Thursday, 23 April 2020

True Bride - Thomas Altman

Thomas Altman was a pen-name of Campbell Armstrong Black (1944-2013), who wrote loads of bestselling thrillers and who is now largely forgotten. He wrote specifically so that he didn't have to endure a 'proper' job but is a much better writer than the motivation might suggest. He was, as his real name suggests, a Glasgow boy from Govan. You would never in a million years guess it from The True Bride (1982), which is entirely set in Arizona.

Ellen is heavily pregnant. She has only recently moved to Arizona for her husband's work, and yet her wealthy mother lives fairly close by. Ellen's mother is wealthy but Ellen lives in some sort of ghastly apartment compound. She has only one friend, Vicky, who is the realtor who sold Ellen and Eric the accommodation. Ellen is fat, unhappy, lonely, scared, as you might expect of a first-time mother. But things turn decidedly weird. Someone steals her best blue blouse and shreds it. Someone takes library books from her car. Someone, presumably the same someone, decapitates a vintage doll and sticks the body in a hole slashed in Ellen's mattress. A woman rings, ostensibly from Eric's workplace, to say he's been taken ill. She dashes into town - only to find the office deserted. In Eric's desk she finds a prescription for lithium.

Here, in short, we have a psychological thriller. True gaslighting in the Patrick Hamilton tradition (the biography of whom arrived, coincidentally, in the mail this morning). Is Ellen losing it or someone really stalking her? Is Eric up to no good? Does someone intend harm to her baby?

Altman displays a tremendous capacity for plotting and structure and keeps us guessing to the end. For me, the revelations along the way seemed perfectly placed. I'd suddenly figure something out and then, instantly, Altman confirmed it in the text. In fact, of course, he'd led me by the nose to an inevitable conclusion. From the prologue onwards - a brilliant hook, by the way - we are taken inside the villain's mind. Again, this is beautifully done. We think it might be Ellen but, if it isn't, there is nothing to give the game away other than 'this person is clearly unhinged'.

The only defect - and I suspect this might be why Altman isn't on everyone's reading list - is that he sacrifices character to plot. His characterisation is not hopeless - you can tell everyone apart and they all have suitable speech patterns so you know who's speaking without needing flags - but there just isn't enough of it. Ellen's mother, for example, is characterised more by her walking frame than by whatever caused her to need it. Eric is a do-gooder, Vicky a home-wrecker, the girl in the apartment complex a complete airhead. The problem is particularly acute with Ellen herself. She is having such a bad pregnancy that half the audience is going to skip those parts. The odd good day, the occasional daydream about the future, would have made all of us care that bit more.

Ellen and Eric's last name, incidentally, is Campbell. Get it?

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Madam Crowl's Ghost - Sheridan Le Fanu

The companion piece to In A Glass Darkly, this collection put together by the great M R James, no less, is supernatural fiction that Le Fanu himself did not collect. The other stuff, frankly, is better, and yet there are great pleasures and genuine creepiness among the twelve stories here. Some of it is journalism, or what passed for journalism in Le Fanu's time. We have 'Ghost Stories of Chapelizod' and 'Stories of Lough Gair' which are presented as ghost gazeteers. Others, like 'The Vision of Tom Chuff' and 'The Child that went with the Fairies', give the impression of being local legends retold. The title story and 'Squire Toby's Will' are straight ghost stories and both manage a couple of serious shocks, whereas 'Ultor de Lacy' and 'Wicked Captain Walshawe of Wauling' are more gothic and weird.

My favourites were 'An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street', which is essentially a draft version of 'Justice Harbottle' from In A Glass Darkly, and 'Dickon the Devil' which, like a surprising number of the stories here, is set my native Lancashire - 'Dickon', indeed, iun my native Pendle Valley. Le Fanu explains why: he was a fan of the forgotten bestseller Harrison Ainsworth and was familiar with The Lancashire Witches (1848).

