A review of Juggernaut by Alice Campbell – 230210

Originally published in 1928 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, Juggernaut was the debut novel of Anglo-American crime writer, Alice Campbell. It was an enormous success either side of the Atlantic on its publication and was made into a film in 1936 with Boris Karloff playing the part of the sinister and menacing society doctor, Dr Santorius, and subsequently in 1949 under the title of The Temptress. It is set in Cannes.

This is the third of Campbell’s books that I have read and there is already a discernible pattern, an ingenue from North America trying to make their way in Europe and at the mercy of more worldly-wise Europeans, the odd murder or two and a romance thrown in. As I have said before, her books are the offspring of an encounter between Henry James and Patricia Wentworth.

There is no getting away from the fact that it starts slowly. Campbell has given herself a lot of work setting up the plot, firstly introducing to Esther Rowe who has just arrived in Cannes and is looking for some paid employment, then the gloomy and brooding society doctor, Santorius, and then the Clifford household. It takes some time to bring these elements together, but the reader should hold their nerve, and exhibit some patience as once the action begins, it is both thrilling and psychologically taut.

Inevitably, Esther accepts a position at the Santorius clinic. Celebrating her success, she goes to a swanky restaurant where she overhears a conversation in which a young man tells his companion that he has accepted a job in Argentina, and she clearly does not want him to go. Little does Esther know that she has been introduced to two of the characters that will put her life in danger, Arthur Halliday and Therese Clifford.

Soon afterwards, Santorius announces that he is temporarily closing his clinic to accept a position as full-time physician in the Clifford household, where the successful and wealthy businessman, Sir Charles Clifford, is unwell, suffering from amongst other complaints a bout of typhoid. Esther agrees to join him as a day nurse.

Soon after joining the Clifford household, Esther begins to notice some odd goings on, not least the regular attendance of Halliday who seems to be courting Therese, Sir Charles’ second wife, and Therese’s insistence, despite not paying attention to her husband, that she gives him his daily milk. Santorius, who is keener on research than being a medical practitioner, has been researching into antidotes for typhoid and tetanus seems more than handy with the syringe. After one injection Sir Charles’ health deteriorates and he dies from tetanus.

Soon Esther put two and two together and realises that Sir Charles has been effectively murdered and that Santorius and Therese are in cahoots. This puts her life in danger and she is drugged and incarcerated, only to escape in a dramatic and, perhaps unlikely fashion, to bring matters to a head. Her blossoming romance with Roger, Charles’ son, gives her both moral courage and an ally in a hostile camp.

Juggernaut is an apt title, a machine that once it gets goings, tramples all before it, an appropriate description of not only Santorius but also the book itself, which once it has obtained momentum, there is no stopping it. However, Campbell could be accused of mixed imagery as often she likens the sinister doctor to a python. A cursory knowledge of French is handy as some of the dialogue, especially involving Therese, is in French without translation, an unnecessary attempt at verisimilitude.

It is easy to see why this book was popular and why it made for gripping cinema. In form it is more of an inverted murder mystery as the culprit is evident, the more pertinent questions being why and whether they would be caught. It is well worth reading.

The Northern Lights

Swirling rivers of greenish-blue light against a clear sky, dancing seemingly with a will of their own, sometimes almost static, the Northern Lights (Aurora borealis) are one of nature’s most spectacular displays. For all their beauty, though, they are the product of a violent event high above us, the clash of charged particles from the Sun with the Earth’s magnetic field. 

Solar winds send energised particles from the Sun’s surface, hitting the Earth’s upper atmosphere at speeds of around 45 million mph. Acting as a defensive shield, the Earth’s magnetic field forces the charged particles to move in spirals along the magnetic field lines towards its magnetic poles. Upon hitting the gas atoms and molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere, they transfer their energy which is transformed into photons.

The colour of the Northern Lights is dependent upon three factors at the time of the collision: the amount of energy held in the solar wind’s electrons, the type of gas atoms and molecules they collide into, and the altitude at which it occurs. A red light is produced when high-energy electrons interact with oxygen at an altitude in excess of 290 kilometres in the ionosphere while the more familiar green light is the result of the impact of low-energy electrons and oxygen at lower altitudes. A collision with nitrogen can produce a blue or red hue and other colours such as pink or purple are created when there is a mix of gases.

As the solar wind particles are funnelled towards the Earth’s magnetic poles, aurorae are most likely to be seen in a circular area around them, in the northern hemisphere, principally around the northern coast of Siberia, Scandinavia, Iceland, the southern tip of Greenland, northern Canada, and Alaska. When solar activity is particularly intense, as at the end of February 2023, they are visible much further south. The southern hemisphere has its own lights, the zone passing mostly over Antarctica and the Southern Ocean and are most likely to be seen from land in Tasmania with occasional sightings in southern Argentina and the Falklands.

Aurorae are not intermittent events but happen all the time, a fact brought vividly to life by The Space Weather Prediction Centre’s fascinating interactive forecast of the location and intensity of an aurora in the world over the next thirty to 90 minutes[1]. Whether we see them or not is dependent upon sky conditions and the level of light pollution.

