introduces a discrete, highly contemporary story about Islamist terror strikes on UK soil.

What more can I say? It is brilliant, thrilling, a masterpiece of its genre, compulsory reading for aficionados.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

The Vampire of Ropraz - Jacques Chessex


This short novella is a late work by the prize-winning Swiss author who died in 2009. It gives the impression of being the straightforward telling of a true-life crime from 1903 but that is a scrupulously maintained illusion. One trick I especially enjoyed was the involvement of Blaise Cendrars, the pioneer of European modernism. I doubt very much he was actually involved with the titular vampire. On the other hand, he definitely wrote the novel Moravagine, which is the novel Chessex says is about the vampire. Cendrars published Moravagine in 1926 but apparently spent much of the rest of his life adjusting and rewriting it. These are the levels of smoke and mirrors which Chessex has whittled down to 106 pages of text.

Returning the plot, Ropraz is a deprived community in 1903 when the graves of young woman are torn open and their bodies violated. It doesn't take very long to identify the person responsible - a twenty-one year old orphan called Charles-Augustin Favez, caught (red-handed as it were) having sex with animals. He is psychologically appraised and the appraiser uncovers the huge level of deprivation and abuse which has led to Favez's brutalisation. No modern Swiss court can do anything other than commit Favez to the asylum.

That isn't the end of the story but to say more would be to give too much away. I want everyone who reads this post to seek out Chessex. Before this I had never heard of him. He doesn't appear to be translated into English much, and I have to note that the translation of Vampire by W Donald Wilson is not exactly beyond reproach. There are a couple of novels available. Meanwhile, Moravagine was translated back in 1968 and I am determined to track down a copy.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Death on Demand - Paul Thomas


Detective Sergeant Tito Ihaka has been rusticated to the New Zealand countryside after the Auckland elite complained about his obsessive pursuit of one of their number for allegedly hiring a hitman to kill his wife. Now, he is suddenly recalled. The suspect has something to say - but will only say it to Detective Ihaka.

The revelation unearths a whole wriggling mess of potentially linked cases - from the suicide of a rich dentist's wife to a prisoner beaten to a pulp in supposedly secure custody. It's all too much for Auckland to handle. Ihaka is on the spot so, despite longstanding animosity, he is roped in to help.

I don't know if there have been other Maori cops in New Zealand crime fiction, but Ihaka is a great conception by British-born writer Thomas. He is old school, rough and rugged, but the twist is he has got his act together in exile. He has lost weight, cut down on the drink, got himself fit.

The plot is tangled, with perhaps a twist or two many, and because of that the set-up chapter takes too long. Once it gets going, however, it moves along like a steam train. All the characters are deftly drawn, Thomas has a masterly command of dialogue, and there is the perfect amount of backstory to give Ihaka his edge. There is apparently another available as an ebook (Fallout). So that's a must for me.

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Dracula, My Love - Peter Tremayne


This is the third of Tremayne's Dracula Lives! series, which I have been reading, intermittently, for five years. I reviewed Dracula Unborn on this blog in September 2015 and The Revenge of Dracula in January 2018. I remarked in the latter that whilst all three novels use the found manuscript device, they are each set in different periods. Unborn was in the 15th Century whereas Revenge jumped to the middle of the 19th. Dracula, My Love is only twenty years or so on from Revenge, set in 1871-2, and is the story of a Scottish orphan, Morag McLeod, who ends up as a nanny in Prussia. As nannies always do, she gets pregnant by the adult son of the noble house. He is killed in the Franco Prussian war and Morag is sent packing to the establishment of the count's sadistic brother in Romania. The baby dies, the baron rapes her, the baron gets his rightful comeuppance and Morag flees to Transylvania where another count is advertising for a governess. It will come as no surprise who the count is.

The story is predictable but very well done. My attention didn't flag for a single moment. What fascinated me was the presence of Dracula's cousin, Elisabeth Bathory (memorably played by Ingrid Pitt in Hammer's Countess Dracula). More fascinating still, Elisabeth seems to have some sort of slasher robot, which Tremayne explains in a footnote. This will simply have to be followed up.

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

The Siege of Sidney Street - Frederick Oughton

Ah, the forgotten art of the film tie-in, or novelisation. OK, you still get novel versions of film and TV franchises, but surely the days sare over when a British B picture warranted the commissioning of a Pan Original, no less, to add to the pleasure of those who enjoyed the movie. Yet here is one such, by the prolific Frederick Oughton, from an original script by Jimmy Sangster, whose How-to-Write-A-Movie book I reviewed last week, and the once famous London novelist, Alexander Baron, who I suspect is also reviewed on this blog.

Odd, though, that people should want a novel when the siege was a real event, only 50 years old at the time so well within living memory, and already the subject of many non-fiction books. The story is an absolute cracker - armed police and infantrymen exchanging gunfire with a small band of anarchists, already wanted for murder, holed up in a derelict tenement. Crowds came to watch as, famously, did the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill. Indeed, Churchill's presence is likely one of the reasons that not absolutely everyone today knows about the Siege; certain elements would prefer we forget Churchill's penchant for shooting militants - and miners. Oughton - and I presume Sangster - hold back Churchill's arrival to the very last chapter, so naturally it is not an issue. The story is extremely well done, opening up the complex background through character interaction. The dialogue is effective and I noted that Oughton was very good at establishing location.

