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.