Friday, 17 April 2020

Joe Country - Mick Herron

Joe Country is the sixth in Herron's Jackson Lamb series, the exploits of the 'slow horses' MI5 has dumped at Slough House. It's not as deep as some of the others but on the other hand the black humour is much funnier. It continues the series without advancing the storylines very far.

Lamb is touchy after the way things ended in London Rules - i.e. with a bloodbath in Slough House itself. One thing everyone agrees about Lamb: he looks after his joes. Joes died in London Rules, Lamb's joes, and Lamb is not happy. He is not especially thrilled with his latest recruit, an analyst suspended from the Park after paedophile porn was found on his work laptop. Even Lamb draws the line somewhere. Meanwhile Louisa Guy is approached by the widow of her late partner Min Harper (a joe who died in an earlier novel), whose teenage son has gone missing in darkest Pembrokeshire.

Thus begins the drift of Lamb's entire team into Joe Country as the snows fall. River Cartwright is stalking his renegade father who showed up unexpectedly at the funeral of the legendary Old Bastard. J K Coe is uncharacteristically switched on; Emma Flyte, former head dog at the Park, creates a new partnership with Louisa, and Roddy Ho lends his digital expertise and - unwisely - his car. Back in London, recovering alcoholic Catherine Standish fills her flat with wine bottles, someone carves PAEDO on the new recruit's face, and Di Taverner, now at last First Desk at the Park, learns more than she wants to know about the recent behaviour of a leading royal.

It's all the usual bloodshed and laughter, if a little light on story, and it takes us to the brink of finding out about Lady Di's plan for the slow horses. Which I look forward to.

Monday, 13 April 2020

The Five - Hallie Rubenhold

This book bills itself as "The Untold Lives of the Five Women killed by Jack the Ripper", which is not strictly true as the excellent bibliography demonstrates. What it is, however, is the breakthrough book on the subject, and it is done very well indeed. Rubenhold's thesis is that the canonical five victims (not including Martha Tabram) were not 'just prostitutes'. Even the two who were without doubt prostitutes (Stride and Kelly) were not only prostitutes, but women who had substantial lives, children in some cases, and certainly partners. They might be remembered today solely as Ripper victims but they left traces at the time for other reasons as well.

Polly Nicholls and Annie Chapman were both respectable married women before misfortune struck. Drink was Polly's downfall and Chapman lost everything when her husband died. Rubenhold is right to point out that neither was ever arrested for prostitution and both had legitimate ways of making the few pence needed to fund a bed in the doss house. Today they would simply be regarded as legally homeless and we do not automatically assume that middleaged homeless women are necessarily prostitutes. I can assure you that we see a dispiriting number of them in court and prostitution is never assumed and rarely alleged. Rubenhold's secondary theory is that the Ripper was able to dispatch his victims swiftly and silently not because they were stupid enough to solicit his custom but because he searched them out while they slept rough, in yards and dark corners - compelling reasoning in both the Nicholls and Chapman cases.

Liz Stride probably wasn't a Ripper victim and was certainly an occasional prostitute - she had a conviction for it back in Sweden, and about the only thing eyewitnesses seemed to agree upon was that she was touting for trade on the night of the so-called 'Double Event'. Kate Eddowes, the other victim that night, was a traveller, a female tramp, and an epic drinker. When she was turned out of the police station in the small hours she cheerfully announced that she would soon get her doss money. This has long been assumed to refer to prostitution, but again, relying on my personal court acquaintance with many contemporary women in her position, I would favour either petty theft or plain outright begging.

The weak link in Rubenhold's argument is the final victim, Mary Jane Kelly. For a start, that almost certainly wasn't her name - which Rubehold herself points out - and she was definitely a prostitute with no other means of support, who claimed (unreliably at best) to have recently been a much higher class courtesan with experiences of the maisons closes of Paris or perhaps Antwerp. Clearly the Ripper vented every last vestige of rage on Kelly's corpse. The extent of the injuries suggests, in  modern theories of violence on women, personal acquaintance, a relationship betrayed; but since we haven't a clue who Kelly was, and uniquely among the five no one ever came forward to claim her, we cannot follow up on any leads.