I haven't seen the film - I have no idea why the chap on the front, presumably Kieron Moore, is wearing a light-grey suit at least a decade out of period - but I absolutely devoured the book.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

Casanova - Stefan Zweig


Originally published with essays on Stendhal and Tolstoy, this long paper on Casanova, from 1928, was part of an envisioned series of such volumes. These three were all auto-biographers or, as Zweig puts it, Adepts in Self-Portraiture. The 'Casanova' was always seen as different because he was not a professional writer; his Life (1798) is his only serious written work. It is also, of course, far and away the best known of the autobiographies considered, in constant demand since it was first found and printed. Zweig therefore sets out to determine what makes it so compulsive. His thesis is, essentially, that Casanova lived the first half of his life in the moment, without planning or reflection. He thus builds up such a mass of experience that, in retirement, it takes him sixteen volumes just to get down the events.

I am not familiar with Zweig's work but I enjoyed this and will certainly read more.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

The Dark Stuff - Nick Kent


Nick Kent was the star reporter of the New Musical Express back when I was an avid reader. The Dark Stuff is a collection of new, old and refurbished items from his vast output, specifically concerning those who have lived the rock 'n' roll lifestyle a little too hard. It begins with a hundred-page account of the Beach Boys, put together over the years, there's then some unsatisfactory stuff about the Stones, Iggy (my personal fave), Lou Reed (my fave back in the day and again, not really up to the mark here.). The best bits for me were an excellent piece about Johnny Cash, who I didn't realise was as addicted as he was; Sly Stone, who I'd forgotten all about; and the penultimate piece about Phil Spector on the eve of his trial for murder.

It's the sort of book you pick up thinking it's perfect for reading in instalments. You are wrong. Kent is a compulsive read and once you start, you're going to finish. It's a window for a time long ago when drugs were either new or rediscovered, and musicians were able to achieve long careers. It's a bubble in history which Kent was uniquely placed to observe and record. A classic in its own right. 

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

The Meaning of Treason - Rebecca West


The Meaning of Treason was originally an account of the trial of William Joyce ('Lord Haw-Haw') in 1945. West sat through the entirety of his trial and appeals. Joyce's defence was a good one: you cannot betray a country you have never been a citizen of. And he had never been British. He was born in America to an Irish father; before he made any broadcasts he had been granted German citizenship. His downfall was, he had accepted a British passport to make his escape to Germany on the eve of World War II. You could argue, of course, that the British should have been more careful who they granted passports to, but it should be remembered that in September 1939 the Irish State was more of a potential danger to the UK than Germany was. In any event, Joyce hadn't committed treason in the sense of betraying secrets to the enemy, because he had never been important enough to have any. He had, without doubt, given comfort to the enemies of Britain by, for example, mocking Churchill and laughing at British defeats. But then how come Norman Baillie Stewart, who had served a sentence for betraying secrets before the war and who was the original Lord Haw-Haw only received a short custodial sentence when he was tried after Joyce had been hanged?

These were the questions West asked in her 1949 book. To the best of my recollection, she came down on the side of common sense. Joyce's trial was a kangaroo court and he wasn't guilty of treason. There were loads of offences he could have been tried for - obtaining a passport he wasn't entitled to was an obvious starting point - and no one would have batted an eyelid had he ended up serving a double-figure sentence of imprisonment.

By 1956 (this edition) West had mellowed. All the anchors of her original argument are still present but so are reams of waffle which she believes entitle her to have changed her mind. They don't. The real problem though is that in 1951 she agreed to add in an account of the atom spy Klaus Fuchs, and by extension his traitorous boss Alan Nunn May. They were undoubtedly guilty; neither man was executed, and both claimed a moral defence - that A-bomb technology was redundant so long as all major countries had access to it. For this further edition in 1956 she added Burgess and Maclean to the mix - paid, long-term Soviet spies whose only excuse was they were lifelong shits. As such, they of course did a runner to Moscow before they could be tried. Furthermore, as we all now know, they were only the tip of a considerable iceberg.

If you want to know about Joyce's trial, read the 1949 Meaning of Treason. Instead of trying to add in the next wave of traitors under what was inevitably a very broad brush, West would have been far better off writing separate volumes using the same technique.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Screenwriting techniques for success - Jimmy Sangster


Yes, another secrets of screenwriting book but this time with a difference - Jimmy Sangster actually wrote movies. Indeed, he was always more famous for writing movies than anything else he might have written. More incredible still, you actually know his movies. Dracula Prince of Darkness, The Curse of Frankenstein. Yes, for a very productive decade, Sangster was the Hammer house writer. Then he moved to America, and wrote lots and lots of American TV.

Another break with the form - he demonstrates what he means by writing original scripts, two of them, a full-length script for a darkish comedy film and a pilot episode for a sitcom.