Named Aurora borealis by Galileo in 1619 and explained scientifically by Norwegian physicist, Kristian Birkelan in 1902/3, the Northern Lights have long fascinated mankind, featuring in cave paintings found in South-western France dating to 30,000 BC, and first recorded by an astronomer in the court of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II on a tablet from 567 BC. Absent a rational explanation for their cause, they inspired many myths and superstitions.

For the Vikings, they were the shimmering reflections of the armour of the Valkyries sent by Odin to collect the bodies of the warriors slain in battle, while in Finland fire foxes travelled through the sky so quickly that their tails produced sparks as they brushed the mountains. In northern Sweden the lights, created by shoals of herrings, were a harbinger of a plentiful catch.

Elsewhere they represented the souls of the dead, in Greenland of children who had died in childbirth and in Norway of old maids, while for the Sámi they were to be feared and respected. Provoking them by waving or whistling in their presence ran the risk of being snatched away. In Scotland, the lights, known as “Merry” or “Pretty Dancers, were created by fallen angels and warriors who battled it out in the skies, their drops of blood creating the distinctive red specks on the green heliotrope known as bloodstone.

[1] https://www.swpc.noaa.gov/products/aurora-30-minute-forecast

Lost Word Of The Day (13)

How much has the English language lost as a result in the decline in the familiarity with the classical literature of Ancient Greece and Rome? I began musing on this when I came across the verb gathonise which was used particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries to describe the actions a toady or someone who excels in the art of flattery.

Gnatho was the name of a character in Eunuchus, a play written by or at least attributed to Publius Terentius Afer in the second century BCE. Gnatho was described as a parasitus, someone who would go out of his way to agree with any benefactor, especially if it was worth his while. Terence almost certainly took the character’s name from the Greek word for a jaw, as the character’s modus operandi was to exploit his gift of the gab.

Such characters abound in popular fiction but one of the most recent usages of gnathonise in adjectival format appears in Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! (1855) when he writes “that Jack’s is somewhat of a gnathonic and parasitic soul, or stomach, all Bideford apple-women know”.

Time for a revival, methinks.

Swan Song – A Modern Comedy

A review of Swan Song by John Galsworthy

Originally published in 1928, Swan Song is the third in Galsworthy’s A Modern Comedy trilogy. While it, just about, stands on its own merits, to get the most out of the book the reader should read the first two books in the trilogy and, especially, the interlude, Passers-By, which he wrote in 1927. In that, Soames takes his daughter, Fleur, along with her devoted, politician husband, Michael Mont, on a world tour to help her get over her first love, Jon Forsyte, who was forced by family pressure to brutally reject her. To Soames’ horror his party bump into Irene, Soames’ first wife, Jon and his new wife, Ann, and it takes all of the old devil’s scheming to prevent the two star-crossed lovers from meeting.

Swan Song opens with the General Strike of 1926 which the upper and middle classes see as an opportunity to pull together and defeat the (rightful) claims of the workers. Mount encourages Fleur to run a canteen to feed the strike-breakers. It is here that she meets Jon once more, the latter having left America for good and volunteered to work as an engine stoker. The sight of Jon is enough to relight the flames of passion in Fleur’s breast and the news of his return to Blighty to cause Soames considerable anxiety.

Fleur, a spoilt brat who reverts to the character we encountered in To Let (the third book in the Forsyte Saga) loses her head, all too willing to abandon her child, Kit, and husband, who has thrown himself into a scheme to improve slums, in pursuit of her first sweetheart. She does everything in her power to engineer meetings with Jon and her passion for him grows and grows until a tumultuous encounter at a spot they favoured when they were initially courting. Jon seems happy to be swept along in this maelstrom of passion, an indication of a certain weakness that had not previously been evident in his previous characterisation, but nonetheless is torn between his first love and his duty to his wife.

All the relatives on the side lines realise that the reawakening of the tempestuous love affair between Soames’ daughter from his second marriage and the son from his wife’s second marriage is fraught with disaster and, in their own ways, do their best to frustrate Fleur’s plans, none more so than Soames who is wracked with worry and despair. Irene, his first wife, remains a ghostly presence throughout the narrative and we do not find out what her attitude is to this revived love affair which she did so much to stop in the first place. Mont has an air of resigned acceptance.

What brings Jon to his senses is Ann’s announcement that she is pregnant and, rather brutally, he sends a note to Fleur telling her he will never see her again, the 1920s equivalent of dumping by text. This second rejection throws Fleur into paroxysms of despair.

Throughout the book there is a sense of matters moving inexorably to a conclusion. Soames is anxious to ensure there is a succession plan in place for handling the trusteeship of the Forsyte fortunes, given his and his faithful retainer’s respective ages, and visits Dorset to track down where the Forsytes first came from. His first love is his art collection which he adds to and makes arrangements to bequeath to the nation.

There is a fine line between comedy and tragedy which Galsworthy traverses with aplomb at the end of the book. It is fitting that Soames’ two obsessions, his almost suffocating love for Fleur and his pride in his art collection, should in their own way contribute to his demise. It seems a fitting end to a man of strong character, a man increasingly out of tune with the modern world, and a man who could not forget and had much to regret.

Galsworthy seems to have recovered his mojo in this book. It is more entertaining than the first two books in the trilogy and gives his leading man, Soames, a fitting send off.