A fascinating book - a rare serious addition to the field of Ripperology and highly recommended. I have read dozens and dozens of books on the subject and put in hundreds of hours of personal research, which I will now have to go through again in light of Rubenhold's propositions.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Love in the Time of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

It is absolutely about love but it has nothing to do with cholera, other than that cholera was endemic in these parts at the end of the nineteenth century. These parts are never identified. This setting is certainly the northern parts of South America but definitely not Marquez's native Colombia.

We start with the suicide of a photographer of unknown origins. The doctor who views the body is an old friend who lent the unknown cripple money with which to start his business, a loan the recipient long since paid back. The doctor visits the suicide's mistress, a middleaged beauty. Then the doctor goes home, tries to get his parrot out of a tree, and dies.

The doctor is Juvenal Urbino, octogenarian, the most respected citizen hereabouts. Everyone who is anyone attends his funeral. The last to leave is Florentino Ariza, proprietor of the riverboat company, who for the first time in fifty years declares his undying love for the doctor's widow, Fermina Daza.

Half a century ago, Fermina Daza was a teenage beauty, new in town, her father having bought a tumbledown mansion there, having left his upcountry birthplace for mysterious reasons. At that time Florentino Ariza was developing his skills at the local telegraphy office. One day he delivers a telegram to the Daza household and catches sight of Fermina. He is instantly lovestruck. He follows her everywhere, writes to her every day, serenades her every morning.

Florentino's love is hopeless. He is the illegitimate son of a native woman who keeps a sort of all-purpose junk shop, whereas Fermina is the daughter of a man who obviously has money and aspirations. Senor Daza has nothing against Florentino but he wants his daughter to marry the nobly-descended Juvenal Urbino, which she does.

Florentino uses the next half-century to make himself rich and a great lover. He does this via his uncle Leo, who finally acknowledges the young man as the son of his late brother and who trains him up through every level of the riverboat company until, when Leo turns 100, Florentino takes over. Meanwhile Florentino has seduced and bedded dozens if not hundreds of women of all ages and stations, many of whom he remains on excellent terms with. One even helps him run the company.

And ultimately, a year or so after Dr Urbino's death...

The meaning of the book is not entirely clear. This is what makes it a great work of art. My own view is that Marquez is mapping out the reality of love as it subtly adjusts to the rigours of time in contrast to the ideals of romantic love and social convention, the former never changing, the latter never what society pretends it should be. It is a marvellous, magical book, written by a master at the height of his achievement, yet charming, tender and often hilarious.

For me it has been a beautiful read at a troubling time.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Agent Jack - Robert Hutton

I’m always fascinated by what British fascists got up to during the war. Mostly, of course, they did what everybody else did and either fought or supported the fighters. It’s that exceptional few that fascinate. Agent Jack is the story of Eric Roberts, the ultimate Mr Ordinary, who worked for MI5 before, during and after the war, initially as a fascist himself, spying on communists, then as agent provocateur, gathering together those who wished to help Hitler conquer Britain.

That’s the problem – he was an agent provocateur. Despite Hutton’s best efforts, there’s no way round the fact that the people Roberts recruited would almost certainly have got up to no real mischief had he not brought them together. Dutton’s problem is, they didn’t do any harm and were just a bunch of repellent but otherwise ordinary nutters. There’s no denying Roberts’ courage and care; equally we can’t pretend he prevented any outrages against the national interest.
His is a story worth telling, but only as a part of other stories. For example, MI5 were reluctant to push Roberts’ recruits too far because of the fiasco surrounding the failed attempt to intern the well-connected and very foolish Ben Greene. Greene had been set up by an agent provocateur and was promptly released. He did no harm whatever thereafter. The real damage was to Max Knight, who worked with Roberts for the wonderfully named British Fascisti and then brought him to MI5.

The best thing about the book for me was the vivid portrait of Victor Rothschild, whose role had never before been clear to me. It is now, and I owe that entirely to Robert Hutton and this book.