For a beginner, what more do you need? For somebody who's read lots of such things, a referesher that's actually … well, refreshing. Great fun - which is exactly what Sangster insists creative writing should be.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Rupert Brooke - The Splendour and the Pain - John Frayn Turner


This an outlier among the Brooke biographies. Turner, who usually wrote about World War 2, claims to have determined the real Rupert, but what he has actually done is come up with a composite view based on the perceptions of those who knew Brooke but who are ignored in the main biographies, that is to say, the Authorised Version (Hassall, 1964), the sexed up version (Jones, 1999), and the literary/scholarly version (Lehmann, 1980). I include the dates because it matters when we come to consider Turner. This book was published in 1992 but large chunks are what seem to be transcriptions of conversations between the witness and the author. St John Ervine, critic and playwright, for example, gives a key opinion right in the middle of the book - but Ervine died in 1971. How long was Turner working on this remarkably slim volume? He clearly didn't wait long enough before publishing because he plainly wasn't granted access to copyright material by Brooke itself, whereas this was definitely in the public domain by the time Frayn did his Life and Selected Works for Casemate in 2005.

The revelation of this book for me was how close Rupert Brooke was at Cambridge to Hugh Dalton, Labour's future Chancellor of the Exchequer. I think other biographers have overlooked Dalton because he has been largely forgotten whereas Brooke never has. Dalton's autobiography Call Back Yesterday is well worth checking out, I can assure you.

The drawback is, Turner doesn't provide notes. So if you are a scholar who feels obliged to know these things you are left with a Herculean task tracking down the source of his quotations. If you do this, as I did, you find out, uncomfortably, that some parts might not be what they seem. The description of Grantchester, for example, as Brooke might have seen it on an early visit, is in fact a straight uncredited lift from one of Turner's sources. Dangerous, of course, and not at all a good thing. Perhaps Turner put it right in 2005. I'll check it out if I get the chance - if I come across it in a library, because I'm certainly not buying it on the offchance.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Evil Things - Katja Ivar


Evil Things is Nordic Noir set in Finland in 1952. The date is important because Finland is still defining its identity after the war and borders are somewhat fluid. Hella Mauzer, Finland's first female homicide inspector, has been relegated to the rural north, for reasons not entirely apparent. A report comes in from Lapland, which even in the one-horse town where she is based is considered the boondocks. A child has been found alone in one of the houses there. His grandfather went out almost a week earlier and hasn't been heard from since.

Hella decides to investigate. There is no hotel so far out in the sticks, so she lodges with the local Orthodox priest and his pregnant wife. They have also taken in the child, Kalle.
Hella questions the locals, who say nothing. The old man was a loner, his late daughter a tart who lumbered him with her bastard son. Kalle complains about 'evil things' out in the woods. Hella searches and finds a body, not the missing grandfather but a middleaged woman, who turns out to have been a doctor in the Russian army.

The plot unravels brilliantly. The writing (and translation) is tight and characterful. The characters are three-dimensional and distinct. The historical setting is credible throughout. And the final twist, which I never saw coming, is a real jaw-dropper. The second Hella Mauzer story, Deep as Death, is out next month. I can't wait.


Thursday, 14 May 2020

The Island - Ana Maria Matute


The Island (1959) is a roman a clef novella set on the island of Mallorca during the Spanish Civil War. Teenage Matia is marooned there with her cousin Borja in the home of their domineering grandmother. Matia is there because she has been expelled from her convent school; her mother is dead, her scapegrace father out of the picture, so she has nowhere else to go. Borja's father is a general in the republican army and has lodged his wife and son in her mother's safekeeping. Also in the household is the servant Antonia and her slightly odd son, "Chinky" Lauro who is acting as temporary tutor for the younger children.

The island is new and alien to Matia, who is used to cosmopolitan Madrid. On the island families are still living off the reputations of long-dead ancestors. In the old village is a long abandoned square surrounded by the decaying houses of the Jews who burned to death there half a millennium earlier. The islanders don't know how to respond to outsiders or even those of their own who have been to other places. Up on the hill lives the seldom seen Jorge of Son Major, a sea-farer who some say sailed as far as the Greek Islands. In his seclusion he has become a fantasy for the island women, all of whom hint at having been his lover. Similarly, their sons proudly claim to be Jorge's secret son.

The Island is made out by some critics to be a lost Eden or 'enchanted' in the manner of Prospero's island. The first is certainly lazy tosh; there is nothing paradisiacal about this place. The sun 'wounds', the vegetation cloys. You could make a better case for The Tempest theme, with Jorge as Prospero, Lauro as Caliban, Borja as Ariel and the grandmother as Sycorax, but Matute herself seems to refer to it as Never Never Land. In short, it is a memory of a place seen in childhood which becomes overpowering as childhood edges into maturity.

It is a pure rites of passage piece, beautifully done. Only one thing annoyed me. As mentioned above, Matute is big on light and scents. The light is characterised, coloured, explained and justified. But scents remain just smells. Why? On the other hand, I really enjoyed Matute's use of parentheses for asides and sudden insights. Other readers, apparently, don't.